Dan Slott’s She-Hulk: Derivative Character as Meta-Comic

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Today’s post has been cross-posted over at The Hooded Utilitarian (special thanks to Noah Berlatsky)

Marvel Comics’ She-Hulk is perhaps the most high-profile of their many female characters that are derivative of successful pre-existing male characters.  However, three decades since she first appeared in Savage She-Hulk #1, writers (especially John Byrne) have worked to develop the character into someone who is not merely a shadow of a male character with no defining personality or history of her own in titles like The Avengers, Fantastic Four and eventually her second solo book, The Sensational She-Hulk.  In fact, by the time Dan Slott got around to writing her solo title in 2005, the character’s winking reference to her own status as a comic book character became one of her defining features, and Slott developed this into a knowing and charming run, that while not free of problems, represents some of Marvel’s best output in the 21st century.

At the heart of Dan Slott’s run on what are referred to as She-Hulk volumes 1 & 2 (despite being the 3rd and 4th volumes of She-Hulk titles) is a alternately critical and nostalgic concern with the subjects of continuity and rupture in serialized superhero comic book narratives.  Slott uses the space of a marginal title that probably never sold very well to undertake a meta-narrative project that is as much enmeshed in the insularity of the mainstream comics world (what many people refer to as “continuity porn”) as it is a critique of such obsessions.

There is a sense of adult whimsy that really helps to keep this run afloat.  Some comics critics, like Jeet Heer, may claim that “superheroes for adults is like porn for kids” (in other words, a bad idea) or that it is time to abandon superheroes altogether, but I think Slott’s work here proves that wrong, as it eschews the self-serious attitude of typical post-Watchmen/Dark Knight “adult” superhero comics in favor of embracing the ridiculousness of the genre that is best appreciated by long-time fans who have learned to have a sense of humor about their beloved Marvel comics stories.  Aiding She-Hulk in this meta-project is Stu Cicero, who often seems to be a mouthpiece for Slott himself, though that kind of problematic direct voicing of the author’s position on the tradition of superhero comics is often skewered by the series’ afore-mentioned sense of humor.

shulkie-1Stu works in the law library at Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway, where the majority of the action in Slott’s two She-Hulk runs occurs.  Jennifer Walters aka She-Hulk begins working at this firm that specializes in “super-human law” after losing her job as an assistant D.A. (all the times she helped the saved world left all the cases she tried susceptible to appeal as owing her their lives effectively prejudices all juries) and then being kicked out of Avengers’ Mansion for her irresponsible hard-partying ways. Her new boss’s insistence that she work in her civilian guise of Jennifer Walters means her identity as She-Hulk won’t compromise her cases.  Furthermore, her connections to the superhero community would be helpful in drawing new clients.

As a law firm that specializes in trying cases involving superhumans, one of its greatest assets is the comic book section of its law library. The conceit in these series is that Marvel Comics exist within the Marvel Universe (something that has been established since the very early days­—Johnny Storm is shown reading a Hulk comic back in Fantastic Four #5 and the Marvel Bullpen has been depicted in various titles countless times), telling the “true” stories of the adventures of Marvel superheroes and then stamped by the Comics Code Authority, “a Federal Agency” and thus admissible as evidence in court.   Now, this is of course ridiculous.  The Comics Code Authority was never a federal agency, but even more absurd is the idea that comic books would ever be taken so seriously.  How could anyone expect the stuff depicted in comics between 1961 and 2002 to be internally consistent? How can anyone expect that everything printed in a Marvel Comic, down to the most obscure detail be made to jive with every other thing as to be of value in a trial or lawsuit?  But therein lies what makes this run of She-Hulk so great. It actually depicts a lot of respect and attention to the minute convolutions of Marvel Comic history—one might even go so far as saying showing a reverence for them­—while never forgetting they are just funny books.  The fun is in engaging with the stories to find ways as fans to make sense of it all (of just make fun of the fact that it doesn’t make sense), but not to take it all so seriously that you come off as if trying to argue a federal case from comic books.

