Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Other Captain Americas and all those Red Skulls!

First, I would like to thank Kid Robson for cleaning up this blog and Nick Caputo for cleaning out my closet, without whom this blog would not be possible.

This is a review of the just released Blu Ray of the 1992 movie, Captain America, and a discussion of the Captain America movies that had come before. It is also a study of the several origins of the Cap’s arch enemy: The RED SKULL!!! But first:

The Wikipedia entry for the Red Skull is inaccurate and incomplete and I tried to fix it. When you read some of the first few paragraphs of their entry it may sound a lot like this blog, simply because I tried to put in the correct information. Unfortunately, they removed many of my comments, so I stopped trying. For example, they totally left out the Red Skull stories from the 1950s.
Simply, rather than demonstrate that there have been a least three versions of the character, they wrote as if there was just one, the one established in 1982, retroactively erasing a great deal what Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had done.

Captain America, and his young partner Bucky, began their run in his comic in 1941.
Jack Kirby, Sept. 1974: “(Captain America) was a spontaneous reaction on my part and my partner Joe Simon. We discussed it at the time. There was patriotic fervor everywhere. It was just the climate for that kind of thing. Captain America was a superhero of his own, specific type. …Captain America was the first to have a patriotic theme.”
Reprint from Fantasy Masterpieces #5

Captain America wrapped in the American Flag, was a patriotic hero who fought and was published during WWII, but his comic was cancelled by 1950.

Stan Lee said, in Eye magazine in 1969, “Take Captain America… He used to be called ‘Marvel’s Resident Fascist.’ Cap was the first character I ever worked on 30 years ago. He was typical, an oldtime patriotic hero—my country right or wrong. During World War II, he killed Nazis and Japs. The war ended, but we kept treating him the same and he didn’t sell.

Rebirth Shall Occur This Night!

First told in Captain America #1, 1941 and later in Tales of Suspense #63, Steve Rogers was considered too “puny” to enlist in the army during W.W. II. Dr. Reinstein (a play on the name Einstein) gives him an injection, a super-serum that immediately turns him into a “super” man. In 1965, with the Comics Code firmly in place, Dr. Erskine (same doctor different name) has Rogers drink a serum with the same results. In both cases, a Nazi immediately kills the doctor -ending the possibility of an army of super-soldiers. At this point at no time was the Red Skull in any way connected to the origin of Captain America or to the Super-Soldier program as shown in the movies.

A few years after his comic was cancelled, in 1954-55, Cap and Bucky were brought back for a handful of issues of Young Men’s Comics and his own, but he and the other remnants of the 1940s, (the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch) simply didn’t sell. Cap’s creators, Simon and Kirby had nothing to do with these issues.

The Marvel Age
After a “test run” in Strange Tales #114, Cap was brought back in Avengers #4 (1964). Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reinvented Cap for the Marvel Age. Cap had lasted until 1950 and, as mentioned, was revived in 1954. That was erased. The Marvel Age was starting out with a clean slate, without the burden of continuity that afflicted  DC comics.

Changing history, we discover that while trying to save the Allies from a missile attack by Baron Zemo in 1945, Bucky was killed and Cap was frozen in ice. He remained a Capsicle for almost 20 years until the Avengers defrosted him.

From top to bottom, Steve Rogers get his serum in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Stan Lee, WBAI Radio 2000: It was even difficult to bring back a patriotic character (In 1965) because the country wasn’t in the mood for that kind of patriotism at the time we brought back Captain America. They weren’t interested in the Army. Nobody wanted us to be at war, certainly, and there was a lot of disenchantment with the government and with the establishment, and Captain America was so much an establishment character.

Well, what I did… do, was give him a problem. He felt he was out of sync with the time he lived in. He felt he was an anachronism. He realized that he was thinking like somebody in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, but here he was living in the ‘60s, and he felt he’d never quite be on the same wavelength as the people – You know he had been, I think, frozen in a glacier for about 20 years or something and consequently he would agonize about the fact that he didn’t feel he fit in. I remember, I think there was one line I wrote that I liked very much where he said maybe he should have battled less and questioned more, and I think that was the philosophy we tried to give him but he couldn’t change his nature.

So the new Marvel Age Cap was introspective as all Marvel heroes of the time were. He felt lonely, out of place. He was an anachronism and he knew it. And the world had changed; we no longer trusted government as we once did.

