“No One Is Only One Thing”: She-Hulk Navigates Identities, Frustration, and Resilience in Newest Reboot

She-Hulk 1-12She-Hulk #2, Marvel Comics 2014

Charles Soule (W), Javier Pulido (A), Ronald Wemberly (A)
Kevin Wada (C)
Marvel Comics

Guest writer Nyala Ali shares her thoughts on the latest reboot of the Jade Giantess, She-Hulk!

So, Marvel has been really killing it with the lady-centered reboots lately, Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) and Doreen Green (The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl), just to name a couple. Both of these characters have served as interesting, relatable heroines, written with a female fan-base in mind. Though the comics industry has always had its own particular struggles with female representation and readership, it is in the midst of a really promising upswing regarding both of these factors. In fact, pop-culture in general these days seems to be more clued-in to the fact that at least half of their audience is, in fact, female, and have finally been providing us with women who carry their own stories and raise feminist awareness while being fully-developed human beings. A couple of episodes before the wrap-up of NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, TV heroine Leslie Knope verbally took down a men’s rights protest on prime-time. An ambitious, devoted public servant and all around stand-up lady, Knope has been held up as a bastion of gender equality. Never discouraged and always meticulously planning for the worst-case scenario, picture Leslie Knope as a mutant superhero capable of gamma-powered rage, while losing none of her love for paperwork, social justice, and a good ethical quandary. I give you She-Hulk/Jennifer Walters, Attorney at Law.

INFO PENDINGUsing legal cases as a frame for the 2014 reboot of the Marvel series, Charles Soule and Javier Pulido make it clear that though Jennifer may be green, as a lawyer she is anything but; the comic opens with Jen rage-quitting her job after her firm reprimands her not for her ability as a lawyer, (she’s billed almost 3,000 hours in the past year), but for her refusal to use her tenure with the Avengers and Fantastic Four to bring in big-business clients. It’s clear to Jen that though she values labour as much as the rest of the firm, she is still considered less valuable unless she agrees to be subservient. Asserting the fact that she deserves better, she Hulks-out and destroys the boardroom table with the wave of a finger (although smashing through the building’s literal glass ceiling would have also been a good gag here—as Soule has deftly shown us within the first few pages of this series, the struggle is real.)

Instead of opening the comic with a dramatic superbattle (there’s plenty of time for those later,) Soule and Pulido use a very realistic situation of workplace inequality as a springboard to explore Jennifer’s multiple, intertwined identities and her agency as a professional, a woman, and a mutant superhero. As a mysterious narrator remarks: “no one is only one thing,” a statement that that acknowledges the ways that women can get pigeonholed both in the workplace and by the media. The idea of being “only one thing” also raises questions about the ways in which supposed “strong female characters” are written or expected to behave in a story; instead of being portrayed simply as a weaponized female body, Jen is a complex lady who is equal parts flawed and fantastic. Failing to deliver on unfair workplace expectations, she’s literally written-off as a bad investment, a remark that holds particular weight on the heels of the series’ cancellation despite critical acclaim. Like Leslie Knope before her, Jennifer’s frustrations, but also her resilience, set the tone for the entire series.

She-Hulk, Marvel Comics

Most of Jen’s frustrations stem from the underlying assumption that a woman can only be likeable if she is both intellectually and physically non-threatening. During a court case, Jen is slut-shamed for her previous romantic involvement with Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man.) Though opposing council frames the incident as a conflict of interest, he may as well have said “it’s about ethics in client representation.” Jen emerges nonetheless victorious. Frequently described in every issue’s pre-amble as a shy attorney, one gets the feeling that this is actually meant as tongue-in-cheek. Jen is very much large and in-charge, so much so that only one applicant actually sticks around to be interviewed as a paralegal upon the sight of her physically imposing frame. A tall lady even while not in Hulk-mode, Jen often towers over the other male characters in the story. Jen’s size makes for a great sight-gag (especially when positioned alongside Matt Murdock/Daredevil, who, an attorney himself, plays a pretty significant role in the series), but is also a nice commentary on the amount of space women are societally conditioned to (not) take up, both in real-life and perhaps even in the Marvel universe.

Jen is of course, front and centre in this series, but Soule’s supporting cast also contains other recognizable Marvel names; in addition to Iron Man and Daredevil, are Ant-Man, Nightwatch, and even Captain America. Soule and co. supply just enough information to act as a springboard for new readers and thrill veteran fans alike. In a hilarious subplot, Jen is hired by Kristoff Vernard, the son of Marvel supervillain Victor Von Doom. Vernard (who would likely be right at home at a men’s rights rally) wishes to seek asylum from Latveria. Despite his repulsive personality, Jen helps him because nobody else will. She even manages to talk Dr. Doom out of punishing Kristoff for trying to leave home, even though Doom is the only villain who is physically larger than herself, a fact he mentions repeatedly, visibly irritated that he allowed himself to be reasoned with by a “tiny green woman.”

She-Hulk, Marvel Comics

Despite her usual large size and super-strength, Jen is still undoubtedly very femme—Javier Pulido has a great eye for colour, creating some fantastic outfits for Jen, both in and out of the courtroom. Kevin Wada’s eye-catching covers also look more like something you might see on Project Runway than in your local comic shop. It is details like these that might make the story more accessible to a young female audience, instead of a stereotypical reader who might be perfectly happy to see She-Hulk only in strategically-placed tatters. Interestingly, this run of the series is completely devoid of the fantasy pinup-style art reminiscent of She-Hulk’s earlier incarnations (speaking of which, there’s an excellent history lesson on the evolution of the character here). Instead, Ron Wimberley’s fill-in art for issues five and six is deliberately angular and frenetic, though admittedly not as visually appealing as Javier Pulido’s minimalist, expressive linework for the other issues in the series.

