August 2, 2014

The Further Adventures of U.S. 1, Part 2


The Sensational She-Hulk #39 "Date Worse Than Death"

Almost three years have passed in the publishing world since where we left off. Again, having not read this series before, I don't know what all has gone on in Jennifer "She-Hulk" Walters' life between then and here, but she's now in a relationship with Wyatt Wingfoot, the old college roomie of Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm. Having reached mid-1980 (where Byrne's infamous run is about to begin) in my read-thru of the Fantastic Four, I'm thrilled to see Wyatt here as he's always been a favorite.

Not so much thrilled to see certain other threads pick up from where they left off in FF past. See, there was a storyline a while back where it was revealed that, among the myriad potential futures for Earth, there were two very specific realities: Machus, where barbarian men rule and all women are slaves, and Femizonia, where barbarian women rule and all men are slaves. That story ended with the two futures merging into a world of barbarian equality, but not before giving us an anti-hero named Thundra (one of my other favorite characters) and a monstrous MRA personified villain named Mahkismo.

Anyways, Mahkismo has returned from death and, disgusted at the equality of the now fused future worlds, has sent a gene bomb into the past to kill all women and set the futures right. And he's also kidnapped Jennifer to become his slave bride, because an arrow from Cupid meant for her hit him by mistake (not a joke - Cupid actually shows up and explains this). So we have yet another instance in just my limited reading where someone is trying to force Jennifer into a relationship with them, as well as tasteless bits of women being punched and killed which are played for laughs, and multiple pages of leering at Jennifer in a slave girl bikini. John Byrne's art is fantastic, and there is some good action as Jennifer and the Thing (who's there, because) kick ass, but it's a really uncomfortable issue and I just wasn't rolling with what it seemed to think was funny.

But wait, this is supposed to be about U.S. 1! On the final page, we cut to what appears to be some cosmic event baring down on a station (Star Stop?), as U.S. turns to Al and both hope Jennifer is in the car they gave her.

The Sensational She-Hulk #40

After a weird opening sequence where, as commentary on the gimmicks people were using to sell comics in the early 90s, Jennifer is forced by John Byrne to jump rope in the nude at the readers' request, series editor Renee Witterstaetter shows up and puts a stop to it, and even reveals it was a cheap sham as Jennifer was actually wearing a bikini the whole time beneath the jump rope blur lines. There are some amusing jabs here about tacky sale gimmicks and the Comic Code Authority, but let's be honest: Byrne was having fun drawing this for his own amusement. Don't get me wrong, wow, but it feels like one of those things that calls out something as a lazy way to cover for it actually doing the thing it's calling out.

Anyways, to catch us up a bit, it seems Louise Mason - formerly Blonde Phantom, now secretary at Jennifer's law firm - has gone through a de-aging process, bringing her from her 70s to her 40s, and she's now apparently in a relationship with Jennifer's father. After the jump roping, Jennifer gives Louise a ride, only for their car to take off into the sky and enter hyperspace. We get a recap of the past adventure with U.S. & Co, have some amusing bits of Byrne poking fun at his own cosmic art shortcuts, and then lack of air causes both women to pass out.

When they come to on U.S.'s space rig, with Al nursing some sore tentacles from Louise's initial fright, they learn the Star Stop has come under attack by clusters of meteors guided there by the gravity of cosmic mountains circling them in space. Jennifer recognizes it as the work of Spragg, the Living Hill! Spragg was apparently a one-off monster from that period of Marvel anthology stories in the years just before Fantastic Four debuted, and I've apparently missed an adventure where he returned to throw up mountains in front of airplanes, until She-Hulk and Mole Man teamed up and he was zapped off into space.

We end with She-Hulk going, "Even though it's an unusually downbeat fashion to end an issue of this comic, looks like I've got to strike a dramatic pose and swear to do everything I can to right this particular wrong. Or die trying!" [strikes dramatic pose]

Byrne's art continues to be amazing, and other than the opening bit dragging on way too long, much of the humor struck the right chord with me, especially Jennifer pointing out fold lines in his cosmic xeroxes, him running out of shading paper part-way through, and Al taking a kick to the face. I wish we got a little more of U.S. & Co, and enjoyed the flashback to just another day at the Star Stop, but it's not their book, and this story is just getting started. And Spragg is adorable.

The Sensational She-Hulk #41 "Rock and Ruin"

"Maybe we better run through this one more time, Archer. In case there are any readers who missed last issue."

"That's a big ten-four, She-Hulk."

