The fourth-wall breaking madness that was John Byrne’s She-Hulk #2
J ohn Byrne loves She-Hulk. He installed her in the Fantastic Four as a temporary replacement for the Thing during his acclaimed run on that title. He then produced a 1985 Marvel graphic novel starring her, in which she is exposed to radiation from the atomic pile of a crashed S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier with the result that she becomes She-Hulk permanently, no longer able to revert to her Jennifer Walters form. Brilliantly, she has no problem with this; turns out that she prefers being “Shulkie” anyway.
Under Byrne’s aegis, She-Hulk became that rare Marvel character, one with no hang-ups about being a superhero. Freakishly tall, greenskinned and immensely strong, she happily accepts what she is, indeed revels in it. She’s smart, too, having long since shed her original “Savage She-Hulk” persona. All this makes her very appealing, sexy even. Her buxom Amazonian figure doesn’t hurt, either.
When Byrne was given a crack at a She-Hulk solo title in 1989, he brought even more to the table than just a character he had nurtured and developed. He brought a sense of mischief and a willingness to poke fun at the underlying absurdities of the Marvel universe. Issue #1 is relatively straightforward, a more or less vanilla scene-setter. Only on the penultimate page do we get a hint of what’s to come, as She-Hulk muses: “Some anonymous bad guy is ready to spend three million bucks to find out how tough I am... and I know how these things
“Boy! Cousin Bruce sure had to put up with a truckload of weirdos in his second issue!”
work! It’ll be at least my third issue before I find out who it is!” Then, in the next panel, she turns to look directly at us and says, “Although my readers will probably find out on the next page...” (Which we do. It’s the Headmen.)
The fourth wall begins to crumble. With issue #2 it has broken down completely, and Sensational She-Hulk confidently hits its stride. The baddies this time are the Toad Men from outer space. There’s a nice symmetry here, as they were also the villains in Incredible Hulk #2, where they kidnapped Bruce Banner in an effort to determine the human race’s level of technological advancement. In She-Hulk #2 these stunted, warty, amphibian-looking aliens are played for laughs, as well they should be. They aren’t even genuine extraterrestrials but, it transpires, dwarves in costume, part of a complex illusion concocted by Mysterio in order to take She-Hulk captive.
As the Toad Men launch their attack on her, She-Hulk turns round in indignation to lambast her creator: “Toad Men, Byrne?? Toad Men? I thought the cover was just a gag. I was all set for the Kree or the Skrulls... or even the crummy Kyloreans! But you stick me with the Toad Men?”
This comes at the end of a running gag in the narrative captions consisting of notes purportedly passed between editorin-chief Tom DeFalco and title editor Bobbie Chase. The former complains about the lack of action and Marvel “magnificence” in the opening scenes, while the latter repeatedly reassures him that “cosmic grandeur” is on its way. When at last a host of Toad Men spaceships appears, filling the sky in a double-page spread, DeFalco responds laconically with “Not bad, not bad. But I could’ve used a few more Toad ships.” Byrne himself then intervenes: “Well, take a good look at the ones you got, boss! I’m not drawing this [scribbled-out word] fleet again!”
Of course this is all part of the script, Byrne gently joshing. But it’s genuinely funny and introduces an element of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad into the proceedings, a wry self-consciousness. Later issues would feature Shulkie crossing panel borders in order to get from one location to another; wearing a flimsy silk chemise that doesn’t, as you might expect, get ripped to shreds in battle because it has a Comics Code Authority label sewn into it; and tearing through the page, bypassing an advert and emerging through the following page.
It was all lovely metafictional fun and games for eight issues until Byrne either quit or was fired – opinions vary – after complaining about what he regarded as editorial interference. He returned to the book later for a second stab that was possibly more inventive than the first but at the same time somehow less playful.
Dumb villains and a heightened sense of the ridiculous made issue #2 and the rest of Byrne’s run a treat. If Monty Python or The Naked
Gun team were ever to produce a superhero comic, it might look something like this.
The Sensational She-Hulk #02 | Story “Attack Of The Terrible Toa d Men” | BY John Byrne
Date June 1989