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Bobillo’s She-Hulk (from She-Hulk vol 1. #3)

It is with this conceit, tongue planted firmly in cheek and the ability to comment on the very kind of comics that She-Hulk is an example of firmly enmeshed into its narratives, that Slott is able to get away with a lot.  Foremost, among these things is to examine the role of sex and She-Hulk’s sexuality in her past and the way it has shaped views of her character. This is not free of problems and I am conflicted about how it is depicted, but it does not wholly undermine the project. While I appreciate the frank discussion of She-Hulk’s sexual appetites and the effort later to directly address and rehabilitate the adolescent approach to sex common to this whole genre of comics, there is a bit of slut-shaming going on and more than one gratuitous scene that is in line with the sexualized objectification of the She-Hulk character and her Amazonian voluptuousness. In other words, like many attempts at satire, this comic sometimes crosses the line into being what it seems to want to be commenting on. (But this is not just a problem with mainstream superhero comics—as much as I love Love and Rockets, I sometimes get the same feeling from Gilbert Hernandez’s work). It is for this reason that Juan Bobillo’s pencils seems to serve Slott’s series the best. It has a kind of soft rounded cartoony look that makes She-Hulk look a little chubby and cute in both her incarnations (more Maggie Chascarillo than Penny Century) and that gives the series’ whimsy a visual resonance. The rest of the artists on the series vary in their skill and appropriateness to the material and sometimes fall into the questionable range of Heavy Metal-like cheesecake.

Fantastic Four #275 (written & drawn by John Byrne)

Fantastic Four #275 (written & drawn by John Byrne)

The meta-fictional aspect of this She-Hulk run is one that has its origins in the first printing of her story, as the only reason she even exists is that Stan Lee, worried that CBS would use the success of The Incredible Hulk TV show to create a female version of the character, rushed one to print first in order to claim the trademark on her.  From her first appearance, she served a meta-purpose—not the purpose of a story that needed telling or that was even necessarily worth telling, but the purpose of protecting control of a brand. That first series—Savage She-Hulk (1980-82)demonstrates that in its weakness.  The Sensational She-Hulk, (1989-94) written and drawn in part by John Byrne is by most accounts a lot better. I have only ever read a handful of its issues (they are on what I call my “all-time pull list”), but one of the things that is notable about the series is She-Hulk’s tendency to directly address the reader, breaking the fourth wall, so to speak. She often acts as if she knows she is in a comic—but even more often than that she is frequently depicted in various forms of wardrobe distress. There is also a whole issue of Fantastic Four (#275—also written by Byrne) that centers around her efforts to stop a tabloid publisher (depicted, not coincidentally, to look like Stan Lee) from going to print with nude photos of the emerald giantess, taken from helicopter as she sunbathed on the roof of the Baxter Building.

While not part of her original conception, unlike her cousin Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk’s transformation seems to have a lot more to do with uninhibited sexuality and sexual appetite than with anger.  Sure, She-Hulk gets mad and smashes stuff, but since for the most part she can control her transformation and even prefers her She-Hulk identity and remains in it most of the time (for months or years at a time), anger has less to do it with than her desire.  Slott’s run on the title explores a key part of that desire—Jennifer Walters’s desire to escape her petite less assertive human form.   Jennifer Walters has the typical social inhibitions, especially ones that are used to deny ourselves pleasure and immediate gratification (for good or ill), while for the most part, She-Hulk has no such compunctions.

As such, the fact that She-Hulk engages in lots of casual sex becomes a defining part of her character and a conflict within the comic (her bringing home a string of men without proper security clearance to the Avenger Mansion for one-night stands is part of what gets her kicked out).  It is a problematic, but fascinating aspect—on the one hand, explicitly addressing sex and sexuality is something Marvel comics hardly ever do in a way that could be considered mature (and by mature, I don’t mean humorless—sex can and often is funny, absurd, irrational), but as I mentioned before it also falls into the trap letting sexuality overly define her character. At one point, she forced under oath to list all the people she’s slept with as She-Hulk (too many to actually list in the comic, instead the panels transition to the court reporter reading back a scrolling list) as opposed to how many she has slept with in her normal human identity (around three). It is this kind of stuff that undermines Slott’s work to establish her character as a formidable lawyer—not because we don’t see her solving cases and doing research, all the things trial lawyers do, but because her sexualization is always at the forefront no matter what else she is doing.

shulkie-9Yet, despite this short-coming, Slott’s She-Hulk series tells some interesting stories and uses its self-awareness to explore some of the very troubling notions of sex and sexuality in Marvel comics that plague the title.  Foremost among these is a story revolving around a sexual assault case against the former Avenger, Starfox (not to be confused with the anthropomorphic fox video game character).

