Immortal Hulk #18 & #19
Joe Bennett (artist), Al Ewing (writer), Ruy José (inker), Paul Mount (colorist), Cory Petit (letterer)|
May 29, 2019 and June 12, 2019
Immortal Hulk #18 and #19 introduce us to the newest gamma monsters: the new Abomination and Harpy. These two issues are some of the book’s goriest yet, but through the viscera, the psychological and emotional drama remain the solid foundation driving Banner’s story forward. Each of these issues are as dense and complex as the previous seventeen, and each pack a great deal of character development into just twenty-two pages. Bennett, José, and Mounts continue their fantastic work delving into the visual horror of the Hulk, and the art in these two issues of Harpy and Abomination is gripping and startling to see. With every issue, Ewing and Bennett further establish Immortal Hulk as a definitive Hulk run, if not the single, most definitive Hulk run to date.
In Immortal Hulk #18, Bruce Banner is back in his body, after three weeks of Joe Fixit being in control. In that time, Joe relocated to Reno, Nevada, returned to gambling, and grew a mustache, all to Banner’s frustration. Not too far from Reno, Arizona Herald reporter Jackie McGee encounters Betty when she visits the woman’s destroyed home again, marking the first appearance of Betty’s return to her Harpy form. And in Immortal Hulk #19, the new Abomination, who had found Banner at the end of #18, defeats and leaves the Hulk helpless, and Harpy kills everyone standing between her and Hulk, so she can have that kill, herself.
Back in the ruins of Shadow Base A, Gamma Flight picks up a newly resurrected Doc Samson as they grow closer to tracking Banner down, and, still, General Fortean and Shadow Base keep watching Banner from afar, now through the eyes of their new Abomination. This new Abomination, Shadow Base’s take on Frankenstein’s monster, was created from grafting Emil Blonsky’s genetic material onto the corpse of Rick Jones. In issue #17, Dr. McGowan ensured General Fortean that there was nothing human left in the Abomination, yet in this issue, when the Hulk comes face to face with Abomination, it is Rick Jones who looks back.
The exploration of Banner’s psychology and intentions continues in #18. Banner’s conversations/negotiations with the Hulk he sees in the mirror help shape how readers understand Banner and his system, and it is a positive change of pace to see Banner work to create organization for himself and get a handle on his system, in a medium that has such a classic issue portraying mental illness as a medical condition, rather than a sensationalized plot device. So rarely do comics take the time to address the realities of living with mental illness or to show the difficult work that goes into treatment and recovery, so seeing panel time devoted to Banner working to live with his Disassociative Identity Disorder is meaningful. In this issue, Doc Samson argues in defense of Amadeus Cho’s theory that Bruce has always worked to preserve human life, even during his worst rampages. The argument that Banner wants to keep innocent people safe calls back to the Hulk’s origin story, when he put himself in the blast zone of a gamma bomb he created, in order to evacuate a teenage Rick Jones from the blast zone in time to save Rick Jones’ life. And likewise, Banner’s discovery that the new Abomination was made from Jones’ dead body hits so hard because this time, Bruce couldn’t save Rick.
Explicitly clarifying that Hulk had never killed a human in all of the destruction he caused is important work in making sense of the Banner/Hulk dichotomy: this suggests that no matter how much control Banner has ceded to the Hulk in the past, a commitment to the preservation of human life has always been a value Banner asserted in every form. But as of this series, Hulk has changed and has started to kill. Rather than causing collateral damage, the Hulk has started more methodically hunting down and killing people who hurt other people. Of particular note is the first issue of Immortal Hulk, when Hulk kills every member of a gang to avenge the kidnapping of a young girl. Immortal Hulk’s Devil Hulk is a killer as a means of being a protector, but even so, this signals a shift in Banner. Either the rules he imposes on the Hulks have shifted or his ability to enforce them has.
A few pages later, it seems that it’s Banner himself who has changed, as he speaks to the Hulk in the mirror of Devil Hulk’s plan to end the human world, and establishes himself as a willing partner in it. The only way to save anyone—Devil Hulk argued a few issues before—is to end the human world before it ends the rest of the world, and for now, it seems that Banner agrees. Whether this Hulk wants to end the human world as an environmental last resort or to destroy an unjust system in the hopes that what is rebuilt is better, he is operating under the conviction that through his destruction lies the only way any humans might survive long-term. The ends justify the means for Devil Hulk, and for Banner as well it seems, in that it is only through destruction that he can envision the rebirth of something better.
This isn’t a story about clear-cut morality: Samson can empathize with Hulk’s perspective from the vantage point of immortality, and as Titania reminds the rest of Gamma Flight, sometimes, the disproportionate response from superheroes causes greater damage to civilians than anything supervillains do. It isn’t the Hulk that’s inevitable; it’s violence that becomes inevitable. The damage Banner might want to do is not guaranteed, but the damage that will result from Abomination, created by a U.S. governmental agency—the supposed “good guys”—will be inevitable and catastrophic.
In #19, Betty Banner tells the story for the first time. Betty died earlier in this book, and in these two issues, she’s come back different, as Harpy. Through a repeating mantra of “This is me,” Betty redefines herself through the images her repetition overlays. Betty as Harpy sees herself in Harpy, in a red butterfly breaking free from a spider’s web, in an angry scientist yelling at her superior officer, in the Hulk fighting the new Abomination, and in the fear on men’s faces. But not in the Betty Ross in the issue’s opening flashback.
Bennett’s art makes Betty, with wings, fangs, and wide staring eyes, look as monstrous as the gore she relishes in. If she has become a monster, Betty claims, it’s simply what she had to do to live in the world Bruce created when he became the Hulk, but Harpy’s brutality in these two issues is altogether different from Hulk’s rage. Betty is as angry as her husband has ever been, but Harpy isn’t her protector; Harpy is her avenger and executioner, freeing herself from the metaphorical spider webs that held her in place until now.
Inversely, while this issue shows Betty at her most dangerous, it also shows Hulk at his most vulnerable. Blinded and suffering, Hulk calls for help, over and over, terrified and confused as his ex-wife claws into his chest. Hulk doesn’t understand what’s happening and is unable to protect himself, sounding almost childlike as he insists, “But Betty is Hulk’s friend.” There is something disquieting about seeing Hulk left powerless, both because this is Banner’s defense mechanism, left defenseless, and because the wider cultural narrative around the Hulk, that of the nerdy man’s power fantasy, is challenged by Hulk’s helplessness.
The final page of Immortal Hulk #19 is a genuinely shocking ending, concluding two issues full of rich character work and art that looks astonishing even at its goriest. Immortal Hulk #18 and #19 take care to develop the book’s plot and characters both, and remains one of the strongest titles on stands this year. Each of these two issues are equally strong in their story and art, continuing a nuanced, thoughtful, and frightening horror comic that should appeal equally to fans of the Hulk as a character and of comics as a medium.