The Immortal Hulk and Venom Are Marvel’s Best Comic Books Right Now
Think about comics, or think about comic movies if that’s easier for you. After that, think about your favorite characters, and why they’re your favorite characters. Y’know, the characters you go to bat for, the heroes you stick up for when you hear a friend say something about them being less than great. You’ll have a few pieces of evidence to back your claim, but after your opening arguments and their rebuttals, you’ll realize the harsh truth about characters in serial mediums, be it film or funny page: They’re only as good as the creators behind them.
Compare the first Thor with Ragnarok. The first Captain America with Winter Soldier. Even Guardians of the Galaxy 2 had something about it that other lacking Marvel sequels didn’t. That indescribable feeling you’re contemplating is the realization that creators matter, and as much as they make or break the films you’re excited to see, it’s even more important for the comics they’re based on. You’re not very likely to bail out of a movie screening fifteen minutes in, but readers bail after the first issue of a six issue arc all the time. That’s not uncommon; that’s practical. At four dollars a pop, you need a story to be engaging, because even if they’re your favorite character, they’re only as good as the creators behind them.
That’s why what I’m about to say is so startling. What I’m about to say has been true, but only one other time, about 25 or so years ago, if at all. Are you ready? I don’t think you’re ready.
Marvel’s best comic books right now are Venom and The Immortal Hulk.
I know. I know. Both incredibly cool characters so it’s not that surprising, but both have only had flashes of brilliance since the turn of the century, but never a sustained prominence, and never at the same time. So, yes, it’s a little surprising. That said, I’m telling you, hand on my heart – if you only buy two Marvel books a month, they need to be The Immortal Hulk and Venom.
Author’s Note: Everything about to be discussed is largely available on Marvel Unlimited. This isn’t any sort of advertisement, just a sincere endorsement.
The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, & Lee Garbett
When it comes to continuity, Hulk has had a weird last ten years. There was Planet Hulk which sent him to the world of Sakaar where he became a warrior king, World War Hulk, which shot him back to Earth on a mission of revenge, and a few scattered series after. Some have Hulk as the dominant personality, some have Banner as the one calling the shots. While Immortal Hulk does a great job of being the first Hulk issue you could ever read and not feel lost while doing it, some context is important. All you really need to know is that Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s human counterpart, had recently been killed by Hawkeye at his own request. Immortal Hulk takes place after a few status quo shifts but the current series is a major tonal shift for the character and it works.
What makes the Hulk so hard to like as a character is Bruce Banner. Readers relate to Bruce Banner because he’s a human with a problem. When he gets too upset, too angry, too betrayed, or simply too emotional, he becomes The Hulk, who is unarguably the more visually interesting character in a visually-driven medium. However, you feel guilty as a reader and as an audience member because you revel in the Hulk’s destruction, even though you know that’s the one thing Bruce didn’t want to do.
Immortal Hulk takes the guilt out of the character. Rather than being an instantaneous transformation, Bruce only turns into the Hulk at night. It goes from an emotional reaction to trauma to a consequence of the day’s events. He’s penance for the folly of man and that honestly makes the story feel more like a Ghost Rider comic than a Hulk book. There aren’t as many religious overtones as there are in a book about the agent of a demon, but there’s something righteous about this version of the Hulk that hasn’t been explored before. He exists as a consequence instead of a coincidence for the first time in recent memory. He’s no longer a force of nature, he’s a force of morality who’s knocking on the door of a problem much bigger than “HULK SMASH” for the first time in as long as I can remember since subscribing to his book back in 2004.
Venom by Donny Cates & Ryan Stegman
If The Immortal Hulk is a book about retribution to the wicked then Venom takes the opposite path and reads as an admission of guilt from the sinful. Venom has had an even more confusing recent history than the Hulk, as the former is a symbiotic enhancement that bonds to hosts and has been associated with more than a few different characters over recent years. Depending on the creative team, he can be a Lovecraftian alien horror, a psychopathic killer, a war-mongering prosthetic, or an anti-hero that wants to do well as long as it gets to kill Spider-Man. The most current series operates somewhere near the center of a Venn-diagram of the aforementioned formats.
Part of what makes the current run so great is that blend, taking all aspects of the character into account in varying ratios to give readers something that feels as familiar as it does fresh. However the current run expands on the alien origins of the venom symbiote and adds a few wrinkles to the origin.
At the heart of the current Venom is Eddie Brock, the first host the symbiote had after Peter Parker rejected it. What we thought made Eddie whole after all these years finds the thing that makes it truly whole and it’s this bizarre, almost-love triangle that drives the drama in the current arc. Immortal Hulk is great because it’s changing the trajectory of that character’s future. Venom is great because it’s smartly changing everything we thought we knew about its past. The scope of the story is maybe what’s most impressive; it feels like an event book because of the galactic danger Eddie and Venom find themselves in, and since characters like Captain America and Thor don’t show up, it feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. That said, this book sees Eddie and Venom team up with Miles Morales instead of Peter Parker to deal with the greater threat, further pulling this oddly large-scale story into even fresher territory.
The only real hiccup about Venom is that it’s somewhat dependent on an older book. There’s an editor’s note in Issue 3 that I won’t reveal here because I don’t want to spoil anything but all I’ll say is that when you see that note, read the books it suggests (not a problem if you have Marvel Unlimited or don’t mind hunting down trade paperbacks from 2012).
Both Immortal Hulk and Venom are books I didn’t think I’d care about a year and a half ago when they debuted; in fact, I added them to my pull list begrudgingly. I bought their first issues because I’ll give any new series a shot, but sticking with them has been rewarding.
Both are operating as funnels, but in opposite directions. Immortal Hulk is taking wild and crazy ideas and distilling them down to a single point that’ll bore a hole no wider than a needle right through your brain, while Venom started with a tight nugget of an idea that’s a slowly widening gyre encompassing more than you thought the character was capable of. An event from the creators of the current Venom series just started, Absolute Carnage, and it promises to be everything large, loud, and bombastic about the medium, while Immortal Hulk similarly nears its own focused crescendo soon.
Grab these books. Sit with them, read them, and think about them. The storyboards for a new Marvel movie comes out every six months or so, and with these creators making them the best books on the stands, that’s a clip Hollywood can’t compete with. Characters are only as good as the creators working on them, and right now these creators are the best in the business.