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From Savage to Sensational

Characters are created for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s sheer creative inspiration. Other times, it’s for plot purposes.

In the case of Marvel’s She-Hulk, it was strictly business.

The year was 1979, and still going strong in its second season on CBS was the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno-starring THE INCREDIBLE HULK. The decision was made that, to protect the “Hulk” copyright from knockoffs and imitators, a female version should be created and published. After all, a similar situation had come up only one year before, with Marvel hurriedly pushing a “Spider-Woman” character into print to prevent the animation company Filmation from introducing their own Saturday-morning version of the character. (In case you’re wondering, Filmation’s character eventually saw the light of day as “Web Woman” in 1978 as part of their TARZAN AND THE SUPER 7 series.)

Here’s the thing, though: as much as people may be inclined to discount the She-Hulk character as just a knockoff and a legal maneuver, you know who actually created the character and write and drew her first issue? Stan Lee and John Buscema, that’s who. So I don’t wanna hear any guff about how the character is a second-stringer — she’s a Stan Lee creation, dammit.

Part of the character’s perception as somewhat less than notable probably has to do with her first monthly series, THE SAVAGE SHE-HULK. Although the first issue started strong in the hands of Stan the Man and Big John, the remainder of the 25-issue run was written by David Anthony Kraft, who tended to inject some bafflingly archaic notions about feminism into the book, while at the same time linking She-Hulk with maybe two of the worst romantic leads ever. The art was ably handled by journeyman artist Mike Vosburg, but he never really got a chance to shine, for reasons we’ll discuss in a bit. First, let’s look at Shulkie’s debut, in THE SAVAGE SHE-HULK #1 (February 1979), “She-Hulk Lives,” by Lee and Buscema.

Our story opens with Dr. Bruce Banner arriving in sunny Los Angeles, California (although the narration refers to him as “David, or Bruce, or Bob — what does it matter?” — a clear tip of the hat to the viewers of the TV series that Stan was clearly hoping would be reading), looking to visit his cousin, attorney Jennifer Walters, in the hopes of getting some legal advice regarding his emerald-skinned alter ego, the Incredible Hulk.

Bruce confesses his double life to his cousin (the two had grown up as close as brother and sister, we’re told), but before she can devise any sort of legal strategy, the two are ambushed by thugs in the employ of mobster Nick Trask, who has framed one of Jen’s clients, Lou Monkton, for murder. In one of the less brilliant legal strategies I can think of Jen had spread a rumor that she had secret evidence that Trask himself murdered the man that Monkton is accused of killing. This was apparently supposed to “shake Trask up.” Indeed it does, as Trask’s goons try and keep Jen quiet with a little 45-caliber persuasion:

Bruce Banner manages to fend off the dangerous gangsters with a garden hose (don’t make him get the rolled-up newspaper), and they flee the scene, leaving Banner to care for his critically wounded cousin. Luckily, Bruce spies a doctor’s shingle on the front door of a nearby house. He breaks in and performs emergency treatment on Jen, including an apparently necessary blood transfusion, with the only blood available: his own.

With Jen stabilized, Bruce calls the police, who take her to the hospital and hold Banner for questioning. Naturally, Banner becomes overwrought at being captured, and before long “Hulks out,” leaving only a smashed-through brick wall behind him. It’s interesting — very deliberately, we never see the Hulk appear in the story, presumably to keep the focus on Jen Walters and her imminent transformation.

The next day, a recovering Jen gets a visit in the hospital from a trio of brutish “doctors”: Trask’s thugs, coming back to finish the job. As they struggle to dose her with chloroform, the gamma-radiated blood now coursing through her body responds to her fear and rage just as it always has with her cousin Bruce, and the She-Hulk is born.

She-Hulk tears apart the hospital trying to get her hands on the thugs, finally hucking a telephone pole like a boomerang, shearing the wheels off the mobsters’ big ol’ ’70s sedan. As She-Hulk pulls them from the wreckage, they confess, and as the police arrive she runs back to her hospital room, feeling her rage and strength beginning to subside.

Not a bad debut, right? A satisfying and straightforward, if a little basic, origin story. Taking over with issue #2 were the aforementioned David Anthony Kraft and Mike Vosburg, and while the book still looked pretty good, some of the details would get a bit shaky. It would be Kraft who would introduce She-Hulk’s somewhat less-than-stellar supporting cast, beginning with her chief legal rival, the chauvinist Assistant District Attorney Buck Bukowski. The two tangle over a bail hearing for her client Monkton, where Bukowski makes a good impression for the court, wearing his best turtleneck sweater and what looks like a pair of goggles.

