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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Panel Vision - Gamma Guide: Marvel's Other Incredible Hulks

Edited by Robert Beach

This is a good time to be the Hulk. Mark Ruffalo’s version of the character is the most popular the character’s ever been in the public eye; we’re getting a new, diverse Hulk in the comics, and the major rumor is the Red Hulk will be coming to the Marvel cinematic universe in Captain America: Civil War. 

Additionally, with the major executive change-ups at Marvel Studios, there’s more chance now than ever before that we’ll see Hulk in his own movie. At the very least, we will see some more interesting spaces like possibly Dr. Strange or Guardians of the Galaxy. Given the mushrooming popularity of the Hulk, and the fact his expanded roster of characters is finally starting to garner some recognition, I thought I’d put together this Gamma Guide looking at all the other gamma irradiated heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe.

She-Hulk was the first additional Marvel hero to have gamma powers. She was created by Stan Lee as part of an effort to emulate the success of The 6 Million Dollar Man’s female centric spin-off Bionic Woman. This was at the same time when the live-action Incredible Hulk show was doing well, so it made sense to try and capitalize on TV trends of the time. Her origin is Jennifer Walters, a lawyer in New York who was caught in an accident and needed a blood transfusion. 

The only viable donor is her cousin, Bruce Banner, and his irradiated blood turns her into a fellow Hulk; however, She-Hulk’s hulkiness is more diminished than Bruce’s. Walters is still very powerful, though it’s just that she doesn’t turn into a raging monster when she changes. As a result, she tends to just stay in her Hulk form all the time because there’s basically no downside, even continuing her career as a lawyer just as a jade green Amazonian. 

Doc Samson is probably the biggest walking joke in the Hulk mythos this side of Kluh (we’ll cover Kluh some other time though.) I don’t really know what the thinking was behind the creation of Doc Samson; he’s basically just a strong guy with green hair. His origin was that he managed to drain some of the Hulk’s power into himself in an effort to reduce Hulk’s destructive impact. 

There’s an interesting wrinkle to this with Samson as a superhero psychologist who actually wants to help the Hulk, but more often than not he ended up canon fodder for a Hulk attack. Like a lot of Hulk characters, he got a major overhaul during Jeph Loeb’s run on Hulk, which he did start hulking out. Samson had joined with a villain group at this point, and his new power was that sometimes his hair would grow, his body inflates, and he’d start referring to himself as “Doc” while speaking in that “Hulk Smash!” form of broken English. 

The latest gamma being to grace the printed page, Amadeus Cho, is a more recent Hulk supporting character. He’s basically a super-smart, anti-establishment rebel who joined up with the Hulk in the era immediately prior to Planet Hulk. Amadeus is a cool character: fun and resourceful with just enough brilliance to be admired but enough youthful naïveté and idiocy to make him fallible and relatable. 

That blend of traits has kept him around long after his initial run, though usually in the role of sidekick. He teamed up with Hercules during the Hulk’s return, and they palled around through a number of great stories and the excellent Chaos War storyline. He and Herc have been off the grid since then, yet the news is that this November he’s coming back in a big way as the all-new Hulk, and it seems he’s retained his human intelligence in his hulk form. 

With all do respects to Thunderbolt Ross, the Leader is probably Hulk’s greatest villain and true archenemy. He’s menaced the Hulk from the beginning and serves as perfect inversion of the Hulk’s own persona. Where the Hulk started out as brilliant Bruce Banner before becoming the savage Hulk, the Leader started life as an idiot janitor named Samuel Stern. When Stern was exposed to gamma radiation, it massively improved his intelligence, causing his brain to grow, his skin to green, and his morals evil. 

His brilliance has led him to menace the Hulk and even the whole world on countless previous occasions. The Leader was even set up in the 2008 Incredible Hulk film. The look of the character has undergone a lot of changes over the years. Sometimes featuring an elongated skull; sometimes he has a giant angry brain. He's all over the place. The same thing goes for his powers: sometime he has actual psionic abilities while sometimes he only has his amazing intelligence. 

Abomination occupies a weird space in the gamma pantheon as one of the most enduring Hulk foes while also being probably the most boring. Abomination was essentially just another iteration of the Soviet/Cold War Paranoia that punctuates a lot of Marvel’s foreign villains. Emil Blonsky, the Abomination, was a Russian mercenary who underwent his own gamma experiments to become a massive, scaly green monster. 

He’s appeared and reappeared throughout the Hulk’s entire career, though his most prolific period was in the ‘80s. He was killed off in the late 2000s as part of Jeph Loeb’s redefining run on the Hulk comics. Despite the standard supervillain tendency for resurrection, I wouldn’t expect Abomination to be reappearing anytime soon given how little there was to his character. Besides, his role has kind of already been filled by…

A-Bomb was designed as sort of an Abomination replacement coming from the same Jeph Loeb story arc where Abomination was killed. His identity is Rick Jones, a long-time Hulk supporting character who goes all the way back to Hulk’s origin. In the original comics, the reason Bruce Banner was out on the gamma bomb testing area was to rescue Rick, who had been stranded out there himself. 

Rick kicked around the Hulk-o-sphere for awhile after that with intermittent popularity until the braintrust at Marvel decided he should be a gamma beast all his own. As A-Bomb, his main unique quality is he’s got a nearly impenetrable body shell like a super-powered armadillo. He can also turn invisible sometimes but that’s really not explored too much.

Red Hulk is the character that kicked off the entire, dopey Jeph Loeb era of Hulk comics that influenced our last 2 entries. The idea of color-coded Hulks goes back to the character’s origins with the malevolent gray Hulk being an alter-transformation possibility for Bruce Banner, but the Red Hulk represents his own character. Created by a group of mad scientist super villains Red Hulk is, in reality, Thunderbolt Ross, Hulk’s longest running antagonist. 

