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Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

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Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki’s She-Hulk run

Despite the best intentions, Tamaki’s ‘She-Hulk’ didn’t quite reach its potential. What went wrong?

As of March 2018, after a little over a year of publication, She-Hulk has come to a close. Soon to arrive will be Jason Aaron’s Avengers, where he seems to be trying to reinvent the the character after a big, controversial status quo shake-up had already done so. Before there’s another change, let us reflect on She-Hulk‘s last run, what it did, and what led to it.

Who is She-Hulk?

For those unaware, She-Hulk is Jennifer Walters, Bruce Banner’s cousin. She became a Hulk after receiving a blood transfusion from him and since her debut in the 80s, has grown into one of Marvel’s strongest female characters, in my opinion. She started off as a female Hulk knockoff before taking a ride on the meta-comedy train that Deadpool currently occupies due to John Byrne. She grew in popularity there as a fun-loving character and developed into something different from her cousin, eventually becoming a high-powered lawyer and on-and-off Avengers member, depending on the creative team.

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Jennifer Walters is, or perhaps was now, one of Marvel’s premiere female characters, and probably their best feminine icon depending on how you viewed her. Sure, she was very sexy, and many artists really loved playing up her sex appeal, but she was more than that. She was a woman in complete control of her life (depending on the writer) and someone satisfied with who she was. She loved her green form and lived in it, not ashamed that she looked different from others; quite a change of pace from other odd-looking heroes who have been very self-conscious about their looks. She is a skilled lawyer, one that rivaled Daredevil, and juggled that with the responsibilities of being an Avenger. She was incredibly smart, caring, and built many positive relationships and friendships with others, even acting as a teacher during Matt Fraction’s FF run. She was also probably one of the most sex-positive characters in comics, having been in several relationships over the years and even engaged in several one-night stands. People liked to mock or slut shame her for it, but she never cared. She knew who she was and wasn’t ashamed. You rarely see all of these traits in one character, making Jen truly one of a kind in the Marvel Universe.

That’s just my interpretation of She-Hulk, but it’s one that I feel is shared by many of her fans. She’s a great character and an icon, one that you can look up to and aspire to be (minus the green).

But then it all changed…

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

Civil War II Comes A Callin’

In 2016, Marvel began one of its bi-yearly events meant to shake up the Marvel Universe yet again. This time was the pseudo-sequel to Civil War written by Brian Michael Bendis, Civil War II. The event comic is infamous amongst fans and critics, but that’s not the focus here. In the story very early on, Thanos shows up on Earth and smashes things up for one reason or another. In the battle, She-Hulk was badly wounded and knocked into a coma. During this time, her cousin is murdered by Hawkeye, who declared that it was an act of assisted suicide to prevent Bruce from hulking out again. Ignoring the inconsistent continuity of the Hulk being cured at the time, when She-Hulk wakes up, she’s devastated and broken… and that’s it for her in that event.

Focusing only on She-Hulk’s role in this event, there’s not much to say. It was very limited, but it would change her significantly and lead us directly into her new series. In my research, I could not find any word about this particular decision and why Bendis did this. It could be because he thought it would be a good move for her (ironically, he had done something similar to Jen back in Avengers Dissembled that had much less of an impact) or Marvel thought it was best to change directions with character after several decades. The latter seems more possible given that Tamaki admitted that Marvel approached her with the idea and writing the character in the first place. There’s no reason given in relation to Civil War II about why this had to happen, unlike decisions with killing Hulk or War Machine.

However, after the deed was committed, Marvel and Jen’s creative team certainly had things to say about the new status quo.

The Road to Grey Rage’s Official Start

In August of 2016, a new Hulk title was announced, written by Mariko Tamaki, and would be coming in December. With Bruce dead, Jen was positioned as the new Hulk. In many interviews, Tamaki discussed her vision for the book and where it would go. In interviews with the AV Club and the Washington Post, she talked about looking at Jen in a different way and about how this experience affected her. She had always been someone comfortable in her skin, but suddenly, she wasn’t. The loss of Bruce devastated her and wrecked her control over her Hulk-self. She was no longer the same person and was more Hulk, with all of the baggage that comes with the term.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run
Hulk would be about Jen’s trauma and baggage, how she coped with it, and how she tried to move on. Tamaki said she would fight both literal and figurative monsters, ones that would relate to her suffering thematically. However, despite the big change, she also promised there would continue be the lawyering from past series and Jen’s new bestie, Hellcat, would still be around. Other characters and friends from past runs were not mentioned and, in the end, never turned up. Still, there was the indication and promise that there would be things here for fans of Jen’s previous adventures despite the changes.

