Everyone who loves superhero storytelling has a Stan Lee moment. “‘With great power comes great responsibility’ is one of the greatest single moral injunctions in all of American pop culture,” the comic book writer Greg Pak wrote of Spider-Man’s motto. The critic Maureen Ryan recalled a personal kindness Lee showed her son. Dorkly editor Tristan Cooper praised his sense of humor.
As for me, the greatest debt I owe this giant of the comics industry, who died on Nov. 12 at 95, is She-Hulk, my favorite superheroine and a testament to the power of female anger.
She-Hulk illustrates both Lee’s commercial savvy and his creative instincts. The character was essentially a rights grab, created in an attempt to make sure that the Bionic Woman wouldn’t become the go-to superpowered woman in the public imagination. Lee created Jennifer Walters as Bruce Banner’s cousin, who acquired his propensity to get big and green — though not mindless — through an emergency blood transfusion.
Lee didn’t write the character for long. But one measure of his accomplishment in creating her is that she has been such a fertile template for other writers. She-Hulk is an enduring fantasy for reasons that have nothing to do with some male readers’ (and creators’) dreams of being dominated by powerful women. She-Hulk speaks to a world where women are compelling and alluring when we’re at our most powerful, where our anger must be reckoned with and can’t be an excuse to marginalize us.
In the midst of a years-long conversation about sexual violence, female vulnerability and sexual freedom, Dan Slott’s “Single Green Female” She-Hulk stories are a blast of liberating fun. She-Hulk’s romantic adventures let us imagine what it might be like to be a woman who could never be hurt or overpowered by a partner. Because her superpowers manifest in the form of physical transformation, she’s harder to distort or reduce to a pinup, as some artists have done to superheroines whose powers are more intangible. She-Hulk is strong, and that strength is a source of pleasure to her as much as it is a reason for us to admire her.
And at a time when the women confronting senators over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court were alternately painted as aggressive or hysterical, I felt braced by scenes of She-Hulk’s righteous anger. The panels where she confronts and outwits Iron Man, who assumes that, like her cousin, she becomes a mindless monster when she’s transformed, make me hope for a day when the public can recognize the reason behind women’s rage. She-Hulk doesn’t lose herself when she transforms; she becomes a more concentrated version of herself.
I suspect the reasons She-Hulk has been so resonant for me are also the major obstacles to a She-Hulk movie adaptation or a streaming show about her. She’s not a tortured anti-heroine, nor is she a sex object who happens to punch really hard. Instead, she’s a modern woman whose greatest power seems to be her ability to blast through the complications and contradictions that vex the rest of us.