Immortal Hulk #34 is titled “The Apotheosis of Samuel Sterns,” and for good reason. Al Ewing doesn’t write a lot of new content in this issue, and instead does what he does best: welding together disparate threads of older continuity in order to turn many older abandoned story arcs into one coherent whole.
He’s played this tune before – in many ways, his Mighty Avengers-Captain America and the Mighty Avengers-Ultimates-New Avengers-Ultimates 2-U.S.Avengers – saga did much of the same content. He spun together content from older books, such as Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel, and integrating new story threads from contemporary comics – most prominently, developing the Maker from his end in Hickman’s Secret Wars (along with introducing the character find of 2015, the American Kaiju). But for years, Al Ewing’s comics were fundamentally hindered by the need to step between the raindrops of endless event tie-ins.
Ewing’s Immortal Hulk has been a step forward in his writing, as the prolific author has combined his previously seen mastery of continuity, a tone of cosmic horror that hadn’t often been seen before, and the trust given to Ewing by the Marvel editorial staff such that Ewing didn’t have to, as before, interrupt his writing with eternal event tie-ins. And it’s working – Immortal Hulk, with the possible exception of Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men, is the most intriguing comic coming from Marvel these days.
Issue #34 sees Ewing dipping in and out of Hulk continuity to tell the story of the many deaths and rebirths of the Leader, Samuel Sterns. It begins with the first development of the ordinary Samuel Sterns into the Leader, and then zips through 60-odd years of continuity. Again and again, Sterns gets his dramatic transformation into the leader, enacts some sort of malevolent plan, and is then restored to his human form or dies – only to return to life once more, with the eldritch power of the Green Door and the One Below All behind it. Throughout, Sterns narrates it in his own journal, reminiscent of the framing devices of Lovecraft’s works.
(It also, for the record, adds the wonderful little bit of continuity welding, in that She-Hulk’s recent change into a more traditional hulk form in Civil War II was the result of her death, and resurrection, like Bruce’s own recent experiences.)
Butch Guice’s sketchy, rough penciling provides a solid counterpart to the writing, really emphasizing the cosmic horror of the story – especially near the end, in showing the engorged, enormous skull of the mutating Leader. But special mention has to be given to VC’s Cory Petit’s lettering, whose lettering of the One Below All’s words is very distinctive.
Immortal Hulk has been a must-buy since the start, and issue #34 is no different.