Within the context of “Secret Wars” and Battleworld — or at least the region known as Killville — the Red Skull has become little more than an urban legend to most, but a martyr-like inspiration to others. Therefore, in Joshua Williamson and Luca Pizzari’s “Red Skull” #1, Johann Schmidt is spoken of far more than he’s seen, but Williamson successfully builds an entire issue around this so-called legend who once dared stand against Doom, as one of the Skull’s former associates puts together a gnarly band of villains to learn his exact fate and to earn their freedom in exchange. There’s a kind of “Escape From New York” vibe as these bad guys are dropped into the Deadlands to find whatever is left of the Skull, and the pulpy nature of this story strongly carries it throughout the entire issue, right up to its easily anticipated but nonetheless welcome cliffhanger.
The violent, Old West-style opening evokes an appearance of a popular vigilante who also wears a skull, albeit on his chest, but Williamson maintains this character’s mystery for the time being — or at least for a more surprising revelation later on. Pizzari ensures that the rough ‘n tumble neighborhood where the action begins appears typically grimy, aided by his loose, gritty style that makes it look like a place no one would ever want to visit, let alone live, even before the gunfire erupts. Contrasting Pizzari’s dangerous but otherwise normal setting are Electro’s boisterous, enticingly strange words, which tell readers things aren’t exactly as they appear.
Colorist Rainier Beredo adds to the mood with almost exclusive usage of greys and reds, both indoors and out, and also later when the scene shifts elsewhere in Battleworld, which gives the entire issue a kind of appropriate alternate and otherworldly feel. Clayton Cowles even plays along, with clever use of red skull and crossbones emojis in lieu of typographical symbols whenever a character sees fit to use some colorful language. Cowles’ symbols actually come to have some meaning later in the story.
The rest of the cast is introduced soon enough, first by Pizzari, with all of them altered somewhat from their mainstream Marvel Universe counterparts but largely recognizable. All uncertainty is cleared up on the next page when they are formally introduced by Williamson, along with a sentence or two of background that establishes their relevance to the overall story. Immediately thereafter, Williamson also establishes the story’s actual connection to the Red Skull, which Pizzari initiates with an expressionist-style panel that symbolically conveys the Skull’s past attempted uprising. Williamson and Pizzari then collaborate on a trio of panels that comically plays a game of what-Doom-said vs. what-Doom-really-said.
The introductions and story setup are fun enough, but then the creators move to the heart of the plot when they plop the characters into the Deadlands, the territory of the zombified incarnations of Marvel’s supervillains, and not all of them make it; one in particular meets a particularly ironic demise. Not all of the zombies are readily identifiable as rendered by Pizzari, but it’s still a fun sequence as the undead do the one thing readers expect them to do, and it’s all capped off with a surprising save of one particular character by another, with a clever and ironic turn of an iconic cinematic catchphrase.
Riley Rossmo’s eye-catching cover grabs readers’ attention before they even crack open the comic, and then Williamson, Pizzari, Beredo and Cowles all deliver a lot of straight up fun in “Red Skull” #1, with some cool twists on almost-familiar characters that are part of a punchy introductory chapter.