Monday, February 05, 2007

Storytelling Engines: She-Hulk

(or "Bring On The Bad Guys...Please?")

She-Hulk started her life as one of many female "spin-off" versions of an established male character; in general, these are almost inevitable developments from any popular figure in comics. Once you've got a Superman, why not a Supergirl? As much as anything else, these comics serve notice to other companies that the only person to be cashing in on the fame of the character with a cheap rip-off will be the owners, thanks all the same. (We've already examined the hasty origins of Spider-Woman in a previous column.)

She-Hulk fared better than most in her initial series, with Stan Lee writing her origin issue. She got a career that served her storytelling engine well--as a lawyer, she'd be working intimately with police and criminals alike, which would serve her well. She got a family and friends--other crusading lawyers, her father the chief of police (which had nice potential for conflict there, another good story generator), a family friend who carried a torch for her...and, of course, her cousin Bruce Banner, who'd always be good for a guest appearance now and again. Her personality was a little inconsistent at the start, but hey, so was the Hulk's. And at least she didn't just act like a female dumb, green monster. She even got her own city, Los Angeles, to call her home turf. So with all that, why is it that She-Hulk's publication history has been spotty, at best? (Apart, of course, from the usual problem comics have with female characters not selling as well as male characters.)

Let's look for a moment at the She-Hulk Rogues Gallery. Her first enemy was a...mob boss named Trask. Ordinary guy vs. female Hulk. Not much of a challenge there, despite the writers' attempts to spin it out a bit. Then an Iron Man guest appearance, a Man-Thing guest appearance, a cult, Spidey's old bad guy Morbius--but he didn't have his super-powers at the time, and was called in more as a specialist in blood diseases than an actual super-villain (the blood transfusion that gave Jen her powers was causing her health problems), a Man-Wolf guest appearance, a couple of ordinary people...really, her first original super-villain wasn't until issue #17, and it was the Man-Elephant. No, seriously.

She-Hulk is a living example of the need for a strong group of enemies to complement a good hero. Her bad guys are conspicuous by their absence--she has no Doctor Doom, no Joker, no Luthor; heck, she doesn't even have a Vulture or a Captain Cold. Without an enemy to fight, she's destined to have adventures that, you'll pardon the expression, lack punch (and Byrne's subsequent series in the late 80s, for all its entertainment value, didn't remedy that. He focused his energies on "rehabilitating" old and obscure super-villains by bringing them into the book, instead of creating new opponents for Jen. The new series did better than the old, but still didn't make it to the 100-issue mark.)

So, a lesson for Dan Slott's new She-Hulk series...start thinking up some villains. Legal drama might be interesting for a while, but sooner or later, She-Hulk needs someone to, um...smash.


sschroeder said...

Coming up with She Hulk foes sounds like fun. Let's see:

In her cases she could come up against a villainous law firm with a staff sporting enchanced legal acumen courtesy of AIM genetic enchancements, mutations, or chemicals. She could disable their advantages periodically to win.

Since She Hulk hates to revert to Jen Walters, a character who can turn her back with a touch could be interesting. If this is a romantic interest who she cannot keep her hands off, that might be even better.

Other than that should could get some female Hulk analogues, like Leader Lass or Abomination Girl.

Have all these been done? I haven't read too much She Hulk.

John Seavey said...

The only one that comes even sort of close would be a "female Hulk analogue"; during her stint with the Avengers, she sort of wound up being a pseudo-nemesis of Titania, who's about her equal in strength and invulnerability. Sort of the "Abomination" to her Hulk. (There was a fun Claremont-written issue of 'Solo Avengers' where Jen was arguing her first case before the Supreme Court, but Titania kept showing up and making her get into super-battles. Titania wound up regretting that.)

But I don't think that rivalry was ever picked up on in any of her own titles.

Omar Karindu said...

She's had a copuple of other female Abominations in her solo series, including Adrenazon and one actually named Abominatrix, but they were played as comedy characters.

What Byrne and Slott have done, as far as I can tell, is taken on the idea that She-Hulk only exists because Marvel is a vast publishing operation with loads of subsidiary characters, and made that the storytelling engine. SHe-Hulk under both of them is a book about how sprawling and wacky the Marvel Universe is.

With Byrne, this was fairly literal: Jen Walters finds out she's a comics character, gets an equally aware obscure character as a sidekick, and has comedy adventures related to her metafictional awareness.

With Slott, it's more subtextual: only in a sprawling superhero universe can you have a law firm whose case files are actually back issues and whose specialty branch is the new field of "superhuman law." I guess that makes it kind of a mteastorytelling engine, one which asks the thought-experiment question: "If we grant the premises of all these other comics and their engines, how would the legal world function?"

That's not necessarily an engine that's served by its villains, or rather, it's an engine where antagonists are not necessarily villains...and one in which She-HUlk's name and look are more important than her specific super-powers.

It's sort of a narrower version of the Astro City engine, one done with a more humorous tone in which the answers aren't serious. That narrowing and lightening of a working engine may or may not work; indeed, when Astro City did the idea it was in a quite serious two-parter, not as an extended, "funny" series.

-doni- said...

(caught this while running through the whole "storytelling engines" series,which is GREAT by the way.keep it coming).

i have an interesting(to me anyways)idea for a new direction for she-hulk:

in my story,she-hulk would be more of an anti-hero/vigalante type personality.defending(and essentially freeing) murderers,rapists,and drug dealers as lawyer jen walters would not only give she-hulk a fairly decent storytelling engine(free said baddies,then deal out her own version of justice as(a far more violent/hardcore )she-hulk.not only would she have an endless supply of villains there,BUT,i'm sure that that kind of "justice" would also attract the attention of bigger,more "audience friendly" foes such as spider-man,daredevil,punisher,HULK!!!etc.etc.etc.
i realize that this may mean having to tinker with her origin story,just outright changing her whole personality but, apparently the last however many weren't all that popular to start with...just a thought...


Cecil said... has my take on Jenn...I really like her best in context of a team book overall. Funny, I was gone from comics during the Titania stories but yes they are naturally a good fight!

Yes, she has a good storytelling engine as a lawyer/ super, nobody bothered to give her compelling enemies...she needs a vigilante anti-hero foe who works inside law enforcement, a robot; she needs a foe who can manipulate emotions to ply at her adrenal levels; last, she needs a foe from the stars, with a compelling link to an innocent earthling, who commits a terrible crime and then tries to hide in with humanity and a new life, and the case remains unsolvable. Huh! Thanks, that's the most creative I've felt in days.