Avenger. Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Member of the Fantastic Four. In her many superhero roles over the past 35 years, She-Hulk has proven to be one of the strongest characters in the Marvel universe. But it’s her role as an attorney that’s been truly groundbreaking for women in comics.
In 2004, a revamped She-Hulk series from writer Dan Slott emphasized She-Hulk’s “normal” human state as Jennifer Walters, taking the character in a radical new direction by using the tension between Jen’s job as an attorney and her life as a superhero to explore issues of identity, power, and gender in comics. As a result, She-Hulk has become one of Marvel’s most compelling female characters in the past decade.
But She-Hulk didn’t begin as a nuanced character trying to navigate her life as a lawyer by day and a superhero by night. Stan Lee created She-Hulk in 1980 to help protect Marvel’s rights to the Hulk character, first introduced in 1962, during the run of the successful The Incredible Hulk TV series (1978–1982). Fearing that the TV show’s creators would develop a female version of the Hulk in the same way that The Bionic Woman was spun off from The Six Million Dollar Man, Marvel decided to create their own comic book version first. In The Savage She-Hulk #1, shy attorney Jennifer Walters is shot and wounded by a crime boss she attempted to put behind bars. She gains her ability to transform into a green, gamma-powered version of herself after a blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner (a.k.a. the Incredible Hulk). For a few issues, her character was modeled on the Hulk: Jen’s transformation was triggered by anger, and her She-Hulk state was indeed “savage.” After that, however, She-Hulk lost her cousin’s anger issues, and although Marvel writers would play fast and loose with her powers over the years, Jen has almost always been able to transform at will and retain her cognitive abilities when she’s in She-Hulk form. Indeed, Jen’s intellect—and her job as an attorney—was critical to her character’s origins. In an interview with the Washington Post last year, Stan Lee commented that he was “looking for a new female superhero, and the idea of an intelligent Hulk-type grabbed me.”
Unfortunately, the original series didn’t live up to its potential. The Savage She-Hulk lasted only 25 issues. It suffered from lackluster storylines and D-list villains. But, as a strong and interesting female character, She-Hulk quickly became a team player for Marvel and was drafted into the Avengers and the Fantastic Four before getting a new solo series in 1989. Writer and artist John Byrne created The Sensational She-Hulk, a self-conscious action comedy in which She-Hulk regularly broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to creators and readers. As the first truly meta-comic, The Sensational She-Hulk beat Deadpool to the punch by years, and the novelty of The Sensational She-Hulk made it successful. The series ran 60 issues until 1994, making it the longest-running female solo series in Marvel history up to that point. (Spider-Girl is Marvel’s longest-running female solo series to date, lasting 100 issues from 1998 to 2006.)
Being a savage and sensational superhero was important. She-Hulk was a bold, funny female character, and the impact of seeing her book on the shelf at comic book stores—along with seeing her included in top-notch superhero teams—was important to many women readers in the 1980s and ’90s. But both series suffered from the problems that plagued female superheroes at the time: cheesecake art, shallow storylines, and sexist stereotypes. Jen’s status as an attorney was never taken seriously in either series, and was often used more as a symbol than explored as part of her character.
As the 2004 series opens, Jen Walters, Esq., discovers that She-Hulk has become a bit of a liability. She is fired by her law firm due to worries that juries will be influenced by her status as an Avenger. And too much time spent partying as her hulked-out self has cost her a room in the Avengers mansion. She accepts an offer to work at the prestigious Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway (GLK&H) firm with one catch: Jen has to stay in her human form while practicing law for them.
Jen feels comfortable when she’s the powerful and uninhibited version of herself, when she’s recognized as the “world’s sexiest, sassiest, and strongest superheroine.” Being a “normal” woman—even a successful professional woman—feels too small and vulnerable. In She-Hulk #1, she finds herself at a crossroads when she realizes that hulking out has become an escape from insecurity and accountability. “Fine. I can do this,” Jen thinks. “I can stand to be ‘her’ again. I can step away from the strength. The power. The glamour…all of it.” But through her work with GLK&H, Jen comes to value her human powers of intellect and ingenuity as much as her gamma powers, and she even discovers that working out as Jen increases her strength as She-Hulk. Her dual identity has relationship implications, too. When she begins dating John Jameson, she has to confront his preference for Jen and his fear of her hulked-out form. Jameson’s fears are never really explored in the series, but it’s clear they are rooted in discomfort with She-Hulk’s sheer physical size and strength, as well as her more freewheeling personality.
