Saturday, May 20, 2017

What Do You Like About She-Hulk?

My wife asked me that recently. I was (am) going through some kind of comic book collecting mid-life crisis. It involves reading hundreds of issues of Incredible Hulk, and buying every comic I owned or saw out of the corner of my eye between 1974 and 1981. This obsessive path lead me to purchasing every issue of She-Hulk. 

When I say every issue, I don’t mean just the 25 issue series that ran from 1980-1982. I mean her key appearances in the Fantastic Four, her first Avengers issue, the Ceremony limited series, the Marvel Graphic Novel, the 60 issue Sensational She-Hulk run, that random one-shot Brian Hitch did between Authority and Ultimates, the Dan Slott runs, the Peter David issues, the Charles Soule series, and the current Hulk series where Jennifer Walters takes over the Hulk name, but doesn’t turn into Hulk for the first 5 issues. Even the romance novel :”The She-Hulk Diaries”. The grand total? About 160 issues. 

It was a sickness that wouldn’t let go. I had to have all of them. I compulsively upgraded some trashed issues from the first series. I had to outbid what I can only assume was one sad individual trying to win the “naked jump rope” issue. WHO’S THE SAD ONE NOW LOSER???

When my wife asked me “what do I like about She-Hulk” it was not an invalid inquiry. 

She-Hulk was the first series I collected every issue of as a kid. It was also the first comic book I heard about through the media. The Incredible Hulk TV show was at its peak, and when Marvel decided to ensure no network could rip off the Hulk with a green super-heroine. As insurance against that unlikely event, Stan Lee and John Buscema created the first issue of the Savage She-Hulk. The series warranted a blurb on the news wires which I saw in the local paper. This article was very much in my area of interest, and made finding the series a mission for my 9 year old self. However, newsstand distribution of comics was tricky, and I was just starting to become aware of comic book shops. 

The first issue I found was #3. From there, I bought the series whenever I could find it. Sometimes Convenient Food Mart would have it, other times Taylor Drugs, or Wobbe’s Pharmacy, Drug World, or Kwik Stop. 

The real shift in my ability to become a She-hulk completist happened when I was able to access my first comic shop- The Great Escape. They had 10 and 25 cent boxes of back issues, which supplied me with missed issues of Micronauts, and Star Wars, as well as the now-infamous Giant Size Man-Thing #1, issues of Flash, DC Comics Presents, and Vault of Evil. She-Hulk was also well-represented among these unloved cast offs. 

I filled in the gaps, and even sprang for the first issue. It was probably $1, big money for the era. In it, I discovered that She-Hulk's powers came from a blood transfusion given to her by her cousin Bruce Banner. She inherited the Hulk powers, and Banner vanished, the connection rarely to be addressed again. By the time issue 16 came out, I found a Convenient Food Mart that regularly carried the series each month. When it was cancelled with issue 25 I had them all. It was my first complete run of anything. That made it a little magical. 

This first run of She-Hulk had several elements that kept my attention. One, and I wasn’t aware of this factor at the time, was that the lead character was a brash jade giantess running around in an indestructible yet tattered slip. Reviewing the comics, there is definitely an undercurrent of fetishization in the art. As Jennifer Walters, she was an accomplished attorney juggling a couple of goofy slacker boyfriends. The lucky fellows were a surfer named Zapper and a community radio host who occasionally hung out with Man-Thing, Richard Rory. Neither were real prizes. 

My Mom wanted to be a lawyer, so I felt a connection to the Jennifer Walters half of the equation. My connection to She-Hulk probably stemmed from the part of me that knew puberty was coming and was responding to the Amazonian alter ego. 

Her conflicts month to month were not the typical super villain lineup. Over the 25 issue series she had boy troubles, fought a swamp monster, several robots, a black woman whose only crime was being a shitty jazz singer with diabetes and a case of narcissism, battled a guy going blind from corporate misuse of microwaves, grappled with a huckster preacher’s daughter, went to war with a werewolf/astronaut on a miniature world captured on a necklace, argued with her sheriff father a lot, and beat up a dude in a hydraulic elephant suit. 

Laying it all out like that, why did I love the series? The art was well done. Mike Vosburg drew 24 of the issues, and he had a passion for the subject matter. In fact, I would spot his art 15 years later in some fetish magazines. Also, I enjoyed the stories, as weird as they can be made to sound. David Anthony Kraft was a solid author, and at age 9 and 10 I was really hit by the pathos of the failed singer going into a diabetic coma. Her only crime was being an insufferable diva with no talent. The microwave dude was just trying to go Earth First on the company that had made him blind through corporate negligence. The villains were either sympathetic individuals fighting back at the man, or they were corporations and other authority figures, like the preacher, misusing their power. The stories had an undercurrent of liberal social activism running through them. Well, except the hydraulic elephant guy. That was just bizarre. 

