Superheroes are bigger than comic books, so now they’re in movies—all movies, it seems, forever, no matter what. But in another sense they’re bigger than movies, too. Over decades of serial storytelling, their histories have swelled, their key traits have multiplied, and the iterations of any particular character have become legion. You like Spider-Man, you say? Well, which one? The high school inventor, the swingin’ ’70s hunk, the hobo clone, the dull husband whose daughter grows up to be Spider-Girl? Maybe the science teacher who is also the totemic vessel of an ancient spider god?
Each long-running character is a grab bag of improvised myth, richer and weirder than the test-marketed movie versions. The Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield Spider-Men are to their comic book counterpart what a single-disc greatest hits is to the full recorded output of Prince or Outkast—a likable reduction, with all the wiggy charm and weirdness left for the diehards.
Which is why Christine Woodward’s Rogue Touch and Marta Acosta’s The She-Hulk Diaries are kind of brilliant. Long after the success of Lois & Clark, Disney or Marvel or whoever is in charge of these things has realized that a) lots of women enjoy superheroes, b) women buy the majority of books, c) not that many women (or men, for that matter) make a habit of dropping $3.99 on a monthly pamphlet-sized comic that likely tells just one chapter of an endless ongoing story and is almost certainly crammed full of pin-up panels of beachball-breasted Ms. Marvels and Emma Frosts, and d) some women might instead prefer to pay $14.99 for novel-length, self-contained superhero tales more concerned with the content of the heroines’ hearts than their spandex bustiers.
To that end we have this pair of paperback originals, starring She-Hulk and The X-Men‘s leather-favoring goth belle, Rogue. They are indisputably “chick lit,” a term I use to designate genre rather than to disparage. (Is anything in our pop culture more absurd than the belief that stories about punching are universal while stories about the romantic relationships that shape most of our lives are—ick!—girlie stuff?) But neither of these novels is a Twilight or Bridget Jones rip. In fact, both are penned with greater flair and imagination than you might expect. Both are gutsy about digging deep into the love lives of their superhero narrators, and even gutsier about not letting those love lives define those narrators. And both pull off an important feat that most other ancillary media product about licensed characters cannot: Unlike the host of superhero movies, these books add to the characters rather than reduce them.
Rogue Touch is the more affecting and conventional of the novels, but not the most memorable. It’s a brisk teens-on-the-lam romance and origin story, one steeped in road-trip wanderlust and impossible longing. Here, young Anna Marie has flowered into woman/mutanthood, and is first learning to make sense of her dire power. (She’s the one who absorbs the life force of anyone whose skin her skin touches—a more potent sex fear than anything Stephenie Meyer comes up with.) Broke-ass in small-town Mississippi, shaken to the soul after her first kiss socks a boy into a coma, the Rogue-to-be meets a young hunk with whom she is literally star-crossed—turns out, he’s not from around this rock.
After some well-observed Nickle & Dimed–style drama about bad jobs and food stamps, Anna Marie and the new boy, Touch, have to hightail it out of town. They’re helped along by Touch’s enviable superpower to make ATMs cough up cash. It’s no spoiler to say that these almost-lovers are pursued by man and beast, or that they discover themselves and each other, or that the twin climaxes—one superheroic and the other more interpersonal—are both strong and satisfying, even if only one is explicitly described.
Again and again, Woodward marshals fresh language to make all the teen aching poignant, even urgent. She’s even more impressive with her evocative, often sexualized account of what sucking up someone’s essence might actually feel like—“the rush of another person coming in.” These descriptions serve as a reminder of something that people really shouldn’t need to be reminded of: That even with superheroes, the well-crafted novel offers a vibrant interiority still impossible in other media. Comics and movies may do a better job of showing you buildings falling, but there’s a difference between witnessing and inhabiting impossible powers.
So, let’s get inside She-Hulk. Conceived of as the journal of Jennifer Walters, a levelheaded Manhattan power lawyer who on occasion hulks-up into a crime-stomping, hard-partying jade Amazon, Marta Acosta’s The She-Hulk Diaries snaps along like gum in the mouth, the flavor crystals firing pleasurably until, a couple hundred chews (or pages) later, you might discover there’s more gum than crystal. This is a longer book than Rogue Touch, and much less focused; the diary conceit lends a structure to what would otherwise be the aimless day-to-day doings of the unemployed Jennifer, who relishes her alter ego’s power and lifesaving but resents her reckless clubbing and promiscuity.
My cat wasn’t too impressed.
Acosta stirs more laughs and some pathos from Jennifer’s everydayness than from She-Hulk’s wildness. She charts her New Year’s vow of self-improvement; her resolutions to land a job and a new apartment and score a real date for Valentine’s Day; her frank and frisky chatter with a hairstylist BFF who actually refers to herself as the “wacky ethnic sidekick”; her therapy sessions and karate classes and singles mixers and Game of Thrones marathon parties. The OMGs here greatly outnumber the KAPOWs.
Like the stars of other dishy single-in-the-city tales, Jennifer can’t eat a doughnut without splooging jelly on her collar. But in the ways that matter, she isn’t that relatable. She’s courted by Manhattan’s largest law firms to take lead on their biggest cases, and everywhere she goes, the city’s most handsome men—lawyers, rock stars, and Avengers—fall for her. No less an authority than Tony Stark (as in Iron Man) celebrates Jennifer’s gorgeous legs. While not a key figure here, Stark, an ex of Jennifer’s, figures into Acosta’s two choicest pieces of Marvel Universe gossip: 1. He is an “amazing” lover but “he’s always more interested in the real-time hologram display over his bed than in his lovely partner”; 2. He invented nanobots to “retrieve wayward sperm.”
Occasionally, Jennifer even beats down dickish guys without turning into She-Hulk, which is sassy and empowering and an upending of the monster-inside fantasy: Seriously, being Jennifer Walters sounds every bit as awesome as being She-Hulk. For her, superheroing isn’t the blessing/curse it is for regular Hulk or Spider-Man or Rogue—it’s another me-time release, part workout and part ladies’ night.
She-Hulk action hits every 60 pages or so, but these adventures are never invested with the imaginative energy Acosta applies to the scenes of Jennifer dishing with her BFF. The action seems scaled not for blockbusters or comic books but for modestly budgeted TV.
That’s not a bad idea, actually. A slow-to-develop courtroom plot involving cloning, a Jamba Juice–like company, and lots of sick kids who need someone to stick up for them gives Jennifer and her book smarts the chance to be the hero—and may be more satisfying doled out over a season’s worth of episodes, or a year’s worth of issues, rather than crammed into five months’ worth of busy diary entries. But it does come together, with surprising comic power. Better still, unlike most of the blockbuster movies assailing us this summer, when this story wears a little long, it doesn’t ask us to get off on the deaths of thousands. Instead, it asks us to know one woman and her world, and it builds that world rather than tears it down. It also gives a full new answer to the question, “You like She-Hulk? Which one?”