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Tue, March 31st, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

LOOKING BACK AT THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK

John Byrne's initial run on "The Sensational She-Hulk" only lasted eight issues. But those issues set the tone for Byrne's later run, and provided spiritual guidance for Dan Slott's sequel series more than 15 years later. Byrne's first batch of issues was imperfect, but a big break from the ordinary Marvel hero adventure book. Most famously, this is the book people reference when they want to talk about "breaking the fourth wall."

I think it's wrong to describe the title that way, though. It's more likely that the book never knew the fourth wall existed. It's a series that lives fondly in many people's memories for its meta-commentary, the way it poked fun at comic clichés, and Byrne's ability to take forgotten Marvel characters and thrust them back into the spotlight. I mean, really: U.S. Archer and Razorback?!? It is the ultimate comic insider's comic book.

The series started with a cover date of May 1989, though it looks like Byrne had been plotting out his stories well in advance: the first six covers had a 1988 date next to his signature. The first issue sets the tone for the book, as She-Hulk battles the Circus of Crime -- a lowly group of villains -- and The Headman, a group of villains with strange heads that I couldn't begin to describe even if I wanted to.

This is all from the pen of the same John Byrne who had gone from "Uncanny X-Men" to "Fantastic Four" to "Superman." Now, he was writing and drawing (with Bob Wiacek on inks) the adventures of the Hulk's cousin against laughably bad villains from forgotten Marvel Comics past, providing a somewhat dramatic plot while poking fun at the medium it existed in.

It's an insanely odd career move, but it strikes me as one of those things a creator does who believe in what he wants to do, not striving to just "strike while the iron is hot." It wasn't long after this that Byrne did "Next Men" and wrote Namor as a C.E.O. Maybe he was looking for a break from the traditional superheroics?

In "The Sensational She-Hulk" #1, the Circus of Crime hypnotizes She-Hulk, ties her up, and then forces her to recite her origin story. She's later saved by another character and, well, beats up the strongly outmatched characters after their hold on her is done. In the end, it's not an auspicious debut for the series. But it does set the tone: Some humor, some odd villains, and a few hints at the awareness these characters have that they're in a comic book. It's only one or two spots, but it must have been quite the startling thing for a reader at the time to come across.

You can almost sense a hesitation on the part of Marvel editorial at the time -- and perhaps even John Byrne -- in showing their cards too early. They wanted to get people into the title and familiar with the character before they went crazy with the fourth wall stuff. If that's the case, they didn't wait too long. The second issue began the zany fourth wall breaking, straight away with a two page spread that included post-it notes from editorial (series editor Bobbie Chase and then-Editor-In-Chief Tom DeFalco) commenting on the scene.

Even so, some didn't like the rather mild approach the first issue gave them:

Anyone who hated the Giffen/DeMatteis-era "Justice League" stories would no doubt hate this interpretation of "She-Hulk." The opposite is true, too -- if you like one, there's a good chance you'll like the other, even though there are substantive differences. It's like comparing "The Princess Bride" to "The Naked Gun." Both are very funny movies, but with very different styles.

Even noted letterhack Tue Sorenson had troubles with the title, as seen in a later letters column. Different strokes for different folks, I presume.

I almost can't argue with the original letter writer, though. The Dip-The-Toes-Into-The-Pool approach of the first issue leaves the reader with a fairly silly comic that has one or two points of craziness in it. To get into the style of storytelling that Byrne needed to do, he needed to dive right in. That started with the second issue, which is an improvement on the first. It includes a dramatic two page splash of an alien invasion of New York City, She-Hulk battling Toad Man in her underwear (with an explanation provided in the next issue for that -- "Clothes by Comics Code Authority," don'tcha know?), and a meeting between the Wasp and She-Hulk that mentions they both have the same writer, as Byrne was handling "West Coast Avengers" at the time.

As much fun as Byrne had with comic book conceits, there's a lot to be enjoyed in the art, as well. Byrne's art is very strong. It gets better as the issues progress, but you get to see the many facial variations Byrne can draw here. She-Hulk is very expressive, and all the characters have unique looks to them, background characters included. This is strong cartooning that only gets better as Byrne moves further away from the traditional layouts that doing superhero comics can cage someone into. It's part Eisner, part Kevin Maguire.

He also played with all sorts of layouts, such as these two pages from an all-too-brief fight with Stilt-Man. Of course the panels would be laid out that way! On the very next page, She-Hulk is trapped as a speeding subway car blows through her. Notice the way Byrne positions her head from panel to panel. It moves left to right. The subway cars are completely different in each scene, filled with different people. The way you get the motion in the page, then, is through She-Hulk's head's position.

When She-Hulk's head is cut off by the Headmen, Byrne resorts to the ultimate talking head gag page:

After all that fun, we still had to wait years for Naked She-Hulk Jumping Rope. But that's a story for another time. . .

You also got Robocop in issue #5!

As mentioned, he was a bit of a Marvel character at the time.

