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Detective Comics Drops A Meta-Narrative Bomb

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[Danny Elfman Theme Plays]

You know what you don’t see too often anymore? Nine panel grids. They’re the old standard, sure, but experimental layouts have become more and more common over the years. So, when you do see a nine panel grid, you’re typically gonna think that it’s for a very important reason. Most of the time, you’re correct. This is one of those times.

Fresh off of his stellar work in the equally fantastic mini-series Midnighter and Apollo, Fernando Blanco renders our opening flashback in a way that is best described as “Oh God She Just Destroyed The Grid”. Okay, not really an adjective but that’s what happened. Shiva slaughtered those Colony soldiers so fast that she broke the panels. In layman’s terms: everyone is going to die.

But, let’s back up a bit since there’s a whole lot going on here. Heh. A lot going on in Detective Comics. What else is new? Well, for starters, Ra’s Al Ghul allying with the Colony. Because that’s the implication here. Now, you have to ask yourself: why? Why would Ra’s al Ghul, the Demon’s Head, the nigh-immortal leader of the League of Assassins, a centuries old eco-terrorist group, join forces with a top secret black ops branch of the U.S. Army?

Why would Jacob and Ra’s ever see eye to eye enough to pool their resources against anything, when Jacob’s whole thing is fighting terrorists just like Ra’s? Well, the obvious answer is the one right in front of you. Shiva and her League of Shadows presents a threat so massive and so terrifying that Jacob Kane actually negotiated with terrorists. But that’s not even the best part.

No, the best part, by far, is that League of Shadows isn’t what you think they are. It’s not what thought they were, initially. You take a look at all the pieces, though, and you start to see the picture that I’m all but certain Tynion is attempting to paint. Something that is difficult to believe was unintentional. And it is an uncomfortably familiar image. Extremely so.

But we’ll get there.

The One Where Kate Isn’t Stabbed

Look, it’s like a motif with her or something. Always with the stabbing, specifically the heart. Don’t believe me? Re-read ElegyCrime Bible, 52, and Batwoman (2011). Then take a look at the solicits for Batwoman #2 (2017) and the variant cover of Detective Comics #953. So much stabbing. Anyway, our heroes are very quickly overwhelmed by the League of Shadows, taking out Batwing and Azrael in a matter of seconds thanks to, presumably, magic katanas. Bruce and Kate huddle up and finally decide to unleash their giant “I Win” button, allowing Clayface to, once again, prove he’s by far the single most valuable member of the team in a fight.

Curse your sudden yet inevitable future betrayal, Basil. I’m gonna miss you so damn much.

Meanwhile, Cass sneaks up on Shiva, and they unknowingly re-enact about twenty or so issues of her original Batgirl ongoing in just under three pages. I’d show the similarities here, but there’s really no need. It’s not like I’m trying to prove Tynion is subverting War Games all over again.

They meet, they fight, Cass gets her butt handed to her because, just like the first time around, she won’t kill. Except there’s a deviation. And it’s not just that Cass learns that Shiva is her mother in the first encounter—that was slowly revealed over a very long period of time back in the early 2000s. No, this time Shiva is not, well, as she says later herself, she’s not playing.

This isn’t a game to her the way it used to be. This is probably one of the largest swerves for those of us who know the old stories. Shiva, who used to be called Lady Shiva and I kind of liked that absurd contradiction the honorific gave her, used to operate under a very specific and masochistic goal. She was searching for a good death. Shiva would cultivate and watch the world’s greatest martial artists, wait until they were in their prime, and then strike, hoping they would be skilled enough to kill her. None ever could.

Clearly, this is no longer the case.

At best, they survived their encounter in a stalemate. Or they won because she was being mind controlled by Gorilla Grodd, but that one was pretty debatable. Mind control has a habit of impairing one’s inherent abilities since they aren’t in full control of themselves. I’m pretty sure that’s the one Bruce is referencing when he said he won. Honestly, it could be another instance but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter which specific fight Shiva threw. What matters is that she did. And that, instead of seeking her own “good death”, she apparently wants to kill everyone else.

Which is very, very bad. That constant search for the right person to kill her and assume the role of the next Shiva—yup it’s a title; her real name is Sandra!—well, that was more or less the only thing that stopped Shiva from slaughtering everyone to achieve whatever the hell she wanted. And as we saw both in the flashback and with how quickly she got the better of Bruce, unless Cass can figure out how to beat her, she’s going to get what she wants. Everyone dead.

