In advance of reviewing tomorrow's HULK #23 with its origin of the Red Hulk, whose identity and history I prognosticated many months ago, here I go reviewing a key issue in the matter. Unfortunately, this book has never been reprinted, aside from digitally in the GIT Corp. "The Incredible Hulk: The Complete Collection" DVD, now sadly out of print. The reason for its inclusion should be clear soon enough:
INCREDIBLE HULK #291
"Old Soldiers Never Die!"
Writer: Bill Mantlo / Artists: Sal Buscema & Gerry Talaoc
If you've been following the ongoing "World War Hulks" storyline, you'll know by now that General "Thunderbolt" Ross stands revealed as the Red Hulk. How did he get there? The answers are coming in tomorrow's HULK #23. However, just before that issue hits, I think it's a good idea to go back and review this little gem: the only previous time the "origin" of General Ross has seen the light of day. Now 26 years old, this book is an obvious companion piece to HULK #23, and I have no doubt thanks in large part to writer Greg Pak's tremendous affection for Bill Mantlo's tenure on the book, this issue will be referenced, so it's a good plan to "study up."
At the onset of this issue, General Ross stands a defeated man. He knowingly went against the orders of the United States government, allying himself with M.O.D.O.K., setting free the Abomination from a top secret military installation and commanding him against the Hulk. Why was this act treasonous? The President himself had pardoned the Hulk for all previous activities since, at the time this issue was written, the creature now possessed the full faculties of Bruce Banner, the monster within repressed seemingly forever.
Writer Mantlo clearly set up this story to function as an epitaph, a coda to the career of General Ross. As he sits at his desk, deciding whether to inform his superiors of his treasonous actions, Ross reflects upon the long life he's lived. (In this story, he is identified as 67 years old.) He came from a line of military men, with his grandfather serving in the Civil War under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, while his father fought during World War I in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He grew up hearing his father's tales of valor, and voraciously read every book on military history and strategy he could find. He enlisted in the military and graduated at the top of his class, and during his time there he met, romanced, and married his commanding officer's daughter, Karen Lee.
Ross didn't have to wait long after graduation to enter the trenches of war, as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He entered the theater of war in the Pacific as a Captain, earning his still-current nickname for striking like a thunderbolt as he led his men into battle. He left World War II as a Major, and around that time, his daughter Betty was born. However, family obligations couldn't keep him from going back to war, with the conflict this time being Korea. He lived for war, and rose to Colonel, then General. Medals followed, and the war ended, which meant a return to a desk. He saw Betty grow up, having wished for a son but denied that. Years later, his wife Karen died, and instead of allowing Betty to comfort him, he sent her away. A military base was no place for a young woman, he argued; and besides, if he loved Karen as much as he loved the military, she might have still been alive.
Soon, of course, the government placed General Ross in charge of the G-Bomb project, which brought him in contact with Dr. Robert Bruce Banner. After having attended boarding school, Betty returned to her father, and found herself attracted to Banner, who was in every way the opposite of her father: a man of intellect, of kindness. We know what happened next, of course: Bruce Banner became the Hulk in the wake of the G-Bomb detonation, and General Ross regained a purpose, marshalling the military's forces against the green goliath. Having discovered Banner to be the very creature he intended to destroy, Ross redoubled his efforts to find his daughter a suitable husband, introducing her to Major Glenn Talbot. Banner briefly gained control over the Hulk, and he and Betty nearly married, only to lose control anew on their wedding day. Ross' resolve to kill the Hulk strengthened, and to that end, Hulkbuster Base was built. Soon afterward, time apparently healed Betty's broken heart, and she fell in love with Talbot, who married his commanding officer's daughter just like Ross had done before him.
But Talbot and Betty's marriage was not to be a happy one, for the Hulk often came between them. Talbot himself was presumed dead while on a mission to save Ross, but returned eventually, albeit in a vegetative state. The Hulk restored Talbot's psyche, but his marriage to Betty was irreparably damaged and the two divorced thereafter. Betty then realized she never stopped loving Bruce. The two resumed their relationship, while at the same time, torn over what he had done in pursuit of his own dreams, Ross resigned his command. Talbot wasn't deterred, picking up where Ross left off, having newly achieved a colonelship as well as control of the renamed Gamma Base. He chased the Hulk, whom he hated more than ever because he lost Betty to Banner, but only succeeded in destroying himself.
Shortly, Bruce Banner gained control over the Hulk anew. It wasn't what Betty wanted--she hoped for a cure over control--and she left, apparently for good. Ross became enraged that Banner had hurt his daughter, and once again donned his uniform. But it was too late, and the government pardoned the Hulk. Knowing in his heart that the Hulk would only return, more savage than ever (and how right he would later be!), he allied himself with M.O.D.O.K., thawing out the captured Abomination and setting him loose on the Hulk. The Abomination failed, and the whole plan came out, not just to the Hulk but also to Betty, who branded him with the word he never wanted to hear: "Traitor."
Confronted with the truth behind his actions--that his blind hatred for the Hulk overrode all rational thought--General Ross briefly contemplated suicide, but decided that was the "easy way out." The tougher, and more sensible road, was admitting his treasonous activities, and learning to live with his disgrace--in his words, "the toughest war this old soldier will ever have to fight."
Of course, General Ross wasn't finished with the Hulk after this issue. He would return to interfere in his daughter's wedding, by then a broken man. He again sought to kill Banner, contributing to events which returned the Hulk to his original, gray-skinned incarnation and briefly turned Rick Jones into a Hulk. He obtained the power of Zzzax, one of the Hulk's feared enemies, and later died. But fate wasn't through with him: the Leader resurrected him as the second Redeemer. Again dead, he was brought back for a third chance at life by the alien Troyjans, and was somehow reinstated in the military in spite of his previous treasonous activities. He and Banner reached a detente, but only until Betty died.
Oh, but all of these events are prologue. We'll find out how the dots connect tomorrow, and how the prior events I've described all contribute to the birth of the Red Hulk. That said, Bill Mantlo crafted a terrific "origin" for General Ross, the Hulk's greatest enemy. The story went a long way toward fleshing out the character back in 1984. It should be required reading for anyone looking at tomorrow's HULK #23 and wishing to see a counterpoint. I'm thinking the two books won't be as far apart as some out there would like to argue.
Or Hulk will smash!