By Kelly Kanayama
If you aren’t reading The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett, you are missing out. It’s terrifying, heartfelt, mystical, deeply disturbing, and one of the best mainstream comics currently on the shelves. The gorgeous covers by Alex Ross don’t hurt, either.
I caught up with Al Ewing at New York Comic Con to talk about injecting indie sensibilities into Marvel, the magic of radiation, and what we can expect to see from a comic that’s already gone places we never saw coming.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Immortal Hulk issue #24, and really for the comic as a whole.
Kelly Kanayama: After seeing how The Immortal Hulk has progressed and the direction the story is going, my first question is: Are you okay?
Al Ewing: [Laughs] I’m pretty much fine, but I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in a while. That probably does affect things.
Kanayama: Is that because of the comic?
Ewing: No, it’s just workload. It’s basically — I’ve gotten very used to five-hour nights, four-hour nights. I’m pulling Thatcher hours, and it’s not good; look what happened to her. And I guess I’ve been sort of — Immortal Hulk is where I express a bunch of thoughts. Not just the body horror stuff; that’s more love of a certain kind of film that me and Joe [Bennett] share. I mean, a lot of the early stuff with Hulk and the Brian Banner stuff, that sort of crept into the book from personal events in my own life.
But things are fine now, you know, for the moment, and hopefully will continue to be. Right now my main problem is lack of sleep, which is leading to some strange thoughts and stuff. I don’t think you can — I feel like to do a good artistic work you’ve got to put some of yourself into it, so I guess there is quite a bit of myself in Immortal Hulk at the moment.
Kanayama: Although this is of course a Marvel comic, it also feels reminiscent of proto-Vertigo stuff, like what was coming out in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Ewing: I get what you mean; it’s got kind of an indie feel. We’ve been allowed to do that in a way — I mean, it’s not like I feel like we would have been stopped, exactly, but the amount of freedom we’ve had to work with has just been really noticeable and really phenomenal. I feel like that’s something Wil Moss does; Tom Brevoort gives me a lot of rope to hang myself with. But I’m really grateful that I get to push things in these directions and nobody’s like, “That’s not what we do.” People are just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s great.”
Part of the original pitch for it was kind of a tonal pitch. We wanted to do something that was different in tone, and that was right there in the original pitch. It’s almost having our cake and eating it, in that we get to do this kind of tone that is very different from anything else, but we also get to go back to the continuity and really explore things.
Kanayama: Yeah, there’s a touch of what Grant Morrison does sometimes, when he takes a legacy character and ties their different continuities together.
Ewing: Morrison is a big influence. I think the big difference between Marvel and DC in that sense is that when Morrison did that with Batman, he was sort of doing something very radical in that he was ignoring the Crises and the reboot culture at DC, or rather turning it into something where every Batman adventure was part of this one life. Whereas with Hulk, with Bruce Banner, that’s just how things are at Marvel, because we’ve never rebooted. So it’s part of the structure of the stories we tell that everything that’s happened to Bruce Banner fits into about 15 years… It’s the constant rebooting versus the grab-everything, make do and mend, it all goes in the soup approach; at no point do we say, “That didn’t happen,” even when we want to.
Kanayama: Where do you find all the quotes at the beginning of each issue?
Ewing: That happened by accident. We started off issue 1 and it was, “Let’s have a quote instead of a recap page.” And that was part of the tonal thing, where we didn’t do recap pages for issue #1, because recap pages say, “Oh, you should have been reading a different comic before this.” So we started with a quote, and then they asked, “Do you want to do a quote on the recap page of issue #2?” And I heard that, and I thought, okay, we’ll do them both: a recap page and then a quote. What they meant was, “Do you want to do a quote instead of a recap page — forever?”
Kanayama: Do you ever start with a quote and then structure a story around that?
Ewing: Sometimes I’ll have afternoons where I’ll just go through whatever takes my fancy — it’s got to be public domain — and I’ll source a bunch of quotes that sound good or map into a certain plot. Some days I’ll be doing the dialogue and then I realize I don’t have a quote, and I’ll have to spend an hour going through the Bible or whatever.