As both Jen and She-Hulk, her character was complex as well as relatable. This was trailblazing: She-Hulk was a thoughtful look at women’s agency and the ways that women can wield power at a time when most comic book creators thought that simply including a bad-ass woman somewhere in the lineup was good enough.
Of course, it is telling that She-Hulk learns to wield her intellectual power at the cost of suppressing her physical power: Imagining that she could balance both was too much of a leap for comics when she first appeared. And it’s worth noting that Jen often ended up needing to transform into She-Hulk to fight or detain villains because her “human” story just wasn’t sexy or action-packed enough for a superhero comic. To his credit, Slott often gave She-Hulk the space to reflect on how her superhero side gigs impacted her professional career. When she returned to the law firm during her stint with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Hulkbusters team, She-Hulk observed, “Working for S.H.I.E.L.D. was one big, non-stop adventure. Now look at me. Standing around in a law firm. My silly ol’ superhuman law firm. This is where I should be. What I should be doing.” Even for a woman as powerful as She-Hulk, work-life balance was elusive.
Jen worked in superhuman law, where comic books themselves are legal documents and can be used as evidence. The courtroom antics and office romances of She-Hulk often seemed like send-ups of TV shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal. But Slott also used the legal drama of the series to delve into real-world issues. Jen sued J. Jonah Jameson, father of her boyfriend and publisher of the Daily Bugle, for slander on behalf of Spider-Man. She had to contend with privacy rights issues in the wake of the Superhero Registration Act, which required super-powered individuals to reveal their identities to the government. Her most important case was, by far, when she argued a superhero rape case.
In She-Hulk #6, released in 2006, Jen and the GLK&H firm defend Starfox, a former Avenger, in a sexual assault trial. Starfox is accused of using his superpowers of persuasion to have non-consensual sex with a human woman. Beguiled by Starfox’s powers of appeal and believing that an Avenger, one of the “good guys,” would never abuse his powers in such a manner, Jen mounts a hard-nosed defense for Starfox.
However, when she learns that the allegations are true and Starfox may have also used his powers on her during a sexual encounter they’d had in the past, she transforms into She-Hulk and pursues him as he tries to flee Earth. She-Hulk describes her anger at Starfox: “I’ve been shot in the back by gangsters, been tortured for weeks in the microverse. I’ve watched my best friend die in front of me. But I’ve never felt like this before. Never felt so much…rage!” The case stretches across several issues until it reaches a very convoluted conclusion in She-Hulk #13: A mind probe reveals that Starfox’s memory was violated by the villain Thanos, resulting in Starfox’s inability to control his powers. After this revelation, Starfox has his power inhibited to prevent him from harming others.
The storyline is not without its problems: by creating the Thanos backstory, Slott stopped short of making Starfox truly accountable for his crime, insinuating that a superhero would not knowingly commit rape. But Slott did take Starfox’s crime seriously and the assault wasn’t just treated as a plot device to ratchet up the emotional stakes of the series. In She-Hulk #7, when the all-male team that managed the GLK&H comic book reference library researches the Starfox case, one of them comments:
It’s inappropriate. Like those cartoons about that horny skunk. Sure, you laugh at ’em when you’re a kid, but then when you’re older, you realize they’re making fun of a female character being mauled against her will. I guess I get that same kinda skeevy feeling from Starfox. I mean, when you think about it, his powers work like a date rape drug. Seriously, the guy’s a walking roofie. And who wants to read about a character like that?
Throughout the series, the library guys are clearly meant as stand-ins for stereotypical fanboys who argue endlessly about continuity and trivia. So it was powerful to see them imagined as characters who could mature and reflect on sexism in comics in a thoughtful way.
