Favorite Fictional Characters, #246: She-Hulk
In 1980, the Incredible Hulk TV show was enjoying strong ratings. At about the same time, the boob tube was given the Bionic Woman, a spinoff of the Six-Million Dollar Man. Marvel heard whispers that a similar female version of the Hulk might be attempted, and to ensure that any rights to such a character belonged to the comic company, they released The Savage She-Hulk (coincidentally, the last original character created by the legendary Stan Lee). Jennifer Walters, a bright young attorney, was cousin to Bruce Banner, the emerald-skinned brute himself, and when she was injured by a gunshot and he saved her life with a transfusion of his gamma-irradiated blood, she underwent a similar transformation. Big, green, rugged, she nevertheless retained her intellect and personality unlike her cousin.
The original short-lived series was played straight, though She-Hulk rapidly shed the "savage" moniker and became more polished and gregarious as writers positioned her for more mainstream appeal. She joined the Avengers, fought in the Secret Wars, replaced Thing in the Fantastic Four, and eventually regained her own series in the more glamorous Sensational She-Hulk. This was the brainchild (love child, even) of quirky talent John Byrne. Byrne's concept was to interpret She-Hulk as a famous, sexy celebrity, perfectly aligned with the frivolous, image-obsessed early 1990s. This She-Hulk was smart yet fun-loving, possessed of a strong moral core and yet unafraid to walk on the edge of the wilder side. Byrne endowed her with the now-common but then-novel ability to break the fourth wall, to understand her existence as a comic book character and interact directly with readers (and writers). The run of Sensational was a curious and not-always-successful experiment in meta-entertainment.
It was during this time that my favorite aspect of She-Hulk emerged. It was well-established that comics exploited the toned bodies of their super-heroines in a blatant appeal to male readers, with costumes little better than brightly-colored bikinis. She-Hulk understood the sexism of it, but rather than rage against the machine, she embraced it. In an earlier, more robust version of feminism, she owned her own sexuality and openly flaunted it. She unhesitatingly engaged in cheesecake poses and in so doing exposed the ridiculousness of how the industry framed its female characters. Moreover, she pursued any number of intimate relationships with powerful male characters, often as the initiator or dominant partner, with Hercules, Juggernaut, Iron Man, even Wolverine among her conquests. She-Hulk is at once the most sexualized and the most liberated female character in the Marvel universe.