Captain America, Doug Murray, fascism, Garth Ennis, George Evans, Greg Pak, Harvey Kurtzman, J.M. De Matteis, Jack Kirby, Joe Casey, Joe Kubert, Joe Sacco, Kieron Dwyer, Legion of Superheroes, Mark Gruenwald, Michael Ellis, Michael Golden, Mirko Colak, Nazis, Nick Dragotta, Paul Neary, Red Skull, Red Skull Incarnate, Robert Kanigher, Sal Buscema, Sgt. Rock, Steve Englehart, superhero comics, The Avengers, The Nam, The X-Tinction Agenda, Two Fisted Tales, Vengeance, Wally Wood
I was confronted by two Red Skulls the other day while I was browsing the Comixology digital storefront (looking for a good bedtime read). The covers from Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta’s Vengeance and Greg Pak and Mirko Colak’s Red Skull: Incarnate miniseries stared at me from the row of comics in my collection.
The Red Skull has been dead in Marvel for a long time now. Sure, he’s been resurrected a couple of times since then – in the bodies of a clone of Steve Rogers (the original Captain America), a Russian post-cold war billionaire, and a clone with a piece of Charles Xavier’s brain – but it just doesn’t feel the same.
These were diluted Skulls. The images staring at me from the screen were the real thing.
There is no super villain published in an American superhero comic book who is more evil than the Red Skull. He is Jack Kirby’s most frightening creation. Darkseid may be an evil proto-fascist ‘god’ who has a naturally inhuman appearance, but the Red Skull is a regular person who distances himself from humanity by wearing a mask that resembles a human skull. One other fun fact – he was also Adolf Hitler’s second in command.
The signal is clear – the Red Skull does not seek to defeat or dominate you. He wants to erase the world’s memory of your existence. I know that this is irrational, but I’ve never been totally comfortable with reading stories featuring the Red Skull. He’s a surprisingly durable reminder of war’s messy realities. While writers have successfully repositioned Marvels’ other Nazi characters (Baron Strucker, Baron Zemo, Arnim Zola) as all-purpose fascists, the Skull will always be a Nazi. Even without the swastika sweater.
There’s something unsettling about the idea of a super villain in a corporate superhero comic who shares an ideology with the architects of the Reich. Superhero comics aren’t usually good at dealing with the darker side of the world, even when the creators involved are trying their best to maintain historical accuracy. For the most part, these stories are set in a superficially realistic world with fantastical elements and are designed to provide some kind of thrill to the audience. Even when creators (particularly those employed by Marvel or DC) incorporate some elements of realism in the visuals or literary realism in the text, they are not aiming to create a carefully rendered depiction of modern life, but to entertain with an exciting story that evokes a strong emotional response. These superhero stories are not sturdy enough to bear the weight of history because they are not designed to carry that burden.
This isn’t a limitation of the medium. There’s a long tradition of well crafted war comics that explore conflict from the perspective of the ordinary people who experience it, but they tend to fall outside the superhero genre. They range from pulpy classics like Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood and George Evans’ Two Fisted Tales or Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher’s Sgt. Rock to modern quasi-realist books like Michael Golden and Doug Murray’s the Nam and Garth Ennis’ endless series of minis about the Second World War, not to mention all the amazing non-fiction books by cartoonists like Joe Sacco.
There are good superhero stories about war. At their best, superhero stories set during fictional and non-fictional wars examine conflict through allegory or metaphor, or they explore the ideas and themes behind particular conflicts. I love how the gloriously awful 1990’s Operation: Galactic Storm storyline in the Avengers book highlighted the moral quandaries of war or how the famous X-Tinction Agenda crossover somehow served as both an interesting metaphor for imperial overreach and a horrifying one for apartheid.
Giffen’s endless Dominator war storyline in the fourth volume of Legion of Superheroes is still one of my favorite takes on how an occupation saps the spirit of the occupied. I’m still waiting to see who will be the Dirk Morgna for the era of Trump.
Modern superhero stories are less successful when they try to directly address actual military conflicts or atrocities. The real-life conflicts referenced in these stories are a reminder that some of the core ideas in superhero comics are unsettling when they bump into reality.
I’m not usually too bothered by the celebration of redemptive violence and obsession with public order in these books. Stories about action and adventure tend to feature a healthy amount of heroic violence. The heroes in these stories are typically charismatic leaders who are trying to preserve the public order by defeating antagonists who threaten lives and property. These themes are so common that they’re almost invisible, especially to someone who’s familiar with the way that superhero stories are told. Even when they are noticeable, the reader learns to suspend disbelief and disregard the implications of those themes. The unspoken corollary to ‘you will believe a man can fly’ is ‘you will believe that a person will use their gifts to help humanity by dressing in a colorful costume and hitting criminals’. We can pretend that punching easily identifiable villains is a meaningful way to improve society for the sake of the story. When creators introduce war, especially an actual war with real victims, into the story, those tropes curdle and I’m reminded of the awful real-world implications of many of these ideas – the redemptive violence that leads to atrocities and the loss of innocent life, the public order that comes at the expense of a free society.
This tension is less present in superhero comics from the Golden and Silver Ages. These older stories were primarily focused on heroic adventures of pulp archetypes, not the interior lives of the men and women behind the mask. They were created for a younger audience of irregular readers who were more concerned with thrilling fun than ‘realistic’ dialogue and character development. The absence of realism in these stories and the adherence to simpler genre conventions created opportunities for creators to use symbolism and allegory to address the hopes, fears and anxieties of the time without having to be overly worried about nuance. It’s hard to imagine a writer or artist unironically creating characters that embody the American dream or a foreign threat in the modern era. There is no Red Skull of the Long War.
The Red Skull is one of a host of characters introduced during the Second World War and the Cold War who were symbols for the hopes and fears of the age. As standards shifted, many of the surviving characters were reinterpreted to suit the times. The one dimensional heroes became more complex, and many of the villains developed shades of grey. Captain America was still positioned as a character who stood for the American Dream, but creators of the seventies and eighties (in stories like Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema’s The Secret Empire and Mark Gruenwald and Kieron Dwyer’s The Captain emphasized that the person behind the mask was more important than the uniform. When Steve Rogers abandoned the Captain America identity (to travel the country as Nomad and the Captain, the symbols associated with Captain America lost almost all of their value. In the hands of a replacement Captain America like John Walker (the unstable man who replaced Captain America in the Captain storyline), Cap’s uniform felt like just another gaudy superhero costume. The X-Men villain/nemesis Magneto evolved from a generic radical extremist into a tragic, ambiguous figure shaped by his traumatic experiences in the Holocaust. Although J.M. DeMatteis, Michael Ellis and Paul Neary took steps to humanize Skull in the Death of the Red Skull arc in the Captain America series during the early 1980’s (work that Greg Pak and Mirko Colak built upon in Red Skull: Incarnate), there have been few efforts to redeem or rehabilitate him by revealing his inner emotional life, which distinguishes him from almost all other Marvel villains. There are a number of villains who were linked to some military conflict when they were introduced, but the Red Skull is the one who still embodies it. He has been depicted as a Nazi monster for over seventy years, a modern equivalent to a folk tale nightmare.
Why does he persist in our imaginations?