Hulk #2

 Mariko Tamaki
 Nico Leon & Dalibor Tajalić
 Matt Milla
Letterer: VC’s Cory Petit
Cover: Jeff Dekal
Publisher: Marvel Comics

A review by Nico Sprezzatura.

hulk no. 2Some characters are so defined by one interpretation for so long that it becomes the interpretation of them for many. It might be easy to forget, but Jennifer Walters –better known as She-Hulk– wasn’t always the confident, carefree figure that we know know and love today.

In her debut series Savage She-Hulk, we meet Jennifer Walters: a meek, unassuming lawyer who kinda sorta has the radioactive blood of cousin Bruce Banner pumped into her, which causes her to transform into a similarly hulking being. This original incarnation of She-Hulk was more or less a distaff counterpart to The Hulk, with her alter ego having the same, well, savage personality.

Characterization marched on, however, and she grew to love her Hulk form – even preferring it to plain ol’ Jennifer Walters. What started as a cynical effort to combat plagiarization of an existing character by rival publishers through gender-switching them (see also: Spider-Woman’s meta-origin) soon became an accidental allegory for feminism, with She-Hulk serving as an antithesis to male rage and toxic masculinity.

While Bruce Banner becomes destructive and unintelligible as The Hulk, Jen retains her intelligence, remains cool, and becomes stronger as She-Hulk. Her femininity allows her to keep all the best parts of herself while transformed, rather than compromise them. That’s pretty much how she’s been characterized over the decades, with notable runs by Dan Slott and Charles Soule emphasizing as much about her.

And then Civil War II happened. Like I touched on with my review of Mighty Captain Marvel last week, CWII definitely changed many characters — and not necessarily for the better. Among the characters to be affected by that event, Jen is perhaps at the top of the list.

Here’s a quick primer on where Jen’s been over the past year or so. She continued running her law firm, became the leader of A-Force (an all-female team of Avengers), quit running her law firm, got put in a coma by Thanos, fortunately waking up later… only to discover that Hawkeye killed her cousin under the auspices of an assisted suicide. And you thought your 2016 was rough?

As you could imagine based on the above summary, Hulk (noticed the dropped gender signifier) offers a darker take on the character. Does She-Hulk work if she isn’t She-Hulk? If the first two issues of Hulk are anything to go by, then I’d say yes.

Look, I love bubbly She-Hulk as much as everybody else. Soule’s run on the title is one of my favorite comic books of recent vintage, but I’m willing to accept that characters in expansive, shared universes like the Marvel Universe are handled by myriad creators, thusly twisting and contorting them in many (often unexpected) directions. Through a variety of interpretations, these characters boast complex, richer histories that add to a reading experience.

It’s never a popular development for fandom types who prefer things a certain way (especially comic book fans, oh boy) but the reality is this: if you don’t try new things, then you run the risk of characters becoming stagnant and boring, and nobody wants that. Consider it “necessary creative roughness. That’s why I was already willing to give Mariko Tamaki’s Hulk a try upon its announcement, and based on the first two issues, my goodwill has been returned in kind.

Hulk #2 keeps the moody momentum from last month’s #1 issue going. Try as she might, Jen can barely keep a handle on herself following the events of CWII. She’s working at a new law firm and doing her best to keep from hulking out – which, unfortunately, isn’t such a great thing for her to be doing anymore. The Jade Giantess is no more; her brilliant green hue in hulk-form has been replaced by a murky gray, with neon veins visibly bursting under her skin when she’s the slightest bit triggered.

I specifically use the word “triggered” to describe her psyche here, because Jen is clearly struggling with PTSD caused by CWII. When she witnesses a playground of kids playing an insensitive game of Hulk and Hawkeye (because children are the worst) she just about loses it, white-knuckling it out of the park to avoid destroying public property… and probably the people standing on it.

It’s moments like those that show Tamaki understands the severity of Jen’s situation, which makes Hulk a bitter pill that’s easier to swallow than you’d think. She approaches Jen with warmth and empathy, which is precisely how you should deal with people suffering with some sort of mental illness.

But it’s not all gloom and doom – we get enough glimpses of Jen’s prior self to know she hasn’t fundamentally changed as a person. In one memorable panel, she muses on a tense interaction with an unagreeable landlord by thinking, “Why is it that the sound of a man’s fury makes me calm?” Jen might be down, but she’s not out for the count. If anyone’s strong enough to weather a near-death experience and the loss of a loved one, it’s Jennifer Walters.

Regular artist Nico Leon (joined here by Dalibor Tajalić) and colorist Matt Milla greatly compliment Tamaki’s script, changing tone depending on Jen’s mental state. When she’s the meek, mild-manned Jennifer Walters, the art is softly colored and delicately drawn. When she’s hulking out, however, everything gets darker and bolder, serving a visual contrast between Jen’s disparate personas. Hulk is a great example of why a colorist’s work is so important. Color can change the tone of a scene completely, and Milla’s work shows that.

(Special shout out to Jeff Dekal’s cover work on this title – they don’t look like Leon’s art, but still fits the book perfectly. Tonal consistency from cover to cover is something many comics struggle with, but Hulk isn’t one of them.)

The Verdict
Buy it! Anything with She-Hulk as a leading character is an insta-buy for me anyway, but Tamaki and Leon take their hard-sell premise on a beloved character and make it worth reading. What could’ve easily been a dour, misguided affair is, well… still not exactly the most uplifting read you’ll find on shelves today, but that’s the point. If you’re in the market for a nuanced take on surviving in the face of doom, Hulk is the droid you’re looking for.

Nico Sprezzatura
Nico Frank Sprezzatura, middle name optional. 24. Schrödinger's writer.

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