She-Hulk was far from perfect. The book’s rom-com elements were often cliché. It lacked substantial female supporting characters, and relationships between women were often built around jealousy. While the art was much improved from previous books, She-Hulk still ended up in purple lingerie an awful lot. Perhaps most disappointing is that although Slott points out sexual double standards throughout the series—She-Hulk has had quite a few sexual partners, but is judged differently in the superhero community than a “player” like Tony Stark—Jen even engages in her own internal slut-shaming about She-Hulk’s sexual behaviors. It’s revealing that it’s She-Hulk, not Jen, who feels comfortable and confident indulging her robust sexual appetite, while Jen feels embarrassed about it. As a “normal” human woman, wanting that much sex was just not culturally acceptable. Be that as it may, She-Hulk was a step forward, one that used Jen Walters’s profession as a lawyer to put on trial many assumptions about women in comics.
When She-Hulk hit what would be her 100th issue in 2006, she went on trial to defend her existence. She-Hulk’s alleged crime was interfering with the chronological time stream of the Marvel Universe, and her sentence was to be eliminated from comics using a “Ret-Cannon.” The trial was really a set-up for cameos from a ton of Marvel superheroes, but Dan Slott also turned it into a deliberation on the importance of good female comic book characters.
During the trial, She-Hulk is defended by a future version of Southpaw, a superhero that She-Hulk mentored when she was a teen. She helps mount a defense of She-Hulk that vindicates She-Hulk not because of her gamma powers, but because of her “unique talents” that Southpaw describes as “her skills as a lawyer…her creativity, her humor, her compassion…the woman Jennifer is inside.” It’s a moment that reflects on how often comic books have featured underwritten and interchangeable female characters that are little more than sets of attributes in spandex. And it’s an argument for why She-Hulk has had much more impact on comics when she’s been trying cases as well as throwing punches.
In many ways, the 2014 relaunch of She-Hulk shows her continued evolution. Jen has matured into a confident and seasoned attorney, comfortable with her many identities and starting a new one as the owner of her own private practice. She-Hulk had several incarnations in Marvel series between the end of Slott’s run and the relaunch, and all of them took her far away from the courtroom. Charles Soule, who is a practicing attorney in addition to being a comic book writer, brought Jen back to the profession. In her new practice, she convinced Tony Stark to do the right thing in a patent dispute; she settled immigration issues with Dr. Doom’s son; and she squared off against Marvel’s other famous lawyer, Matt Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil), in a wrongful death suit against Captain America. This iteration of She-Hulk was story-driven, and it was chock-full of interesting female characters, including Patsy “Hellcat” Walker. What’s more, artist Javier Pulido finally delivered a cheesecake-free She-Hulk. (Like her cousin, this version of Jen Walters actually manages to keep some of her clothes on when she hulks out.)
She-Hulk was a book the character deserved, and it was another signal that comics publishers were willing to tell different kinds of superhero stories. So it was deeply disappointing when Marvel announced they would be cancelling She-Hulk (again) after issue #12. The series did suffer from low sales, but they were comparable to other Marvel female solo titles, including Captain Marvel and Black Widow, although Marvel clearly has larger investments in those characters, given their current slate of upcoming film releases. After countless websites and bloggers called on Marvel to continue the series, Soule confirmed on his blog that he had only pitched a 12-issue series to Marvel, and he was confident that the character would return after his run. Marvel’s announcement that the series would be cancelled included the comment, “one door closes and another one opens,” which could mean that she’ll get a reboot or join a new team. There has never been a She-Hulk series written or drawn by a woman, which presents a new possibility for reenvisioning her.
In the penultimate She-Hulk #11, She-Hulk tangles with her old nemesis Titania, who insults She-Hulk for being a lawyer. She-Hulk responds by drawing a comparison between her abilities as a professional and as a Hulk: “Yeah. I’m a lawyer. Yeah, I’m proud of it. Being a lawyer is like being strong. It’s a superpower. You do what you want with it. Some people use their powers to help.” It’s an inspiring moment from an already-inspiring character. Here’s hoping that when She-Hulk returns to do battle with bad guys, Jennifer Walters, Esq., attorney-at-law, returns to battle in the courtroom, too.
Update: Since this article was published, Marvel has announced that She-Hulk will be joining the first ever all-female Avengers team in A-Force, a new series launching in May 2015. Cowritten by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite K. Bennett, A-Force marks the first time women will have written She-Hulk. While it’s not clear how much lawyering she’ll do in the series, we can expect some smart, character-driven action from with Wilson and Bennett at the helm. She-Hulk fans assemble!