But essentially, that was what was being presented at the time: a focus on trauma and Jen slowly trying to get back on her feet, fighting some baddies along the way. There were previews during the upcoming months, showing images of Jen nearly hulking out, along with covers of what her new form would be like. This was not going to be anything like any of her past series, even when she was more like a regular Hulk in the original 80s series.

There was very mixed reaction upon the initial announcement; some readers were intrigued by the new approach, while longtime fans of the character, such as myself, were rather dismissive of the idea. Jennifer was such a fun, lively character and wasn’t a big bag of issues like her cousin. That was what made her unique amongst the Hulk family, along with her being in the most in control. Plus, Hulk has died before in the past and Jen had been put into a coma before, so this time around suddenly crushing her just felt off to fans. But the flip side was that Mariko Tamaki was a very experienced writer with more human nature stories, such as what was being described in the interviews. So, the future was up in the air about how things would be wind up.

The Opening Hit

And so, on December 28th of 2016, Hulk #1 hit the stores and digital market. The first story arc, later all collected under the title of Deconstructed, would last a total of six issues. It was here that we would see the new status quo of Jennifer Walters… if only for a little a while.

True to Tamaki’s interviews, Jen was truly not at her best and was barely keeping it together. It had been several months since the events of Civil War II and only now was she getting onto her feet again, taking a job at a new law office to gain some semblance of normalcy. We met her new cast there, though only Bradley, her assistant, would end up appearing frequently, and we reunited her with Hellcat. Despite old and new friendly faces, Jen did not have a firm grip on things, nearly hulking out at several points due to anger, frustration, or being reminded of her cousin’s death, Thanos, or Hawkeye. Not helping was a pestering psychiatrist named Florida “Flo” Mayers, constantly wanting to talk to her and have her open up, even though Jen did not want to.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

The first story was more than just that though. Jen’s first client coming back to work was Masie Brown, an Inhuman woman (I believe at least) who had gone through a very similar traumatic incident in the past that left her…different. She was an outgoing woman who was nearly killed and ever since, had never fully recovered. She begged Jen for help, but due to her own issues during the arc, ended up failing her. To sum up, since the arc was never particularly clear about anything, Masie lashed out at Jen with some kind of monster made up of the fears, trauma, and issues of all the residents at her apartment, causing Jen to hulk out. The arc ended with Masie being thrown in jail and after finally hulking out, our heroine came to peace with who she was now.

The story arc was a critical hit with almost everyone but me. However, having re-read through the arc all at once instead of having it spread out over six months, and also having read the interviews, I see the praise and understand what Tamaki was going for. This was a very different type of She-Hulk story; one that excelled at capturing the emotional trauma and heartache that Jen was going through. You could understand why she was in agony, why it hurt so much to transform, and why she was so desperate to keep her emotions bottled up. I do feel Tamaki could have done better narratively with the use of flashbacks, but her writing in this area was excellent.

Backing her up for this sole arc was Nico Leon, one of many artists to come. Leon also excelled at depicting human drama and the heavy feelings that permeated throughout the arc. You were told and shown how much Jen was hurting, a feeling that was depicted perfectly through the art. Just the scene alone in the first issue of Jennifer on the ground, trying to keep herself from hulking out told you everything you needed to know. He was the right choice to draw the opening storyline.

While the first story arc absolutely brought to life the vision that Tamaki had for her She-Hulk run, the opening was not without its flaws. Deconstructed was a poorly paced story, taking its time to get to Jen finally hulking out. The story warrants a slower, more human-focused approach without a doubt, but the pacing felt slower than it should have been with its weird breaks for humor and sequences drawn out for more than a page or two (like a pair of detectives leaving Brown’s apartment complex). In the final issue, it felt like things were still drawn out, even though the majority of the comic was one long fight scene.

