I'm going to experiment with something here, and that's not just a full review of this week's FALL OF THE HULKS: GAMMA by Jeph Loeb and John Romita, Jr., but also a page-by-page commentary of the book. Needless to say, here there be SPOILERS, and heavy speculation at not just the identity of Red Hulk, but also the remainder of FALL OF THE HULKS and even WORLD WAR HULKS, the event that follows the FALL.
Now, let's begin:
FALL OF THE HULKS: GAMMA
Pages 1-5: The story begins with Samson once more displaying his "C.S.I."-like talents to reconstruct the events that led to the death of "Thunderbolt" Ross which took place just before where this issue picks up. Obviously, this situation echoes the death of the Abomination, the event which started the current storyline in HULK #1--right down to the double-page splash which is meant to surprise and shock us.
Note also that the Samson who appears in this story is not the same Leonard Samson as in HULK #1, but the new, "evil" Samson who was introduced in HULK #6, whom we saw "Leonard" transform into in INCREDIBLE HULK #600, and who completed his odyssey of evil in the spotlight issue, HULK #18 last week. He's firmly on the side of M.O.D.O.K., which makes anything he says to Captain America (actually "Bucky" Barnes, formerly the Winter Soldier) and Ms. Marvel extremely suspect.
What we do know is that the Red Hulk and T-bolt did meet near the Washington Monument, they fought, and the Red Hulk delivered the "killing blow." T-bolt did fight in the Redeemer armor, which Samson notes as having been created by S.H.I.E.L.D., but which we know was actually designed by the Leader for use by Saunders, who served as his first Redeemer (INCREDIBLE HULK #343-345). (Interestingly, Ross was the second Redeemer, or rather, his reanimated, soulless corpse was employed by the Leader during the "Ghost of the Past" storyline in INCREDIBLE HULK #397-400. Ross was reanimated again by the alien Troyjans which led to his latest return in INCREDIBLE HULK #455.)
Speaking of Ross' resurrection, it is well known that he committed treason (INCREDIBLE HULK #287-290) in conspiring with M.O.D.O.K. and the Abomination. How did he regain his rank upon his resurrection? The story has never been told, although I suspect the hand of the Intelligencia. There's a story there...
Note also that Samson states that the fight between Ross and the Red Hulk was "personal."
Pages 6-7: Ross' body is airlifted away (still in the Redeemer armor) by men who wear military garb. Meanwhile, Samson comments that Ross "always thought with his ego instead of his brain." He wants to be sure the public believes Ross died a hero, but says going alone against the Red Hulk was tantamount to suicide. He then threatens to kill the Red Hulk himself, but is this threat born of Ross' death because he and the General were good friends (a friendship seen many, many times over the years) or does it have more to do with Samson's own betrayal of the Red Hulk ("Code Red" in HULK #14-17), or something else altogether?
The new Captain America, "Bucky" Barnes, notices one of the men from the "Air Force" as perhaps a familiar face from the past, but dismisses the possibility. We'll get back to this point later.
Pages 8-9: Outside Banner and Red Hulk, this is the first time we see Rick Jones as the new A-Bomb interacting with others in the superhero community. He talks with the former Captain America, Steve Rogers. (Oddly, Steve and Ms. Marvel both refer to his friend as "Banner," not "Bruce." What cheesed them off so much?)
Page 10: The funeral begins with a speech from Samson that establishes a few key details. He remarks that Ross has "no family left to speak on his behalf," which indicates that he is either unaware of any resurrection of Betty Ross, or chooses to hide that information from the public. (Eagle-eyed readers may remember he had a liaison with Betty when she briefly returned from death during Bruce Jones' tenure on the book, circa INCREDIBLE HULK vol. 3 #63-76, which may or may not have been a series of fantasy situations created by Nightmare to torture Banner. This issue and ALPHA's revelations that the Intelligencia procured Betty's body would shed doubt on the truth of those events.)
Ross' family here is revealed to be all military men, which fits with assertions in HULK #16 that the father of Red Hulk was a stern man who taught his son that indulgence meant weakness. Also reiterated here is Ross' marriage to Karen Lee (from INCREDIBLE HULK #291), with the added detail that Lee was his C.O.'s daughter, which lends comparison to Major Glenn Talbot and his failed marriage to Betty, his C.O.'s daughter.
Pages 11-13: As Samson notes Betty Ross as her father's proudest accomplishment, we cut to the first appearance this issue of the Red She-Hulk, telling how "fun" it would be to attend the funeral. For some, the cut as Betty's name is told is a clear hint toward the popular theory that Red She-Hulk is, in fact, Betty Ross returned from death. This scene does little to discourage that theory, as M.O.D.O.K. notes how "impractical" such an appearance would be. When she counters that "Samson got to go," M.O.D.O.K. tells her "That's an entirely different set of circumstances and you know it." (Perhaps with those circumstances being that she is presumed dead by everyone in attendance at the funeral?) She rebuffs him, saying that she's "had enough" of "being told where [she] can go and where [she] can't," perhaps lamenting how difficult it has been, being a general's daughter.
