Review: Red Skull Incarnate #1

Greg Pak takes on the difficult task of humanizing the inhuman Nazi Johann Schmidt.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Red Skull Incarnate #1

Unlike most origin stories, telling the tale of a Nazi monster like the Red Skull comes with issues both historical and social. How do you create a character that existed within the horror of the Nazi regime, and then thrived in it, but give them humanity, something that we can connect to?  Greg Pak gets straddled with such a task in Red Skull Incarnate, a five-issue series focusing on the rise of one of the most notorious comic book villains ever. While the Nazi era is not a new trip for Pak – he used that point as the setting for the origin story Magneto: Testament – this is a much more difficult task. Magneto was a victim of the Nazi brutality, we are quick to have sympathy for him and even identify with his hatred of mankind.  The Red Skull is a power-hungry murderer hell-bent on world domination.

Pak accomplishes this by making Red Skull Incarnate focus more on the story of the young Skull and his plight in a historical era that Pak clearly studied up on. There is no right or wrong in what Pak is writing, it is what it is. It’s not easy for a writer to keep a straight perspective when dealing with something as awful as the Nazi party but Pak walks that line perfectly. Part of it is the time period, Munich in 1932: the Nazis are growing in power but haven’t fully arrived yet. It’s a time of starvation and poverty, when Germany is suffering post-World War I and looking to the Nazis as leaders in a new world order. Within this hardship is The Munich School For Wayward Boys, the resting place of the future Skull.

The story of the Red Skull is kind of confusing and I think Pak is looking to straighten some history out. Based on the comics, the first Red Skull was George Maxon, an American industrialist turned Nazi sympathizer. It turned out that Maxon was just an agent for the real Red Skull Johann Schmidt, a man consider one of the greatest threats to mankind by S.H.I.E.L.D. Finally, there’s Robert Malik, the third Red Skull, who caused the death of Peter Parker’s parents. See what I mean?  There’s a lot of history here. Pak sidesteps that by focusing on Johann Schmidt. We watch Schmidt as a tough but decent kid getting slapped around in the orphanage, then escaping, and taking up residence with the local dogcatcher. It’s there that Schmidt has his first run in with death.

I liked how Pak set the scene up. Schmidt refuses to kill an innocent puppy when tasked to it by the dogcatcher, but when the other dogs in the yard attack and kill the puppy, Schmidt snaps and beats them to death. It’s a nice juxtaposition of the Red Skull's violent rage and this side of him we don’t know that defends those who are small and weak. I’m interested to see how Pak deepens the already established history of Johann Schmidt, how he elaborates on the myth and brings humanity to the story. The art for Red Skull Incarnate is put together in a really unique manner.  Mirko Colak creates every panel as almost a Norman Rockwell snapshot. While this sacrifices motion, it makes the story epic, almost tragically beautiful. Most of the time this kind of fine art falls flat for me, but here it elevates the story.