Red Skull Incarnate #1
By Beth Davies-Stofka
July 10, 2011 - 11:33
Writer(s): Greg Pak
Penciller(s): Mirko Colak
Colourist(s): Matthew Wilson
Letterer(s): VC's Clayton Cowles
Cover Artist(s): David Aja
I took on “Red Skull: Incarnate” because, like countless others who have learned a little about the Holocaust, I’d struggled to understand how a nation often described as the most cultured in Europe could descend into the unfathomable barbarism of the Nazi regime. To avoid repeating the horrors of the past, we desperately need to tell the stories of the heroes who resist. But we also need to struggle with the question of how everyday people can so willingly embrace evil.
I would have found it more credible if he had said that he wanted to write something totally sickening and had used the excuse of the Third Reich in order to get it published.
But he didn’t. He seems to see himself as a brave man who has taken up the moral charge and gone where others don’t dare go. Although he confesses to knowing only "a little" about the Holocaust, he wants to be the one to enlighten us. He claims nothing less than his intention to save American society, if not humanity. And since I don’t know Mr. Pak, I have no reason to doubt his sincerity.
But oh, that’s troubling. If he is indeed sincere, then the only available conclusion is that he is dangerously ignorant. To pass something this sordid off as a response to a higher calling puts him in the same category of miscreant as those journalists who recently told us that they were defending democracy by deleting messages from a dead little girl’s phone.
The eight-page slaughter of homeless dogs can only be described as a kind of pornography of violence. The suffocating cruelty of the massacre is depicted with classic comic book techniques: the whining of the pups, the snicks of the knives, the trailing spurts of blood, the suffering of the dogs as they are thrown to the ground to slowly bleed to death, whimpering in pain. All of this action happens in the context of the ultimate horror cliché: rain falling from black clouds, the thunder and lightning escalating alongside the violence.
I get the point. There’s allegory here. A child is on the fence. The course of his life is about to be determined. He contemplates the everyday heroism of standing up for the weak and defenseless, and he contemplates the everyday calculation of throwing one’s lot in with the wicked. Heroism is really the impossible choice, as poverty, cruelty, and violence press in from all sides. Ordinary Germans are the witnesses to evil’s everyday ruthlessness, and are driven to self-preservation. No one really puts themselves on the line for others. Only a very few can. And this creates the perfect conditions for world war and genocide.
But that only explains the allegorical function of the young Johann Schmidt. In its own way, it is relatively unobjectionable. The problems arise when we consider the other group of characters in this scenario: the dogs. What are we to make of their allegorical role in this tale of atrocity?
Are they supposed to represent a microcosm of German society in 1923, where the masses were trapped and caged by the punitive demands of the Treaty of Versailles?
Are they supposed to foreshadow the coming attacks of Hitler’s Storm troopers on the Jews?
Do they merely represent the alternatives of cruelty and weakness?
I’m fishing around for meaning because it’s really not clear, and this is where the problem with Pak’s story lies. The only really clear role for these dogs in the allegory is to suffer and bleed. Pak has exploited animals to make his point. And killing animals for entertainment purposes cannot be justified.
Now, I know these weren’t “real” dogs, so you might argue that no actual animals were harmed. But this massacre happened, in the closed world of the comic book. It’s a fictional world to be sure, but it has a whiff of reality to it. There was never an actual Red Skull, but there was such a thing as Germany between the wars. The actual world and the world of the comic bleed together, and with that, the blood of the massacred dogs finds its way into the room where we sit to read this comic.
I also know that if we take the Afterword seriously, this isn’t just “entertainment.” Pak says he’s committed to writing this comic in order “to avoid repeating the horrors of the past.” So Red Skull: Incarnate goes beyond entertainment. It’s an educational comic. But killing animals for educational purposes also cannot be justified.
It would seem that Pak has done something shockingly immoral – exploiting animals for cruelty and killing – while claiming the moral high ground. This kind of behavior needs to be called out, named, and condemned. This is a case where we must protect ourselves from those who claim to be protecting us. We must reject this comic for its brutality and stupidity. Marvel has an honorable history of emotional and spiritual sensitivity to immigrants, refugees, and survivors. This is its day of shame.
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