Friday, 28 February 2014

Essential Savage She-Hulk volume 1

Essential Savage She-Hulk volume 1 contains issues #1-25 of The Savage She-Hulk, the complete run of the character's original title. The first issue is written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Buscema; they are succeeded by David Anthony Kraft and Mike Vosburg for the entire of the rest of the run. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for She-Hulk and Man-Wolf.

As I've discussed before, She-Hulk, like Spider-Woman, was created solely for the corporate aim of securing the intellectual property on a female version of one of Marvel's big name heroes before a television company did. With The Incredible Hulk television series a strong success there was a fear that it could lead to spin-offs and imitation characters, and so Marvel decided to create their own female Hulk to see off such attempts. But whereas Spider-Woman had been distanced from Spider-Man as much as possible, She-Hulk is a much closer character to her male counterpart in both relationship and origin.

The first issue establishes all the key points and the origin, but surprisingly it's rather ambiguous about whether it follows comic or television continuity and at times tries to side step the issue. Dr Banner arrives in Los Angeles but the story actively declines to tell us if his first name is Bruce, David or Bob (a mistake in an early guest appearance that was later morphed into his full name) and bizarrely his cousin calls him "Doc". There's even reference to a medical career. When he recounts the origin of the Hulk it's the comic version, but his identity is publicly known by this stage whereas in the television series he's assumed dead and on the run using assumed aliases. So for his cousin to not know what's happened to him suggests either a high degree of ignorance for a lawyer or else a mixed attempt to be accessible to both the comic and television audience. Nowadays it's standard for comics to just ignore the changes to character names, tone and continuity of spin-off adaptations, or make limited lip service, but it seems in times past some more active efforts were made to bring new readers in. Unfortunately this just creates odd moments - the idea Jennifer Walters always calls and even thinks of her cousin as "Doc" just seems strange, and highlights the story's sitting on the fence between two different continuities.

The origin itself is simple - lawyer Jennifer Walters is shot and given a blood transfusion by her cousin, but this also makes her change into a big green monster. She may be closely tied into her male counterpart, but tying to avoid them had been a mistake with Spider-Woman and so perhaps it's better that this time Marvel went down the Supergirl route and made her a relative, though in practice throughout her history she's largely stood or fallen on her own merits. This starts right here with her cousin's only other appearances being a couple of brief flashbacks and a group pin-up at the end. She-Hulk is also notable as the last character co-created by Stan Lee for many years (until Ravage 2099 in the 1990s) but his sole issue here doesn't feel that great. Jennifer doesn't turn into the She-Hulk until late in the story and there isn't any real exploration of just how much control she has or what her limits are. At this point she's just a big fighting green-skinned woman. It's a disappointing (near) end to a long string of successful creations and origins with Lee's name on them.

Lee and Buscema leave after the first issue and it's astounding for the era (1979-1981) that all of the remaining twenty-four issues have the same writer and artist with no fill-ins at all. It's just unfortunate that the series itself is somewhat strained and tired, probably because like Spider-Woman its main reason for existing was legal rather than creative. Yet oddly the series stayed a monthly throughout its entire run and didn't dive for guest stars - perhaps because of the differences between copyright and trademarks with different effects on what does and doesn't need to be kept in print. Whatever the reason we have another series starring a female spin-off that tries to operate outside the normal comfort zone of the Marvel universe, which takes its time to sort out the lead character's background and which makes some changes to the status quo along the way, although these are more minor than Spider-Woman's. It's not the most encouraging sign, though at the time the series was launched Spider-Woman was only halfway through its run and only formally signalled the warning signs during the last few months of Savage She-Hulk.

At its core the series presents Jen Walters, a lawyer in Los Angeles who can now transform into a large, very strong green woman. For the first half of the series the transformations largely come about whenever Jen gets angry - and she is easily inflamed by arguments in court or the office - but following a serum developed by Morbius to cure other problems, Jen is now able to transform back and forth at will. There's a clear continuity of memory and identity between Jen and She-Hulk, in contrast to her cousin who has spent most of his history fighting the Hulk as separate personalities, but at times both Jen and She-Hulk refer to the other in the third person and increasingly prefer to stay as the She-Hulk as much as possible. The most prominent point where the two are going in different directions comes in their relationships, with She-Hulk having an active relationship with Jen's childhood friend Danny "Zapper" Ridge and Jen herself falling for Richard Rory, formerly of the Man-Thing series. She-Hulk's character is very different from later portrayals, being angry, violent, paranoid and untrusting, in sharp contrast to the fun-loving at ease version who even knows she's a comic character. Her clothing is invariably rags and it's not clear which is the greater mystery - why does the transformation always tear the clothes in such a way that her breasts are kept covered or how does Jen manage to afford the large number of clothes she literally goes through?

Jen's life is reasonably well developed with a supply of supporting cast members, but some of the details of her background surprisingly only slip out as the series progresses. We never actually see a flashback showing her mother's death and instead it's only steadily dropped in that she was killed by gangster Nick Trask. Jen has an awkward relationship with her father, local sheriff Morris Walters, which deteriorates over the course of the series when they clash over her decision to defend Morbius from murder charges and then when Morris falls for Beverly Cross a gold-digger also seeking revenge for her boyfriend's arrest, who manipulates him in pursuit of money. This is another plot point badly handled as we never actually see Morris and Bev meet and although Morris discovers the truth and throws Bev out, the cancellation of the series means we never see the final showdown as she seeks revenge. Morris also falls into the Thunderbolt Ross role of doggedly determining to bring the She-Hulk in, but he eventually relents when evidence emerges clearing her of all charges.

