When David Addison turned to the camera in Moonlighting and spoke directly to the viewers at home, I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Admittedly, I was fourteen at the time, but the idea that a fictional character might know they were a fictional character - and enjoy that conceit (rather than being terrified by it, as Buddy Baker was in Grant Morrison's Animal Man)... well, that just blew me away. Post-modern self-referencing irony became my favourite kind of tricksy literary device and I followed it wherever it cropped up - from Moonlighting to Blazing Saddles to It's Gary Shandling's Show... to John Byrne's Sensational She-Hulk.
Byrne was at the height of his fame in 1989 when he returned to Marvel after successfully revamping the post-Crisis Superman. He could probably have cherry-picked any character to work on at that point, so his decision to launch a brand new She-Hulk #1 (after the original title fizzled out years earlier) came completely from left field. His decision to position the title as an action-comedy - a fourth-wall busting action comedy at that - proved an even bigger surprise. But fair play to him, it was also a stroke of genius and the eight issues he produced before falling out with editorial and quitting the book were some of my favourite comics of this era. (His later return to the title a few years later was also fun... but never quite matched what had gone before.)
The big question, as with any reprint collection of comics I haven't read for 20+ years, is how does Sensational She-Hulk stand up today? And the answer is... better than expected. There's no denying Byrne was having heaps of fun with this book. The Marvel Universe is his plaything, and he's especially interested in the cheesier characters in the toybox. The opening story kicks off with the Circus of Crime, Mysterio and former Defenders baddies The Headmen who only want She-Hulk for her body... so they can use it as the vessel for their crazy colleague Chondu whose current torso is a batwinged, chicken-footed, tentacle-armed monstrosity. Spider-Man guest stars and heads do roll.
Next up are Stilt Man, former Howard The Duck baddie Doctor Bong (in an amusing story that rips the piss out of Saturday morning cartoons), Razorback, the characters from short-lived 80s truck-driving comic US1, and best of all, classic teddy-bear-like Marvel Monster Xemnu, The Living Titan. Xemnu is one of my favourite Marvel villains - he's just sooooo cute!
But much as I enjoyed seeing these crazy characters - treated with admirable respect, for all their comedic value - the real draw remains the fourth wall stuff. When She-Hulk is being attacked by the Toad Men in issue #2, Byrne cuts away to a subplot. On returning to the battle, we find both Shulky and her enemies sat around looking bored. "Oh good, you're back," she says to the reader - and then the battle continues. In issue #4, desperate to escape one of the crazy Saturday morning cartoon worlds of Dr. Bong, She-Hulk tears her way through the comic page and runs through a two page spread spoofing one of those huge Mile High Comics ads that used to feature in every Marvel title of the era. And when She-Hulk's clothing is shredded in a battle with Stilt Man, a supporting character asks why her underwear always remains intact. She-Hulk turns down the back of her chemise to reveal an "Approved by the Comics Code" badge stitched into the fabric. Even 20 years later, I'm still a sucker for post-modern gags like these, and while I rarely laughed out loud while reading this book, I did a hell of a lot of smiling... and any comic that makes me smile is a success.
Byrne's art has never been better (except, possibly, for the Terry Austin days), though some of the outfits and hairstyles are hilariously 80s. His drawing are big and bold and colourful and fun. When his work is this good, there's hardly anyone I'd rather have drawing the Marvel Universe.
The Sensational She-Hulk By John Byrne - Volume 1has a retail price of £18, which is pretty steep for 8 issues, but you can find it for about £12 if you shop around, which isn't too bad. I'll get back to reviewing proper On The Ration bargains next time... but considering how much I enjoyed reading these comics again, I still consider this one good value. Whether you'll feel the same will depend on your tolerance for John Byrne, clever-clever 4th-wall busting satire, and dumb villains. If that combination sounds at all appealing, then get out there and find an affordable copy of this book asap!