That bit made me laugh. XD

As U.S.'s rig approaches the Star Stop, everyone takes in the sight of the pulverized space station as more and more meteors slam into it. Jennifer decides to take on Spragg face-to-face so, with Louise suiting up in the driver's seat and both taking magical doodads which let them breathe and talk in space, they set off. Jennifer punches her way through a meteor storm, trying to sort out which Living Hill is Spragg, until it tells her they're all Spragg, going into some backstory about picking up rocks from Jupiter's ring and now planning an assault aimed at Earth. The car is totaled by meteors and Jennifer and Louise face down the next barrage of stones.

Not a whole lot happens this issue, with much of it being dedicated to backstory and Jennifer punching space rocks. Again, beautifully drawn, and there's some great bits in there of why there's sound effects on the page in the silence of space, John getting tired of drawing the same backstory panel multiple times, and a tag at the end where he and editor Renee had an extra page to fill. I even like Al's pills for breathing and "bone vibration" communicators for speaking, as they're simple justifications for really just wanting to have our heroes drive a classic hot rod in space with Jennifer punching things on top.

Not so successful is Byrne's "exposition" gag, where he relates backstory over cheesecake poses of Jennifer. When she's questioned about it by Louise, Jennifer says it helps distract readers so John doesn't have to draw backgrounds or flashbacks. And then they take a jab at the female readership, where Jennifer shrugs of any offense as this is a book mostly by men for men, and those women who read are just occasional wives or girlfriends who otherwise claim they don't like comics. As progressive as this book can be at times, and as great and multi-faceted of a character as Jennifer became through Byrne's re-interpretation of her, John really can miss the point at times, and he missed this one by a mile.

On the flip side, one thing I've really appreciated and haven't pointed out by now is the realistic portrayal of Louise as a plus-size woman, and how that's never played for laughs or diminishes her as a character of action or romance. There was a bit in the previous issue where she explained she used to look the way she did only because constant crime fighting was such a workout, and this is the real her, and when she steps out this issue in a skin-tight space suit over her round figure, you know what she looks like? A hero out to kick some ass and have a fun time doing it. I'm glad you didn't miss that one, John.

The Sensational She-Hulk #42


Sure enough, I write the above paragraph, and then this issue opens with Louise walking off the comic in a strike, protesting against Byrne drawing her as fat, and that he only made her so because he wanted to create dramatic tension for her to overcome. Aside from an explanation a couple issue back about why she gained weight, none of the issues I've read have actually portrayed it as a struggle or something she's not okay with. In fact, she's been presented as nothing but confident and capable, so this comes a bit out of nowhere. It also reeks of Byrne not knowing what representation means, pointing out other "fat" female characters who were portrayed in such a way for comedic effect, missing the point that such has never been the case here. I have no idea why he felt the need to put this in, but it sidelines Louise for the rest of the issue.

There is some more fun action, as Jennifer realizes punching all the rocks was a bad idea, as Spragg is now spread out among a multitude of smaller stones, which all crush in on her until U.S. and Al swoop in and pluck her back in their rig. Dressing up as a space vixen, with thigh-highs and a boob window, Jennifer remembers steel was able to block Spragg's mental powers, so she grabs up a handful of space netting, singles out which rock is the main rock, and ropes him up, causing all other meteorites to drift away as lifeless stone.

Everyone returns to the Star Stop where repairs begins. Enilwen shows up again, this time adding Spragg to his rock collection. Seems he grew tired of teddy bears and set all of them free, meaning... yep, Xemnu is back!

Again, great art and some fun action. But the opening bit set a sour tone, another jab at Len Wein ends it on a sour note, Xemnu is someone I don't care to see more of, and U.S. & Co are barely even supporting players here. Blah.

And about the cheesecake aspects, this book keeps walking a fine line. In action, Jennifer is never shown in arched-back, ridiculous poses, and always has bulging muscles as she plants her footing and throws fists at the opposition. Outside the action, yes, Jennifer is a very fashion conscious woman who likes showing off her figure and throwing on something sexy, like her space vixen outfit. That's fine. Women being proud of how they look is great when they're using it for their own expression and not to diminish others. The issue is that so much of the cheesecake has been Jennifer striking poses or stripping down or donning skimpy outfits solely because fourth wall John Byrne has literally forced her to, telling her it's what she begrudgingly has to do in attempts to get sales.

