The Red Hulk began with an obnoxious splash that made people resent him, but now that he's settled down into being an actual character rather than a stunt, he's become a unique and compelling character to follow. It's rare that one of the main villains of a classic character like the Hulk manages to become the protagonist of his own ongoing series, rarer still that that protagonist is actually a gray-haired guy with a bushy mustache, but that's what's happened to grizzled old Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross. If you're at all curious about this title, Red Hulk #50 is the best possible time to jump on board, as you'll get all the backstory and perspective you need on this guy to check in to his adventures.
Not only do you get a two separate stories giving us a good look at the man behind the Hulk and setting up a new mystical problem for him to deal with (which does not sit well with a career military man), you also get a great summation of Ross' history, a rundown of his brand new rogues gallery, and an illuminating interview with writer Jeff Parker, who is very much responsible for the aforementioned transition of the Red Hulk from annoying villain to intriguing Avenger. There's even a reading chronology so you know where to go to read all about that metamorphosis.
The two stories here are interesting ones, too. The main one features really good and pleasing art from Carlo Pagulayan, and it focuses on just where Thad Ross is right now in his life – in search of his enemies with his only friends being androids he's got an affinity for just because, as Parker puts it, "he loves that they're generally so mission-focused and don't let a lot of emotional stuff he's so uncomfortable with enter into things. Traditional people, he just can't get along with." In fact, he finds them so relatable that apparently his best pal, a Life Model Decoy named Annie, might actually become more than a pal – which opens up a strange new door for him. The Thunderbolt Ross love life has yet to be explored much beyond the wife he lost many years ago. One might imagine that the reason he was so obsessively angry with the Hulk for so long could partially be attributed to how 'backed up' he is. So to speak.
Anyway, Ross is trying to handle his business with his bad guys when it seems he's being stalked by some shadowy presence. Not surprising, since he recently got back from Hell by making an ill-advised deal with Mephisto in order to stop Blackheart in the "Circle of Four" arc over in Venom. Once it possesses Machine Man and makes him attack them all, and Ross realizes he's can actually SEE that presence, he sucks it up and goes off to use his Avengers connections to meet with Dr. Strange and figure a few things out. Very reluctantly, as it turns out, because as he feared, it turns into "some hippie smoke-up." A line which makes me love the Thunderbolt.
As we soon learn, the whole occult debacle has left Red Hulk with the ability to see ghosts and "energies across the invisible spectrum," which is a great little quirk – much in line with the oddball fact that the real Hulk has the ability to see astral forms. As Strange sifts through Red Hulk's memories to find out just what's going on, it's revealed that Strange is aware of his secret identity as Ross, and thus we also see that, when not hulked out, Thaddeus and his daughter Betty can actually get along with each other without arguing for a few days at a time – a remarkable feat, given ther extremely volatile relationship. Apparently, they can communicate a lot better now that they both have Hulk forms to vent all their anger. We also learn that the physical transformations between human and Hulk forms are affected by self-perception, and thus, when Ross is Ross, he's not quite as old and grizzled as he should be – he's years off of his life as far as physical health goes. Fret not, he's still gray and stached, and that should never change.
However, that intrusion into his past makes Ross suspicious, and he puts it together that Strange is picking his brain for information about his Defenders teammate the Red She-Hulk instead of helping him out, and thus the 'Stephen Strange is a creep' motif over in The Defenders is carried over here. Once Ross bolts, though, he finds himself besieged by ghosts from his past, including soldiers he's sent to their deaths back when he was an Air Force General, his dead son-in-law Major Glenn Talbot and even the Abomination – who he made a point of killing as soon as he became the Red Hulk, in revenge for the death of his daughter (who has since returned to life, obviously). But Strange follows him to save his bacon, and we've got a team-up in the works.
The back-up story features painted-style artwork from Dan Brereton and it gives us a flashback to Thaddeus' pre-general days, going on a mission to retrieve a mystical artifact from the Pyrenees Mountains, kind of B.P.R.D. style. Naturally, the thing is wonky and attaches to people to possess them and turn them into weird ugly monsters, murdering the rest of his squad. Ross, being the all-business type he is, doesn't think twice about killing the possessed men, and then squashes the thing – called The Orkosk Eye – before it does any more damage. Then he gets right in the face of his superior officer for sending them on a testing mission to sacrifice men to the object just to see what it did – and that's sabotaging the mission. That's treason. And it opens up a brigadier general position that Ross jumps at when it's offered. This shows us how long Ross has been a hardass, and very likely sets up an important part of the main "Haunted Hulk" story.
I do really like this book. It can get a little dry at times, but Red Hulk #50 isn't that at all – it's got a lot of good character stuff and it's great for the Hulk nerd in all of us to see a guy with complete control of his alter ego because he's got no warring personality traits – he's all focus, he's all mission, and he's pretty damn badass. So jump on with Red Hulk #50 – it's a different sort of book, and it'll give you a good Hulk to distract you from the questionable stuff Jason Aaron is doing with The Incredible Hulk.