In the stunning, unflinching eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, it is revealed that the first atomic bomb test dubbed “Trinity” under the auspices of The Manhattan Project opened a doorway to an alternate dimension. One inhabited by strange spirits that may look similar to us, but are in fact anything but. Unnatural, strange, and sometimes excessively violent, they serve as a kind of shadow to humanity, the unnatural exploiting the natural. In writer Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett’s Immortal Hulk, the gamma bomb test at Los Diablos, creating The Hulk, operated in much the same way. The door it opened? Green, and to Hell itself. The denizens on the other side? Demons and lost souls haunted by traumas both real and imagined.
There is nowhere I’d rather be.
As it has been consistently throughout the series, Ewing’s narrative here is stunningly structured and evocative, drawing you into a larger mystery effectively while also not losing site of minute-to-minute, or page-to-page satisfaction. Where the previous volume took a look at the inner and physical turmoil the Hulk was experiencing, through reflection both literal and figurative, and through an uneasy balance between Bruce and ol’ Jade Jaws, this one takes a much more intensive look at a broader picture. At the impact Hulk, and his creation, have had on the Earth — at humankind’s obsession with destroying the natural, and celebrating the unnatural.
The narrative does this by grounding each chapter in recurring and distressing vignettes where a narrator ruminates on God’s existence, all of His creation, and their shadows, the book operates as a kind of recursive nightmare. Can the Hulk become better than a monster? Much the same way humanity made the atom bomb to save lives, the Hulk is a shadow created and utilized by Bruce Banner to protect him to horrible ends. Maybe, Ewing posits, Hell is where he belongs — where he’s been heading all this time anyways, where all things humanity makes and destroys to forward their own small agendas should end up. An emotional through line reveling in the toxic cycles of abuse and masculinity that Bruce’s father visited upon him in fear of his very existence make the point all the more. Poetic, deeply sad, somewhat revisionist, and incredibly revealing, the character work is second to none as the worst aspects of the things people do to each other are made living in Hell. Quite literally, too, as Bruce struggles against a demonic version of his own father, his own friends and victims.
One particularly good section focusing on how even those that have seen, and been harmed, by all the Hulk can do still wanting power like his is disarming and realistic for a comic book about the mean Jolly Green Giant:
This is the crux of the story thus far and it hits a fever pitch here. No, the Hulk is not “good”, nor is he “evil” — he simply is. Existing in opposition to his more natural Bruce Banner. The Hell to a Heaven, fire to water, or life to death. Ewing swiftly, laboriously, delicately, and strongly in equal measure makes the point that such a reality is much scarier by bringing vintage and new characters to Hell itself to distort their forms to the unnatural, to show the flip side to their light, the shadows to their dark — existing and persisting all the same. When used against something like his own father, a demonic entity in service of the shadow of the One Above All, the Hulk’s aggression is ostensibly good, a natural battle of good versus evil. But when used to destroy homes, lives, and families, it is bad, against the natural order. Immortal Hulk is about this flux and the narrative loop, as well as the dialogue and even big, superhero-esque battles sell that point supremely.
Joe Bennett’s art operates in a similar, although slightly more muddled way alongside the narrative. Hulk’s Hell is an ever-reaching, dystopic wasteland filled with evocative vignettes and symbols but populated entirely by the damned — their eyes, limbs, and souls missing. It’s creepy, engaging and really honed aesthetically. Especially as the action ramps to a massive, green, and frightening face floating above the wastes or to the hulking figure of the Hulk winding up for big and powerful punches with a gross, distended stomach that looks totally unnatural draped over his gaunt frame.
However, as it has in previous volumes, it loses some impact in the more immediate parts. Quick cuts of the Hulk beating people, strangely and somewhat pointlessly cropped or taking place in weirdly tilted panels, detract from the experience. A best guess would be that the intention here is to impart impact and motion, but unaccompanied by appropriate sound effects or out-of-panel visual tells, it feels like Bennett is trying to circumvent the traditional comics format for little reason. This is, of course, a minor complaint in comparison to how fantastic it is to see a literal army of the dead and the damned (featuring The Fly!) face off against the Hulk, or seeing orange windswept fields of desolation that further the narrative’s intentions, but it is apparent.
Ultimately, then, Immortal Hulk‘s third volume is as evocative and important, dense, and profound as the previous two but slightly less focused. Both in narrative and in art, it strays into big ideas like toxic masculinity, cycles of abuse, the natural and unnatural, war, death, famine, greed and more, including a whole lot of interesting but impenetrable occult and religious imagery and narration, and largely does right by them. But it occasionally feels intentionally obfuscated or scatterbrained to the detriment of the reader. This is likely all in service to the larger picture, a narrative unlike many I have read and one I am excited for monthly if not weekly that’s renegotiating the Hulk and what he means in an age of climate change fears, increasing violence, and more and is as such forgivable, but noticeable.