This comparison does not follow any particular review style. It is intended as a comparison between two comics published thirty years apart which both deconstruct superhero tropes.
When Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published in 1987, it was novel for the way it spoke to both the absurdity of the superhero genre and delved into the gritty anxieties and Cold War fears of accumulated generations of comic-book readers.
Moore’s gang of costumed vigilantes, unlike previous clean-cut heroes with acceptably honorable backstories, were variously war criminals, finance powerhouses, and petty exes. Moore’s alternate-history America is dim, threatened by nuclear destruction, and filled with sexual brutality.
Anti-hero Rorschach, a masked survivor of child sexual abuse with a messiah complex who murders criminals, avenges rape, and is terrified of and/or disgusted by women, became an icon of geek culture for his vengeful monologues, despite Moore’s insistence that he was meant to be a critique of an unsavory countercultural undercurrent.
A scene where Rorschach recounts the real story of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered while her neighbors watched, at once locks Watchmen’s reality into our own and locks the reader into being a paralyzed witness to violence.
The world that Watchmen paints, with its solid, grounded muscular male bodies and its generally svelte, victimized women, articulated a certain darkness in the superhero genre that had not been addressed much since the dawn of the Comics Code. At the same time, it took a certain glee in the violence it so objectively described in neat nine-panel sequences.
Mariko Tamaki’s She-Hulk: Deconstructed (2017) is an entirely different beast.
While it, too, addresses the absurdities of its alternate universe full of superheroes with magical powers and reckons with the consequences of violence, war, and trauma, it does so from the perspective of a powerful traumatized heroine. The narrative follows Walters’ recovery from a devastating battle that left her comatose and subsequently rendered her weakened, with limited control over her enormous powers.
In one scene, after having managed to get home after a trying day at work, Walters bends over her desk as a recipe for sponge cake plays from her laptop. “This is what happens now when I think about what happened to me,” Walters thinks, as the bumps of her spine curve inhumanly outwards and her eyes bulge.
As she struggles to get back to her work as a housing lawyer in New York City, she takes on a case with another traumatized woman, housebound Maise Brewn, who was the survivor of an attempted murder and has now been transformed into something not quite human. Where the alternate-universe Kitty Genovese was thrown into Watchmen already dead and left as a marker of something sick in our society that is assumed to be unfixable, She-Hulk takes on the problem of what it feels like to endure brutality and come out the other side–damaged, monstrous, angry, strong.
Like Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, Walters could destroy the world around her easily, and like Rorschach, she has the kind of trauma that would motivate her to do it. What is different about Tamaki’s hero is that Walters chooses not to destroy anything, except a monster that is eating a poorly-administered building and its residents from the inside out. Instead, she uses her day job as an attorney to help members of the public. She-Hulk is a testimony to the way women writers can transform and adapt even vast, franchised universes full of absurdity to tell real, earnest, emotionally vital stories.
Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons (1987). Watchmen. DC Comics.
Tamaki, Mariko, Nico Leon and Jeff Dekal (2017). She-Hulk: Deconstructed. Marvel Comics.