The Ballad of Halo Jones (2000AD, 1984-1986)
Written by: Alan Moore
Art by: Ian Gibson
The world of female comics is saturated with qualifiers. For its time. Comparatively Speaking. As good as could be expected, considering…. We are forced to relativize in order to recognize genuine progress while still acknowledging the vast chasms in female characterization yet to be traversed. But then, every rare while, a book appears that doesn’t need the critical shield of qualification, one that tells its heroine’s story exactly as it ought to be told, without pandering or condescension, overt sexualization or strident rhetoric a propos of nothing. One that shows us a person, and a life, and credits the reader to figure out the rest. Rare, but they do happen, and at the top of anybody’s short list of such books is The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson.
Originally published in 2000AD, the book has all the massive universe building that is characteristic of that publisher – a dense array of ideas in merciless succession about what the grim future has in store for humanity. Trees that have evolved to scream when cut, Earth forced to sell water to other planets to keep from total financial collapse, and The Hoop – a massive ring structure where the unemployed are offered a subsidized existence bereft of all hope. Halo Jones, as the story begins, is just another of the residents of the Hoop, an eighteen year old girl without any particular direction who has grown used to riots and lurking religious cults as the stuff of daily life, and to the notion that a trip out for food might end in death. Her friends represent a rich selection of adaptations to grinding poverty – Ludy, a musician whose identity is trammeled to tatters by fear born of desperation, and Rodice, who has lived so long in the midst of this arachnid system that she can’t psychologically pull herself from it, so totally has she internalized its rules and paranoia.
But Jones escapes, finds a starliner and heads for space on a path that, in any other book, would be a romantic and jolly cosmic odyssey, but that, in Moore’s expert hands, reveals the full hurt of freedom in an indifferent galaxy. Everywhere she goes, she makes friends with women characterized to the hilt, from Glyph, whose story of lost gender identity is heart-rending and beautiful and twenty years ahead of its time, to Toy, a seven foot tall brawler whose end is as horrid as Glyph’s, to Life Sentence, a soldier so possessed by the cruelty of war that her only fear is peace, and the living in it. Through the slow gnash of poverty, and the cold realization that no matter where she goes, she always ends up in some Hoop or other, she is dragged through alcoholic self-destruction and ultimately, too lost to find any other purpose, becomes a front line soldier in Earth’s galactic expansion force, fighting on a planet whose gravity warps time itself, such that minutes on the battlefield translate to months for the rest of the universe. In a series of the most perfect pages in comics, she enters battle again and again, years slipping by in the course of a day, wrecking all sense of self and belonging, and all limping towards a tragi-comic end.
With Halo Jones, Moore told a tale beyond gender, beyond even humanity, pressing at the cold dark truth of all civilization, and Ian Gibson realized that tale with haunting and stark perfection. It is a grim tone poem in the key of determinism, better than which there are none. No qualifiers needed.
Who Wants to Power Meter Forever?
Fierce: 10: Jones and her friends are very much their own people, as profound in their weakness as unearthly in their strength. The story of the all-female Beta platoon Jones joins is gritty and true and senseless and perfect.
Smart: 10: Jones isn’t exceptional in any way, including braininess, and that is the point. “Anyone could have done it,” is the quote of hers that future generations remember. The structure of the story, the richness of the portrayal of galactic civilization, and the absolute nerve it took to even attempt to tell a story that incorporates Einsteinian time dilation into battlefield physics, are all exceptional.
Funny: 8: For a book that has so many dark notes to sound, there are also great moments of cosmic absurdity that spring naturally from the universe Gibson and Moore have constructed. Moore has terrific fun constructed the language of future society, and its chirps and tweaks are always thoughtful and amusing.
Art: 10: Gibson has the task of capturing the story of a universe destroying a girl, of taking her from an inexperienced street punk to a wrecked husk, of conveying personal moments of unbearable grief and grand galactic combat. In the current era of stylized specializations, we would have to settle for full realization in one realm, and a studied Getting By in the other. But Gibson comes from the era of artistic titans, and handles the demanded versatility as a matter of course.
She Hulk (Marvel Comics, Volume 3, 2014)
Writer: Charles Soule.
Artists: Javier Pulido (1-4, 7-12), Ron Wimberly (5,6).
In June of 1992, a copy of John Byrne’s Sensational She Hulk changed my life. I remember a big splash page where She Hulk is riding across a star strewn sky in her space car and suddenly says, “I know this sector! That last shot was the same funky space the Byrnemeister pasted up for issue six! In fact… it was exactly the same! The lazy bum just Xeroxed the pages out of that issue! He turned it sideways, but you could even still see the fold line where the original two pages joined.” The idea of comics talking about themselves, of characters making fun of artists and artists yelling at editors in the margins, blew my young mind, and made Sensational She Hulk my favorite comic month in, month out.
