Comics/Graphic Novels

First Appearance Flashback: She-Hulk

Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: She-Hulk!

Fan favorite Marvel heroine She-Hulk, AKA Jennifer Walters, is set to make her live action debut this August in the Disney+ series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, where she’ll be played by Tatiana Maslany. It’s a bit funny that it’s taken her 44 years to appear in live action, since the comics character was actually originally created because of television. Back in 1980, Marvel was concerned that the success of The Bionic Woman, a spinoff of The Six Million Dollar Man, might inspire the writers of then-running Incredible Hulk TV show to introduce a female version of their hero. If they did, Marvel Comics wouldn’t own the rights to her. So they hastily put out The Savage She-Hulk #1 (February 1980) by Stan Lee and John Buscema in order to stake that claim.

The Incredible Hulk never did introduce a female Hulk, but Jen went on to become one of Marvel’s most popular and iconic superheroines, so it worked out, anyway. But what did that first trademark-grabbing issue look like?

The cover to The Savage She-Hulk #1. It shows a white woman with bobbed brown hair standing sedately at the center. Looming behind and above her is She-Hulk, a massive but beautiful woman with bright green skin and dark green hair, scowling and reaching out her hands. She's wearing a ragged scrap of white t-shirt that is barely covering her. Behind them, a crowd runs away in fear. Bursts on the cover read "Stan Lee proudly presents: The She-Hulk lives!" and "#1 collectors' item issue!"
Keeping the familiar purple pants tradition alive.

I don’t know about you, but I would absolutely pick this comic up.

We begin with a hunted, tormented Bruce Banner, unable to go on bearing the weight of his Hulkish secret alone. Looking for a confessor and an ally, he decides to see his “kid cousin,” Jennifer Walters, who is now an L.A.-based lawyer.

Four panels from Savage She-Hulk #1.

Panel 1: Jen holds a large legal book, a pencil between her teeth. Behind her, Bruce opens the door to her office.

Bruce: Need some help, lady? The book's almost as big as you are!
Jen: That voice! I'd know it anywhere!

Panel 2: Jen turns to smile at Bruce.

Jen: Doc! It's you - after all these years!
Bruce: Doc! You were the only one ever called me that!
Jen: I haven't heard from you since you quit med school for nuclear physics!

Panel 3: They hug.

Bruce: How about you becoming a big time criminal lawyer?!!
Jen: Never mind me! I want to know all - Doc! Something's wrong! I can see if in your face!
Bruce: I might as well come out with it!

Panel 4: Bruce sits in a chair in front of Jen's desk. Jen sits on the desk, a hand on his shoulder.

Bruce: But - Jen, dear little Jen - I don't know how to tell you!
Jen: Don't you remember? We were almost like brother and sister! We told each other everything!
Bruce: Jen, I'm a wanted man! The police are after me! The army! Sometimes I think - the whole human race!
Kinda patronizing there, Bruce.

The vibes here are…slightly weird, but we’ll just leave that be. We’re also supposed to believe that Jen and Bruce are as close as brother and sister, even though they haven’t seen each other in what appears to be close to a decade and of course dear cousin Jen hasn’t been mentioned in the 18 previous years of Hulk comics. And that “Doc” nickname has got to go. But hey, the little scarf is cute!

Bruce recaps the Hulk’s origin for Jen, who is dismayed on her cousin’s behalf but determined to help. Bruce warns her that this could put her in danger, but she scoffs: “The lady’s a criminal lawyer! I live with danger!”

More than she knows, because as she drives Bruce to her house, they are tailed by men working for crime boss Nick Trask. Jen is currently defending a henchman named Monkton, who’s been framed for killing Trask’s bodyguard, but Jen has decided to…start a rumor that Trask killed the bodyguard himself, which seems both wildly reckless and potentially very illegal itself.

Bruce warns her again, Jen scoffs again…and Trask’s henchmen shoot her:

Two panels from Savage She-Hulk #1.

Panel 1: Bruce and Jen get out of a red car. A navy blue car speeds by behind them.

Bruce: Jen, you're playing with fire! you're too vulnerable - too unprotected!
Trask henchman: NOW!
Jen: What was that?

Panel 2: Jen's legs buckle and she drops her briefcase, as motion lines indicate that she has been shot int the back.

Jen: Ohhh...
Bruce: JEN!
Oops.

Bruce scares the armed gunmen away by turning the hose on them (sure), then carries Jen to a house across the street with a doctor’s shingle hanging on it. No one’s home, but he knows they have the same blood type, and an earlier page helpfully informed us that he did a few semesters of medical school, so he’s perfectly capable of giving her a transfusion of his own blood:

Four panels from Savage She-Hulk #1.

Panel 1: In the background, Jen lies unconscious on a medical cot. In the foreground, Bruce uses his teeth to tighten a band around his upper arm. An IV stand is between them.

Bruce: Hang in there, kid! You're gonna make it! You've gotta make it!

Panel 2: A closeup of Bruce, sweating.

Bruce: It's done! Now for the worst part - the waiting!

Panel 3: Jen stirs.

Narration Box: Slowly, maddeningly, the long, torturous minutes crawl by, until - 
Jen: Doc...wha - what happened?
Bruce: Thank god! It's over! You made it!

Panel 4: Bruce picks up the phone.