The Other Captain Americas, First Reb Brown, 1979
This was the second attempt to bring Cap to the screen. Movies like this one, made quickly and cheaply, can often be so bad that they are fun to watch. Not this movie. The first was a 1940s serial. Let’s get the second one out of the way fast.

The Brown Captain America looks like a very cheap TV movie. It imitates a great deal of  The Six Million Dollar Man in both story and effects. This movie completely ignores the real origin of the character. Perhaps the primary reason that there weren’t many Marvel Movies until this millennium was that they required great special effects that either were not available or were too expensive. Here, in MODERN times, Steve Rogers is a former Marine (not at all puny) who, while injured, involuntarily takes a serum that transforms him into….well, he doesn’t really change into anything, he’s already a big guy. He becomes Captain America, without a traditional Cap uniform. He does get a plastic shield, and a motorcycle, but, unlike the original, has no patriotic calling for his mission, no motivation. He fights a gang of villains who keep trying to kill him. The plot was barely enough for a 30 minute TV show, let alone a 2 hour movie. The dialogue was awful, the acting worse, the pacing tedious. This is only available on DVD, not Blu Ray.

The Other Captain America: Matt Salinger
In 1992, Menahem Golan, the producer that ended the Superman franchise, attempts to end the Captain America one too. This film was not released in the United States, it escaped. It is now on Blu Ray. Gosh, it is bad.

Cap’s Arch enemy, The Red Skull, is the villain here. He appeared in the early Captain America comics and he was actually killed in his first appearance. But death is not fatal in comics and he was brought back. Many times.

While Darren McGavin, Michael Nouri, Scott Paulin, Kim Gillingham, Melinda Dillon, Bill Mumy, and Francesca Neri are billed in this movie, they just have cameos, mostly at the beginning. The movie opens in the 1940s and shows something close to the original origin of Captain America. Again, they did not have the resources or the budget to show the “puny” Steve Rogers turn into the “super” and bigger Captain America, so the origin misses a major point. It does portray the defeat of Cap at the hands of the Red Skull and Cap’s subsequent freeze-drying and thawing out. Here he thaws out in modern times, forty years later, not twenty as in the comics.

The Red Skull is portrayed here much differently than in the comics. For the first time they link the creation of the Super-Soldier serum to the creation of the Red Skull, which was never shown in a comic. Here the Nazis kidnap a brilliant and innocent Italian boy and experiment on him using the super-soldier formula. This discolors his head and creates the Red Skull, who previously, had always used a mask to give him that look. Also, he should have been German, not Italian - after all he is a NAZI!! One of the doctors objects to this treatment and brings the serum over to America. The idea of connecting Captain America and the Red Skull to the serum was used in the latest movie. (More on this later).

Sadly, at this point most of the name stars are gone, and what should've been a fun movie becomes tedious and painful to watch.

The director Albert Pyum and the star Matt Salinger appear in a twenty minute short. Both of them strongly lament the lack of money and time that they were given to create this movie. It really shows on screen. They did not shoot in the United States, they shot it in Yugoslavia. Therefore nothing looks American, yet the name of the movie is Captain America. Also, many actors have very noticeable Italian accents.

The action sequences are terrible. The editing is so bad you can see the use of miniatures. At one point you see that the shield is dented when someone gets hit over the head with it. And the movie is filled with too many 'movie coincidences.' You know - people meeting each other on the street even though they haven't seen each other in 50 years. In fact, when Capt. America rescues the President of the United States, the president comments that they had met once before when the president was a child.

This obviously came out on Blu-ray, to profit off of the new Captain America movie. I suspect it'll show on HBO and a few other places. Wash your hair, take out the garbage, clean out the litter box, but don't waste your time with this movie. It could've been fun, but it's not.  (However, there are brief references to the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Jack Kirby!)  And the picture and sound are way below average.

The Comic Book History of the Red Skull: Back From the DEAD!

I know I am repetitive, but I did put some of this up on Wikipedia the last week of May, 2013.
The Red Skull was introduced in Timely Comics' Captain America Comics #1 (cover-dated March 1941), edited and drawn by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, with a script by Ed Herron. Jack Kirby said at the San Diego Comic Con and several other places that “Ed Herron also fathered the Red Skull."