She-Hulk, Marvel Comics

Pulido’s art in particular evokes early Love and Rockets titles by the brothers Hernandez (specifically Jaime Hernandez’ Locas series), which featured real-life situations often with a sci-fi twist, not unlike the Marvel world portrayed here. It’s also worth mentioning that Love & Rockets was one of the first well-known alternative comix to feature Chicana leading ladies. With this in mind, one could easily read Jen Walters as a woman of colour, adding yet another dimension to her character, and another cause for both her frustration and her resilience. If this seems like a stretch, look no further than Gamora (another green super-lady), who was played by Latina actress Zoe Saldana in the blockbuster adaptation of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. As for She-Hulk, Javier Pulido, of Hispanic heritage himself, is obviously interested in portraying diversity; many of his other characters in this run are also people of colour, including Sharon King, Jen’s landlord. Sharon even remarks that not a lot of people want to rent to “supers,” meaning superheroes, but also pointing to the fact that this is a real issue faced by many non-white folks. Angie Huang, Jen’s paralegal, is also Asian-American. Angie is whip-smart, strong, and definitely tough; in a Fargo-like subplot, she is shown at a small police station in North Dakota seeking (and getting seriously hurt over) information for a case in the dead of winter. Angie is also depicted as short and round, showcasing the kind of body-diversity usually not found in mainstream comics and likely welcomed by a female audience as yet another form of patriarchal resistance.

Bodily resilience pops up again throughout the series, as Jen is literally the most exposed and the most vulnerable to physical violence when in Hulk-mode, but also the most able to defend herself from this type of abuse when deploying her gamma-powered rage. Though she has mostly learned to control her transformation and use it to her advantage, assuming Hulk-form is still, at its core, attached to anger. And angry, powerful women, are often negatively depicted as monstrous (a bitch, after all, is not a human woman, but a female dog.) Though Jen would almost always rather fight with her head than with her fists, Soule’s treatment of the ways in which Jennifer deals with anger, itself a feminist issue, is particularly nuanced. When Jen Hulks-out with a purpose, she becomes even larger (can Hulk-spreading be a thing?) but is never clumsy, and is somehow even more focused and determined, battling robots, demons and villains with a laser-like precision. Her anger is productive when it needs to be—she Hulks-out to scare off a bunch of press after disembarking an airplane, performing her monstrosity as a self-aware, self-weaponized spectacle, even though it’s fairly obvious that a woman behaving badly in public automatically puts herself at risk for abuse.

She-Hulk, Marvel Comics, Javier Pulido

However, Jen’s anger isn’t always productive, or even noble, and that’s okay too. Her frequent struggle to maintain the role of supervisor over sidekick-turned-employee Patsy Walker/Hellcat is an ongoing source of conflict, as Hellcat often tries to contribute in ways that Jen doesn’t always want, or even allow; in a rescue mission where the two shrink down to save Hank Pym/Ant-Man, Hulk-Jen pulls Hellcat off of a horde of ants instead of letting her figure out how to use Hank’s helmet, for no other reason than to re-assume control over the situation. While battling her nemesis Titania, Jen also sees red– er, green when she’s called out on her class privilege; working-class Titania remarks that not everyone has the means to become a lawyer to begin with, and that maybe Jen shouldn’t be so smug about the righteousness of her profession. Titania is of course, correct; Jen is a superhero, but she isn’t perfect (and, as it turns out, neither is Nightwatch, or even the legendary Captain America, for that matter).

Men, however, are rarely subject to the same degree of scrutiny as women, which is a large part of why She-Hulk is so great. Because we’re set up to read with Jennifer, a mainstream comic book becomes the perfect platform to demonstrate how seemingly insignificant, feminist issues actually affect everyone.  Jen faces particular frustrations because she is a woman, but she also uses the resilience gained from those struggles to do excellent legal and superhero work for all those in need, benefitting women, men, “supers” and “norms” alike. As Jen remarks: “being a lawyer is like being strong. It’s a superpower. You can do what you want with it.” Ultimately, this run of She-Hulk is a story about doing what’s right for yourself, whether it be adjusting your work-life balance, cutting toxic people loose or forging and maintaining friendships with other women through tough times. The final panel of She-Hulk shows the legal team of Jen, Angie and Patsy eagerly planning their next courtroom adventure. I think that Leslie Knope, the lady who invented Galentine’s day to celebrate female friendships, would be okay with that.

She-Hulk, Marvel Comics

4 thoughts on ““No One Is Only One Thing”: She-Hulk Navigates Identities, Frustration, and Resilience in Newest Reboot

  1. The fact that this series was &#*^ing cancelled after a mere dozen >&%@ing issues confuses and angers me. And people were hating on Pulido’s artwork across the board too…WHY?!?

    I really hope this series can come back, especially with Soule. Or possibly Deconnick, but I’m biased as I am hopelessly enamored with all things Deconnick.

  2. This was great! But it made me realize how much I am going to miss this series. :/

    She-Hulk/Jennifer Walters is probably my favorite Marvel character, and I was disappointed that this series ended so soon (and that the ending felt rushed and ineffective), as I love Pulido’s art (and Soule was doing a good job overcoming my ambivalence to his other work).

    I wrote a post a while back praising and problematizing Dan Slott’s run on She-Hulk, you should check it out:
    Dan Slott’s She-Hulk: Derivative Character as Meta-Comic

    1. Hey! That was also super well-written. If you like meta-comics, definitely check out the latest run of Ms. Marvel.

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