Then we see Lyra, the daughter of the Hulk, putting in her first appearance. (Obviously, then, the person she met at the end of INCREDIBLE HULK #605 took her to M.O.D.O.K.) She and Red She-Hulk have a quick antagonism. Red She-Hulk clearly doesn't like her for some palpable reason. If she knows Lyra is the spawn of the Hulk and Thundra, but doesn't know the circumstances...well, do you see where I'm going with this?
Oh, and before we switch scenes: note how M.O.D.O.K. emphasizes Ross' "death" in bold. We'll get back to this later, again.
Page 14: Captain Simon Savage was head of the Leatherneck Raiders, a ragtag team that operated between WWII and the Korean War. There's not much else to say, but that Loeb shows his appreciation for older Marvel history by bringing in older folks who have served in the military to lend gravitas to the funeral proceedings.
Pages 15-18: Speaking of military service, it's a seldom-recognized fact that Ben Grimm and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four served during WWII. What's that? They don't look old enough? Okay, at least he was a test pilot, and we'll phase out the rest of the 1960s topical references. Here he eulogizes Ross to demonstrate his Air Force credentials, and to spotlight his obsession with the Hulk. Ben correctly identifies Ross as the driving force that led to the first fateful meeting between the FF and the Hulk (FANTASTIC FOUR #12), and draws parallels between T-bolt and the Hulk, and another famous hunter and his prey: Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. Of course, Ahab never caught the whale, either...and it drove him to the depths of insanity.
And, finally, we're back to non-military, in Rick Jones, who takes the podium to introduce the man at the centerpiece of the upcoming drama: his best friend, the one who wouldn't have had such an exciting life if Rick had never driven out onto the G-Bomb test site...Bruce Banner.
Pages 19-22: Right away, Bruce wastes no time in establishing himself as the same smart cookie we know from Pak's INCREDIBLE HULK so far, having uploaded his own pictures among Samson's batch. He brings up Betty's picture and talks about how Ross loved her but could never say the words, a touching moment.
Bruce also brings up, for only the second time in the entire narrative since Loeb's HULK #1, the man Ross would have preferred to be his son-in-law--and who, for a time, was: Colonel Glenn Talbot. When Bruce tells of Talbot's capture in Russia some years ago (INCREDIBLE HULK #166-188), the new Cap takes audible notice. Of course, rather transparently, this scene connects to Page 7 and the mystery individual whom Bucky recognized. Likely, they are one and the same. But wait, didn't Talbot die in INCREDIBLE HULK #260...?
Breaking down in tears as he continues, Bruce talks about Betty's death and how it drove Ross further into melancholia. "His world turned upside down," he says. "Maybe something broke apart inside of him. That part of his heart that Betty held together. He would've done anything to get her back." Would he really? Perhaps the proper question isn't "Would he?" but rather, "Did he?"
In closing, Bruce mentions an uncanny irony--that now that he can no longer become the Hulk, Ross, the one who chased him the most, has passed on.
And then, the casket is led away...
Page 23: A 21-gun salute closes the book on the funeral. Bruce and Rick depart while Samson appears clearly livid that Bruce dared show his face.
Pages 24-25: Ah, it's the moment that's been hinted at, with the files from INCREDIBLE HULK #604, the flashbacks in ALPHA, and with Bucky and the attention to a certain army colonel in the funeral itself: both Betty Ross and her ex-husband Glenn Talbot are in fact alive, and they show up at General Ross' gravesite, alone, to pay their respects. It's a remarkable scene for a number of reasons, as Talbot has been dead since 1981, and Betty since 1998. It's intriguing also that they appear together, as they divorced long before the Colonel's death, and Betty of course married Bruce some years later.
Hence, we're left with some pretty interesting questions: How did Talbot survive his "final battle" with the Hulk? Did M.O.D.O.K. assist in returning Talbot to life if he in fact died? How has he retained his military rank and uniform? Why is Betty with Talbot instead of making her way back to Bruce? Is Betty brainwashed? Why do they let the world believe them both to still be dead?
Obviously we haven't seen the last of Betty or Talbot, and their returns will be a big part of FALL OF THE HULKS and WORLD WAR HULKS.
It does bear mentioning that Talbot has always been a favorite among Hulk fandom for the identity of Red Hulk. He does fit many of the clues that are out there, and truthfully, one of the only reasons I'd eliminated him from contention was the fact that he was quite dead when the curtain rose on HULK #1 two years ago. I still believe it would be a cheat to have him show up out of the blue only to stand revealed as the Red Hulk as it violates a key convention of mysteries.
At the same time, I wonder from his dialogue this issue if Talbot really could be Red Hulk. He promises Betty that he will help her find the truth about how her father died. Now, if he is the Red Hulk, then wouldn't that mean he's keeping that fact from Betty? I'm not so sure I see something like that being in Glenn's character, but I could be wrong.