There were other minor problems as well, some of which can be blamed on the nature of superhero medium to a degree. The more introspective look at both Jen and Masie and how they were both similar was appropriate and captured well, but the final issue was a complete turnaround. The careful planning and approach was tossed aside for a stereotypical superhero brawl that ended with Masie being thrown into jail and Jen accepting herself after not being able to for the past five issues. It didn’t feel right for Jen to reach that stage so quickly, along with the fact that a mentally ill woman was thrown into jail and it being treated like the right thing. Leon’s art also didn’t lend itself well to superhero medium either, since he drew Jen’s She-Hulk form mostly the same as her regular self, just painted green. His interpretation of Jen’s new Hulk form didn’t look quite right either, not matching the covers remotely and making her look more like the Witch from Left 4 Dead if she had more muscle mass.

But despite the issues and not quite nailing the ending, Tamaki did succeed in her goals for the first story arc: telling us a story about the former She-Hulk struggling with her Hulk form and dealing with a traumatic event that shaped her. She would not be the same for a long time and the series before us made it clear things would be different. Critics and readers were excited and even I recall many people talking about how interesting it would be going forward with that new Hulk form. However, what came next would quell those cheers and excitement.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

Swing, But a Miss

The second story arc, Let Them Eat Cake, began in June of 2017, lasting only four issues this time around. This was in stark contrast to the previous arc, going for a speedier approach over slow and methodical. The big shift in the pacing would not be the only thing different here, however.

The four-issue story took place a while after the events of the last arc, focusing on where Jen was and how she was dealing with her Hulk self. Gone were her worries and fears about hulking out, our heroine now having better control over her emotions, easily able to transform into her Hulk form without issue or pain. She was even in group therapy, though she didn’t open up much during the meetings. However, in comparison to the last arc, she was in a significantly better place than before.

That all being said, that was not the focus of the arc. One of the things Jennifer Walters did to help herself relax was watch an online cooking show. During the middle of its most recent livestream, the host suddenly turned into a monster and started rampaging. Jennifer got into contact with his boyfriend and she worked to figure out why the incident happened and how to bring the guy home. The storyline ended in tragedy again, when the new monster was beaten into a coma by Jen and the boyfriend ending up in therapy over the situation. Jen nearly went over the edge, but only for a bit, and gives up going to her own group therapy. It was not a happy ending and felt like even more of a downer than the last arc.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run
Let Them Eat Cake was a step down in quality. Thematically, it felt derivative of the last arc, just shortened by two issues. Jen meets someone who has gone through a traumatic event and is determined to help them, since their situation reminds her of her own. However, the story ends badly for the person afterwards after they refuse help. While the arc did touch on Jen’s problems, it didn’t as effectively as the previous, focusing more on the new characters. In fact, if not for the ending where Jen lost it for a moment, it would almost appear as if she was perfectly fine and everything built up was done. She just seemed more well-adjusted and there was less of a focus of what made her tick. Even the interesting angle that was group therapy only happened once for three pages at the very beginning and was dropped in a sentence at the end. The strong, human focus that made the first arc a success had seemingly been put on the back burner in favor of side characters.

Not helping matters were the narrative issues. The story was very quick to drop and forget characters and plot points. Steve and Ray, the two men who caused the victim to turn into a  monster? There’s no resolution with them other than Jen demanding they remove the video of their boss transforming. The stagehand who was also transforming into a monster? The storyline makes a big deal of her turning into a monster for an issue before she’s never brought up again. The drug trade that peddled drugs that turned people into monsters? Gone by the second issue and never referenced. The comic didn’t feel as focused or as tightly written as it had been.

However, what perhaps hurt the storyline the most and what was most frequently brought up as an issue was the artwork. Nico Leon jumped off the series at the end of the last arc and this one was instead drawn by three different people: Georges Duarte, Julian Lopez, and Francesco Gaston. Duarte would draw for the first two issues, while Lopez and Gaston drew the final issues together.

