When at their very best, comics like The Immortal Hulk allow their readers to confront the characteristics of the world and the people around us. Whether examining moral integrity in the pages of DC Comics’ Superman or weighing the differences between consequence and responsibility in Marvel’s Spider-Man, the most memorable character moments always come when our heroes are used as focal points for our own beliefs or emotions.
We feel the moment Superman reaches for the hand of a troubled young woman because we idolize that symbol of empathy. We were that troubled person and we’ve made that gesture. Those panels are impactful. Meanwhile we watch Peter Parker juggle the expectations of his powers with the consequences of his heroic actions. We know what it’s like to desperately try to do the right thing. We’ve also inadvertently made those situations worse. Together these moments create characters that breathe and comic books that readers cherish. The Horror genre emphasizes these roots.
THE BIRTH OF HORROR IN COMICS
CBD’s own Britany Murphy recently explained why horror directors and superhero cinema are the PERFECT MATCH. In fact, the relationship between the horror genre and comic books themselves dates all the way back to the first decade of serialized comic publishing. As early as 1940, historical titles like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were already being adapted for comic print. Even outside of the genre, horror archetypes like vampires and werewolves were seen in the pages of superhero comics, often depicted as soldiers or weapons of a fictional Nazi regime.
Pop culture historian Ron Goulart recognizes Avon Publications’ Eerie #1 (1947) as the first full-fledged horror comic book. This issue featured an anthology of frightening tales. It also included early staples of the genre; beautiful endangered women and Nosferatu-inspired villains among them. Expectations have obviously raised since then. From 1947 onward, horror comics would experience a tremendous boom in the comic industry. It wasn’t until the 1954 formation of the Comics Code Authority that censorship started to hinder the genre’s progress.
FROM INDIE TO ICON
Every publisher in that era hoped to replicate the success of EC Comics. Between The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, and Tales from the Crypt, EC Comics forged the greatest genre anthologies of the early 1950s. Other companies immediately tried to stake their own claim in the field of fear.
Among them were Atlas Comics’ Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales. Atlas would go on to become Marvel Comics. Journey into Mystery would introduce comic readers to Thor the God of Thunder and Strange Tales gave us Dr. Strange himself.
DC Comics launched House of Mystery and House of Secrets, the latter of which saw the birth of Swamp Thing.
The contributions of the horror genre are immeasurable. As time went on, characters like DC’s John Constantine, Dark Horse’s Hellboy, and Marvel’s Blade became household names. Similarly The Walking Dead began printing in 2003, ran for 193 issues, and has spawned an AMC television series that has continued for nine seasons thus far and shows no signs of slowing down.
Al Ewing debuted Immortal Hulk in 2018 and reminded Marvel comic readers of horror’s place in the medium. Prior to this series, the titular character had been enduring a roller coaster of comic and film appearances complete with the highs and lows of every standard theme park ride. Many fans felt that he functioned best in a team setting, stripped of the leading role. Marvel Studios supports that trend. Bruce Banner hasn’t had a solo film since actor Mark Ruffalo took over the role in 2010. At his peak, the Hulk is an excitable outcry. His reader’s hands are in the air, awaiting the drop of the cart and the wind streaked against their faces. At his worst, the Hulk is a slow drag. His reach exceeds his grasp. Since Immortal Hulk’s beginnings however, the series has reached for the stars and pulled them from the sky.
A MODERN HORROR EPIC
Immortal Hulk has ran for 22 issues thus far and the ride hasn’t slowed down. Al Ewing does not hesitate in rewriting the mythologies of Bruce Banner and his gamma-born counterpart. Readers are pleasantly spoiled by that fearless approach, as they’re thrust into a familiar world of superheroes that suddenly feels overwhelmingly frightful. Banner explores the concept of mortality. He struggles with his regrets. Mental and physical illness plagues his relationships. He questions themes of religion and even confronts the perception of reality itself at times. Each challenging dive into that thematic fray is tied to Bruce’s past. Every moment from his childhood, to his death, and ultimately to his rebirth is explored. The limitless nature of the horror genre abandons caution and the series is strengthened because of it. After 22 issues, Immortal Hulk remains a character study of biblical proportions.
Artist Joe Bennet lends his own talents to this brave endeavor. As the Hulk is rebuilt and presented as a being firmly rooted in fear, Bennet’s art serves as an immersive anchor that pulls readers into the world of Bruce Banner. We can see the terror in our hero’s eyes and we can feel the anxiety swell as sweat drips from his brow. We are humbled by the size and the might of the Hulk itself and then stunned as we learn what the monster is capable of. Comparisons are made throughout this story, identifying the Hulk as something akin to the Devil.
The parallels aren’t hard to recognize. This might be the series’ lead character, but he is an entity of death and destruction. We watch as he dismantles his enemies and leaves little more than carnage in his wake. In every instance, Bennet’s attention to detail lifts the violence from the page until the desperation of each scene thunders in the readers’ hearts.
Ewing and Bennet are of course not alone on this team. Ruy José has worked as the inker and Paul Mounts as the colorist. Alex Ross has also illustrated the perfect companion covers for each entry in this run. They oftentimes depict the duality between Bruce Banner and the Hulk ego, stylized in the vein of classic horror movie posters. In one instance, Bruce Banner is drowning. The arms of the Hulk reach from the depths to execute his vengeance. In another, Bruce leans against a headstone in a solemn graveyard while the eyes of the Hulk gaze down on him from the face of the moon. Each cover is a sight to behold.
HORROR HAS A HOME
These praises are not sung exclusively by fans of the horror genre either. Immortal Hulk has been nominated for a 2019 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series. Through the months of April, May and June, Immortal Hulk also outsold DC’s flagship Batman title. These accomplishments have proven that monsters and nightmares can lend themselves to comic books in the best of ways. The intimate analysis of human themes and values, which have drawn readers to comic books since their incarnation, are greatly benefited by the brave lengths the horror genre is allowed to explore. Whether in film or on the page, horror has a home in comics.