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Who is the Red Skull?

Updated on June 6, 2016
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Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.

The lament of a tyrant
The lament of a tyrant

Great heroes are measured by their enemies

Sometimes heroes are made because a great evil has arisen.

In the case of what can be argued as one of the noblest heroes in the Marvel Universe, Captain America, he was created to stop the face of fascism. Most people would think that would have meant Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Both of these men truly embraced the philosophy of fascism. However with Marvel, the face of evil was a skull… the Red Skull.

The Red Skull, aka Johann Schmidt, according to S.H.I.E.L.D., is one of the greatest threats to humanity. He is completely evil. His strategic genius has been compared to Napoleon. His political manipulations are works of art. He will maim or kill people with absolutely no regret or compunction in order to achieve his ends – or just because he can.

When the US Government discovered that they had one recipient who survived the super soldier program of Project: Rebirth, they decided that he would be the perfect weapon and motivational force for the allies. They needed that might in Captain America to battle The Red Skull.

There are very few characters in the Marvel Universe that have been as persistently evil and subversive as the Red Skull. He is one of those villains that is harder to kill than a cockroach on gamma rays. And every time the world thinks this bastard is dead, he comes back stronger and deadlier than ever.

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How did he get this bad?

The product of a fatal child birthing, Johann Schmidt survived his father’s attempt to drown him. His natural father killed himself soon after his birth. Schmidt was raised in an orphanage. While still a child he ran away from the orphanage and survived as a beggar and a thief. He’s spent much of his time in prisons.

Gaining a job as a hotel bellhop, he found himself serving Adolph Hitler in his room. Hitler was in the middle of chastising his officers saying that they didn’t know how to train the men. He further went on to say that he could train the bellhop to be a better Nazi than any of them. Hitler had sensed the evil darkness in Schmidt and had the officers train him as a Nazi.

Hitler was angered that the officers were training him to be a mere storm trooper. Instead, Hitler took over training Schmidt personally, making him his right hand and giving him a unique uniform with a life-like red skull mask. Hitler ordered the Skull to kill the officer with a luger. The Red Skull shot every button from his coat without killing him explaining that if the officer were dead, he’d be no further use to Hitler – this way he would live in fear and obey Hitler’s every utterance without question.

Classically bad - The Red Skull
Classically bad - The Red Skull

Throughout the war, the Red Skull’s power began to grow and, at this point, he began to battle Captain America. The Skull eventually became the most powerful man in the Nazi party second only to Hitler. This happened as a result of the Skull’s secretly assassinating all of Hitler’s trusted subordinates, leaving himself as Hitler’s only resource.

Towards the end of WWII, Hitler and the Skull decided that if they could not rule the world by winning the war, they’d destroy it. Hitler charged the Skull with the creation of three sleeper robots that would activate at some future date. These sleeper robots when assembled would go through their automated instructions to wipe out the planet. However, before the Red Skull could activate the robots, he was trapped in a bunker which collapsed leaving him in suspended animation through the exposure of an experimental gas released through the accident.

Captain America shortly would also go through his own suspended animation after foiling one of Baron Zemo’s plots –which would seemingly take the life of his partner Bucky Barnes.

Fortunately for the Red Skull, he was rescued by THEM, a search team organized by one of his former subordinates, Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. The Skull recovered and stayed with the team long enough to steal the vastly powerful reality altering cosmic cube from AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics).

Notable Henchmen

Henchman
Accomplishment
Baron Zemo
Managed to put Captain America on ice until modern day
Arnim Zola
Transferred the Red Skull's consciousness into a new cloned body of Captain America
The Hate Monger
His old boss - ADOLPH HITLER
Crossbones
Personal Muscle used to annoy Captain America
Mother Superior
Mind breaker
Sin
The Red Skull's daughter and former Mother Superior
The Red Skull (original)
The Red Skull (original)

The Red Skull has since waged war against democracy and has proven to be an almost perpetual thorn in Captain America’s side, planning large schemes and seemingly dying at the end of each of them. What seemed to be a swan song for the Skull was when he discovered that the gas that allowed him to survive in suspended animation after the war had worn off and he began to age at an accelerated rate.

