Written and drawn by John Byrne
Inked by Kim DeMulder
Colored by Petra Scotese
Published by Marvel Comics
Some comics take your breath away…for all the wrong reasons. This is one of them. First, I’ll give some background. In 1989 John Byrne began writing and drawing a new ongoing series called Sensational She-Hulk. The series was pretty revolutionary at the time in that it was a “humor” book, but it wasn’t slapstick silly. It was intelligent humor, in my opinion. The big conceit of the book was that She-Hulk, and occasionally other characters appearing in the series, was fully aware that she was starring in a comic-book. She would frequently break the fourth wall to address “us”, the readers, and talk about what was going on, or even to talk to John Byrne and complain to him about the way he was writing or drawing the comic.
This premise could have easily gone very wrong in the hands of a lesser writer, but, Byrne made it work. But he must have had problems with the editor or someone else at the time because he was initially fired or quit after issue #8. But then he came back to the title years later with issue #31 and continued until he voluntarily left after issue #50. I got all of these issues after he was already off the book, I bought them as back-issues when I was becoming a huge Byrne fan and wanted to check out his older stuff. And I loved it. Still do. If I were grading his run now, it would get an A+ I did check out some of the issues that other creators did in between Byrne’s two runs on the title, but none of them were memorable, in my opinion. Even today, Byrne’s run is considered by many to be the standout version of the character.
And, yes, Byrne regularly played up the character’s sex appeal in his stories, but it was always with a playful wink to the audience.
But one thing I always missed was this particular graphic novel. A stand-alone oversized 72-page story, that originally came out in 1985. This is back when She-Hulk was still a member of the Fantastic Four (temporarily taking The Thing’s place). I didn’t even know this book existed until several years after I’d gotten the back-issues of the series, and by then my interest in Byrne’s work at cooled a bit (after I got online, joined his message board, and discovered that he’s a major jack@$$), so I just never bothered looking for it. And then it was hard to find anyway, it went out of print and it’s not currently available digitally, so I mostly forgot about it. Well last week I was looking for something on Ebay, and then decided to search for this, and found someone selling a used copy relatively cheap, so I bought it, just to finally complete my John Byrne She-Hulk collection. And I got it today, and read it.
Oh boy, where do I begin?
I don’t know exactly where this fits in Marvel continuity. As I said, it takes place when She-Hulk was still a member of the FF (I believe she had left the team by the time the ongoing series started, but I could be wrong). It starts with her going out on a date with her boyfriend at the time, Wyatt Wingfoot, a supporting character of the FF whom you don’t need to know all that much about, other than he was Johnny Storm’s college roommate, who somehow later ended up accompanying the team on multiple adventures and that either he or someone else seems to always specifically mention that Wyatt is Native American (usually by cracking some kind of “Indian” joke) in every issue that he appears in (there are several of those in this book).
Meanwhile, Nick Fury (the original White version, not the one who looks like Samuel L. Jackson), head of S.H.I.E.L.D., has received direct orders from the President to arrest She-Hulk and bring her in to be examined, because the government is afraid that She-Hulk might one day lose control and become a rampaging monster like her cousin, The Hulk. Fury objects because she’s an innocent American citizen and that arresting her without cause violates her civil rights, and because he knows that Mister Fantastic wouldn’t have invited She-Hulk to join the FF unless he already checked her out and trusted her. But the government insists, so Nick has no choice but to obey, so he decides that because he doesn’t want to do it he’s just going to take a vacation, so that his Deputy Director, Dum Dum Dugan, will have to carry out the assignment instead of him.
Okay, that does not sound like Nick Fury to me. Since when is he a quitter like that? And if he objected so much, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to do this himself to ensure it goes smoothly? Heck, he’s already longtime associates with the FF, he could personally just go to their HQ and explain the government’s concerns to them and ask She-Hulk to come along voluntarily to prove she’s no threat.
Well, instead, Dugan has three agents in big high-tech armor teleport down to New York in front of She-Hulk and try to grab her. She fights back with the help of Wyatt, and so they just teleport her up to the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. The teleportation beam also took Wyatt and a small group of bystanders who were near them on the street. She-Hulk tries to bust them out, but when she realizes they’re in the air, she knows there’s nowhere to run. Most of the bystanders are lead away, except for Wyatt, and then the agent in charge, a man named Dooley, orders She-Hulk to take her clothes off (by saying “Okay greenie…STRIP!”). When she reacts in shock to that order, Agent Dooley puts a gun to Wyatt’s head, and threatens to kill him if she doesn’t do it.
No, I’m not making that up.
Note the pleasantly surprised looks on the faces of all the male S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who are watching. From the previous page, there are at least 12 of them, plus Dooley and Wyatt, in the room with She-Hulk. The next page shows Dum Dum on his way to the room, he’s wondering what’s been taking Dooley so long in “processing” She-Hulk, pointing out that it’s been 20 minutes since she’s been brought in. And when he gets there he’s surprised to see so many field agents just standing around.
