Patrick: Drew recently brought a Mutilversity article on comic book criticism to my attention. Interestingly, they posted another article that same day on the diminishing role of artists in comics — effectively arguing that we know series by their writers and not by their artists, and isn’t that fucked up? I think there’s room to argue that serialized storytelling in any format is going to be a writer’s medium (just look at how much more writer-driven TV is than the movies, which are much more director-driven). Regardless, the fact remains that there’s a problem in comics — and comic criticism — with focusing too heavily on the words that are written on the page. At one point in this issue, Jennifer Walters — a Hulk that spends very little of her time smashing — asserts that “90% of lawyering is conversation.” That’s an interesting inversion of the pearl of wisdom Eddie Izzard drops in the bit above, but that also might explain why we don’t have the most exciting piece of fiction in our hands.
We’re on kind of a kick of “this is what so-and-so does when they’re not being an Avenger” style series, and She-Hulk falls right into that mold. With over 2600 billable hours this year, Jennifer Walters spends an awful lot of her non-FF time working at the associate level at a law firm in New York City. It’s annual review day, and the partners reveal that they didn’t hire Jenn on to write briefs or whatever, but to to bring in superhero clients. Evidently not seeing that skillset as one she wants to market, Jenn quits in a mini-tantrum and drinks her sorrows away at a Lawyer Bar. At the bar, she meets Holly Harrow, widow of light-weight criminal scientist Jonah Harrow. The Widow Harrow believes that Tony Stark stole the repulsor technology from her late husband, and while Jenn doesn’t really want to go full-on-lawyer, she does take the case on an informal basis. But the Stark attorneys are legion, and they are dicks.
That’s when it seems like the story is going to kick up into high gear: faced with legal roadblocks and with a personal relationship on the line, Jennifer Walters risks everything to help her client! Only, that’s not what happens. Instead, Jennifer happens upon a cassette that proves her client’s claim while cleaning out Jonah’s old storage unit. So what is it? 70% how you look? 90% conversation? 100% luck? Jenn just stumbles on the tape, and while she has to wrestle with a robot first, there’s nothing about her lawyering abilities that help her get some royalties out of Stark. All credit here should go to the cleverness of Jonah Harrow, who had the foresight to build a robot, but not the foresight to put the recording on the internet.
That feels like a cop-out solution. What qualifies Jenn to open her own practice by issue’s end? She has the money to do it. Period. I guess you can count her close personal relationships with superheroes as an asset, but it’s an asset that she explicitly stated she doesn’t want to exploit.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed by the central conceit of the issue: 90% is conversation. There is an alarming amount of text in this issue. While much of it is played for laughs — such as Legal’s increasingly small-typeset description of what death, resurrection and corporate warfare have done to the name of Tony Stark’s company throughout the years — it doesn’t change the fact that there are too many pages with no action in them at all. I’m not asking for explosion everywhere, and honestly, there didn’t need to be so much robot-punching in this issue, but the old adage of “show, don’t tell” is being willfully subverted throughout. At first, I read this as a symptom of everything that’s wrong with all non-Walters attorneys. The partners that assess her performance at the beginning, Legal – they all just prattle on and on, not actually doing anything to make their point. It’s such a relief to see Jenn smash that Madripor teak table: at least she’s doing something (even if that is an over reaction to being fired). But then she’s guilty of the same word-vomit by the time she’s done dealing with Tony.
As you can see, Javier Pulido doesn’t always have the most room on the page to work with. Unfortunately, he resorts to his favorite silhouette shortcut far too frequently, especially toward to the of the issue. There’s never any narrative reason for the characters to be depicted in silhouette — and it is always characters, Pulido will take a shortcut not to have to draw Jenn again, but he will draw objects further in the foreground (defying all lighting conventions).
Also, man, is it just me or does it seem like Pulido doesn’t have a very good handle on what Jenn’s face look like? Those two images I posted are on opposite pages, and it’s striking how little the character looks like herself.
I just don’t understand Pulido’s visual priorities. (Take, as a dumb example, why he’s so intent on showing us Jenn’s bra and underpants through her ripped-up clothing, but isn’t so detail-minded as to damage her vest at all… or to remember that she was wearing tennis shoes…) Sometimes he pulls off an excellent layout that enhances the storytelling — such as the scene where Jenn arrives on the 18th floor as Stark Tower. Legal’s plan is to throw people off their game and force them into deal with Tony’s legal issues in the way that’s least comfortable to them — Jenn’s strong enough to stomp that out. At least, that’s what’s reflected in this gorgeous spread.
