Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing She-Hulk 12, originally released February 18th, 2015.
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Drew: I fully appreciate what’s disturbing about historical revisionism — the above passage is undoubtedly the scariest thing I read in high school — but I’m less certain why people seem to be so opposed to similar revisions to fictional continuities. Retcons (or retroactive continuity) might be one of the most reviled devices in all of comicdom, but I honestly don’t understand why. Nobody is more invested in the idea that each issue matters than the publishers (or at least their marketing teams), so fears that a single retcon represents a first step on a slippery slope strike me as totally alarmist. Instead, publishers tend to use retcons to clean up continuities that have become overly complicated after decades of embellishment. Still, being told the opposite of a fact we know is unsettling, even if the “fact” describes something in a fictional world. It’s that exact phenomenon — that the facts both do and don’t matter — that makes She-Hulk 12 so much fun.
This issue finds writer Charles Soule retconning Nightwatch’s history, revealing him as a monstrous villain-turned hero by way of his own act of revisionism — Nightwatch altered everyone’s memories, forcing them to forget that he was ever a villain in the first place. Motivating that retcon in-narrative is a masterstroke, but what’s truly brilliant about it is that the change is effectively undoing a much older (albeit secret) retcon. It’s a kind of have your cake and eat it too moment for Soule, simultaneously vilifying the retcon while also mining it for a fun reveal.
Moreover, making this issue about exposing a retcon further aligns Soule with Jen, where simply changing the past might have felt decidedly more Nightwatch-like. That may seem like a trivial orientation, but I think it’s actually a key theme of this series. Way back in issue 6, when Nightwatch was first introduced to the cast, he expressed a distinctly un-Soule-like opinion about how many irons a body can have in the fire.
At the time, we didn’t have any reason to suspect Trench was up to anything, so whatever influence this exchange had over Jen’s decision to drop the blue file investigation seemed totally incidental. Now, we can appreciate that Nightwatch had decidedly more sinister motives in kinda-sorta guilting Jen, but I think the sentiment itself is set up as evil — or at least wrong-headed. Indeed, issue 12 makes it clear that Nightwatch has completely missed the mark on what it is to be a hero.
Throughout this issue, Nightwatch keeps repeating that “Heroes don’t kill people,” as if his dogmatic adherence to some morality absolves him of his immoral actions elsewhere. Jen repeats that refrain in the issue’s denouement, but importantly, she’s not excusing any of her previous actions. To put an even finer point on it, Soule (and artist Javier Pulido) give Jen a dramatic closeup when Trench insists that he just wanted redemption.
Redemption is certainly possible in the Marvel Universe (just ask Wolverine), but it needs to be earned. People have to choose to forgive you, or it’s not really forgiveness, is it? Importantly, Soule’s retcon is explicitly NOT a shortcut — the blue file was introduced way back in issue 1, so this reveal was planned from the start, rather than some change thrown in to cover his own shortcoming.
Taken together, Trench’s use of shortcuts, lax adherence to rules, and rationalizing of his narrowed focus set him up as a paragon of laziness — a perfect foil for the work ethic of both Jennifer Walters AND Charles Soule. In fact, Nightwatch’s reliance on retcons, misunderstanding of morality, and willingness to throw his collaborators under the bus make him a totem for bad comics (and their writers) everywhere. That She-Hulk has been battling bad comic tropes has always been obvious, but I love how explicit the conclusion of this series has made that point.
Oh, right; this is the last issue of the series. Both Soule and editor Jeanine Schaefer make it clear that there might be more in store somewhere down the line (methinks sometime after Secret Wars), but this is it for the time being. I’d be first in line to pick up more, but I’m actually perfectly happy with She-Hulk as a tightly plotted maxiseries — I certainly don’t feel like I need to ask for more after such an elegant (if open-ended) conclusion.
Spencer! You and I haven’t written up She-Hulk together since issue 3, so I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this final issue. Are you picking up as much meta-text as I was? How about Pulido’s work here, which seems to lose both the highs and the lows from the previous issue? Oh, and how do you feel about retcons?
Spencer: I tend to prefer retcons that fill gaps in a character’s history as opposed to those that explicitly change the past, but honestly Drew, if a retcon will lead to a good story, then I’m all for it (which, to be fair, is my attitude about most things). It’s mainly those retcons that alter essential facets of a character or their backstory that bother me, and even then, that’s not an iron-clad rule — that’s exactly what Soule has done with Nightwatch, after all, but it’s resulted in such an enjoyable, thematically rich story that there’s no way I could ever complain.
