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The Sensational She-Hulk: Metafiction in the Mighty Marvel Manner

Here's looking at you 'Pool, Shulkie beat 'ya to it

Cropped cover of the first issue of Sensational She-Hulk, as She-Hulk speaks to the reader, holding up her comic
Image credit: Marvel Comics

When Deadpool traveled beyond the fourth wall, he wasn't going where no Marvel Comics superhero had gone before. Although other aspects of the character may sometimes overshadow the metafictional elements of the character in the popular perspective, The Sensational She-Hulk not only broke the fourth wall – she positively smashed it!

Throughout John Byrne's run of on the series, there are many examples of the jade giantess's metafictional schtick… including the lessons she learns from "Weezie," copious references to the creative team, and more than a few meta gags in the traditional Marvel metafictional manner.

Page featuring She-Hulk opening her Christmas present to show her comics
Image credit: Marvel Comics
In fact, Byrne's run on the title had meta in its DNA even before it began. You read that right. The story 'Xmas Tease,' which appeared in 1988's Marvel Comics Presents #18 and included work by Bob Wiacek, George Roussos, and Michael Heisler, was described by She-Hulk herself as "eight pages of hype for a new comic." The story concludes with Jen opening a "big box from Marvel," wrapped in Spider-Man paper, that ends up being filled with her comps for The Sensational She-Hulk #1. "Should've known they'd be too cheap to pop for a real present," laments Shulkie.

Take it Weezie

It wasn't long after The Sensational She-Hulk started that it began veering into all-out metafictional mayhem. In 1989's The Sensational She-Hulk #2 by Byrne, Wiacek, John Oliver, and Glynis Oliver, 'Attack of the Terrible Toad Men, or Froggy Came Cavortin',' as Shulkie takes in her new digs (Janet Van Dyne's unoccupied penthouse), a series of post-it notes convey a critical conversation about the comic between the editorial team (Bobbie Chase and Tom DeFalco).

Plus, a 'meanwhile' page in the issue introduces the character of Louise Grant, better known as "Weezie." As the series continued, Weezie would help She-Hulk better understand how to manipulate her world via her metafictional abilities better and offer a deeper comprehension of the unspoken internal mechanics of Marvel Comics.

She-Hulk talked to Weezy
Image credit: Marvel Comics

In The Sensational She-Hulk #4 by Byrne, Wiacek, Oliver, and Jim Jovak, the backstory of Weezie is revealed. She was the Timely Comics heroine, The Blonde Phantom. After pointing out the fact that many readers won't understand a reference She-Hulk makes to Joan Blondell, Weezie explains that Jen won't age, saying, "you'll always be thirty-one, as long as you're in the comics. That's the way it works."

But when superheroes usurped human heroes after the return of the Sub-Mariner in Fantastic Four #4 and Captain America returned in Avengers #4 (a footnote points out all the fours in play here), the Blonde Phantom retired, and Weezie became a housewife. They were content waiting until they "were back in harness," until her husband died of old age. Weezie goes on to explain that she's angling to prolong her lifespan by becoming a supporting character in The Sensational She-Hulk, which is why she ensured her boss, D.A. Towers, would extend Shulkie a job offer.

A Marvel Comics tradition

Cover of Fantastic Four featuring the FF battling and Kirby and Lee looking towards them
Image credit: Marvel Comics
Perhaps it's no coincidence that She-Hulk was previously a member of the Fantastic Four, a team that's no stranger to metafiction themselves. In Fantastic Four #10 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers, both Lee and Kirby play such significant supporting roles that they appear on the cover (right next to a big red arrow filled with text announcing that you'll "actually meet" them in the story).

When the legendary creative duo does appear, it's inside an office filled with neatly labeled drawings of the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Thor… not to mention a big bag of fan mail. Soon Doctor Doom arrives, embroiling the Marvel Comics creative team in a caper that leads to the Fantastic Four getting their own comic book.

Speaking of fan mail, the Fantastic Four themselves answered the letters in the next issue, Fantastic Four #11. As explained in the final panel, the first story in the issue, 'A Visit with the Fantastic Four,' was a "way of answering many of the interesting questions that our readers have written."

This interaction with readers via letter is another Marvel tradition echoed in Byrne's run on The Sensational She-Hulk when an ongoing letters page gag eventually spilled over into the comic. In The Sensational She-Hulk #40 by Byrne and Oliver, an issue that features the slogan "Because You Demanded It" on the cover, a frequent joke about She-Hulk jumping rope in the nude develops into a six-page bit that sees editor Renée Witterstaetter revealing that DeFalco would only ever allow the scene if Shulkie was "wearing something behind those blur lines."

Lost in a good comic book

The Sensational She-Hulk is never interested in letting you forget that you're reading a comic book. One way this is accomplished is through frequent references to the editorial team and equally frequent but much more self-deprecating references to Byrne himself.

All this culminates in the final issue, 1993's The Sensational She-Hulk #50. In this "special 48-page issue," Shulkie grapples with the death of the author… literally. Witterstaetter summons She-Hulk to the Marvel Comics offices and informs her that Byrne is dead, having "tripped over a dangling sub-plot and broke[n] his neck." This metafictional conflict creates tension for the issue, which sees many recognizable creators (including Dave Gibbons, Frank Miller, Wendy Pini, Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Adam Hughes, and Howard Mackie) each given a couple of pages apiece for their respective takes on the next She-Hulk run.

A three panel page of Lil She-Hulk
Image credit: Marvel Comics

In addition to offering a funny roster of stories (and surveying the roster of all-star creators at the beck and call of Marvel Comics), this final issue allows the book to explain its cancellation. As revealed in the final pages, Byrne isn't dead – he's just been retooling the series into "Li'l She-Hulk," an adorable Li'l Archie-esque takes on the Marvel Universe. Disgusted, She-Hulk hurls Byrne out of the Marvel Comics offices, causing him to "Squoit" on the sidewalk many floors blow.

Metafiction mayhem

While some of the more recent runs of She-Hulk haven't emphasized the character's mastery of metafiction, it looks now as though the Marvel Cinematic Universe has… and from there, it's just a short waddle to a spin-off Howard the Duck series that leads to a team-up with Shulkie and Gwen Poole, right? Get down, America!

Interested in reading about more comic book winks-at-the-reader? Check out this Popverse piece on The evolution of the Stan Lee cameo in comics.
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