Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Duty, Honor, Disgrace

This cover by Al Milgrom of Incredible Hulk #291 was quite a startling image for the comics racks when it was originally published in January, 1984. Can you imagine the reception it would get in today's climate?

In the '80s, though, we were able to take this story entirely in context--where General "Thunderbolt" Ross deals with the repercussions of disobeying government orders and is branded a traitor. "Old Soldiers Never Die!" was written by Bill Mantlo, and it's basically a profile of Ross's life--a good part of which was his dealings with the Hulk, and how those dealings subsequently caused his downfall. And in this splash page drawn by Sal Buscema, Ross's self-reflection seems like a prelude to a harsh truth that needs to be faced.

Reading this issue, you'll find that Mantlo doesn't overly complicate Ross's life story to date.* His progression from war to war--his promotions--his family--all play out as you'd expect of any career serviceman, particularly someone of Ross's caliber who was bred to military service and who consequently and deliberately made it the focus of his life:

(*"To date" in this case referring to the period when the Hulk was granted a presidential pardon during the time he was controlled by Bruce Banner's mind.)

It's really only when the Hulk appears on his watch that Ross's life in the military (indeed, both terms essentially amounting to one and the same) experiences a turning point. As Mantlo points out, "How quickly that brutal behemoth became an anathema to Ross's career." Banner, of course, rubbed Ross the wrong way from the beginning, particularly when it became clear his daughter Betty was attracted to him; but the Hulk made a mockery of the military might that Ross had spent his entire career taking pride in and relishing. So discovering that Banner actually was the Hulk must have infuriated the man. So in this next phase of his life, Ross's course seemed set: to use every resource available to him to contain or even destroy the Hulk.

The final slap in the face came when Banner again gained control of the Hulk's mind, resulting in the super-community rallying to his side and petitioning for a presidential pardon. And so Ross took matters into his own hands, with disastrous results:

Bringing us full circle. The recollection is over, the disgrace accepted--with Ross realizing that he's finally lost his own personal war. And Mantlo puts it so well: "The things he'd fought for--his nation, his honor, his name and his family's tradition--had all been rendered meaningless by a single, senseless act." Yet even so, Ross's next step seems a drastic one to take. Though isn't it often the case?

Such an ending would arguably fit the single-minded soldier we've come to know in these pages. But at times, we've also caught glimpses of more dimension to Ross--someone who always makes the tough choices, but isn't without sympathy for his daughter, or even for Bruce Banner. He's seen and admitted his faults before, though often shoving them to one side to follow his duty. This time, though, Mantlo--and certainly Buscema, in a beautiful rendition of the moment--has Ross facing those faults head-on, with his duty again being the deciding factor.

I almost find myself wincing when I think of Ross as the "Red Hulk," reduced to being a canny super-being and arrogantly muscling his way past all obstacles, stripping Marvel history of such a rich and flawed character as "Thunderbolt" Ross. I almost wonder what Ross would think at this moment, had he somehow been able to see what his future holds.  I can almost see his fist slamming down on that desk in angry frustration at such a fate befalling him: becoming a caricature of the one being who has been the bane of his career.  And it saps this moment of whatever dignity it might have held for this old soldier.


maw maw said...

Hmm. As Ross puts away his gun, I wonder if Bill Mantlo meant "That way's too easy...too DIShonorable."

As many people may know, we can't ask Bill, who was permanently incapacitated in a senseless accident over two decades ago. Apparently, his brother has a website where you can make donations for his long-term care.

Comicsfan said...

No, I think Mantlo had it right. The choice Ross ended up making--living with disgrace--was the harder road to take, and the greater dishonor in terms of being a visible symbol of the stain you've brought to your career and your country. Perhaps Ross was thinking that a self-inflicted gunshot would be the quick and honorable way of righting a wrong, for the good of the service--but wouldn't go as far as enduring the penance he felt was necessary. It's an interesting subject for debate--that, in such a moment, equating honor with suicide might actually seem the correct course of action for some.

Mr. Morbid's House Of Fun said...

Now seeing this, I too find myself wondering what he's think of his becoming the Red Hulk in the future, and if he's be able to come to terms with that.
Shit did Loeb even read this when he turned Ross into the Red Hulk, or did he just not care and think his development served Ross's overall story better?
In hindsight now, probably not, but the Marvel heads' let him go through with it anyways, no doubt seeing the potential $ to be made off this.

Warren JB said...

The problem with this, his transformation into the Red Hulk, and the depth he eventually gained as the Red Hulk (complete with "I have to live with my mistakes"), and heck, why not throw in his death and resurrection too: some hack is going to rewind him right back to one-note obsessive quasi-villain. Character development? Pff! We're throwing more death-ray tanks at the Hulk, and we need someone to be responsible!