hulk-2016-1Marvel Comics has been shaking up their central lineup. With Thor falling from grace and Jane Foster taking the mantle of Goddess of Thunder, one Captain America a member of Hydra and Sam Wilson also wearing the mantle and leading the Avengers, as well as shifts in Spider-Man, Iron Man, and others, it shouldn’t be surprising that fans also have difficulty focusing on who deserves the title “Hulk.”

SPOILER WARNING

If you haven’t read early issues of The Totally Awesome Hulk or the event Civil War II, spoilers ahead. 

Bruce Banner’s gamma powers were transfused into boy-genius Amadeus Cho, who dubbed himself “The Totally Awesome Hulk,” proposing that he would be the in-control hero the Hulk was always meant to be. Banner was able to go live a peaceful, Hulk-less life of science. However, during the second superhero Civil War, he was killed by Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye.

Both Amadeus Cho and Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk) were affected by Banner’s death. To Cho he was a hero and genius. To Walters he was family.

Totally Awesome Hulk’s story promises emotional strain but ultimately comes up weak, more of a Saturday morning cartoon (if you remember those), monster-of-the-week at best and pithy moralizing at worst. The effect of Banner’s death on Amadeus Cho is told, but hardly shown.

But I’m not reviewing Totally Awesome Hulk. 

Hulk, written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Nico Leon delivers everything I wanted from Cho’s Hulk. It depicts an immensely human story that happens to have superheroes. Thematically, it’s all about grief and trauma and coping with life, but that’s oversimplifying.

Tamaki’s writing and Leon’s art are a perfect pair. From the get-go the panels are noisy with Jennifer’s inner monologue. Usually, I prefer the show-don’t-tell option with silent, art-filled pages, but that seems to be exactly what Tamaki is communicating with all the noise. There are numerous speech bubbles that don’t matter (such as a nameless character passing by on the phone whose only line in the series is, “Right.”) Several times near-identical panels sit back-to-back: the first with Jennifer’s inner voice, the second without. Tamaki seems by all this to emphasize just how thin is Jennifer’s control over the outside world. Early on she even addresses her own inner voice and the meaningless noise she is creating: “How about shut up already? Stupid inside voice.”

The noisy tension suddenly breaks, however, when Jennifer turns on the light in her office and the writing spontaneously breaks into the comforting comic-book format of dialogue-bubble-filled pages of conversation with a client, Miss Brewn.

Brewn becomes an externalization for the emotional struggle Jennifer faces: for Brewn, the world (her apartment) is slipping through her fingers; she retreats into herself, but is not alone, for there’s a hidden monster in the darkness who is simultaneously terrifying and comforting.

Leon’s art highlights the noise and silence, emphasizing the blinding light that contrasts with and can never fully eradicate the inky, grief-filled darkness. Even in that moment when the lights come on in Jennifer’s office, Miss Brewn’s alien eyes are black, void pits.

From the first mundane panels of Jennifer’s condo to the final full-page spread of half-darkness with a monster who chillingly utters, “Yes,” She-Hulk fully deserves the single, stand-alone title, with all the horror it should imply, of Hulk. 

And you’ll notice, Jennifer’s alter ego never makes a full appearance, but lurks, like Miss Brewn’s friend, like grief and hurt, just below the surface.

As this post airs, Hulk #s 1-3 are now available.