The Red Skull later appeared in issues #3 and #7. Originally, in those Golden Age issues, The Red Skull was George Maxon, the owner of the Maxon Aircraft Company that made airplanes for the U.S. Army. As the Red Skull, he attempts to rob banks in order to raise money to overthrow the U.S. Government. He says, "Of course you realize the main item in overthrowing the government is money." In his Golden Age stories, Maxon wore a mask to create the look of the Red Skull and his face was often exposed and known. At this point, The Red Skull had no real origin story. Some people, including Wikipedia, are retroactively giving the name Johann Schmidt to the character at this time, but that was never part of the Simon and Kirby world and wouldn't be used for half a century.

Back From the DEAD!

Captain America Comics was discontinued in 1950. In 1954, both Captain America and the Red Skull were brought back in Young Men Comics #24, in a story entitled "Back from the Dead!" Here the Red Skull, thinking Captain America is dead, has left politics and started a big criminal enterprise in the United States. Steve Rogers and Bucky aren't dead, but are a teacher and a student at the Lee School, where they haven’t aged a bit. With the Red Skull on the loose (and after a recap of their origin)  and soon defeat their enemy. In his next appearance, in issue #27, the Red Skull is once again left for dead as the series and characters are quickly cancelled.

In the retelling of this 1950s story during the Marvel Age, in Captain America #153-6, Cap and Bucky take the serum together.

A decade passes: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revive the Captain in Avengers #4 (March 1964) and he soon gets his own series again in Tales of Suspense #59 (November 1964).

In Avengers #4 we learn that a mysterious Nazi caused the rocket launch that froze Cap and killed Bucky. Soon we discover that it was Baron Zemo, a completely masked Nazi. In is my opinion, is that Stan was unsure whether the Comics Code would let the horrible looking Red Skull be used, so they used his exact opposite, a man without a face. In May 1965, in Tales of Suspense #65, the Red Skull does return. He is still horrible looking, but cleaned up a bit. In fact, when Marvel reprinted his 1941 stories in Fantasy Masterpieces, they redrew his face to make it less horrible. I suspect, however, that the Comic Code allowed the Red Skull because he was a rotten Nazi. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that the month the Red Skull appeared in Tales of Suspense, Zemo was killed off in the Avengers. Lee and Kirby also had to clean up the Red Skull’s act a bit: instead of killing everyone in sight, the Red Skull used sleeping gas to knock them out.
On the left the Comic Code's approved Red Skull, on the right the original from 1941.

Most of Captain America’s early TOS stories were flashbacks of the World War II era, where he fought with Bucky. In issues #65 through 68, which also take place during WW II, the Red Skull relates his origin to Captain America.

Here, Lee and Kirby try to fix the original stories told in Captain America #1, 3 and 7. The Red Skull states that the original Maxon was killed and replaced with a duplicate, and that the “new” Maxon only “pretended” to be the Red Skull.  The Red Skull revealing this is the only 'real' one. Naturally, when a Nazi murderer, thief, and saboteur tells a story we believe him. Why would he lie?

The Red Skull says he was a “nameless orphan” who stole food in order to survive. He spent as much time in jail as out of it. He becomes a bellhop in Germany during the rise of Nazism and gets to meet Hitler. 'Der Fuhrer', seeing the hatred in his eyes, takes him under his wing and begins to develop “The perfect Nazi”, a man who is “evil personified.” We never see his face during the story, but Hitler does give him his red mask! The Red Skull rises to power in Germany, second only to Hitler, by using violence, torture and other bad stuff. “Whenever there was injustice, tyranny, ruthlessness, the Red Skull was there.  This was NOT the Red Skull of the 1940s, who did not have any political power.

Until 1981, no origin story regarding Cap featured the Red Skull  in any way. The first time this would occur is in the 40th Anniversary issue of Captain America, #255 published in 1981. Roger Stern and John Byrne stuck pretty close to the Simon, Lee and Kirby origins, just expanding the back story on the Presidential involvement in “Operation Rebirth.” Here the President, when giving Steve Rogers his costum,e  would tell the new Captain America that he needed someone to counteract the Red Skull.

It is frequent in Comicbook land to redo characters and make them more up to date - or, frankly, to get more stories out of popular characters. The Red Skull has been redone several times. In Captain America #298, 1984, he once again holds Cap hostage and tells him his (new) origin. The Red Skull admits to previously telling Cap a 'story' (TOS #66), but says he will now tell him the truth.

