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COMICS 101

By Scott Tipton
Scott Tiptons Comics 101

2007-02-21 - FROM SAVAGE TO SENSATIONAL, PART IV

Last Week, in COMICS 101: Our extended coverage of Marvel's She-Hulk continued, with the character's first real taste of credibility coming first with her induction into the AVENGERS, then her even more high-profile spot taking Ben Grimm's place in the FANTASTIC FOUR, under the pen of writer/artist John Byrne, which also garnered her a more glamorous look and, for the first time, a real personality. We were in the midst of Byrne's FF run with the character, so let us continue:

After a year-long adventure in outer space, Ben Grimm returned to Earth, and the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR #276, as it happened, right in the middle of the war with the Dire Wraiths that we discussed a few short months ago in our discussion of ROM, SPACEKNIGHT. Naturally, with the Thing back, one would assume that She-Hulk's days with the team were over. In fact, Jen Walters assumes the same thing, and has already packed her bags for the trip back to Avengers Mansion. Not so fast, Shulkie:

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As it happened, the one-two punch of his longtime girlfriend Alicia Masters shacking up with Johnny Storm while he was gone, followed up by the revelation that Reed Richards knew his transformation into the Thing was reversible and chose not to tell him, for fear of causing emotional distress. As opposed to the never-ending party of life as a giant orange rock monster. (And in a brief digression, as much as I like Byrne's FF run, I was never able to buy the Johnny/Alicia relationship, not for a minute. Even someone as vacuous and self-involved as Johnny Storm wouldn't betray a friend like that. So I was pretty relieved when, years later, Alicia turned out to be a Skrull...)

So She-Hulk gets to stay with the team, and along the way, the relationship with Wyatt Wingfoot gets more serious:

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Ironically, She-Hulk's toughest battle as a member of the FF is against one of her own, when Sue Richards is brainwashed by longtime foe the Psycho-Man into fighting her family as the S&M refugee "Malice.":

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By 1985, She-Hulk's popularity in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR had grown to such a degree that the character was given a solo graphic novel in the company's Marvel Graphic Novel series, a run of oversized squarebound books featuring a variety of different characters, with a then-pricey $6.95 price tag.

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Writer/artist John Byrne definitely took advantage of what was considered to be the Graphic Novel's older audience, ratcheting up the character's sex appeal even more than usual, whether it was with this Playboy-bunny inspired outfit...

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...or this somewhat salacious sequence of She-Hulk being strip-searched by corrupt and skeevy SHIELD agents...

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...or the rather extreme wardrobe malfunction shown here after Jen's shirt is shredded by a full clip from an M-16 assault rifle.

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As for the story, it's a pretty good one, with Jen and boyfriend Wyatt Wingfoot kidnapped by overzealous SHIELD agents (in the absence of Nick Fury, who always seems to be the only one at that organization with an ounce of common sense -- too bad it seems like he's always disappearing) following her brutish cousin's most recent rampage. While She-Hulk is brutally examined by SHIELD science-types (and exactly why attorney Jen Walters didn't file the world's biggest civil rights lawsuit against the federal government, NATO, the UN and whoever else has ever given a nickel of money to SHIELD is beyond me), a sinister and creepy radiation-spawned cockroach intelligence that sneaked aboard when Wyatt and Jen were kidnapped puts a plan in motion to crash the SHIELD Heli-Carrier. A plan which, as a matter of fact, proves successful:

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Even worse, the Heli-Carrier's atomic pile is about to blow, threatening to vaporize everything within a hundred miles, including a nearby town. She-Hulk has no choice but to enter the highly radioactive chamber and close it down manually. Which she does, despite the presence of about a zillion more of those superintelligent roaches:

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In an unusual move for the Marvel Graphic Novel series, this book actually had long-standing ramifications for the character, as it's revealed in the final pages that She-Hulk's prolonged exposure to the intense radiation in the atomic pile had somehow "locked" the radiation already in her cells, preventing her from ever returning to her human form again. When She-Hulk gets the news from Reed Richards, her reaction is, muted, to say the least:

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The She-Hulk graphic novel is probably Byrne's single best work with the character, treating her both seriously and yet keeping things light and funny, without treading over that line into farce as he would later in her solo series. It's not the easiest thing in the world to find these days, but should you ever see it, it's well worth picking up.

