Friday, May 26, 2006

She-Hulk


I set out to comment on another post, but not only was it too long to put in the comments, but it essentially turned into a mild analysis of The Incredible Hulk and an explanation of why I love She-Hulk.

Yes, There's More!

There was a complaint about She-Hulk, and the difficulty to find an image of her expressing rage. This naturally, led to commentary on the objectification of women in all media, as evidenced by the difference between She-Hulk and Hulk. I joined in, but only to link the lady searching for She-Hulk Hulking Out pictures to the most recent scans of She-Hulk enraged. They hadn't seemed cheesecakey to me at all. But Tekanji disagreed.

But, Ragnell, that's actually the comment I had in mind when I wrote that she has to be sexualized. The hand panel, I'd argue, is the only "ugly" one of her. In the second link, you have the balloon breasts popping out, and then the fight scenes has a lot of ass shots. She's very muscular, sure, but she's still hot.


I was surprised they actually let her look like an extremely muscular woman (they usually just make her taller, a little more muscular and paint her green). She was bulked out and enraged, as opposed to a thin cute little thing with extra strength.

I looked over the pictures again, and nope, didn't see the problem. Oh, well, disagreement here.

Then I reread the first comment.

Do you notice how the Hulk bulks up past what a realistic human could be, but She-Hulk looks like a bodybuilder (possibly with breast implants)?

That didn't really register with me until you posted the Hulk face above the three sexualized She-Hulks. It's obvious that they didn't go for ultra-exaggerated because it would make her ugly.

Ugh.


And then it hit me, neither of these women follow The Incredible Hulk or The Avengers, so naturally, they missed out on the She-Hulk origin. She-Hulk's not a full Hulk-monster. She's got powers through a blood transfusion, not direct gamma radiation, so she doesn't reach the full destruction level. This allows her more self-control when she fully powers up, but she's not about to level Brooklyn in a rage. They didn't make her an all-out monster because she's still under her own self-control there (even though she's powered by pure rage, she could stop herself from killing him). Whereas, Bruce is always raging out of control as the Hulk.

It's basic Hulkology here. Appearance, when Hulked out, is indicative of character. The point behind the Hulk is that the buried self is revealed when the Hulking occurs.

Bruce Banner? Mild-mannered scientist and good citizen. He's naturally a seething mass of rage who has been taught from an early age to force down and bottle that rage. His Hulking is a sign of his unhealthy emotional state. When he hulks out, he loses control (depending upon current story status, granted, but this is still his concept). He's like a child with immense power. He destroys everything within reach. He's a protagonist but certainly not a reliable hero. He's not really a person when he powers up, he's completely unresponsible for his actions and wakes up from one of these episodes like a man awakening from a nightmare. It's terrifying, and he wants to avoid it. His fear mingles with unfocused rage. In this way, his powers become self-perpetuating. He will never be cured because merely being cursed causes him so much fear and anger that it doubles the curse.

Dr. Leonard Samson is a different story. He got hit with the gamma rays, but never turned into a monster. Instead, a latent mutant power was activated. He got strength and green hair, but remained, essentially, a human-seeming man and retained his intellect and personality. Dr. Samson never changes. He is his true self, and nothing has been buried to an unhealthy depth. This may have something to do with his occupation as a mental health professional.

Jennifer Walters is another story. She's (well, she's supposed to be) a fairly average looking woman. All her life, society has told her two things. 1) She is not a knockout by their standards, and therefore may as well be invisible. 2) She is a woman, and a small one at that, so she needs to be extra careful of all the big strong sadistic men who prey on innocent little women. Then she gets a blood transfusion from her unfortunate cousin, and it's the biggest break of her life. Yes, she's savage at the start, but once she calms down she comes to a realizations. She's bulky, she's colorful, she's tall and she's beautiful. No one can ignore her now, and no one can intimidate her. She's one of the strongest people on the planet. Being She-Hulk is a blessing to her, and she revels in not only the newfound patriarchal approval of her appearance, but also the strength and power that saves her from the life of caution most women are compelled to lead. So, instead of losing her mind in a cursed state, she retains her intellect and personality, and becomes more outspoken. While there may be feminist discussions as to the actual amount of power Jennifer gets from her appearance, there's no doubt that as a person, she feels empowered by the beauty and the strength equally.

