Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Red Skull - Incarnate 1-5

Along with Joe Johnston's summer blockbuster "Captain America - First Avenger", Marvel launched a slew of mini-series. Hidden among them was Greg Pak and Mirko Colak's "Red Skull - Incarnate", a project that was the spiritual successor to the writer's previous "Magneto - Testament" mini-series. Pak and Garmine di Giandomenico's 2008 effort garnered some acclaim as an unorthodox Marvel mini-series, exploring the plight of Jews in World War II through the lens of the X-Men's premiere antagonist.

In "Red Skull", Pak sets out to do the same, by writing a well researched period piece looking at the pre-World War II Germany, albeit centered on Captain America's chief villain. On one hand, the Red Skull's lack of superpowers naturally leads to a story without the supernatural elements that come with the mutant metaphor. Yet, where Schmidt differs from Magneto is in that he's a very over the top villain without the benefit of Chris Claremont's measured characterization.

On the face of it, there is a clear need for a somewhat more measured Red Skull story, given the heavy push that Marvel gave Captain America in the face of the movie. It's all the more commendable that the editorial saw fit to support Pak's version, as the writer sidesteps the typical problems by simply focusing on Johann before he became Red Skull, in turn creating a piece of historical fiction that is both accessible and informative.

Editor Warren Simmons, who recruited Carmine di Giandomenico to illustrate "Magneto - Testament" has long since left the company, paving the way for penciller/inker's subsequent engagement on "All-Winners Squad - Band of heroes" (the book that was unceremoniously cancelled after the fifth issue of the projected eight). Despite both "All-Winners Squad" and "Red Skull" being edited by Alejandro Arbona, the original series' assistant editor decided to support Mirko Colak as the penciller on Pak's follow up project, breaking with the painted, European-style look of the 2008 mini.

The change is more then noticeable, as the two minis otherwise act as parallels, and even crossover at one point. "Incarnate" follows the same five issue format, where each episode takes place at least a year apart, as the protagonist slowly comes of age in a time of great turmoil for the German republic. The chief problem inherent in following Red Skull's point of view at any point but from his childhood would have been accessibility. Magneto as a prosecuted boy is inherently a more sympathetic character, while watching young Schmidt come into his own as a psychopath could have been a hideous experience. That Pak manages a nuanced portrayal, one that makes the reader actually care for, and even try to understand Johann speaks for the quality of the characterization, as well as Colak's propensity for drawing children as believable characters.

Young Red Skull is realized as a child with a pageboy haircut, whose dark brown hair rounds out his head in a way that both differentiates him from his friends, and even hints at the man he will one day become. Likewise, Pak could have chosen to simply use the more sensible Dieter as the protagonist, which would both enable him with a real narrator, as well as a device through which the reader gets to know Skull by proxy, which was the technique used by Derf in "My friend Dahmer". Pak bravely sidesteps such narrative crutch and persist in simply using Dieter as a link to Johann's humanity, or simpler, with their bond being the closest thing to a family that two boys share.

Interestingly, where Magneto goes through the horrible ordeal with his whole family, as well as his Gipsy girlfriend, Johann has a much different experience. Chiefly, despite the poverty, he stays in Germany throughout, with the conflict being which side he will chose, or more realistically, how he ended up with the Nazis being his only option. Pak covers a swath of years that lead the country through several governments and great economical and sociopolitical changes, in most issues devoting a single page that narratives some of the key historical points, but the main ideas remain clear.

Even the reader who is largely uninformed of the pre-war history will be able to follow the clash between German left and right, and the rise of extremism. That Johann spends the drab twenties looking for a father figure seems like an obvious plot, but Pak executes it in such a way so as to refrain from the easy choices. The hard, even intentionally cruel man he looks up to still want to teach him a lesson, albeit in the child's eyes it continually boils down to the conflict between the weak and strong.

Considering how easily the subject matter lends itself to cliches, it's commendable that Pak finds realism in simply drawing out the conflict, and letting real world events set the pace. Matthew Wilson's shaded browns violently punctured by reds likewise seem like an afterthought, and certainly have little in common with Matt Hollingsworth's rich blues and purples, that added the painterly feeling to "Magneto". The distinction is notable as the subdued hues over Colak's pencils create a completely different visual. Mirko is a traditional comic book artist in a way that he solidly composes his panels, having his characters act through carefully studied anatomy instead of Giandomenico's exaggerated expressionism.

The effect is a much more subdued and carefully posed work, with clear layouts carrying over the storytelling without the direct effectiveness of Giandomenico's work. As for the crossover, it consists of a scene in the penultimate issue that is completely logical given the context of the story and doesn't in any way penalize the reader who is not familiar with "Testament". Moreover, having made his holocaust story, Pak puts the Jews front and center only in the book's second episode, as a family tries to care for Schmidt as an orphan child find on the streets of Berlin. Of course, throughout the story there is no question that the Jews are constant victims of Nazi's bullying, it's just that the writer opts to present a wider take on the mania that lead Germany to invade Poland and the horrible excesses that followed.

Johann is shown to be bullied child who endears himself to the family through a mix of desperation and trickery, with Pak depicting his actions as stemming out of the survivor's instinct. Despite the blood on his hands, the writer maintains that a ten year old Schmidt is not defined by a malevolent streak, which is at this point still mostly a defense mechanism. Yet, he is continually being shown society in which there is no place for kindness, symbolized by his Jewish caretaker, and more importantly, where there is no direct reward for his own acts of humanity and caring.

