Magneto vs. the Red Skull round one

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.

Captain America 367 cover

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.

Classic X-Men 12 pg 10

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.

Captain America 298 pg 14

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.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

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.

Captain America 367 pg 22

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.

Captain America 369 pg 29

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 pg 21

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.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.

Strange Comic Books: Fantastic Four #322-325

In this installment of Strange Comic Books is a look at a set of issues that, in retrospect, would turn out to be very significant for my future interests.  Fantastic Four #s 322 to 325 came out in late 1988, although as I recall I found them in the back issue bins maybe two or three years later.

I bought these because they were tie-ins with the “Inferno” crossover that had run through the X-Men titles, as well as appearances by two villains from the pages of Avengers, the time traveling despot Kang the Conqueror and the egotistical Graviton.  But this quartet of Fantastic Four issues would turn out to be some of my earliest exposure to the writing of Steve Englehart, and my introduction to one of his signature creations, Mantis.

At this point in time, Reed & Sue Richards had taken an extended leave of absence, and the FF membership was the Thing, the Human Torch, Ms. Marvel II aka She-Thing and Crystal, the last of whom had also parted ways with the team a few issues before.  This leaves us with a “Fantastic Three” made up of Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sharon Ventura.

Kneel before Zod... oh, wait, wrong comic book company!
Kneel before Zod… oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

The whole “Inferno” storyline was, yep, a real strange sequence of events.  An army of demons from Limbo led by N’astirh laid siege to Manhattan, along the way mystically animating all number of everyday objects which ran amok attacking innocent people.

As Fantastic Four #322 opens, Graviton is making his way back to Earth after a recent defeat at the hands of the Avengers.  Upon arriving, he discovers the demonic assault on New York City, and decides that he can halt it with his gravity-based powers, on the condition that the citizens of the Big Apple worship him as their god.  Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four is patrolling the city streets, rescuing their fellow New Yorkers from run-away bicycles, fire hydrants, and mailboxes.  They come across the newly arrived Graviton and attack, hoping to quickly subdue him.  Graviton has them majorly outclassed, but through teamwork and strategy the FF is able to defeat him.

Things get even odder in FF #s 323-324.  Still patrolling the city, the threesome encounters Mantis, who is in the midst of a brawl with a horde of demonically possessed parking meters!

Fantastic Four 323 pg 2 Mantis
Mantis wasn’t at all happy after she got another parking ticket.

Yep, this was my very first glimpse of the Celestial Madonna.  Right from the start, I could tell that Mantis was an unusual character.  First of all, she kept referring to herself as “This one.”  Second, even more significantly, she explained to the FF that she had married an alien plant and had a child with it, um, him.  Yipes!  Now her son has been spirited away into outer space by those same plant beings, and Mantis has come seeking the FF in the hopes that they can help her locate her offspring.

Before the FF can take any steps towards assisting Mantis, Kang pops up, snatching her away.  The temporal tyrant wants to use her powers to awaken the mysterious Dreaming Celestial.  The FF attack Kang’s ship and, while he is busy fighting them, the sorcerer Necrodamus kidnaps the helpless Mantis.  Necrodamus is working in N’astirh’s service, and believes that by sacrificing Mantis during an alignment of the planets he will gain extraordinary powers.  However, Kang and the Human Torch fly off into space and manage to delay the orbit of Mercury around the Sun by a fraction, throwing off the alignment, and returning Necrodamus to his exile in Limbo.  At this point Kang abandons the Torch in outer space and heads back to Earth to try and grab Mantis again.

As issue #325 opens, the Silver Surfer, having sensed the disruption of Mercury’s orbit, arrives and rescues the Torch, spiriting him back to NYC, where the events of the Inferno have finally come to a close.  The Surfer is surprised to learn that Mantis, who he has fallen in love with, is still alive.  Their happy reunion is cut short by the arrival of the Cotati, the race of plants whose representative Mantis mated with.  The Cotati have formed an alliance of convenience with Kang to prevent Mantis from regaining her son.

Fantastic Four 325 pg 15
A potted view of plant politics.

The FF, Mantis, and the Surfer fight Kang, the Cotati, and their servants the Priests of Pama to a draw, at which point the plant beings flee into “the realm of pure thought.”  Vowing to follow them and rescue her son, Mantis’ consciousness departs from her body.  A distraught Surfer flies off into space, leaving the FF to ponder these tragic events.

As I said, strange!  But, of course, at the same time, these four issues of Fantastic Four were undoubtedly intriguing.  Steve Englehart certainly imbued his storyline with a number of unusual concepts.  Within a few years, I would discover Englehart’s earlier work on Captain America via back issues, and I became a tremendous fan of his.

In the late 1980s, right around the time these issues of FF were published, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel editorial.  He did not have the opportunity to return to the cosmic saga of Mantis until 2001, when he penned the eight issue Avengers: Celestial Quest.  I realize that miniseries met with a mixed reaction among readers.  Personally, though, I enjoyed it.

Between Celestial Quest and the original Celestial Madonna story arc from the 1970s receiving the trade paperback treatment in 2002, I finally understood most of the rich, complex back-story of Mantis, Kang, the Cotati, and the Priests of Pama that Englehart was alluding to in those “Inferno” issues of Fantastic Four.  At that point Mantis became one of my all time favorite comic book characters.

Fantastic Four 324 cover
Talk about hanging by a thread.

The artwork on these issues is also very good.  Issue #322 is penciled by the talented and often underrated Keith Pollard, with inking by veteran Fantastic Four embellisher Joe SinnottFF #s 323-324 are drawn by Pollard and Romeo Tanghal, the latter of whom is also on-board to ink Rich Buckler’s pencils for #325.  All four issues are topped by cover art by Ron Frenz & Sinnott.

I also have to point out the lettering.  John Workman, one of the greatest letterers in the comic book biz, provides his amazing, distinctive fonts on the first couple of issues.  Long-time Marvel Bullpen member Joe Rosen letters #324 and then-newcomer Michael Heisler steps up to the plate in #325.

The reason why I mention the lettering is the second panel on Fantastic Four #324 page 17. When Kang’s time-ship fires on Necrodamus’ force shield, the noise the weapon makes is “TARDIS!” Yep, it’s a Doctor Who reference. I have no idea if Joe Rosen was a fan of the series, or if Englehart put that special effect in his script. Whatever the case, it’s a cute in-joke.

Fantastic Four 324 pg 17 Kang
Kang’s weaponry courtesy of the BBC prop department.

Until I dug these issues out of storage in my parents’ basement a couple of months ago, I don’t think I had actually looked at them in over a decade.  In the intervening time I finally had the opportunity to read the entirety of Englehart’s original epic Mantis storyline via the Essential Avengers collections and the aforementioned Celestial Madonna TPB.  Those certainly gave me a whole new perspective on Fantastic Four #s 322-325.  That said, they are still very strange comic books.  But, of course, strange in a good way.