Spencer: A defining trait of She-Hulk has always been control — becoming She-Hulk gave Jennifer Walters confidence, and she could fully control that form to the point where she remained Hulked-Out 24/7. Much of the tragedy of Mariko Tamaki and Nico Leon’s Hulk has been watching Jen lose that control as a result of the trauma she underwent in Civil War II, but Hulk 5 shows that Jen’s situation is actually far more circular and complicated; she didn’t just lose control because of her trauma, but her trauma hit her so hard because she lost control in the first place.
Or, maybe its less that she lost control and more that her control of her life, abilities, and entire world was ripped away from her. Hulk 5 opens on a flashback to Jen’s recovery in the hospital, where she’s greeted by a vision of her cousin, former-Hulk Bruce Banner. Jen’s distressed by the fact that she’s in the hospital instead of out helping people; Bruce tries to reassure her by telling her that “everything’s going to be okay,” but the platitude’s of no comfort to her as the vision turns dark.
We’ve seen in previous issues that Jen’s painful new Hulk transformation is set off by fear and anxiety, but here we get a specific set of triggers: “You’re not okay. I’m not okay. No one is okay.” The Hulk appears when Jen fully loses her faith in the world she once felt so in control of, through despair and a loss of hope (the thought of Bruce’s death seems to confirm to Jen that nothing can be okay, and continues to be her most potent trigger throughout the series). Jen and Tamaki even confirm that this new Hulk is indeed gray instead of green, and imply that the change in color indicates a change in the Hulk’s function from an avatar of Jen’s confidence to an avatar of her hopelessness. Gray is a color closely associated with depression, after all.
In the present, Jen finds herself fleeing from the dark creatures summoned by Maise Brewn and the other tenants of her building, unable to transform into the Hulk. Maise and her neighbors have embraced the darkness of hopelessness; nothing will ever be okay, nobody will help them, nobody else can be trusted, so they have to take care of themselves. The exact nature and mechanics of this creature are still unexplained, but it works like gangbusters as a metaphor for those who turn to violence and cruelty as a response to a cruel world. They’re every bullied child who becomes a bully themselves, every abuse victim who becomes an abuser themselves, every nihilist who thinks the “pointlessness” of the world gives them a free pass to be cruel. Most of these people, deep down, are simply scared and traumatized like Maise Brewn, but their trauma doesn’t give them an excuse to hurt and kill people, to rob others of their safety in order to protect theirs.
Jen tries to talk Maise and her neighbors down by reminding them of how much hope there is in the world, but Maise accuses Jen of not even believing that herself, and Jen can’t exactly prove her wrong. Jen tries to psyche herself up through “soothing words of optimism,” which probably would have worked for She-Hulk, but fail at helping her become the Hulk. Jen’s epiphany comes when she remembers vision-Bruce’s words to her back at the hospital.
What triggers Jen’s transformation isn’t Bruce’s platitude, but the realization that came afterwards: “No one is okay.” In fact, the exact same words Jen spoke as she first became the Hulk back at the hospital run through her mind once again as she transforms on the final page of the issue:
Based on the above two images, though, this doesn’t appear to be as violent and painful of a transformation as the ones that came before. In the past Jen was overwhelmed, pained by the realization that “no one is okay.” Here, she accepts it, and that acceptance finally allows her to transform. I can only speculate, but this appears to be a different kind of acceptance than that of Maise and her neighbors. Theirs turned them cruel and selfish, but even while traumatized, Jen thinks of others and tries to help them. Jen is capable of accepting that maybe the confidence and control she thought she had over her world was always an illusion, but just because things won’t always be okay doesn’t mean that she should give up trying to make things better any way she can. Jen will never be the person she once was, but this certainly looks like her first step towards true recovery to me.
Nico Leon’s art continues to be a wonderful compliment to Tamaki’s story. Not only is Leon’s work capable of switching between serenity and chaos as quickly as Jen’s life is, but he imbues even the simplest scenes with the themes of the issue. Take Jen’s conversation with Captain Marvel at the hospital.
Leon frames poor Jen, confined to a bed, in tight shots and close-ups, showing how constrained she feels, while we always see Carol from a distance, showing the figurative distance between the two women. In fact, throughout this entire three-page sequence Leon never puts Carol and Jen in a panel together; even in the same room, they’re separated by the trauma Jen’s undergone. It’s smart, intuitive, subtle work.
Ryan, what did you get out of this one? I find this to be a smart and thoughtful title, but occasionally the slow pace gets to me; how do you think it’s moving along?
Ryan M.: I agree about the speed of this story. In this issue, I was surprised when I got to that “To Be Continued” panel; I thought that there had to be more story contained in the issue. There are really only two scenes in the issue: Jen in the hospital and the fight at the apartment complex. While there is certainly enough complexity in those situations to garner pages of interest, this issue doesn’t feel full.
Given how we’ve seen Jen behave when she’s alone, especially in her apartment, her reflections in the hospital bed don’t play as discoveries. Perhaps they aren’t supposed to, as Jen’s internal monologue chides the reader for expecting anything profound. Tamaki does makes some interesting connections here with the idea that “No One is Okay.” As Jen runs through the apartment building trying to evade the monster, she reflects on a co-worker’s use of tracking steps to maintain metal health. The book seems to be saying that everyone is trying to keep it together. It’s the flip-side of the idea that hope remains eternal. You only need hope if things are shaky in the first place. Jen cannot help herself from wanting to help people and it’s no longer natural for her to do that in her old way. Now, she has to tap into the universal pain in order to help heal it. This aligns very well with the scenes throughout the series of Jen surrounded on the streets and the subway by the people of NYC, each with their own bubble of drama. She has been disconnected from the world thus far, only reaching out cautiously, like a turtle poking its head from the safety of its shell. By the time she confronts the residents and their monster in this issue, Jen is bolder and more present than we’ve seen before.
Leon makes sure that the reader doesn’t miss that dynamic when Jen first sees everyone on the roof. The angle of the panel is slanted, making it seem like gravity may play a role in the hunched-shouldered horde closing in on Jen as she stands defenseless in her lawyer clothes.
Leon gives us a diverse group on that roof. Each of them has found the world too cruel. There is a sense of hopelessness in each of their expressions. Even the graffiti on the roof reinforces that despair. Depictions of a man with his head in his hands and a boy with a lit cigarette in his mouth loom large behind the residents as they confront Jen. They make a somewhat convincing case for staying with the monster, but Jen can’t let the monster win.
No matter what she has lost, she has not lost her sense of right. Jen has been soothing herself, working to keep it together as she builds her life again. Tamaki offers Jen’s internal monologue as a way for us to monitor her self-treatment even as her emotions are opaque to the outside. In this issue, we see both that she has healed enough to be able to use her gray side and that part of her is still as lost as she was in the hospital bed.
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