8 Jul 2011

Cover To Cover: RED SKULL #1

Writer: Greg Pak
Art: Mirko Colak & Matthew Wilson
Marvel $2.99

Matt C: Long-term readers of comic books are probably quite comfortable with cartoonish depictions of Nazis and Der F├╝hrer by now, as gun-toting German soldiers screaming ‘Gott In Himmel!’ are almost as old as the industry itself. I don’t have a problem with this, and the Paradox Comics Group as a whole are rather partial to any titles featuring diabolical Nazis with nefarious, world-conquering plans. Reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures robs them of any power; they’re villains, pure and simple, and nobody in their right mind will ever view them as aspirational characters. However, the real Third Reich were responsible for atrocities on a scale barely comprehensible, and while it might be fun to watch Indiana Jones or Captain America sock a Nazi in the kisser, the sheer evil that they brought into the world is something that should never, ever be forgotten.

So, is a serious examination of the architects of the Holocaust really suitable subject matter for a superhero comic? If you’ve read Greg Pak’s tour de force, Magneto Testament, you’ll know that, yes, providing it’s told with sobering intelligence and an avoidance of cheap melodrama then the superhero genre is a perfectly valid place to tackle such subjects. Pak takes the same approach here that he did with the former book, blending meticulous research into a story that seeks to meditate on what turns man into a monster. He doesn’t lump for either the nature or nurture route, because it’s never that simple, and in all honesty no one can ever really know if one person put through the exact same set of circumstances would turn out the same as someone else. There are incidents in this debut issue that could very well push Johann Schmidt on his way to becoming the Red Skull, but by the same token perhaps a stronger individual could rise above the temptation of baser instincts to become something better than expected of him.

This is a hugely effective opener for the five-part series with Pak putting his central character on the periphery of the political and social turmoil that plagued Germany following the end of the Great War. Schmidt has an obvious fascination with the darker side of human nature here but at this point there’s still a healthy dose of compassion residing inside of him - he's a sympathetic character. Pak uses instances of brutality judiciously so as not to dilute their impact when they arrive, but he doesn’t shy away from the more horrific aspects of the story either, a wise decision when placing his 'hero' against a backdrop of events that arguably helped set the course for the rest of the 20th century.

From David Aja’s striking cover we turn the page to Mirko Colak’s interior art which makes brilliant use of the period setting and conveys the right sense of realism to guarantee the violent imagery is all the more shocking. Matthew Wilson elects to go for a restrained palette for the poverty-stricken streets of Munich in the 1920s but pulls out some bright reds where it counts, be it the spray of blood on the ground or the swastika flag waving in the breeze.

A powerful start to this series, and I think if Pak & Co can keep this standard up then we could very well have another classic on our hands. Magneto Testament slipped under a lot of people’s radar at the time of release; it’s my fervent hope that Red Skull gains a larger audience because it’s liable to be one of those books that lingers long in the memory once you’ve reached the final page. 9/10

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