Monday, April 10, 2017

The Prisoner And The Power!

If you've ever wondered what it would take to become Adolf Hitler's protégé (and who hasn't?), we need look no further than to the man who willingly stepped into that role with both eyes open--Johann Schmidt, better known in sinister circles as the Red Skull, whose origin story was revealed in 1941 to his helpless prisoner, Captain America, as well as to ourselves, his captive audience, in mid-1965. In the way that writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby have crafted this villain's origin, it's fair to say that it follows the rags-to-riches formula for such characters, though in the Skull's case it's more accurate to paraphrase that as "rags to infamy," since it would be clear that it's infamy that the Skull truly sought for himself.

There are probably one or two other versions of the Skull's origin floating around that perhaps go into more detail, as rich as other writers would no doubt find this character's past to be in riveting material waiting to be mined. In Tales of Suspense, where Lee's tale appears, he and Kirby have only eight or nine pages to devote to their profile on the Skull while also dealing in the segments featuring Cap--yet you don't get a sense of anything meaningful being left out or sacrificed due to space limitations, nor does it seem like only the bare necessities of the Skull's beginnings are being offered. Instead, both writer and artist appear to rely on the Skull's status as a diabolical and feared Nazi, already made clear in his prior introduction to the book, to establish the Skull's foundation as both ruthless and irredeemable and render any detailed explanation of his transformation to such an immoral, merciless oppressor unnecessary. In these early action-adventure stories that feature heroes like Captain America, "just the facts" was often all that was needed for the creation of a memorable villain.

As for the good Captain, he's unfortunately in no position to pass on the Skull's whim to recount his rise to power, having been worked over by the Skull's hirelings to the point where he's passed out. But that won't do--the Skull has plans for Captain America, while Cap will find that his interrogator has chosen an unexpected way to pass their time together.

As the Skull pivots to telling his prisoner how he came to power, it would be easy to assume that the Skull is simply indulging his own ego, taking obvious pride in how he eventually seized the opportunity to improve his station and using the events of his past as a form of posturing. The true reason as to why he proceeds with Cap in what might otherwise seem to be poor use of his time with such a captive is yet to be revealed; but it's a clever way for Lee to progress his story while at the same time pausing to reveal the Skull's origin.

In making use of what space he has, Lee at once establishes that Schmidt is both orphaned and destitute, a vagrant who struggled to survive and who was victimized on many levels as a result, not the least of which was how poorly he was treated by others. It was the perfect breeding ground for the bitterness and persecution that would fuel his ambition and behavior if opportunity ever knocked, though Cap isn't inclined to be sympathetic.

Opportunity finally does come for Schmidt when Hitler arrives in the area, and Schmidt can't help but compare his own miserable status to this charismatic man whose rise to prominence and aggressive agenda attract Schmidt like a magnet. For his part, Hitler, whose officers have fallen short of his expectations, sees a great deal of himself in Schmidt, even at first glance--and so, in a link forged by hatred and likely no small measure of insanity, the die is cast, and Hitler begins molding this man in his own image.

As for "the Red Skull," that figure comes into being when Hitler outfits his protégé with a costume and a visage to conform to Hitler's vision of him--and in an instant, Schmidt achieves the status he craved, as well as the power to effectively wipe away the harsh circumstances of his early life and inflict suffering on whoever he deemed deserving of it. Desires that we need not hear him voice, given the stance and expression that we see in his introduction through Kirby.

Granted, not everyone who grows into adulthood weathering adverse conditions and fighting to survive becomes a twisted fiend who embraces the insanity of the Nazis; indeed, we're somewhat deprived of having an informed picture of how Schmidt's motivations and attitude were rooted in him since his family situation would have played some part in his outlook and the path he was forced to take, and he's chosen not to convey the details of that part of his life to Cap. Regardless, there's enough here to grasp why and how the Red Skull is launched on his mad road to power.

There isn't much more that the Skull feels he needs to add to this recounting, other than to mention how he began to work on his own agenda by consolidating his power and methodically removing Hitler's most trusted advisers--but he does feel obliged to bring his tale up to date, once he's dealt again with his wily captive.

Yet despite Cap's resistance, the Skull's time with him has served its purpose, as a potion administered to him by one of the Skull's scientists has had time to take effect, draining his will and making Cap susceptible to the Skull's orders--a plan that will have Cap involved in an assassination attempt on the supreme commander of the allied armies, though that's a story for another time.

For now, we can jump ahead a bit and provide the Skull's brief story with a bit of important supplemental material--the circumstances of his revival two decades later, details which he recalls in the company of the two aides who shared his fate.

"Them" would eventually become the organization known as Advanced Idea Mechanics, whose scientists were more than qualified to revive the Skull and his men, and savvy enough to form an alliance with such a notorious operative.

The Skull's activities since then, of course, have been well documented, with his goals of returning the Nazis to power and establishing a Fourth Reich no doubt fueled by all that he had achieved during the 1940s and his ambition being prematurely ended by the allies' victory. Then and now, it's proven wise not to underestimate him--and as we'll see next, his "führer" would remain an influence for him in a way even the Skull never expected.


Anonymous said...

This story takes place in 1941 ? There's only one problem - in 1941 things were going well for Germany with all Europe conquered, the invasion of Russia underway, Britain besieged and America not yet in the war so Hitler wouldn't have been in despair about his "failing" officers - on the contrary, he'd have been very pleased with the ongoing situation and he'd have felt no need to create the Red Skull.

Anonymous said...

Powerful stuff. Few people could depict W.W. II as vividly as Jack Kirby. Then again, he was there.
The timeline mystifies me a bit too. At what point did Cap enter his own suspended animation (now that's a coincidence)? Wasn't it in Newfoundland, trying to disable some experimental plane belonging to Baron Zemo? I could be wrong about that. Would that have been after Hitler's demise at the hands of the Human Torch?
Great post!


Comicsfan said...

Colin, apparently Hitler was a little touchy about spies who managed to escape from the Gestapo, so we can assume he was peeved about that one branch of his military on this particular day. An escaped spy might carry sensitive, and valuable, information back to his or her superiors that could derail the careful planning that had brought the Nazis such success, which might explain why Hitler was reading this guy the riot act--and why a subordinate like the Red Skull, whose scrutiny might make the officers less prone to slip up, would be an asset.

M.P., we mainly know that Cap's mission with the drone plane was in "the final days of World War II" in early 1945--more than likely before the Torch and Toro got to Hitler, since you'd expect Cap and Bucky to be in the forefront in the push to Berlin instead of showing up at a military base and tussling with Zemo.

Anonymous said...

Well, the Skull says he was punching it out with Cap in a bunker in Berlin during "the final days of Berlin". That would imply that Cap was walking around at the extreme end of the war, the last few days, when Berlin was being destroyed by the Soviets. Was the drone plain incident after Berlin surrendered?
I think this is just an oversight on the part of the writer. Not a big deal, I guess.