Byrne left Marvel and the FANTASTIC FOUR in 1986 to do his famous (or infamous, depending who you're talking to) SUPERMAN revamp for DC, and the successive FF writer, Steve Englehart, was much more interested in returning things to the status quo, at least for a while, so in fairly short order, Ben Grimm was back in and the She-Hulk was out. The character returned to the AVENGERS for Roger Stern and John Buscema's final stint there, anchoring a team with the Black Knight, Captain Marvel, Sub-Mariner, Marrina, Thor and my personal vote for the Worst Avenger Ever, Doctor Druid, but that incredibly depressing story arc (which in turn led to the Worst Avengers Lineup Ever: Reed and Sue Richards, Steve "I'm Not Captain America" Rogers and fricking Gilgamesh) didn't do much for Jen as a character, and she soon faded into the background of the Marvel Universe.

That is, until 1989, when Byrne returned from the opposing camp, and made a big splash on several series for Marvel, taking over WEST COAST AVENGERS and starting Marvel's first ongoing series for a female character in many a year: THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK.

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Byrne's new tack on the character was evident right from the start, on the cover of the book. The series' central conceit was that unlike everyone else, She-Hulkknew she was in a comic-book, allowing for all manner of jokes: sight gags, humorous asides, talking to the reader, looking at the camera, yelling at her artist, that sort of thing, in the vein of the famous and critically acclaimed Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon "Duck Amuck." The problem with that is that while "Duck Amuck" was only eight minutes long, trying to do the same bit on a monthly series becomes wearying after a while, as well as providing such an easy crutch for the writer that it became hard to ever take anything that happens to the character seriously. Still, the notion was a fun one at first, and Byrne did such an excellent job at making the Jennifer Walters character so likable and appealing that even the issues of this run that are clearly padded out or less than satisfying structurally are an enjoying read nonetheless.

With the tone of the series clearly set as a humorous one, She-Hulk's sparring partners in the book definitely leaned toward the shallow end of the Marvel Universe pool. Take for example the debut issue, in which Shulkie runs afoul of the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. Love that pinwheel hat.

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The Ringmaster seems like Doctor Doom in comparison to She-Hulk's next foes, a bunch of DEFENDERS villain-types known as the Headmen, a gang of sadsack scientists all mutated somehow by their own experiments.

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These guys were looking to harvest She-Hulk's body for one of their own, a poor fellow named Chandu whose head had been implanted onto a hideous monstrous body. In order to acquire She-Hulk's bod, they hired Spidey-foe Mysterio to fake an alien invasion and kidnap her, a mission that ol' fishbowl-head surprisingly succeeds at.

Speaking of Spidey, he shows up in issue #3, during which She-Hulk spends most of the issue as a disembodied head, while the Headmen complete the transfer of Chondu's noggin onto her frame. Not that She-Hulk's supposed decapitation is being taken all that seriously:

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As it turns out, the whole thing is just a ruse: since the Headmen had nothing tough enough to slice through She-Hulk's tough skin, so they just cloned a new body from her cells instead, and used a neural neutralizer to make Jenny think her body was missing.

Issue #4 set up the rest of the status quo for She-Hulk's series, giving her a job as assistant district attorney in New York City, and introducing her new best friend and sidekick, Louise Mason, secretary to D.A. Blake Tower and former Golden Age superhero the Blonde Phantom. Like She-Hulk, Louise also knew she was in a comic book, which was why she wanted Jen to land the job with the DA's office: as long as she was appearing regularly in a comic, Louise figured she'd stop aging, and wouldn't die like her husband had. It's a weird concept, and it kinda works if you don't think about it too hard. Jen's major concern was the introduction of District Attorney Blake Tower as her romantic interest -- that is, until Louise informs her that Blake is married with a family:

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Byrne continued to embrace the lame in next few issues of SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK, with an encounter with old HOWARD THE DUCK villain Dr. Bong in issue #5...

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... followed by an outer-space adventure with CB radio superhero Razorback and the cast of Marvel's rightfully forgotten trucker comics U.S.1 ...

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...and then a team-up with of all people, an amorous Santa Claus in issue #8, who helps Jen track down a serial killer while putting the moves on her, which is more than a little disturbing. He does leave her with a mysterious gift that would come into play in a nice little story years later, but we'll get back to that.

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And then Byrne hit the road. Gone. Why? And what then?

Come on back next week to find out.

Scott Tipton didn't expect to be spending this much time on She-Hulk, he has to admit. If you have questions about She-Hulk or comics in general, send 'em here.

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