And honestly it’s kind of awesome seeing Shiva just completely curbstomp Bruce. The fact that he doesn’t kill is a pretty huge handicap in a fight, and it needs to be addressed like this more often. But, even if he was willing to kill, Shiva would still beat him into the ground. She’s Shiva. She’s the second most deadly non-metahuman on the planet. The first being, hopefully, her daughter.

Pbbbth, hopefully? Of course she is. That’s how this works, just you watch.

Oh! And this little moment got to me:

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Do I even need to say it?

Kate Kane And The People Who Love Her And Want To Talk To Her? (And Also Duke)

That…title doesn’t sound right, but okay I guess. After Clayface reveals that Luke and Jean-Paul vanished in his arms along with the League of Shadows (those katanas have got to be magic), what remains of the team returns to the Belfry. Kate gets a call from Renee, which amusingly goes straight into her helmet. Because of course it does. She starts warning her that, hey, remember how everyone thinks that Batman killed the Mayor? That’s still a thing.

And also literally everything has gone to hell.

What I wouldn’t give to see their texting history…

Aside from getting major Gotham Central vibes, along with, ironically, War Games, this is just so adorable. It is. It really is. This is five issues Renee has popped up in since Rebirth began. Literally every time has been, in some small way, about rebuilding their old relationship into something that won’t just explode in their faces. Well, except Batwoman Rebirth. That was just flashback sex.

Anyway, after that whole thing, Kate forgets that Duke is a Black man while making a snarky comment about getting shot by the police. Because of course she does. Turns out, Duke’s been doing exactly what Jacob told them to do last issue: cross reference the Colony database with the Batcomputer to figure out how many people shouldn’t exist in Gotham. The number is, surprisingly, fifty-seven.

It’s not that I’m surprised at the number itself, but rather that it wasn’t fifty-two. Why wouldn’t it be? This is DC. It’s kind of their thing, especially with Kate and Renee running around. Duke heads off to regroup with Batgirl and the Birds of Prey in a nice bit of shared-universe nodding, and expresses some pretty heavy concern for Luke and Jean-Paul. But mostly Luke.

After he’s gone, Clayface tells Kate that her dad wants to talk to her. Which honestly begs the question as to how Clayface knows that. Was he watching the monitor? Or, just watching him in the cell? Is there a button he pressed that alerts somebody? I dunno, this is just really funny to think about.

The League of Shadows

This is where it gets scary. Not “oh that was spooky” scary, but actual, palpable fear. If I’m right, that is. Again, it is extremely difficult to believe that, considering when all of this was written, this was unintentional. And I’m not talking about Shiva’s sadistic psychological torture of Jacob in his own ops center. At least, not specifically. Though that does complement the meta-narrative.

Let’s just take it one step at a time, since it’s a lot to swallow.

I want you to look at this moment, really look at it, and consider where you may have seen this before. Where you may have heard this before. Why it’s important that Jacob be the one to say this, and why it’s equally important that Kate is the one to hear it. And not just hear it, but understand.

Jacob. You’re married to a nice Jewish girl. Would it kill you to maybe remember that? “Grab Catherine and your things and run.”

He goes on to say that Shiva is “made of evil” and that, again, she needs to run. Now, you have to ask yourself, why would Jacob, who operates exclusively in the morally grey, ever call something “made of evil”. He knows what he does. He knows what he’s done, and what he’s tried to do. He has never denied these things to Kate. So, when he says evil, I think we can safely believe he means that. It’s not hyperbole, especially considering the unprecedented fear and panic he’s showing Kate right now.

You’re looking at a Jewish man begging his Jewish daughter to run from a threat that cannot be reasoned with. From a force whose only goal is her and everyone else dead. The city has already turned against her and her people, just like Renee said. Nowhere in Gotham is safe. The only options are to fight, and almost certainly die, or run and possibly survive.

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We’re talking about a threat, an ideology really, that cannot be killed. Something that very few even believe exists, even if it did at one time, let alone willing to acknowledge. The way the League of Shadows spreads, the way that they’re depicted, the way that Bruce denies their existence—it’s all so familiar, isn’t it? And not just that. Let’s not forget that these aren’t all foreign threats. That was one the largest contentions regarding what Jacob was doing during Rise of the Batmen. The League of Shadows were everywhere and nowhere. They were in Gotham. They were hiding in America.

An old “lie”. A secret army made up of the deadliest killers on the planet hiding in plain sight whose only goal is to spread chaos, and by extension fear. And thus, hatred. And they could do it because it was bit by bit, not all at once. A build so meticulous and slow, yet clearly visible to those who looked, that the only way to stop it was to kill those responsible before they grew too powerful to stop. Like a virus before it spreads too far into a population.

