I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to grade The She-Hulk Diaries. By page 25, I was ready to throw the book across the room. By page 50, I was eating it up like candy. This is a book based an insulting and tired premise (career woman fails at personal life, can’t find love, is sort of ditzy) and yet after a week of contemplating it I think it’s actually pretty subversive – plus it’s funny.
I’m not sure what they were drinking at Marvel when they decided that what female comics readers want is superhero chick-lit but the people at Marvel came up with two novels: The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch. The She-Hulk Diaries is about Jennifer Walters and her alter ego, She-Hulk. Jennifer is a responsible, fairly straight-laced, hard-working lawyer. But she is able to change into She-Hulk, a giant green superhero who is all about saving the day and then partying. Unlike The Incredible Hulk, She-Hulk remains in control of herself – she’s quite smart and strategic and funny. Before reading this, I didn’t know anything about She-Hulk, so I’m not burdened with my perception of the character from the comics.
Anyway, Jennifer insists that she and She-Hulk are different people, not two sides of a single personality. However, Jennifer is impacted by She-Hulk’s actions, which have recently become so manic that She-Hulk is no longer welcome at the Avengers mansion (this lends a surprising amount of pathos to the book, as when a rather lonely Jennifer, who is comparing herself to a “perfect” person, says,
“Then I remembered that I had a fantastic living space, did fantastic charitable work, and had fantastic friends. In fact, my friends were so fantastic that “fantastic” was right in their name. It’s too bad that Shulky’s antics have caused a rift in our relationships. I’m sure it’s just temporary.”
I think one reason I wound up enjoying The She-Hulk Diaries is that it twists the “professional woman can’t have personal life” narrative just a little instead of playing it completely straight. The format is, of course, borrowed from Bridget Jones’ Diary (which, full-disclosure, I also love, but for different reasons). But while Bridget is a train wreck at the start of the first Bridget book and is still a train wreck in Book Three, Jennifer starts She-Hulk as someone who has an unbalanced life and wants to make some changes, and she succeeds. She sets goals, some realistic, some not, and she’s flexible about her goals without giving up on them. The parts that ring the most hollow are when she’s portrayed as sort of ditzy and awkward and prone to embaressment (she sneezes on the back of someone’s jacket – that sort of thing), because as the book goes on that doesn’t really seem to be her character. The book has a lot of that near the beginning but it tapers off later. For the most part, she seems like a pretty together person.
By the end, Jennifer hasn’t achieved perfection, of course, but she has made clear progress – not because she’s found a boyfriend, but because she has met many of her goals, both practical (job, new place to live, clothing that can easily be removed or converted for a quick She-Hulk change) and personal (more of a social life and enlarged circle of friends, developing some interests outside of work, and yes, finding true love). In addition to working on her goals, she’s also been surprised by realizing that therapy isn’t such a bad idea. You don’t get the sense that having a boyfriend is the end all/be all of her dreams– it’s one thing she’d like to have, but she realizes that finding true love is just one piece of a life and she works just as hard, if not harder, on the other pieces as she works on making time to date. As a reader, I’m much more pleased that she’s discovered the joys of LARP than that she has a boyfriend.
Also, the book is funny. It takes a while for the book it hit its stride. For a while I thought the book was trying to be funny and failing. But either I relaxed into it, or the narrative gained confidence, because eventually I was cracking up. For instance, Jennifer is horrified to meet a guy at a singles meet who is wearing a T-shirt with a topless Rogue on it (Jennifer points out that Rogue is a friend of hers). The guy explains that he is at the meet up as part of a seminar on how to meet women, and the ‘teacher’ is making the students be jerks and say ‘negs’, and the guy is miserable but afraid to complain. Jennifer storms back into the bar, finds the instructor, and makes him give T-shirt guy a refund. Jennifer breaks out New York Penal Code Section 240.26 (second-degree harassment).
“Confident men do not denigrate women” I said. “Cease abusing my client or I shall seek redress”.
Norman took the check and gave me a big smile as we were leaving. He had very nice teeth. “Thank you, Jennifer! You were so brave!”
“Only about legal things. I hate bullies.” We stood out on the cold dark street.
“How did you know that code right off the top of your head?”
I knew it because Shulky has been charged in violation of Section 240.26
once a few timesfrequently.
The character of She-Hulk, AKA Shulky, is secondary yet wonderful. If the whole book was about her, it would be exhausting. As it is, she is able to blow right past all Jennifer’s anxieties and just be her badass self. She’s responsible in the sense that she always responds to people who need help and she risks her lives to save them. And then she plays, enjoying dancing and sex and wreaking havoc. The Avengers became fed up by She-Hulk’s New Year’s antics:
She-Hulk got us kicked out of the Avengers Mansion. People kept posting videos online of her New Year’s Eve shenanigans: twirling flaming telephone poles in Times Square, climbing the Empire State Building while dangling Anderson Cooper, dancing wildly at parties, and commandeering a motorcycle cop’s ride to do wheelies across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Jennifer, who says, “My reputation means everything to me” is embarrassed by She-Hulk’s wild self, especially She-Hulk’s sex life, but She-Hulk is gloriously immune to slut shaming. Ruth, who is sort of a go-between for Jennifer/Shulky and the Avengers, and Jennifer, have this conversation about She-Hulk:
“I think Shulky is AMAZING, but she doesn’t seem to care that the guys here..I totally love them all, but they’re going to judge any girl as a slut if she’s as sexually active as they are”.
“She resents that inequity and isn’t going to let the double standard restrict her, um, enthusiasm,” I said.
“You know what she said to me once? ‘Male is not the default gender for a superhero’.
Jennifer may be embarrassed but as a reader I was delighted. You go, She-Hulk. This is very much a book where the characters are intensely likeable, and their likeability helps the book rise above its cliché-ridden set-up. The sad exception to this rule is that Amber, Jenifer’s nemesis, is the worst kind of stereotype about icy professional women, and she never gets to be more than a caricature.
I have to say honestly that I don’t think this book will appeal to most of Smart Bitches’ readers. My initial reaction was of pure rage. And the romance angle is quite weak and underdeveloped. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it once I settled in for the ride. I have no interest in reading Rogue Touch (I have comics preconceptions about Rogue) but I would absolutely read a sequel to The She-Hulk Diaries. This has been a strange review to write, because my first draft was a rant about how sexist the book is and my second draft was a rave about how subversive the book is. Really, I think it’s somewhere in the middle – a light, fun read, that manages to rise slightly above a tired and sexist premise. I’ve considered every grade for this book at some point from a DNF to an A, so I’m going to cut it down the middle with a C+.