The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism. But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another. For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.
It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.
Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.
Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.
Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob. Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.
The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide. Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity. In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.
The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village. When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son. He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician. The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan. Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.
Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness. Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole. The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”
Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there. By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape. The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision. Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!” Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see the look in Schmidt’s eyes. Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence. The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich. Thus was born the Red Skull.
It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure. In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual. He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!
These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America. Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind. In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth. The Skull admits he is the original. He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard. This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee. (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)
Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith. So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.
Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water. Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated. I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer. I want you to wish I had killed you.” With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness. Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page. That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving. And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.
The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate. In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide. We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him. The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.
Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover. Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice. As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.
Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times. Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime. As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier. He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.
In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.
Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull. I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future. Stay tuned.