Things got a little unmanageable with the Hulk comics for a while: We had two Hulks running around, each with his own series (plus Son of Hulk) and I started losing track of the She-Hulks when Jennifer Walters was joined not only by Red She-Hulk, but also Thundra She-Hulk. It was too much and I checked out, even though Jeff Parker was writing some of those comics -- and Jeff Parker comics are among my favorites.
In a roundabout way, his writing is why you should be reading Red She-Hulk (not that the gorgeous art by Carlo Pagulayan, Wellington Alves and Val Staples should be ignored), but I’m going to get more specific than that. My point is that I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes at Red She-Hulk’s having her own series when the real She-Hulk doesn’t (not outside of FF anyway). I don’t think Parker would either, though. From the way Red She-Hulk is presented in the early issues of the series, it appears that Parker knows he has some work to do in making her a character that readers want to spend time with.
This is something that Red She-Hulk shares with Geoff Johns’ Aquaman, but Johns went meta with his story and all but included cameos of himself looking directly at the reader and screaming, “Aquaman doesn’t suck!” Parker uses more art. Specifically, he uses Machine Man, aka the Reason You Should Be Reading Red She-Hulk. Stay with me here, because I know Machine Man’s not usually much more of a draw than Red She-Hulk is.
I gave Red She-Hulk a shot for two reasons: A lot of it is Parker, but a lot of it is also that the Hulk’s corner of Marvel is more under control now. If either of those was out of the equation, a story about angry Betty Banner wouldn’t appeal to me. I’m old enough that my Betty was the rock in Bruce Banner’s world, and it’s tough to get used to that rock getting all shaky and turning red.
Likewise, Machine Man has never been a character that interested me. The way I remember him, he’s Inspector Gadget with all the funny replaced by moping. I’m as shocked as anyone that I look forward each month to a Red She-Hulk/Machine Man buddy comic, but Parker made it happen by playing up the underdog angle.
As the series begins, Machine Man isn't as much of an outsider as Betty Banner. She’s on the run and is attacking military installations, so nobody likes her. Machine Man is at least hanging out with the Avengers, even if he doesn’t get to sit at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom. Because of Machine Man’s past interaction with Betty, Captain America calls in the robot to help figure out why she’s doing what she’s doing. Cap seems impatient with the mission, partially because he doesn’t like the military program Betty’s trying to destroy, but it also feels like he doesn’t take it all that seriously. He mostly hangs out in the quinjet, managing Machine Man’s operation more than directly participating in it.
This isn’t a flaw, it’s a way that Parker emphasizes his main characters’ outsider status by keeping Captain America, the ultimate insider, disengaged from them. When things get out of control and Betty becomes a real threat, that’s the point where the insiders (in the form of additional Avengers Iron Man, Thor, and Captain Marvel) get involved and try to stop her. It’s fascinating though because they’re the heroes who are trying to stop Betty from hurting innocent people, but they kind of come off as jerks about it. Machine Man keeps ticking off the clues that Betty’s restraining herself, but the Avengers don’t really wanna listen. They’re focused on the job of taking her down. This is as it should be and they never feel out of character doing it, but Machine Man stays in the reader’s head, casting doubt about which side to root for.
There are seven issues of the series so far, including this week’s Red She-Hulk #64. Betty has escaped the Avengers (for now) and gone on to tangle with other adversaries like S.H.I.E.L.D., the temporally displaced “ghost” of Nicola Tesla, and the horrible (in a good way) Son of Mole Man. As she has, Machine Man has patiently tracked and teamed up with her to figure out the best way of dealing with a powerful, ancient machine that uses the Earth itself to predict the future. It’s a beautiful, pulpy plot, but the best part is Machine Man’s persistence in trying to figure Betty out; something she hasn’t really been able to do herself.
These guys aren’t outsiders or underdogs because they’re losers. In fact, they’re extremely powerful and capable. But they’re also rough around the edges and misunderstood, which makes them perfect characters for a Hulk comic. And speaking of which: Betty may not be a rock of strength and consistency anymore, but it’s sure nice to see that she has one of her own.