The rest of the issue (and even the rest of the page, once he’s done expressing this idea of Jennifer gaining control) too frequently turns into talking heads. Maybe not that bad of a crime if Pulido was able to imbue any of the faces he draws with emotion of any kind, but there are an awful lot of non-emotive mouths and thousand-yard stares in this issue.
I dunno, Greg, am I being too hard on this book? Do you find yourself excited to read the future legal adventures of She-Hulk, Esq. Attorney at Law? Oh, and why does no one bat an eye at the sight of a She-Hulk? Holly Harrow’s first question to her is “you’re an attorney, right?” when I’m pretty sure it would be “you’re huge and green, right?”Greg: Patrick, may I approach the bench for a quick sidebar? I am in love with legal procedurals, from lowbrow comfort food like Law And Order and, uh, Law And Order: SVU, to Criterion Collection approved classics like Anatomy Of A Murder and 12 Angry Men. Thus, I was primed and pumped to object to your sarcastic final question. “You’re leading the writer!” I would shout, the sheer indignation my words causing the justice system of comics criticism to buckle at the knees and find no choice but to let my unjustly accused client walk!
Yet, just like all rectangles are not squares, not all legal procedurals are fun legal procedurals. You can lead a genre fan to the genre, but you still gotta make him enjoy it. In words that aren’t dumb analogies: you still have to have basically effective storytelling to be entertaining and engrossing, no matter the genre.
You mention that comic criticism might get too bogged down in analyzing words, that artists are just as much the auteurs of comics as writers. Yet when a work like this is so densely stuffed with just words, words, words — in a feeling-nauseous-after-binging-on-stuffed-crust-pizza kind of way, not in a feeling-enlightened-after-binging-on-The-West-Wing kind of way — it’s as if Charles Soule is purposefully anti-Izzard (which, if this total invention is somehow true, blasphemy! Dude’s a pro, killing folks figuratively with his stand up and literally on Hannibal).
On paper, legal procedurals shouldn’t necessarily work as pieces of riveting fiction. As anyone who has been on jury duty, dealt with traffic violation bureaucracy, or asked a friend who works in law “How was your day?” would know, it’s a lot of frustratingly mind-numbing manipulation of logic. Technicalities and precisely accurate arguments tend to be more constructive than raw emotion and drama. Basically, to borrow an idea from Jennifer, it’s a lot of conversations. But if we extrapolate and combine this idea with the rudimentary idea of “show, don’t tell” you brought up, we can start to understand why other legal dramas work where this doesn’t, even when they get into the technical nitty-gritty (seriously, Anatomy Of A Murder features a scene where a judge debates the semantics of using the word “panties”. I cannot recommend this movie enough).
“Show, don’t tell” is nifty in its brevity and malleability. Generally, I like to think it means that good storytelling should provide raw materials experienced objectively — adjusted for the creator, character, and reader’s points of view which will shape how these materials are created and consumed — with any subsequent meaning defined by the reader based on her observations. The undesirable inverse, “tell, don’t show,” could mean that a creator smashes, not unlike a certain She-Hulk, meaning and intent over the reader’s head, robbing any sense of discovery or fun, turning characters into false mouthpieces, and making it seem like the creator thinks the reader is a dumb dumb.
I’d like to take this idea further, specifically as it relates to the legal genre. You mentioned that Jennifer has a lack of facial emotions and word vomits as laboriously and unfeelingly as Stark’s legal drones. This is, I think, the issue’s fatal flaw, and if Soule doesn’t do some serious course-correction, the entire comic’s premise. Talking, talking, talking means nothing if characters don’t care about what they’re saying, saying, saying. I know exactly what happened, from a pure reading comprehension standpoint, in this issue, the way I might after a real-life legal procedure, but I don’t particularly care that I know exactly what happened, because neither did the characters. Lawyers may treat their newest case as just a job, but it just has to mean more for characters. James Stewart cares deeply as a human being about the fairness of the term “panties”, in the same way that Henry Fonda cares deeply about the speed of the witness’ walk, in the same way that Sam Waterston cares deeply about every damn case he gets. In these works, this sense of caring, of stakes, of desire is self-evident in the way the character behaves, not explicitly spelled out to us. Jennifer Walters, however, seems to take Holly’s case just because, but that doesn’t stop her from insisting persistently there’s meaning.
To try and phrase it more simply: characters need to make their meaning clear, not necessarily creators.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?