[This guest review comes from Adam Noble]
Marvel has been putting on a good show lately of branding themselves as the lady-friendlier of the Big Two Superhero Companies, with its recent releases spotlighting female characters (the Rescue, Namora, Sif, etc. one-shots, the awkwardly named mini-series Her-oes), female independent comics creators (Girl Comics) and the upcoming Women of Marvel Omnibus. Nearly all solid efforts, some of which I've really enjoyed (Kelly Sue DeConnick is poised to become a recognized A-List writer with her upcoming run on the upcoming supervillain prison comic Osborn, and it's a conferral that's long overdue).
However, I have to confess there's a serious lack of female characters at Marvel that I'm all that interested in reading about regularly. There's lots of brooding ladies (this is Marvel, after all), eternally patient mother-sidekicks (looking at you, Sue), women who seem to bring about the apocalypse on a semi-regular basis (I wouldn't get too attached to Hope or her Generation, everybody). There's a lack of fun, funny, fully-realized distaff characters at either DC or Marvel these days. I mean, U-Go Girl's still dead, Kitty Pryde's a mute ghost and Jessica Jones has been doing the Jodie Foster "Stay away from my child" thing for the past couple of years, right?
The very reason that Jessica "The Sensational She-Hulk and Attorney-at-Law" Walters made for such a great character and ongoing title when written in the 1980s by John Byrne and again in the 2000s by Dan Slott was that both writers realized that the character's very essence has comedy gold built into it ("She's like the Incredible, Rampaging Hulk... but more ladylike!"). Slott and Byrne (and Jen) broke the third wall and made for great meta-commentary on the silliness of superhero comics. Basically, she's the only Marvel character I can see fitting in seamlessly with the Giffen/DeMatteis-era Justice League. That should tell you everything you need to know right there.
But that was then, back when mainstream in-universe superhero comics were permitted to be at all silly. Now I'm a pretty huge Fred Van Lente fan -- anybody who can write a cartoon primer to almost all philosophical thought ever (Action Philosophers) as well as a great all-ages Wolverine/Kitty Pryde team-up book (Wolverine: First Class) is aces. So it was pretty exciting news when his She-Hulk miniseries was announced initially -- it sounded like a great pairing of character and writer. Surely Van Lente could make liberal use of Walters' sense of humour and intelligence and bring us another all-time great She-Hulk story?
Except... this wasn't Jen Walters? It was apparently some alternate future daughter of the Hulk and... Thundra? I guess? My knowledge of the Hulk and his foes are pretty much limited to the ones who've appeared in the movies, or who have been mentioned in other Marvel Universe titles, so I had no idea what Thundra's deal was.
So what of the trade itself? The All-New Savage She-Hulk (TANSSH?) is written by Van Lente with art by four or five boilerplate superhero artists who draw with stiff anatomy and bland faces. Van Lente pulls off a few clever flourishes, including having TANSSH, or Lyra, travel back in time to modern-day Marvel NYC armed with a feminist-lingo-spouting reprogrammed Tamagotchi as her sidekick on a quest for the DNA (ahem) of the world's greatest "hero" Norman Osborn (then masquerading as good guy Iron Patriot during the utterly uninteresting status-quossover Dark Reign).
Lyra's grim quest to overcome the edicts of a bleak alternate world is given a shot of lightness, mercifully, when Jennifer Walters shows up and helps convince her that Osborn's team of Dark Avengers are Not Okay Dudes and Lyra totally should not have carnal knowledge of the ex-Green Goblin. Despite the fact that Lyra was created by typically fun-loving and inventive writer Jeff Parker, Lyra is basically Green Lady Cable, so it's nice that Jen is able to inject bring make with some jokes. Despite the revelation that Lyra actually loses her strength when she gets mad, the concept isn't explored to its full ironic potential. The extent to which this superpower demonstrates itself is limited to Lyra using words like "supple" and "flow" and the phrase "bend like a reed" while deploying Zen Future Kung-Fu against the Dark Avengers.
There's a back-up story featuring the second appearance of Lyra written by Paul Tobin, but it's odd that her aforementioned first appearance by Jeff Parker (Hulk: Raging Thunder) isn't included here, especially since it's heavily referenced in the roundtable discussion between Parker, Tobin and Van Lente.
The following year I was once again optimistic when Marvel published a sequel mini-series written by Parker and illustrated by Salva Espin (Wolverine: First Class, Exiles), one of the best superhero artists working today. Alas, the trade paperback's title is at least as convoluted as the plot: Hulk: Fall of the Hulks: The Savage She-Hulks. The first half of the TPB re-prints the Van Lente-written backups featuring Lyra working for an interdimensional patrol agency fighting leftover villains from Seven Soldiers of Victory (seriously!) and low-powered female versions of Hulk enemies. It is not very distinctive or good, and leads directly, albeit awkwardly, into the "Fall of the Hulks" crossover.
If you've been reading this crossover this book might make sense to you, but as I said, I am not a huge Hulk fan, particularly when the title is being masterminded by a latter-day Jeph Loeb. So I enjoyed looking at Espin's art here (until it disappeared during a She-Hulk fight with an army of Red Hulks to replaced by a bad manga imitation style). The story itself is utter confusing nonsense – something about a Red She-Hulk, who according to Wikipedia, is [spoiler redacted -- ed.] Is there any Hulk supporting character who isn't themselves a monster at this point? And if I'm right and that's the case, doesn't that defeat the original point of the Hulk's outsider status? But I digress.
There's a token attempt throughout H:FOFH:TSSH by Parker to tie up Lyra's conflicted relationship with her mother, but it's a subplot that belongs in a better/less crossover-ridden book.
From what I can tell, the Hulk line of comics seem to be in a bit of chaos despite this crossover. In addition to Incredible [green] Hulks (yes, plural) and [singular, red] Hulk there's an ongoing She-Hulks title debuting in November written not by any of the writers mentioned above, but Harrison Wilcox, a newcomer to comics, but a veteran writer of TV's Heroes.
The teaming of Lyra and Jen Walters still has terrific potential and if the pair can manage to steer clear of crossovers and if Wilcox can make the odd-couple/surrogate-mother dynamic work we might see Savage She-Hulk Lyra become a breath of fresh air in the Marvel Universe and some newfound adult responsibility for Sensational She-Hulk Jen Walters. My advice for fairweather She-Hulk fans like myself? Wait and see how the reviews for the new ongoing turn out, then maybe go back and pick up these trades to fill you in on who exactly the redheaded She-Hulk from beyond the future is.
Otherwise, hang tight for the new John Byrne run reprints coming in early 2011. Now that's some girl power.