In contrast, violence offers an easy answer, and hardens an orphan at a time of depression, where the society slowly devolves into barbarism, paralleling and empowering the growth of a young boy's darkest impulses. The space available to creators helps the story foundation from becoming too simple, and the time frame further contributes to a believable psychological make up that at the same time looks up to authority and seeks to destroy it.

The Skull's chief two impulses thus end up his desire to act like an adult and protect the people he cares about, while still trying to find an authority capable of withstanding his hate and nihilism. His repeated desire to destroy his mentors, whether they be a teacher at the school for wayward children, the local mobster, and eventually the Nazi leaders (culminating in his plot to kill Hitler), speaks out not for the evil in him, but for a world view of a child driven to madness through the collapse of society and the traditional role models.

The realization somewhat falters in the crowded scenes, as the abundance of figures goes contrary to Colak's carefully posed work. It's not that the scenes don't carry out the necessary actions in clear terms, as well as the period clothing, but that the backgrounds still suffer from the need to complete pages in a set amount of time. Colak is simply too young to adopt to Marvel's pace in a way that even his hurried lines maintain the style without sacrificing the quality to improvisation.

Otherwise, a motif of red borders for panels bursting with violence sometimes lead to the unintended effect of scenes seeming like they take the place in the protagonist's head, with the change of coloring seeming very abrupt and unnecessary. Colak's work is distinctive and brutal enough that there is no real need to saturate it in such heavy reds, where the whole series could simply have worked with a more creative choice than Wilson's familiar overreliance on the red.

Perhaps most emblematic of the writer's approach is the way in which he portrays Schmidt's association with the Nazi party. Where a lesser writer would simply jump at the opportunity to marry Johann's obsession with knives and violence into making him a perfect member of the party from the time he could read, Greg Pak chooses to return his school friend into the story. Dieter's presence goes beyond the need to complicate the story for the sake of tying into requisite real world events, once again bringing out the man in Johann and seeing how much he has changed in the intervening years.

At first, Johann is shown murdering a Nazi who was blackmailing his gangster boss, with the young man still weighing his allegiance in the forthcoming battle between the Socialists and the Nazis. As Hitler seizes power, Dieter ends up imprisoned with communists at Dachau, with Johann proceeding to work for the meanest boss around, the Nazi party. As the plot moves to 1933, Colak ages the character believably, with Johann both taller and more confidant, hiding his pageboy haircut with a uniform cap.

Tellingly, the cap falls down in the moment where he squares off against the SS, continuing his love/hate relationship with the authorities. At this point, Schmidt is still the outcast and though his superiors recognize the ruthless streak in him, they still manage to beat it out. He reacts the only way he's thought, by plotting their deaths, and proceeding to carry the insult all the way to Hitler himself. Dieter decides to join in, but it's quickly apparent that Johann's politics are a mess of personal injury and sick ambition, as he sabotages his own plan at first sight of absolute power, as exemplified by the presence of the Nazi leader and the actions of his bodyguards.

As his petty plan breaks down, and instinct takes over, the balding young man is finally confronted by someone who recognizes the cruelty behind his reaction, and simply accepts it. It seems that only by standing on the side of Reich's architect and supreme leader Schmidt finally feels secure, and part of something that is strong and durable. It goes without saying that this is where the series ends, as Red Skull sacrifices his childhood and friendship for the privilege of meting out violence and being protected from life's harsh repercussions.

Everything that follows could be said to deal with Captain America, whose complete absence legitimizes the story. The reader knows that Johann Schmidt eventually becomes Red Skull, but if not for David Aja's striking, propaganda style covers, as well as some of the symbolism pointing towards Jack Kirby's design incorporated into Colak's layouts, the story reads like a little boy's plunge into the negativity that his nation unleashed upon the whole world, which has nothing to do with superheroes. Simply put, Marvel's predecessor published a propaganda American comic during World War II, but Greg Pak and Mirko Colak choose to revisit the pre war years from a historical perspective.

Thankfully, the assistant editor of "Magneto - Testament" saw fit to help its follow-up came into being as an unassuming movie tie-in mini-series, yet despite the creators' success it is very doubtful that another similar venture will be forthcoming any time soon. Alejandro Arabona, former assistant editor to Marvel's EIC Axel Alonso no longer works for the company, as its currently restructuring to further concentrate on their most successful superhero properties. The cancellation of the aforementioned "All-Winner Squad" mini-series after five published issues currently serves as the signifier of the trend that will likely lead to the lack of tolerance when it comes to projects that are primarily a labor of love for the talent involved. In a certain way, the reader has gotten to see both sides to Pak's vision of the conflict that has come to define the 20th century, and hopefully Marvel will keep both books in print long enough to help them connect to the audience that may have missed them at the time of the original serial publication.


Marcus said...

Stating that it was "well researched" and "informative" implies that is was actually historically accurate. This is exactly why I disliked the series, as it was typically historically inaccurate. One of the major issues with Nazi themed titles is this forced demonization of Germans of the time period. If you looked past the grade 10 history class propaganda, you would see that the Holocaust was just as much an attack on Ukrainian, Russian, black, Romani, mentally and physically disabled, and homosexual as it was an attack on Jewish people. The time period saw prejudice against any and all minorities, including race and religion. This story fails to capture the prejudice and flaws of the society and fails to rationalize with a society that still believed in eugenics as scientific fact.

Vanja said...

Thank you for your comment, Marcus.

I agree that Pak's portrayal wasn't the most even handed and could have been more inclusive, but any kind of Marvel series that isn't pure escapism merits a closer look than its shelf space competitors.