And last, but most certainly not least, a group of people poised to fight this very threat that no one will listen to. That the higher authorities, nor individuals, will believe. Because they aren’t a threat to them, specifically. Not yet. But when it’s too late, and they do become the targets, as all of Gotham is right now, then they believe. Then they understand, for a time.

See? This is how it started. This is exactly how the Nazis took root,  how they gained power throughout the late 20s up to their “peak” in the 40s. And it’s how they’re still doing it. They never stopped. They never left. They hid, sure. In plain sight. They were quiet, and started small all over again. But when the moment was right, they came back in force.

Let’s Just Take A Second And Breathe, Okay?

Wait, wait, just—hold on. I know, that’s a big thing to say. And to be clear, I’m not saying that the League of Shadows are the Nazis. They’re not Hydra. It’s not an easy one-to-one comparison, and it is not supposed to be. It is, however, the same method. The same tactics. The same reactions from everyone else. It’s something that we’ve discussed on our forum, but weren’t quite sure if we were reaching too far, or if we were on to something.

And I hope I can convince you that it’s all but impossible for this to be unintentional. The Colony is lead by a Jewish man, fighting an organization that operates almost exactly the same way that the Nazis did and do. Yes. Do. Present tense.

Before you say that I’m only making this argument due to recent events, I’m not. There has been a spike of white supremacist hate crimes, anti-semitic or otherwise, in the past few months, yes. That’s true. But it wasn’t out of nowhere. It was a slow build that, again, not enough people saw. And if they did, they denied that it was really Nazis, or their modern contemporaries. And for the same reason that Bruce denied the existence of the League of Shadows; it didn’t seem possible.

There is a strong cultural misconception that Nazis only existed before and during the Second World War. This is not true. They look like anyone else. Often sound like anyone else. But now they’re not hiding because they don’t need to. Just like the League of Shadows. Again, not a one-to-one comparison, but you have to admit, it seems incredibly unlikely that this was accidental.

And really, if I am right, how is that bad? How is it a negative that Batman is fighting people that are kinda like the Nazis in pretty much every way except the specifically targeted genocide? Unless you make a case that Gotham is that equivalent, and you honestly can. Population is huge.

But, c’mon, how could this possibly be a loss? If you ask me, it can only make this better. And I’m sure some of you may be thinking “they’re doing this in response to Nazi!Cap”. Well, you could be right. But consider that that was first revealed the exact same day that DC Rebirth began, and that these storylines were planned well in advance. It’s possible that some of the lettering and wording was massaged to better fit that meta-narrative, and if it was, well, that’s kinda great too. But if it wasn’t, that just makes it more powerful.

Either way, we as readers win.

Ahem. Anyway, there’s, uh, two more things I wanted to talk about.

The Two More Things I Wanted To Talk About

Batwing and Azrael are fine, and I’m betting it has something to do with how they were stabbed. Jacob talks about being stabbed in just the right way, and he shows the scar. It’s in the same place that Luke was hit. Jean-Paul was stabbed in the back so…I mean I guess they could have pulled the same trick. I’d assume as much since he hasn’t had his arc yet. Plus, he’s Azrael. He just got here!

And also that Bruce is getting really good at hugging.

That’s like, his third since Rebirth started! He’ll be a hug master at this rate.

So, yeah. Leave your thoughts either here or on the forum, if you’d like. Still love this book, and I love it even more than I did last time. Which is just really freaking crazy, y’know?

Next Week: BATWOMAN #1! Are you excited? I’m excited!


All images courtesy of DC Comics 

DETECTIVE COMICS #952 Credits

Writer: James Tynion IV

Pencils/Inks (pgs 1-3): Fernando Blanco

Pencils/Inks (pgs 4-20): Christian Duce

Colors (pgs 1-3): John Rauch

Colors (pgs 4-17): Alex Sinclair

Colors (18-20): Allen Passalaqua

Letterer: Sal Cipriano

Griffin is an Entertainment Writer operating out of the Chicago area. He likes puzzles, deconstructing other puzzles, and talk show branded ice cream flavors.

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Saga: A Ghost’s Swansong

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This time around, I think I’ll save me some opening lengthy opening words. I do believe the title of this review and the issue’s cover say enough on their own. Farewell chapters tend to be pretty strong on both narrative and emotional engines, and this one is no different. As usual, there will be a dash of several events and ‘POV characters’, but the bulk of it lands on the ethereal shoulders of our beloved disembodied babysitter, Izabel.

