There's a new Bruce Banner in town, and he's revving his engines to take Marvel fans on one of the weirdest and wildest Hulk stories they've probably ever read. Donny Cates, author of Venom, Thanos, and the current Thor run, is bringing his signature brand of metal insanity to the not-so-jolly green giant, with the help of acclaimed artist Ryan Ottley. The series debut, Hulk #1, represents not just a departure from Al Ewing's Immortal Hulk series; it's a full-on sprint in a totally different direction. Gothic horror and classic monster tales are traded in for pages of action-packed, blood-soaked sci-fi and a brilliant mind on a dangerous mission.
Cates has never been afraid to chart his own path with a beloved character — the man just turned Eddie Brock into an actual god. Hulk is no exception. This new series is something all its own, a gory, deeply personal fever dream that sees Bruce Banner taking over the Hulk's body from the inside, locking up Hulk's actual spirit in a mind prison and using him as the most powerful engine in the world. It's madness, to be sure, but madness has always been Cates' MO.
"I knew that I had always had this idea," Cates told ComicBook.com in an exclusive interview. "Bruce is a scientist, and he started off on that journey. It started as this idea of, 'Well, now I have an indestructible green spaceship. I'm going to go do everything I can do.' It's taking the idea of being the strongest one there is, but also the protection that comes with that, and the endless possibilities if you could literally not be harmed, you could do anything you want. You can go anywhere you want."
This take on Banner is cold, calculated, and most of all, determined. We're not used to seeing this side of Bruce. After weaponizing the being he shares a body with and getting into a brawl with Iron Man, it's easy for readers to view Bruce as the villain of the story. But that's not how Cates sees his protagonist.
"No, I don't. I don't see him like that at all. I think that he's a deeply troubled and flawed man, just like all of us," explained the author. "And he's at a point in his life where he's trying to regain some control and some autonomy, and sometimes that can be very self destructive. And so, I think that the only victim right now is himself. And you see that with the vision of Betty who's acting as his subconscious moral center. Obviously, she's not real, right? But if you look at her actually, Ryan Ottley put her in her exact outfit that she looks like in her first appearance. Because that's how Bruce sees her in his mind as this girl that he hasn't ruined her life yet."
Patience is a virtue. There's something bigger at play here that will help clarify Bruce's particular situation. Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, between the end of Immortal Hulk and the start of this new run, Bruce Banner went through it. We don't yet know what "it" is, but Marvel doesn't follow the Netflix binge model. There's more story to come.
"Something happened in El Paso. In between the ending of Al's run and the beginning of mine, something happened that has obviously had a profound impact on Bruce," Cates said. "Is something that he cannot shake off. And for a lack of better term, he's just running away from this sin as opposed to embracing it, and working on it, and working on himself. And so, there's a lot of psychology in this of him, repressed anger. He literally put his rage, he's buried it deep down into his belly. The belly of the ship is Hulk's rage, and he's just trapping it down there."
"This is a very comfortable space for me to write in because these are things that I have dealt with in the past. And I've never been shy about my past and stuff like that," he continued. "And certainly, people know that I've struggled with things in the past, right? So, the idea of somebody who can't really face the things that he's done in the past, and is running away from them, and knowing full well that he is essentially committing suicide in fast forward. And he knows that he's going to run into a brick wall, he knows it's going to explode, but he doesn't care, because that to him is safer than dealing with the past. And so, that can make somebody very dangerous, to say the very least."
Hulk is bold. Hulk is bloody, Hulk is exciting and surprisingly introspective. One thing Hulk isn't, however, is written by Al Ewing. If you've spent any time following Cates on Twitter you're probably aware of just how many "fans" feel the need to remind him of that fact each and every day. Immortal Hulk is a classic run for the character, and Cates is one of that run's biggest fans and loudest cheerleaders. That's why this Hulk zigs when Immortal zagged. This is Cates' Hulk through and through, a fact he's immensely proud of.
"It's no secret. I'm not Al Ewing. Al is f---ing brilliant," Cates said. "He's up there with some of the most intelligent and unique guys writing comics right now. He's going to go down as one of the greats, for sure. But I don't write like Al. I'm proud of the work that I do, and I'm really good at a lot of stuff that other people aren't. And sometimes, I'm not great at other things. I know where my weaknesses and my strengths are. But if you're coming into the book expecting Al Ewing's Immortal Hulk, well, you might not like it.
"I think that if you go into it being like, 'I wonder what Donny Cates and Ryan Ottley would do on a Hulk book,' I like to think we achieve that expectation very well."
Throughout our conversation —and countless other interviews — Cates has referred to his series as "Starship Hulk." That's not the official name of the book, but it's the one Cates has used whenever he talks about it. Ask Cates why that is, and his response will tell you everything you need to know about not just the unofficial title, but the motivation behind the entire series.
"Sometimes the answer to the question is it just f---ing sounds rad."
Hulk #1 is on sale now.