Al Ewing and Joe Bennett's Immortal Hulk has been one of Marvel Comics' most popular titles since its launch, infusing creepy body horror and infernal magic into an emotional tale of Hulk's evolution.
Now, on November 18, Immortal Hulk #40 sets the title on a path to its presumed endgame around #50 (though Ewing is quick to clarify he hasn't specified which issue will mark the series finale), putting Bruce Banner's one-time Hulk alter Joe Fixit at odds with Gamma Flight for survival.
Newsarama spoke with Ewing ahead of Immortal Hulk #40's release to dig into how he's evolved the rivalry between Bruce Banner and the Leader, how Marvel has reacted to the level of horror in the series, and what the ending of Immortal Hulk might look like – whenever it arrives.
Nrama: Al, Immortal Hulk #40 puts Joe Fixit in the driver's seat to escape Gamma Flight while Bruce Banner seems to be suffering a fate worse than death. What's Joe up against here – and what's at stake?
Al Ewing: Joe and the Savage Hulk are being held in a specially-designed cell on a space station in geosynchronous orbit roughly 22,000 miles above Earth. So he's up against that, and he's still only got Bruce Banner's body to work with. It's going to be a challenge to escape, but if anyone can do it, it's Sunshine Joe.
Nrama: On that note, Immortal Hulk #40 theoretically marks the start of the home stretch to #50 – the rumored finale. Was that baked in from the series launch? Has that plan changed at all?
Ewing: I never confirm when the series is ending - you can read about it in the solicitations for the last issue. At this point, I don't think I need to worry about jinxing anything, so it's sheer bloody-mindedness on my part.
But I've always been clear that I've had an ending in mind - around the time I pitched it, I had contingency plans in place in case we finished early, but since I knew I could stop at a point I chose, I've been building towards one particular ending, and readers will see that when they see it.
Nrama: The level of horror in Immortal Hulk has only ramped up as the series has gone on – and so has the apparent metaphorical exploration of real-world issues such as riots, gun violence, and more. What makes Hulk the perfect character to explore how these concepts dovetail in a superhero world that's usually much less bleak?
Ewing: Since the very first story, the Incredible Hulk has been a horror character, so he slips easily into that genre. But he's also been the Marvel hero who most defies the status quo - he literally rages against society, and usually against the establishment. In the most basic example - while Tony Stark was building weapons of war for use in Vietnam, Hulk was smashing tanks in the desert. Having that baked into the character since the sixties makes him able to explore territory that other heroes maybe don't always manage to navigate.
Nrama: Your version of the Leader is a little more sinister and unhinged than he's even been before. How does that compare to the different levels of strength and control Banner has had in his Hulk transformations?
Ewing: I think that's just the voice I've found for him, to be honest - I like a villain who's having fun with his work, and Joe Bennett's designs for him really bring that voice out.
I think comparing it to Bruce is interesting thematically, but maybe a non-starter. Samuel Sterns does not, to my knowledge, have Dissociative Identity Disorder - he's not a system - so if you're up against the Leader, that's always the Leader, and I've tried to draw a coherent through-line through all his various schemes and dreams over the years.
A simple thing like claiming that at least some of the Leader's failed plans were experiments in which he expected to fail goes a long way to redeeming him as a villain, and also fits in with the idea of a scheming scientist. You should never quite know with the Leader, even if you win, whether it's all just data points for a larger plan.
Nrama: Joe Bennett has been your main collaborator on Immortal Hulk. How has it been developing that working relationship? What's your favorite thing he's drawn so far?
Ewing: We've fallen into a rhythm with each other now, and I know whatever I give him, I'm going to get something wonderful back. My favorite thing from him is always the latest thing - I just recently got some pages with a new design for the Leader - no, we've not finished putting him through his paces - that I think will really take everyone's breath away.
Nrama: Joe Bennett's latest Devil Hulk design is interesting – the scaly hide and his love of young Banner in reminiscent of Kirby's Devil Dinosaur, along with the 'Devil' name of course. What's the direction you've given to Joe as Devil Hulk's appearance has evolved?
Ewing: Well, Joe is one of the artists who drew Devil Hulk first time around, so he knows what he's doing on that score. I think I asked him to draw a big snake guy, but more Hulk-like in the present day, and more like the 'Old Dragon' in the scenes set in the past. And seeing what Joe brought out from that was beautiful on both fronts.
Nrama: Speaking of the things you've had Joe Bennett draw, you've consistently pushed the envelope in terms of the horror and carnage you depict on the page – some of it legitimately haunts me. What has been Marvel's reaction to that? What's the key to striking the right balance?
Ewing: I'm not sure we've ever been asked to tone down the horror elements. Occasionally we might have to do something very small - like, remove an entrail here or there - but mostly toning-down is accomplished by making sure the Hulk's blood and organs are the proper shade of green.
Marvel has been very easy all the way through on any number of things - I've never really felt like I'm being pushed or prodded on this book, there's been a level of trust shown that's wonderful.
Nrama: Once Immortal Hulk wraps up, will you continue on with Bruce Banner or the Hulk in another context?
Ewing: I might have a little more to say about gamma, and some of the more cosmic ideas in the run. But I think once this series sees its last issue, I'll have said everything I have to say about Bruce Banner and his alters. Hulk writers do return, so never say never, but I'm probably not going to do more than the equivalent of sending a Xmas card unless there's another long-form story that grabs me by the throat and doesn't let me go. Having two of those about the same character seems unlikely.
Nrama: For that matter, do you have your sights set on any other characters you'd like to dig into and redefine in this way?
Ewing: This is an awkward question, because it's effectively gunning for someone's job. No matter which character I say, somebody is going to either be working on it or wanting to work on it. At this point, editorial knows who I really enjoy writing and want to write more. And in some ways, I'm already doing it - upcoming issues of Guardians might answer this question.
Nrama: You mentioned Guardians of the Galaxy, and you're also working on the upcoming SWORD title. Will Hulk interact with either of those stories? He's no stranger to space or interplanetary adventures.
On that note, Immortal Hulk birthed out of the events of a major crossover. With big runs such as Jason Aaron's Thor ending with an event of its own, is that something we could see for the finale of Immortal Hulk?
Ewing: My answer to both these questions is the same - no crossovers for Immortal Hulk, the main series. The goal has always been for the readers to only need to buy the one comic, hence the nature of the tie-ins and other additional material - if you want more, we have it ready and waiting, but if your wallet only supports the one book, I'm not going to punish you for that.
Though I will say that readers who remember our double-sized #25 should brace themselves for another extra-sized Immortal Hulk issue in their future, that will blow their minds to an even greater extent.
Nrama: With Immortal Hulk about to head into its endgame, what can you tell us to set the stage?
Ewing: We've got big plans. In my experience, Hulk fans don't mind seeing their hero put through the wringer as long as there's a payoff at the end - well, this is the biggest wringer ... and the biggest payoff.
Al Ewing and Joe Bennett's Immortal Hulk run is among the best Hulk comics of all time.