Jennifer Walters has been the designated cool big sister of the Marvel universe for a while now. Her last pair of solo outings, written by Dan Slott and Charles Soule respectively, moved her definitively out of the angst cloud that traditionally hung over the Hulk characters and into something much more positive. Soule’s run in particular saw Jen set up as a grounded, wickedly smart and fundamentally compassionate woman who’s mental and emotional strength was at least the equal of her physical might. Kate Leth’s extraordinarily fun Hellcat run has continued to build on this with Jen acting as Patsy’s best friend, legal counsel and designated adult.
Then, Civil War II happened. Last year’s big Marvel crossover, it pitted Captain Marvel and Iron Man against one another in an ethical debate over, essentially, profiling. Whether it was successful or not depends on where you stand. But one of the most interesting side effects of it concerned Jen; critically injured in an opening sequence she spent much of the book in a coma and either flatlining or sidelined. Most tellingly, she was unconscious not only through the murder of her cousin Bruce but the trial of his assassin, Hawkeye.
In other words, a character who defined herself by her physical strength and intellectual prowess was defied the closure of getting back in the fight, was unable to save her cousin and was denied the one mechanism that would help her grieve his loss; assisting in the prosecution of his murderer.
The Marvel universe’s cool big sister had a very, very bad 2016. And her new title, Hulk, is entirely concerned with the consequences of that.
The new book is written by novelist and comic writer Mariko Tamaki and the step change is as definite as it is subtle. In almost every appearance prior to this, Jen has defaulted to her Hulk form. Here, she’s nowhere near as comfortable with it. In fact, the one near Hulk out is visually matched with something between a panic attack and full bore PTSD. Here it is:
Confronted on her doorstep by a writer who wants to write about her recent experiences, Jen blows past, makes it into the building and the entire book changes look and feel.
Nico Leon’s art is full of clean, sharp lines and the sort of pragmatic realism that makes a book like this fly. In this sequence, that’s deliberately curdled as Jen, staring into the middle distance, is locked into a hall of mirrors that’s in her own head but represented by the elevator. It’s that moment where you realize what’s happening and freeze, trying to stop it but knowing it won’t work.
Then, the page shatters, individual panels focusing in on individual parts of her face and mirroring the massive spike in awareness. She clutches her arm, she bares her teeth, her eyes widen and turn green. There’s a hint of the scar tissue we know Jen carries in her Hulk form now. There’s a single panel of a clenched fist and then…
She steps out of the elevator. Leaving a crushed control panel behind her.
Comics are a team sport and that’s something that continually gets overlooked. But this page works as well as it does because of everyone on the team. Tamaki’s script, Leon’s art and layout, Matt Milla’s colour work and how the green starts to focus in on her as she changes and Clayton Cowles’ single, deafeningly loud, DING. This is a panic attack in visual form and it’s the sort of complex storytelling comics excels at. It’s also a remarkably accurate depiction of this sort of trauma. Even the fact Jen deals with it and it then hits even harder as the book closes, speaks to that. Trauma doesn’t go away. It fades or you learn to deal with it and that’s clearly going to be a huge part of this book.
But not all of it. Tamaki, whose other work I’d recommended unreservedly, has talked a lot about how interesting Jen’s set up is and based on this issue she’s planning on exploring it. Taking a job at a firm, Jen is instantly given the eccentric superhuman cases to deal with. That leads to the other art highlight; a left handed splash page reveal of all her upcoming clients, one of whom appears to be a well-dressed gentleman in a Victorian time machine. It’s funny, and slightly overwhelming and that’s exactly the response Jen has. This is her normal, this is what she does. But after what she’s been through, normal takes effort. We see that throughout the book, whether it’s Jen’s slightly too bulky coat, the time it takes her to work up the courage to leave her apartment or the cake videos she watches to calm down. She’s still Jen, she’s still one of the most fundamentally likable characters Marvel have. But she’s hurting, and trying to deal with it, just like the rest of us. Based on this first issue, that journey being explored by this team, is going to be essential reading.