The Leader's plans and Green Door takeovers of the core cast get individualized in Immortal Hulk #38. Situated in the Place Below All, but branching his mind out into Banner's various allies and "mindscape", the Leader Sam Sterns thinks he finally has the Hulk and Bruce Banner poised to be crushed. All thanks to his "superior" intellect and control over the Green Doors that allow gamma heroes to revive themselves after death. But in doing so, he hurts Banner and he hurts one of Banner's most child-like alters the Big Guy, and someone who Sterns thinks he locked away for good takes that very, very personally.
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Belardino Brabo, and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Though this issue moves at a near breakneck pace, writer Al Ewing still builds the issue beautifully, ratcheting up the tension as Sterns burns through multiple scenes, controlling multiple characters.
While the creeping dread and high stakes Immortal Hulk has been known for are still very much there, aided in large part by the creepy, body horror focused artwork of Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Belardino Brabo, and Paul Mounts, issue #38 also manages to be highly cathartic and resoundingly emotional - all thanks to the frightening return of one of the title's breakout stars and the deep well of dark emotions and history Ewing has been drawing from throughout this series.
The Green Doors might be closing thanks to the Leader, but Immortal Hulk #38 proves that this title is far from done yet.
We open issue #38 on pure chaos. Emboldened by the power and position in the Place Below All, the Leader starts to tighten his grip on the allies of Bruce Banner who have also had contact with the hellish area. But worse still, Sterns has taken over the body of the Green Scar (Banner's Conan-like Planet Hulk alter) which has allowed him access to Banner's "mindscape" where his system of alters reside.
He plans to finally be "the strongest of all," crushing Banner and his system allowing him free reign to unleash Gamma-irradiated hell on reality, which we have already somewhat seen in the series' teases of the Devil Hulk consuming all at the end of time.
But while that might all sound like a jumbled mess, writer Al Ewing lays it all out effortlessly on the page, using Sterns and his "puppets" as the anchor points while the rest of the cast reacts in kind around him. And Ewing even makes it look somewhat easy, casting Sterns's dialogue across multiple voices and scenes. First his own in the Place Below All, which then echoes across the "taken" characters like Rick Jones, who has exploded into a vision right out of John Carpenter's The Thing, and Hotshot, Del Frye, who has been a ticking gamma-bomb for the Leader since the opening arc.
It's a simple, but eerie and showy way to thread together the multiple stages for #38's tableaus, allowing both Ewing and the art team enough room to let each scene breathe.
But even in the darkest of places, there is hope. And when I say things get dark, I mean it. As the Leader seems to have everything well in hand in the present, Ewing and the art team intercut this multi-fronted action with harrowing flashbacks to Bruce's psychologically damaging childhood and his first contact with the Devil Hulk. It's an unexpected jolt of emotion, especially in the middle of the Leader's monologuing and scary visuals, but one that puts this particular issue into greatness territory.
Ewing has often talked about how important it was to see Banner as a system, and now issue #38 shows how that can pay powerful emotional dividends, providing this issue a raw heart at its center and a fist-pumpingly cool cliffhanger to leave us awaiting the next installment.
And all these feints, both horrifying and emotional, are handled beautifully by the art team of Bennett, Jose, Brabo, and Mounts. Though once again excelling at the astounding horror of the Place Below All and Banner's "mindscape" (littered with fun visual callbacks to some of the Hulk's adventures and greatest fights), it is the team's quieter, more unsettling moments that really shine through issue #38.
Take for example the team's rendering of Bruce's childhood flashback. Using their now trademark move of providing the reader a first-person point of view of the action (a move used to horrifying effect last issue), they put us in the head of baby Bruce Banner, innocently flipping through an illustrated copy of Paradise Lost for the frescos. Suddenly the shouting form of his father Brian Banner bursts into the scene, lit with a drab, slightly sickly lighting by colorist Paul Mounts. He then bends his neck sickeningly into our "eyeline" scowling at the reader and his son whom he screams is learning to "replace" him one day.
Though the bigger set pieces of issue #38 wow and have a bone-crunching weight, it is the bared teeth and paranoid gaze of a broken father that really show just how good Joe Bennett and his team are on this title.
Chock full of existential dread and dynamically emotive artwork, and further armed with a tremendous cliffhanger, Immortal Hulk #38 makes a very strong case for being one of the best issues of the whole series. Keeping the consistency of Marvel's heaviest titles hovering between good and great, Immortal Hulk #38 is another standout issue for the standout series.