Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dearly Departed: She-Hulk

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.

She-Hulk is just a joy to read. That's because it's a celebratory comic, a big, bright, fun-loving look at everything great about comics, superheroes, and the titular character in particular. Oh, and also lawyers, though the series does a pretty good job of talking about what's terrible about them, too. The book only had 12 issues before being canceled, but in that time it told several awesome, amusing, off-kilter stories, including one about the mysterious Blue File that ran all throughout the title from the debut to the finale. And though this isn't the normal format for a Dearly Departed column (which I haven't written a new one of in almost a year-and-a-half) I think that maybe the best way to dissect She-Hulk is to take it arc by arc, and then wrap up with some more macro thoughts at the end.
     The first two issues are sort of each their own thing, but also very clearly work together as a two-part story, the tale of how Jennifer Walters goes from losing her corporate law job to starting and staffing her own practice. It's an awesome introduction to the character and the comic. Jen's resourcefulness and self-assuredness are heavily highlighted right up top, and the core cast is rounded out with the always amusing Hellcat Patsy Walker, and the brand-new, almost entirely inscrutable Angie Huang. The trio works very well together, balancing each other out with different levels of seriousness, areas of expertise, and kinds of intelligence. Plus Javier Pulido's poppy, laid-back, standout style, filled in with Muntsa Vicente's equally poppy and confident colors, gives the series a refreshingly fun look that brightens and bolsters the narratives. This is a hopeful, believe-in-yourself type comic all the way through, from She-Hulk's optimistic self-starterism to Angie's mysterious hyper-competence to Pulido & Vicente's dynamic artwork.
     The next two issues are about Jen taking on Dr. Doom's son Kristoff as a client. Kristoff is seeking asylum so he won't be forced to rule Latveria in his father's shadow, and Jen battles tooth-and-nail to make it happen. She even wins in court, but of course Dr. Doom doesn't give a shit about that and immediately kidnaps his son right back. So Jen goes to Latveria to save Kristoff, and ends up using her sharp negotiation skills to make Doom see why it's actually in his best interests to give Kristoff the freedom to be his own man. What I love about this arc is that Jen gets to be an awesome lawyer, then an awesome superhero, and then just an all-around awesome person. We see her at her best in several different kinds of situations, all related to a single case, displaying how capable and impressive she really is.
     She-Hulk #5-6 (I promise they are not all two-issue narratives, just the first half of the series, plus the last two issues, so...everything but #7-10) is a storyline titled "Blue" that's all about She-Hulk and company trying to figure out what's up with the mysterious Blue File that Jen found randomly in a box some time before this title even began. The file is connected to a case that names Jen and several other super-people as the targets of a lawsuit by a man named Georg Saywitz, but Jen has no memory of George or the case itself, so the existence of the Blue File is something of a nagging anomaly. The Blue File is ultimately the central problem of this entire 12-issue run, so it doesn't get fully resolved in these two issues, but Jen and her crew do interview several of the other people named in the suit, like Tigra, Shocker, and Nightwatch, and discover that discussing the details of the file acts as some kind of weird subconscious trigger that makes people go crazy and attack everyone and try to hurt themselves. Because of that danger, She-Hulk decides to drop the investigation, even when Angie shows up with what she claims is vital information. It's a weird moment, actually, when Jen shoots down Angie, because she's overly aggressive and then immediately seems to forget the whole thing. Clearly, there's more to this Blue File than meets the eye, and if you read this arc knowing how She-Hulk ends, it's pretty incredible how well Soule hints at who's behind the Blue File without giving it away. Ditto Ron Wimberly, the artist for "Blue." I know that, at the time, there were people who didn't like Wimberly's art on this book, but I think he was the perfect fill-in artist for Pulido. His work has the same kind of playful but abundant energy as Pulido's, so the voice of the comic maintains without wavering, even though stylistically the two artists are quite distinct.
      Issue #7 is an Ant-Man team-up, where he, She-Hulk, and Hellcat shrink down to locate and save another genius scientist who shrunk himself and then went missing. It's an amusing, freebie one-shot, a little diversion after the major development of the main plot in "Blue." Also Pulido and Vicente return, and do a marvelous job with the pint-sized adventure, particularly the ant swarm that She-Hulk and Hellcat have to tangle with.