Even though Starfox was first introduced in the 1970s, he is definitely a character often associated with the 1980s.  In addition to his super strength and vitality and his ability to fly, his main power makes him, in the words of Stu Cicero, “a walking roofie.”  He has the power to calm people down, make them open to suggestion, “stimulate their pleasure centers” (whatever that means) and make them infatuated with him.  Starfox is a character, at least in his hey-day as an Avenger, who was often played for a laugh.  He was a libidinous lothario that the ladies drooled over and/or who constantly pursued them.  However, the nature of his power puts his appeal into a questionable zone.  What does it mean when your power influences people to want to sleep with you?  How is that really different from a roofie or being a mind control rapist like the Purple Man?  As a kid I never thought about it, but the adults who were writing the Avengers back in the mid-80s should have known better.

Slott clearly does know better and uses the plot arc of Starfox being accused of abusing his power to put this explanation into the mouth of Stu Cicero.  Stu uses an example even folks not familiar with superhero comics should be able to understand: Pepe LePew—the horny skunk who is the Warner Bros. cartoon poster child for normalizing sexual assault through comedy.

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Stu Cicero uses Avengers #232 to make his case (from She-Hulk vol.2 #xx)

Starfox’s dismissive attitudes to the allegation and his apparent lack of regret serves as a kind of stand-in for the stereotypical superhero comics reader, biding his time through “the boring parts” (women complaining about harassment and assault) and awaiting his eventual exoneration and/or escape to go on more salacious intergalactic adventures.  The victim’s testimony, however, leads to She-Hulk realizing that her own past tryst with Starfox may have been influenced by his power.  She tracks him down, and he gets his “exciting part”—a fight with She-Hulk wherein she kicks him in the nuts, but he is transported off-planet and out of reach by his influential and cosmically powered father (Mentor of the Titan Eternals – more ridiculous obscure continuity stuff).  It seems that even in the comic book world the powerful and well-connected can escape the consequences of their actions. But beyond that, the story works to underscore how superhero comics have a history of not following up with the actual consequences of the puerile sexual behaviors and attitudes that have long permeated the genre.  Later, it turns out that Starfox’s abuse of his power is a side effect of one his evil brother Thanos’s schemes.  In that way, he is left off the hook for the ultimate consequences of his sexual violence.  He is allowed to remain “a hero” to be used by some future writer.  However, at the same time as a result of seeing the possible abuse of his powers first hand, he has Moondragon (a character with her own history of abusing her powers for sexual dominance) use her psychic powers to turn them off, so he could never do it again intentionally or inadvertently.

For some people, that last bit of retconning is what is wrong with superhero comes, but I love that kind of stuff.  There is a certain pleasure in reading a story that allows the actions of the past to stand, but recasts them in a way that takes into account a broader consciousness of the societal meaning of those actions.  In this way, those old Avengers issues with a skeevy Starfox still exist, but now we know that skeeviness was not “heroic.” It allows the reader to correct his or her interpretation of the past, not by convincing us that how he acted in the past was acceptable (or just part of the time in which it was produced and thus excusable), but by reinforcing that it wasn’t.  Sure, ideally I may have liked Starfox to have turned out to be the kind of douchebag that he seems to be without any caveats (I never liked the character), but at least now some writer who insists on using him has an excuse for his powers not working the same way anymore.

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Jennifer Walters’s meta-complaint

