Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk: What Makes a Good Person?

Are you a good person?

That’s the question The Immortal Hulk asks. The series recently wrapped up with Issue #50—it enjoyed a strong three year run that I’m honored to have experienced since Issue #1. I remember the cover to Issue #1 (pictured above) and how I couldn’t stop staring at it when I went to pick up my subscriptions for the week… Hulk stared right back at me. Hand outstretched, one massive leg pushing the enormity that is Hulk out of his grave. I must’ve blacked out: the next thing I remember is devouring every word Al Ewing penned for Issue #1 as if it were gospel. This comic isn’t Hulk as you know him, this is The Immortal Hulk: you can’t kill him.

Immortal Hulk confronts a criminal in Issue #1…

Issue #1 establishes everything you need to know for the entire 51-issue series. (The Immortal Hulk ran from issues 1–50, but also has Issue #0, which is a must read.) You can’t kill Hulk, but you can kill Banner. This story came off the coattails of Marvel’s Civil War 2, wherein Bruce Banner was killed by Hawkeye and his conveniently made Gamma arrow. Ewing’s answer to the outrage that followed Bruce’s death was simple: “You can kill Banner, but you can’t kill Hulk.” What followed is his run with a wide range of influences: Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Bible, as well as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s original 5 issues of The Incredible Hulk are but a few examples. While the literary influences are enough to make your head—and computer—spin, it’s the original issues of The Incredible Hulk that were monumental in shaping Ewing’s story. Many people know Marvel’s Hulk and the trademarks that make up his character: he’s the strongest there is, you wouldn’t like him if he’s angry, and of course, “Hulk smash!” But few don’t realize just how different today’s Hulk is from the Hulk Kirby and Lee envisioned during his creation. Today’s Hulk is a dabbing member of the Avengers, a fun monster who smashes cars and buildings without any serious repercussions until the narrative deems it necessary. Even then, all the damage Hulk causes is dismissed as the actions of a mindless monster, similar to the treatment of Dr. Frankenstein’s very own monster. You can’t blame the latter just as you can’t blame Hulk. After all, his whole schtick is smashing and being the strongest; he’s a green giant who loves smashing things, and eventually Bruce Banner will find a way to get rid of Hulk and everything will be fine… right?

Ewing’s response would be an emphatic “no,” in the form of 51 issues of The Immortal Hulk. Ewing uses all 58+ years worth of Hulk comics to cultivate a story that goes against what people may think Hulk is about. Yes, Hulk is very strong and smashes things occasionally. But in those original issues of The Incredible Hulk, the monster had some depth. Stan Lee took inspiration from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Frankenstein when creating Hulk, and Ewing’s one of the few Hulk writers who understands what that means. Hulk is horrifying in The Immortal Hulk—no kidding. If you’re brave enough to read it—which you should be—you’ll see Hulk eating people, tearing monsters’ limbs off, decrepit skeletons, and more Cronenberg-esque body horror. Unlike the Hulk people have grown accustomed to with his mindless smashing, smiling, dabbing, and where he is now after Endgame: a happy Bruce, Ewing’s Immortal Hulk is damaged. He remembers all the horrible sins he’s done, as well as sins done to him. And they’re immortal, just like him.

Bruce confronts himself in the mirror…

Ewing’s Hulk is what Hulk is meant to be: horrifying, and a commentary on mental health. Most Hulk fans credit Rocket Raccoon creator Bill Mantlo, and prolific Hulk writer Peter A. David (PAD) for establishing Bruce’s traumatic childhood. His father beat his mother, and later killed her. As a result, Bruce develops Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)—with Hulk manifesting for the first time to protect a young Bruce. Traditionally, Hulk comes out when Bruce is angry, a manifestation of his anger-management issues. Ewing’s Immortal Hulk takes from PAD’s run and comes out at night, similar to Mr. Hyde. The Immortal Hulk doesn’t distance itself from what came before, but recontextualizes the past for this new terrifying—but human—Hulk.

Bruce’s failed relationships are a manifestation of his inability to overcome his traumas. His friends’ distrust in him is a result of his frequent “Hulk smash!” episodes. He tries to do good, but Hulk will still destroy, ruining (and sometimes ending) lives. Bruce is flawed. He kills his father in an attempt to run away from the pain he caused in his childhood. It didn’t work. He lashes out, trying to patch the scars up with good deeds. Nonetheless, his father will always be a part of him. It’s his struggle, one that mirrors our own as we try to be a good person. In The Immortal Hulk, Ewing forces us to ask ourselves:

Can I truly be a good person?