Duarte is most known for his work on Avatar Press’s Crossed and his style is very reflective of that comic. It’s very grimy and detailed when it comes to people — even with brighter colors over it, it looks ugly and unpleasant. It didn’t match the more emotional, reflective, and human nature approach the series really needed. It excelled when it came to monsters and fighting, but only that. Lopez’s style was dark and brooding, but it was one that reflected the heavier nature of the story much better. It captured the intensity and worries the characters had with its heavy inking and detailing. In contrast, Gaston’s art was cartoony and lively. The inking was lighter, detailing was dropped, and the colors were brighter, even though both artists shared the same colorist. Neither of the two were bad, but one did not match the tone of the story and both artists’ styles contrasted noticeably when paired together. The utter artistic disparity in this storyline was so blatant and only served to damper a critically loved comic.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run
It also did not have a particularly happy ending outside of comics. Critically, the book floundered a bit with many critics, and some outlets just stopped reviewing the comic altogether. Fans from where I looked and who’ve I talked to, even ones who liked the new direction, were put off by this story here. Sales had gone up with the first issue of Let Them Eat Cake, but quickly lost its new readers and more over the next three issues. Even before the end of the arc as well, Marvel announced that the series would be relaunching in November for Legacy, under the name She-Hulk. Despite Tamaki promising the series would still focus on Jen’s struggles and things would still be different, it looked as if Jen would be returning to her old green self after only ten issues.

Time for a Throwback?

Before the end of Hulk, Mariko Tamaki wrote one final issue, #11. This one was perhaps the strangest comic of the entire run, even though technically it wouldn’t be that out of place in She-Hulk’s legacy. The story is simple: Jennifer Walters is going out on a date with someone who turns out to be a killer robot. There’s no relation or callback to anything over the past ten issues, outside of a nod at the very end. It’s a self-contained done-in-one that came across as more about harkening back to John Byrne’s old run when Jen’s old series was a meta comedy.

And that’s exactly what this comic was, a sort of meta comedy. She-Hulk is constantly breaking the fourth wall, getting into fights with flowery narration boxes, reflecting back on past romances (including ones that were retconned out), and just making jokes with Hellcat. The comic also had a new artist, Baccan, whose style was a perfect match for the type of story Tamaki was telling with their own goofy, silly art style. That’s all this story was about, but the comic itself was rather odd.

I couldn’t find any information about why Tamaki wrote this story, so I can only hazard to guess that she either wanted to write a tribute to Byrne’s old Sensational She-Hulk series, or she just wanted to write something to lighten things up. After all, the last two arcs were not exactly cheerful, outside of the odd, strange bits of humor sprinkled around. So, perhaps this was needed to add some levity to what had been happening.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run
On the other hand, however, this comic didn’t really fit anything that had come before it in the series. Everything had been such a serious story, focusing on trauma, PTSD, coming to grips with your life after a tragedy, and finding out who you are again. This comic feels like a tonal whiplash when placed right next to the previous issue and honestly, it doesn’t feel fitting. It would be like if during the middle of Pride of Bagdad, there were ten pages of slapstick and fart jokes. If anything, this particular issue felt more like it should have been placed towards the end of the She-Hulk series, with a few changes, to show how Jen has grown and recovered. As it stands, this comic is just an odd duck in a very real, dramatic series.

From Hulk to She-Hulk

In November of 2017, Hulk was gone and in came She-Hulk, starting at #159 (part of Marvel’s brief Legacy initiative). The new series began with a three-issue story arc: Jennifer Walters Must Die!, and things would appear to be getting back on track. The PTSD and trauma were brought back to the forefront and we dove back into what made Jennifer Walters tick and what her state of mind was now.

Earlier in the year during the Women of Marvel panel at Comic-Con, Mariko Tamaki described this new story arc as being inspired by Stephen King. That inspiration was evidentially Misery, as the brief story was about Jennifer being kidnapped by a fangirl of hers, Robyn Meiser, with the help of classic Hulk enemy, The Leader. However, the similarities would stop there. After being kidnapped, it turned out that Robyn was being manipulated by the Leader to become another Hulk person and kill Jen… or perhaps just get Jen to kill Robyn. The motivations weren’t clear, but the story ended quickly enough with Jen beating up Robyn without killing her and defeating the Leader. Jen decided to get help by approaching Flo from the very beginning of the series, hoping to solve her problem.