From start to finish, this issue is a parade of ghostly awesome. OBVIOUSLY, spoilers ahead, and perhaps a few tears…

Issue #38
“Be a good girl tomorrow… but not TOO good.”

Usually, a rotting host of war-fallen zombies in stark detail makes for a frightful impression. But even before Kurti sees through the illusion, we already know this is Izabel casting her ghostly magic. She is definitely one whose colourful choice of words would compromise her own scheme, with amusing results. Although, Izabel’s attempt ultimately failed, the real shock for the Phang dwellers is the fact that horns, wings, robots and ghosts would travel together. An uneasy alliance for sure, but an alliance nonetheless.

A peculiar thing to note here is how an outside assessment can outline certain features in a character or collective. If we take into consideration how badly the war has hit Phang, it should be no surprise that the rodent family’s first thought upon seeing Alana, Marko and company is The Last Revolution. We all know how that went down: ruthless pragmatism for THE GREATER GOOD, villainy and comeuppance.

However, the crew’s latest iteration exhibits a very similar setup in terms of diversity and role as outsiders. Yet they’re also not entirely estranged from their reality as pieces in the war chessboard, if Petrichor and Sir Robot are anything to go by. In fact, these two even criticize Alana and Marko for opting out of the war between their worlds.

In the end, however, none of that really matters to Phang’s hungry populace. Craven deserters, conscientious objectors, terrorists; they don’t manifest into more meaningful roles to heal the damage done. The displaced and the dead will continue to be so. That’s why Marko doesn’t speak against Hazel’s quick willingness to help these people, which is as much of an inconvenience as a good gesture. On her part, Alana still thinks it more sensible to simply refuel and get going — for Hazel’s sake. Thus, we’re again at that slight impasse between them. Neither Marko nor Alana are actually in the wrong here. It all really boils down to ensuring either a child’s physical or moral integrity. Sometimes, it may not be possible to achieve both.

In the end, they agree to help out a bit and then be off. After all, how long could that actually take? Cue the obligatory cut into the future that comes with tempting fate in a narrative. What should have been a few hours ended up six months. By now, Alana is quite heavy with child and pretty familiar with the rodenty brats as well. I swear, some people have a way of generating extended family. It’s like they sneeze on you, and suddenly you’re their children’s godfather… but I digress.

Lending credit to Hazel’s narration, this is a downright precious period. Hazel has lots of friends her age to play with, and Jebarah, the collective’s matron, gives a heartful present to Alana and her coming baby. Now, they’re one tribe.

This is all cool and sweet, but it doesn’t do away with the problems in Phang, with the battling and all. Marko and Petrichor got that front covered, which allows them some time to talk. Marko is Marko, so it’s no surprise he feels more than content with their staying in Phang. But the passing of six months has definitely not endeared Petrichor to the notion. In fact, her experiences as a soldier have made her suspicious of the Phang’s tribe. At the time, we have no reason to actually think these people could do any wrong. But, again… tempting fate, Murphy’s Law, dread is just one breath away from real; all these things, plus the short lifespan of all good times in Saga have us waiting for the doom to unfold.

As for Hazel proper, she has become a little of a pest. She’s at that little-asshole age, which inevitably etches a dent in her relation with her babysitter. For all her awesomeness, Izabel (or anything ever) can’t do much against nature. With little to occupy herself with, she decides to aid Sir Robot’s quest for fuel. His son’s birthday is coming and he fully intends to make it, as you do.

However, her favour to scout for Sir Robot doesn’t come from any actual esteem towards the fallen Prince. This is a favour she’ll do for Hazel’s parents. The cynical robot doesn’t understand this reaction to basically being an indentured servant. But Izabel is full of a gratitude.

It’s thanks to them that Izabel is the first in her family to leave their planet. As far as she sees it, they have overpaid her services — by showing the universe. I personally find this little exchange to be one of those truly remarkable moments in this comic, even if there’s no great art through beautiful splash page or careful panel composition. It’s a matter of sheer dialogue and the counterpoint effect between two very different characters. Only a strong motivation can imbue unlikely partnerships with coherence and credibility. And though things aren’t quite as sweet as they once were, love is still the main motivation here. We’ll keep this in mind for what’s to come in a bit.

Now, things have been going swell in Phang. But the inner workings on the galaxy still conspire towards strife, one way or another. For instance, we join The Will once more on his perennial quest; not for vengeance, but for redemption this time around. On the search for his old friends, he actually meets Gwendolyn’s wife, a woman called Velour. She does reveal the whereabouts of Gwen, Sophie and Lying Cat, but not much else. This will probably add him to the dynamic taking place in Phang. He may no longer be hallucinating, but a Freelancer is always a wild card. We’ll see how this plays out.

