Reviving Mark Waid's Red Skull

The comics industry is littered with stories untold. From revised superhero serials to stories changed by the waves of big event series that crashed upon the shelves, creators have ideas every day that don't quite make it to the page. But in the case of Marvel Comics' "Captain America" #14 from 1999, the original story of the Red Skull came closer to seeing print than almost any scuttled story in history. And writer Mark Waid has never forgotten it.

At the time of publication, Waid had recently returned to the Star Spangled Avenger after his initial acclaimed run with Ron Garney had been cut short for the year-long "Heroes Reborn" relaunch which saw the new Cap title initially spearheaded by Rob Liefeld. The critical acclaim earned Waid and Garney a second Cap title as Andy Kubert took over art duties on the main book for what was supposed to be the start of a new era for the hero. However, within two years those ambitious plans changed quite a bit. In the midst of a year-long story, Waid and Kubert's special issue #14 -- a unique tale focusing on the origin of the Red Skull through the villain's own eyes -- saw a last-minute set of changes from Marvel Editorial that prompted Waid to remove his name from the comic. It seemed his original draft would never see the light of day -- until now.

In October, Marvel will publish "Captain America: Red Glare" -- the latest in a line of premiere hardcovers reprinting Waid's "Captain America" run -- and the volume will contain the writer's full, original version of issue #14 (as Tom Brevoort revealed recently in CBR's TALK TO THE HAT column). With the story finally seeing the light of day over a decade since its initial creation, CBR News spoke with Waid to get the full story of its long road to print, his view of Editorial mandates then and now and why the Red Skull's story remains one of his proudest moments in comics.

CBR News: Mark, some readers may have heard this story, but many haven't. And even the people who have may not know the full context, so could you lay out for us exactly what happened to your original "Captain America" #14? From what I understand, you wrote the issue, and just before it was ready to go, it got pulped and replaced by an inventory issue by Kurt Busiek about Captain America's dog, right?

Mark Waid: That's exactly it! [Laughs] It's like you were there! No, actually the story to this was that years and years ago when Andy Kubert and I were working on "Captain America," it came to us one day to do an issue that was focused solely on the Red Skull. It was his origin and his background, but all told first person from his point of view -- which meant going into some really ugly places. We were all excited about it -- Andy was the one who came up with the idea of doing a book of all full-page splashes, and I want to say that either Andy or our colorist Chris Sotomayor decided we'd even take it one step further and do it in all blacks and whites with spot color on the Red Skull, with his actual red skull being the only color in the entire book.

We knew we were in dangerous territory, and we went out to lunch many times with Editor Matt Idelson, and we approached it very carefully every step of the way. I made sure that the upper management read the plot. Matt made sure that the upper management signed off on the script and on the art. In other words, we treated it very seriously because we were aware that we were not pulling punches when it came to the level of evil that was going through the story. It didn't make the Skull seem very sympathetic, obviously, but we knew that we were on very thin ice, if you understand me. Basically, we have an Aryan supremacist narrating an issue of "Captain America." In clumsy hands, that could have gone very badly. That was Marvel's fear, and so to alleviate their fears, we made sure that Marvel was aware of everything and signed off on it all along the way. We made sure there was a paper trail so anybody who could have possibly objected to the story in the building got a chance to look at it and give their notes and evaluate and so forth.

And we made it all the way through. We made it all the way to the finish line. I was so happy. It was a Friday afternoon, and it was going off to the printers. The cover had already gone off to the printer. That's how late in the game it was. And then that Monday morning, I got a call from my editor saying, "Listen, there's been a problem." And without getting into the laundry of it, let's just say that at the last possible second, someone in the Editorial chain had second thoughts and, despite assuring us over and over again that we were on the right track, decided that it was too hard-hitting a book. It was just too on the edge for Marvel at that point. So over the weekend, it was given to somebody else at Marvel to write. Pages were pulled out of the book, so there are pages no one has ever seen. The story wasn't changed dramatically -- it's not like you went from a story about the Red Skull to a story about Aunt May -- but a lot of the tone of the story and the character stuff was no longer there.

At that point, I was given the option of leaving my name on the book or not, and I thought, "This is not really reflective of what I wrote" so I asked my name be taken off the book. Unfortunately, the cover had already gone off to print, so there you go. It came out in that bowdlerized version, and I wasn't happy about it, but at the same time, they're Marvel's toys. It's not my sandbox. It's their sandbox and their characters. So it's certainly their right to do that. I was just disappointed that we got all the way to the finish line doing everything we were supposed to do, and at the last second, the wheels fell off, to mix a metaphor.

At C2E2, I saw you on a panel with Matt Fraction where you talked about what working on "Captain America" was like for you. You'd done a run with Ron Garney that was very well received, but at the time Marvel was already planning for Rob Liefeld to come and relaunch the book, maybe even unbeknownst to you guys then. But when you came back after "Heroes Reborn" and started "Cap" again, it was different, wasn't it? What was that like overall?

