Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is The Immortal Hulk #25. Written by Al Ewing (Marvel Comics #1000, Secret Warps) with art by Germán García (X-Men, Barbarella/Dejah Thoris) and Joe Bennett (The Terrifics, Captain America), inker Ruy José (Teen Titans, 52), colorists Paul Mounts (Fantastic Four, Harley Quinn) and Chris O’Halloran (X-23, Ice Cream Man), and letterer Cory Petit (Marauders, Web Of Black Widow), this issue celebrates a milestone by jumping into a future reality where Hulk assumes his ultimate role as the Breaker of Worlds. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Hulk has always been a being of destruction, unleashed by the devastating power of a gamma bomb. But in the pages of Immortal Hulk, he’s become the being of destruction, a cosmic entity that drifts through the universe joyfully punching through planets. Over 25 issues, writer Al Ewing has redefined the Hulk as a fusion of scientific and supernatural horrors, setting him up for his ultimate fate as the Breaker of Worlds for the reality after this one. At the end of Immortal Hulk #24, set billions of years in the future, Bruce Banner devours the Metatron, “the sentience of the Cosmos,” just before ushering in a new age after the final gasps of this current one.
Joined by the main art team of artist Joe Bennett, inker Ruy Jose, colorist Paul Mounts, and letterer Cory Petit, Al Ewing has finally achieved his first blockbuster success at Marvel with Immortal Hulk. The book gained momentum over the course of its first year to rise into the top 10 best-selling monthly comics, and even though it’s dropped in the last few months, it’s still hanging in the top 25. Consistency has been key to that growth, and the book has maintained its core creative team while sticking to an accelerated shipping schedule. (Talented guest artists come on board for issues planned ahead of time to give Bennett a break, which he fills by drawing other books like The Terrifics because apparently he never sleeps.)
Immortal Hulk is a gruesome book, with the creative team using immortality as a way to infuse the story with body horror. Hulk survives getting chopped into pieces, having his heart devoured, and getting his face melted off with acid vomit, each time adapting and transforming into a new monstrosity more powerful than the last. Bennett has been drawing superhero comics for 25 years, and Immortal Hulk is far and away the best output of his career. The quality of his work varies dramatically depending on who is inking his pencils, which I long assumed was because inkers were working from rougher breakdowns. His Instagram has been eye-opening in that regard, revealing his astoundingly detailed Immortal Hulk pencils. Maybe the issue has been inkers struggling to match the precision of his pencils. That isn’t the case in Immortal Hulk, where he reunites with long-time collaborator Ruy Jose, who reinforces the tactile textures in the linework with his sharp hatching.
The regular art team only contributes two pages to Immortal Hulk #25. The rest of this oversized milestone issue is drawn by Germán García with colors by Chris O’Halloran, and they take this book into a brand new world of kaleidoscopic sci-fi horror. Hulk doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through this issue, with the first part telling a Prophet-esque story set in the Ninth Cosmos, the next iteration of reality where Hulk has assumed Galactus’ role as the planet-destroying entity roaming the universe. But unlike Galactus, Hulk doesn’t consume planets for sustenance. He destroys them because he likes it. Par%l and Farys are two former lovers still alive after Hulk has exterminated nearly all life in the universe. They are beings with vaguely humanoid silhouettes—head, neck, shoulders, torso, and lower half, but with fins that flow like capes and no limbs. They communicate with glowing crystals in their heads and mentally controlled floating flower-squid things called “manipulators,” which also function as their hands.
Immortal Hulk has done some weird stuff, but nothing on this level. To emphasize this issue’s shift in reality, Ewing incorporates % as a letter in the alphabet. It’s used only in proper nouns so you don’t have to worry about something like “th%s” interrupting the flow of a phrase, but it does alienate the reader because they don’t know how to pronounce these words. Do you say “Par%l” as “Par-percent-el”? Maybe it’s the double-O sound and the name is “Parool”? The question is the point, and because the reader doesn’t know how to interpret that symbol as a letter, the names themselves are imbued with otherworldly mystique. Ewing also gives these characters a new pronoun, “hir”, removing them from the gender binary without using any terminology that would connect them to the current reality.
Cory Petit’s lettering plays a vital storytelling role throughout, starting with slab-serif narration in jagged caption boxes that give the impression of torn pieces of typewriter paper, appropriate given Ewing’s novelistic script. In previous issues, Ewing drops the title on the last page as an exclamation point to the cliffhanger, but for Immortal Hulk #25, the title gets a full two pages, an all-caps “BREAKER OF WORLDS” printed in a distressed blocky typeface against a black background. Dialogue balloons have no tails because Par%l and Farys communicate mentally, but the balloons match the color of the person speaking. Petit depicts Hulk’s voice with large black letters outlined in red, printing the words directly onto the overwhelmingly green artwork without any surrounding balloons.