If you read She-Hulk, you'll notice that there's implied problems with her current boyfriend, John Jameson. The reason? He doesn't like walking down the street next to She-Hulk. Jennifer is regularly confused by this. She can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to be next to the She-Hulk, and thinks it's just a Jameson family problem with superheroes. Johnm plays it off as preferring her "true form" but he's lying. He likes the mousy aspect of the surface Jennifer better. The down-to-earth aspect. The aspect he can relate to. But the aspect she prefers, the larger than life She-Hulk, makes him uneasy. This makes Jennifer uneasy, and she's brought it up a number of times. The problem as I see it is really obvious. In the Hulk, your true self is most readily apparent when you are powered up. John's uneasy with Jennifer's true self.

This relationship is obviously doomed.

But I digress, my point is, Jennifer has a more human appearance simply because when powered up, she's more rational. Sadly, she's not as powerful. Granted, this is more in the lines of the diminuitive female version of male hero sexism, but it's the reason they make her look like a human bodybuilder when she hulks out rather than a Frankenstein-esque monster. Because she's not an inhuman monster like the Hulk, she's a human hero. It's not (always) to make sure she's "pretty."

This has some nasty gender-normative issues in itself. The male is wild and uncontrollable, not responsible for his actions, while the female is the rational being who happens to be less powerful as a result. And she has to be a sexual, desirable being while he is to be loved for what he is.

There's definite objectification and a double standard in effect. The obvious solution there would be to change She-Hulk to more resemble her cousin. Up her power, and change her appearance to more monstrous.

Except for one thing -- we'd lose Jennifer. In the Hulk, Appearance represents inner self. Jennifer is still rational and human while hulked out, and as she enjoys it she doesn't acquire any extra rage when she does. If anything, she comes away from her more enraged, monstrous periods relieved and feeling accomplished. Even when she hulks out beyond beauty standards, she retains some measure of self-control (unless, of course, she's been externally controlled like in Disassembled). If she were to suddenly become more like Bruce, the character would change drastically.

And Jennifer, as is, is a fascinating and wonderful character with loads of room for growth and exploration. She is ten times more interesting to me, gender-normed concept and all, than Bruce is.

We all know what Marvel thinks of her. There's a reason they hired the cover artist they did. They're sure she's nothing more than cheesecake. But I'd put money down that if they were to switch cover artists from Greg Horn to James Jean tomorrow, she's not only still sell evenly, but her sales would go up because people who were turned off by the excess cheesecake covers (as I was) would be willing to check out the series. And they'd keep picking it up because the writing is wonderful and the character is fascinating.

14 comments:

  1. Bravo, Ragnell, bravo.

    It's great to see that someone understands the She-Hulk 'hulkology', the fact that when she Hulks out, her repressed self, which in this instance is a positive self, comes out. I've been arguing for the She-Hulk as feminist icon (she's a strong, professionally successful, intelligent woman) for ages to little avail. It's nice to know someone can, if not completely see beyond the cheesecake, at least see the good reasons why she doesn't turn into a complete Hulk clone.

    Whenever she is just a Hulk clone, her presentation is in fact even worse. Ever read 'Search for She-Hulk'? Johns treats She-Hulk as basically a female Hulk (except she transforms when she's 'afraid' rather than angry, ugh), a crazy, destructive, irrepressible woman wearing...oh good grief...apparently completely indestructible lacy lingerie. And I thought the Hulk's purple pants were stretching credibility.

