It should come as no surprise that Immortal Hulk continues to astound with each entry into its larger saga. With an impressively meteoric rise to success, the series has quickly become a near-universally acclaimed smash hit (heh) that has recontextualized decades of Hulk lore in a Morrison-esque hypertime treatment. This reconstructionist take on the franchise, spearheaded by intentional, impactful pacing and the backbone of the symbiotically refined storytelling of a top-tier art team, allows the series to continually reach new heights as it presses forward.
This is not news by any means. Immortal Hulk has been a favorite of comic readers since its debut last year, developing a cult following through word-of-mouth and presenting top-quality content to back it up. In a comically ever-growing cycle, the creative team sets expectations for future storytelling high and routinely exceeds them at every opportunity. Now, I promise this whole review won’t be a gush session for the series (even though I could write for hours about the book and how it’s the best on the stands), but it’s important to understand the context of the run and its zeitgeist as it entered the climactic resolution of the Shadow War.
The Hulk’s conflict with Shadow Base has grown for most of the series’ life, but the tensions have escalated to a breaking point by the start of volume 5. Though the narrative eventually settles to focus on three separate factions, the story of this ultimate battle is predicated by a much more personal tale.
General Reginald Fortean was not always the hardline protector of humanity that he has billed himself as. Exploring the life of Fortean, the opening issue of the volume offers a look into the mind of a man set on making sense of a universe seemingly determined to operate on chaos. Guest artist Ryan Bodenheim sets the mood for this introspection early, with strong and imaginative linework which, when contrasted with series regulars Bennett and José’s kinetic and bombastic storytelling, sets a certain dream-like tone for the prologue. The main thrust of Fortean’s story centers on his obsession with structure. Religious from a young age, he enters the military and witnesses atrocities both physical and metaphysical at the hands of the Hulk. This, along with the shock of betrayal at the hands of his mentor Thunderbolt Ross, sets him on a path of righteous fury. He feels a duty to humanity to bring order to a chaotic universe and sets his life mission to rid the world of the scourge of the Hulk and his ilk. As his exploits unfold, however, we see Fortean succumb to, and become corrupted by, the very chaos he dreads.
The general’s obsession with restoring structure to chaos leads him to launch a strike on Gamma Flight, securing the newly formed demonic husk of the Abomination. Donning it himself, Fortean attempts to exert control over the unknown by quite literally controlling this monstrosity. In doing so, he sets off the chain of events leading to his downfall. Gamma Flight, seeking revenge, follow Fortean’s translocation back to Shadow Base just as the Hulk and company arrive, alerted to the base’s location by the husk coming to life. What follows is the classic knock-down, drag-out fight that one would expect from a Hulk comic. Fists fly, fluids gush, faces melt, short Canadian men rip brains out of robots and smash them. You know, classic story beats. Exploiting the weakness of Fortean’s descent into madness, Banner and his personalities hold strong and force his victory through sheer willpower.
Banner and Fortean both die in the rumble, but as astute readers surely know by now, it’s not quite that simple. Both awaken at the gates of Hell, greeted by Brian Banner, Bruce’s father and avatar of The One Below All. We know the drill at this point: Bruce dies, Bruce gets mocked by his dad for a couple minutes, Bruce comes back to life, rinse, repeat. Taking advantage of the situation, though, Joe’s personality kicks in and murders Fortean’s soul, ensuring he won’t come back to life as the gamma monstrosity and injecting one last little bit of chaos into Fortean’s life (or afterlife as it were.) Hulk wakes up, promises to tie up loose ends, and ascends to the throne of Shadow Base, co-opting its resources for his own gain; thus, the story ends.
Except… it doesn’t.
Fast forward a few billion years, to the end of all things. The Eighth Cosmos has expired, and The One Above All is preparing the Ninth. Who should be there to greet TOAA but the Immortal Hulk? Hulk devours TOAA, because that’s just the level of escalation the story has reached at this point, and we’re shown a glimpse of a completely foreign existence.
I wrote about Immortal Hulk #25 at its release in a fair amount of detail, so I won’t go too deep into specifics, but it is compelling science fiction at its best. Ewing and guest artists Germán García and Chris O’Halloran craft an interlude that exudes the feel of classic cosmic storytelling, drawing readers into a world all their own, quite literally as the Ninth Cosmos has never been touched on until now. The issue focuses on Par%l, a member of a gender non-binary species of empathic creatures in incredible tune with the universe and its flow. Par%l witnesses the destruction of hir universe by the Breaker of Worlds, destruction incarnate, the being you or I might know as the Hulk. With hir last moments of life fueled by the anguish of the universe itself, Par%l, sends off a distress beacon, breaking the laws of the universe they hold so dear to send a distress beacon back in time in an attempt to change this tragic course of history. The recipient of this missive is none other than classic Hulk villain The Leader, promising more of the book’s masterful handling of the franchise’s lore to come.
Now, I must admit that while I was reading this arc monthly, I found it to be underwhelming. With the exception of #25, the story felt to me like a generic action fest. While the craft of the comic itself was impressive, it didn’t seem to offer more than a bombastic plot to draw the reader in, and ultimately felt forgettable in the long term for a run that has literally gone to Hell and back. The aforementioned zeitgeist seemed to be too strong and the arc did not feel delivered upon in a meaningful way. I am proud to say that I could not have been more wrong.