While fighting Captain America for what he thought would be his final farewell, his body succumbed to the ravages of time and died. However, unbeknownst to Captain America, the Red Skull’s mind was transferred by his subordinate, master geneticist and cloner, Arnim Zola, to a cloned body of Captain America’s.

Now with a new lease on life, the Skull with an infusion of the super soldier formula and a body at the peak of physical perfection, decided that he would now work, not as a Nazi, but as a political subverter of the American government as “John Smith” (Johann Schmidt in English). In his new Aryan perfect guise, he quickly began to manipulate the government and was able to take over the government group called “The Commission on Superhuman Activities”. In this role, he was able to remove Steve Rogers from the identity of Captain America by declaring that his shield and uniform were a product of the American government and unless he worked exclusively for the Commission he would not be able to continue.

Rogers, in an unexpected turn of events, gave up his uniform and shield and became “The Captain”, using a new uniform and shield provided by his friend, Tony Stark.

The Red Skull Quiz


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The Red Skull - Arnim Zola style
The Red Skull - Arnim Zola style

The Red Skull decided that if he could not control his arch enemy Captain America, he’d make a Captain America that he could control. He arranged that John Walker, formerly one of Captain America’s antagonists who believed he’d be a better symbol of freedom as the Super Patriot, would be drafted as the new Captain America. The plan backfired as both Walker and Rogers worked together to uncover the Red Skull in his new guise.

While planning to use his “dust of death” to kill and disfigure Rogers (note: The dust of death as the effect of discoloring the skin red while shrinking it to give its victim the appearance of “a red skull”) through his cigarette holder – to spray in his face, Walker tackled the Skull forcing him to partially inhale the dust, permanently disfiguring his face to have a “red skull” like appearance.

Now he didn’t need a mask. He’d always be “The Red Skull”.

The Red Skull has managed to work within the shadows most of the time scheming several plots simultaneously in order to achieve his ends. His cloned body has since been destroyed. However, his essence has managed to travel to other “hosts”. His last host was a robot duplicate of one of Arnim Zola’s hosts.

His last scheme, which involved the seeming death of Steve Rogers, had failed as he was looking to take over and possess the potential child of Steve Rogers and S.H.I.E.L.D agent, Sharon Carter , through the accidental intervention of the Skull’s own daughter, Sin. Had his scheme worked his new body would have had the genetic template and inherited super soldier attributes of Captain America’s son.

The Red Skull is assumed currently to be dead. However, with him, it is never a condition that has stopped him for long.

Red Skull with Xavier's Power
Red Skull with Xavier's Power

The Red Skull Reloaded

Just when you thought the Red Skull wasn't coming back... well, actually, he didn't.

The Red Skull who survived World War II, his body died and he survived in a clone of Steve Rogers. Much like the Venture Brothers, Arnim Zola had an "up to the second" mental backup and downloaded him into a healthy Steve Rogers clone - and then that one was killed with the Skull doing a quick cosmic cube download to someone else. When that failed, he got an Arnim Zola like body and that got blown away with no backup.

So what are the Nazi types supposed to do now?

Well, it just so happens that Arnim Zola had a couple of the original Red Skull body clones waiting in reserve. Only this clone was made in 1942 with the intelligence already "pre-loaded" just waiting to be defrosted and ready for evil.

This Red Skull has his full natural face - meaning that he has to wear a mask to be the Skull. Which is fine because he gets to have lips again. In addition to that, The Red Skull finds the brain of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and grafts it to his own - making him a really powerful telepath now.

The Red Skull/Xavier hybrid has since caused all kinds of chaos within the Marvel Universe and is now trying to restart Hydra - beginning with his "daughter" Sin and Crossbones. Now that this Red Skull has powerful telepathic powers, he is infinitely more dangerous.

Final Words

Okay, aside from being a political manipulator, criminal mastermind, and strategist, this guy is just a major tool.

No, really.