Of course, serialized superhero comics being what they are Starfox’s history remains in an ambiguous space.  Everything that happens in these She-Hulk issues could be ignored by a future writer, and Slott seems to have written the series with the knowledge that he was toiling in a sort of bubble within the Marvel Universe. He puts words to that effect into Jennifer Walters’s mouth (and there is a new She-Hulk series starting in February, so we’ll see if that’s the case).  But this willingness to grapple with comic book continuity (and an apparently frightening knowledge of it and its inconsistencies) is part of what makes the comic so compelling.  Yes, on one level it appears to be more of the insular continuity obsessed dreck that weights down too many titles and definitely Marvel’s big “event” series, but rather than take it seriously, Slott brings the discrepancies and ethical slips to the fore as a way to invigorate his stories with pleasing ambiguity. The inclusion of material comics within the comic narratives lets those ambiguities exist as the seeds of possibility rather than mistakes to be fixed.  Peter Parker profiting from his constant defrauding of Daily Bugle publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, the fact that half the beings in the universe were killed by Thanos (and later brought back), the existence of Duckworld, cosmic beings like the Living Tribunal, the contradictory fates of the Leader, and following up with undeveloped characters and stories that have their origins in crap like Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars—all of these things are explored in Slott’s She-Hulk series not with the pedantic obsession of the stereotypical comic nerd, but with good-natured humor and critical nostalgia.

Another aspect of the series that works in its favor (and that has often worked in the favor of some the best superhero titles) is its strong supporting cast—fellow lawyers Augustus “Pug” Pugliese and Mallory Book, “Awesome Andy” (formerly the Mad Thinker’s Awesome Android) as a general office worker, Two-Gun Kid (the time-displaced former Avenger cowboy) as a form of bounty-hunter/bailiff, Ditto the shape-shifting gopher, and Southpaw, the angsty teenaged super-villain granddaughter of one of the firm’s partners all serve as interesting companions and foils to She-Hulk. In addition there is a whole range of guest appearances ranging from Hercules to Damage Control to The Leader to a then dead (and later returned) Hawkeye.  She-Hulk seeks to embrace, rather than obfuscate, the over-the-top and often incoherent mess of the Marvel Universe.

It is impossible to put myself in a position of someone unfamiliar with the history of the Marvel Universe to know if She-Hulk is the kind of series you can enjoy without that deep knowledge, but I think you can even if you have just some knowledge—even just a passing familiarity with the tropes of the superhero genre would be sufficient (in way that something like Alan Moore’s Top Ten plays with them). Like any other valuable work, from Shakespeare’s to Junot Diaz’s, knowledge of its many allusions and references improves and deepens comprehension, but is not wholly necessary. Ultimately, the crazy details, characters and events of past stories that Slott dredges up are so absurd and contradictory that for all we know as readers they could be made up on the spot.

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Whatever the case, Dan Slott’s She-Hulk is the kind of series that is probably best for long-time fans of Marvel Comics, who still look back fondly on its stories and characters, but have grown up enough to admit their absurdity and their reflection of problematic attitudes. Yes, She-Hulk exists within the skein of the Marvel Universe, and thus may be an example of what Lauren Berlant would call “cruel optimism,” when ”the object/scene of desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it”—the “scene of desire” in this case being an entertaining and adult superhero comic book immersed in its convoluted continuity—as what there is to work with often recapitulates the very problems the reworking is trying to overcome. And yes, there is not much creators can do within that skein to make lasting change to an editorial approach and historical context that reinforces the social attitudes that makes She-Hulk “a skank” while Tony Stark is a “playboy,” but Slott’s work does work to question those attitudes in an explicit and entertaining way, even if when it comes time to answer them (like in the panels above)  suddenly Zzzax strikes again.

20 thoughts on “Dan Slott’s She-Hulk: Derivative Character as Meta-Comic

  1. There’s probably an irony in me addressing a continuity concern on this post, but i wanted to stick up for Starfox and the main writer, Roger Stern, who used him in the mid-80s. Starfox was never depicted as using his powers to manipulate women at that time, and specifically says he wouldn’t use his powers on people without their consent or in battle (and even then it was always male foes and there was never anything sexual about it). It seems Slott’s interpretation of the character came from a 6 page back-up in a 1991 Silver Surfer annual that would have been better left ignored.

    That was generally my problem with Dan Slott’s She-Hulk run, which i tried on a few times due to rave fan reviews: Slott took a lot of liberties with the stories he was using, and so the more you knew about them, the less fun they were.

    All that said, i enjoyed your analysis of She-Hulk and especially how you tie her meta origins into her being a character used for meta commentary.

    • Thanks for commenting! (I want more dialog here, so your concerns are welcome!)

      I would love some issue #s for Starfox’s explicit claims about using his powers.

