Feminist Fanboy – Sensationally Savage She-Hulk


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She-Hulk ended up standing above the rest.
She-Hulk ended up standing above the rest.

When I decided to write this column, my first task was to decide where to start. I probably would have started with the original super heroine, Wonder Woman. But then David S. Goyer opened his mouth. As you probably have heard by now, Goyer stated that She-Hulk was simply a “giant green porn star” sexually reserved for the Hulk. What this means for the long anticipated film version of Wonder Woman I’ll address when I do get to featuring her in this blog.

I didn’t know much about She-Hulk so I decided to do what Hollywood doesn’t seem to think is important. Research. I found that She-Hulk is perhaps the strongest female character to don tights –  and I’m not talking about her ability to bend steel.

I started by buying the most recent volume of She-Hulk’s adventures written by Charles Soule and art by Javier Pulido. This series, while at the time only three issues in, sealed the deal for me and I was determined to read all I could. So I bought the trade paperback of The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne and She-Hulk by Dan Slott: The Complete Collection Volume 1. I also bought a few individual back issues just for my own personal collection now that She-Hulk has become one of my favorite female characters.

In every She-Hulk comic I have read and every article or blog I’ve read about She-Hulk, she is portrayed as more than just “the extension of a male power fantasy.” Let’s look at her four stages: Savage She-Hulk, Sensational She-Hulk, Dan Slott’s She-Hulk, and Charles Soule’s She-Hulk.

The Savage She-Hulk

The Savage She-Hulk
The Savage She-Hulk

The creation of She-Hulk is fascinating. She was created in the wake of The Bionic Woman. Not to emulate the character, but rather to keep the television networks from making gender-flipped versions of the Hulk and Spider-man and cut Marvel out of the greenbacks (bad pun). So Marvel created She-Hulk and Spider-Woman because they were afraid of the Bionic Woman.

If you don’t know She-Hulk’s origin, Jennifer Walters is wounded by gangsters and requires an emergency blood transfusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner – The Hulk. This is how she gets the ability to become She-Hulk. Initially she can only change when angered but eventually she is able to control when she transforms and even determines to stay She-Hulk over Jennifer Walters.

Unlike her cousin who transforms into a hulking (sorry) brute, She-Hulk remains rational and intelligent. Alyssa Rosenburg in her article “She-Hulk is a feminist hero, not a male fantasy” phrases it perfectly “At her best, she is what women might be if they were freed from fears of judgment and the threat of physical danger [. . . .] From the very start, She-Hulk was recognizable as a manifestation of a particularly female dilemma that persists today. She is an expression of how terrific it would be not to have to censor yourself, to be allowed to be angry without some man declaring you unladylike.” It’s ironic that Hulk becomes irrational – a trait patriarchal society deems feminine – while She-Hulk becomes more self-confident and aggressive – traits society deems masculine. Her power, incredible physical strength, is typically considered masculine. 

Another wonderful point brought up by Bob Chipman in his video blog “She-Hulk Shaming,” is that the Western culture power fantasy is typically split upon gender lines where men can sometimes be destructive with power but women always will be ( see Pandora for one example). It’s ironic and even progressive then that Hulk is an uncontrollable and irrational monster who always causes destruction (although miraculously no deaths) but She-Hulk maintains her faculties and any destruction she causes is typically purposeful (there are a few story arcs where She-Hulk does lose self-control). When she is later able to transform without the anger trigger, She-Hulk completely sheds the hysteria metaphor that might have been attached to her character. Chipman goes on to point out that She-Hulk is unique as a Marvel character who is empowered and doesn’t suffer for it (compared to Spider-man and Hulk for example). Unlike her male counterpart, her power isn’t a burden. Jennifer Walters doesn’t have to be She-Hulk. She chooses to be her – even relishes being her. 

Thus She-Hulk is subversive, progressive, and even feminist, probably initially on accident, but that just make She-Hulk the champagne of superheroines.

The Savage She-Hulk, however, does have its shortcomings. She has completely ridiculous villains (see Man Elephant for one example) and had a silly penchant for smashing into vehicles. Plus, the title “Savage” implies irrationality and her first costume resembles a ripped nightgown.  Thankfully, She-Hulk has a strong start and becomes more progressive with each reincarnation.

The Sensational She-Hulk

Satirical parody that breaks the fourth wall.
Satirical parody that breaks the fourth wall.