All of which is to say that I come into new She Hulk titles with unjustly high expectations, expectations which are usually met because any writer who undertakes She Hulk is already a pretty special breed. Dan Slott’s run was nerdy and fun and larger than life – everything it should be, and its fifty issue span was well deserved. When Charles Soule was announced as the successor to Byrne and Slott, the common wisdom was that he couldn’t possibly match their work, and that the title would prove short lived. The latter prediction was true (there were only twelve issues), but not for the reasons people imagined.
Soule’s She Hulk isn’t a wacky space adventurer or a frustrated ring-leader of variously comic super hero E-listers. She is a lawyer, and Soule’s comic is first and foremost about the craft of lawyering. His demonstrations of the ruthless machinery of law (one of Tony Stark’s lawyers, a man known only as Legal, is a brilliantly hateful addition to the Shulkverse) run beside his clear love of its potential as a preserver of human dignity and fairness. Of twelve issues, three are given over to a densely-written account of a wrongful death case brought against Captain America, a gutsy move that vigorously avoids having Jen Walters resort in the last instance to fists and rage to solve her problems. It’s a deeply ethical and moving story that pays homage to Marvel’s past while attempting to move beyond the confines of traditional comic tropes.
Jennifer Walters is big, green, and confident in the expected She Hulk manner, and her companions in law are equally strongly drawn. Patsy Walker returns at long last to the Marvel universe in her guise as Hellcat, and has some powerful and true scenes that get at the condescending but well-meant dishonesty of how the exceptional negotiate their interactions with the merely talented. But the great breakaway character is She Hulk’s paralegal, Angie Huang, a ball of filing efficiency and enigmatic knowledge unfazed by the regular crises of Walters’s law practice. She makes cross referencing feel as momentous as dragon slaying, and we can’t have enough characters like that in comics.
In the last issue, Soule says that the twelve issues we have are the complete story that he pitched to Marvel, but it sure feels like this was a bigger story that had to be wrapped up quickly. There’s a pervasive plotline about a mysterious Blue File of which much is made, but which is precipitously wrapped up in the last issue along with a slew of character revelations that feel like they were meant to be doled out at a more leisurely pace. The Sensational She Hulk lasted 60 issues, Dan Slott’s She Hulk lasted 50 – it would have seemed reasonable to expect this series, especially given the rising vogue of female super hero titles, to hold on for a decent stretch.
So, why didn’t it? The writing represents a deeply realized and interesting change of direction for a character who needed it. The covers by Kevin Wada were gorgeous and inviting. The good will for She Hulk, after two great predecessor series in recent memory, was high. This should have been a hit of Squirrel Girl or Harley Quinn proportions. It could well have been that Soule had said everything he meant to say, and that twelve was only ever going to be the number of issues we got, but there were murmurings of another tale. A tale of a fan base that had last seen She Hulk in the pages of FF, drawn by Mike Allred and that, presented with a new She Hulk series drawn in much the same style by Javier Pulido, experienced Silver Age burnout, and couldn’t be induced back to the comic no matter how brilliant its contents. Had She Hulk not been in FF, Pulido would have been unilaterally embraced for his bold take on the character, but as it was, after five years of waiting, She Hulk fans were treated to a visual experience chained to a title that people had, justly or not, grown tired of, and that fatigue translated to a lack of enthusiasm during the comic stand skim.
It’s a theory which has anecdotal support, but I’d like to think slightly better of the attention span of veteran comic readers than that. Pulido’s kinetic layouts were fun and powerful, and a good foil to Soule’s courtroom intensity, and we all knew that quite well. So, a mystery those twelve issues will remain, but no matter what, we shall always have them, now collected in two handy volumes, and vague promises of more to come if we are very, very good. Jennifer Walters has never been this professional and engagingly cerebral. Let’s hope she stays that way.
Power Meter, Power Meter, Metering Power like a Meter Man.
Fierce: 10: She’s She Hulk. Fierce is her thing, but now with legal ferocity standing next to the smashing kind. I also like how Soule explores the darker side of her gifts in her interactions with Hellcat.
Smart: 10: Walters and Huang are legal geniuses, and are shown constantly at work in their profession.
Funny: 8: Following two of the most consistently funny books in Marvel Comics, this She Hulk perhaps wisely decided to keep the tone light and frothy, but the overt jokes few. There are many funny things, but the meta-commentary has been swapped out to allow us to take Jennifer Walters more seriously, and that’s probably for the best.
Art: 7: There are two primary artists on this book – Javier Pulido did ten of the issues, and Ron Wimberly handled two. More different styles you would be hard pressed to find, and it makes for a somewhat jarring narrative experience. Pulido puts his work into an exquisite laying out of the page and, if the occasional panel doesn’t quite come out (I spent a good twenty minutes trying to comfortably hold a folder like below – couldn’t manage it), the overall effect pushes you from page to page.
Meanwhile, Wimberly’s energetic and unhinged lines wedded to extreme perspectives, so powerful in the right context, gave the narrative a sense of omnipresent menace which unsettled the carefully wrought balance that Pulido and Soule had managed. For those who had just settled in to Pulido after four issues, the swing to the edgier Wimberly, and then the swing back to Pulido, was difficult.