Hey everyone, welcome back for part two of a meditation on the Red Skull. Check out part one here.
The Red Skull is a persistent anachronism, a pure super villain uncomplicated by modern notions of realism and character development. The stakes of a Red Skull story are high and clearly identifiable. There are no casual Red Skull capers. His schemes may be conventional or absurd, but his association with the Third Reich creates an almost visceral sense that modern civilization is under threat. The comics published by Marvel have become famous for morally ambiguous conflicts, but the Red Skull is a reminder of an era when superhero comics primarily featured battles between virtuous heroes and despicable villains. He can appeal to the nostalgic needs of the publisher, the marketplace and ultimately, the reading audience. I enjoy superhero comics that read like a le Carré novel more than most, but there’s something special about the simple pleasure of reading a superhero comic where the lines between good and evil are crystal clear. This experience is complicated by the tonal shift that results when you introduce an unrepentant Nazi into a modern ‘grounded’ superhero story.
In some ways, Nazis are the perfect antagonists for a superhero comic, super villains pulled from the history books. If the classic superhero is one of the most pervasive Western power fantasies of the 20th century, the Nazis are the contrasting nightmare that haunted the era. They are a vivid reminder that some of the things we associate with progress – science, technology, organizational efficiency – can be perverted into something obscene.
The Nazis are an incredibly potent symbol and metaphor in pop culture, but they are also an easy shorthand for evil. If a writer wants to establish that a character is a monster or discourage the audience from questioning the indiscriminate use of violence in the work, all they have to do is give the character a swastika armband.
One of the challenges of depicting Nazis in fiction is that the depth of their crimes against humanity cannot be captured by a single metaphor or symbol. All of the popular theories, metaphors and frameworks developed to explain the Nazis are important, but when taken individually, they feel incomplete. We can’t confront the banality of evil without acknowledging the genocidal bigots, or think about the industrialized death of the camps without considering the vast number of Jews and other targeted groups who were summarily executed and left in mass graves. If the Nazi antagonist in a story is just a simple archetype, there’s a risk that it will be perceived as a caricature, particularly if other characters in the story are given depth. I’m not concerned about the sensitivities of Nazis and their sympathizers, but a one-dimensional portrait of a Nazi makes them seem less human, less like the complex men and women who loved, dreamed and built and operated a system designed to strip others of their humanity (and their lives). We cannot reduce the Nazis to a nightmare or a bogeyman. They are so much more frightening and potent than that.
I don’t think about any of these things when I read comics from (or inspired by) the Golden or Silver Age. I’m there for the adventure and escapist thrills. I want to see symbols and archetypes do battle. I’m not inclined to overthink the experience. I haven’t read many Golden Age Red Skull stories, but the Silver Age Red Skull is an effective symbol of villainy.
The trouble comes when I read post-Bronze Age stories featuring the Red Skull as an antagonist. Creators of Marvel/DC superhero books in both eras were still in the escapist fiction business, but they also expected the reader to consider the moral and ethical consequences of those stories, and to treat the characters who typically populate them like the complicated and multifaceted figures one might find in literary fiction. It’s hard to selectively apply that lens to a story, to encourage readers to think about the nature of Steve Rogers’ patriotism (even before Nick Spencer turned him into a Not-Nazi) without considering the implications of the Red Skull’s fascism.
We should tell stories about complicated, terrible things in all genres, but telling a modern superhero story with a villain who used to be Hitler’s second in command feels impossible unless one’s willing to explore the implications of that role. In earlier eras, one could ignore or gloss over the Holocaust and other atrocities because the books were disposable entertainment aimed at small children. A modern writer of superhero comics just doesn’t have that convenient excuse anymore. You can’t forget that the Red Skull must have been responsible for unimaginable atrocities or that the plans of a man like that would be more complicated and chilling than the ones of any comic book super villain. I’m just not sure that one could tell a story about a Nazi war criminal in a modern Marvel superhero comic that feels sufficiently honest and nuanced without running into the problems that arise when current Marvel/DC creators tell stories about war. I’m almost certain that no one should.
Although the Red Skull is rarely written as a conventionally ‘realistic’ character with complicated emotions and motivations, his association with actual horrors makes him feel more real than other Marvel characters. This contrast makes him compelling, but it also makes him a dissonant presence in most superhero comics, particularly those featuring other villains.The Roma wizard/scientist in the suit of armor feels less intimidating in a room with the Red Skull, as does the remarkably well preserved Holocaust survivor who can control metal with his mind, the crime boss with the sumo wrestler build, and the arrogant half-Atlantean mutant with wings on his ankles. He may have a silly outfit, but he symbolizes a painfully real evil that makes the other characters feel slightly ridiculous.
There are other Marvel characters affiliated with the Reich who have survived to the modern era – from the Barons Strucker and Zemo to the bizarre Arnim Zola – but creators have been more successful at selectively distancing the characters from their Nazi origins. They don’t ignore the characters’ origins or their lust for empire and authoritarian tendencies, but remove the symbols and rhetoric we associate with the Nazi movement. The characters were still recognizably German, but the absence of Nazi salutes and swastikas encouraged readers to associate them with more modern forms of totalitarianism. By the time I encountered the books as a kid, Hydra felt like a modern terrorist group, not a vestige of the Second World War. The design choices for the characters contributed to this sense of ambiguity. All were marked as villains and some wore symbols that were vaguely authoritarian (and suggested the kind of iconography we associate with Nazis), but there was nothing that would specifically mark them as Nazis. Both of the Baron Zemos we see in the comics (the Nazi and his son) wear purple masks that look like they were designed by Cam’ron in the early aughts.
