GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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Essential the Savage She-Hulk 2005 (SC TPB) 500+ pages

Written by David Anthony Kraft, with Stan Lee. Pencils by Mike Vosburg, with John Buscema. Inks by Frank Springer, Chic Stone, others.
Black and White. Letters: barious. Editors: Mary Jo Duffy, Al Milgrom.

Reprinting: The Savage She-Hulk #1-25 (1979-1982)

Rating: * * * *1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Reviewed March 5, 2010

I own 19 of these 25 issues -- a decent number on which to base a review.

Friends, Romans...I come not to bury The Savage She-Hulk, but to praise her.

Honest!

Like so many heroines, she was a spin-off from a male hero, joining a list that began, probably, with Mary Marvel (no relation to Ms.). A curious trend given it has rarely led to any big commercial success. Supposedly the impetus behind She-Hulk were rumours that the makers of the then-airing Incredible Hulk live action TV series were thinking of creating a female counter-part and Marvel decided it should copyright the idea first.

This might explain the perfunctory opening issue. Written by Stan Lee (his first full comic in years) and drawn by A-lister John Buscema, it tells the origin of Jennifer Walters, L.A. attorney and previously-never-mentioned cousin of Bruce Banner a.k.a. The Hulk. After Jen is injured in a shooting, Bruce has no choice but to perform an emergency blood transfusion with his own blood, leading to Jen undergoing a similar verdant metamorphosis. Albeit She-Hulk retained most of Jen's intelligence and was a seven foot tall hot babe -- a far cry from her cousin's mutated monster form. Much of the first issue is about Bruce Banner, so one could argue the series didn't really get started until issue two, with writer David Anthony Kraft and artist Mike Vosburg. Lee may've written the first issue, but ultimately the She-Hulk was Kraft's baby.

The original series isn't especially well-remembered. It wasn't until John Byrne recreated her as more comedic and tongue-in-cheek (reviewed below) that she enjoyed greater accolades, setting the tone for the She-Hulk to this day.

But that wasn't how she began. And, yeah, this original series is definitely up and down, no doubt partly a result of Kraft developing a series on the fly. But despite its flaws, The Savage She-Hulk was, in some ways, astonishingly ambitious.

Kraft, like any writer, could be hit and miss, but he wasn't just some hack writer. Earlier he had assumed the writing chores of The Defenders, following on the heels of industry maverick Steve Gerber, and churned out some off-beat material -- most notably the classic "Who Remembers Scorpio?" arc. And in many respects, Gerber's shadow seems to fall over the She-Hulk.

Sometimes, what we expect a series to be can influence how we perceive it. I think a lot of people look back on She-Hulk as just a mercenary knock off of a male hero, with a leggy, buxom heroine all pre-packaged for a teen age boy's bedroom wall, and they decided it was terrible. But if you think of it in terms of something Steve Gerber might've written, something else emerges. A series that flirts with comedy and social satire, as well as down-beat kitchen sink drama, with an eclectic mix of super hero action, and quirky concepts. A series that can seem deeply empathetic toward characters...even as it seems almost cynically misanthropic, and a series that blatantly tackles social, political and philosophical issues, sometimes, like Gerber, with a right wing bent, sometimes left, sometimes inbetween. Sometimes even with an Ayn Rand/Objectivist undercurrent. It isn't that I always agree with what Kraft was trying to say -- but the fact that I can say that is because there is a sense he's trying to say something...rather than just bam! biff! pow!

If you want to say Kraft is a second rate Gerber -- fine.

But I think the intent was there.

