World War II gave birth to one of the Marvel Universe’s greatest heroes in Steve Rogers AKA Captain America. Rogers’ courage and tenacity helped inspire the allied forces of the Marvel U and were instrumental in winning the war. Great heroes often have great enemies, though, and in fact, the reason the Captain America identity was created in the first place was because the Nazi forces had their own costumed agent; a terrifying figure known as the Red Skull. Legend has it that the Skull was a just a simple bellboy named Johann Schmidt when he was discovered by Adolf Hitler who put him through rigorous training, ultimately turning him into a world-feared symbol of terror.
What of Schmidt’s early life, though? What kind of man was he before he met Hitler? And how did the dictator’s training impact him? Writer Greg Pak and artist Mirko Colak (“Secret Warriors”) will answer those questions and more in July when they kick off the five issue “Red Skull” miniseries. Announced today at WonderCon, CBR News spoke with Pak about the project, which explores the origin of the Skull and features covers by David Aja.
“Red Skull” won’t be the first time Pak has examined the way the events of World War II impacted a prominent Marvel character. In 2008’s “Magneto: Testament,” Pak and artist Carmine Di Giandomenico chronicled the Mutant Master of Magnetism’s experiences growing up as a Jewish youth during the Nazi’s conquest of Europe in the ’30s and ’40s.
“In some ways, ‘Red Skull’ is the dark mirror of ‘Magneto: Testament.’ When editor Tom Brevoort called me up and told me the concept for this story, I knew I had to do it,” Pak told CBR News. “Back when Warren Simons was first talking to me about ‘Magneto: Testament,’ I knew I clearly had to do that story too. Dealing with historical material can be scary, because when you’re working in a comic book universe there’s challenges involved with that. Also, dealing with this material is just difficult period, because when you’re dealing with World War II and the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust, there’s a huge responsibility to get it right. You need to understand the material and make sure you handle it in a non-exploitative way. You want to tell a story that’s both true to the material and respects the material.
“So it was a huge challenge, particularly with this story because we’re telling the story of an orphan who ends up becoming the most terrifying Nazi of his day. That is a massive challenge, because if you’re going to tell that kind of story, there’s a fine line between telling somebody’s story and glorifying somebody’s story,” Pak continued. “I think there’s an emotional truth to how the character comes about. Some horrific things happened to him early on, and at the same time his home country, Germany, one of the most civilized and cultured nations in Europe became horrific and barbaric. So we’re seeing the rise of fascism and Nazism in Germany through this boy’s story, and that’s a huge opportunity. All of those elements came together to make this an interesting story I wanted to tell.”
When “Red Skull” #1 begins, Johann Schmidt is not yet an adult. “We are starting with him as a child because every mass murderer on the planet was once a child. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the childhoods of criminals and mass murderers and I’ve been thinking a lot of about what happens to them. So we start from this very early stage and we get to see his development step by step. I’m not going to reveal too much about who he is or if he’s evil incarnate from the womb. You’ll have to read the book, but I think we’re approaching this story from as honest a place as possible. We’re trying to be as true as possible to real human experience. We’re not reaching for easy answers, either. We’re really trying to see and show how a boy becomes a monster.”
Pak couldn’t reveal at what point in time “Red Skull” would end, but hinted that the series would give readers the full origin of the titular character. “We start our story in Munich in the 1920s. If you do a little googling about Munich in the ’20s, you may come across some historical events that will play a big role in this story. We’ll follow this boy through multiple crises both personal and international,” the writer explained. “We’ll be in the Weimar Republic as Germany faces an economic crisis and there’s chaos and violence on the streets. Then the Great Depression hits. All of those things are part of the backdrop of this story. We start with a boy, and step by step we see how his journey progresses.”
During the course of the series’ story, the Red Skull will contend with numerous antagonists and interact with a large and diverse cast of supporting characters. “You’ll see some historical figures pop up, but maybe not in the way you were expecting,” Pak said. “Also, there are some characters that are hinted at in the existing continuity of the Red Skull. So we’ll definitely be playing with them. Plus, just like in ‘Magneto: Testament,’ you’re going to meet a whole new group of characters that were part of Johann Schmidt’s formative years. Get ready for new revelations about the Red Skull’s past and the people who were critical in his development.”
Artists Mirko Colak and David Aja are bringing those revelations to life in ways that are both emotionally powerful and authentic. “Mirko is astounding. When my editor, Alejandro Arbona, sent me over some of his art, my jaw dropped. He has this gorgeous, clean, detailed style. It almost feels like a slightly more realistic Jeff Smith style. There’s something about the way he renders figures that’s very fluid and clean. His work has these gorgeous clean lines. At the same time, he is a demon for detail. He’s been doing a lot of historical research and every panel has all this atmosphere. It’s just amazing. I’m incredibly lucky to have been hooked up with him and I hope I can keep my hooks in him for a while,” the writer stated. “And David Aja’s covers are chilling. He is also doing tons of research and you see that in his covers. I saw his first cover and I was like, ‘That’s too scary!’ But in a lot of ways, I think that’s the right feel for this series. This is a disturbing and dangerous tale, and the covers reflect that. I think it’s chilling in just the right way. David is doing amazing work. It’s a remarkable team and I’m very grateful to be working with these guys.”
For Pak, delving into the evil and suffering caused by the Nazis during World War II is not an easy task, especially when your protagonist grows up to one of the Third Reich’s most terrifying agents. It is rewarding, however, and the writer hopes readers will find the story of how a boy named Johann Schmidt was transformed into a monster called the “Red Skull” to be a highly compelling one. “If you liked what I did with “Magneto: Testament” or if you just want to delve into this time period and learn the true origin of one of Marvel’s greatest villains add this to your pull list please,” Pak said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about this period of history when I was working on ‘Magneto: Testament,’ and I think on a human level we’re attracted to stories that involve things we want to learn about. This is one of those kinds of stories. I really wanted to learn more about this other half; this other side. “Red Skull” is a huge gift. I’m able to write a story for Marvel Comics that allows me to learn about things that remain insanely relevant to this day.”