      The thing is, Slott’s run doesn’t claim that he actually abused his powers back in the day (and actually makes sure that this abuse is covered by Thanos’s plan in their recent presence) – rather, I think he is pointing out how Starfox’s libidinous attitude and the nature of his power puts him in a space that makes it problematic and potentially untrustworthy, and that it plays into the adolescent (straight) male desire to have a bunch of women. He is a kind of ultimate superhero wish fulfillment character. Like I said, even as a young teen I foun something skeevy about Starfox.

      Anyway, that back-ups story you mention – which I have never read – is just the kind of thing a pedantic reader obsessed with continuity would demand needs attention, so Slott does so in a way that I think takes the piss out of that demand.

    • Avengers #256 is the issue i was thinking about where he makes the specific claim. But the bigger point is that he just was never shown to be a womanizer during that mid-80s period. There was a scene with him flirting with a paramedic when he first joins the Avengers, but that’s really it in terms of any “romantic” endeavors.

      (All that said, as originally conceived by Jim Starlin as Eros to his brother’s Thanos, he was libidinous, and based on that i understand why you and Dan Slott and even Ron Marz who wrote that back-up have that interpretation of him. I’m just defending his mid-80s appearances, dammit! In truth the character was barely used before Roger Stern added him ot the Avengers.)

      I do recommend adding Roger Stern’s entire run to your all-time pull list; it’s where She-Hulk is really developed into a serious character, it’s the reason why a lot of us like Monica Rambeau, and it’s just a fun run.

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  4. I feel like Slott failed at the satire he was looking to get across in this series, and I also feel like he did She-Hulk a disservice as a character. I do agree that he tried to tackle sex and She-Hulk’s sexuality from a mature standpoint not usually seen in superhero comics, but all he really did was call She-Hulk slut without saying so over and over again.

    If he had genuinely wanted to challenge the status quo, he never would have done the Starfox story where we had one of the most prominent female heroes of the MU questioning herself and her sexual encounters. What would have been truly revolutionary is if he had had She-Hulk just decide to hell with what the men of MU thought about her sexuality and told them off for it. That may have happened, but I don’t recall it if it did, which probably means it was relegated to a non-point.

    • I hear you, but the reality is, it is a lot easier to say “the hell with what people think” than to live with it and I think he did a good job of depicting her conflicted desires.

      I thought the Starfox plotline was pretty damn brilliant despite it flaws for re-examining the assumptions about male sexual desire written into comics and what is consider not only okay but appealing and something to identify with, when it it (i.e. Starfox) is really creepy..

      I do think you are right that there were points where she was slut-shamed and that was unfortunate (thus the problems with the series), but over all it was a lot of fun and did its best remain so while explicitly tackling issues that rarely get any attention at all.

      Thanks for posting!

    • Well, I think that’s the thing: I wanted to see her and the MU deal with the fallout of a lady saying she can have sex with whoever she likes and with as many folks as she likes and if you judge her-that’s your problem.

      Granted, it prolly would not have been as fun, but it would have been a lot different and more poignant. I do agree that it was nice to see these issues bluntly explored, which is a rarity in the world of superheroes.

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  7. FWIW, I recently went through the Savage She Hulk (collection, so B&W) Issue #1 is Stan Lee, but every subsequent issue is by David Anthony Kraft.

    I was surprised to realize that She-Hulk as we know her was created by Kraft. She quickly develops the ability to be just as intelligent when “hulked out” as not, unlike Bruce Banner. Halfway through the run, she just chills out on the beach having fun in She-Hulk form, and a few issues later she decides she wants to be She-Hulk all the time. She isn’t promiscuous per se, but she gets a hell of a lot more open and uninhibited and even flirty, and this appears to be part of what she loves about being She-Hulk. By the end of the Kraft run on Savage She-Hulk, her character is established. Stern & Byrne & Slott are all writing true to that template.

    • I only have the first two issues of that run and only ever read one or two others over time (and a long time ago), but have always heard it was not very good. Looking at pre-Avenger/FF She-Hulk appearances in books like Dazzler and Marvel Two-in-One, her lack of inhibition (in MTIO she is constantly hitting on the Thing) and impulsiveness is her version of being “Hulked out” and she is definitely She-Hulk all the time. In fact, as a kid, my main way of distinguishing the difference btwn Hulk and She-Hulk (beside the obvious gender-presenting aspect) is that she was “always” She-Hulk.

