The idea of novels based on Marvel superheroes written for a “chick lit” audience is one that was greeted with a lot of trepidation by our commenters back in February, and we knew that meant that a review was absolutely necessary. After all, we were kind of excited about it. Well, I was. A She-Hulk television show in the style of Ally McBeal is basically a thing I’d collect the Dragon Balls for. I’ve always loved the triple bridge her character makes between the hypermasculine-coded world of superheroes, the intellectual world of legal studies, and a third set of traits that are often considered the exact opposite of both the masculine and the intellectual: a woman who likes partying and casual sex. I was very interested in seeing how that concept might play out if you replaced “Ally McBeal” with “Bridget Jones” and aimed it at a mass female audience.
What I’m trying to say is that Jill is reading Rogue Touch and will have a review when she’s done, so in the meantime lets talk about The She-Hulk Diaries, by Marta Acosta. Smashing occurs. So does smooching. And sm — sss… Lawyering.
The She-Hulk Diaries is titularly name dropping The Bridget Jones Diaries, but reading it I found myself thinking much more of Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods’ boundless confidence when examining this version of Jennifer Walters (civillian name of the hero known as She-Hulk, given the ability to transform at will into a superstrong, larger green version of herself by an emergency blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner, without all his messy rage problems), right down to the fact that they both have best friends who are hairdressers. Sure, Jen is drafting up a list of things that need changing in her life, and they’re pretty deep cuts: new job, new apartment, new romantic relationship, new outlook on getting outside her social comfort zone and balancing work and a social life. But Jennifer’s more frustrated that she hasn’t accomplished her goals than desperate, and proceeds along her purpose with a very She-Hulkian confidence and determination.
For those that were worried that this book would proceed entirely along romantic lines, I was actually happy to find that it supported, once the non sequiturs had been revealed to be significant plot details, three separate but intertwined plots. One, yes, is about Jen dealing with the reappearance of an old, famous flame: a rock star she had a one night stand with in her pre-She-Hulk law school days. But the other two fall squarely into the three other aspects of She-Hulk stories: the one that is perhaps given the most attention out of all of them is Jen taking lead on a high stakes legal case brought against a company that has invented cloned miracle organs that could be used to cure dozens of modern diseases… if only a disturbing number of them hadn’t started to break down. And the other is a rash of seemingly unconnected supernatural phenomena around New York City, including, amusingly, a suspicious trend of niceness, as well as the appearance of a wiley new supervillain who appears to have a personal vendetta against She-Hulk.
I tried to keep an open mind while reading the book, since it’s merging superheroes with a genre that I don’t have a lot of experience with (just as many geeks would like New York Times reviewers to keep an open mind while reviewing Game of Thrones), and though I found that it left me feeling impatient in places, overall it was a fun and goofy read that had me just as engaged in the final supervillain confrontation (with a big reveal of one of the heavy hitters of canonical Marvel villainy) as I would be in any issue of a comic. That’s the overview. Lets talk about some details:
I can’t let The She-Hulk Diaries go without expressing some disappointment at the book’s most flat character: a stereotypical ice queen lawyer who has clearly sacrificed any non-transactual social relationships in her quest to be the sharkiest, most successful lawyer around… and who naturally turns out to be super comic book style evil in the end, rather than an actual human being who might be afflicted with such a personality for any number of familial, societal or class reasons. Seriously, there are actual Marvel supervillains in this book who get more sympathy, explanation of, and respect for the origin stories that made them evil from Jen than this fellow lawyer. It’s eye-rolly.
I also found the humor to be on the goofy side of cleverness, which meant that most of it fell flat for me. Your personal milage may vary. However, the humor was goofy enough to mask some of the aforementioned strange paranormal phenomenon as set dressing for the sake of humor rather than relevant plot details… which meant that I wasn’t always able to completely see where the story was going in advance. So I’ll willingly award it one muttered “Clever girl” for slipping a few things in under my radar.
The She-Hulk Diaries makes some odd choices of what to change from She-Hulk canon. For one thing, Jennifer considers herself and She-Hulk to be two very different but very close friends living in the same shapeshifting body, sort of like the Odd Couple but with a much smaller apartment. As a fan who knows She-Hulk primarily from Single Green Female, I miss the Jennifer Walters who loves to party just as much as Diaries Shulky does, but feels that she can’t summon the confidence, style, or charisma to kick butt in court, party all night, and then pick up, pleasure, and discard members of the opposite sex like a giant green Tony Stark would unless she is She-Hulk at the time… and refuses to admit that there might be some teensy confidence issues at the heart of that feeling. Diaries also gives us a She-Hulk who isn’t open about her secret identity: only folks in the superhero community know that She-Hulk and Jennifer Walters are one and the same, and so I also miss the She-Hulk who is just as interested in being a giant green woman in the courtroom as she is being one on the dance floor.
However, while I feel the need to mention these changes to spare some She-Hulk fans a shock, neither of them broke the book for me. I accept the superhero secret identity thing as a natural consequence of trying to swing for an audience that includes people almost completely unfamiliar with superhero comics: the fact is that a superhero without a hidden persona is something of a subversion of the central trope of superheroes, not the central trope itself. And the Odd Couple in one body is is not a bad concept for a superheroic identity crisis, in fact, it’s pretty good (see the New 52’s Fury of the Firestorm, initially co-written by Gail Simone); so if you’re a She-Hulk virgin it’s unlikely to bother you.
On the other hand there are a number of aspects of the book that I take for granted as part of a superhero universe that’ll probably seem fresh to somebody less familiar: the humorous bureaucracy of Avengers reports, managing superhero fan clubs, the notion of planned, alternative superhero transportation systems in a major city, etc. The kind of things that regular consumers of superhero comics take for granted as part of the setting, but that are also details that rarely make it into movie adaptations. So there’s enough in here to hopefully hook new fans on the complexities of superhero universes that don’t make it to the mainstream very often, but there’s also just a ton of great references for fans, from Jen’s references to her “cousin,” to Holden Holliway, Jen’s former boss, talking about his granddaughter’s mean left hook. However, if I had to pick one extra-canon detail that was my favorite, it’d be the idea that in the Marvel universe, a rock band made up of scientists in stage names like “Ellis Tesla” whose love ballads are full of metaphors on science terminology could be as big as U2, that everyone would know their songs, and possibly have an embarrassingly sappy adolescent milestone while one was on the radio. It’s a detail that totally makes sense given the prevalence of famous scientist/genius superheroes in Marvel’s setting: this is a world where scientists are legitimately, and often, adventuring celebrities. Rock star seems like a logical progression.
All in all, I was pretty happy with The She-Hulk Diaries: if you’re dying for some She-Hulk and don’t mind the changes from canon, you’ll probably get a smile and a kick out of it. I’d especially recommend it if you know anybody who loves chick lit who you want to test out as a possible comics fan. If you can get them hooked on this, you can definitely get them hooked on She-Hulk: Single Green Female.
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