Super New Mexico
From the Hulk to Silver City's own Aqualad, New Mexico is ground zero for many of comic books' most memorable — and oddest — characters.
by David A. Fryxell
This is the summer of the superhero. Starting early, with last month's record-breaking Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the nation's multiplexes will be screening one spandex-clad super-character after another — The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past this month, Guardians of the Galaxy in August. Superheroes look to dominate the silver screen every summer, in fact, for the foreseeable future, with Spider-Man spinoffs, a Fantastic Four reboot, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman vs. Superman all headed to production.
The first appearance of the Hulk: Here in New Mexico, we knew him when — when he was just Bruce Banner and when he was a gray Hulk.
On that production side, New Mexico's role in this costumed-hero boom has been well documented. Among others, The Avengers — released in 2012 to become the third highest-grossing film of any type of all time — was filmed in part in Albuquerque. Less celebrated has been the Land of Enchantment's role in these and other superheroes' fictional universes.
You might recall that the first Thor film, released in 2011, was not only filmed in and around Galisteo, but largely took place in New Mexico. As Wikipedia summarizes the setup: "Thor lands in New Mexico, where astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis, and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig, find him. The local populace finds (Thor's hammer) Mjolnir, which SHIELD agent Phil Coulson soon commandeers before forcibly acquiring Jane's data about the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth.... " Our state's prominent place in this chapter of the Marvel cinematic saga was actually teased in the post-credits sequence of Iron Man 2, released in 2010, which showed Coulson finding Thor's hammer in the New Mexico desert.
Unfortunately, the earlier Hulk movie, directed by Ang Lee and released in 2003, skipped over New Mexico's even more prominent role in that character's comic-book origin. Lee's peculiar take on the Hulk transplanted alter ego Bruce Banner's monster-creating gamma experiment from the New Mexico desert to the University of California-Berkeley. New Mexicans can take perverse pleasure in the fact that the film was a box-office disappointment, but the 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk also played fast and loose with the origin. In this second version, starring Edward Norton instead of Eric Bana, the Hulk is born at "Culver University" in Virginia as a result of a gamma-irradiated twist on the "super soldier" formula that created Captain America. (The 1978-1982 "Incredible Hulk" TV series, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, similarly had the monster created from an experiment at the "Culver Institute," far from our deserts.)
Viewers longing for a screen experience that places the Hulk in New Mexico where he belongs can tune in Disney XD's cable cartoon series, "Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H." Not only does it set the Hulk's origin straight; the cartoon places the Hulk and a squad of other gamma-irradiated heroes in a headquarters just outside scenic Vista Verde, NM — the only town in America that loves the Hulk.
But the print (and, increasingly now, digital) comic books have featured New Mexico much more richly than these sparse screen appearances. Just last month, for example, Marvel Comics' "Original Sin" crossover event in the print comics began with the young superhero Nova battling an "Aztec god" (which turns out to be a robot — don't ask) in the oil patch of New Mexico (which is mistakenly described as belonging to Native Americans). Even a cursory search of only the two biggest comics publishers, Marvel and rival DC, reveals a sprawling variety of New Mexico superhero characters and events, spanning fictional centuries, continuities and parallel planet Earths.
Unlike DC, which set its best-known characters in places like "Metropolis," "Gotham City" and "Central City," Marvel from the beginning has used real locales — notably New York City, home to everyone from Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four to the Wombat (yes, really). So it's not surprising that a real place like New Mexico might show up more often in Marvel's pages.
Which brings us back to the Hulk, New Mexico's most famous super-powered native son. Let's take a few paragraphs to recap the big green guy's true comic-book roots in the Land of Enchantment, with an assist from the unofficial Marvel Database wiki (marvel.wikia.com, home to 123,445 pages and counting).
It turns out that not only was the Hulk from New Mexico, but so in a way was the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde, Bruce Banner (more completely, "Robert Bruce Banner" — not "David Banner" as in the TV series). Though Bruce was born in Dayton, Ohio, his dad, atomic physicist Brian Banner, "found a job in Los Alamos working for the government as a member of a project trying to develop a clean way to create nuclear energy." (Things went badly there, as you might guess, but let's not digress.) Bruce graduated from Science High School and went on to study nuclear physics (like father, like son) at Desert State University in Navajo, NM.
After graduate work at the non-fictional Penn State and Cal Tech, Bruce Banner returned to New Mexico to work at the government's top-secret if not very imaginatively named Desert Base. There he met General Thaddeus E. "Thunderbolt" Ross, the Air Force officer in charge of the base, and Ross' daughter, Betty, with whom Banner would fall in love. Desert Base was developing a "Gamma Bomb" — and Banner found himself in the instrumentation bunker at the fateful first test.
A freewheeling teenager, Rick Jones, drove onto the test site on a dare — beginning a long comic-book career that would include helping to launch the Avengers, serving as a sidekick to Captain America, being bonded to the alien Captain Marvel, and becoming a gamma-powered monster himself. (Let this be a lesson to you, kids, about acting on dares and peer pressure.) The brave if spindly Dr. Banner saw the doomed youth and raced out to save him, telling his suspiciously named colleague Igor Starsky to delay the test. Starsky was of course secretly a Soviet agent and so let the blast proceed, thinking Banner would perish. Banner threw young Rick into a protective trench and absorbed the gamma radiation himself — turning him into the initially gray, later green brute called the Hulk!
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The Hulk's New Mexico origins led to a long list of other Marvel characters being connected to the Land of Enchantment. General Ross developed an obsession with capturing the Hulk, leading him to establish a variously named New Mexico base dedicated to that mission — Project Greenskin Base, Hulkbuster Base, Gamma Base. Pretty soon you could hardly swing a radiation control rod around the base without hitting some super-villain like the Leader or the Abomination. Heroes, too, like Doc Samson.
Given all this gamma-powered activity — already funded by Uncle Sam — maybe New Mexico should have tried to develop Hulk-based industry and tourist attractions, instead of taking a literal flier with Spaceport America.
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