We join Izabel back in Phang to end this review. She’s doing her scouting gig for Sir Robot at the Robot Kingdom’s Royal Embassy. Though supposed to be deserted, she runs into a cute little boar. This thing’s cute, a little too cute. And in Saga, cute animals mean… Freelancers’ sidekicks. Meet The March, a two headed sinister-looking one, and his boar Bootstraps. Their business in Phang is the search for Marko, which plainly says — the hunt is still on. Although The March has no interest in Hazel, they’re savvy enough to know she must have hitched a ride via newborn child. They see all too easily through Izabel. so she opts to float away.

This would traditionally be no problem for our favourite pink ghost. She can go through walls and do all kinds of neat stuff — so it should be instantly alarming that The March has managed to ensnare Izabel with their whip. If that wasn’t bad enough their scimitar promises to work likewise. Now, the stakes are clear: it’s a talk or die situation.

Now, I beseech you dear reader, do ask yourself: Do I think Izabel would sell out Hazel, Alana and Marko to save her non-existent ass? Would she break my heart like that? Well, no, she won’t sell them out… but she’ll still break your heart. Izabel’s answer is sharp and snarky, as we’d expect, regardless of the menace she faces.

The March stabs her, causing an agony dreadfully evident in her expression before she dies. There are no further words spoken, except for Hazel’s narration in retrospective. It’s true that everybody outgrows the necessity to have a babysitter, but the best ones — much as the dearest friends — will stick with you forever. The final image in this issue is a splash page of Hazel painfully clutching her own chest. She doesn’t know it yet, but she felt it; Izabel’s death stung to her very soul, literally. Goodbye Izabel. We loved you.

I did tell you it was going to be a bleak arc, didn’t I? It’s not over yet, lovelies. The ride, however harrowing, is still an experience you won’t want to miss.


Saga Issue #38 Credits

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

All images are courtesy of Image Comics

 

 

 

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What Hulk Can Teach Other Stories on Writing Trauma

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Here at the Fandomentals, we believe in the power of stories. Stories can be amazing tools to explore difficult topics like trauma, since they allow us both a careful look at the issue and to keep our distance from something that may otherwise hit too close to home. A story that handles the subject skillfully can broaden our understanding of it, debunk harmful myths, and empower people struggling with their own traumatic experiences.

Unfortunately, not all stories do that. Storytellers love shocking events or emotionally stressful situations, but they’re not always interested in exploring the aftermath. Of course, there’s no monolithic response to trauma and each recovery process is unique, but there is always some response. Stories that fail to show any reaction to traumatic experiences or only address it when convenient for the plot not only break our suspension of disbelief but also perpetuate false notions on trauma, PTSD, and the people suffering from it.

How can stories address trauma more thoughtfully and respectfully? There’s no single answer for this, but I’d argue we can learn a lot from stories that are doing it right. The current run of Hulk (2016), written by Mariko Tamaki, is one such story.

What Hulk did right

Starting December, 2016 and currently on its 11th issue, Hulk (2016) deals with the aftermath of the second superhero Civil War for Jennifer Walters, better known as the She-Hulk.

During Civil War II, the She-Hulk was mortally wounded in a fight against Thanos, falling into a coma. Upon waking up, she discovered that her cousin Bruce Banner, the Hulk, was killed by fellow superhero Hawkeye. So, Hulk (2016) picks up shortly after that, when Jennifer resumes her work as a lawyer.

The story had two major arcs so far, exploring Jennifer’s PTSD and recovery along with the usual superhero threats. Her antagonists in both arcs were people handling traumatic experiences of their own, though in levels that required superheroic intervention.

There are several merits in how Hulk (2016) approaches the themes of trauma, PTSD, and coping with loss—there are also flaws, but overall their record is solid. This analysis is by no means extensive, and I recommend you to check the comic for yourself in case you haven’t already.

So let’s have a closer look at what it got right and why.

Symptoms and Depictions

The comic book presents an honest depiction of trauma and PTSD. Through the entire first arc, we see Jennifer struggling with anxiety, triggers, flashbacks…the whole package. Those arise from different situations and in varying intensities. Sometimes the usual coping strategies don’t work. Sometimes a good day can quickly turn into a bad one.

