Joe Bennett brings a disturbing clarity to Immortal Hulk #37. In this issue, there are scenes and images that just shouldn't exist in a superhero comic book, including a distorted and disturbingly gangly vision of the Hulk's arch-nemesis the Leader.
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Belardino Brabo, and Paul Mounts
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
As Bennett and Al Ewing begin building to the end of their already classic Hulk tale, they continue to amaze and shock us. Taking the mythology of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's character, as well as plumbing the depths of Bill Mantlo and Peter David's work on the character, Ewing and Bennett uncover new monsters in this issue while also revealing that those monsters have been there all along (also see the mostly reprint Immortal Hulk #0, also out now for more on this revelation.) The world is full of monsters and they will leave their destructive marks all over Bruce Banner's life.
Spoilers ahead for Immortal Hulk #37
This issue operates at a couple of speeds. There's the slow, deliberate building that Ewing and Bennett have been practicing for a couple of years now. Their character work, not just on the Hulk but on Rick Jones, Doc Sampson, Alpha Flight's Puck, Titania, and the Absorbing Man, has been building layer upon layer and each issue reveals a new layer. For most of this issue, Hulk is a punching bag, getting knocked down over and over again by a gamma-powered Absorbing Man. This is a beat-down issue for the Hulk and that's where it really builds up speed as the true threats of the Immortal Hulk are revealed. The Leader, the big-brained but usually scrawny bodied counterweight to the Hulk, steps to the front of the plot, revealing his mastery over everything.
While in past issues, an intelligent Hulk and a vicious Banner have seemed in control, trying to impose their strength on the puny world, they never were. This is one of those issues that make you want to go back and reread everything that's happened so far to see how far back the Leader has been the unknown threat in this story.
For the past couple of years, we've thought this was a Bruce Banner against the world story, but it's actually much smaller and more personal than that. This issue shows that this is a story of a hero versus a villain, his archnemesis, but in a completely unrestrained, no-holds-barred way that makes this unlike anything we've seen before. Ewing and Bennett have done everything to make us think that the Hulk was both the hero and the villain of this comic and we bought into it. We accepted the story on its face value while they've been playing a different game this whole time.
Of course, a lot of that is because Bennett has been drawing this as a body-horror comic book, from the Hulk being cut up and his body parts being put in jars in earlier issues, to this issue and whatever dark places of his imagination that he's pulled Rick Jones and the Leader out of, or to an absolutely stunning image of the Hulk being shot by a laser cannon that needs to be seen to be believed. Bennett takes these comic book characters and gives them a solid and believable foundation that makes the horror all the more shocking when we see it, even if we've come to expect it from him. The horrors are so real and present that they continue to carry real weight even when we know that they can't possibly exist. They exist in Bennett's and our imagination and that's enough. Add in Paul Mounts's coloring, which frames Bennett's images to draw our eyes even more into these images than we want. Bennett and Mounts take the chaos of Ewing's story and render it in perfectly understandable and emotional, electrifying moments.
This issue is all about Ewing's chaos. He gives us a story here that shows us just how little the characters really know what's going on. Ewing has let the Hulk, Sampson, and the rest think that this story they're living is one thing, something where they could fight for control and real change, where this issue just reveals how little control they have over everything that's happened to them. As the Hulk has steamrolled his way through every obstacle in front of him, thinking he was more and more in command of his life, this issue shows how there has always been someone or something hidden, pulling the strings and marching the Hulk down a pre-determined path.
The world is full of monsters. We like to think that those monsters are coming after us, somehow thinking that we're equal to them. But what if we're the prize in their battles? What if it's the monsters that are fighting themselves? When the monsters are the Hulk and the Leader that puts us between the proverbial rock and a hard place where we're just waiting to get smashed by one of them. Al Ewing and Joe Bennett have been stringing us along for a while now, playing some kind of sleight of hand game so that by the time this issue reveals the real rock and hard place, it's already too late for us. We're stuck in the middle, just waiting and hoping to see what this creative team's next trick is going to be.