Jennifer Walters Must Die! was a step up and a much-needed boost for the series amongst critics and fans, though still flawed. The storyline got back into Jen’s mind, focusing a lot more about how she’s struggling to keep it together. She’s been able to control switching in and out of her Hulk form, but she clearly doesn’t have as much control of it as she did in the previous arc. Overly hostile aggression could set her off and when too far gone because of it, the experience was almost out of body to her. So, there were definite issues she had to work out and the comic had gotten back to focusing on that at least. Also, bolstering the comic was a happier ending and the new artist, Jahnoy Lindsay, was a good choice at being both able to depict the both serious and comic book nature of the storyline effectively. He was no Nico Leon on the human side and the art certainly slipped in quality greatly at the end, but he was the right person for the job.

But the storyline was not without its many faults, either. Despite getting back into Jen’s mental status, it did not feel as fleshed out as it could have been. The comic indicates that Jennifer had hulked out many times before in the past and caused tons of damage, but outside of brief flashbacks and being told these things happened, we never see them. Plus, the biggest incident we do see the most of is shown not to be her fault at all, as she was unknowingly manipulated by the villains. The comic felt more like an old-school Hulk issue with Jen just in the place of Bruce, while also repeating plot points and ideas from past arcs.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run
The supporting characters were even weaker. Robyn was yet another character who had been messed with and turned into a monster — though in a switch up, she was manipulated into the position she was in. We’re told she’s insecure and had troubles as a kid, but in comparison to the past arc victims, she was the least defined. Her backstory was rushed with these sympathetic elements feeling more sprinkled on than fully explored. The Leader himself felt simply out of place — a stereotypical comic book villain in a story that was trying to rise above the superhero genre with exploration of PTSD and recovery from an immense tragedy. His presence and weak motivation — just doing it to screw with Jen — were unwelcome in a story trying to be more real.

There were also other issues that didn’t help matters either. The out of body moment in the final issue of the story arc was thematically appropriate, harkening back to Jen describing viewing her body rampaging from the outside. But it didn’t make sense in how she communicated with Robyn during the sequence or how it really ended the situation at the end. The pacing also was all over the place; very slow and methodical at the start, before speeding towards a resolution in the third and final issue. It felt as if the comic had suddenly hit the gas and rushed through what would have taken a few more issues.

And unfortunately, there would be a reason for that. Despite the critical success of the arc and the brief boost in readership thanks to the new Marvel Legacy branding, Marvel announced that the series was cancelled after the release of second issue of its relaunch. There was no explanation, though reader count could suggest a reason for the decision. Despite the brief boost, the readership had dropped almost instantly back to where it was in the previous series. The new She-Hulk series was already ending before it was given a fair chance to truly start.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

The Final Bow to Grey

There were still two issues left to go despite the cancellation and it appeared as if Mariko Tamaki had already known the series was to be cancelled ahead of time. The last two comics dealt directly with fixing Jennifer Walters and getting her back on her feet.

In She-Hulk #162, Jen met with Flo to begin her treatment. Through random drugs, Jen headed into her subconscious and dealt with the root cause of her problem: the death of her cousin, Bruce. She talked with a version of him within her mind, telling her to move on and get better, since she’s strong. With those words, she came out of the drug-induced state and was back to her jolly, green self. Admittedly still sad as she puts it, but much better and ready to move forward.

While the return to form was well-received, the story did feel rushed at the end. It took all of one therapy session of Jennifer to be cured of all her trauma, her depression, her PTSD. All of it was fine, outside of her being sad. All of the other issues that may have caused it? Being knocked into a coma, Thanos, Hawkeye murdering her cousin, Captain Marvel testifying that her cousin was a danger and needed to be killed? None of that was important any longer, and some of it wasn’t even addressed at all. The only thing that mattered was that her cousin died, and she couldn’t live without him.