As the Red Hulk, Ross is incredibly powerful and has the ability to absorb energy into his body, but it comes with a catch: the angrier red Hulk gets, the hotter he gets. As a result, if someone can make Red Hulk angry enough he’ll burn himself out as befits a Red Hulk’s character type. The angry and morally bankrupt version of a more heroic character has been a major hit for Marvel, hence the rumor he’ll show up in Captain America: Civil War. That rumors grows more with Thunderbolt Ross confirmed to return to Marvel films.

Here’s a case of weird history if ever there was one. This is the story of Betty Ross, the daughter of Thunderbolt Ross and long-time love interest of the Bruce Banner.  For a long time, she essentially functioned as a bit player in the Hulk stories, usually showing up to clam Hulk down in some capacity.

However, she gained gamma powers of her own to compete with the Hulk becoming the monstrous Harpy. Over time, the writers ditched the Harpy concept as Betty fell out of favor in the Hulk continuity. That happens a lot of the time with supporting character love interests in comics. Eventually, she came back to Hulk stories during the Jeph Loeb years and gained powers similar to her father’s becoming the Red She-Hulk.

Lylla is one of the least engaging characters on this list by a wide margin. She was originally conceived of as a bad She-Hulk for lack of a better term, yet even that seems like an overly generous descriptor. She’s the daughter of the Hulk and G-list villain Thundra. Her origin is a needlessly tangled and nonsensical mess of alternate realities and possible futures; none of which make her even the slightest bit more interesting. 

The essential idea with her character is that she’s like a more in your face She-Hulk because she comes from a group of powerful women known as the Femizons with the only major power change being that Lyra gets less powerful the angrier she becomes. Not much else to say because, as stated, there was never much to Lyra’s character. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we started seeing a whole lot less of her as soon as Red She-Hulk showed up and started doing the same shtick only a million times simpler and more engaging.  

Skaar is the most ‘90s character the ‘90s didn’t produce.  One of the more popular Hulk storylines of the modern era is Planet Hulk, which the Hulk was exiled from the Earth to a distant world where he became a gladiator and champion. At the climax of that story, (spoilers) Hulk’s new home is devastated in a massive disaster that kills Hulk’s alien wife, prompting him to return to Earth seeking revenge.

However, even though Hulk’s wife was dead, the weird slurry of energy, alien biology, and gamma sperm allowed the child to survive as Skaar, son of the Hulk. For a time, Skaar lived as a sword-and-planet barbarian hero on the collapsing shell of his home world before making his way to Earth as part of the incredibly dopey ‘Fall of the Hulks’ storyline. Skaar has a human form, though it’s rarely featured. His role is that of sulky green teenager with a big sword and even bigger daddy issues.

Now we’re getting into the really short lived characters of the Hulk mythos.  Actually calling Teen Abomination a Hulk character is misleading as he was, for his incredibly short time was spent as an Iron Man supporting character. This takes a bit of explaining, but very recently in Marvel history Iron Man was basically a villain.  During the event Axis, Iron Man’s morality and personality got inverted, making him a smug, amoral, capitalist bastard. This shift in persona persisted into a new Iron Man solo comic called Superior Iron Man. 

During this, Iron Man fought and sort of adopted a gamma-powered 13-year-old child he nicknamed Teen Abomination.  It was eventually revealed that Teen Abomination was the illegitimate bastard son of Iron Man’s old bodyguard Happy Hogan who had been exposed to gamma radiation as a child. I don’t think anyone was that desperate for a revival of the classic Abomination fin-head look, but even if there were bigger plans for Teen Abomination, those seem to scrap with the emergence of Secret Wars and the Marvel reboot. 

The Gamma Corp are honestly my favorite gamma characters in the Marvel universe, even though they’ve only been featured in 5 total issues. They came about as a part of the World War Hulk event that marked Hulk’s return from exile in the Planet Hulk storyline. World War Hulk was framed as a major event when it happened which meant a ton of spin-offs and tie-ins, and one such 4-issue mini series was Gamma Corp.  

They’re a group of Hulk attack victims and survivors who’ve been outfitted with gamma powers of their own by John Stryker, the man who created Wolverine. Together, the Gamma Corp touch on basically every gamma character there was at the time with members taking their powers from the Leader, the Hulk, Doc Samson, Fury, and the Abomination. They’re a really well written and compelling team that showcase just how far grief can push a person and how varied the gamma radiation effects could be. There was a 2nd version of the team called Gamma Corp Black, but only one member of that team had gamma powers: Aberration, a woman who had been spliced with the Abomination’s DNA.

And now we come to the final subbasement that Marvel managed to chisel out of the Hulk barrel.  In 2010, Marvel basically capped off about 2 years of Hulk storytelling with the story of World War Hulks. The name is a play on the 2007 event World War Hulk that had closed off the period era in Hulk history. That little trick on the name perfectly sums up the 2 years of Hulk stories that started with Red Hulk and finally concluded with this series. 

The details of the story aren’t really that important other than that it swirled around a group of super-scientist villains who had figured out how to make gamma-powered beings of their own. They were the villain group that had created a lot of late-period gamma beings like A-Bomb, Red Hulk, Red She-Hulk, and the later version of Doc Samson. In the climax of the event, a ton of heroes got turned into "Hulkified" versions of themselves as part of the biggest, dopiest monster battle you’ve ever seen. There were hulked-out versions of Thor, Winter Soldier, Captain Marvel, Photon, Spider-Man, Deadpool, Storm, Cyclops, Wolverine, Ice Man, War Machine, The Thing, The Human Torch, and the Invisible Woman, and it’s all still canon.  

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