Anyway Drew, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your piece here. I had never really noticed it before this issue, but “hard work pays off” is absolutely a theme that’s been running through all 12 issues of She-Hulk. The first few issues showed Jen opening her practice, then recruiting a staff, and then working enough cases to rebuild her profile; it took a lot of work, and the audience bore witness to every ounce of elbow grease Jen poured into each step. In a way, this series has been all about the redemption of Jen’s career, and Jen’s worth as a lawyer in general; the series opened on Jen walking out of an office that mistreated and undervalued her, and ends with Jen’s new firm finally doing well enough that she can go toe-to-toe with her old employer in court. It’s solid proof that redemption is absolutely possible if one puts enough work into it, thus further painting Trench’s actions as unnecessary, lazy, and immoral.
Actually, the idea of “hard work pays off” even extends to Jen’s various clients over the course of the series. Kristoff Vernard spent so long searching for asylum that, by the time he approached Jen, she had only one day left to file it, and that effort resulted in him winning his case (before Doombots got involved, at least). Likewise, Steve Roger’s victory a few issues back was due as much to the preparation Steve put into his case as anything Jen did (incidentally, the case against Steve was yet another in-story attempt to retcon a character’s past; I suspect there’s a lot of interesting stuff to glean from that, but we’ll have to save it for another essay).
More importantly, Jen’s staff is just as hard-working as she is, and nowhere is that more apparent than with Angie Huang. Despite whatever strange abilities she and Hei Hei may possess, it’s clear that Angie’s greatest superpower is her work ethic, to the point where the issue almost seems to be suggesting that Angie’s whole existence revolves around helping different people with their legal work, like some kind of Paralegal Mary Poppins.
Soule ultimately leaves the mystery behind Angie unresolved, forcing his readers to look past her more uncanny traits and instead judge her solely by her actions, and the truth is that she’s essentially the unsung hero of this case. Sure, Jen stood up to Nightwatch and delivered the final blow, but it was Angie who put in the work, did the digging, discovered Trench’s involvement with the blue file, and brought it all to Jen’s attention. Nobody worked harder on this case than Angie, and in the world of She-Hulk, there’s no beating that.
(The relationship between Jen and Angie here is also a nice superhero-sized parallel to the typical relationship between a lawyer and their paralegal, with the paralegal doing the paperwork and the lawyer using that information to win the case, and it serves as an essential reminder to always appreciate the people who make our lives easier, be they spouses, workmates, or just that kid behind the counter at McDonalds.)
On the art side of the equation, Drew’s right to suggest that this issue doesn’t quite reach either the highs or the lows of issue 11, but that still makes for quite a solid showing. It’s been a joy watching Pulido grow as an artist over these past 12 issues, and I’ve really come to appreciate his unique take on most scenes. For example, I love how Pulido chose to portray Jen while under mind-control.
Pulido’s never shied away from giving Jen muscles, but she’s especially hulked-out here, and the combination of her figure, stance, expression, and the way she looms over Hellcat paints her as a terrifying threat. Even without any context it’s clear that Jen isn’t in her right mind, and that’s some strong storytelling.
That said, Pulido’s risks don’t always pay off. He plays around a lot in this issue with cutting characters out of the panel, especially in action scenes, and I can’t say it’s all that effective.
I think I get at least part of what Pulido’s going for here — he’s not showing much of Jen because he wants to save the reveal of her extra hulked-out state — but the sole focus on Jen’s fist makes for a jarring and strangely repetitive fight. There’s a similarly strange choice only a few pages later.
It may just be the lack of backgrounds combined with the lack of panel borders and the fact that half of Jen’s body is hidden (or, technically, fades away into nothingness in the gutter), but I find this panel deeply unsettling. I suppose the actual storytelling behind Jen’s jump reads just fine, but I can’t help but to think that the emotion of this scene would come across much more clearly if we could see Jen’s face. It would certainly be less creepy, if nothing else.
Still, these are small complaints in the grand scheme of things. Despite his short time working with the character, Javier Pulido already feels like an essential part of She-Hulk’s world, and that goes for the rest of this creative team as well. I can’t complain in the slightest about getting a complete 12 issue story out Soule, Pulido, and the rest, but at the same time, it’s going to be hard letting go of a creative team so perfectly suited to their character. Seriously, Charles Soule was born to write She-Hulk, and as satisfied as I am with this ending, I’d still love to see more of his take on her in the future.
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