     The best story in the series comes in issues #8-10, "The Good Old Days." It's She-Hulk vs. Daredevil in court, and the focus of the trial is Captain America. I wrote about one of the things I enjoyed in this story—the use of continuity—on PopMatters, but there are other things to admire as well. It's a solid courtroom drama, and an exceptional study of what makes Captain America what he is. It also adds an interesting wrinkle to the story of why he is what he is, without in any way undoing or challenging the established facts of his history. Jen gets to be a hero for a hero, by using skills that most of her super-peers don't have. There's also a nice message in there about the flexibility of the truth and how even without lying, people can tell the same story in wildly different ways. It's about perspective, and context, and how hugely important both of those things are to consider whenever you hear anyone describe any experience. These are relevant points to make, especially these days, and they're made subtly and indirectly but are still impossible to miss.
     Finally, issues #11-12 bring things to a close by revealing the whole story behind the Blue File. She-Hulk #11 is actually just an issue-long fight between the threesome of She-Hulk, Hellcat, and Angie and the duo of Titania and Volcana. The latter pair was hired by Nightwatch to scare Jen and her team off of researching the Blue File, which Angie had secretly been doing all along, despite Jen's instructions to let it go. Turns out Angie uncovered the truth, so after Titania and Volcana's attack, Angie tells Jen that Nightwatch is the real enemy, forcing his hand. She-Hulk #12, then, is the explanation of how the Blue File came to be, and also the final defeat of Nightwatch. The story is that Nightwatch used to be a villain named Nighteater, who hired Shocker, Vibro, and Dr. Druid to help him cast an uber-powerful spell that would make him into a hero in the memories of everyone in the world. Effectively, every past heroic deed Nightwatch supposedly performed is in reality a false memory created by this spell. He erased his past as a bad guy and replaced it with a fake one where he was always a good guy. Also, he wiped an entire town out of existence, save for George Saywitz, hence the lawsuit. Then Nightwatch retired, able to live his days out in peace, relatively unknown compared to many heroes, but still respected and adored by the public enough to get by. He seems like the ideal character for this kind of retcon, in that he's never been that popular or major a figure in the Marvel canon. Not too many feathers get ruffled if you make Nightwatch into a villain, and it fits so perfectly with everything else we've seen around the Blue File, especially Nightwatch's earlier appearance, so it's a very strong conclusion.
     All through this book, She-Hulk is a badass, a hero in every sense, and a hilarious, captivating protagonist. It's everything you want out of the title character of a mainstream superhero book and more, because she's also a lawyer who's actually decent, honest, and admirable. I'd never had a strong opinion about her before reading this, nor even all that much experience with her, but I think of myself as a firmly devoted fan now. Her inclusion on any team is going to make me all the more likely to follow them, and the next time she gets a solo series, I'll be giving it a try pretty much no matter who the creative team is.
     I'm not sure how I feel about Angie. I loved her as the stoic, strange, brilliant super-paralegal, but I'm not wild about characters who have loosely defined powers and always seem to have exactly what they need to solve every new problem they encounter. Over the course of these 12 issues, Angie Jedi mind tricks a few people, comes back suddenly and inexplicably from being shot to death, mentally takes control of Volcana's powers, and figures out Nightwatch is the primary baddie without us seeing how she does it. Also her pet monkey Hei Hei, with whom she clearly has some kind of telepathic bond, grows to be larger than a man, sprouts wings, and seems to develop some kind of super-strength. I don't doubt that Charles Soule knows Angie and Hei Hei's backstory and the limitations of/explanations for their abilities, but within She-Hulk it's all one big question mark, and considering how important Angie's contributions were, I would've preferred some more insight into who she is and what she can (or can't) do.
     The best dialogue in the whole book is actually a monologue from Shocker, delivered to She-Hulk after she chases him down: "Lady, all I know about you is that you're tough as hell. Guys like me, we got a list of people like you. Like a rating system. You got your Daredevils, your Iron Fists---those guys, you fight. Maybe you get lucky, or maybe you're actually good enough to beat 'em. Now any Hulks---lady, dude, red, green, purple---you see a Hulk, you run. As you saw. Thors, too." This tickles me every time, as does She-Hulk's protest that there's just one Thor, and Shocker's reply that, no, everyone like Volstagg and Valkyrie and Beta Ray Bill are Thors, too. A wonderful conversation that can only take place in a superhero reality.
     I think that's all I have on this. It's a phenomenal comicbook, and not just for a Marvel superhero series. It's good all over, and it fits a whole lot of high-quality content into its 12 installments. She-Hulk was never a favorite of mine, Pulido I only knew from his subpar issues of Hawkeye, and the few things of Soule's I'd read before this I had pretty strongly disliked. On this project, though, all three of them were unexpectedly fantastic, as were Vicente and Wimberly, Hellcat and Nightwatch, and all the various guest stars.

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