I’ll start by stating the obvious: Red Skull is not a sympathetic villain. He’s a Nazi, which is probably, in fact, the exact opposite of a sympathetic villain. Greg Pak has taken on the difficult task of writing a Red Skull origin story where we’re asked to follow along in the early years of a character who, as the title of the comic itself suggests, is basically evil incarnate. Red Skull is not the sort of villain who, while clearly not the product of a loving home and a good childhood, is also not someone who you can effectively portray as having the excuse of lacking those things. The story of how Red Skull becomes Red Skull cannot be one of a decent man turned bad, but instead the story of a bad man turned evil. In Red Skull Incarnate #3, Pak continues as he’s done in the last two issues of this series by walking the fine line between showing what sort of tragic past a man like Red Skull could have and showing what was innate in him all along.
In this issue, we see a young Johann Schmidt reunited with his friend Dieter, who is now an active member of Germany’s Communist Party in 1933. While Pak opens the comic with Schmidt murdering a man, he avoids making the transformation from psychopathic orphan Schmidt to pure evil Red Skull too much of a straight line from point A to B. While it’s clear that there’s nothing in Schmidt that someone could mistake for compassion, Pak has the reader guessing over whether or not Schmidt will kill Dieter when he’s told to and, if he does, what the events leading up to it will be. Schmidt’s continued violence to Dieter is cruel, yet he also seems unable to push himself to take the next step and actually end the life of someone he shares some form of connection with, however twisted that connection may be.
Ultimately, what befalls Dieter is all the more chilling as Schmidt takes not an active role, but a passive one. We see the sort of man Schmidt will be once he is Red Skull as he watches from a window as Dieter is brutally beaten in the streets by Brownshirts. Red Skull is not a man who often gets his hands dirty, and this moment is one that shows a clear evolution from a street thug to the monster Johann Schmidt is destined to become.
Pak also does a good job of weaving history into his story, hitting the points he needs to about pre-WWII German history without coming across too much like a textbook. Instead he uses dates, settings, and historical facts to further ground the story and strengthen the background of a character who is so rooted in his time. Red Skull doesn’t work as a character without being a Nazi, and by working to fully tie his story into the tumultuous historical period that allowed the Nazis to come to power, Pak is also able to better flesh out Red Skull for the modern reader.
Mirko Colak’s art also helps to round out the story, with bleak colors and shadows that bring to life a dark time. The one color that seems to pop from the page is the red that is threaded throughout the comic, reminding the reader of what all this is working towards. He also frequently portrays Schmidt with a sneer, and in that look you can see traces of Red Skull coming to the surface. This is most apparent on the last page, as we see Johann Schmidt as a Nazi for the very first time and Red Skull’s ever-present sneer is there, and there’s no doubt of who that boy is destined to become.
Sara started reading comics in the third grade, and now puts her English degree to good use talking about them on the Internet. She currently resides in Western Massachusetts with a roommate, three cats, and an action figure collection and spends the time she isn’t reading comics working for a non-profit. You can visit her blog at Ms. Snarky’s Awesometastic Comics Blog.