“Like I’m walking away. Like this is anything I can run from. It’s there, it’s here, it’s always here. I’m holding it together with both hands but it’s too much.” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #1)

There’s a strong anxiety in getting back to work, with her inner monologue constantly reassuring her that “it’s gonna be fine,” her heart pounding, and Jen feeling like throwing up. Even the briefest mentions of the superhero Civil War or what happened to Bruce impact her, in some cases causing her to feel angry, anxious, or sobbing on the floor unable to do anything. She can’t stop thinking about what happened and, paradoxically, she avoids delving into her own feelings on the matter. All the time we get this sense that she’s no longer who she used to be and that her trauma has negatively impacted how she sees the world around her.

Even as she starts to recover and those symptoms decrease in frequency and intensity, we still see her struggling with them.

“Rage and suffering. In the heart of the monster, one feeds the other. In my monster heart, sometimes…it’s all I can hear” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #10)

Identity

Before Civil War II, Jen was known for feeling comfortable with her Hulk persona. Unlike her cousin Bruce, she could control the monster within and derive emotional strength from it. Her life was tailored to be lived in Hulk form and we can see that even in small details, like how her entire apartment is built to fit a Hulk-sized person and not a regular woman:

Yet for nearly the entire first arc, Jen was unable to become the Hulk again. Being a Hulk was empowering for her before, yet now:

Her struggles to reconnect with her Hulk persona work as a metaphor for how much we change after traumatic experiences. We’re different than before and we feel like we lost something of ourselves in the process. Because here’s the thing about trauma: there’s no going back. We can cope, we can recover, we can have amazing and fulfilling lives even after horrific experiences. But we can never go back to how things were before.

So it’s an interesting choice that even after Jen is able to become the Hulk again, she becomes a different Hulk. A Hulk she doesn’t completely control or understands. A literally scarred Hulk.

It’s very fitting that she then assumes the title of Hulk, not She-Hulk. The old Hulk is dead, the Hulk that was so close to her and so meaningful to the origin of her powers. The old She-Hulk is dead too, in a way. This is a new monster, and one that in many ways resembles Bruce’s savage Hulk more than who Jennifer used to be.

“Are you doing this for Bruce? Maybe I am. Maybe everything will be for Bruce now. You have a problem with that? Obviously I don’t Jen, since I’m you. I mean, not everything is for Bruce. Just these things. These things that make me mad” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #8)

Struggling with her Hulk form also means struggling with being a superhero, since both identities are so closely associated. There’s a certain guilt in not being out there doing something “at least a little bit super.” Amidst so many losses, Jen also loses core elements of her identity and sense of self.

Isolation and Support

Through Jen’s journey, we see the sense of isolation that trauma and PTSD can cause.

“A really awkward conversation with a friend is a good indication that the universe is not what it was. At least for you.” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #5)

There’s the constant feeling that people around Jennifer don’t know how to reach her or how to behave towards her. They don’t know how to approach what happened and Jen is not exactly receptive, creating a gap between her and others. Jen explains her own position well:

But of course it’s more complicated than this, and we see it when Patsy decides it’s best to give Jen more personal space. She adds that she’s not disappearing, and Jen replies that she’s counting on that. There’s a desire to avoid others, but at the same time there’s a desire for more proximity, too.

Missing Bruce is key here. Now that being the Hulk poses a challenge, Jen believes that Bruce could understand the feeling better than anyone else. Again, something previously so empowering as being the Hulk enhances the feeling of loneliness.

Not for nothing that we see the sidekicks growing in presence and importance as Jen slowly recovers and begins to reconnect with other people.

Recovery

Recovery from trauma can be slow and painful. Stories tend to rush this part; suddenly a traumatic experience no longer impacts the character, as if it never happened at all. Hulk (2016) doesn’t do that, showing sensibility in how to write the recovery process too.

Perhaps my favorite aspect is how the story shows that a recovery process is not always linear. You have good days and bad days, and sometimes it seems like you’re doing great until you’re not. Every small progress should be celebrated, but it doesn’t mean the battle is over. As Jen puts it,

“You can feel like you’re falling apart one minute and then feel like eating pizza.” (Jennifer Walters in Hulk 2016 #2)

As the story goes on, we can see Jennifer slowly change. She’s able to transform into the Hulk again. She allows other people to get closer. Her mindset becomes somewhat less pessimistic and gloomy than before. Perhaps her biggest step is to admit that she needs recovery in first place. She starts the story by saying that it’s “other people” who sit in their houses “wallowing” and “recovering,” not her. So it’s quite meaningful that her first post-trauma Hulk transformation happens when she admits that she’s not fine:

After that, we see small but important steps in looking for help, such as trying a trauma support group. Yet her biggest coping strategy is to become the Hulk and tear down an abandoned construction site, which is quite a raw, primitive way to get in touch with your feelings. It’s also a telling choice: once again being the Hulk is a vital part of Jennifer’s empowerment.