After the series came to an end I continued to follow the character. This was neither expensive, or challenging. She was not popular. There was an issue of Dazzler, a Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man, a Marvel Two-In-One with the Thing, and that was about it. She was brought into the Avengers after a couple of years, and I got a few off those. In general though, I didn’t care about the Avengers, just She-Hulk. She was just part of a group of costumes at that point, lacking the weird charm of her solo series. 

In 1985 the character replaced the Thing in Fantastic Four for 3 years. I was in luck, as I was already buying Fantastic Four. Only a couple of issues really focused on her, most notably an issue where. A”celebrity skin” photographer caught her nude sun bathing. Due to a printing mix up, the photos were published color corrected. In other words, she was portrayed as white, not a green gamma irradiated goddess. It was a nutty story, kind of racy, and pretty entertaining to me as a 15 year old. Despite the questionable themes, She-Hulk was generally used well during this run. The creator, John Byrne, was starting to sow the seeds of how she would be handled in the character’s next solo series. 

The second series, The Sensational She-Hulk, debuted in 1989. John Byrne approached the run as a comedy. She-Hulk was aware she was in a comic book, and would make asides to the reader and the creator. It was good, but my interests were focused on more esoteric and edgier comics at the time. I was 19 after all, and comics just weren’t for kids anymore. Reading it from the perspective of a 46 year old, it’s a pretty good time overall, but occasionally tires to hard to be clever. The above-mentioned "naked jump rope" issue was a Byrne issue. It both mocked the concept of She-Hulk as a fetish figure, and embraced it at the same time. It's hard to tell if a blow for or against feminism was being struck here. 

I didn’t pick up another She-hulk comic until 2005. Dan Slott was writing the character, and I had heard good things about the run. I knew Slott from the Ren and Stimpy comics in the 90s. Those were very well done, and often laugh out loud funny. I hoped Slott’s light touch would be a good fit. It was. I fell in love with his take immediately. This series may be where I can finally answer my wife’s question. She-Hulk is portrayed as a crutch for Jennifer Walters to use to be her true self. She’s embarrassed by her plainness, and spends almost all of her time in the She-Hulk form to do what she can’t as Jen. However, She-Hulk often goes too far, and doesn’t worry about consequences. She can be shallow, sleeping with sexy models and super heroes cohorts, but not forming any meaningful connections. Jen needs connections, and tends to date men that love her but not She-Hulk. However, Jen then resents them for not loving what she thinks of as her best self, and accuses them of being scared of her strength. The thing is, it’s not her best self. It's like an alcoholic being mad that you don't like that aspect of them best. She’s both people. Each one has strengths and flaws, and they are not the same. She’s neglects her Jennifer Walters self to feed her She-Hulk self. 

The best super heroes are metaphors, and Slott found the metaphor for She-Hulk. Bruce Banner/Hulk faces the man/monster schism. It’s tragic, heartbreaking, and dark. Jen Walters/She-Hulk is a duality of self esteem. She-Hulk’s impulsiveness and confidence versus Jen’s introversion and caution. 

Slott's simplest example of the balance between Jen and She-Hulk involves She-Hulk being forced into a boxing match with the universe's toughest entity. She-Hulk just isn't strong enough. It's when she realizes that making Jen physically stronger improves her strength as She-Hulk that a bridge is made between the two halves of herself. Ultimately, she wins the match by applying her legal mind to the situation. It's a challenge so difficult that it requires that all aspects of her be at their best. 

Slott's stories made explicit a depth to the character that in retrospect can be seen as lurking just under the surface throughout the character's history. It's a crucial part of the character that is missed by focusing on comedy or action above the needs of the character. 

Looking at the covers of 160 issues of She-Hulk involves not judging a book by its cover. The early days display an angry green woman running around in her underwear. The late 90s are comedic covers mixed with a winking and juvenile sexuality. More modern takes display cheesecake, pin-up style art as a wrapper for quirky inventive art and clever stories with emotional depth. It's all nice art, but does a disservice to the stories inside. 

They look like comics you have to justify a love for. They look like comics that lead to your wife asking the question “what do you like about She-Hulk?”