Thursday, July 3, 2014

Editorial Critique: She-Hulk #1 by Charles Soule, Javier Pulido

Overall Rating: 5/10
Soule fails to leverage his clever plot points to develop the main character.  So much opportunity to develop a compelling, textured, and sympathetic main character is simply wasted. The opening scene offered ideal groundwork to introduce She-Hulk as a successful, brash, bad-ass in "super hero life", to contrast with struggling, vulnerable and evolving Jennifer in "lawyer life."  So much character texture and story could be harvested out of that simple duality!

Instead, this first issue suggests that Soule, well-known by readers as a lawyer himself, merely intends to use Jennifer's "lawyer life" to drive plot.  In other words, Soule's Jennifer emerges as just a super hero with a day job.  What a waste.  I hope the next few issues prove me wrong.  Otherwise, readers will find the lawyer angle to be an interesting twist for a few issues, then quickly loose interest.

Writing Technique: 8/10 
The book is technically very well written.  Excellent economy.  For example, the courtroom scenes and legalese never need explaining.  Dialogue is tight.  Soule gives his audience credit for intelligence, indeed, the book is probably targeting older readers.

Story telling: 6/10 
The plot is conflict driven and moves along without any holes or inconsistencies in cause and effect.  Clever use of the legal system to drive plot and offer commentary.

Characters: 3/10 
Jennifer, the She-Hulk, is a simple, uninteresting character.  Pulido's art suggests the possibility of a personality, but the story and dialogue provide almost none.

Art 7/10:
The art is economical, the effect of which is to really give power and emphasis to the details Pulido chooses to include in the panel.   For example, the final scene shows a girlish Jennifer in a pair of sporty shorts, a hoody sweatshirt,  and hair in a long, careful braid. Indeed, the artwork's suggestions and hints at Jennifer's character only serve to emphasize the lack thereof in Soule's writing.    As "Jennifer", Pulido portrays a young, clean-cut professional with soft, girlish features.  As "She-Hulk",  Pulido goes with an athletic, sporty look--not the hulking, female-bodybuilder look.  Certainly not an over-sexualized female image, which is very smart.

Scene Analysis
Scene 1
She-Hulk reveals herself to be confident, perhaps even cocky, that her law firm's annual review will go well.  She meets with the senior partners (two white males), who reveal she was only hired in hopes her connections to wealthy superheroes.  She's told that her thousands of billed hours for the firm last year were appreciated, but that her efforts were fungible with every other of the firm's attorneys (i.e. she's nothing special), and she'll be receiving no special bonus.

Jennifer is angered by the partners' critique, but does not address substance of their criticism.  She first argues that she's saved the city many times as a super hero, implying the firm owes her something for that.  Next she claims she's a "fantastic" attorney, but doesn't explain why.  She then splits the large conference room table in two, resigning from the firm.

This opening scene leaves me confused about Jennifer's character.  Are her actions at the end of the scene driven by the strength of her character, or weakness?  That answer is important, isn't it?

One interpretation of the scene is as a "you go girl!" moment, with the under-appreciated female lead confronting the (presumably) unjust patriarchy.  Frankly, rather predictable for a female super-hero.  Also, the use of generic older white professional males as a villain device would be nauseatingly politically correct--and lazy.  

On the other hand, her actions could be viewed as a sort of tantrum, driven by insecurity and vulnerability in the face of honest criticism.  Think about it...a character with super strong physical strength, but vulnerable self-esteem and suppressed doubt when it comes to her non-hero professional life.  Now that's an interesting character!          

Well, which is it?  Let's stick a tack in this issue and return to it as the book progresses.

Scene 2
Jennifer is drinking at a bar frequented by attorneys.  The scene shows several panels of Jennifer having drinks alone, eventually just grabbing the bottle from behind the bar and helping herself.  A lady in the background is rebuffed by other attorneys and finally approaches Jennifer with her case.  It turns out she's the widow of an inventor allegedly screwed by billionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man).  Jennifer, friendly with Stark, thinks she can resolve the matter with a conversation instead of a law suit, and agrees to help the widow.

After this scene, my interest in Jennifer as a character is hanging by a thread.  This scene really could have cleared up the questions about Jennifer's character that are lingering from the first scene.  Instead, I'm beginning to suspect that Jennifer is as bland as a rice cake.

First, there's ambiguity in the heavy drinking.  Is she drinking heavily to drown her sorrows, insecurities and fears caused by the first scene's events?  Or is she unfazed by the day's events and the drinking scene is supposed to be a humorous powers-gag (the gag being that as a Hulk, she has a high tolerance and can really hold her liquor)?  I suppose the gag is indeed funny, but does nothing to build the character.

Then there's Jennifer's conversation with the widow.  We see Jennifer confidently accepting the case.  No lingering self-doubts from the day's earlier criticism.  Her only hesitation is that she doesn't specialize in patent law, but otherwise jumps right in.  No tie in to the day's earlier events.  For example, we don't know if she's eager to take the case in order to prove herself a good attorney and spite her critics.  We don't know if she's secretly doubting herself as an attorney.  We don't completely understand why she's taking the case at all.  Total dramatic disconnect from the previous scene.