Bruce: Operator, get me - the police!
I really want to know what the owner of this house thinks of all this.

When Jen wakes, Bruce calls the police, sees Jen off to the hospital, and then Hulks out from the stress and flees, his cameo appearance complete.

Meanwhile, Trask’s men show up in Jen’s hospital room to finish the job:

Three panels from Savage She-Hulk #1.

Panel 1: Jen sits up in bed, alarmed. In the foreground, a man's hands pour something from a brown bottle onto a sponge.

Man: You ask too many questions, lady! And you ain't gonna like the answers!
Jen: You're not doctors!

Panel 2: Three men grab Jen and forced her down on the bed, one holding the sponge.

Henchman: Hold her! Let's get it over with - fast!
Jen: NOOOO

Panel 3: A closeup of Jen, her eyes wide, the sponge clamped over her nose and mouth.

Narration Box: Even as they apply the fateful chloroform, the frantic girl's breathing grows heavy - her pulse rate speeds up - and a burning, blazing, all-consuming rage flows through her veins like hot, seething lava -
This hospital needs better security.

And Jen loses her temper:

One panel from Savage She-Hulk #1. She-Hulk looms ferociously above the reader, bright green and wild, her hospital gown in carefully Comics Code-compliant tatters. The men are speaking from off panel.

She-Hulk: Now let's see how tough you are - against me!
Henchman #1: It's a girl! But - look at the size of her!
Henchman #2: Her skin! It - it's green!
Henchman #3: It's like - she's some kind'a SHE-HULK!
HELL YEAH HELL YEAH

You will note that despite being enormous and green and wild, Jen’s hotness has been carefully maintained, unlike Bruce, who looks truly monstrous when he hulks out. Hmm, I wonder why the difference? It’s a mystery!

Jen chases them out of the hospital and terrorizes a confession out of them that also handily clears her client and implicates Trask:

Four panels from Savage She-Hulk #1.

Panel 1: She-Hulk hauls a henchman out of a car.

She-Hulk: Come out, little man! You've got some talking to do!
Henchman: Anything! Anything! D-don't hurt me - please! It was Trask! He paid us to kill the Walters dame! He was afraid she'd prove he framed Monkton for murder!

Panel 2: Two cops approach as a crowd watches from a distance.

She-Hulk: The murder that Trask himself committed?
Henchman: Yeah! Right! I swear it!

Panel 3: She-Hulk runs away as the cops arrest the henchmen.

She-Hulk: You heard that! They're yours!
Cop #1: Come back!
She-Hulk: You want me - catch me!
Cop #2: Wait, Joe! I need you here! There's no law against green skin!

Panel 4: She-Hulk runs up a flight of stairs.

She-Hulk: My anger's fading - and so is my strength! Must get back - fast!
I mean…pretty sure there ARE laws against assault.

The other obvious difference between Jen and Bruce is that even though Jen’s temper is running away with her a bit here, she doesn’t lose control like he does: she’s perfectly capable of understanding a confession, handing the criminals unharmed over to the cops, and, you know, continuing to use correct grammar and stuff. It’s because of this that I’ve seen the She-Hulk power fantasy likened, not to the Hulk, but to Spider-Man: someone mousy and overlooked who gets a dose of radiation and suddenly their confident, playful, desirable side emerges. Of course, Jen’s not having a whole lot of fun yet. But just wait! (Uh, wait until after this issue. Actually, wait until after this whole series.)

As Jen transforms back, she sneaks back into the hospital with no one the wiser. But thanks to Bruce’s earlier confession, she knows exactly what’s happened to her:

Two panels from Savage She-Hulk #1.

Panel 1: Jen, in a hospital bed, thinks "How wrong she is! It isn't over! It's just beginning!"

Panel 2: A headshot of Jen, with She-Hulk looming in the background.

Jen: The blood transfusion must have caused it! I've become a gamma-ray monster - like poor Doc! But I'll learn to live with it! From now on, whatever Jennifer Walters can't handle - the She-Hulk will do!
Caption: And so the saga starts!
Would that we could all be so philosophical about turning into giant sexy green monster ladies.

This is a pretty straightforward Hulk story, with solid writing and art, though Lee and Buscema would depart after this issue in favor of the team of David Anthony Kraft and Mike Vosburg, who did the remaining 24 issues. As essentially a placeholder to secure a copyright, it’s not bad. It’s also not particularly groundbreaking, and as I hinted above, it doesn’t really indicate what a fun, beloved character She-Hulk would go on to be. That would come later, with her tenures on the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, and especially with John Byrne’s work on her second series, 1989’s The Sensational She-Hulk, which jettisoned the traditional Marvel “woe is me” outlook for gleefully cheesecake-y fourth wall-breaking comedy, well before Deadpool got into the game, I might add.

The new Disney+ series does look to be aiming for comedy, though how self-aware it will be remains to be seen. Though the early glimpses of the she-CGI look…concerning, Tatiana Maslany is a powerhouse of an actress, so hopefully she gets the chance to give Jen the performance she deserves! It’s been a long time coming.

Catch previous First Appearance Flashbacks, including SupermanCaptain AmericaHarley QuinnArchie AndrewsWonder WomanHawkeyeSpider-ManBatmanThor, and Doctor Strange.

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