He gets the cosmic cube… THE COSMIC CUBE!! A device that’s practically an Aladdin’s Lamp with infinite wishes. What does he do with it? He uses it, not for the immediate and expeditious way of taking over the world and making everyone his slave – no, he doesn’t do that – but to fight, humiliate, and torture the only popular non-superpowered hero for his amusement. Then he uses it to entrap his former mentor’s consciousness (Hitler) in a “fake” Cosmic Cube – just because.

He takes time to train his biological daughter to be completely evil in the same way he is. But when it comes time for him to arrange a successor he doesn’t even consider her because SHE’S FEMALE. WHAT KIND OF GUY DOES THAT?

You’d also think that if you had a body empowered and enhanced by the super soldier formula, that maybe, just maybe, because no one has been able to really successfully replicate it, analyze your own blood and make an army of SUPER SOLDIERS!!! Or, at the very least, be a little bit more of a combatant. Hell, if I were evil (or more evil than I am already), and I had the natural attributes of what the super soldier formula could grant, I’d be kicking ass and taking names.

So frustrating.

However, to be fair, every major hero deserves a good antagonist. Captain America has this guy. He’s been written in such a way that you can’t help but hate him. He’s that guy you see being a prick 24/7/365 and you wonder why someone… ANYONE… hasn’t just taken a gun and shot him between the eyes.

But alas, we need to have guys like this. They provide complex personalities to the otherwise dimensionless world of heroes. It is their evil that generates the plot of every good storyline.

I believe Terry Pratchett’s character, The Patrician, said it best, “I’m sorry if this offends you but you fellows really need us. Oh yes, we’re the only ones that can make things work. You see, the only thing that good people are really good at is overthrowing bad people. And you’re really good at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is, that’s the only thing you’re good at. One day, it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next is everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant’s been overthrown, no one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It’s part of the specification you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people just don’t seem to have the knack.”

The one thing that the Red Skull knows how to do is plan. He plans the death of his enemies. He plans the dominance of the world. He plans on how to make things miserable for the rest of us. But in the end, what he does better than almost any super villain is plan.

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© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi

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    • Dominique L profile image

      Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

      Oh thank you! That was awesome!

      So, first of all, he made sleeper robots to be activated in the future? So the Terminator series ripped off Captain America! Too funny!

      Am I wrong in thinking, then, that Red Skull is kind of like a Nazi Ra's Al Ghul, or the other way around, as Red Skull is older? And as to him being a tool, I think you've kind of hit on the head the reason I dislike Captain America (and, really, a lot of other superheroes). A hero is as good as his villains, but when you take your villains, who, like Red Skull are evil geniuses who probably should have taken over the world a couple times by now and dumb them down because that's the only way for your hero to beat them, it takes away from the heroes. Superman and Lex Luthor seems to me to be a good analogy here (I nearly cried tears of joy when Lexy started popping up in Gotham. Finally! A hero who is worthy of Lexy!).

      How do you think Red Skull would do against other superheroes? And do you have any theories as to why the Marvel people decided to create a face for facism as opposed to just using the ones that existed?

    • profile image

      One Eyed Dragon 4 years ago

      I think the sleeper robts are a pretty recent storyline; also, they don't actually have much in common with the Terminator.

      Marvel created the Red Skull because he was created in the 30's or 40's and, well, the writers, (many of whom were Jews, including Jack Kirby who created Cap and the Skull- Cap is basically the Nazi Aryan Superman, but American and actually a decent human being, turned against the Nazi's) , the writers just hated Nazi's and made a lot of evil scumbags for their heroes to beat up- Captain Nazi, for instance, the Captain Marvel villain. They did in fact use guys like Hitler himself, but beating up Hitler all the time was kind of cheap when Hitler was actually out there conquering Europe in spite of all that.

      The Skull isn't truly the face of Fascism, however- he is far more depraved than that. He is the guy who signed up to the Nazi's solely because Nazism gave him a chance to hurt people and gain power, and to hell with anything else the ideology wants. He is quite a bit worse.