If the Hulk was representative of Bruce Banner's secret id, then She-Hulk was more like Jen Walters' ego (assuming I'm getting my psychology terms right). And it was a curiously difficult and subtle thing to try. Unlike Bruce and the Hulk, Jenny and the She-Hulk weren't entirely separate personalities...yet they sort of were, too. It was also an unusual character to have for a heroine, given the She-Hulk was deliberately abrasive and obnoxious, Jen's deep seated anger and frustration unleashed. At the same time, you are supposed to vicariously thrill to her lack of inhibition. And Jen herself was no perky heroine, but given to a short fuse, as well as angst and self-pity, as her life constantly seems to be crumbling around her. She almost makes Peter Parker look well-adjusted. And the reason that is noteworthy is because, in general, female characters in comics usually weren't allowed feet of clay. While the Hulk could go on rampages, while Spider-Man could wallow in self-pity, while Daredevil (circa the early 1970s) could be smarmily sarcastic, super-heroines tended to be clean cut girl next door types (rather like the later She-Hulk!).

In his time on The Defenders, Kraft made it arguably the first ever truly gender balanced super team -- where the women, Valkyrie and Hellcat, were no bland heroines, but quirky, eccentric personalities...just like you'd expect male heroes to be.

And the She-Hulk's supporting cast was also atypical, including her next door neighbour, Zapper, a guy who pined for her, but was actually younger than her, and was a kind of geeky type -- no Steve Trevor manly-man. Or there was "Buck" Bukowski, the chauvinistic DA who was a thorn in Jen's side but kind of convinced himself he was often acting in Jen's interests. In other words, you couldn't like him...but he wasn't a "villain", either. There was also Jen's difficult relationship with her father. And Kraft added Richard Rory to the cast -- bespectacled, long-haired, loser-at-life's-game. Again, not the archetypal love interest. Rory, a Steve Gerber creation he had used in both his Man-Thing and Omega The Unknown comics -- further suggesting Gerber was an influence (conscious or subconscious) on Kraft's She-Hulk scripts.

Not quite cut from the usual mould of super hero supporting casts. Even when they did fit certain archetypes, there were novel twists. Like the county sheriff who was always after the She-Hulk, in shades of the Hulk's General Ross -- except the sheriff was also Jen's dad, adding whole extra layers of nuance and estrangement.

And the visual designs also suggested a series going for a little more "human realism" than a lot of contemporaneous series. Zapper, with his afro and walrus mustache, or Buck with his wrap around glasses. Even Jen' s shoulder length hair in a medium where most heroines wore their tresses down their back (which, admittedly, she did as the She-Hulk).

The adventures themselves ran the gamut, including the to be expected page consuming brawls with a robot or monster. But also stories flirting with allegory and symbolism. And atypical foes -- like a religious cult leader whose power was simply the power of oratory. Stories where right and wrong aren't so clear cut, like where Jen is defending the vampire, Michael Morbius (recurring Marvel villain/anti-hero), being targeted by the grieving parents of one of Morbius' victims. Who's the "villain" in a story like that? The first She-Hulk comic I ever picked up was #15 -- an issue where there's no villain, no fight. It's more a human drama. It was actually reading that low-key, introspective issue that kind of intrigued me about the series, because it was such an atypical thing to attempt. (Granted, I did and do quibble about the issue's antagonist, a self pitying black woman who, at one point, even plays the "race" card -- nothing wrong with that...except she was pretty much the only non-white character to appear in the entire series!)

Most plots only ran an issue or two (barring sub-plots), so the issues are quite dense, cramming whole stories, beginnings, middles and ends -- along with accompanying character bits and sub-texts -- into just a few pages.

There's also some tongue-in-cheek aspects, too. Some people have derided an issue where she battles The Man-Elephant -- a guy in a super suit complete with prehensile trunk! But I think they miss the point: Kraft knows it's goofy. Even in the context of the story, other characters seem to regard him as silly. I think he was a kind of tongue-in-cheek homage to those old 1960s villains with their "themed" powers and, again, using the Gerber connection, the Man-Elephant would've been perfectly at home in a Howard the Duck issue.

That isn't to say all this works. Maybe a Howard the Duck-type "parody villain" is out of place in the ostensibly straight-faced Savage She-Hulk series. And certainly Kraft was guilty of some clumsy -- even terrible -- dialogue. And like so many in the comics biz, he didn't fully grasp the workings of the law, and often the courtroom scenes are unintentionally silly (but no worse than most super hero comics).

