Comic books aren’t always shallow. In the case of Hulk, Christians have a great deal to learn about how we approach emotional trauma and Christians that struggle with it.
Superhero stories, particularly those emerging from Marvel comic books, are frequently shallow “smash ’em up” stories. The Hulk in particular has been criticized as an unhealthy correlation between anger and heroism. But in something of a rarity for a mainstream comic, the relaunch of Hulk is a thoughtful look at grief and emotional trauma, and paints for us in Jennifer Walters a character eliciting compassion, empathy, and integrity.
(Note, this contains some spoilers for Civil War II)
In the aftermath of Marvel Comics’ second Civil War
shallow money-grab comic series, Jennifer Walters is some of a broken woman, or at least she is in great danger of becoming one. In the climactic battle, she was struck unconscious by Thanos, with some wondering if she’d ever revive at all. Her cousin, Bruce Banner, is dead, and she’s expected to somehow pick up the pieces, go back home, and get back to some semblance of a normal life. It isn’t fair. Not by a long shot. But Jennifer Walters is a determined woman, and so she gives it her best shot.
But things aren’t easy when she does. She wants to go back to being a lawyer, and so she heads back to her old office. “Other people sit in their houses wallowing, recovering,” she says. “You go to work.” The struggles that she has adjusting are clear, even as she tries to fight them. Despite the overstated confidence of her inner voice, she has to convince herself to walk out the door. But once she does, things seem okay. Her first client is a poor woman being pressured out of her home by her landlord. This woman also happens to be someone who, aside from this excursion, doesn’t leave her home. We see a dozen other oddities of various races or mutations in the waiting room. She can do this, we might say. She can get things back to normal.
Then comes the reporter. The one with all of the questions. The one who goads her, pushes her, prods her. And then it starts happening. She gets angry. She can feel the change coming on. No matter how much she tries to ignore it, it turns out that her problems are just waiting for her back in that same apartment when she gets home.
The degree to which this mirrors emotional trauma is powerful. If we see She-Hulk (as opposed to Jennifer herself) as being analogous to emotional trauma, there’s a lot to take in here. She tries to escape that trauma, and yet sees evidence of it everywhere, even in the clients she sees at work. She tries to push it aside, but once she gets back home, that same anxiety is right where it was before she left for the day. And despite what other people might think about transforming into She-Hulk (and what she once thought herself), it doesn’t feel powerful – “It feels like dying, like a truck driving through my heart.”
It’s unfortunate that Christians don’t always have the perspective on emotional trauma that they should. Church culture teaches an imbalanced focus, expecting us that embracing the Christian walk will take away all of our problems. For that reason, Christians who still experience anxiety, whether that be in the form of clinical depression, PTSD, panic attacks, or some other form of anxiety, often feel on the outskirts for this very reason. What Christians need in response to this is a thoughtful, people-centered approach. Instead of continuing to think that a walk with Jesus automatically removes all unhappiness of any sort from any source, we need to react with compassion and understand what they’re going through.
As strange as it sounds, this is exactly the type of story that can help us do that. The way in which this story dives into Jennifer’s character (one that has historically been upbeat and positive), and expounds on this trauma, is a beautiful illustration of what people like this are going through. I would be kind of surprised if this comic turned out to be a big hit. In a way, I think that’s to its credit. While conventional in certain ways (the art, primarily), this story is taking on a form that is more character-centered than mainstream comic books almost ever are. There are no huge fight scenes, no identifiable supervillain. There’s just Jennifer, fighting with her demons, which seem to her as crippling as can be. For that, I applaud the creative team, and hope the comic continues to be as strong as it has started out.