    That explotative and potentially misogynistic episode aside, it's also nice to see someone else picking up on the whole John Jameson thing. One of the reasons I actually didn't mind the recent Starfox storyline is because it dealt explicitly with something that has been being handled subtly through the character of John Jameson. John likes Jennifer when she is controllable, easy to handle, both in personality terms and of course physically, too. He's very intimidated by She-Hulk, again both physically and personality-wise. Jen resents this, resulting in several small arguments between the couple. When Slott reintroduced Starfox, my interpretation of things was that he was introducing a character who would try to manipulate and control She-Hulk in another way, and, of course, we can see Jen's reaction to that. When she kicked Starfox where it hurts, I saw it as her kicking Starfox, John and all else who might want a more 'mousy' - as you put it - Jennifer as opposed to the Sensational She-Hulk. Maybe I just read too much into things, but she really is kicking in the balls of society, there.

    Anyway, once again, bravo and thanks for actually giving Jen some thought, rather than writing her off as cheesecake.

    P.S. Anyone notice how the Greg Horn art was not the worst part of this week's cover? It's that accursed Civil War banner. Anything that can make Horn's art look that good...

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  2. Wow, this really makes me want to read She-Hulk now. :) It reminds me of Manhunter, a little bit, since she and Kate are both lawyers and superheroes on the side (but those are superficial resemblances).

    Even though I've never read any She-Hulk (or Marvel, for that matter), I'm curious about what you think of her relationship with this John. Isn't it good and healthy that he likes her when she's her "normal" self, that he doesn't care that she isn't good-looking? Although, of course, when one "hulks out" that's supposed to reveal their true form. Obviously the best thing that could happen to Jen is having a boyfriend who loves both aspects of her.

    Hmm.

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  3. I'm a little behind the times in my Hulkology. Doc Samson is now considered a mutant? I thought they'd settled on the idea that the gamma radiation changes turn you not into what you are, but rather what you wished you were.

    --Banner: wished to release his long-suppressed rage.
    --The Leader: wished to be smart.
    --Samson: wished to be a super-hero.
    --Abomination: wished to be an unstoppable monster.

    Which would still fit with Jennifer. She wanted to be powerful and taken seriously.

    Is that no longer the rule? If it's still in place, that would make She-Hulk not exactly Jennifer's "true self," just as the Hulk isn't Banner's "true self."

    Though one could argue, and I will, that in the case of She-Hulk, it is a key part of her true self. Becoming big and green meant that who she was changed over time. As sandicomm points out, she's "truly" both Jennifer and the She-Hulk, and any man who can't accept both aspects is not going to last long.

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  4. Those are exactly the reasons I love She-Hulk. Based on what I knew of The Hulk, I was surprised to find She-Hulk so heroic, controlled, and easy to relate to.

    I prefer both men and women to be drawn in reasonable proportions, and I don't really care for giant, pronounced-vein muscles on either. I wish the covers reflected the content of She-Hulk properly; it's a great title for girls, or anyone who wants to read a fun, character-driven superheroine story. The covers advertise something different, and sometimes even make me feel a bit awkward picking it up.

    I really, really love Dan Slott. There aren't any other Marvel superheroine titles I'm interesting is buying right now, so yeah, let's keep Jennifer.

    Sandicomm - John Jameson isn't shown much. He's sort of the third part of a love triangle - Jennifer's best friend and roommate Pug has a crush on her (to which she is oblivious). I think Pug might like her better as Jennifer too, but maybe for better reasons? John is flat out uncomfortable with her as She-Hulk, and she quickly changes back to Jennifer when he's around. We see Jennifer's perspective and Pug's.

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  5. One of the many reasons I value the She-Hulk is because to me she represents an amazingly rich and complex character whom later writers have allowed to transcend a fairly simplistic origin story. (The post-Killing Joke Barbara Gordon/Oracle is similar, with her "origin" being a decidedly unpleasant one.)