Strucker has a noticeable set of facial scars and a monocle that evokes a debased aristocracy. It’s an appearance that can be read as German or Central/East European. The Hydra uniform that he wore in many of his appearances did not incorporate any Nazi images or symbols directly, but Hydra’s symbol – an octopus-like hydra – suggested the kind of martial spirit and dehumanization that we associate with a fascist mindset. It could be a symbol for post-Nazi fascism, but it also resembles the symbols used for fictional terrorist organizations and crime syndicates.Arnim Zola was designed like a deformed science fiction villain, a squat being with a small rectangular monitor for a head and a distorted face in his chest. In the hands of the right artists, these characters can be distinctive and terrifying, but they are malleable. They can stand for terror, authoritarianism, disorder, anything at all.
Writers have made similar efforts to sanitize the Red Skull, to tell stories about Hitler’s second in command in a universe that couldn’t possibly contain him. In almost all of the Red Skull stories I’ve read, writers preserve the ambition for power that we associate with Nazis while de-emphasizing the hate and ideology. Some used the character as a metaphor for modern racial or religious conflict, but the Skull’s bigotry always felt more ordinary than Nazi hate, even with his frequent references to ‘mongrel’ and ‘Fuhrer’. The words were reminders of his status as an unrepentant Nazi, but the character’s actions frequently told a slightly different story – and left a more lasting impression. All of the Red Skull’s borderline harebrained schemes to create a Fourth Reich and take over the world – the Cosmic Cubes, the switched bodies, stolen mutant brains and sleeper robots – felt ordinary, the plans of a traditional super villain. These were all plots that would have resulted in destruction and aesthetically pleasing chaos, but they all lacked the perverse imagination of the plans and projects the Nazis actually brought to fruition.
The occasionally blurry line between the schemes of the Red Skull and other prominent super villains is is perfectly understandable. Many of Marvel’s greatest villains of the Silver and Bronze Age (such as Magneto, Dr. Doom, Kang, or Thanos) were inspired by fears of the totalitarian movements that dominated the early-mid 20th century. Most of these characters didn’t share the Nazi, Maoist or Stalinist ideologies of that era, but they all sought to create a society that shared many of the organizing principles of totalitarian governments. Even Frank Miller’s version of the Kingpin (who started as a mostly generic crime boss villain in Amazing Spider Man) blended terror and comprehensive control in a way that was at least vaguely reminiscent of totalitarian societies. The similarities between these villains may help explain why the masterminds behind the varied schemes to take over the world in Marvel comic books (particularly those that involved mind control or implied genocide) often felt so interchangeable.
The Red Skull still stands apart from other characters, even when he’s written as a slight variation on a standard issue criminal mastermind. Any effort by a writer to change the Skull will inevitably be undercut by the art, which never lets the reader forget that the Red Skull is a Nazi monster. His image separates him from other Marvel villains, even those who were affiliated with the Nazis at some point in their history. The Red Skull sported a swastika as part of his costume throughout the Silver and Bronze Age until Gruenwald resurrected him in a cloned body of Captain America. He would only have a face that resembled Captain America for a short time (he was exposed to a gas that transformed his face into a replica of his mask), but this transformation made him an even more potent symbol for Nazism, an image of the perfect Aryan re-appropriated from the patriotic hero. Even when those elements were removed or minimized, artists from Jack Kirby and John Romita jr. to John Byrne and Steve Epting never let us forget that the Red Skull was different from other villains. Their depictions of the Red Skull’s mask were a constant reminder of the monster behind the man.
When I first became aware of the Red Skull, I was familiar with the swastika, the distinctive uniforms and the lightning bolts worn by the SS, but I didn’t know the significance of the skull (totenkopf) to Frederick the Great and the Prussian army, or the SS, death camp guards and Nazi fighting units known for committing wartime atrocities. I didn’t know that the skull was used as a symbol of loyalty and sacrifice. When I first saw an image of the Red Skull, all I saw was bloody death, a symbol of the nihilism that sat at the core of Nazi philosophy. Artists took different approaches to the skull mask – sometimes it looked like an eerily precise replica, while other times, it was a grotesque distortion – but the result was always chilling. It resonated with my sense that the Nazis were fundamentally a genocidal death cult.
[A quick genocidal death cult related aside: I enjoy alternate reality stories that explore a world where the Nazis won the war, but find it hard to imagine any society that survives the ascendancy of the Reich. A Nazi empire that wins the war starts new ones with its allies and non aligned nations. A Reich built on a foundation of permanent warfare and hatred for difference would never stop at a single genocide.]
A lot of writing and discussion around characters in superhero comics are focused on the narrative – the words in the speech bubbles and the actions of the characters in the story. When I read essays about the importance of Superman, the writer typically focuses on classic stories featuring the character, or sequences that were particularly moving (everyone cites that scene from Frank Quietly and Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman or that other scene from Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman).
My conversations with fellow readers about great antagonists are peppered with references to cool speeches and bad-ass moments – that time when Kingpin beat up those ninjas without breaking a sweat in Frank Miller’s Daredevil or when Darkseid used the anti-life equation to simultaneously speak with the voices of billions whose spirits had been broken in J.G. Jones and Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis.
There are many classic stories featuring the Red Skull in which the creators have the character perform memorably terrible acts, but his distinctive image – that red skull of death – lingers when memories of stories where he arranged for Captain America’s murder or trapped the soul of Hitler in a cosmic cube fade.
Comics are ultimately a visual medium and the image is almost everything. The image of the Red Skull symbolizes the hate and death that are the foundation and consequence of fascism. It taps into my instinctual fear that his face is our true face.