Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s She-Hulk #9. Written by Charles Soule (Inhuman, Swamp Thing) with art by Javier Pulido (Hawkeye, The Amazing Spider-Man) and colorist Muntsa Vicente (The Private Eye, The Amazing Spider-Man), this issue spotlights the intelligence, humor, and energy that have made She-Hulk one of Marvel’s best series, but it unfortunately arrives hot on the heels of the announcement that the book is getting canceled next year. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
For the first time in Marvel Comics’ history, Jen “She-Hulk” Walters and Matt “Daredevil” Murdock have a courtroom face-off in this week’s She-Hulk #9, a momentous occasion that is overshadowed by some deeply disheartening news: January’s She-Hulk #12 will be the series’ final issue. The announcement came out of the blue on Tuesday morning, and was greeted by considerable outrage from the book’s fans. “She-Hulk” was even trending on Twitter for a while, and not because of stupid comments from David Goyer.
The cancellation doesn’t come as that much of a surprise after looking at the book’s mediocre sales numbers, but considering She-Hulk’s status as a critical darling and writer Charles Soule’s steadily rising profile, it’s still a shocking move on the publisher’s part. Very few new titles arrive on the scene with the confidence and enthusiasm of Soule’s series, which established an exciting new status quo for Jen that allowed the writer to use his extensive legal knowledge (he’s also a practicing attorney) to put his own distinct spin on the Marvel universe.
Soule still finds plenty of ways to incorporate the requisite superhero action into his stories, but at its core, She-Hulk is a series about the legal system, detailing compelling court cases that may take place in a fantastic setting, but are governed by real-world laws. The bold, kinetic artwork of Javier Pulido and colorist Muntsa Vicente (along with fill-in art by Ronald Wimberly and Rico Renzi) brings no shortage of thrills in the action department, but the victories achieved by She-Hulk’s fists are never as satisfying as those won by her brain.
She-Hulk is the perfect comic for fans of TV shows like The Good Wife, offering sophisticated legal drama focused around a multi-dimensional female lead, but also incorporating humor and a classic sense of superhero fun to keep the tone light and breezy. Soule has given himself a difficult juggling act on this title, but he’s performing remarkably well. He’s constantly impressing with the breadth of his knowledge regarding Marvel superheroes and U.S. law, and he’s particularly skilled at using She-Hulk’s cases as springboards for character development.
The eclectic mix of characters that Soule chooses to spotlight on this series is a big part of its appeal, combining familiar Marvel faces like Iron Man, Daredevil, Steve Rogers, and Hank Pym with lesser-known figures like Hellcat, Dr. Doom’s son Kristoff Vernard, and Nightwatch, a forgotten hero from the ’90s. This has made She-Hulk an excellent entry point into the larger Marvel universe; it brings in the popular, easily recognizable characters to make superhero comic novices comfortable in this setting, but also shines a light on the more esoteric corners of the Marvel landscape to expose those new readers to the full scope of this world.
She-Hulk is a great gateway comic, and much of that wide-ranging appeal comes from Pulido and Vicente’s eye-popping artwork. The two creators have an excellent eye for graphic design—as evidenced in this week’s striking chase sequence that sees She-Hulk and Daredevil making their way across a beautifully lit Los Angeles skyline—and the book’s visuals are overflowing with style. Kevin Wada’s stunning covers have more in common with fashion illustration than traditional superhero comic art, and Pulido has taken a similar interest in making Jen look chic yet powerful in the interior art. Most importantly, there’s a Kirby-esque energy to Pulido’s artwork that provides that quintessential sense of fun, which is amplified by Muntsa’s palette of bright, expressive colors.
A lot of Soule’s She-Hulk involves courtroom dialogue, which could be very dry in the wrong hands. While this week’s issue is very heavy on the talking heads as Jen and Matt cross-examine witnesses, Soule keeps the pace moving at a brisk speed. When one witness details the death bed confession that has put former Captain America Steve Rogers at the center of a wrongful death suit, the issue flashes back to show those events in a sequence that successfully evokes the emotional turmoil felt by the characters in the moment. The rest of the case unfolds in densely packed pages of conversation between attorneys and witnesses, but because Soule took the time put the reader directly in the moment that has haunted Steve Rogers, all the following legal dialogue becomes much more intriguing.