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: A Seed of Creation

For many comic creators, it’s a harsh reality that your series will not even survive a year—for Mike Mignola, his Hellboy series is about to turn 30. Mignola was your average comics jobber before Hellboy: he worked on assignments for Marvel and DC, and he didn’t have much say in what was being created. Effectively a cog in the overbearing corporate machine that is mainstream comics, Mignola knew at his soul that while he worked on superhero books such as Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, superheroes weren’t quite his thing. He famously hated drawing cars, wasn’t a huge fan of winding city landscapes, and would occasionally receive hate mail from dedicated fans lambasting him for ruining their favorite heroes. Faced with an uncertain future in comics, Mignola did what he had to do and persevered—and drew for fun. One day, he drew Hellboy; thus, everything changed with a few strokes of his pencil.

Transfixed on his rough sketch of a brutish looking demon with horns, Mignola fleshed Hellboy out in the early ’90s until his character landed a book at Dark Horse 1994, the aptly titled Hellboy: Seed of Destruction. While some Hellboy stories stand on their own, the aforementioned book kickstarted Mignola’s epic, winding tale showing his hero facing trials, tribulations, and the truth of his own destiny. In Seed of Destruction, Hellboy is established as having been summoned by the Nazis during World War II, aided by the famous Russian wizard, Rasputin. Rasputin explains to Hellboy that his destiny lies in the fact that he alone holds the power to control an immensely powerful deity set to bring about Ragnarok—the destruction of the entire world. Not only is this the reason for his entire existence, but it’s one that Rasputin makes clear he has absolutely no say in.

Hellboy is accompanied by his friends Abe Sapien and Elizabeth Sherman, the former being an intelligent, but otherwise ironically named fish-man who has a penchant for adventure. Elizabeth on the other hand, is a much more tragic character who is host to a destructive, fiery entity that wants nothing more than to be unleashed at any moment—an action that would devastate any and all life in their immediate area. Both her and Hellboy are pinned as tragic characters destined to do nothing more but destroy everything they hold dear. For Abe, his position as an investigator of paranormal phenomena is all and well, but his name was a joke, as he was found with a note sharing the same date as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. For Hellboy, these things are commented on in a brutish, blunt fashion, yet still pertaining to a sense of humanity. He expresses discontent by noting that Elizabeth’s file at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense—an organization they all work for—reads as if it isn’t about a human. They face off against Rasputin not as a team, but as a broken group of friends who are separated from each other in Hellboy’s ultimate time of need. As Rasputin recounts how he summoned Hellboy for the Nazis and then waited about 50 years for the culmination of his plans, he offers Hellboy a chance to join him knowingly—of his own free will—so that he can fulfill his destiny. Hellboy vehemently refuses, and Rasputin’s world ending spell is brought to a stop. Mignola isn’t reinventing the wheel with his plot structure here, it’s no surprise that Hellboy is victorious, but his refusal to be the destructor of the world comes at a cost: finally killing Rasputin, the only man who knows who he really is, and what power lies within him and his striking red right hand. He accepts this, saving the world and damning himself, as the story ends with him slowly starting on the path of self-discovery. It’s a powerful origin story, one that paints Hellboy in a sympathetic red light, and frames him as a tragic hero.

Image taken from Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #2 (pg. 24)

It’s not my place to comment on just how poignant Hellboy’s character is and how rich his universe has become over the last 27 years—that is painfully apparent today. What may not be so apparent is why Mignola’s story has such a faithful following. In the grand world of comic books, many stories come and go without ever really contributing to the status of American literature. Mignola’s work is different, as seen in his striking art-style where he happens to break one of the most basic rules of traditional art: negative space. His use of negative space, and his philosophy of drawing less, not more may have been controversial when he was working on Batman, but now it’s the source of his genius. Hellboy is a comic that originally was built in that use of negative space, a space that exists outside of rules and regulations, where artists can truly thrive and find freedom. Though some artists may find that they really don’t understand what makes the use of negative space so special, the ones that have found the will to choose for themselves and utilize it may very well be all the better for it. That will to choose for yourself is what makes Mignola’s Hellboy: Seed of Destruction stand above the plethora of mediocre comics—it’s what his protagonist does in every breath he draws for himself, not as the seed of destruction. Faced with insurmountable odds, both Mignola and his titular character were given a destiny they’d rather not have fulfilled. For Mignola, he was destined to never have made it big in comics, for Hellboy, well, you’ve already read all about that. Their response to destiny is what makes them human, what makes them still lovable today.  Their response to destiny can be found in the 27 years’ worth of Hellboy comics, and defying destiny has never looked so cool.