What are they looking at?
Later in Dum Dum’s office, She-Hulks takes the incident in stride, which I guess is supposed to show how strong willed she is and therefor make the preceding pages seem not as humiliating, and says that “Being drooled over by a bunch of emotionally retarded little boys is nothing,” she’s more angry over the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. has basically kidnapped her without cause. But it turns out Dooley does have friends in high places, as suddenly Dum Dum gets a call from his superior officers and is ordered to go to Washington, while Dooley is put in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. until Fury gets back (See? This would have all been better if Fury had stayed and handled this himself). The implication here is that there’s some major corruption going on within the leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D. because Dooley is such an obvious slimball while Dum Dum is a decades-long veteran. Plus there’s the fact that none of the other agents in the helicarrier seem to have a problem with any of this.
Dooley tells Dum Dum to haul his “flabby old ass down to the shuttle bay”, while Wyatt is taken away at gunpoint to a cell, and Dooley leads She-Hulk to a medical room for her examination, where a reluctant old doctor is waiting for them.
And once again…
I agree with the doctor. This really isn’t necessary. And how helpful of Dooley to just randomly announce what time it is when this examination starts. The next page has Dooley and three other officers carrying She-Hulk, who is unconscious (but at least covered again in the flimsy white smock), to the cell that Wyatt has been in. A large digital clock above the door helpfully displays that’s it’s 3:17, so She-Hulk’s examination took a little over 5 and a half hours. They toss her in the same cell with Wyatt and tell him to let her know when she wakes up that she’s got 2 hours to rest and then they’ll be back for her, to start again. She comes to and all she can tell Wyatt about what happened is that she’s “been poked and prodded and probed in places I didn’t even know I had!” Wyatt asks why she didn’t just break free, but she says she won’t as long as they have Wyatt held prisoner, she doesn’t want to risk them hurting him. That’s a wise decision as Wyatt tells her that there’s a mechanism to release poison gas in the cell if he tries to break free.
I’ll remind you that even if you accept S.H.I.E.L.D.’s logic that She-Hulk is a potential threat because of her powers, Wyatt is a completely innocent American citizen. Yet he’s being imprisoned and threatened with death, just to keep She-Hulk in line. Well, using their brains they come up with a way for She-Hulk to get out of the cell, it involves her changing back to her regular human form of Jennifer Walters (unlike Bruce Banner, in addition to retaining her own personality as She-Hulk she could also transform back and forth at will, not just when she gets angry), and slipping out between the bars since she’s much shorter and skinnier that way. She manages to sneak through the helicarrier hallways and finds Dooley’s private office, transforming back into She-Hulk she breaks in and finds…
Note the images on those screens. So now we know that at some point during the examination She-Hulk, naked, was made to stand spreadeagled while her arms were chained to the ceiling. This is despite the fact that as we’ve seen and she’s made it clear she’s been cooperating with them, because they have Wyatt locked up. So…why the chains?!? Oh, nevermind.
The rest of the story is mostly all action. We see that one of the bystanders who was teleported up to the helicarrier with the others has managed to sneak away and stay on board. He’s an old man. And when Dooley bumps into him he the old man grabs Dooley and kisses him on the mouth. No, the book isn’t delving into homoeroticism here, it turns out the man was possessed by a bunch of roaches who operate as a hive mind. During the kiss, the roaches leave the old man (who promptly shrivels up and dies) and pour into Dooley’s mouth, and possess him. They lead him to the helicarrier control room, where he takes over and programs it crash (“to show the human world our power”, the roach hive mind says). Most of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents evacuate via escape pods while She-Hulk, Wyatt (whom she freed from his cell) and that old doctor stay on board to try to guide the helicarrier and minimize the crash.
She-Hulk has a final fight with the possessed Dooley, who explodes and unleashes the swarm of roaches when she throws him against the wall. The roaches crawl all over her and try to possess her, but she manages to fight them off and crush them all. The helicarrier crashes (in a conveniently empty area) and She-Hulk, Wyatt, and the doctor manage to survive. But then the doctor warns them that the helicarrier is set to explode like an atom bomb, destroying everything within 100 miles, including the nearest town. He calculates that only She-Hulk is strong enough to go back in and shut down the reactor, which she does. But then later, back with the FF, Mister Fantastic examines her (with her clothes on this time) and tells her that the radiation she was exposed to has mixed with the gamma radiation that’s already in her blood, and that now she is stuck in her She-Hulk form, and will be unable to ever switch back to her regular human form. But, as she’s later in her apartment with Wyatt, She-Hulks claims that doesn’t bother her as she prefers being She-Hulk anyway, which is why she never changed back much in the first place. So all is well. THE END
Except, wait, we still have no clue about the origins of that roach swarm, and if there are any more, and what they’ll do next (as far as I can tell, that storyline was never referred to again in any future Marvel comics), nor is there any explanation for how this evil agent Dooley (whom She-Hulk never gets proper revenge on in this story, as by the time she confronts him, he’s possessed by the roaches) got in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. And, apparently, after this, S.H.I.E.L.D. just lost all interest in She-Hulk, as they let her go and didn’t come after her again, nor where their any consequences for what they did to her here (you’d think the FF and other heroes would be pretty pissed when they found out…where’s Captain America when you need him?). So what the bloody heck was even the point of this story, other than to have She-Hulk repeatedly forced against her will to strip naked in front of strangers?!?