Hey Soule!  You had your lead character in a bar...have her talk to someone (the bartender?!!) and let us know what's on her mind!  Otherwise, we're confused at best, and at worst we seem to be heading in the direction where Jennifer's self-esteem and ego are as bullet proof as her body.  In other words, a very uninteresting and unsympathetic character.

As a plot device, the law suit against Tony stark may have legs, let's see.

Scene 3
Jennifer visits Stark Tower in an attempt to meet with Tony Stark and hopefully resolve the widow's case.  The hologram receptionist diverts her instead to the company lawyer, who essentially gives Jennifer the runaround.  She leaves in disgust, promising to take the matter to court.

I take this scene as a sort of humorous, cynical commentary on the legal system by Soule.  Aside from that, we see Jennifer refusing to go toe-to-toe with the Stark corporate lawyer as he raises legal technicalities against the widow's suit.  It's not clear why this is.  Is it because his claims are valid and she's outmatched, yet she believes (perhaps naively) that justice will prevail?  Or is she really the better lawyer, and just refusing to stoop to his petty level?  The problem is, the motivation for her behavior is again ambiguous.  I realize the scene's purpose wasn't character building, but still...I'm still starving to understand who Jennifer is!

Scene 4
Jennifer and Stark's legal team square off in court for a preliminary hearing.  Stark's lawyers argue Jennifer shouldn't be involved due to past personal experiences with Stark.  Stark's lawyers seem to be employing a strategy of burying the other side in paper.

Like the last scene, the main purpose seems to be cynical humor directed at the legal system, but also setting the tone of the conflict.

Scene 5
Jennifer and the widow meet at a storage unit to rummage through the deceased husband's stuff in search of evidence to support the case.  Jennifer begins to suggest to the widow that the case is more involved than initially thought, and maybe Jennifer's involvement would be detrimental.  That conversation is interrupted by the widow's children, the sight of whom changes Jennifer's mind about leaving the case.  She eventually finds a tape that she thinks is a smoking gun, although we aren't told yet what's on it.

So were Jennifer's second thoughts about the case based on self doubt (tracing back to the first scene)?  Are we being shown a real, vulnerable person?  Is there a sympathetic person in that green skin, finally?

Or instead, is she just voicing legitimate concerns that as a sole practitioner the case was simply beyond her professional scope?  Or that the potential conflicts of interest raised by Stark's lawyers were legitimate?

Was the whole point of the scene not to expose a weakness in Jennifer's self-confidence, or merely a sappy opportunity to portray Jennifer as a champion of widows and orphans?  Should I still be guessing at this point!?

Scene 6
Jennifer goes to Stark Tower to confront Stark with her evidence that indeed one of Tony's companies stole an idea from the widow's husband.  She has to fight robots to reach Tony's office.  She explains the situation to Tony and he's agreeable to a settlement.  She dismisses his flirting, but seems to appreciate it.

To the extent the widow's case drove the book's conflict, this scene resolved it.  The scene's purpose may have not been intended to be much else.

However, it is interesting to note that in the opening scene, the law firm partners had expected Jennifer to use her personal relationships with people like Tony Stark for business and profit.  In that opening scene she mentioned that those relationships were "sacred" to her, presumably meaning she wouldn't exploit them for personal gain.  Yet she didn't hesitate to use her personal relationship with Stark to resolve the case for the benefit of the widow and orphan.  Ok, great, she's got a code.  But it's predictable superhero behavior.  To the extent a personal connection is like a power, she uses it only for good and not personal gain. At best, a new twist a classic super hero beat.

Scene 7
Jennifer is back at the lawyers bar, drinking again.  The widow comes in and offers Jennifer $150,000 for her efforts, which she at first refuses but reluctantly accepts and suggests she has plans for it.

I'm inclined to think Soule doesn't intend for us to read too much into Jennifer's acceptance of the money.  We can imagine that in a case against Tony Stark, that $150,000 was probably a small portion of the widow's award (she does tell Jennifer the total award "changed our lives") and is supposed to be a reasonable fee under the circumstances.  Sure, she did say in the opening scene that her relationships were "sacred," but after all she's out of a job.  Maybe Soule is raising a moral question for a super-hero to get paid for her efforts, but I think that's an over-analysis of the scene.  Indeed, Jennifer says she has plans for the money and presumably those plans are noble.

Artistically, in this scene she's portrayed in a sweat suit instead of business attire...which seems to be shorthand for her being unemployed.  But still, despite the sweat suit, I'm not sure if the drinking portrayed is to drown sorrows or just continuing the "Hulks can handle their booze!" gag.  One interpretation would make me care about this character, the other is funny but not compelling.

Scene 8
Jennifer is shown using the money to start her own small law office.

The scene resolves why Jennifer took the money.  Character-wise, it shows her independent side, starting her own firm instead of seeking out employment at a new firm.  Artistically, Pulido puts a casual, girlish touch on Jennifer.  Together, the art and story do more for Jennifer's character than any other scene in the book, but it's not much, and maybe too little too late.


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