Years before Deadpool ever debuted, another Marvel hero broke the fourth wall to tell us what she REALLY thought. Your Major Spoilers Retro Review of Sensational She-Hulk #1 awaits!
SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK #1
Writer: John Byrne
Penciler: John Byrne
Inker: John Byrne
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Letterer: John Workman
Editor: Bobbie Chase
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $48.00
Release Date: January 3, 1989
Previously in Sensational She-Hulk: If you look at it the right way, this issue is all Filmation’s fault. In the mid-1970s, the cartoon company created Web Woman, one of the heroes appearing in a rotating fashion on Tarzan and the Super 7. Reputedly, the company had considered naming her “Spider Woman,” but were forced to alter their plans when Marvel Comics hurriedly created Jessica Drew, getting her in print in the late fall of 1976. The creation of She-Hulk came not long after, and Jennifer Walters set out on her own solo adventures in 1980. That book lasted just 25 issues (which, I have to emphasize, was BAD in that era, even if it sounds like a long run these days), but she almost immediately joined The Avengers as a regular. After the first Secret Wars, Jennifer returned to Earth as a member of the Fantastic Four, making her one of the few heroes to claim membership in both teams. Then, in 1989, this happened.
The story begins with She-Hulk at the McFadden Brothers Circus, using their elephants as a makeshift weight machine, even flashing back to the events of the first issue of The Avengers thirty years earlier. Unfortunately, the McFaddens are only a front, the latest cover story for Maynard Tibolt, the Ringmaster, and his Circus of Crime. With She-Hulk firmly under his hypnotic control, Ringmaster sets out to test her strength… but NOT for his own personal reasons. Acting under the instructions of an unseen employer, he forces her to tell all her secrets, starting with the Gamma Bomb that turned her favorite cousin into a gamma-powered goliath, then explaining how she got her own emerald skin.
1989 John Byrne was at the peak of his illustrating prowess, if you ask me, and this issue shows off why. Not only does he emulate Kirby’s work on the earliest appearances of The Hulk, but he also does an impressive take on John Buscema’s style in She-Hulk’s first appearance. He also crafts an interesting story, as Ringmaster has his makeup and wardrobe team disguise her as a red-headed Caucasian woman, debuting her as their new strong-woman, Glamazonia!
Byrne’s She-Hulk has long been the visual standard, as well, and this issue clearly shows why, making the seven-foot hero look amazing even when wearing a silly circus costume. Her performances with the Circus show off her tremendous power and durability as well, especially when she punches the offending wagon seen in that last panel to splinters with a single strike. Ringmaster’s methods worry his mysterious benefactor, though, leading the unseen mastermind to take matters into his own massive hands.
That’s also a really good-looking comic book gorilla, though its resemblance to actual great apes may not be quite as taxonomically correct as it might have been. Byrne’s work during this period was much more detailed and subtle than it has become, with a much subtler inking hand than his work in the 2000s. (Check out Lab Rats, which seemed to be entirely drawn with a Sharpie, if you aren’t sure what I mean.)
After the curiously smart gorilla removes Ringmaster’s mechanical brainwashing hat, he gets the demonstration of She-Hulk’s abilities that he wished for as she quickly dispatches the entire Circus, trapping them with an expertly thrown series of steel rods. It’s a moment that proves not only her strength, but her creativity and dexterity, which pleases him. Having been hypnotically convinced to narrate the issue to use, She-Hulk continues speaking to the readers, complaining that we’ll probably find out what’s going on “by the next page.” It proves to be true, as the villains in the shadows are revealed to be The Headmen! Sensational She-Hulk #1 does fall down on one important level for me, as it implies, but doesn’t explicitly SAY that Jennifer is talking to us because of the mind-warping hat, but Byrne’s art and the fun side trips of the story make it still resonate for me as a reader, earning 4.5 out of 5 stars overall. With the new She-Hulk Disney+ series only a few weeks away, I’ll be interested in seeing if they do something similar, as the creators have signaled that they’re going to be breaking the fourth wall there as well. Byrne’s She-Hulk run has a lot of wobbles, a few clunkers, and more than one point where it flew right off the rails, but this first issue still holds its appeal even thirty-plus years later.
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SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK #1
Though Byrne hasn't aged well, this issue still appeals to me as a reader, offering a fun, breezy ride through a continuity-laden adventure that presages much of the modern Marvel Universe.