With great anticipation, I picked up Red Skull: Incarnate. Promising to be the origins of Johann Schmidt from a lowly street urchin to the red-faced monster we all know today, it provides a startlingly historically accurate perspective on the rise of the Nazi party. I don't know, then, what I expected. I think I thought it would be as campy and fun as the concept of "Nazi with evil skull face" inherently is. Marvel, though - bless 'em - doesn't care much for that old "camp". Well, they do, but they also care a lot about making characters who are real people with feelings and motivations and who are, y'know, emotionally resonant 'n such. Yeah, so, um, Red Skull: Incarnate, thusly, is one of the most stomach-churning books I've ever read.
But of course it is. It's a character study of the bloody Red Skull, innit. Greg Pak himself writes that research of the time period gave him nightmares, and he struggled with trying to make Johann Schmidt a person without making him a likable protagonist, because... well, he's a bloody Nazi. Not a foot soldier, either - he becomes Hitler's right-hand man. This, then, is the tale of how he got to that position at all - a Red Skull before Red Skull, if you will.
The historical context is so grounded that it threatens to overtake the central conflict. Starting post-First World War, Germans are in line buying food. Thirty billion marks is paid for one bag of salt. The country is wounded, bleeding out, and in dire need of help - it is a miserable pile of sad, broken people, struggling to make it by in a long past collapsed economy. It is here that we are introduced to Schmidt - a ratty, sour-faced orphan. Sorely abused and unloved, Schmidt lays witness to the ugliness of the adults around him, and it is this turbulence that no doubt turns him into the monster.
He learns, through no pleasant discourse, that it is the powerful that survive. His humanity proves a burden, and so he casts it off - as a young boy, he tricks a Jewish family into feeding him before letting them die at the hands of early Nazi supporters. His motivation is simple: scramble to the top and never look back. This is an admirable goal during the days of political madness, economic instability and low morale. The pile is made of the sick, the poor, and the dying, and to avoid similar fate he does what he must for self-preservation.
I think where his true evil lies is that, as the years go by, the game changes; yet his goal remains the same. He scrambles to the top of pile, once of beggars, now of dictators. The corpses he once propped himself up on are no longer of the starving, but the downtrodden and abused. He learns that to survive he must be strong, but his lust for strength sees no conceivable end - he forces himself to abandon his morals to live anything remotely resembling a life, and in doing so he ends up doing nasty, evil, soulless things. We do not witness his physical transformation, but we do get to see him become what we know as the Red Skull. And it's somewhat sickening.
That is not at all bad thing. Greg Pak is a masterful writer, breathing as much depth and realism into the story as the historical context can afford. He is not a likable protagonist, but he is our protagonist and his story is that which we follow. And Schmidt isn't an anti-hero here, let that be made well clear. In any other book, he would be the antagonist, and a chilling one at that - even more chilling, it is, when he is our anchor through the volume. And I mean, let's be honest - the Mask does sickening, inhuman, evil things, too. The actions alone do not make Schmidt reprehensible, especially not on the medium's terms. Rather, it is the background to which these actions are painted against that give them true weight. A murder is a murder is a murder, and we've seen hundreds of them occur in hundreds of books, films, and movies. But when the murderer is a man, and the victim is his brother, and we know of both their plights... that makes it truly horrific.
Before Incarnate, Greg Pak wrote another WWII-era book - Magneto: Testament. This followed a young, Jewish Max Eisenhardt, the mutant who would be known as Magneto, as he tries to save his family from Hitler's terrifying regime. I myself haven't read it, but if it is (as I have been lead to believe) as impactful as Red Skull: Incarnate, I can see it as nothing but a work of art. Incarnate is artistic, too. The unique perspective of the Nazi's party's genuinely horrific rise to power is documented with aplomb; the artwork is striking as well as heartbreaking, and all the historical events covered are listed extensively at the end of the volume, as well as further reading like Why They Kill.
At the same time, though, Magneto: Testament could be heartbreaking or uplifting, but like it or not, Max would be a sympathetic protagonist. Well... no, Johann is sympathetic too, but he would... he would be a protagonist one could genuinely root for. Magneto's trials and tribulations are those of human nature gone awry - Red Skull, conversely, is inhuman; a demon on Earth, evil made flesh. That's a hard load to swallow, following an entire book dedicated to such a villain. And yet, having read it, having stomached re-reading from a deeply personal outlook the Third Reich's most vicious crimes... I can do nothing but say it was worth it, bizarrely.
I don't know if this story provides any context missing from the outlandish, cackling Red Skull we know today. I don't know, either, if a story this uncomfortably numbing should be one I recommend. But by and large it is a story I am glad I've read, and if nothing else it cements Marvel, Pak, artist Mirko Colak and their editors as masterful real-world storytellers, capable of using the comics medium for incredible feats of artistic expression and exploration. If that's worth reliving the hellish crimes of Hitler's Germany up close and unfathomably personal, then certainly, I recommend Red Skull: Incarnate.
It just makes me feel kind of sad and empty, though. Ultimately, that's the sign of an effective work of art - and Red Skull: Incarnate is just that: outstandingly effective, hauntingly beautiful, and an undiluted work of inarguable genius.