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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


In this essay, I cited the two-page origin of Batman as a mythcomic, deeming that its discourse could be separated from the main story it prefaces, the unremarkable "The Batman Wars on the Dirigible of Doom." The story "The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull" requires more mental gymnastics.

Lee and Kirby revived Captain America in AVENGERS #4 (March 1964), and a modern-day series for the Captain appeared in November of that year. However, after four Cap adventures in modern times, the creative team began retelling stories from the hero's appearances during the Golden Age. I'd speculate that Lee and Kirby had not yet decided what to do with the displaced patriotic fighter, and that they were testing his appeal as a wartime feature while keeping him active with the Avengers. However, after eight WWII issues, Captain America returned to modern-day adventures. Still, the Great War was still part of the story, since in TALES OF SUSPENSE #72 Cap faces off against the Three Sleepers, Nazi-created robots who had been created by the Red Skull as a much-delayed measure against the Allies.

One possible reason for Cap's visit to the past may have been that Lee and Kirby had decided to revive the Red Skull for the 1960s. Such a revival had happened before, when a version of the Red Skull had also appeared in the non-canonical stories of the Commie-busting Cap of the 1950s, but Lee and Kirby naturally ignored that iteration. Issue #66 seems clearly designed to impress Silver Age readers with the WWII record of Cap's greatest villain-- which suggests that by 1966 Lee was planning to have the Skull revived for Silver Age adventures. In keeping with Marvel's attempt to design dramatically strong origins for villains, such as the Mandarin and Doctor Doom, Lee and Kirby did the same thing for the Nazi fiend, who had never had a distinct backstory during the Golden Age.

The "fantastic origin" of the title, though, is not a self-contained vignette like Batman's: it's a narrative of roughly five pages that the villain relates to a captive Captain America. The frame-story, like "Dirigible of Doom," is nothing special: as a result of the Skull's capture of the flag-garbed fighter, Captain America is brainwashed and sent to kill the Allied commander, and this in turn leads to yet more involved plot-developments. None of the main story is mythic, only the five pages in which the Skull tells his story-- even though said narrative is occasionally interrupted by Captain America trying to assault his enemy.

The narrative owes much to the origin of the hero. Captain America starts out as a nobody, a spindly weakling defined only by his desire to fight for his country. The Skull doesn't even get a name, calling himself a "nameless orphan." Later stories, though, give the villain the proper name "Johann Schmidt"-- almost certainly a German-ization of the commonplace English name "John Smith." And though the origin of the Skull doesn't directly reference the economic depression of Germany that preceded the rise of the Nazis, there's at least a prevailing consciousness in Kirby's visuals that the nameless orphan lived in a time of hardship and privation.

The hero interrupts to tell the villain that "my early years were no bed of roses," which is probably an even more indirect reference to the American Depression. Lee and Kirby don't choose to press the parallel further, but simply concentrate on showing how the young orphan grows up as a virtual nobody. Then the Nazis rise to power by openly terrorizing the citizens to compliance, and Orphan-Skull admires not only their forcefulness, but that of the man who inspired them. The orphan-- whose face is never shown-- is working as a bellboy when Adolf Hitler himself comes to the hotel where the future villain works. Apparently the young man's sense of self is so meager that he doesn't even consider joining the Nazi ranks as a soldier, for he reflects, "[Hitler] has power-- and I am nothing."

Then the bellboy takes refreshments to his idol, and this changes his life.

One may fairly fault Lee for his purple prose here, with his Fuhrer stating that he, like the maltreated nobody, nurtures hatred "for all mankind." But then again, this is the myth of Hitler as a absolute devotee of evil, rather than an attempt to portray the flesh-and-blood chancellor of Germany. Thus in the not-yet-molded clay of the bellboy, Hitler sees his chance to give birth to "evil personified."

At this point, the bellboy-- who has received at least basic storm trooper training-- accepts the skull-mask given him, and totally incarnates the role his mentor created. Modern fans, examining the last two panels of the page above, have speculated that Kirby's original idea for the sequence was simply that the Red Skull took another soldier's gun and shot his former trainer to death. This would explain the surprised look on Hitler's face. However, Lee chose to emphasize the Skull's penchant for psychological terror, for in Lee's script, Hitler gives the order for the trainer to die, and the Skull spares the man's life by shooting the buttons from his jacket. I for one think that the revision makes the Skull more vicious: he doesn't just want to kill, he wants to degrade-- hence, he spares the man just so that he'll be a "slave" who will "obey your every whim."

Going by the Aristotelian model I used earlier, the early part of the bellboy's life was the "beginning," while his meeting with Hitler and his ascension to supreme villainy forms the "middle." If there is an end as such, though, it can only be the Skull's revelation that he did not content himself with being Hitler's loyal second in command. In addition to fighting the Allies, the Skull has started preying on Hitler's trusted advisers, undoubtedly because he plans to turn on his former master-- which was probably designed to serve as an obvious contrast to Captain America's altruism.

I should add in closing that at this point in Marvel's history, the creators might not have been ready to broach the subject of the Holocaust in a comic book meant for entertainment. Lee's script does work in the term "Aryan" twice. The first time, a storm trooper accosts a man on the street, saying "You are not a true Aryan." One page later, Hitler rants at a subordinate, "Must I create my own race of perfect Aryans?" In both cases, Lee's context is not explicitly racial, but seems to be shorthand for the concept that Nazis-- as opposed to the race of "Nordics" to which Germans supposedly belonged-- considered themselves "supermen."

Though the frame-story of "Origin" is not that interesting mythically, it ends with the Skull using a chemical treatment to brainwash Captain America into thinking he's a Nazi. If only Stan Lee had realized how much attention he could received back then, if he'd omitted the rationalization and just shown Cap turning Nazi, as was done in this overblown modern production.

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