Nonetheless, Kraft was reaching higher than a lot of people credit.

And threaded underneath it all was the human drama and soap opera-y threads, and the various characters' angst and disappointments. In fact, this original series can seem rather bleak at times, as Jen, Zapper, and the others are dealing with life's iniquities more than its joys. The She-Hulk is a manifestation of Jen's frustration...so, by nature, she has to get frustrated by life a lot. Indeed, a sub-text to the series is the She-Hulk being likened to an addiction for Jen. When life gets too tough, Jen just retreats into being the She-Hulk. Again, a kind of ambitious -- and ambiguous -- sub-text for a super hero comic.

Even the arrogant Buck is dealt an emotional blow toward the end, leaving him sobered and vulnerable.

Now, obviously, this relates to what you like in your super hero comics. A lot of people contemptuously dismiss the "soap opera" aspect of older comics as being silly and unappealing. But to me, that's kind of what makes them work. In order to be interested in the super battles, you have to believe in the characters, and in order to believe in the characters, you have to believe in their reality...and to do that, you need an undercurrent of real dilemmas, divorced from the fantasy.

I came upon some reviews of these issues commenting they will seem simple compared to modern, sophisticated comics with their cross-title mega-events, and saying that She-Hulk's current legal cases, dealing with the intricacies of "meta-human law" are more intriguing. Me -- I dunno. Personally, I think the more "sophisticated" comic is the one that hews closer to the real world -- and stories tackling urban cults and vigilante justice seem to be that. Jen's estrangement from her dad becomes exacerbated by her dad's new girlfriend deliberately driving a wedge between them. Nowadays, the girlfriend would be revealed as a Skrull or a super villain. I like fantasy...but I also like quasi-realism. Having her be a Skrull might've been fun...having her just be a selfish golddigger is, arguably, more compelling.

Mike Vosburg drew the entirety of the series from #2-25, with Chic Stone inking the first third, and Frank Springer most of the rest. Stone has a clean lined style, while Springer's finishes actually put one in mind a bit of Klaus Janson, having a rougher, thicker lined style. I actually think Springer's style better suits the pencils. Like Janson it's rough and crude -- but like Janson, there can be a certain moodiness and atmosphere as a result. Vosburg is an uneven artist, his pencils can be slap dash, but I nonetheless found them generally appealing here. Partly because he drew almost the entire series, he kind of defined it. Partly because it suits Kraft's scripts which, likewise, can be a bit rough and unpolished, but with an underlining energy. As well, it's Vosburg's character designs that also lend a quirkiness, a humanity, to the figures. And, yeah, there can be a sexiness to Vosburg's She-Hulk -- but it's a subtle sexiness. A far cry from the cheesecake sexploitation of versions to come (done under the guise of satirizing cheesecake sexploitation!)

Kraft's execution doesn't always match his ambition. But strangely, the series doesn't even usually get credit for that ambition. It's perhaps the dilemma of any art form -- people will lament lack of creativity, of pushing at the boundaries, and then when someone does, people dismiss it 'cause it ain't what they're used to. In the review book, The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide, they dismissively refer to Zapper as "ludicrous" -- presumably because he's not a square jawed, clean cut Steve Trevor type. But to me, that's why he's not ludicrous.

The Savage She-Hulk seemed to fall victim to the trend (not uncommon in pop culture) of becoming chic to hate. Toward the series' end negative letters were signed by "The Committee to Cancel the She-Hulk". Whether there was such a committee, or whether -- more likely -- it was just a cheeky blurb adopted by otherwise unconnected writers, it still makes you pause. If you don't like a comic, stop buying it, but why actively champion its cancelation? Once that happens, it's probably too late -- people begin hating the comic just because it's the trendy thing to do.

