Immortal Hulk #17
Joe Bennett (artist), Al Ewing (writer), Ruy José (inker), Paul Mount (colorist), Cory Petit (letterer)
May 15, 2019
In Immortal Hulk #17, Al Ewing and Joe Bennett, with inker Ruy José, colorist Paul Mounts, and letterer Cory Petit, deliver another solid, unsettling issue in one of the strongest ongoing books of the year. Ewing pushes the plot forward and further explores Banner’s system of alters as Joe Fixit takes over Banner’s body, rather than taking his classic gray Hulk form.
At the end of the last issue, the stage was set for a one-on-one showdown between Banner and Agent Burbank, or Bushwhacker, an android assassin operating as an asset for the secretive Shadow Base, who has been on Banner’s trail for some time. Trapped inside Shadow Base A with Burbank and a whole host of gamma irradiated creatures, Banner is on the run. And thanks to extreme UV radiation mimicking sunlight within the base, he is unable to transform into the Hulk. However, Burbank soon learns it isn’t Bruce Banner he’s chasing at all, but rather Joe Fixit, a gray Hulk working as a Las Vegas enforcer introduced in Incredible Hulk #347, wearing Banner’s form rather than his own.
One of the elements of this book that elevates it is the emotional nature of the horror. Even when Joe Bennett flexes his artistic skills to depict the truly grotesque horror that is central to a story of a man so irradiated that he transforms into the Hulk, it is never horror for the sake of the grotesque or for shock value. The horror beats of this comic hit so hard because they are so emotionally loaded, because the reader is sitting with Banner’s trauma and emotion and is horrified along with Banner. Bennett, with José and Mounts, produces an incredibly done splash page that is viscerally unsettling to see, but equally frightening is the realization of just what Joe Fixit is capable of, when he looks directly at the reader and, thinking of the violence he’s about to inflict, smiles.
Bruce Banner is a man who people think is a monster, but Ewing and Bennett remind readers that while Banner is a man in pain and Devil Hulk is Banner’s oldest protector despite his destructive agenda, Joe Fixit is something else altogether. Agent Burbank’s sadism finds a match in Joe Fixit’s own cruelty and delight in violence. Ewing’s exploration of Banner’s alters and the role that the various aspects the Hulk has taken in Banner’s life remains thoughtful and respectful. Even if Joe Fixit is monstrous, Banner is not vilified because he has Disassociative Identity Disorder, he simply is a man who lives with a mental illness that he often feels powerless in the face of, constantly fighting himself for self-control. Ewing does what few writers who have written Banner recently have been able to do: remember that at the end of the day, Bruce Banner is a man who wants to do good even if he does not always achieve good, a survivor of circumstances who evolved to protect himself, rather than a man who chose to become a force of destruction.
This issue remains creative in its panel layout, using panelling to subtly disconcert readers. The issue alternates between pages with more traditional panelling and pages where panels overlap each other or the entire panel layout has been tilted off-kilter, so that panels are cut off at the corners and bleed to the very edge of the page, without borders to hold them in check. When the story follows General Fortean in Shadow Base B or focuses on Burbank’s pursuit of Fixit, who he still believes to be Banner, the page layouts are more traditional, with clean parallel lines that still use the page space creatively, but feel very orderly. In contrast, the pages that have been angled are quietly unsettling, signaling the shift to Fixit’s perspective.
At first, as Fixit and Burbank have their initial confrontation of the issue, they suggest traditional four or six panel layouts that have just been turned on a slight diagonal: recognizable structure, but slightly unaligned with the page itself. As the issue progresses, and as Joe Fixit regains control of the situation and becomes more and more destructive, the panel layouts feel more chaotic. Rather than mimicking earlier pages that angled slightly to the right or left, pages now feature panels no longer run parallel. Instead, individual panels sit at their own independent angles, sometimes bounded by the edges of the physical page rather than the panel boundaries. The creeping chaos of page layouts reinforces that Joe Fixit has taken control and distorted Banner’s world into something unpredictable and unstable.
The twist in the last two pages of the issue feels earned, rather than a twist for shock value. It moves the plot forward by calling back to the cliffhanger ending of Immortal Hulk #15, when Banner finds Rick Jones’ empty grave, and develops that plot thread in an unexpected, horrifying direction. Consistently, Immortal Hulk is a standout book in its pacing, with monthly issues regularly ending in satisfying ways that set the stage for the plot to keep hurtling forward. In this issue, just as in the larger run, developments in the plot and the exploration of Banner’s psyche are seldom anticipated, but nearly always rewarding.