There's an exploitative quality to how Byrne uses She-Hulk, and her calling attention to it just points out awareness instead of adding any actual form of commentary. In fact, much of the fourth-wall humor in what I've read is merely about awareness with not much to add beyond "*point* yep I see this thing that you see, too." Which is unfortunate, as there's so much potential for this book to actually say something about the views and attitudes going on in a very turbulent time of comic book history, the portrayal of women, and the near total isolation of a female readership, but Byrne has neither the interest nor ability in being the one to go there.

The Sensational She-Hulk #43 "What's Xemnu With You?"

My heart started pounding with fear when I saw the first few pages drawn in the style of Rob Liefeld and feared he may have taken over the book for a brief time. The tiny feet and hands. The bad anatomy. The stiff, eyeless faces. The arch dialogue. It was painful to look at and read. And then editor Renee again sweeps in, giving Byrne crap for imitating another artist (over Rob notoriously swiping some of his panels?) and things again restart in the typical way. Whew.

I've noticed Byrne does this alot, using pages long gags and gimmicks to pad out the book and hide the fact that there's very little actual story going on. After this opening, Xemnu and Jennifer stare one another down as he reveals how he got away from Enilwen and vowed vengeance (and has a fantasy sequence of selling her into sexual slavery, WHY UGH) until Louise clonks him on the head from behind and we take a few pages of her showing off and explaining her still voluptuous but now wasp-waisted and "acceptable" figure, and her excitement that she can now wear fashionable clothes. I said my say above, and have nothing new to add here. Sigh.

Meeting up with U.S. & Co (hey look, it's Retread!), we learn Razorback and Taryn went missing on a recent haul, and a distress call has recently come in, revealing they're in the hands of... The Asparagus People! By Jennifer referencing Claremont as she facepalms, I'm wondering if this is something that popped up in an X-Men I have yet to read.

Again, it looks great, with Byrne's strong, expressive figure work and clean layouts, but this is just him dicking around. He doesn't have anything to say and barely any story to tell, so he keeps waving distractions and sidetracks in our face in the hopes we won't notice. And again, U.S. & Co are little more than cameos over a couple of pages, with no involvement in the plot aside from just standing off to the side of it as it takes place in their home.

This run of issues has actually made me think much lesser of John Byrne. Not his talent, but as a person. This is just gross and cruel at times, and what enjoyment I'm getting from it is quickly waning.


Tony Williams said...

First of all, I can't tell you how happy I am to see that Archer is still wearing the headband.

As for She-Hulk, I know virtually nothing about the character or her world, but the tone here--the constant breaking of the fourth wall and the gimmicks--is a curious one. I know comics weren't quite as uber serioso then as they are today, but was this sort of yuk-yuk style typical of the time, or is this a John Bryne/She-Hulk thing?

Strannik said...

was this sort of yuk-yuk style typical of the time, or is this a John Bryne/She-Hulk thing?

Yeah, it was pretty much Byrne She-Hulk thing.

NoelCT said...

Yeah, as Strannik said, it was a really different, experimental thing the book was noted for at the time, especially as it wasn't one of Marvel's straight parody titles, but set in their universe, and initially carried the baton books like Deadpool have since picked up today.

Tony Williams said...

I suppose there's probably a bit more leeway with a (then) relatively new character like She-Hulk than a more established "A-list" character.

BTW, doing some research; did you guys know they almost made a live action She-Hulk film in the 90s... starring Brigitte Nielsen :-O?!

Al Lobama said...

"The Asparagus People! By Jennifer referencing Claremont as she facepalms, I'm wondering if this is something that popped up in an X-Men I have yet to read."

The Asparagus People were the beings who populated the planet that Dark Phoenix destroyed during the Dark Phoenix Saga.

NoelCT said...

Ah, okay! When I started working through X-Men about 15 years ago, I don't know that I ever made it up through the entire Phoenix Saga, but I have plans to take another stab at it in the near future. Thanks, Al Lobama. :)

NoelCT said...


Fun fact: the entire reason she was created in the first place was Kenneth Johnson, who ran the Incredible Hulk tv show, had worked on Six Million Dollar Man, where he created the spinoff character of Bionic Woman which he was able to retain a significant amount of ownership of. Word leaked to Marvel he had plans to do something similar with a female Hulk character, so they very quickly created her in the comics just to beat him to the punch. She was a very D-list character until Byrne brought her into the team during his Fantastic Four run, giving her a big character overhaul when she was initially just a rage monster like her cousin.

As to why he had the freedom he had here, Byrne was still a major star in the comics world at the time, and Marvel was desperate to win him back after he had a big breakup with DC after relaunching Superman for them. This was a book he insisted on, and they were happy to appease. Which lasted a few years before he had another falling out with them.