    In his book The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer discusses Superman's Clark Kent identity in a way that sort of fits the She-Hulk/Jennifer Walters:

    "Did Superman become Clark Kent in order to lead a normal life? ... [I]f the point ... was a normal life, why not a more typical identity? The truth may be that Kent existed not for the purposes of the story but for the reader. [Clark] is Superman's opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. His fake identity was our real one. That's why we loved him so." (p. 13; Fantagraphics ed.)

    I realize that this quote, though apt, may be more fitting in discussing the earlier incarnations (pre-Slott) of the She Hulk's "normal woman" identity. Jennifer's recent problems in controlling her ability to "hulk up" and "hulk down" reflect the tensions inherint in the character: throughout her existence, writers have played up the conflict between the "real person" (presumably Jennifer), and the superhero/"wild thing"/She Hulk.

    But what makes Slott's She-Hulk so interesting is that we're forced to face that her personhood actually must include both "beings," and that anyone (including Jennifer) who denies either of them is being blind/deluded/heartless.

    I don't see the "mousy" Jennifer Walters as the She-Hulk's secret identity, or even her "real" identity. Rather, "Jen," is a core component of a richer, more complex, more human identity that includes the hulked-up, assertive, and monster-y She-Hulk, too. So yeah, I agree with you 100%, the relationship with Jameson is (or should be) doomed.

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  6. "I realize that this quote, though apt, may be more fitting in discussing the earlier incarnations (pre-Slott) of the She Hulk's "normal woman" identity. Jennifer's recent problems in controlling her ability to "hulk up" and "hulk down" reflect the tensions inherint in the character: throughout her existence, writers have played up the conflict between the "real person" (presumably Jennifer), and the superhero/"wild thing"/She Hulk.

    "But what makes Slott's She-Hulk so interesting is that we're forced to face that her personhood actually must include both "beings," and that anyone (including Jennifer) who denies either of them is being blind/deluded/heartless."

    Just out of curiosity, has Jen become more confident with herself when she's outside of her She-Hulk identity? I would presume that both identities would compliment the other (especially if she's being written by someone as perceptive as her current writer seems to be).

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  7. I'm going to have to think about this for a while. One of my friends got me the two She-Hulk graphic compilations back in February and when I read them, I wasn't as put off by them as I've been by, say, the Teen Titans, but I was put off. I've been trying to figure out what, exactly, has been bothering me, and I still haven't reached a conclusion.

    However, your discussion of the sexy She-Hulk + rationality symbolism put me in mind of another character: Monstress from the Legion of Superheroes. No one could argue that Monstress was anything but rational (as rational as a teenage girl can be!), and she certainly wasn't as prettified as She-Hulk. If you're familiar with the character, what do you think of her, given the representation of She-Hulk? (I know that your essay was primarily on She-Hulk in the context of the Hulk and Marvel Comics in general, but I'm curious, I suppose.)

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  8. I still think you're wrong about the John Jameson/Jen Walters dynamic, Ragnell, as I've gotten the impression that it's not that he's uncomfortable with She-Hulk because he doesn't like her "true self," but rather because he's projecting his own insecurities about his own trouble with having an alternate form onto her.

    You know, what with him being a werewolf and all.

    Ah, Marvel Romance!

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  9. Chris brings up a good point.

    Alternately, I'm interested in suggesting a creative endeavor. I listened to that podcast you sent us to, Ragnell, and I'm always reading your views on the comics industry, feminist or otherwise. The podcast brings up an excellent issue that I'd like to formalize.

    Let's ask women what they want to read.

    As been suggested: a better presented She-Hulk may be the feminist icon and female empowerment symbol that Princess Diana never was.

    As a creative exercise, I'd like to hear how you and Kalinara, or any other female fan, might "fix" the premise of a heroine, similarly to the "magic princess" rewrite of Jade. Reading premises is fun, and I'm interested in what women would like from "male power fantasies". New characters are also welcome!

    Obviously not an exercise for this thread, but maybe you might consider for a future challenge?

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  10. Ragnell you're going to get me to pick up She-Hulk again after I dropped it a few months ago.