Still, read as a complete series, from #1 to #25, The Savage She-Hulk manages to be more satisfying than you might expect. Over these 25 issues threads and sub-plots are teased along, and then dealt with, minor characters recur. There's even an interesting "book ends" feel to the series, as the first few issues deal with mob related threads. The series then moves off onto other themes. Then, toward the end, another mob-related plot dominates the last half dozen issues.

Kraft does his best to try and provide a wrap up for the series (without actually "ending" it per se -- indeed, She-Hulk would be guest starring in other series just a few months later, though I think her supporting cast was largely forgotten). It's not a fully satisfying wrap up -- given the addiction metaphor, having the series end with Jen deciding to stay the She-Hulk seemed a contradiction. Nonetheless, after 500 some pages, you don't feel like the series is ending in mid-story.

I recognize this is an imperfect series -- some aspects are downright badly down. But what can I say? I also find it intriguing, provocative, and moody, with quirky concepts and refreshingly idiosyncratic characters that linger with you. The bottom line is, I've re-read these issues a few times. While there are better regarded comics I've only read once!

Although with quirky and satirical aspects, this original She-Hulk series is primarily serious. Yet shortly after this series' end, Kraft himself featured her in an issue of Marvel Two-in-One (#88) -- not reprinted here -- which established a more comical take on the character.

This is a review of the issues as they originally appeared in the monthly comic.

Cover price: 


The Sensational She-Hulk 199_ (SC TPB) 186 pages

Written and Pencilled by John Byrne. Inks by Bob Wiacek (and Al Gordon).
Colours: Glynis Oliver. Letters: John Workman, Jim Novak. Editor: Bobbie Chase.

Reprinting: The Sensational She-Hulk #1-8 (1989)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

She-Hulk was first launched in her own comic, The Savage She-Hulk, which was a straight-faced affair, with plenty of comicbook angst, mainly written by David Kraft. It folded after a couple of years, but the She-Hulk seemed to become a pet project of John Byrne, who employed her in various team books he worked on (including becoming a temporary member of the normally inviolate membership of The Fantastic Four). Then she got her own graphic novel -- The Sensational She-Hulk (yeah, same name as this TPB collection) -- and, eventually, landed her own comic again...this time, not "savage", but The Sensational She-Hulk.

By this point Byrne had completely revamped the concept -- other than big, green, and strong, thiis well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky She-Hulk bears little resemblance to the original. The original was a variation on the Hulk -- though keeping her bombshell figure -- with some intriguing differences. Whereas the Hulk was like an angry child, frustrated by things he didn't understand (which was most things), the savage She-Hulk retained normal intelligence...but she was ego-unleashed, the held-in-check bitterness and resentment of her straight-laced alter ego, attorney Jennifer Walters. She wasn't always likeable, but she was easy to empathize with. Byrne dispenses with all that...and he also dispenses with the seriousness. Not only is this She-Hulk a light-hearted comic, but she knows she's in a comic, frequently addressing the reader, or playing around with the conventions of the medium.

That self-reflective-ness got a lot of critical notice, but I expected it to be cloying and self-indulgent. Surprisingly, it's kind of fun. Oh, to be sure, Byrne isn't quite as funny as he thinks he is, but he can still wrench loose an involuntary chuckle with an unexpected gag -- like cutting back to the She-Hulk and some villains, after a pause for a sub-plot, literally sitting around, waiting for their scene to start up again.

Maybe what works best is, despite the humour, the stories still have, well, stories. There's still action and the characters remain in character, even when they know they're characters. Which is why Byrne can throw in pre- existing villains like the Headmen and Mysterio, and even have Spider-Man guest star. In fact, because it's not meant to be taken seriously, Byrne unleashes a tell-it-with-gusto storytelling that actually makes for better -- at least, more imaginative -- adventures than some more serious comics. And Byrne anchors things a bit by, occasionally, treating even the self-reflective stuff a little more literally, such as in issue #4 when She-Hulk acquires a supporting character who used to have her own comic. Suddenly Byrne's really exploring the idea of what it might mean to be a comicbook character -- and not just as a joke. And the fact that only some characters know they're in a comicbook also adds to things.