      He's not really like Ra's Al Ghul- he is more like a Nazi Lex Luthor, just far more sadistic and evil (and not quite as intelligent, though still very, very intelligent). He is sometimes compared to the Joker too, since both want to cause destruction and chaos (though in one crossover story, the Joker stopped working with him when he found out he was a Nazi- the Joker thinks the Skull is worse than he is). Ra's Al Ghul wants to create a better world, the Nazi's wanted to create a stronger world- the Red Skull wants to create hell on Earth and bully and torture people forever. He is also somewhat like Darkseid (in terms of personality), but without the code of honour or shades of deceny. Or godlike power, of course (usually).

      Frankly, this article tones down quite how evil he is. The reason he doesn't make more Super Soldier clones is that, firstly, apparently the serum can't be replicated in any way (other Marvel scientists have tried), but secondly because the Cosmic Cube is a much bigger prize and he usually tries to use that, or make or steal another one. It makes him a god, and one time he did in fact use it to take over the world- he brainwashed the heroes into being his slaves (ie. Thor is shining his shoes), he caused numerous global catsrophes like famines and floods for funzies, and he ate an apple in front of a starving baby (after teasing a hungry crowd with it, then telling them they can't have it).

      And thats not even getting into how he treats his own minions (regularly kills them in horrible ways, on whims), or his girlfriend Mother Night (basically the worst domestic abuse case in comic books ever- that was for fun too).

      He's not "dumbed down" for anyone- he has indeed taken over the world once or twice, but he has more going against him than Luthor does. His main "weakness" is that he is simply a flat-0ut crazy, evil monster whom absolutely everyone opposes, even other villains who normally team up with each other (Magneto, not surprisingly, once buried him alive). Basically, he just can't pass up a chance to really, really hurt someone, and that is what bites him- but its also what makes him so dangerous.

    • cperuzzi profile image
      Author

      Christopher Peruzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Actually the sleepers are pretty old. They go back to Jack Kirby in his regular comic producing days.

      The first sleeper was the walker with disintegration beams that shot from its hands. The second sleeper was a set of wings (that looked a lot like a stingray). And the third sleeper was a giant skull shaped head which doubled as a megaton bomb. When you put them all together, they were this giant walking automation that had a lot of potential to wipe out the planet. Cap actually thought that there was a possibility that the amalgamated sleeper unit could use it's disintegration beams to drill down to the earth's core and blow up the planet with the bomb part.

      That's why it had to be stopped.

      The concept of using whatever boogie man at the time is not a new strategy for Marvel. They actually still do it. I mentioned this briefly in the "Captain America: The Men Who Sling the Shield" article. If the Nazi's are the bad guy you'll see a lot of Nazi villains. That's The Red Skull, The Hate Monger, Baron Strucker, Baron Zemo (I & II), and Baron Blood I.

      When this country was going through its "red scare", Marvel brought Captain America back with a different Red Skull (henceforth known as "the communist Red Skull"). When McCarthyism was shown for what it really was, Captain America was shown to be an unstable pretender who's only real fault was getting a bad batch of the super soldier formula.

      I agree completely that the Red Skull does not equal DC's Ras Al Ghul. No, the Skull is just a nasty package where with Ras Al Ghul there is a possibility that you could see his point about saving the planet from human beings (relax, I'm not the first person to equate human beings with a virus - they did it in the first Matrix movie). The Skull does not go about to extend his life to be an immortal, he just manages to do it without any kind of intention because the writers really don't want to kill off someone that interesting.

      As far as my not illustrating how evil the skull is... well, my bad. I figured by saying he's just an evil threat that S.H.I.E.L.D. considers the worst threat to humanity might have said it all. I should have added "abusive prick" as well.

      Oh well.

    • Dominique L profile image

      Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

      Was the Communist Red Skull a different guy, or was it still Johann?

      I'm sorry, but I have to be leary of someone saying that one villain is "worse" than another in a story. It usually ends up being an ego trip for the writer; the character I'M writing is better (writers need that from time to time). Villains represent different things at different times in different ways. Comparing them is apples to oranges to bananas to mangos to an RV.

    • cperuzzi profile image
      Author

      Christopher Peruzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      The term "worse" is subjective.

      Both the Skull and Ras Al Ghul are terrible in the sense that if their plans really ever succeed, you'll be just as dead as you'd be from one or the other. Ras Al Ghul wants to push the reset button on the earth and the Skull wants to dominate it and have people live in misery.