Here, ridiculously, the Red Skull says he is able to remember being in his peasant mother’s womb and being born in 1899. His father was a “drunken” lout named Herman Schmidt. The Red Skull, minutes old, not only remembers his father’s face when the doctor tells him that his wife died during childbirth, but is also able to understand everything that went on! Herman attempts to kill the baby for causing his wife's death, but the doctor instead kills Herman and saves the child. The Red Skull then says he has always wanted to kill the doctor for saving him. This essentially changes the origin that Simon, Kirby and Lee had used for years. The Red Skull is given a name, Johann Schmidt, and had a more violent youth than was previously shown - murdering girls who wouldn’t date him for example. He does meet Hitler in much the same way as previously revealed and is trained to be a Nazi soldier.

On the island of Exiles, The Red Skull meets a “washer-woman” who looks like his mother and decides to have a child with her. She also dies during childbirth. He wanted a son and is so disappointed to have a daughter he almost kills her, mirroring many of the events of his own birth. The Skull, without his mask, and with a perfectly human face, will die in the arms of Steve Rogers in issue #300.

The Face of the RED SKULL!: Back From the DEAD!
Remember death is not fatal in comics.  The Skull returns in issue #350 and keeps the secret of his recovery to himself. Here, however, he uses a poison that kills people and turns their faces into a red skull. Cap, of course, turns the table on the murderer and has the poison infect the Skull himself.  While this does turn him into a real Red Skull,  but for some reason doesn’t kill him. This is similar to the events of his first appearance in Captain America #1. This is first time the colored skull was real, not a mask!
An innocent victim, poisoned and turned into a red skull.

The Red Skull gets a dose of his own medicine and turns into the Red Skull, but he doesn't die. Not that it would make any difference if he did, he would soon be Back From The DEAD!

The Red Skull himself is similar, perhaps inspired by, Batman’s Joker. He has an unusual and instantly frightening and evil face and loves to kill.  His Modus operandi  here is also very similar to the Joker’s in his first appearance in Batman Comics #1 (and the Michael Keaton movie) where he kills people using a poison that leaves a “Joker’s expression on their face.”

The next big step in the Red Skull’s new origin appears in Red Skull Comics #1-5, in a series entitled “Red Skull Incarnate,” by Greg Pak and Mirko Colak. The story begins in Munich in 1923 and bypasses the Red Skull’s early life, concentrating only on the period of time somewhat glossed over in his previous origins, where he was a drifter as a young man. The object of this story seems to be to align the Red Skull with the real events in Germany surrounding the growth of Nazism. This tale is inconsistent with the events of his previous origins, but that’s the way it goes! The story ends before he meets Hitler and becomes the Red Skull. Therefore we NEVER see him with his mask in these stories.

The last two versions are too violent and graphic for me. It’s not just that they'd be too strong for the Comics Code, but also too violent for Simon and Kirby - who created the character long before the code, yet never featured stuff like this.

Stan Lee:
I’ve always felt that one of the Red Skull's main attractions was his name. Names are of incredible importance in comicbooks… Somehow, I doubt that the Red Skull would have enjoyed the same measure of notoriety, of villaindom success, if his name were the Pink Earlobe—or even the Chartreuse Kneecap.

Another point to ponder is the Skull's appearance. I ask you to note the sophisticated restraint, the subtle underplaying, the lack of ornamentation on his jaunty little jumpsuit. Except for the symbol of the swastika, sewn on his costume for the purpose of preventing our younger readers from mistaking him for a good guy, he could be  any airline maintenance man or service station mechanic—until we see his face. And there, students, is where it's at. That's the reason the rest of his garb is so subdued—to call attention to the scarlet skull mask which makes him so unique in the annals of burgeoning bad-hood.


  1. A minor point: "Johann Schmidt" is a German variation on "John Smith".
    I think the idea was to give the Skull a name, but make it a supposedly-extremely common one (as "John Smith" is in English) to make him a German "everyman" who could be molded and corrupted by Nazi evil.

  2. Thanks for the comment, It's a very good thing to point out.

    Pleaser say hello to Kato!

  3. Warned you that I'd post my horrendously-long comments and nit-picks here too. You poor soul, Barry.

    Thanks, Mistah Britt, for bringing up Mark's input into Skull history: the name of Johann Schmidt. If the Skull was indeed telling the truth during any of the Gruenwald stories.

    My memory after 1991 is really, really bad - but (way back in 1967, when I saw my first view of the Great Comic Book Heroes) I'd have sworn that Dr Reinstein was Dr Erskine in Cap #1. Don't trust my memory though on this though, since I've since lost my references.