Kanayama: I’m imagining you going through the concordance and just looking for the word “suffering.”
Ewing: Yeah, exactly. Or it’s Goodreads.com.
Kanayama: So do you go on Goodreads and search for—
Ewing: Just typing in the word “death.” Seriously, that’s where the Jean-Paul Sartre quote came from in issue #4. And I did end up finding the perfect quote for that issue a couple months later, so…
Kanayama: The quotes make me feel like I’m reading a comic from the late ’80s or early ’90s. It’s great.
Ewing: There is a bit of that. But I always thought of those kinds of quotes as a very pretentious thing until I started doing them, and it’s so much fun.
Kanayama: Where do you draw the pretentiousness line?
Ewing: I try and avoid too many Bible quotes in a row, or too many Bible quotes that are famous — anything that’s like the old Tom Peyer bit where he’s ripping the piss out of Kingdom Come, which I’m sure he did with Mark Waid’s full knowledge. He did this amazing thing where he had a quote [in a comic] and there’s a little asterisk next to it, and it goes to an editorial note saying, “FROM THE BIBLE.” We want to avoid that. But I love the one where we quoted the US Department of Energy’s guidelines for burying nuclear waste, because that’s such an evocative passage. I think we’re going to go back to that one.
Kanayama: Speaking of nuclear waste, can you talk about the reveal in Immortal Hulk that gamma radiation is a magical substance?
Ewing: There’s been a lot of explanations over the years for why Bruce Banner didn’t just drop dead and why other gamma people don’t just drop dead. Up till now it’s been because of mutant genes, or special genetic stuff. But I like the idea of taking the old “radiation is magic” thing, and asking: what if radiation is actually magic?
Kanayama: Magnets, how do they work?
Ewing: That’s the next one. How do magnets actually work? Magic, that’s how.
Kanayama: When you came up with this, were you reading quantum physics or something else about the combination of the unknown and science?
Ewing: Nothing from quantum physics, but I did a lot of reading — or a lot of Googling, because everything’s on websites these days — about Qabbala. And I’m always very careful to spell it with a Q, otherwise if I spell it with a K, I’m kind of trampling on someone’s religion, and it starts feeling a little weird. So as long as I can sort of say I’m just taking it from the hermetic stuff, then it’s fine. But there is a part of me that’s listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen when I write this.
Kanayama: Where did the idea of radiation being magic first come from for you?
Ewing: I think it was — I’ll put something in a comic and then I’ll follow the train of thought a bit, then put that in a comic and follow the train of thought a bit further, and so on. But we had stuff like the Green Door in the beginning, and it was like, okay, where does the Green Door lead? To Hell, but then it’s got to be a special Hell. And then we got into the idea that this is where gamma is from.
And the stuff about the third form of gamma radiation — we needed a flashback to what made Brian Banner so weird and what freaked him out so much. So a lot of this we make up as we need it, and then we pretend we planned it all along. But recently I’ve been thinking about other kinds of radiation in the Marvel universe, like cosmic rays and the radioactive spider — that goes back to the mid-noughties, that sort of, “oh, well, that spider was magic.” I don’t know if I’m going to do anything with it, because at a certain point you’re stepping on people’s toes a bit, but I definitely want a hint of this stuff. I’ve talked to Dan Slott about it, and I got a “That’s interesting!” out of him, so that’s as close as I’m going to get to permission. But I’m messing about with it at this point.
…I guess there was always a very science-y explanation for the whole “radiation is magic” thing, and that kind of bugs me, because I sort of prefer the more poetic explanations for things. That’s why I quite like the question of, did you get randomly bitten by a spider, or did the spider select you? There’s a poetry there. It’s not just, “Here’s how mutants work, according to wibbly-wobbly science.” And I think with the Hulk, making it a quasi-magical explanation, something that by definition cannot be explained, that doesn’t subtract; that adds to it.
Kanayama: That really digs down, too, into the narrative influences and tropes that the Hulk arises from.