      My opinion, I'd rather have Ras Al Ghul at the helm, because if I survived his initial onslaught for depopulating the earth, it wouldn't be a bad gig. The Skull on the other hand would torture people just because he was bored.

      The man who was the communist Red Skull was Albert Malik from Algeria. When the first Red Skull disappeared at the end of WWII, Malik decided to ride the old one's reputation for his own ends (despite the fact that Naziism and Communism are at opposite ends of the political spectrum).

      In any event, he fought Captain America IV in the 1950's. If you should happen to trip over any of these early silver age books, be warned - they are terrible. They are stories full of jingoism and anti-communist propaganda. Enough to make you puke.

      However, Malik heard that the real Skull had come back and immediately went into hiding. The one really evil deed that he is responsible for was - and you'll love this - the death of Peter Parker's real parents, Richard and Mary Parker (they were, after all, special forces agents recruited by Nick Fury). Malik had them killed in a plane crash.

      The real Red Skull eventually caught up with Malik and killed him.

    • profile image

      One Eyed Dragon 4 years ago

      Comic book villains are written by different writers over the course of, often, several decades. The Skull is worse not because some writer is having an ego trip, but because he is actually a much more horrible person who goes out of his way to treat everyone around him like crap and is absolutely without conscience, (while Ra's Al Ghul has loved ones and a sense of honour and fair play) and is never, ever written with sympathetic motives, while Ra's Al Ghul is.

      That is to say, it doesn't really matter whether either of these characters were designed by their creators to be worse than each other- which they weren't, as it happens; the Skull began as a ruthless assassin / saboteur while Ra's was intentionally written as somewhat tragic and delusion-; subsequent writers who have used them have come to stick to what each villain has developed into. The Red Skull is written as more horrible because thats what writers have inherented, that is what he has become, and that is how every other writer treats him. It would be out of character for the Skull to be a nicer man than Ra's Al Ghul, no matter how genocidal Ra's Al Ghul is.

    • Dominique L profile image

      Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

      Well, the "worst" comment I made above was actually in reference to the Joker/Red Skull team-up you mentioned.

      I only brought up Ra's as a comparison to get my head around Red Skull. Like I said, I have no interest in Captain America, never read the comics, and Red Skull is one of the few villains that never popped up in any of the Marvel titles I do read (which actually seems a little strange now I mention it, as Marvel has always been good about sharing villains), so I have absolutely no foundation with the guy.

      I also have read Ra's different than you guys did, but that's neither here nor there, as from what you said, Ra's would be a much kinder mistress than Red Skull. Give him the Darkhold and I'm in!

      Either way, I have learned much from this, and I sincerely hope that this Hub has a lot of hits and cperruzzi didn't just waste his time and write something for the two of us to argue over.

    • cperuzzi profile image
      Author

      Christopher Peruzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Okay, a few things:

      The Joker/Red Skull team up was a terrible John Byrne thing. The true question of that issue was "Who was more annoying? Bucky Barnes or a young silver-age Dick Grayson?" I picked Dick Grayson because you knew that Bucky would be dead soon. The immunity to the Joker toxin and "dust of death" was too much for me.

      But I digress.

      The Skull, for the most part, is usually "the man behind the curtain" until he's ready to jump out and let everyone know that he's the reason why everything is wonky (that's a technical term). There have been times that the Skull has faced other heroes: Spider-man and the aforementioned Acts of Vengeance (when everyone took a new enemy).

      However, very much like Ezekiel (Spider-man character) postulated like heroes face like villains. Ever notice that Captain America faces political threats? Spider-man faces animal enemies: Doctor Octopus, The Rhino, The Owl, The Jackal, The Grizzley, The Vulture, etc... The fictional reason is that Spider-man is very much like a mystical totem, he's the real deal and the imitators are subliminally attracted to challenge that totem.

      The writers would for the most part say that it's just fun to write about like versus like.

      This isn't a waste of time as it 1) shows people I'm insanely clever and 2) is a labor of fun.

    • Dominique L profile image

      Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

      Modest too, what a guy. ;)

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