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No fun: Discussing She-Hulk’s lackluster portrayal in ‘Avengers’ #20

Or, not using comics to pick fights or over-correct.

I have made it no secret in the past that my favorite superheroine of all time is She-Hulk. But in recent years, it’s been easy to feel disappointed in Marvel’s treatment of her, with lots of missteps and bad representation despite the best of intentions in mind. However, I was willing to play the long game and see where Marvel and her current writer, Jason Aaron, would be taking the character in the coming months.

But as of Avengers #20, I can hold my tongue no longer. Hulk smash? Nah, Jordan discuss.

What’s Going On?

Avengers #20 is a tie-in to “War of the Realms,” which, full disclosure, I have not been reading at all. However, the main focus isn’t focused too much about what is going on in that event other than some fighting. The focus lies solely on Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk.

During Jason Aaron’s Avengers ongoing run, She-Hulk has undergone a hulking situation. She’s been gamma-powered to the max by the Celestials, turning her into this super brutish version of herself that acts and talks like the Hulk. Within this time, she’s been enrolled in anger management and training with Black Panther while also starting to date Thor. It wasn’t until this issue that we got more characterization and a ample time in the spotlight.

The entirety of the issue focuses solely on the internal thoughts of Jen as she deals with issue after issue that comes her way. She reflects on why she likes being this ‘roided out Hulk now, how it’s better to be ugly and scary. This way, she can avoid being hit on or groped like she has been in the past, in part because she is ugly and scary. And that’s about it. She goes and fights in different locations, ending with another fight against some monsters.

The Flaws of the Issue

Before we dive in, let’s make this clear: even without what I’m about to write, this was not a good issue. There’s barely anything happening within the comic, just Jen repeating the same point over and over about how she’s better now. We have a fight scene during which she internally monologues before moving to the next fight scene. It does not feel like there is any progress in the story, so those wanting a tie-in to “War of the Realms” won’t get much out of it.

The action itself is fairly unimpressive, most often going for just stilted poses or freeze frames before cutting away to something else. The big internal courtroom scene is brought up in the beginning, but is kind of dropped abruptly, as if it was just there to make a point. Deadpool appears for five tiny panels before disappearing, his purpose merely to deliver something the writer wants to say. The dialogue is poor, trying to sound so motivational and empowering, but coming across as forced and unrealistic.

These elements by themselves leave the comic feeling unfulfilling and lackluster, especially for those wanting some good action or tie-in fun. As it stands though, these are just minor problems in the grand scheme of things.

Speaking through a Character

Avengers #20 is a character-focused issue, in theory at least. It is all on Jen as she conveys to us her feelings on her current status quo. The problem is that it does not come across as the character truly saying or feeling things after a long, heavy-duty character arc. It’s more like the writer is speaking through the character, venting at critics and criticism of his current take on She-Hulk with various characters and, on occasion, visuals.

The opening pages stand out the most due to overall bluntness. It is a courtroom scene within Jennifer’s mind, where Sensational She-Hulk is arguing against the current rage hulk’s existence. She is saying this current Hulk has killed the She-Hulk people like and is just a “‘roided-out, no-fun perversion” or a “muscle-bound downer of a Hulk” that should not represent the character. She must be eliminated because if they don’t, the one who everyone loves won’t come back. Everything said in these pages are criticism and things I’ve seen brought up by She-Hulk fans in the past.

It’s these pages that set the tone for the entire issue. It’s Aaron putting all the criticism he has gotten for She-Hulk onto paper, constantly hammering it in ad infinitum. And then the issue tries to completely validate that this take on She-Hulk. The comic flat out stops at times to say that this is perfectly fine. This issue takes constant shots at the fact people called this She-Hulk not fun by titling the issue “Not Fun,” and having Jen wear a t-shirt with “No Fun” written on it. In fact, there’s even lines like: “Don’t make me feel invalidated. You wouldn’t like me when I feel invalidated.”