Nothing punishes like success, because Ron and I were dead men walking on that first run -- which we weren't told of until there were about two issues to go, even though Marvel did know that before they assigned me my first issue. We were kept in the dark, which is probably just as well. That way I could concentrate on the story instead of worrying about anything else. But [in the first run] we were allowed to do what we wanted to do. The editorial demands were just negligible. Everybody was very supportive because it's not a book anybody had a lot of confidence in, editorially.

A page from the original, altered publication of Waid's story

When we came back with the same team -- same letterer, same colorist, same artist, same writer, same editor -- suddenly, we were under the microscope. God, I rewrote that "Captain America" #1 issue like five times and changed villains like three times to accommodate different requests and different angles from different parties and different editorial factions and so forth. That was running the gauntlet. Another example of it is that we had we had Kang show up in that first issue, and Kang was a subplot player in the entire first year. But then by the time we got ready to play the Kang card, we were told "Oh no, Kurt Busiek is getting ready to use Kang over in 'Avengers Forever,' so you've got to use someone else." We were sort of non-plussed and going "But but but..." However, we made it work. Spoiler alert, but we made it into a different villain and gave him a reason for looking like Kang, but that's the kind of stuff we had to leap through on what seemed like a monthly basis. We got plenty of support, but at the same time we were constantly being told that we didn't quite know what we were doing on "Captain America" even though we seemed to do pretty well the first time. These things happen.

And like I said -- I cannot underscore this enough -- these are Marvel's toys. It's not creator-owned stuff. I can only bitch so much about what I'm allowed and not allowed to do, but the truth of this is that I don't ever have issues with you telling me I can't do X, Y and Z with company-owned characters. I understand. Where I have issues is if you tell me I can do X, Y and Z and then I do it, and you come back to tell me, "No, we never said you could do that." Or they say, "Oh, we changed our minds," or, "I know we promised you X, Y and Z, but we're reneging on those promises." That's what makes me a little tempestuous, if you will.

As I understand it, you've been sitting on the full files for your "Captain America" #14, even though they likely don't exist anywhere on the Marvel servers anymore. Did you keep all that with an eye towards it getting pulled?

I kept everything I had, and then years later -- remember this book was ready to go to press. This book, on a Friday afternoon, was ready to get printed. I think a couple of those pages had yet to be lettered that morning, but they all existed, so off they went. They were in my files, as well. I had the "ready to print" files.

This whole ordeal contributed to you eventually leaving the book, but did you think from way back then that you'd get a shot at having your story see the light of day?

Oh, yeah. I was praying for it. Up to the point of that story -- and I can't speak to anything after that because I'm not the best judge of my own work -- but I knew in my gut when I wrote that story that it was the best thing I'd ever written up to that point. And for Marc Sumerak and Jeff Youngquist and all the other guys in the Marvel collected editions department to finally, finally be able to engineer it so that we can get that unblemished, unbowdlerized version in print -- I'm just thrilled beyond belief. I really am.

When you've had a career as long as you have and have worked for so many publishers, there are going to be ups and downs. Now that you're removed enough from that original run, to the point where you've done a very well received new "Captain America" miniseries, how do you view the final work that's now coming out in the "Red Glare" hardcover? Have you gone back to read any of those issues, or do you try to just move forward?

Pages from the original, altered publication of Waid's story

I recently actually went back and reread a lot of that stuff because Marvel is doing such a nice job of putting them back out in these nice, long-lasting hardcovers. I mean -- boom, boom, boom -- they put out three with the first 20 or 30 issues of my "Captain America" run from that era. And it's interesting. I like looking back at that stuff. I am pleasantly surprised by a lot of that stuff. I am worried that the follow-up question always seems to be, "Do you want to tackle the character again?" and I don't know if I could. Maybe? It's just that the landscape of America has changed so much in the last five years that my own level of cynicism -- not just skepticism but genuine cynicism about the way the country is run and who seems to be really making the decisions and what I perceive to be a really weakening of the power of the electorate where our voices aren't as heard as we think they are -- all of it contributes to a cynicism that I don't want to taint that character with.

These days, you're writing books like "Irredeemable" where you can peer into the darker side of humanity on a regular basis. Since you felt so strongly about your work on the Red Skull issue when it happened, do you feel your other work in that same vein grew out of the original?

A little bit, yeah. Certainly the notion of getting into the head of a character who I find repugnant on every level was a challenge for me at the time. That was the first time I had to go spelunking in caverns that noxious and awful. But since then, that certainly served me well in terms of books like "Irredeemable" and "Empire" where I was digging deep into the darkest of the ugly characters and seeing what's there.

And [when it comes to the Red Skull story], even if you read it and you're not super taken with the language of it, there are at least two Andy Kubert pages in that story that never saw print. And those deserve to be in print. So I'm eager to see it in hardback. Like I said, I thank Marvel tremendously for doing this.

Marvel's "Captain America: Red Glare" hardcover is in stores October 19.

Tags: marvel comics, captain america, mark waid, ron garney, red skull, andy kubert

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