Ewing: With the Hulk I’ve always had this thing where — all of the other Marvel heroes solidify into their final forms very quickly, but the Hulk never solidifies. The closest you get is when he has the TV show, and he’s sort of the same thing for a period of about five or 10 years, but that’s as long as he can hold it. And the first six issues of the original Hulk comic set that tone, where he’s just bouncing back and forth. It’s like, “What do we do? How do we fix this? How do we deal with it?” Until finally, you come to issue #6, which is this journey into madness. He’s wearing a latex mask of his own face, in what I can only describe as a journey into the id; soldiers rip his face off and he’s got the same face underneath, and it’s like — what is this?!
Ewing: Seriously. The Hulk has Bruce Banner’s face, so he puts on a latex mask of the Hulk’s face — this has nothing to do with the plot — and then the soldiers capture him and tear off his mask, but his actual Hulk face has grown back, so he’s got the same face underneath. I actually used that as a quote for a Hulk book, because it’s the most potent metaphor soup. Then later on in the comic, the Hulk befriends some juvenile delinquents, and there’s this bit, and it’s drawn by Steve Ditko, where the other Marvel heroes are just doing whatever they do, and the Hulk, who has been banging metal together for ages, barges out of a barn in only his underwear with a gigantic gun that’s bigger than he is, with a bunch of teenage boys looking on.
But it’s all this sort of Dionysian trickery, and it turns out the gun is just made of cardboard. And it ends, like all the Hulk stories, with the other characters going, “Well, I guess we saved the day!” — the freeze-on-the-laughter thing — while the Hulk gets a panel where he says, “Don’t kid yourself — no human is safe from me!”
Every time the Hulk saves the day, he always makes sure to remind the reader that he could kill you at any time. Those first six issues are really a journey to the center of the id. It’s like Stan and Jack and Steve desperately trying to control the creature that they have created. And they can’t do it, even just to nail down how he changes and why. Even after those first six issues, if you read the first year or two years of the Hulk, the whole status quo is changing every couple of issues.
Kanayama: That comes across in your work on Immortal Hulk, too: this idea of the Hulk as a creature of paradox, from his original creators trying to control the uncontrollable to the intersection of magic and science in your comic, and trying to apply rules to a creature like that.
Ewing: Yeah, there are no rules. I still get people asking me on Twitter about where the Hulk fits in this, like, D&D manual that they’ve created. And I can’t tell you; I don’t know myself. He’s a creature of chaos.
Kanayama: How will you be exploring these ideas going forward, especially the magic/science dichotomy?
Ewing: What we do is we kind of orbit around it, in that we kind of get close and then we move away again — and this is something the readers have noticed, where we’ll go to Hell for three issues and then we’ll get back to the real world, but then we’ll orbit back towards these very strange, esoteric concepts. And we’re going to keep doing that, but — I know how it ends, and we’re going to get back into all that in a big way.
But in the meantime, what we’ll be exploring in the near future is the Hulk’s effect on the world and how the world affects him. Issue #24 [the most recent issue of Immortal Hulk] is the final issue of the Shadow Base saga, about the most Black Ops-iest attempt to take down the Hulk and attack him on his own terms. That’s the preliminary round of Hulk against the world, because the true power of the world has not yet been set against the Hulk — and that’s the power of capitalism. So we’ve had authority and military might against the Hulk, and that has failed, but now capitalism is going to attempt to consume the Hulk, sell the Hulk back to himself.
We’re going to get deep into the spectacle; there’s an amazing cover Alex Ross did of a teenage cult that the Hulk inspires, and they’re all wearing these Halloween masks of the Hulk. And my immediate thought when we saw that cover was: who’s selling those masks? Even the solicit for that is already going through this wildly tongue-in-cheek thing of, “Are your children being influenced by the Hulk?” So it’s basically Hulk versus capitalism, and capitalism is doing what it does, which is eating and consuming and selling the Hulk.
But even then, that’s the physical world attacking him, and there are deeper worlds, which are going to have their turn. So it’s all happening.