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(She) Hulk #1 Sacrifices Reader Loyalty for Experimental Storytelling

Writer: Mariko Tamaki
Artist: Nico Leon
Marvel Comics

I went into Mariko Tamaki’s new (She) Hulk trying very hard to be charitable to the author. I’m an old Jennifer Walters fan: she was unabashedly my first comic book crush, and I read her through the classic John Byrne run and through her various takes thereafter, up to and including the recent Charles Soule run. Jen Walters has typically represented the fun side of the Marvel Universe, usually being one of the cheerier, more confident characters in the pantheon who reveled in her superhero status. So when Marvel announced that Tamaki was rewriting the character as a PTSD victim…I couldn’t help but think of all those John Byrne issues where Jen would literally walk through the pages and think: yep, this is going to suck.

This is, probably, unfair to Ms. Tamaki. As much as I loved Byrne’s madcap “Duck Amuck” take on Jen Walters, there’s nothing requiring that to be the definitive take on the character beyond my and many other readers’ preferences. I personally think the PTSD-spin on Jen is a substantial misstep, but she’s also not my character. I also have a personal preference for the 1990s take on Batman, but people who read Batman in the 1940s would probably be horrified by the version of the character who existed 40 years later. Times change; comics change; companies use these characters as they see fit.

One could also argue that Tamaki’s new spin on Jen is, in fact, consistent with the original conception of the character. Jen’s origin is rooted in trauma, where a double attempt on her life and a lucky blood transfusion transform her into a female version of her cousin, feminine and yet still quite brutish. The “savage” spin on She-Hulk mercifully faded away in time, replaced by the spunkier, intelligent version who’d severe on the Avengers and Fantastic Four. But her roots were in trauma, and those roots are occasionally tapped by writers who want to explore Jen beyond her sexy, funny exterior.

So here we have Tamaki’s title-shortened Hulk, which at least stays abreast of current Marvel continuity in picking up from Civil War II‘s threads. Jen is recovering from her coma-inducing injuries by Thanos and the knowledge that her cousin is dead, and life is now…hard. Jen has a new job and new clients, but opening the door and talking to people is a struggle. Jen’s fun-loving inner monologue has been replaced by an inner voice that has to berate her to just get outside and keep moving. And buried beneath the surface is a dark rage, struggling to break out under those anxieties. We never see Jen’s new take on the Hulk manifest in this issue–we just know that it’s brewing like an unerupted volcano.

This is not the Jen Walters we know. To be fair, Tamaki has Jen herself reflect on this–the change to the She-Hulk used to be fun, and now it feels like it’s killing her. Something has fundamentally cracked in Jen, and maybe this is what real-world PTSD survivors go through as well, where they’re not the same after as they were before the event. This isn’t good qua Jen Walters, but then, nobody’s pretending that it should be.

The downside of Tamaki and Leon’s Hulk–the Jen-tampering aside–is that it, so far, appears to be slow, and we’re only one issue in. If you think decompression hurts superhero comics, well, this is decompressed. This first issue is pure setup, introducing Jen’s new job, her new shell-shocked status, and a new possibly mutant client who’s having strange-yet-undefined problems with a landlord who wants her out. It’s unclear where this is going, and we have only the barest glimpse of this new Hulk.

In today’s market, a first issue of a comic needs to be a successful sales pitch to the dwindling reader base. Between pissing of Jen Walters’ longtime fans and being a slow burn of a story, the sale hasn’t been made here, and that’s a shame. Between Tamaki’s take on Jen’s monologue and the dark, creeping fear that Leon works into the art, this comic is at least trying to make a point about PTSD. That point may not stick if readers don’t have a reason to stick around due to character rewrites and six-part stories which cost four bucks a pop.

Rating: Two and half rages out of five.


About Adam Frey (371 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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