Sensational She-Hulk: John Byrne THE RETURN
There’s been a lot of talk these days about diversity, representation, and the creator’s responsibility to both. It’s a rather heated topic that I’ve chosen to not discuss here, but instead I turn your attention to one of the champions, one of the most important works in understanding mainstream comics’ struggle with these very sensitive subjects.
At the time, the Sensational She-Hulk was the only female lead mainstream comic of it’s kind. For the records keepers there was also Wonder Woman, which at the time was experiencing a renaissance in talent, but plummeting in terms of sales. There was also the Mutant Misadventures of Cloak and Dagger, but in striving for some of the leftover mutant excitement had, surprisingly, lost a lot of it’s social relevance that made the duo so interesting in the 1980’s. The closest a serious comic reader could come to feminist issues at the time were the myriad depths of character that damsels in distress could showcase in future Vertigo titles and the X-Men titles, which were still treated reverently prior the departure of Chris Claremont. Sensational She-Hulk was something so different it almost seems impossible, in retrospect, with the very play-it-safe atmosphere before the Image explosion.
Now, let’s consider She-Hulk. In feminizing the Hulk character arch-type we were given something less than the strongest-one-there-is, something less yet thanks to unique characterization in Fantastic Four and The Avengers, something more. She-Hulk was not the strongest there is, but she was more woman, strong woman, than any man of the time was ready for, and she wasn’t going to apologize for it. Now in today’s social climate, the move to promote She-Hulk would come with a female team of creators and editors (which if I think about it is happing right this moment in the monthlies, but I digress). At the time the only way to make a female led book stick was to use a top tier creator, and Byrne at the time was one of the very best. They even had the added novelty of female editor Renee Witterstaetter and let’s face it; Byrne and Renee did something quite spectacular.
The Sensational She-Hulk would break the fourth-wall more than a decade before Deadpool. In a comic where on the surface you got a half-dressed, 8-foot-tall, muscle lady running around and beating stuff up. On the surface, men were going to buy this book for all the stuff shallow men of the time wanted from their books. But Byrne and Renee wanted the book to be for the ladies – which at the time was considered to be the girlfriends and wives of male readers. I don’t honestly know if this worked out for them or not, I don’t know who the main reading audience of Sensational She-Hulk was at the time, what I do know, is for a young male comic reader the Sensational She-Hulk was my introduction to female thought, the mere idea of the female vs. male points of view. You see, when She-Hulk broke the fourth wall, she did so to call out the male gaze, she was in fact, calling out you.
The biggest travesty that Marvel committed in this amazing collection was removing the cover copy from collected edition. You see, at the time, Byrne was taking risks to attract readers, with each cover having She-Hulk call out Byrne or the reader for provoking these extremes. Issue 34 was a parody of a very controversial image for the time, and was heavily challenged by the Comics Code. Without the word balloons of She-Hulk calling out the exploitive nature of the image, she is just standing there ripping off her clothes with no context. Inside the comic she would challenge Byrne’s reasons for certain poses, make commentary on the artistic merits of the soon to be BIG Image illustrators. Byrne, through She-Hulk, was able to call out all of the image based bigotry of the era, and people took it all as a joke, so no one got offended (I kid you not, these days truly existed). A lot of it challenged the readers of the day. Issue 40 raised ire for a sequence of She-Hulk skipping rope, who seems to appear nude due to the placement of motion lines. Everything is challenged; everything is addressed and best of all it’s done from the perspective of creator, editor, and main character. It gives an amazing historical glance at what laid the groundwork for the discussions of diversity today.