One of the truest marks of success in any medium is the ability to glean new perspectives on a repeated viewing. Immortal Hulk vol 5 delivers on this in spades, revealing its overarching story of predetermination as the characters come to terms with their roles as created by the universe itself.
From the outset of the story, Fortean is bound by a personal sense of duty. Where this ultimately originates, whether it be from his religious background or his military training, is irrelevant. What matters is that he is compelled by his very nature to bring order to chaos, at the eventual expense of his own sanity and life. He makes it clear in his raid on Gamma Flight that he sees the world in this binary: chaos controlling us or us controlling chaos. This self-destructive adherence to his moral code is interesting in that he feels ordained to fulfill his role, to the bitter end.
We see this sense of a forced role in the universe throughout the story. Jackie McGee, now companion of Banner on his fugitive journey, serves as the perspective of the everywoman, both as an audience insert to introduce story concepts and as an in-universe reporter. Over the course of the arc, she recounts her experience as a child, witnessing the raw carnage of the Hulk’s rampages. She feels sleighted by it, rightfully so as her family was subjected to unimaginable horrors while Banner was praised. Her trauma was entirely out of her control, and that haunts her. McGee, though an incredibly capable character with impressive agency, cannot break free of this weight given to her by fate.
Even the entirely foreign and unknown life forms of the Ninth Cosmos are bound by this compulsion to comply with this higher calling. As established in the text itself, they are linked with the universe in a special way. They can reach out beyond themselves to feel for emotion and life, empathic in a way that humanity can physically never understand. They see themselves as space, evidenced by their mind-melding mating rituals requiring three beings, one acting as a space for the others to occupy. With such a practical connection to the universe at large, they seem to be antibodies of a sort, the last vestige of a dying universe that knows it’s dying. With the devouring of TOAA, Hulk (with the spirit of TOBA occupying his husk) has sealed the fate of the universe to endlessly perish, with no one to recreate it for a new age. This truly is the end of all things, forever and on every count. The universe itself has attempted to facilitate its rescue and has chosen its agents in doing so.
This choice on the part of the universe is important. It suggests not necessarily a sentience, but a purpose. This purpose is reinforced by the narrative structure of the full arc. #21-24 have a constant narration detailing the thoughts and experiences of Fortean and McGee. #25 retains that narration, but shifts to a third-person viewpoint, subverting the agency of Par%l as the story continues past hir demise. The fate that it imposes on the characters in the story arc is strong and enduring, and we see it destroy them as it drives most to their demise. Interestingly, the only pushback on this sense of destiny comes from Banner himself. He forces his victory over Fortean by overcoming his weakness to solar energy; he devours the creator of the universe and induces his own bleak vision. He acts as chaos incarnate, both in the planning of Fortean’s crusade and in the way he bucks the expectations of the universe, later becoming the physical incarnation of entropy and destruction.
This makes sense on another layer, too. Metatextually, these characters have a role to play in the story. Fortean is the “bad guy,” driven by what could be sympathetic, but ultimately flawed morality to hunt the Hulk and kill him. McGee acts as the audience insert, a human eye to view the atrocities of gods and monsters. Her trauma plays up this divide, driving her characterization and allowing her to act as that lens into the comic’s world. Additionally, while not entirely related to the conversation of fate, #25 plays with this metatexuality in incredibly fun ways. Remember how the beings of the Ninth Cosmos require a triad to meld with each other? The two beings cannot perform this ritual without a third person to act as a shared space and facilitate their thoughts. Consider that the reader acts as a literal third person, taking in the thoughts and feelings of both Par%l and Farys via caption boxes and transmitting them to a shared mindscape.
This extension of the character to fit the needs of the story also appears in the story device of gamma creatures going to Hell and being resurrected. Again and again, they are made to fit the universe’s (and by extension the storytellers’) plan. While in this over-space, Banner kills Fortean, ensuring his permanent death. Yet again bucking the intention of the universe, this time to let the Abomination rampage deathless, Banner sows chaos in even the purest distillation of the story’s plans for Fortean. Then again… does he? You could make the case that he is fulfilling the creators’ intent by sowing this chaos. Sure, you’d be well within your rights to say that, but I’d be within my rights to say we’re too many layers in at this point and this is a thought experiment so cool it, bucko. Wait, where were we?
The potential for endless reimagining of the story and its context truly speak to its quality in a way that I cannot. It begs to be reread, thought over, and discussed. If there is one takeaway from this review, it should be that it is always worth revisiting media. Even if it is as straightforward as Hulk punching a big bad guy, there is always authorial intent and the true joy of being a reader is to unravel that and discover what it means to you. The Immortal Hulk vol 5 is worth reading for the convenience of a condensed reading experience alone, whether you are a new fan looking for a fun action romp with government intrigue or you are a returning reader digging deeper for new perspectives on an old favorite.
However you approach it, you can’t go wrong with picking this book up. I look forward to seeing everyone devolve into the same crackpot theories of metatextual ideaspace that I’ve somehow found myself in.