With “Sensational” John Byrne keeps the alliteration in the title, but loses the reference to hysteria. Then what he does with the character is ingenious. Byrne creates The Sensational She-Hulk as a parody of Savage, making fun of her ridiculous villains (see Doctor Bong) and penchant for crashing into cars. He goes on to parody the industry as a whole by having She-Hulk mock the Comics Code Authority and the objectification of female characters. For example, in several issues She-Hulk has Comics Code Authority tags on her clothes to explain how they stay on throughout her battles. In one issue at the behest of her writer, she jumps rope naked but the lines of the rope conveniently cover any wardrobe malfunctions. The Sensational She-Hulk could be put on terms with The Simpsons or South Park in social satire and Robot Chicken in parody.

But the most creative aspect of Byrne’s development of She-Hulk is her self-awareness. Before Deadpool, it was She-Hulk who is aware she is a fictional character in a comic book universe. She often argues with her writers and beckons on her (female) editor for help. She even directly addresses the reader in almost every issue. In several plots, She-Hulk breaks the rules by walking across panels and even tearing through pages to solve plot problems or even defeat the villain.

But not only is She-Hulk aware that she’s a fictional character. She is also aware she is a female fictional character and frequently makes satirical commentary on her gender role and expectations. Byrne gives us a She-Hulk who has a voice.

She-Hulk (Dan Slott)

Directly addressing the double standard.
Directly addressing the double standard.

While Dan Slott de-emphasizes She-Hulk’s self-awarness as a fictional character and Byrne’s parody of the industry, he still pays tribute to both by having any comic created under the Comics Code Authority serve as a legal document. He also slyly hints that She-Hulk might still be self-aware but is choosing not to acknowledge so. In one panel a character who is perusing her Sensational issues asks her if she can really talk to the reader and She-Hulk answers, “No. I can’t.” But she does so while looking directly at the reader.  While Byrne had begun to emphasize her occupation as a lawyer, in the issues of Sensational I read She-Hulk does not once turn back into Jennifer Walters. Dan Slott chooses to emphasize this dichotomy. From issue one he portrays Jennifer Walters as the shy and driven book worm who graduates at the top of her class while portraying She-Hulk as free spirited, impulsive, and sassy. It is quickly established that she prefers her She-Hulk identity to that of Jennifer Walters.

Slott also builds upon what Byrne started satirically but without his tongue planted in his cheek. By having She-Hulk kicked out of Avengers Mansion for being a promiscuous party-girl and losing her job as prosecutor because her role as a super hero prejudices the jury, Slott continues the satirical commentary on “the ways women get punished for succeeding professionally and having fun personally” (Rosenburg). He also creates a character with an internal conflict when he shows that She-Hulk is ashamed of the Jennifer Walters part of her persona and sees her as being weak. This is especially great because it comments upon the complexity of what makes a woman admirable. She-Hulk herself has a limited view of feminine strength and it is only when upon taking a new job where she is forbidden to be green in the office or courtroom does she see that she can be a hero as both Jennifer and She-Hulk. In one story arc where She-Hulk faces being eliminated from continuity (another nice parody similar to Byrne’s run), it is her actions as Jennifer Walters that deem her character as unique and irreplaceable. Slott shows that it is not her powers that make She-Hulk/Walters unique (Hey, even Power Princess has super strength) but it is “her skills as a lawyer. Her creativity. Her humor. Her compassion. Her sense of what is right and what is just” (vol. 2, issue 3). Slott develops She-Hulk/Walters into a woman who is empowered whether 7 feet tall in tights or five feet in a business suit.

She-Hulk (Charles Soule)

Laying down the law.

Charles Soule is a lawyer and thus it is perfect that he’s next to take on our emerald beauty. In the four issues published thus far, he is following suite (another bad pun). She-Hulk is again given an opportunity for development by taking the step to create her own law firm. Her first case involves going up against Doctor Doom. No more silly villains then? No more self-referencial humor? Well, at least not for now. But this new series does have a first person narrative and has her transforming back and forth between Walters and “Shulkie.” Where he takes it further than Byrne and Slott is by enlisting even more female characters like Hellcat. I can’t wait to read what Soule has in store for a character who has quickly become one of my favorites.

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I've been a comic nerd since Spider-man and his Amazing Friends and the Super Friends. So someone please explain to me, when did Aquaman become so cool? Also, why isn't She-Hulk in more media?

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