There’s a strong likelihood that She-Hulk will be relaunched soon considering the solicitation text for the final issue reads like it is setting up bigger things for Jen in the future: “But when one door closes, another one opens, and Jen finds herself face to face with her most important case yet.” Marvel has made a habit of canceling series and relaunching them with new #1 issues that continue the narratives of the previous volume with the same writer, providing new readers with a clear entry way into ongoing stories. It happened with Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, Mark Waid’s Daredevil, and Jason Aaron’s Thor, and is going to happen soon with Rick Remender’s Captain America and Uncanny Avengers.
She-Hulk is already involved with one of these cancellation-relaunches thanks to her involvement in Al Ewing’s Mighty Avengers, which is about to be retitled Captain America And The Mighty Avengers to capitalize on the buzz around Sam Wilson taking on the Captain America identity. With books like Daredevil, Thor, and Captain America, there’s almost no wait time between the end of the previous volume and the start of the new one, and Marvel makes sure that readers know well in advance that those series aren’t going anywhere. Those are cancellations in name, but they don’t give any impression of true finality.
For lower-selling books like Captain Marvel and Mighty Avengers, there’s a longer wait between the cancellation and the relaunch announcement in hopes that the title’s fans will do the work of Marvel’s hype machine by going on social media and decrying the publisher’s decision to end the series. It leads to a bunch of free publicity that will hopefully get readers interested in the issues still waiting to see release, but it’s also an emotionally manipulative tactic that depends on the anger of readers to succeed.
Captain Marvel has a fiercely devoted fan base in the Carol Corps, but a strong online presence hasn’t been able to invigorate that book’s sales, which were less than She-Hulk’s in September. (Part of that may be due to the book’s price-hike to $3.99 with the relaunch.) It’s become clear that online buzz doesn’t translate to print sales, and because digital sales numbers are kept a secret, there’s no way of gauging whether or not social media fervor has any impact on digital sales.
This is frustrating because books like Captain Marvel and She-Hulk are heavily geared toward female readers, but brick-and-mortar comic shops aren’t always the most welcoming to female fans. How do these books sell digitally? Are the numbers increasing or decreasing? Offering an endless inventory and the ability to own a comic at the click of a button, digital comics have the potential to far outnumber print sales, but there’s no way of knowing at this point, and that’s very worrisome for people trying to predict what the future of comics entails.
She-Hulk was part of a new wave of Marvel titles spotlighting solo female heroes, and it’s the first to get canceled despite being one of the most acclaimed. In the current comic-book marketplace where many readers wait for collections, it’s always a bit puzzling when a publisher cancels a title before seeing how the collected editions sell, and it will be interesting to see if the overwhelming praise following She-Hulk’s cancellation announcement will have an impact on the sales of the recently released first volume. Sales of collections have saved Marvel titles in the past (Runaways would never have lasted without the publication of affordable digest editions), but at the moment, Soule’s She-Hulk is ending in January and there’s no concrete promise that it’s coming back.
Would the book have fared better if Marvel publicized it more heavily? Would She-Hulk have a better chance of succeeding if it received the same amount of attention as the latest Avengers/Spider-Man/X-Men events? DC has been able to turn Harley Quinn into one of its top-selling titles by promoting it like crazy, is that what Marvel needs to be doing in order to guarantee the longevity of its female superhero titles?
Only one thing is for certain: If you want more fun, smart, dynamic titles like She-Hulk, you need to buy them, and you need to buy them in print because those are the numbers that matter most to publishers. And if you don’t have a comic shop nearby, that’s just too bad. A title like She-Hulk has the potential to reach a huge audience, but the focus isn’t on reaching as many people as possible, it’s on making sure the title sells to the direct market. That’s extremely limiting, and as long as that’s still the primary goal for the industry, unconventional titles like She-Hulk will be fighting an uphill battle to survive.