Each issue of Immortal Hulk begins with a quote, pulled from sources like the Bible, Shakespeare plays, major literary and philosophical works, government handbooks, and—for my favorite quote—a ’50s pop song: Jim Lowe’s “The Green Door.” The lyrics of this song are all about the mystery of what lies behind the titular door, which Ewing imagines as the entry to a hell dimension that threatens to destroy the universe if the door swings open. “The Green Door” was prominently featured in this summer’s Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood as the song Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton dances to on the TV variety show, Hullabaloo. There’s no way that Immortal Hulk directly influenced this scene, but I gasped when the song started playing during the movie, given that the story prominently focuses on the Manson murders, viewed by many as a turning point between the optimism of the ’60s and the cynicism of the ’70s. Behind Hollywood’s shining facade was a darkness threatening to break free, and while the film stopped the Manson family before the murder of Sharon Tate, whatever lies behind “The Green Door” is still waiting for its moment when it can unleash its wrath upon the world.
Immortal Hulk #25’s journey to a new reality ends with Ewing dropping one more quote, but this doesn’t come from a previously published source. It’s a quote from Bruce Banner, printed backwards to add an extra level of disorientation as it’s read. This ties into the book’s theme of mirrors, showing the reflection of the text to create the sense that Banner is trying to communicate with the outside world while trapped behind a mirror. Bruce has a chilling message for his other alter ego, Joe, and the presentation of this information gives it even more gravitas.
Immortal Hulk #25 calls to mind another recent world-ending scenario in the page of Powers Of X, Jonathan Hickman and R.B. Silva’s time-jumping companion story to House Of X. A key plotline of Powers Of X sees a future Earth courting the techno-organic Phalanx for assimilation into their infinite database of information, which would result in the total annihilation of the planet. In both Powers Of X and Immortal Hulk, the end of the world pushes the storytelling into more pronounced sci-fi territory. Superhero elements are stripped away and instead we see evolved societies succumbing to intergalactic forces that can’t be stopped. With the Phalanx, there’s the slight hope of assimilation. Hulk offers no hope, only the certainty of violent death when the green shadow falls.
Alex Ross’ cover presents Hulk as a cosmic figure in the vein of Eternity, his body containing the cataclysmic energy of exploding planets and cracked moons. With his open mouth and clenched hand, it looks like he’s screaming in agony and/or rage, channeling the anguish of those caught in the cosmic devastation while simultaneously being the entity that annihilates it all. Ross’ cover is a striking distillation of this issue’s core themes, and as with the rest of the creative team, there’s a sense that Ross has a deep love for the Hulk, especially his face. In Marvel Comics #1000, Ross wrote and drew a story that was entirely composed of close-up shots on Hulk’s face, highlighting how his exaggerated physical features allows for intensified emotions.
Faces get a lot of attention in Immortal Hulk. The first issue’s most dramatic moment is a two-page close-up on Hulk’s head, and in more recent issues, the Abomination has reached horrific new heights thanks to how Bennett depicts its grotesquely mutated face. Par%l and Farys don’t have faces at all, which heightens the impact of the full-page splash showing a giant Hulk smiling after he’s punched a planet into a bunch of glistening bits. The scale here is magnificent, with García and O’Halloran matching the grandiosity of the script in their imagery. García did some work for Marvel and DC in the early ’00s, but only recently returned to American comics with his work for Dynamite’s Barbarella/Dejah Thoris, delivering sleek, sexy retrofuturist visuals with a lot more personality than the Dynamite norm. Expect to see a lot more of García after Immortal Hulk #25, an issue that demands an artist who pairs a massive imagination with precise storytelling.
Immortal Hulk opens in stillness and darkness, with a zoomed out splash page of the farsail shining a dim light in a vast blackness full of floating gray rocks. This page is entirely grayscale; there is no color in the ruins of the Hulk’s rampage. The visuals become more dynamic as we get closer, and the proceeding two-page splash shows a clearer picture of the ship in its magnetic field where color still exists. The radiating honeycomb pattern adds a sense of movement, and O’Halloran brings in subtle shades of cyan, magenta, and gold. The movement and the color both get turned way up for the next two-page splash showing Par%l riding atop the farsail, surrounded by glistening crystal flowers and hir three manipulators.
The first half of the issue is all about establishing an atmosphere of dread as Farys attempts one last desperate act to save them all by sending a warning to the past. Par%l is concerned about using “the abomination” created by hir fellow survivor, but once Hulk appears, it becomes clear that Par%l has no other option. The introduction of the Hulk is a two-page splash showing him moving through planets, and García eliminates panel borders for the following sequence to emphasize that Hulk cannot be contained. The art becomes more surreal as we venture deeper into the Hulk, starting with the initial discovery of an abyss walled by neverending rings of Bruce Banner screaming. O’Halloran fills the page with different shades of green, finding a lot of variation that prevents the artwork from becoming too flat. García continues the trend of frightening new mutations of the Hulk, delivering two consecutive two-page spreads that transform his body and his face to capture the idea of the Hulk as a being physically morphed by the hatred it embodies.
As the main creative voice behind Marvel Comics #1000 and the incoming writer on Guardians Of The Galaxy, Ewing is assuming a more central role as an architect of Marvel’s line. It’s a role he has long deserved, and Immortal Hulk’s success has shown the publisher that it’s time to let Ewing use his bold ideas, deep continuity knowledge, and playful storytelling to enrich the entire Marvel Universe. Immortal Hulk #25 is a comic about hatred ultimately extinguishing all light in the universe, but there’s still a sense of fun in the execution. There’s a palpable excitement from these creators as they take the narrative in a new direction, all working in sync to make this a high point in what is already a classic superhero run.