Perhaps what most sells this, though, is what I'd argue is among Byrne's best art. I first observed Byrne's art on The X-Men years n' years ago, and loved it, but I've felt that much of his subsequent work lacked the same polish, both because he was intentionally trying for a looser style, and because he sometimes just seemed rushed (writing, drawing, and inking can do that to you). But here Byrne has shaken off some of the flatness that, admittedly, was a part of his early work, without becoming too sketchy. I don't know if Byrne was just particularly dedicated to the project, or whether a lot of credit should go to inker Bob Wiacek, who shades and fleshes out Byrne's pencils -- though I think Wiacek deserves some kudos -- but it's a nice looking comic.

What the true genesis of all this was, I don't know. Because over at DC Comics, Grant Morrison was likewise exploring the idea of a hero who knows he's in a comicbook in Animal Man -- though in a more serious vein. So was the time just right? Or was one inspired by the other?

I'll admit, I didn't expect to like this much. For one thing, I liked the original Savage She-Hulk comic -- which has been much maligned over the years. But I liked the intriguing variation on the "inner self unleashed", and the unconventional supporting characters, the sometimes atypical villains and the, occasionally, off-beat plotting, even the crude, but kind of moody, art by the team of Mike Vosburg and Frank Springer. Mollifying her temper and turning her into a joke seemed a shame (though She-Hulk writer, David Anthony Kraft, himself started the ball rolling as early as a Marvel Two-in-One appearance where the She-Hulk was basically comic relief). As well, I'd read issue #8 of Byrne's series and, though I had nothing against it, it didn't do much for me (and still seems a lesser issue, story and art-wise). But I came upon most of these early issues, water-stained and in the cheap bin, and knowing they had been collected in a (seeming hard to find) TPB, I picked them up, just for review purposes. Maybe that's the best way to do it -- go in with limited expectations. But I found them unpretentious: a brisk, well drawn, vaguely amusing -- if a little ghoulish -- read, with Byrne skirting the edges of cheesecake from time to time.

Though the first issue has She-Hulk spending most of it unspeaking and hypnotized -- not an auspices beginning for the character who should be the lead! Though it was reminiscent of the first issue of The Savage She-Hulk, in which the Hulk's alter-ego, Bruce Banner, seemed to get more page time.

The first three issues form a story arc (though even then, issue #1 can be read on its own) and #6-7 form a story, the rest are self-contained adventures (just if you're looking for this in its original issues). Byrne left the series after #8 -- apparently in a creative dispute with the Marvel brass -- though returned some issues later. As such, this TPB collects the full run of his early issues.

This is a review of the issues as they originally appeared in the monthly comic.

Cover price: 


The Silencers
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Son of Origins of Marvel Comics - Revised Edition 1997 (SC TPB) 272 pgs

Son of Origins - cover by McNabbby Stan Lee

Reprinting:
Then: The X-Men (vol. 1) #1, Tales of Suspense #39, The Avengers #1, Daredevil #1, Silver Surfer #1
Now: X-Men (vol. 2) #3 (Chris Claremont, Jim Lee, Scott Williams), Iron Man #231 (David Michelinie, Mark Bright, Bob Layton), The Avengers #347 (Bob Harras, Steve Epting, Tom Palmer), Daredevil #232 (Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

Published by Marvel Comics

First published in the 1970s, the "Origins" series of books featured anecdotal introductions by Stan Lee leading into reprints of the inaugural stories of Marvel Comics characters, followed by a reprint of a more contemporary story featuring the same characters -- basically showing how far the characters, and comics, had come. Recently these books have been re-issued...but with new covers, and new stories substituted to represent the modern versions of these characters.

Son of Origins - Revised Edition reprints the first appearances of the X-Men, Iron Man, Daredevil, the Avengers, and the first issue (as opposed to the first appearance) of the Silver Surfer, followed by more contemporary tales of all (except the Surfer, for some reason). Though the definition of contemporary is a bit loose; this was published in 1997, but the "modern" Daredevil story is from eleven years earlier!