And that wasn’t even all. There’s a scene where an agent shoots She-Hulk. She’s unharmed, but the flimsly smock she was wearing it almost blasted to pieces, giving us some teased nip-slips.
Can you imagine a story like this taking place with an iconic male superhero? Byrne wrote and drew Superman comics for 2 and a half years, what do you think would have happened if he had Superman captured and stripped naked (& then “examined”) by Lex Luthor or Brianiac, or by some evil FEMALE villain? Yeah, that wouldn’t happen. But it’s okay for She-Hulk to be degraded like this?!?
And it gets worse.
After reading this and getting ready to write this post, I did a google search to find the accompanying images to add, and I came across an old thread on the John Byrne Forum (where a bunch of grown men were raving about “sexy” this book was). And Byrne posted a page from his original script which was rejected. This was supposed to be the final page of the book:
Instead, Byrne was forced to draw a different scene for that final page:
Because, after everything else in this issue, the first image is…what? Too sexual? Think about it, the PTB at Marvel objected to a scene showing implied nudity while She-Hulk is in bed with her boyfriend, in a loving embrace. So consensual nudity and sex is BAD, but it’s okay to show She-Hulk being repeatedly forced to strip against her will while strange men taunt and leer at her?!? If that doesn’t illustrate the bizarre hypocritical mindset of the people responsible for this book, then nothing will. This is a disgrace. I wish I hadn’t wasted my money on it.
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I first read the She-Hulk graphic novel when I was about 14 years old, around 1990 or so. At the time I was a fan of John Byrne’s work. I remembered at the time being a little bothered by all the nudity, and Dooley being a complete sleezeball, and Nick Fury just wiping his hands of the whole affair. The corruption in SHIELD wasn’t so much a problem because it actually tied right in with the Nick Fury vs. SHIELD miniseries that was published in 1988, which revealed the entire leadership of the organization above Fury, and many of the regular agents, had been replaced by LMDs created by Hydra (that seems to happen a lot, doesn’t it?) so that explained why they were acting in a blatantly illegal manner.
But looking at the graphic novel 25 years later, yeah, those problems that appeared minor as a teenager appear much more blatant & offensive when regarded from an adult perspective. And in hindsight it does fit a pattern of Byrne’s rather poor treatment of female characters over the years, the casual sexism that he seems to habitually engage in. On the one hand he really built up characters such as She-Hulk, the Invisible Woman, Lois Lane, the female characters in Next Men, and so forth. On the other hand, in the process of doing so he often puts them through a great deal of physical and/or emotional abuse, supposedly to toughen them up. So, yes, I think Byrne’s approach to writing women has sometimes been problematic.
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Yes, I have also noticed a recurring theme of abuse against female characters in many of Byrne’s high-profile books. Along with this book and then what happened to Big Barda in Byrne’s Action Comics, Lex Luthor kidnapped and tortured Lana Lang, just to find out what she knew about the connection between Clark Kent and Superman. Wonder Woman was tortured by Darkseid. In the original Next Men series, the Black female character Tony was tortured to the point that she was left catatonic once (and it was revealed that she was a former prostitute who had been raped as a child) and then when I read the first issue of the new series she was sent back in time to the Civil War where she was whipped by a couple of Confederate soldiers. And those are just the first examples off the top of my head.
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Yes, and not in a good way.
Oh, man. I read* this graphic novel in the late 90s when I was a young kid. (*More like looked at the pictures in awe and confusion. I remember being confused at the juxtaposition of hot, sexy naked green woman and then…roaches!) It had always stuck with me and for some reason I kept wondering if it even existed. So this morning I did some Googling and found this blog of yours! I’m glad to see it did exist and I’m not losing my mind, but am disappointed to see that it’s pretty much crap. I found it available for digital purchase for $3.99 on Marvel’s site, and I might just buy it to show my wife why it was so memorable for me.
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Well, glad I could help, and thanks for reading!
A little late to the part but you nailed my gut reaction to this entire mess of a comic. It is gauling that one character could be so objectified and dehumanized in one book and then just hand wash it away.
In the never ending March of comics she hulk ended up working as an agent of sheild a few years ago. Did she bring that incident up with HR?
Thanks for sharing, I hope your review saves someone from reading this.
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Thanks for reading, Aaron!