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Red Skull: Incarnate (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Incarnate is something of a companion piece to Greg Pak’s Testament. Testament was a miniseries following the life of a young boy named Erik during the Holocaust. Of course, Erik would grow up to become the supervillain known as Magneto, but Pak was more fascinated in the history surrounding the character – his origins as a Holocaust survivor. The series was beautifully written and well received, prompting Marvel to hire Pak to produce a companion piece.

Incarnate is effectively the origin story of the Red Skull, Captain America’s arch-enemy and a character Pak himself describes in the afterword as “the Marvel Universe’s most evil villain.” Setting the story in late twenties and thirties Germany, Pak sets the character’s origins against the rise of Nazism and the decline of the Weimer Republic.

A slice of life...

A slice of life…

It is worth noting that, despite David Aja’s wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling covers to the five-issue miniseries, the iconic Red Skull doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the comic. This isn’t a superhero (or supervillain) origin story. There’s no sly nods to Marvel continuity, any reference to super-serum, any of the “gee-whiz” retro-futurism that is frequently associated with comic book depictions of the Second World War.

Instead, Pak focuses Incarnate on Johann Schmidt. Schmidt is the boy who would eventually evolve into the Red Skull, the individual who would manoeuvre himself through the corridors of power of the Nazi regime and into the heart of the Third Reich. It’s less preoccupied with how his face become so disfigured, and more interested in the circumstances that shaped the character. What could possibly produce such a monster? What horrific events could fashion any individual so brutal and cruel?

Dogged pursuit...

Dogged pursuit…

As with Testament, Incarnate is impeccably researched by Greg Pak. The issues come with references and bibliography, for anybody who might be interested in either verifying the portrayal of German history or even reading a bit more about man’s inhumanity to man. Incarnate doesn’t pull its punches. It’s a bleak and depressing look at a bleak and depressing time, and it doesn’t try to sanitise its villain in the way that some depictions of the Red Skull do. (Consider Captain America: The First Avenger, where the Red Skull is not a Nazi, because that might make the film hard to distribute in Germany.)

However, as meticulously researched as Incarnate is, and as carefully as Pak grounds it in the politics and events of the time, the book is more unsettling as a sketch of sociopathy and psychopathy. In many ways, Incarnate feels like a text book in the way that events and relationships can influence and shape an individual, larger forces coming together to help define who a person will be. Schmidt is growing up at a horrible time, but those societal factors aren’t alone in transforming him into a monster.

Lost in the crowd...

Lost in the crowd…

Pak has clearly done his research on psychology and development. Incarnate has a wonderful level of historical accuracy and detail, but it’s primarily focused around Schmidt. Hitler is a phantom for the first four issues of the miniseries, glimpsed only fleetingly. Instead, Schmidt is a boy just trying to survive, dealing with incredible reserves of anger built up over years of neglect and abuse. The tapestry of history might unfurl around him, but this is very much Schmidt’s story.

The extent to which Schmidt is shaped by events or merely takes advantage of them is left somewhat ambiguous. His personal history and the abuse that he has suffered, along with the steps he had to take to ensure his survival, are all part of what shaped him. How those factors are influenced by the broader sweep of history is a large and intriguing question – Schmidt could easily have grown up in similar conditions at any point in history, but there was rarely a mechanism in place that so effectively allowed him to leverage his brutality and anger to such a degree.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

“You may have been raised by wolves,” a dog catcher remarks to Schmidt, “but you’re still a human being. Not that that’s necessarily gonna help you much in this world.” Schmidt is living in a time and place where such anger and violence are being channelled into government and authority – where these attributes are treated as virtues. “Who gets ahead?” a Jewish shopowenr asks. “In this world, as it is now? Whoever’s the strongest.”

This is one of the more interesting aspects of Incarnate, and something very clever on the part of Greg Pak. Pak seems to suggest that the Nazis were able to fashion such support not through any set of political beliefs or philosophies. Instead, Pak suggests, the Nazis were so successful because they tapped so successfully and so skilfully into the reserve of festering bitterness and resentment left in the wake of the First World War. They found a way to channel all that anger into their own quest for power.

