The Leader's war for Bruce Banner's mind-scape gets personal in Immortal Hulk #39 (opens in new tab). Picking up directly after last issue's cliffhanger, the new powered-up Leader finds himself facing down the unleashed and dangerously angry Devil Hulk while the rest of Banner's system of alters watches from the sidelines. But when the Leader reveals one of his own alters, namely the voice and face of Brian Banner, consumed during one of his many deaths and returns through The-Place-Below-All and the Green Doors, the tide is terrifyingly turned in favor of the Leader.
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: 9 out of 10
This rather expository issue opens with an extended sequence detailing just how Sam Sterns consumed Bruce's father to gain favor of the malignant Gamma-God that rules over the Green Doors, then quickly turns to resolve the 'fight' between the Leader and the Devil Hulk. In this, writer Al Ewing provides plenty of gut-punches, as he and the art team deliver more disgustingly striking visuals amid the complex, keenly engaging character dynamics set up through the system of Banner and Sterns' new godlike power upgrade. It looked like the Devil might save the day last issue, but as Immortal Hulk #39 proves nothing is certain under Sterns' new Leadership.(opens in new tab)
We open in the Place-Below-All, Immortal Hulk's Gamma fueled version of Hell that's become one of the few recurring locations for the title. Though Ewing has plenty of stuff to deal with in the present, this opening is a choice bit of backstory, one that had been purposefully murky until now. Here we see the first encounter of this new "enlightened" Sam Sterns and Brian Banner, one of the many "ghosts" that has been haunting Bruce and the Devil Hulk since the opening arc.
But though it looks like a set up for a run-of-the-mill villain team-up, Ewing starts to twist it into something much more sinister. The Leader doesn't want Brian's help...he wants Brian's mind, soul, and a scant trace of Gamma, which he then takes in another trademark example of the title’s powerful Cronenbergian influence; literally eating Brian and then displaying to the One-Below-All that he can finally take Banner's mindscape for him and the end of the universe. It is a fairly expository scene, and one that takes up most of the opening pages, but it is a grimly entertaining piece of backstory that I feel will only increase in value for the regular readers and binge reading experience for those waiting for the trades.
Ewing then doubles down on the title's forward momentum once we cut back to the "present" of Banner’s mind. The Leader and the Devil Hulk are locked in mortal battle, scrapping amid the various totems and effigies of Banner's past as he and his alters Joe Fixit and The Big Guy (Banner's original, more childlike persona) watch from the edges of the scene. Though, again, the creative team offer up more shockingly cartoonish violence and explosions of horror visuals, there is a secondary unease that radiates from the pages thanks to the art team's slight skewing of the panel boxes. Meaning the whole fight and the scenes contained therein are set into oddly crooked dutch angled panels, instead of the normal "flatly" laid out panel construction of the "real world," which we see briefly as Ewing reveals that Gamma Flight now has possession of the Hulk's body after his death and capture two issues earlier. It is a small bit of production value but one that adds to the overall unease and unreality of Banner's mind and complex system he has now evolved into amid the body horror and jaw-dropping monster design.
It is a complexity Ewing then pushes further as he resolves the battle between The Leader and the Devil Hulk. Just when we think the battle is won in favor of Banner's systems, Sterns deploys his newfound connection to Brian, mocking and childing Banner for being "his father's son", growing to be "just like him" in his methods and madness. Ultimately this throws Banner into a rage and weaponizes his (and The Big Guy's) powerful need for paternal connection, which he ultimately will never receive. Again, it is a relatively small reveal in the grand scheme of Ewing's plotting, but one that is played to the absolute hilt, both for the benefit of the reader and constantly shifting power dynamics between the whole cast.
The Devil might have been the hero last month, but Immortal Hulk #39 and the dark powers of The Leader and Brian Banner show that even the Devil has daddy issues. And those issues might very well lead to the end of everything. We honestly have no idea where Banner and his systems can go from there, but rest assured, we will be there to find out.