    Something that intrests me is that She-Hulk was created by Stan Lee and John Buscema. I like a lot of Lee's writing in the 60's but his writing of female characters like Sue Storm and Jean Grey is really problematic. Marvel didn't really have interesting female characters until writers in the '70s gave the company more sophisticated stories (I think Steve Englehart's Valkyerie in Defenders is a good example of this). Perhaps Lee was picking up some of this, delibratley or through osmosis, when he co-created a female character with a concept that had some depth to it. And really the catalyst wasn't much more than taking an earlier co-creation of his and just switching the gender.

    Of course, as in many superhero stories, it is the writers that come on later that delve into this concept and bring ideas to the surface (look at the history of Batman for isntance). Slott seems to be that guy.

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  11. If you get a chance, grab a copy of Geoff Johns's Avengers: Searchfor She-Hulk tp. They bring about the idea that while Bruce Banner has troubles with anger, Jennifer's issue hs always been fear. That's why She-Hulk is so confident, strong and above all else, in control. She lives without fear in her gamma form and when there's an opportunity to be mousy scared Jennifer (after all, the woman did get shot before her transfusion, which makes sense that an instinctual fear bonded so to speak, with the radioactive properties), she turns it down.

    I think some of the cheesecake sort of sets the character as Jennifer expresses herself as the most confident figure as she can, but... I still hate those covers.

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  12. Ahh, it makes so much more sense as to why she doesn't bulk out as much as Hulk. Probably wouldn't have hurt me to do a little research on wikipedia, huh?

    Great post. I had read a book by Lilli Robinson titled Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheros, and the author absolutely adores She-Hulk. I know I read about She-Hulk's origin there, but know that I was much more taken with reading about how comfortable She-Hulk is with her body. I guess that's why I was so surprised when I had trouble finding an empowering drawing.

    I totally agree: in the right hands, She-Hulk could be one of the greatest feminist superhero icons.

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  13. Just out of curiosity, has Jen become more confident with herself when she's outside of her She-Hulk identity? I would presume that both identities would compliment the other (especially if she's being written by someone as perceptive as her current writer seems to be).

    Yes and no, I think. The first issue of the current volume has her KOing two would-be muggers (both much bigger than her) using some nifty moves Gamora taught her on her cosmic jaunt. That impresses Captain America and Spider-Woman (who've been kind of spying on her), and Cap asks her to rejoin the Avengers. Jen is (stuck) in human form for the entire incident but holds her own. She even turns down Cap's invitation. That alone takes some confidence. She can defend herself as "puny" Jen Walters. Moreover, she knows this.

    Or, rather, she knew this, at least subconsciously. I'm not sure she does anymore. (The next paragraph contains plot points from #8. Be warned.)

    In the latest issue, Slott has Doc Samson and Dr. Strange cure Jen of the block hindering her transformations. She no longer has need of the Gamma Changer, and can change forms at will, and easily. She is, of course, overjoyed. Later on in the issue, she is almost assaulted by the member of a crowd (or maybe "mob" is the better term) protesting the New Warriors, who she is defending in court. She immediately, probably instinctively, hulks out in order to defend herself. She could potentially have held her own in human form, but now that she has ready access to her gamma form? It's a crutch now. She doesn't need it, but she thinks she does. That's a huge loss of confidence in her human identity.

    In other words, she's gone from "...some of the things the She-Hulk can't handle--Jennifer Walters can," (She-Hulk Vol. 1 #2) to "...there's nothing I can do as Jen that I can't do as She-Hulk," (Vol. 2, #8.)

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  14. I think she turns herself into She-Hulk outside the courthouse not because she needs She-Hulk as a crutch, but because it's the easiest, quickest way to shut down that mob. They're grabbing at her and getting out of control, but when she turns into a big green woman, they immediately back off.

    I didn't read the Geoff Johns comics, but it didn't sound like a good use of the character. It sounded as though he didn't really "get" She-Hulk.

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