On reflection...

On reflection…

Schmidt isn’t interested in the politics of the Nazi party. He expresses some anti-Semetic sentiments, but that seems to be a way of endearing himself to the party. Instead, Schmidt is presented as a political opportunist. He just wants power and the security that power brings. “If enough of us do what you did… we can do anything,” his friend Dieter remarks at one point, admiring Schmidt’s drive. Dieter has sided with the Communists against the Nazis, but Schmidt recognises that the Nazis share his ruthlessness and ambition. “Yeah, well,” he reflects. “Last I checked, the other side’s a little better at it than you are.”

The Nazi party is presented as the result of the same social stew that produced Schmidt, the same anger and fear that had taken root in the Weimer Republic. They are just one expression, and the most successful expression. Politics aside, when it boils down to it, they were little more than gangsters – a comparison that Pak alludes to a few times over the miniseries. Leading Dieter to an ambush against a local gangster, Dieter is reluctant to get involved, “We’re fighting the Nazis, not –“ Schmidt recognises that the two are not entirely dissimilar. “What’s the difference? They all prey on the weak.”

Knife to see you...

Knife to see you…

Indeed, Schmidt might not share all the political philosophies of the Third Reich, but he serves quite effectively as a metaphorical stand-in for the institution. There’s the same viciousness, the same resentment, the same anger. Like the Nazi party itself, Schmidt has a very long memory, making a point to seek vengeance for wrongs committed years earlier. He hunts down an old drunkard who had abused him in the past, stabbing him brutally. “Nobody hits me and gets away with it.” The idea of faking an assassination attempt on Hitler is made in the first issue, long before Schmidt actually follows through on it.

Incarnate is a staggeringly powerful piece of work, beautifully written by Pak and all the more effective for how minimalist it is. Indeed, the comic’s weakest moment comes in the closing epilogue, with Pak writing about how the Germans who followed the Naxi party “paid with their souls.” It feels a little hammy and over-the-top, a somewhat sensationalist concluding note to a miniseries that was more effective for its matter-of-fact depiction of casual brutality and the terrifying forces that shaped thirties Germany.

A dog's life...

A dog’s life…

Pak also deserves a great deal of credit for dancing between raindrops here. A lot of the larger details of the Red Skull’s origin have been long-established pieces of comic book lore – from the assassination attempt, through to his time living with a Jewish shopkeeper. Pak manages to work within those broad strokes to fashion a story that feels perfectly organic and well-formed on its own terms.

You can read Incarnate without knowing any of the loops that Pak is jumping through, and the story reads logically and clearly. There’s never an element that feels like it has been included to satisfy established continuity. There’s a grace to Pak’s writing that is commendable. It’s not as obvious as his great character work or his historical research, because it is so seamlessly integrated as to be invisible. There’d be nothing wrong if he’d decided to throw out a lot of established continuity and do his own thing. However, his skill at integrating the continuity is wonderful.

Butting in...

Butting in…

Mirko Colak provides the artwork for the five issues, and his work is absolutely striking. This is a book about people, and so his artwork is expressive and clear – there’s never any confusion about what is going on or where anybody is in relation to anybody else. In particular, his version of the young Johann Schmidt is fantastic – his facial expressions are always clear, but they remain utterly inscrutable. Like Pak’s writing, there’s a sense that the audience is being force to reach their own conclusions about Schmidt without having the text insist on one absolute indisputable reading.

Red Skull: Incarnate is a beautiful and haunting piece of work, and a fitting companion piece to Magneto: Testament.

2 Responses

  1. While there really are no nods to the wider Marvel continuity, there is a point where Incarnate ‘crosses over’ with Testament, when Schmidt is in front of a particular Jewish shop (a young Erik can be seen through the front window).

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