It is understandable that Tamaki had to move quickly to get Jennifer back to normal and some things can be forgiven, but the results and execution were at most problematic. Saying that PTSD and trauma of this magnitude — one that left her in such physical, emotional pain and nearly destroyed her life — can be overcome in a single therapy session is both insulting and hurtful towards real victims who have these problems. It flies in the face of the careful and thoughtful approach that Tamaki had established at the very beginning of the series, the idea that she wanted to explore the complexity of this topic within a superhero world. And then there is the fact that the comic states that Jen cannot live without Bruce and that’s why she’s all grey now. Jen has lived without Bruce before in the past, whether he died before or he was shot into space for World War Hulk. She’s been a very independent, strong, female character, not defined by a man at all. To have this idea and make it so that all of her trauma hinges on this single bit, even if Bruce is family, leaves an unfortunate sexist tone that the book really did not need.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

First issue of Hulk

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

Second to last issue of the run and really the only other time Thanos is mentioned

The final issue, #163, however, was better all around and a stronger note for the comic to end on. The story focused on Jen dealing with one final client before leaving her new law firm with Bradley to start their own. It felt like a true return to form for Jen, fully in control of her powers, able to change into her green self without issue while helping out others as best as she can. There’s a hint that she is still working things out, but she seemed to be in a much better place.

The last issue was good, and critics and fans alike enjoyed it a lot from what I’ve seen. I enjoyed it myself, though I do find that it lacked the finality the series truly deserved. It closed out Jen’s story, but for everyone else? They were forgotten. All the past victims and “villains” from previous arcs were never mentioned or checked in on. Plot lines were left unresolved or sometimes, even hinted at. There was no check-in with Jen’s other superhero friends, or even her trying to meet with Hawkeye or Captain Marvel. While thematically good for Jen and painting a bright picture of the future, She-Hulk ended on a note that felt too easily earned for how it started and for what it set out to accomplish in the first place.

Reflecting Back: Was It Good?

After reaching the end, having done all my research and putting my thoughts together, I look back on Mariko Tamaki’s work with mixed feelings. For all of my criticisms, Hulk and She-Hulk were books with the best of intentions. Tamaki wanted to tell a serious story about PTSD within a superhero universe and how a character who was once so cheerful handled it. There is room for books like these, even using characters from the Marvel Universe, as evidenced by Jeff Lemire’s great work on Moon Knight. People may be critical of them, but attempting something serious and nuanced in a crazy, unbelievable world can be good and very important, especially for people who have experienced, suffered, or even known others in Jen’s position.

However, try as these two series may, the books did not live up to their potential and ended up being a tad insulting in how they resolved things. Jennifer Walters was not a good character to use for this type of story and the constantly rotating artists were not good for consistency either (sixteen issues in total and eight artists over the course of it all) — some were just ill-suited for depicting dramatic, heavy moments and some weren’t fit for superhero art. The writing and storytelling fluctuated in quality as well, never quite nailing the execution and promise of the first arc.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run
I appreciate what these series and Mariko Tamaki were trying to do, and I understand that some of its problems stem from both Marvel’s antics and the nature of the superhero genre as a whole. However, appreciation and understanding of an author’s intent only goes so far. Not all problems can be excused, nor can the good make up for all the wrong. In the end, Hulk and She-Hulk are heavily flawed series, despite the best of intentions they may have had.

To the Future

And here we are now. Another new beginning in the Marvel universe with their “Fresh Start” soon to commence. Jennifer Walters is back to being She-Hulk once more after finding herself. Bruce is also alive again and any lingering issues she may have should be over, especially with how the series really tied her trauma down to him. For better or for worse, she’s green and her old, happy, caring self again.

Looking forward, She-Hulk won’t be out of the spotlight for long. She is set to debut in Jason Aaron’s Avengers series as part of the main team and fans are excited to see her there. I remain skeptical personally due to Aaron’s brief words about her. There’s something to be said about them, but that’s a discussion for another day. Either way, the future is potentially bright for Jen, brighter than it has been in a very long time. For fans of her old and newest series, here’s hoping it’s a future that we can all enjoy.

Grey and Broken: A look back at Mariko Tamaki's She-Hulk run

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