Hulk #1 smashes expectations with Bruce Banner as Marvel’s new bad guy

Of all the arenas in which Bruce Banner’s destructive alter ego has done battle, The Immortal Hulk might have been Marvel’s most ambitious yet: a psychological horror gauntlet of cosmic proportion, where pain and torment manifested into all sorts of hideous beasts and foul deeds. It was great, it was harrowing, it was epic — and as far as the Hulk legend is concerned, Immortal Hulk was a showstopper. For any creative team, it would be a tough act to follow.

Which brings us to Hulk, a raucous new series from Marvel that attempts to break new ground for the Hulk saga while flexing its Banner bonafides in a way we’ve never seen before. Donny Cates and Ryan Ottley have primed their new Hulk tale by transmogrifying Banner into his latest and possibly most goofball persona yet — a “smashtronaut.” Amidst all this showy spectacle are we given enough space to know and fear the very mortal Banner who has taken control of the beast within?

Who make Hulk #1?

Fueling Hulk #1 with its full-tilt, rage-funneling, earth-quaking amphitheatrics is writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Ottley, with Frank Martin on colors and Cory Petit on letters. Cates and Ottley have risen to Marvel superstar status over the years thanks largely to the way both have chosen projects that play to their strengths: Cates has worked out a boisterous niche for himself as the writer of paradigm-shifting, eardrum-bursting arena rock anthems like Thanos, Silver Surfer: Black, Venom, and the Venom-centric events Absolute Carnage and King In Black. Ottley’s long, glorious, bloody tenure on Skybound’s violent teen-hero melodrama Invincible led to a prime-time gig relaunching The Amazing Spider-Man with Nick Spencer.

What Hulk #1 about?

The elevator pitch for Hulk is posted in almost laughably small letters at the bottom of its front cover: “What if the Hulk exists… to protect us from Banner?”

To put a finer point on it, a Hulk-related event in El Paso has left a frightening death count in its wake and the Avengers have assembled to figure out what’s to be done about their old ferocious friend. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are currently functioning at DEFCON-4, discussing how Bruce Banner’s latest mental state might end up becoming the most unstoppable threat of any that they have faced before. (Doctor Strange, especially, is perturbed by this turn of events.)

Meanwhile, Banner is attempting to infiltrate an off-the-books Stark installation that houses top-secret and incomplete cosmic-level technology, with Iron Man throwing himself and several other A.I.-controlled Hulkbusters into his rampaging path. Banner’s reasons? We’ll get to that.

It seems like a brightly-hued, expectations-demolishing debut like Hulk #1 would demand a total reset from what has come before, if not in story then certainly in character and tone: In Immortal, the mind of Bruce Banner was something of a macabre time-share chamber of horrors, but in Hulk

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? The Hulk’s noggin has become the U.S.S. Enterprise with puny Banner sitting in the captain’s chair. Banner’s ready for a new apotheosis as he charts a savage new frontier — and whoo, is he pissed.

Why Hulk #1 happening now?

The easy answer is “because the Marvel Universe abhors a vacuum.” Al Ewing and Joe Bennett’s Immortal Hulk run ended with issue #50 just six weeks ago, but it just wouldn’t do to not publish a Hulk book, not even to let readers catch their breath after experiencing the once-in-a-generation kind of effect Immortal Hulk had on the Marvel Universe, critically and otherwise.

Any Hulk reading?

While you should definitely read The Immortal Hulk, not to mention Peter David’s character redefining 12-year run on The Incredible Hulk — as both are going to have an influence on any subsequent Hulk run, either incidentally or deliberately — you can jump right into Hulk #1 apropos of absolutely nothing. And you should! Because…

Hulk #1 good?

The Hulk squints angrily and then punches a barrier over and over again, green blood spattering, with a resounding BOOOM in Hulk #1 (2021).

Yeah. Yes.

Beyond the frenzy of Hulk #1, there’s a larger psychological drama at play here. Bruce Banner’s journey as the Incredible Hulk, as Professor Hulk, as Joe Fix-It, as the World-Breaker, as the Maestro, as the Devil Hulk — it’s been an awesome ride. But what comes after all of it? What happens when the immortality of the Hulk has been firmly established? What happens when Banner realizes that there will come a day when he turns into the Hulk and Banner never, ever returns? Cates & Ottley’s Hulk is all over this.

There’s a lot of psychobabble in the early pages of the issue, but it’s necessary to establish this new shift in power dynamics between Bruce Banner’s mental self and his historically more formidable physical self. Here, Banner has been broken up into “three distinct parts.” There’s his hulking physical form, imbued with A.I.M. technology; his “mind palace,” which is said to be both vast and impenetrable; then there’s “the engine room,” where Banner has trapped the Hulk’s psyche in a mental realm where he can royally infuriate Ol’ Jade-Jaws whenever he needs additional smashing power. In short, Bruce Banner is controlling the Hulk to selfish ends, and everything is expected to go wrong, but soon.

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(There’s a recurring bit in this issue where Hulk hurls punches at an unbreakable mental door which we’re meant to see as the only barrier between Banner and the furious monster that he’s playing with. It evokes the inevitability of DC’s “The Death of Superman” saga, which began with the hulking personification of Superman’s demise battering away at the story constraints that held it in place until they finally couldn’t anymore.)

It’s easy to lose your mind over the many double-page spreads offered up by Ottley, Martin, and Petit. Iron Man goes Hulkbuster on Banner but Banner has grafted A.I.M. technology onto his impervious green hide. Ottley’s absolute units fill the pages with Herculean zeal; their punches land, the earth shatters, and thanks to this expertly-rendered mayhem you often feel the impact in your chest. (Almost to the point where sound effects almost seem unnecessary.) The action of Hulk #1 is almost presented like a mere preview of what’s to come, and that alone offers its own ludicrously tantalizing thrills. But the real muscle of Hulk #1 takes place inside the jade giant’s massive dome.

There, Banner sits alone. He’s haunted by ghosts and he’s afraid of death. What Hulk is going to smash next is anybody’s guess, but it’s certain to be standing in the way of Banner’s new lust for life.

One panel that popped

His arm pinned to the ground by a tangle of metal, Bruce Banner (piloting the Hulk’s body) rips the Hulk’s arm from the metal, shucking the flesh of his bones to the elbow in Hulk #1 (2021).

It’s not exactly subtle, but this moment made it abundantly clear that Banner is using the Hulk’s body to achieve his goals, damn the consequences. Problem is, those consequences are currently pummeling the only remaining barrier between the mad doctor and his inevitable comeuppance.

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