One of the odd things about the trio of female versions of male superheroes Marvel introduced in the late 1970s is that all three have built up dedicated fan bases, despite their initial outings not being that good. Okay, Ms. Marvel hit the ground, if not exactly running, at least at a brisk stroll, but early Spider-Woman stories are weak, and these first She-Hulk tales are, if anything, rather worse. On its own, this material doesn’t really deserve the Marvel Masterworks treatment, and the only justification for representing the comics like this is the character’s later popularity.

Modern She-Hulk fans, however, will be surprised, and probably disappointed, by what they find. This is not the fun-loving, ebullient character with whom they are familiar. She is a result of John Byrne‘s later reinvention, partially drawing on developments fostered by David Anthony Kraft later in this run. Here She-Hulk, whilst retaining her intelligence (unlike the Hulk), is perpetually angry and goes through a lot of white mini-dresses, whilst her alter ego, Jennifer Walters, is constantly wracked with angst, unable to control her transformations.

Unusually for a comic as late as 1980, the first story is written by Stan Lee. This introduces Walters, who is Bruce Banner’s cousin. She’s shot, and Banner is forced to give her an emergency blood transfusion (using equipment from a convenient neighbourhood doctor’s). This saves her life, but passes on Banner’s Hulk curse. John Buscema draws this, and while hardly Buscema at his best, his cover for the first issue is nice, and reprinted as the cover to this collection. Lee perpetuates another late 1970s Marvel tradition in locating the story away from New York, in Los Angeles, but neither here nor in the rest of the series is there much of a sense of place. This is also not Lee at his best, but what follows is worse.

Lee had overtly referenced the then-contemporary Incredible Hulk TV series in his script, and Kraft, who would write the rest of the series (this volume takes it up to mid-1981), seemingly picks up on this, giving She-Hulk adventures rather more akin to those of TV’s David Banner than to what might be found in Hulk comics. The villains are generally pedestrian (partly a product of the Los Angeles setting – most of the good villains are still on the East Coast), and the stories dull. Mike Vosburg’s art is typical late ’70s/early ’80s, and not very inspiring – everything seems a bit rushed (see sample image). The best artwork to be found in this volume are a series of covers by Michael Golden.

The stories do gradually become a bit more fantastical and superheroic, starting with an Iron Man guest appearance, but that’s still a pretty dull Iron Man story. This volume concludes with a two-part Man-Wolf tale. That brings back characters Kraft had written before, and introduces She-Hulk to Hellcat, something that would be picked up in Charles Soule’s later run on She-Hulk, but the story itself is preposterous, and contains some of the most ridiculous exposition you’re ever likely to read in a comic.

Overall, reading this Masterworks is a wearying experience. There’s a second volume, which is a bit more pleasant, and these comics had previously been collected in black and white in Essential Savage She-Hulk. The advice for She-Hulk fans, though, is they’re better off going straight to the work of Byrne, Dan Slott, or Soule.