It doesn’t feel genuine or sincere, but like Aaron himself is just biting back at critics. It’s not She-Hulk herself that is expressing her love for her new form and being proud of who she is now, but the writer saying these things. The characterization has not matched up well, since Aaron hasn’t spent much time with her in the past arcs. The issues of her own identity as this raged-filled character have not come up either within the series, outside of an early instance where she accepts who she is now abruptly with little fanfare. When it comes to character growth, the most Jen has gotten until now was to just become Thor’s girlfriend.

The Past, Now with Extra Harassment

But there is more to this comic than just those issues. Aaron decided to re-conceptualize and add new elements to She-Hulk’s past to better explain her ethos and behaviors. There’s an inner monologue toward the end of the issue where Jen recounts a time Bruce said he was envious of her, since she could wear regular clothing, that people would not run away from her if they saw her coming, and folks looked up to her. However, Jen counters by saying she wanted to punch him for the remarks, pointing how oblivious he is to her problems. She’s been sexually harassed and groped by villains, people have taken pictures of her nude, and her own colleagues have hit on her over the years. She states how it would be nice sometimes to be an ugly monster and now likes being one.

There is a lot to unpack there. First, the comparison between Bruce’s and Jennifer’s issues are a false equivalency. Both of them have gone through many different experiences of personal issues that are not remotely comparable. Comparing the two feels more like the writer is setting up the audience for a no-win scenario. Surely Bruce’s issues, from being hunted by the military to being shot in space to losing his wife (even possibly being sexually assaulted himself) are nothing compared to Jen’s issues. However, that isn’t to say Jennifer’s problems are illegitimate. They are problems for sure, being very real and relatable, but they should not be compared unless one is trying to set up a “gotcha” moment. By trying to compare them, it makes both of the characters look bad, especially for Jen since she has always been the most understanding and compassionate of the two.

Then there is the work to add new dimensions or layers to She-Hulk’s past. Aaron reframes She-Hulk as a target of sexual harassment by villains and even fellow heroes during the Sensational period. To be fair, Jen has had run in with these problems, in particular, the Fantastic Four issue the comic alluded to and even Thing/She-Hulk: The Long Night. There could be an argument to make of Jen not being a fan of the unwanted advances or attitudes she experienced. On that same page, I’ve heard arguments from people who find this new angle to be refreshing. It adds a new context and new lens for which to view the old stories She-Hulk was in, touching on modern movements such as #MeToo. There is certainly an idea here the could be used to support a Savage She-Hulk (not like the one during the 80’s when she first debuted).

However, #20 outwardly ignores a lot to make its point. Like, plenty of the Sensational period to the present: the smiles, the laughs, the flirting, the openness, the happy days. The comic, whether intended or not, ended up making things darker for She-Hulk, sort of like with the Justice League during Identity Crisis. Just focusing on the negatives and downplaying the rest feels like a needlessly cruel retcon to a happy character who has been dealing with so much trauma. This is also something that deserves a full story arc and exploration with careful thought and effort put into it. It is not something to be casually introduced and moved on from, especially not as a prop to justify a writer’s creative choice.

We then have the idea itself of why Jen likes being this new form and a big point Aaron makes: If she is ugly, she won’t be invalidated or sexually harassed by others. As the comic puts it, “Free to be ugly” or “…things are about to get ugly. Which sure sounds beautiful to me.” She’ll be free of her problems by being this impressive, hulking force. Nothing feminine or lady-like about her at all.

Yet that is simply not true. Depressing as it, what one looks like won’t change anything for some people. Being or becoming something that is “ugly” does not mean you won’t be harassed. It does not matter to somebody and insinuating that “ugly” people may have easier is just mind-boggling insulting. Plus, the issue itself counteracts this very point. Jen discusses that the old She-Hulk would have been hit on by the trolls she fights if she still looked the same way she did. However, one of trolls still ends up hitting on She-Hulk regardless of her appearance, asking her to flat out marry him. I honestly do not know what Aaron is trying to say here.