Bukowski would continually needle Jen with his chauvinist put-downs, which would irritate and infuriate her so much that she’d be at risk of turning into the She-Hulk. Seems to me she should just file a restraining order against the guy, because he seemed to go out of his way to show up and be a obnoxious ass, such as here when he bursts in uninvited while Jen is recuperating from both her bullet wound and the death of her best friend (a death for which She-Hulk would be blamed, naturally):

“Can’t take the heat”? I guess that’s one way to say it. I think another is harassment…

We also discover in time that mobster Nick Trask is also responsible for the murder of Jen’s mother, in an attempt to kill Jen’s father, the local Sheriff.

Also introduced is Jen’s neighbor and childhood friend, Zapper, who looks like an unholy cross between John Stossel and John Oates. And this was the romantic lead, mind you. I know it was the ’70s, but really? The mustache would only get bushier and “gay-pornier” as the series went on, by the way.

As if She-Hulk’s taste in men wasn’t bad enough, also introduced was Richard Rory, hard-luck hippie loser and former sidekick to the Man-Thing. After winning a million bucks at a Vegas casino, Rory hits L.A. and in short order runs into both the She-Hulk and Jen Walters, and is getting awfully chummy with Jen pretty damn fast, if you ask me. Even worse, Jen reciprocates.

Jen would continue to string both these two losers along over the course of the series, both as Jen Walters and She-Hulk. One day she’d be on the beach making out with Zapper…

The next Richard Rory would be crashing at her place, with an angry Mustache Man leaving in a huff. Even worse, this Zapper character once sold her out to some evil researchers who ostensibly wanted to study her cells for cancer research, but of course, were really in the “clone-an-army of-super-beings” business. I suspect this may be part of the reason this first series didn’t last: male readers were likely appalled not only that Jen was so blatantly playing the field, while any female readers were just appalled at who she was playing it with

Rounding out the cast is Jen’s aforementioned father, Sheriff Morris Walters, who naturally, in the way these things always work, first mistakenly blames the She-Hulk for what he believes to be the death of his daughter, then later swears to bring the She-Hulk to justice for other various crimes she didn’t commit. In addition, Sheriff Walters and his daughter are estranged due to both the death of Jen’s mother, and the sheriff’s disapproval of her career as a defense attorney. Complicating matters is the scheming of the sheriff’s fiancée Bev, who plots and plans to keep Jen and her father feuding so she can convince him to sell the family home, in which Jen lives, in order to line her own pockets.

In one of the funnier midstream character shifts I’ve ever seen, when Bev first appeared, she was something of a frumpy housefrau type, but as the melodrama continued to ratchet up, by the end of the run she had been transmogrified into a glammed-out ex-prostitute and mob moll. Yikes.

Initially, She-Hulk’s transformations were triggered by fear, anxiety and rage, just like her cousin’s but after a bout with a debilitating blood disease and treatment by none other than the old “Living Vampire” himself, Dr. Michael Morbius, Jen could transform back and forth at will, which was the beginning of a long-running bit of characterization; namely, that Jen preferred being She-Hulk all the time. Which certainly makes a lot of sense to just about anyone when you think about it. One minute you’re a kinda mousy short brunette with limp hair and a struggling law practice, the next you’re a seven-foot-tall amazon supermodel with a killer bod, a great coiff, and you can bench-press a Buick without breaking a sweat. Why would you ever go back?

As for She-Hulk’s opponents, well, let’s just say she wasn’t exactly looking down the barrel at the Legion of Doom. Aside from crime boss Nick Trask and his various thugs, goons, mobsters and eventually even giant robots…

Wait a minute, I have to digress here. This is just too good. So one of Trask’s plans to get at Jen Walters is to frame the She-Hulk , and make the Sheriff go after her, right? So he uses a super-realistic robot double he swiped from Stark Enterprises to imitate her around town. Check out the amazing replica:

Nice wig.

Anyway, other than poorly painted robot drag queens, She-Hulk also has to contend with Iron Man and Marvel’s resident swamp monster the Man-Thing, as well as homegrown menaces like the hypnotically persuasive cult leader known as the Word and his musclebound daughter Ultima, the bifurcated android known as Gemini, and the Man-Elephant.

Yes, the Man-Elephant. This one’s a doozy. Hydaulics industrialist Manfred Haller volunteers to bring in the She-Hulk with the new armored suit he’s designed, which, of course, gives him all the powers of an elephant.

My personal favorite is the “knockout snout,” by the way…

Anyway, by issue #25, the sales were telling the tale. For whatever reason, readers just weren’t clicking with the SAVAGE SHE-HULK, and the book was cancelled. Most of the loose ends were wrapped up, with Sheriff Walters discovering that his daughter was the She-Hulk and accepting her, Zapper forgiven by She-Hulk for selling her out, and best of all, that loser Richard Rory shown the door.

So that should’ve been it for Shulkie, right? Straight to comic-book limbo.

Luckily, AVENGERS plotter and Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter had other plans. Come on back next week for more.

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