So too does Assistant District Attorney Dennis "Buck" Bukowski with whom Jen regularly clashes both inside and outside the courtroom. Buck is indirectly responsible for the She-Hulk being accused of murder when he rams his car at her, mistakenly assuming she's about to attack Jen in her car. In fact the driver is Jen's friend Jill and the car has been sabotaged, with the result Jill crashes and dies. Jen takes her failure to save her friend bitterly, and when the car is subsequently examined and Buck realises his mistake he becomes a very different man, guilt-ridden and far less confrontational. Unlike other changes in the series this one feels a natural flow as Buck's realises the cost of his arrogant assumptions. Jill's death impacts in other directions as Zapper hopes Jen will turn to him. A medical student, Zapper has known Jen since childhood when she used to baby-sit and protect him, and whereas he has a big crush on her she seems to still regard him as a little surrogate brother. However She-Hulk takes him differently and the two at times retreat to his parents' isolated beach house. Zapper makes mistakes though, such as when he's tricked into thinking She-Hulk can help cure cancer when in fact it's a ploy to study her genetics. Their relationship is also complicated by Jen falling for Richard Rory, who has briefly found huge luck gambling in Las Vegas, before losing his money when the radio station he buys is ruined by an energy wave. Richard and Zapper remain tense rivals throughout the latter half of the series but are able to put this aside when needs be to help Jen/She-Hulk. In the end she decides she prefers being the She-Hulk and settles with Zapper, to the sadness of Richard.

The series has a handful of guest stars, starting with the Hulk and Iron Man, before moving onto the likes of the Man-Thing, Morbius the Living Vampire, here partially cured, the Man-Wolf and Hellcat. But despite the appearance of some superheroes, She-Hulk does not see herself as a superhero, and explicitly says so more than once. However she faces a wide variety of foes. The first handful of issues focus upon Jen's defence of gangster Lou Monkton from a murder charge frame by crimelord Nick Trask and subsequent actions against both Jen and She-Hulk - Trask is the first to discover they are one and the same. The storyline takes an odd turn in issue #5 when Los Angeles is plagued by earthquakes and refineries are finding their oil is being stolen - it's all being done by Trask using a giant burrowing machine shaped like a snake. Perhaps fortunately he loses control of it and ends it being buried in the centre of the Earth as the character has been twisted beyond his original purpose, even if he is responsible for the death of Jen's mother. It's a pity as in theory he could have been opened out into an archenemy, but the change in scope is too blunt for this to work. After this She-Hulk faces a mixture of foes including some quite bizarre ones. A trip to Florida brings an encounter with a civilisation who have discovered eternal life but have lost the spirit of life in the process. Back home there's "the Word", the charismatic head of a cult who can persuade anyone of anything, and his daughter Ultima, who has developed superstrength, and then comes Gemini, a being who can split into two halves with opposing personalities and outlooks. There's the Grappler, a master of leverage. Finally the last few issues see She-Hulk put through a gauntlet by the mysterious "Doc" (no relation) who works through subordinates such as would-be new crimelord the Shade, or through student Ralphie Hutchins who is evolved into a variety of monstrous forms including the Brute, the Seeker, Radius, Torque and Earth-Lord.

Not every story has such clear foes, and in succession She-Hulk faces the problems on a microscopic world that exists upon her necklace then a young would-be singer suffering from diabetes and an inability to recognise her own failures, and then the problems of microwave transmitters when a company erects a communication tower on a childcare centre. This latter issue (#16) feels like a generic rant about the way such technology has been imposed upon people (and it was written a few years before mobile phones had even arrived on the market let alone before transmitters were everywhere) and just sits oddly in the series overall. Later a rich businessman develops a special hydraulic suit and seeks to capture She-Hulk using the identity of the Man-Elephant.

The later issues also see Jen succumbing to preferring the form of She-Hulk the more and in her paranoia fleeing from all others who she feels have betrayed her, despite their only trying to help. It's not a full on identity crisis but rather a question of lifestyle and the addiction of power, and this makes for a somewhat different focus from the average Hulk tale. The series ends semi-abruptly with the defeat of Doc, reconciliation between Jen and Morris, the choice of Zapper over Richard and the final decision to stay as She-Hulk. However a handful of plotlines are left dangling such as the disappearance of Morbius and just how Bev will get her revenge on Morris.

The series may be competent but it's never really spectacular. Maybe it's because the foes and situations the She-Hulk faces are rarely memorable. Perhaps it's the weak characterisation of the main character as over angry and untrusting. Reading through the volume it's hard to escape the conclusion that there wasn't a great deal to the character before John Byrne got his hands on her, first in Fantastic Four and then later in her second series, Sensational She-Hulk, which launched in 1989. At this stage she's underdeveloped, brought into existence for corporate necessity rather than any natural outgrowth, and without a particularly good lure the result is a somewhat pedestrian series that just doesn't excite.

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