      Did you actually like the Savage She-Hulk run? Is it worth seeking out?

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  11. Hey Osvaldo, Slott’s She-Hulk run was my first interaction with the Jen Walters character and I also came to it with only a passing knowledge of the wider Marvel universe, which didn’t stop me from enjoying the series as a whole so I guess I fall into the category you mentioned of people who could appreciate Slott’s writing on its own terms without having an intimate knowledge of the material it references.

    I read the series as it originally came out and, while I could tell that it was referencing a wide body of continuity, I never felt compelled to trace the references back to their source material, preferring instead to see them through the lens of Slott’s blending of the prosaic (life as Jen Walters) and the absurd (life as She-Hulk). I think my lack of interest in following the continuity trail was partly a matter of personal preference but also an aspect of the way that Slot utilised references in his writing. As you point out in your article, Slott took continuity as a generative starting point for a number of storytelling endeavours, none of which felt to me like they were overly invested in reframing continuity as an exercise of “rearranging story components and then putting things back in their proper place” that is a common complaint of those claiming that overt references in certain comics amount to “continuity porn”. In fact, while Slott’s use of continuity as a means to explore the implications of what comics history might mean for how characters perceived themselves in the present, and as a motivation for many of his run’s plot points, obviously describes the structure of his run in an important way, I found the imaginative pleasures of Slott’s referencing equally rewarding.

    The components of Marvel comics history that Slott chose to sample from were odd in a way that I found captivating; they pointed at a wider Marvel universe that was obscure and weird, and all the more compelling because of it. There was a lack of self-seriousness to this presentation that made it easier to appreciate as a vision of a strange fantasy world, one where you don’t have to get caught up in the minutiae of how everything logically fits together to appreciate the existence of a larger interconnected whole. I agree with you that Bobillo’s art worked the best for the series, particularly for the way it set a humorously irreverent visual tone that best matched the content of Slott’s writing. I found the series was greatly diminished in its ability to sustain the strangeness of the Marvel Universe, which I had personally found so appealing, when its issues were rendered in a style that was more akin to conventional superheroics (and thus implicitly grounded in a generic comic book reality). I remember spotting Bobillo on a few issues of some other Marvel comics around that time too but then he disappeared and I haven’t seen any work from him since, which I think is a shame.

    Anyway, I just wanted to chip in with my experiences of the series as an uninformed comics reader. I’ll probably go back and revisit it now after reading your thoughts here, so thanks for the reminder and the thoughtful analysis.

    • Hey Leon! Thanks for coming by, reading and commenting. I find your experience of reading the series compelling, and also find somewhat affirming of my view of the series and continuity.

      I am loving Slott and Allred’s Silver Surfer series, are you reading it?

      Also, out of curiosity, how’d you find us?

    • Yeah I was reading Slott and Allred’s Silver Surfer up until the reboot and am yet to catch up on what came after. What I read of the series was quite enjoyable. I liked that it took Marvel’s cosmic universe as a starting point but then added new concepts to it such as the Impericon (which comes in the very first issue) or the Primeans, fleshing out the quirkier regions of Marvel’s cosmology. I felt like it also doubled down on this focus on exploration and discovery by using the Dawn Greenwood character to play the part of the fish out of water who recontextualises what would be quotidian to the Silver Surfer as alternately wondrous to herself (and by extension to the reader since she’s clearly posed as a partial surrogate). Plus there’s also Allred’s art which I always love looking at, particularly when he’s paired with his wife, Laura, on colours (something that I think is an almost exclusive occurrence now); the pair are doing this thing where they make Allred’s character line art pop out from the backgrounds in a way that evokes, for me at least, a cel-based animation style, making the whole comic read as if it were an animated cartoon from the 1960s.

      In terms of how I found your blog, I can trace it back to Ramzi Fawaz’s retweet of your article on the end of the Fantastic Four. I’ve just finished reading Fawaz’s book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, and I found his mode of analysis to be mind-expanding with regards to the way I see popular comics working. From the handful of articles on your blog that I’ve read, I’ve gotten the impression that you’re coming at comics from a similar place to him and that’s something that I’m interested in reading more about.

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