Similarly, does Betty's angsting this issue preclude her from being Red She-Hulk? Again, I don't think so, because as we all know, how you express yourself may be totally different between your regular self and your gamma-irradiated self. Some aren't even aware of what their other identities do.
Pages 26-27: Alas, we're back to Samson and the Intelligencia. These pages have divided fandom as they would seem to cast the most doubt on Ross actually being the Red Hulk, which is of course my longstanding, all-but-proven theory. Judge for yourself, but I think nothing has changed.
Samson puts forth the idea that the Red Hulk didn't work alone when he killed Ross, if only because "killing Ross doesn't fit his profile." He points an accusatory finger at the Leader, who "had a hand in [the Redeemer armor's] creation" and "even got Ross to wear it back then." Of course, M.O.D.O.K. surmises that the Red Hulk's actions were designed to sow discord among them. He also states that Red Hulk knows "the most intimate details" of their plans and "how Ross, in particular, was crucial to them." "With the general's murder," he says, "he's fired the first shot...now we shoot back." We then see the assembled Intelligencia, ready, it seems, to go after the Red Hulk.
The supposition that fans have made is that just because the Intelligencia refers to Ross as above, the Ross that "died" cannot be anyone but the real Ross. While this idea certainly has merit, you have to ask: does the book work as well without the scene? Could Loeb have afforded to drop it? And could there be another, subtler way to hint that Ross is not what he seemed? Note that every time Ross' name is mentioned, it's in bold, as is "murder." There's a special emphasis...sort of like if one were to use quotes around the words. Let's face it, if Ross name were quoted every single time it appeared here, that would be a pretty good indicator all was not as it seemed. Ah, well, we'll have to wait and see.
If Ross is Red Hulk, we have to ask: why is having Ross able to be seen a vital detail of their plans? Or, why is it so vitally important to have the Red Hulk seen alongside Ross? And what is this plan, anyway?
Dollars to doughnuts, with Ross officially "dead" they are now cut off from his military contacts and resources. Red Hulk has eliminated further infiltration with a Ross LMD henceforth.
Pages 28-29: Here we are at the closing pages, where just as in HULK #1, Loeb throws the readers a loop, and does it using Bruce Banner. It was hinted at heavily at the end of HULK #17, but now we have confirmation: Red Hulk did the "unexpected" thing and chose to ally himself with Bruce Banner. The implication atop that is that Bruce Banner was complicit in, and perhaps even orchestrated, the death of General Ross.
Now, yes, it's true that Bruce Banner has been acting a bit loopy of late, perhaps even slightly villainous (c.f. his giving Tyrannus the Gammadome tech in INCREDIBLE HULK #605 among other bits), but really, this ending should be a red flag to anyone who didn't yet accept this point from everything earlier in the issue:
General Ross is not dead. Bruce Banner and Red Hulk faked his death.
It's a few things besides the fact that Banner is involved that make me think this way. Remember also that General Ross has already died twice before (INCREDIBLE HULK #330 and 400), and twice been resurrected. He fills an important role in Hulk lore. There's no point in killing him. And, oh yes, this is Pak's Banner, to a "T."
Also, note the dialogue between Banner and the Red Hulk, with the references to Ross' funeral. "Did you believe those things you said at the funeral?" Who would ask that? The answer is, someone who either cares about Ross, or Ross himself. (And how did he know what was said at the funeral, anyway?)
I will even go forward to cement the idea that Ross' death has been faked, that Ross is Red Hulk, and the "plan" is still very much moving forward. After all, let's say that we at least agree that Red Hulk and Banner conspired to fake Ross' death. The body was taken by the "Air Force"--which I would actually presume to be a front for the Intelligencia (which may mean that Talbot is allied with them!); or at the least, the Intelligencia would have agents able to verify the body's authenticity in ways the regular military might not. So, granted the Intelligencia would spot a fake: if the Intelligencia were working with the "real" Ross, and they detected a fake substituted by Banner, game over! Hence, either the Intelligencia's "Ross" was an LMD and it died, or Banner was complicit in murdering the real Ross. Which do you prefer? And why else would the Intelligencia know Ross was fake unless...the real Ross was the Red Hulk?
Still, what we have is Bruce Banner and Red Hulk, joining forces clandestinely, with Banner's old secret lab armed to theteeth with Sakaarian weapons (as well as the gun that killed the Abomination--take a look on the wall!). It may look bad, but if we've learned one thing about Bruce Banner under Pak--he's got a plan for everything and everyone. (Who actually believes he's preparing Skaar to really kill the Green Scar?)
Whew. This post took a few days longer than I thought it would. I'm beat. What do you think, sirs?
PS: What makes me think it's all going to come back to this page from HULK #3?
PPS: "Eeeeeeeenteresting" dept.: If you check the Handbook entries in back, She-Hulk and Red She-Hulk have the exact same stats. Spooky.