Misguided Intentions, Accidental Sexism

When Aaron’s Avengers run was first announced, I was reading an article about his plans and something really jumped out at me: “You’ll see us playing with her powers a little bit, trying to differentiate her more from the Banner Hulk, and make her a more unique interesting version of the Hulk in her own right.”

That always stuck with me. And getting to #20, I have to wonder, has Aaron made Jennifer unique? It feels like he has done nothing so far to make Jennifer an interesting version of the Hulk. He just made her The Hulk, with a touch of extra power. Her character design and actions are more similar to The Hulk, a raged filled being that speaks in broken English and likes to smash things. Sure, she has some more intelligence and confidence, but Hulk’s been down that road as well. If anything, her current portrayal feels very at home with how Red She-Hulk was written.

As it stands, it seems more like Aaron wants to reinvent She-Hulk in a way he thinks would be more progressive and feminist. However, it is a very masculine type of feminism that he wants, and it leans more into over-correction if anything. A big complaint leveled at She-Hulk over the years was that she has been one of the most overly sexualized characters in Marvel. With this series, he sheds her of almost all of femininity, making her a more action-focused, takes-no-gruff sorta hero. She acts like one of the boys, getting in on all the powerhouse fighting, while saying the old her would never be taken seriously. It’s a very 80’s take on female empowerment when there is so much more to it than just that. And by doing all of this, he cut out her wit, a lot of her intelligence, her compassion and understanding for others, and her humor. He removed the core of her personality for something that is lesser and lacks the uniqueness of the character.

It’s like, “I’m always angry”, but makes less sense given Jen’s character.

Let’s contrast this Jennifer Walters within two of her previous series, Dan Slott and Charles Soule. While the Jen within these series uses her brawn and might to fight, she also uses a lot of her intelligence, making use of her knowledge of the legal system to figure out solutions to various problems, like helping someone win a patent case against Tony Stark. She figured out nonviolent solutions to situations, like casually drinking The Blizzard under the table so they didn’t wreck the bar she was drinking at. She could snark and trade banter with her colleagues, she loved to party and socialize with her friends, she showed empathy, and she was even comfortable dating and being sexually active at times. She was taken seriously by villains, like Shocker in Soule’s run when he explained how any Hulk, no matter who they are, is to be actively feared. She was not perfect, prone to quiet anger, could be self-absorbed, and maybe even proved to be overly cocky and prideful.

But all of this showed us a unique hulk, one not bound by rage, anger, or acting like a dumb brute. It showed a Hulk happy with themselves, comfortable with who they were, one able to interact with people in different ways, one that relied more often on brains than purely muscle, and one not bound by tragedy and angst. She was a Hulk powered by her own inner self confidence and the empowerment she felt by embracing her flaws and her upsides. She was a character not simply to be diminished or written off because of her looks either. She was unique, and not yet another version of The Hulk character archetype.

From Hulk #16 by Gerry Duggan, showing and saying what makes She-Hulk special

What Now?

Avengers #20 leaves me baffled. This is not a simple tie-in issue with a focus on She-Hulk. This is more of an issue about Aaron taking shots at people for criticizing his work and then retconning some of Marvel History to make a point about his decision. The issue does not feel sincere at all about what it does or what it has to say, having to spend the entire 20-plus trying best to justify these events within.

It’s a reactive comic, and not one that comments on or progresses the character. It makes the Avengers run look weak and less secure about themselves if the writer is going to spend an entire issue addressing complaints and, in turn, childishly mocking the people who bring them up by making them into loudmouth trolls. The issue also ends up getting away from itself by trying to make a point and then undermining it with sexual harassment. I can’t speak for the quality of the rest of the series, but this is not a good look at all.

This was perhaps one of the most shocking comics I’ve ever read, but not for anything offensive. It is shocking in how fake it is, and how disingenuous it turned out. If the writer wanted to prove his point, and move She-Hulk in a new direction, there was no need for mocking, dive into some unfortunate implications, and trying to retcon a female character’s past to add extra sexual trauma to it. Aaron could have gone a different route, but he didn’t.

In the end, Avengers #20 is exactly what it set out to lambaste: no fun.

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