Things were crazier in issue #5, "Saturdaze," when Doctor Bong (of "Howard the Duck" fame) appears and She-Hulk is swept up in an adventure in the "Real Worlds" of various cartoon shows, such as "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones." That issue went all out, to the point where She-Hulk spent two pages running across a fake comic book sale ad, the likes of which were fairly popular at the time. For more on that spread, check out Mighty God King's write-up.

By Issue #8 -- skipping over a two-parter sending Shulkie into space with a space trucker -- Byrne had Jennifer Walters fighting crime with the aid of Santa Claus, a small psychic detective who knew when someone was naughty or nice. That issue featured some of Byrne's best "good girl" art on the series, as She-Hulk travels up and down chimneys, lays out on the beach, and becomes NYC's sexiest lawyer.

The biggest problem I have with this run on the title is the sheer tonnage of exposition in it. Part of this is the set-up for the book. Byrne uses the comics' awareness of itself to skip ahead whenever possible in the shortest period of time. The silliest example is the way She-Hulk calls for a subplot page -- or even an ad! -- so she can get across town quickly. In other cases, characters break through panel borders, walk across the gutter, and land in the next scene.

The problem is, those next scenes start with the characters telling each other what they just did off-panel. And in a story where She-Hulk is trapped in space with some truckers and being hypnotized (again) by an evil space alien, more talking heads scenes are not what we need.

John Byrne's departure from the book must have been sudden, as it ended at eight issues with several sub-plots left up in the air. Who is that Lex Luthor-looking person lurking around with his sexy limo driver? Why does She-Hulk keep day-dreaming about Hercules? What's the deal with her boss? (Was the sudden revelation that he was married an editorial mandate?)

As good as these eight issues were, they merely set up the template for Byrne's second pass at the character two years later in a more memorable and artistically creative run. Again, I hope to get to that another time. . .

AFTER BURN

The ninth issue was a fill-in story written by Gregory Wright (of "Silver Sable" fame) and Richard Starkings (of Comicraft fame) with art by a young up-and-comer by the name of Bryan Hitch. It took three inkers to complete the book on top of that. But I think the first page is worth a look for a laugh:


Yes, the comic was so self-aware that the punny title for this issue was "Burn Out," with an arrow pointing at it to say, "Get it?"

After that, Steve Gerber became the series writer, which wasn't a bad choice, considering how his "Defenders" inspired some of the series.

Peter David also did a one-off issue where She-Hulk goes to Hollywood. Given how often a She-Hulk movie was rumored (starring Brigette Nielsen, no less), I imagine that issue was timely.

John Byrne returned to the title with issue #31 with new editor Renee Witterstaetter. He remained on the book through its fiftieth issue, which featured guest art from the likes of Walter Simonson, Dave Gibbons, Adam Hughes, Frank Miller, and -- Howard Mackie. You had to see it to believe it, but it was crazy fun stuff.

Hopefully, we can look at those issues in a future installment of Pipeline. They're the ones I remember most fondly.

In the meantime, I think Marvel should consider some sort of oversized hardcover compilation of these issues. There might just be enough for an Omnibus here, I should think. Maybe if the new She-Hulk series takes off, it might be a possibility? Let's hope so.

THE PIPELINE PODCAST FOR 25 MARCH 2009

We had a technical gaffe in last week's podcast.

Some quick tech speak for my fellow podcasters while everyone else jumps two paragraphs ahead: When using a previous podcast as your template in Garageband, make sure all of the tracks are deleted before recording over them. If not, some odd things might happen.

In last week's final podcast, for example, you heard the last two minutes or so of the previous podcast repeated before jumping ahead to the end of that week's podcast, which then made no sense without the set-up that had just been overwritten. The lost audio is not recoverable.

Just to clear things up: I was answering a Twitter question about which Grant Morrison project I was looking forward to next. The closest thing I could come up with is the "WildCATs" graphic novel with Jim Lee that might someday see the light of day. Otherwise, the honest answer is none. I'm not a Morrison fan.

With that all out of the way, let's take a look at the top ten list:

  • 10. "Planetary" #1 (Special Edition)

  • 9. "Desperadoes" TP Omnibus

  • 8. "Proof" #18

  • 7. "Fantastic Four" #565

  • 6. "Top 10 Special" #1

  • 5. "Captain America" #48, "Daredevil" #117

  • 4. "New Avengers" #51

  • 3. "Incredibles: Family Matters" #1 (of 4)

  • 2. "Secret Identity: Fetish Art of Joe Shuster" HC

  • 1. "Muppet Show" #1 (of 4)

The whole show runs about 20 minutes before the technical faux pas at the end. You can download it here.

I said at the beginning of the year that I wanted to look back at some comics from the past 20 years. This week is the start of that. Maybe we'll have more next week?

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com, has finally run through all those bird images I made a couple weeks back. I'm making more, but you might get a short break from them in the meantime. For now, enjoy some of the pictures I took at the zoo last year. . . But do click through the archive to take a look at the pics from the last week; they're some of my favorites that don't feature my daughter. 


The Various and Sundry blog is back to recounting "American Idol" episodes, and even strikes out at Amazon and Twitter this week. With screenshots!

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, now with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, john byrne, she-hulk

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