    Some things, though, I do remember well - and have references to jog my memory. George Maxon was the Skull for his/its first two appearances, and then Maxon vanished until HIS retcon in 1964 or 1965. Beginning with the Red Skull's third appearance, one would be hard pressed to prove he was wearing a skull mask. See, f'rinstance, the original splash from Cap #7 which you reproduced in your column. After S&K left, the Skull was the Skull and that was that - even to the point of pulling Cap down to Hell with him. Or it.

    In Young Men #24, Steve & Bucky do not take the Super Soldier Serum, or even retake it. That was added by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema with new panels in between reprinted panels from YM #24. In the retcon, these were ersatz versions of Cap & Bucky, based on an idea by Roy Thomas (who took the ball back and ran with it in an imaginary Invaders story which wasn't imaginary after all). According to Englehart's script, the 1950s Skull was a phony also.

    In Cap #350, the Skull returns and uses his Skull toxin to turn people into Dead Skulls. This was not, however, the first time in Marvel continuity. He used his dust in several of the Englehart stories, illustrated by Frank Robbins in a manner which was creepier than even the Joker toxin of 1940, 1977, and the Tim Burton Universe.

    And that's all the nitpicking I could manage. We aged fanboys are pathetic in our fact checking of things which only matter to other aged fanboys. Get off my lawn, you kids!

  4. Chet I can answer the first point:

    Yes, they used the name Reinstein in the 1940s and 1950s version. Lee changed it to Erskine because it was such a “rip off of Einstein.” When called on this he later said that Reinstein was the “code word for the doctor.” In Cap #255 they restate all this, Erskine was his name, Reinstein was his code name.

    I don’t know where to go with Cap #7. Because he is always called The Red Skull and doesn’t seem to wear a mask, well, I don’t know if that should be considered a change. The Chameleon doesn’t appear to have a mask and uses one all the time. And honest to gosh, in this story The Skull wears a mask OVER his mask, that of an Englishman, and it doesn’t look like a mask!!!

    I probably wrote it wrong, but I did not mean to imply that the skull poison was new to the series, just that this was the first time HE, HIMSELF got infected by it.

    Chet thanks for everything. It’s always fun.

  5. I think it's wrongheaded to refer to DC as being "afflicted" by the "burden of continuity" in the context of the 1960s--when DC was then so entirely NOT burdened by continuity that they created the entirely new Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Atom, characters completely NOT related to the 1940s characters of the same name. Responding to fan requests, DC did establish the concept of parallel Earths to bring the 1940s characters back--but in the 1960s, at least, these were just supporting players. The top attractions were the Silver Age versions and the new continuity that was being created.

  6. At the beginning of the 1960s, as I recall,were the biggest sellers at DC were the Superman and Batman Family of comics. Superman and Batman appeared in the majority of super-comics published every month: Superman in: Action, Superman, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Adventure, Superboy, World’s Finest and JLA. Batman appeared in Batman, Detective, World’s Finest, JLA and eventually the Brave and the Bold. In fact DC had only three monthly super-hero comics and they were in it. All the others were 6-8 times a year. With the exception of the Justice League, Superman and Batman were NOT rebooted. And as I mentioned had the burden of some much that was written 20 years ago.

    Also, being in some many comics there couldn’t be a break from continuity, at that time it would involve so many writers and artists. So the characters were even colored the same, Clark Kent always had a blue suit.

    Most important is that you could take a story, not just from this group but from the Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom, from 1960 and place it in a comic published in 1965 or 1970 and it would not seem out of order.

    Reed and Sue got married and had a child, Peter Parker went through a few girlfriends, the Avengers changed membership and even the Sub-Mariner went from being a villain to being the noble ruler of Atlantis.

    What changed at DC? You can mention a few little things, usually from supporting characters, but that’s it.

  7. Stan's assertion that Cap was the "first" patriot-themed super hero is not 100% accurate. Archie Comics' Shield had a costume with a stars-and-stripes motif before Captain America first appeared. Of course, Cap had much better artwork, and the Shield is all but forgotten now. Attempts to revive the Archie/MLJ heroes in the 1960's and 1980's were not successful.

  8. When Cap was revived in Avengers #4, it was stated that he had been frozen in suspended animation, and that Bucky had been killed, in 1945. That contradicted their appearances in late 1940's comics as well as their brief 1954 revival. So, What If #4 later explained that the post-war Cap and Bucky were impostors. An early example of Roy Thomas' retroactive continuity.

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