Red Skull

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Captain America #103 © 1968 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY JACK KIRBY AND SYD SHORES.

Red Skull

(pop culture)
He was the man Hitler was afraid of. Johann Schmidt's origins in Marvel Comics' Tales of Suspense #66 (1966) give no clue as to his eventual fate. His father, upon learning that his wife had died in childbirth, tries to drown the child, before committing suicide. Schmidt runs away from home and fends for himself on the streets of his native Germany, eventually meeting a young Jewish girl who shows him kindness, which he misinterprets. When she rejects his advances, he murders her. Drifting from job to job in the impoverished Germany between wars, Schmidt eventually encounters the man who is to change his life: Adolf Hitler. Schmidt was working as a bellboy when Hitler, a guest in the hotel, claimed to his subordinates that he could train even “that bellboy” to do a better job than they. Hitler saw, in Schmidt's eyes, the same hatred of humanity that Hitler himself felt, and took the bellboy under his wing. At first Hitler's men tried to make Schmidt into a typical Nazi soldier, but Hitler personally took charge of Schmidt's training, giving him the crimson skull mask that would achieve him worldwide notoriety and the name of the Red Skull. The Red Skull answered only to Hitler himself, operating on top-secret projects vital to Germany's wartime interests. The Red Skull was a master schemer and a superb hand-to-hand combatant. He also employed a deadly spray he called his “dust of death” to murder his enemies. In his early appearances the Red Skull often played or whistled Chopin's funeral march when disposing of his victims, an affectation he later abandoned. It was to combat the Red Skull's campaigns that the Allies created an agent of their own, the patriotic war hero Captain America. To co-creator Jack Kirby, Captain America and the Red Skull symbolized the battle epitomized by the Nazis and the Allies. “Captain America represents patriotism,” Kirby told interviewer Mark Evanier in 1986. “Patriotism is an endless and valid state of mind. It will never leave the human being, just as love and anger will never leave us. I think our great characters stem from those feelings … People related to Captain America.” The Red Skull and Captain America first met before America had officially entered World War II, in a Joe Simon–written and Kirby-rendered story in the pages of Captain America Comics #1 (1941). Eventually, the Red Skull's malignant influence expanded to such a degree that even Hitler was afraid of the impoverished bellhop he had plucked from obscurity, but it was too late to stop the Red Skull's rise to power, as the Red Skull was already acting secretly to create his own power base within the Third Reich. It was the Red Skull who sent Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, a Nazi agent who had fallen out of favor with Hitler, to Japan to create an organization that would eventually become Hydra. It is a backhanded tribute to Strucker's traitorous nature that he eventually threw off the Red Skull's influence and took over the organization, building it into one of the most feared terrorist organizations in the world and a major threat to international peace in the postwar era. During World War II the Red Skull assumed increasingly greater power over many of Hitler's other agents, such as Baron Heinrich Zemo and scientist Arnim Zola. He would continue such actions after the war, briefly aligning himself with the Hate- Monger, a clone of Adolf Hitler, before betraying him. Late in the war, when the Nazi cause was lost, the Red Skull supervised the construction of a series of destructive machines called Sleepers that would destroy the world should the Nazis lose the war. In the last days of the war, the Red Skull was tracked to his hidden bunker lair by Captain America. As the two fought, the bunker was damaged by the bombs of an Allied air raid. Captain America escaped, but the Red Skull was trapped in the bunker that filled with an experimental suspended-animation gas that had been released during the Red Skull's clash with Captain America. The Red Skull slept through the late 1940s and 1950s, prevented from aging by the gas. During the 1950s, during Marvel Comics' short-lived revival of Captain America, the Russians used an agent of their own posing as the Red Skull, hoping to capitalize on the notoriety and fear inspired by the original. The true Red Skull was released from suspended animation by a search team sent by the organization known as T.H.E.M., which was eventually revealed to be an arm of Hydra. Unleashed upon the world anew, the Red Skull eventually had the 1950s-era imposter murdered by an agent known as Scourge, and continued in his campaign to further the Nazi cause and overthrow the forces of democracy. His schemes included trying to use the long-forgotten Sleepers in his own failed bid to rule the world, as well as using the nearly omnipotent weapon designated the Cosmic Cube, which he stole from a criminal organization designated Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.), to transfer his mind to the body of Captain America, and vice versa, to continue his campaign of terrorism under the guise of freedom's greatest champion. The Red Skull was aided in many of these attempts by a band of former Nazi agents called the Exiles, who had spent the postwar years in hiding on a secret base, Exile Island. Here the Red Skull resided in a mansion he called Skull House and fathered, by a common washerwoman, a daughter who later became known as Mother Superior, whom he had scientifically aged to adulthood and given superhuman abilities. The child's mother had died giving birth, a grim reminder of the Red Skull's own origins. Eventually, however, the Red Skull's past caught with him. By the 1980s, the gas that had prevented him from aging in his years of enforced slumber began to reverse its effects on his metabolism, slowly advancing him to his true physical age. After a failed attempt to take his mortal enemy, Captain America, to the grave with him, his Nazi ally, the scientist Arnim Zola, transferred the Red Skull's mind into a clone of Captain America, after which the Red Skull began to experiment with other philosophies and strategies to destroy America, proclaiming Nazism to be a bankrupt ideology. Working behind the scenes the Red Skull controlled a senate committee, compelling them to strip Steve Rogers of the title of Captain America and replace him with an operative referred to as the U.S. Agent. In a confrontation with Steve Rogers, the Red Skull accidentally exposed himself with his “dust of death,” which gave him a permanent skull-like appearance and tinted his skin crimson. The same death's-head visage he had imposed on so many of his victims over the years now became his permanent face. In 2000 the Red Skull obtained another Cosmic Cube, which he internalized, making it part of his very being, but was seemingly tricked by Captain America into destroying himself. However, it seems unlikely that, after surviving death so many times, the threat of the Red Skull is truly ended.