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She-Hulk’s Trauma and Recovery Fit Our Troubled Times

I’m tired. Spent.

Sure, many of us are. The nation appears awash in chaos coming from the scandal-ridden White House on down. When, ever in life before now, did your hackles rise in dread at a breaking news alert on your smartphone?

We’ve got Nazis marching in the streets. Hurricanes devastating the Caribbean. ICE agents detaining domestic abuse victims outside courthouses and cerebral palsy patients at children’s hospitals. Suspected creeping of Russia in the presidency. Rage-filled men turning schools, workplaces, churches and casinos into target ranges. Masses turning their anti-black hostility upon NFL players who dare speak to social injustice — the same NFL players they crow about “owning” in fantasy football.

Oh, and a catty war of words with North Korea that people fear could end in nuclear fire.

What bandwidth am I supposed to have left?

Add to all of this the ever-growing, much-needed bloodletting on sexual harassment and assault. By the day, it seems, more and more public giants in all industries are being revealed as the private terrors they are. Hollywood, politics, tech, coal, academia, journalism, comedy – it’s everywhere.

From Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo onward, I have seen (mostly) men tremble at the commonplace horrors of it all, and (mostly) women pour out the worst moments of their lives in righteous rage that now, finally, they may be believed.

I’ve seen the head-shaking heartbreak at how, as Kevin Spacey’s career is being erased, Mel Gibson returns in family comedy. I’ve seen years of rumors and open secrets placed on the record, and powerful careers wrecked (for now), while others fear when just one false accusation will spark every backlash.

The professional geek world is not immune, as many of us already knew and continue to fight. Devin Feraci, Harry Knowles, DC Comics group editor Eddie Berganza, The Flash showrunner Andrew Kreisberg, George Takei.

I’m sure names more are coming. Why should I assume otherwise?

I’ve seen the general fed-up-with-it-allness as an admitted harasser still gets to be leader of the free world.

These are traumatic times, indeed. Within this maelstrom, I turn to She-Hulk. Or, rather, what She-Hulk has become.

She-Hulk is no more. There is only Hulk.

It was been fascinating to read the latest Hulk series, which has turned the titular monster from a figure of hyper-masculine rage and Jekyll-and-Hyde repression, into an avatar of post-traumatic stress and the processing of painful events.

Hulk picks up after the events of last year’s Civil War II crossover. Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk, is killed by Hawkeye. She-Hulk is critically injured in a fight with Thanos, but Jennifer Walters survives.

However, Walters, permanently green and tall even when not fully hulked out, wakes from her coma looking as she did before the fateful day she received a transfusion of her cousin’s blood. White skin, brown hair, short and small.

Even worse, Jen has lost control of her Hulk persona.

Jen tries to put her life back together after her cousin’s death and her own near-death experience. She returns to work as an attorney. She hears from bestie Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat. And she has good days and bad, and at first tries to convinces herself that she’s doing better by stuffing down her anxiety, her pain.

But the Hulk lies just under the surface. Hulk literally appears as cracks in Jennifer’s façade whenever she has a panic attack. The Hulk is triggered episode made gamma-radiated flesh.

There’s no getting rid of Hulk. There’s no curing Hulk. It’s in Jennifer’s blood.

This depiction of Hulk as trauma also is represented in the change in look from Jennifer Walters’ traditional She-Hulk to this new Hulk. She’s no longer an articulate, fully conscious, emerald Amazon. The new Hulk is giant, gray, scarred, her thoughts muddied by rage.

In the wake of trauma and abuse, there often is a loss of self. As if the abuser has possessed a part of you. For Jennifer Walters, she nearly died at the hands of death-loving galactic tyrant Thanos. On the other side of that trauma, she’s no longer the Sensational She-Hulk, which went largely unchanged since John Byrne’s landmark reimagining of the character in the 1980s as a super-confident, sexy career woman.

Look at how all-this-and-brains-too, early ’90s glam she was. Simultaneously making fun of and totally giving into the sexist standards of what sells a comic book.

But now, Jen’s sense of self as She-Hulk is taken from her. She’s no longer a fashion plate. No longer sexy, with a long history of superpowered lovers. Jen is no longer having it all, and having a ball while having it all. After Thanos, that’s all gone. She’s even beyond her days as the Savage She-Hulk, the character’s original construction.

The plots of the series so far have leaned into Jen’s narrative. Dealing with her own grief and trauma, Jen comes into conflict with mirrored versions of herself.

Jen’s first client upon returning to work is Maise Brewn, a woman on the verge of eviction and a nervous breakdown. Maise is the survivor of a brutal attack that involved her male business partner at her yoga studio. As she retreats into isolation, Maise seeks protection from a creature that essentially is her fear.

By embracing the Hulk and (reluctantly) attending group counseling, Jen is able to defeat Maise’s fear monster and starts gaining control over her new, quiet-rage Hulk persona by finally accepting it.

In another story, Jen’s favorite Internet-famous cooking show host, Oliver, is transformed when his cake is spiked with a so-called monster drug. Oliver, a gay man depicted in a loving relationship as his show is about to go live on set, is victimized by two dudebro studio crewmen who have delusions of shooting “reality horror.”

Once he is transformed into a giant, green beast, Oliver acts in a combination of fear and rage. Sadly, those feelings push him toward finding the drug dealer and impulsively taking another drug in an attempt to cure himself, but it also makes him worse.

Oliver is confronted by his boyfriend, but instead of standing down and accepting help, he sees only everything he has lost, and begs for Hulk to kill him or he will kill her. At the last moment, her hands around Oliver’s neck, Hulk stops.

We later see Jen at Oliver’s bedside in the hospital, telling him about Frankenstein and offering emotional support whenever he emerges from his coma still as a giant green rage monster. The pain shrinks when shared honestly, and when the affected know they are not suffering alone.

But in Mariko Tamaki’s hands, it isn’t enough to see a traumatized Jen grieving Bruce’s death and processing her own near-death transformation. This isn’t Tom King’s suicidal Batman, guys. (Or his suicidal Mister Miracle.)

We have to see how Jen deals, how she recovers and starts putting things together again. In Hulk #7, Jen uses a client’s construction site to hulk out after counseling because, as she says, “Breaking things is nice.”

She and best friend Patsy Walker, aka the superhero Hellcat, reconnect. In Patsy, Jen shares her fears about losing total control as Hulk while also admitting to how Hulk and herself are changed.

“We’re going to figure this out, okay?” Patsy tells Jen in Hulk #10, her hand on her shoulder in reassurance.

I wonder where the series ultimately will go. But I do know this much: I can’t remember a woman ever writing a She-Hulk series before. Changing the players definitely changed the game, bringing out shades to Jen Walters that I haven’t seen before, and taking the Hulk to this fascinating study of trauma and recovery.

While I do look forward to my Sensational She-Hulk, whenever she returns, gray suits Jen just fine if I keep getting stories such as these.

 

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