Even as Jen gets better, the story never gives you the feeling that her recovery process is over. It doesn’t drop the importance of her trauma after the first arc, and it doesn’t return to the old state of things, even though it’s heading to a new state of things. There’s this sense that part of her trauma will always be with her, she’s just learning how to handle it better.

How Hulk did it right

I pointed to elements in Hulk (2016) that I think do justice to a topic as complex as trauma. But why is this story getting those elements right when so many other stories don’t?

Finding the right writer seems a vital step to me. Mariko Tamaki, the writer behind Hulk (2016), has a long history with stories that focus on character’s inner lives, including difficult topics like depression and grief. I haven’t checked her previous work yet, but the choice makes sense. If you want to approach delicate issues with the attention they deserve, you’ll want a writer that isn’t afraid to explore them but does so with skill and sensitivity. You can tell there’s a lot of effort in creating a thoughtful depiction.

The story is allowed to breathe and develop, much like its protagonist. Hulk (2016) isn’t afraid of slowing the pace if that means properly exploring Jen’s experiences and recovery. This results in a slower and more introspective story, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but feels very adequate to the themes involved.

The comic book format proves to be an excellent one to explore the subject of trauma. The art illustrates much of what’s going on with Jennifer without the need to say it outright, with choices as simple as color palettes helping set the mood of the story. Jennifer’s inner monologue, a style of narration so common in comic books, is vital to show the reader how she’s processing everything without the need to disrupt the main action.

Above all, it’s an entertaining story. At the end of the day, that’s still what we’re looking for: well-written and interesting stories, that work on a narrative level. Hulk (2016) never loses what makes comic books appealing, while also providing a solid examination on a topic so often mishandled in fiction.

Overall thoughts

Just in case you’re wondering, I love how this comic approaches trauma. It’s refreshing to see this much skill and effort, and I expect it to continue to adress Jennifer’s recovery in a realistic way (or as realistic as grey monsters allow).

I do worry about the future, though. There was a great emphasis on how much trauma changed Jen, so it would feel cheap to dismiss it, even after a period of time. We can still have a lot of what we love in classic Jennifer Walters and her Hulk self while not ignoring what should be a major event in her life.

Sadly, comic books are infamous for their impermanence, especially if the people behind them change. What will Marvel Legacy mean for Jennifer? Legacy is a return to the old: the original series numbering. And, more importantly, the old title of She-Hulk. There was a narrative point in her being called just Hulk, so hopefully those will be just details and not a sign that the story is shifting too dramatically. As Tamaki so aptly showed us, from certain things there’s no going back, only forward. I’m glad we still have her behind this story.

Whatever happens, we still got an entertaining story that addresses trauma thoughtfully and respectfully. That’s no small feat.


Hulk 2017

Writer: Mariko Tamaki

Artist: Nico Leon

Images Courtesy of Marvel Comics

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Scott Pilgrim Shows Scars From Past Relationships

Matthew

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Scott-Pilgrim

After “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life” introduced us to the likes of Scott, Ramona, Knives, Wallace, Stephen, Kim, Young Neil, and our hero’s main quest — defeating Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes and thus being able to date her in peace —, the next installment “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” carries on with the plot besides adding some much-needed texture to Scott’s past relationships.

Recap

Right off the bat, creator Bryan Lee O’Malley takes us to a 16-year-old Scott on his first day as a transfer student at Northern Ontario. He formally meets Lisa, another new kid on the block who seems eager to befriend Scott. It is her idea that the two should form a band. Concurrently, Scott seems to be developing feelings for a classmate, Kimberly Pine, and it is for her that Scott ends up fighting a whole load of another school’s kids after they sort of kidnap her. Now Scott’s official girlfriend, Kim joins the band as a drummer, and things seem to go well for the gang at least for a while. All that gets interrupted with Scott’s announcement that his family is moving to Toronto.

Back in the present, Wallace Wells confronts Scott with the reality that he has to break up with Knives Chau if he plans on maintaining a relationship with Ramona Flowers. Despite his initial resistance to doing the dirty deed (because it’s hard!), Knives’s declaration that she is in love with Scott finally propels the breakup. For a second there, Scott is upset about it, but ultimately, he takes a positive stance as he sees the pathway to Ramona is clearer now.

Scott invites Ramona over for dinner and, surprise, her hair is shorter and sporting two colors now. The date goes as well as it can, but the makeout session is cut short after Scott freaks out over his own current hair; he largely blames his last breakup (which hit him like a shovel, apparently) on a specific haircut.