The origin stories are pretty self-explanatory, featuring the scripting of Stan Lee (and his brother Larry Lieber on the Iron Man story from Tales of Suspense) and art by Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Bill Everett, and John Buscema. I'd already read (slightly edited) the X-Men and the Silver Surfer stories, as well as a later reprisal of Iron Man's origin by David Michelinie and Carmine Infantino (Iron Man #122) that was almost a panel-by-panel, line-by-line remake of the original, so the novelty of those stories was a bit muted. The weakest of the five is probably the Avengers origin, with the strongest being the Silver Surfer (a product of the late '60s, rather than the early '60s as with the others) and the Daredevil story was interesting, albeit more for its aspects of kitchen sink melodrama than its superhero fisticuffs. I also kind of liked the Iron Man origin, nicely drawn by Heck.

Lee, in his intro to the Iron Man story, acknowledges the politics of the tale (published during the early days of the Vietnam War) might be a bit uncomfortable in hindsight -- the good guy American vs. the evil commie. That's pretty unusual, and admirable, for someone to acknowledge changing mores -- it's amazing how unrepentent some writers will be when looking back at their early stuff. What's ironic, though, is that Lee needn't have bothered: even in these "enlightened" times I've read (and seen) stories far more offensive and racist than the Iron Man tale.

Perhaps to demonstrate how elaborate comics have become, all four of the modern stories are part of multi-issue sagas (the Avengers tale is the final chapter of a 19 issue epic!). Although it allows the reader to glean something of the bigger story, it's awkward -- you don't really feel you've read a complete story. My favourite was the Iron Man tale: it was pleasingly entertaining and, ironically, the most old fashioned, comic booky of the four -- sort of negating the point of the old/new excercise. It had more of a self-contained feel, despite being in the middle of a bigger story. The 40 page Avengers story was brooding, with the characters struggling with a moral dilemma -- decent enough, but, again, too much of what it was...the end of a much larger piece. The X-Men story, and Chris Claremont's final script after fifteen years on the title (possibly a record) was a bit blah and generic, with the X-Men and Magneto debating political philosophy. Maybe I read too many X-Men comics in my youth, 'cause it just seemed like a retread of other -- better -- X-stories.

And then we get to Daredevil. Perhaps the best example of showing how much comics have "grown up" over the years, it's a gritty, gnarly little tale...but, where the other stories were the conclusions of epic chronicles, the Daredevil story is the penultimate chapter! It's to be continued! Honest! Marvel Comics expects you to lay out all that moola for this book, and they haven't even bothered to give you a story with an ending. Worse, since the full storyline is reprinted in the TPB Daredevil: Born Again, is this just a mercenary ad for that other TPB? (The full Iron Man storyline is also, apparently, available as a TPB: subtitled The Armor Wars).

Or is this merely an unfortunate comment on recent comics? That, in the eleven years prior to this collection, the editors couldn't find another, self-contained story worth including? That could also be asked of the other reprints. Are these truly the best they could find?

In the end, Son of Origins - Revised Edition delivers the promised inaugural issues and the four modern stories are, to varying degrees, entertaining. Ultimately, though, it falls short of being a great book, thanks in large part to the incompleteness of the modern tales. What's also frustrating is how spartan Lee's commentaries can be. No mention is there, for instance, that Iron Man has had bouts of alcoholism -- a not insignificant event in the evolution of the art form. As well, the book is sloppily assembled in spots -- there are references that clearly relate to the 1975 edition of Son of Origins, and the different stories contained therein.

Actually, I wish they had just done a straight re-issue of the original edition. Not only would it have contained other stories, but it also contained more stories -- including a Watcher comic (never having read a Watcher story, I'm curious what it would've been like). Obviously, though, to have retained the original, 1970s comics, would defeat the purpose of printing "newer" stories.

Cover price: $35.00 CDN./$24.99 USA. 

Showcase presents The Trial of the Flash
  Is reviewed here section.



 

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