Spencer: Despite the name, She-Hulk has never settled for just being a distaff counterpart. Jen’s occupation, abilities, and especially the confidence and control they’ve granted her have always set her far apart from Bruce Banner, allowing Jen to carve her own niche within the Marvel Universe. Mariko Tamaki and Nico Leon’s Hulk 1 finds many of the aforementioned qualities that have always defined She-Hulk violently ripped away from her, yet even then, Jen manages to cling to her individuality. While Banner’s Hulk was a creature born of anger, Jen’s Hulk is born of fear, anxiety, and trauma.
Admittedly, those emotions often go hand-in-hand in this issue. Throughout her first day back at work (after her life-shattering injury at the hands of Thanos in Civil War II) Jen faces an endless spree of stressors, microagressions, and well-intentioned, but inconsiderate questions. It’d be enough to make anyone snap, yet when Jen finally does lose her cool (after a tense confrontation with a pushy writer), it essentially comes in the form of a panic attack.
Jen appears to be facing a rather severe case of PTSD, but when she’s triggered, she has to deal with a painful transformation into, well, a monster. Tamaki, Leon, and even cover artist Jeff Dekal play Jen’s new Hulk-form close to the chest — we never get a full or clear look at it — but for the moment, the details are less important than the fact that the transformation causes Jen pain. Her powers used to bring her joy and security, but now they’ve become intrinsically tied to (the physical trauma of) her near-death experience and (the mental trauma of) her cousin’s death. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle — her anxiety and panic triggers her transformation, but her transformation makes her relive the experiences that cause her anxiety and panic in the first place.
It’s easy to see, then, why Jen has given up being She-Hulk, and why her usual boundless confidence has become so shattered. The story itself offers no moral judgment of Jen’s choices (as it very well shouldn’t), but regardless, I appreciate how Tamaki and Leon highlight that Jen’s still got all the qualities that made her a hero in the first place.
Just a few pages later we see an entire waiting room full of similarly unusual clients, implying that Jen is continuing to her use her specific expertise to help super-powered clients even if she is, technically, no longer a superhero. It’s encouraging to see Jen still guided by her heroic moral compass, even when she’s facing the worst ordeal of her life (and even if she probably needs the job as much as her clients need her, for now).
Jen’s especially taken by Miss Brewn’s case, though. It doesn’t take much digging into the subtext to realize that Jen sees herself in Brewn, and that her determination to help Brewn is, in a way, a determination to help herself on some level as well. With that in mind, I’m curious what the cliffhanger-reveal of the literal darkness surrounding Brewn will mean for Jen. Will fighting away the darkness isolating Brewn help Jen to fight away her own darkness as well?
Maybe, but I doubt it will be that simple. That kind of metaphor is inherent to superheroes — resolving complex emotional problems with their fists — but Hulk 1, at its core, really isn’t a superhero comic. This is a story about a woman facing trauma first and foremost, and at least in this issue, Tamaki and Leon are sticking pretty closely to that concept. It’s evident even in the tone they strike: while there are a few moments of whimsy throughout the issue (such as the location captions or Hellcat’s texts), the tone is mostly a melancholy one, but with just a bit of tension that steadily rises as time passes, until suddenly it overtakes both the reader and Jen at the issue’s climax.
In that sense, Tamaki and Leon show that they understand what it’s like to live with trauma; it’s a feeling embedded into every detail of this issue. My favorite of those details is Jen’s mirror.
The mirror is too tall for Jen to see herself in because it was hung at She-Hulk’s height, and Jen simply hasn’t had the time or energy to rearrange her apartment yet. It’s a subtle, well-observed moment that emphasizes how trauma can follow a person; even something as simple as a mirror is a reminder to Jen of everything she lost, of who she used to be, and what made her that way.
I’ll admit, as a big fan of Charles Soule’s recent run on She-Hulk, I was leery about this series. I hate to see Jen stripped of her confidence, and I was worried the book might exploit Jen’s situation for cheap drama. I still miss the old Jen, but with Hulk 1 Tamaki and Leon have proven that exploiting Jen is the last thing on their mind. I’m not sure where Hulk will end up going as it explores Jen’s distress, but based off this issue, I trust Tamaki and Leon to tell her story with honesty and dignity, and that goes a long way.
Ryan! When we last spoke you mentioned how much you enjoyed this issue — what about it, particularly, worked for you so well? Do you have any thoughts on Leon’s art? And which of Jennifer’s weird clients do you think looks the most interesting? Maybe it’s lame, but I can’t get over the lady with the bag on her head, if only because she’s the closest thing to normal in the entire waiting room. I want to know her story.
Ryan M.: I’ve got to go with old-timey guy in the barometric chamber on wheels, as I am a sucker for Victorian headwear. The waiting room is a great example of the kind of evocative detail that Leon uses throughout the issue.
With each of the waiting clients, Leon is able to convey their otherness and the universal boredom of a crowded reception area. Leon is so adept at the body language and styling of these incidental characters, that I feel confident that I know what expression is on the invisible woman’s face. Each of these characters are in their own worlds, and Leon is able to use a high angle on them to make each seem even less of a threat. The diversity of physical abnormalities in a rainbow of colors strikes a lighter tone than much of the issue. Bradley’s glowing monitors are a sense of literal lightness, but as we see in the lower right of the panel, all of this serves to stress Jen out. She grips her lapel, and uses her hand to steady herself. Because of the way that the issue is written, this is one of the few parts of the issue that doesn’t exist behind the veil of Jen’s perspective.
Tamaki uses Jen’s interior monologue and rebukes the same, as a way to let us see what the world cannot. Her co-workers are not trying to be awful as they greet her cheerily and mention that they expected her to be “greener.” There is a sort of social contract that if you return to work after a trauma, you are ready to do so. They want Jen to be recovered, so that’s how they treat her. Even the full waiting room implies a level of confidence in Jen’s ability to dive back in that shows her firm’s lack of insight to her condition. All of this is by design, of course.
Jen tells herself that she prefers the indifference of her city as we see her move like a sad-eyed shell through the streets. All around her, the city is moving along. Leon highlights the aggressive soundtrack of her commute, every sound becoming a siren. People are arguing, talking, connecting, and Jen floats through untethered. We don’t see her connect with anyone in this issue. She takes on Brewn’s case, but doesn’t offer any vulnerability or honesty in that interaction. She goes through the motions all day and when she reaches her limit of stress, she has a panic attack.
Leon does an excellent job showing Jen in such primal pain. There is no way to soothe her as her body tries to rip itself apart. Jen is in the fetal position, her hair in wild tangle around her head, and we look down from above, unable to help.
The final sequence of Jen on the floor bookends with the first pages of the issue when Jen prepares for the day while giving herself a kind of tough love speech. She tells herself that she is not the type to stay home “wallowing. recovering. whatever” and heads to work. The narrative that she tells herself falls apart by the end of issue. Tamaki gives us a suffering Jen, all pretense of “walking it off” gone. Now, Tamaki and team can show us what it will take for Jen to heal.
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?