The next part begins with a short insight on Kim’s life. From a dream she has, it’s likely that she harbors less-than-ironic resentment towards Scott. In fact, her whole thing seems to be an inherent distaste towards people in general, which includes her housemates. At her work as a video/DVD store clerk (Scott Pilgrim makes you feel old, huh?), she gets a visit from Scott who wants to rent a few movies starring Lucas Lee who Wallace found out is the next ex-boyfriend he must fight. According to Wallace’s dossier, Lucas is a former pro skater turned buff-actor — keep in mind that, in the movie, he’s played by Chris Evans.

Through a couple of short scenes we find out some other tidbits of information:

  • Knives is still hung up on Scott. She ends up dying her bangs red after catching sight of Ramona during one of her stalking sessions.
  • Scott hates The Clash at Demonhead’s lead singer, Envy Adams.
  • Scott’s parents are traveling through Europe.
  • Ramona dated Lucas during high school. It was brief and there was a lot of drama.
  • Ramona REALLY hates Scott’s “apartment”.

Finally, it’s time for the big fight. Lucas doesn’t sound like a particularly evil or bad guy, to be honest, even when he is whooping Scott’s ass. He tells Scott that Ramona cheated on him and about the official designation of The League of Ramona’s Evil Ex-Boyfriends (that’s how they’re organized). Scott takes advantage of Lucas’s ego/vanity and challenges him to do a skate trick on the rails of a really long set of stairs. The aftermath, as expected, is Lucas exploding as he reached ultra-speed, leaving behind fourteen bucks in coins.

As Stacey Pilgrim is showing Ramona around the Toronto Reference Library, she is attacked by Knives and the two fight briefly before Knives makes an exit. During the fight, Knives recognizes Ramona from the day at the library when Scott first saw her, and she realizes that Scott was cheating on her.

Scott receives a call from Envy in which she asks his band, Sex Bob-Omb to attend a show of theirs and then to open for them at a later date. The rest of the band is excited to open for a local band that has made it big, but Scott hates the idea due to his non-friendly breakup with Envy. As he tells Ramona, Envy (who used to be called Natalie) wanted to move to Montreal and, two weeks later, she was sleeping with her best friend Todd.

At the show, we first meet Joseph, Kim’s friend Hollie’s roommate — he is important later on! Also noticeable is that Young Neil is on a date with Knives. Finally, as the show begins, we catch sight of Envy and her bass player, Todd, who, to make things more interesting, happens to be Ramona’s third evil-ex.

Thoughts

In comparison with volume 1, this one feels quite more grounded and less “weird.” Yes, I say that knowing full well that there is an entire section where the characters break the fourth wall to teach the reader how to cook a vegan Shepherd’s Pie. Still, as the concepts from volume 1 have been internalized by now, the weird factor doesn’t reach a higher threshold.

Story-wise, the flashbacks are a nice a piece of exposition. They are not quite linear and feel more like snapshots at specific moments of Scott’s life during a long period of time, so a lot is expected of the reader to fill in the blanks. The first flashback feels important not only for introducing Lisa but for giving some more texture to Kim who appeared underdeveloped so far. She’s fallen under the “Negative Nancy” stereotype most of the time. As we are witnessing, Scott’s past relationships tend to leave scars on the people involved — Kim and Knives, for one, but also Scott’s own hurt left by Envy — and it is a big part of his arc: how to become a better person when it comes to dealing with Ramona.

Speaking of the Knives/Ramona relationship, I’d say it’s at least icky the way Knives talks about Ramona when she finds out she is dating Scott. The only space for apology here relies on Knives being a 17-year-old suffering from a broken heart. Still, there’s a level of cattiness there that reads horribly.

Now, as someone who has read the comics after watching the movie, I have to say that the big fight between Lucas Lee and Scott feels quite underwhelming in comparison with the visual media. While I am trying to keep any comparison between movie/comics to another piece, this particular moment doesn’t quite reach the cinematic-ness of Matthew Patel’s fight. It makes sense that the film screenwriters enhanced the brawl while keeping the roots pretty much the same thing.

In terms of expectations for the future and if I haven’t spoiled you too much already, the confrontation between Scott/Ramona/Todd/Envy is definitely one of my favorites. Plus, Lisa returns and we get to see far more of Knives whose arc is incredible throughout the six volumes. It’s hard seeing her getting her heart broken by Scott to the point where it reaches levels of unfairness, but perhaps knowing that Knives ends up learning a lot from the situation (along with Scott, it’s always important to point out) may give you hope.


Images Courtesy of ONI Press

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