Remebering World War II: Magneto: Testament and Red Skull: Incarnate

Just a year after remembering the outbreak of the First World War, the world now turns its attention to the 70th anniversary of the capitulation of the German Wehrmacht on 8 May 1945 and the end of the Second World War in Europe (VE Day). I’d like to mark the occasion by discussing a fairly recent but nonetheless worthy addition to the literature inspired by this dark period of human history: Greg Pak’s Magneto: Testament (2008) and Red Skull: Incarnate (2011) ‘duology’.

Recreating Two of Marvel’s Best Villains

Pak’s work is, admittedly, not the first time the stories of Magneto and the Red Skull have been explored through the lens of the Second World War. Magneto is established as a Jewish Holocaust survivor in Uncanny X-Men #150 (August 1981) and buries the Red Skull alive in Captain America #367 (February 1990) once he verifies his historical identity after meeting as uneasy allies in Acts of Vengeance. The Red Skull’s past and rise to power in the Nazi regime are expanded upon in Captain America #298 (October 1984), with certain aspects of his origin long entrenched in continuity, including his real name Johann Schmidt, his stint living with a Jewish shopkeeper and his daughter, and being recruited by Adolf Hitler himself while serving as a hotel bellhop. The rest of the story, however, remained murky at best until Testament and Incarnate, in which Pak finally explores the origins of both Magneto and the Red Skull in the historically accurate real-world setting of Germany (and Poland) preceding and during World War II.

Testament tells the story of nine-year-old Jewish boy Max Eisenhardt growing up in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. He is discriminated against and derided in school, only to be expelled after the Nuremberg Laws are passed. Despite his father being a German Jew war hero, Max’s family gains no favours and flees the escalating violence against the Jews to Poland on the eve of the Kristallnacht in 1939. The Nazi invasion of Poland soon follows their arrival, however, and they are rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto, where they survive until 1942. The Eisenhardt family attempt to escape, but are subsequently shot in front of Max’s eyes. Having somehow survived the execution, Max finds himself at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he meets his former teacher, Herr Kalb. Kalb helps Max survive and learn the ways of life as a prisoner in Auschwitz before eventually being executed himself. Max is subsequently put to work at the camp as a Sonderkommando, given the unenviable task of taking corpses from the gas chambers and burning them at the crematoriums.  He contemplates committing suicide until he sees the object of his school-year affections – the Gypsy girl Magda – at the camp. With a renewed sense of purpose he helps her survive life at Auschwitz until the 7th October, 1944, when they both escape during the Sonderkommando revolt.  Soon thereafter, the camp is dismantled and the remaining prisoners are freed by the Russian Red Army.

Max’s story is a heartbreaking and unflinchingly real tale of the Holocaust, as he struggles against increasing oppression and the passivity of the elders in the face of the tightening noose around them, only to lose everything he holds dear until he witnesses unseen depths of depravity in Auschwitz. Words are not minced as the experience takes its toll on our protagonist:

“My name is Max Eisenhardt.  I’ve been a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz for almost two years.  I watched thousands of men, women and children walk to their deaths.  I pulled their bodies from the gas chambers.  I dug out their teeth so the Germans could take their gold.  And I carried them to the ovens, where I learned how to combine a child’s body with an old man’s to make them burn better.  […] I have seen at least a quarter million dead human beings with my own eyes, and I couldn’t save a single one, any more than they could save me.”

Max can only survive the horrors of the camp in trying to save Magda, not only whom he has feeling for, but who, on a deeper level, represents that last of innocence of his life before everything went to hell.

Pak does a commendable job in connecting the true of horrors of humanity with the future of the protagonist as well. Despite still not aware of his being a mutant, the great trauma of events effectively shapes Max up to be the man who would become Magneto. At one point, Max echoes the sentiment of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous ‘First the came …’ statement, as he reminisces about when his family and friends held back for fear of reprisal or death, only to face death all the same. It’s an effective moment, as readers realise – with some foreknowledge – that his firsthand experience of the majority’s oppression of the minority will lead him to make sure it never happens again with the same brutality and lack of regard for the life of the ‘other’.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

On the other side of the fence is the origin of the boy who would become the Nazi icon Red Skull in Incarnate. The narrative begins in Munich in November, 1923, as a young Johann Schmidt is raised in an orphanage by an abusive director along with other boys including his friend Dieter. During one foray outside, Johann comes across the Nazi brownshirts (and the director supporting them) during the Beer Hall Putsch. As the police shoot upon the Nazis, Johann takes advantage of the situation to escape and is taken in by a dogcatcher. He eventually makes his way to the embrace of a kind Jewish shopkeeper and his daughter, but as the family is attacked by the Nazis in March 1927, he escapes with their money. By 1933 ends up employed by a local gangster, and encounters Deiter again, who by now is a Communist sympathiser. The gangster demands that Johann kill Dieter to keep him and his comrades from instigating the Nazis. Johann offers Dieter a chance to kill the gangster instead, but he is unable to do it as both witness the burning of the Reichstag. By September that year, Johann joins the brownshits, but seeks out Dieter again to hatch a scheme to assassinate Hitler. In June, 1934, they put the plan into action as Hitler is in a hotel south of Munich. Disguising himself as a bellhop, Johann follows the plan through until the last moment, saving Hitler’s life by killing Dieter, denouncing him as a traitor. For his bravery and service, Johann takes his place at Hitler’s right hand side as he makes their plans to further the goals of his new Reich.

While the subject matter makes Incarnate difficult – if not disturbing – reading at times, Pak manages to make Johann’s descent into darkness nonetheless compelling. The character himself may lose any initial sympathy – unlike his other Testament counterpart Max – but nonetheless comes off as human, a person deeply affected by his experiences in a darker time. Right from his start at the orphanage, Johann gains a number of temporary father figures, each one imparting a cruel truth to him – reflecting the brutal realities of life in Weimar Germany – and eroding his already suspect moral core, tempering him into something altogether more dangerous. As the Communists clash eventually with the Nazis on a daily basis and barbarism becomes the order of the day, Johann’s capacity for manipulation and violence likewise increases. He learns to believe only in himself, aligning himself only with those with power and protection to provide.  In comparing Nazis and gangsters running rampant in Germany, Johann sees hardly any difference, as both simply prey on the weak. Indeed, he has already killed a number of Nazis himself by the time he joins their ranks. Johann’s eventual meeting with Hitler itself is not by accident, but – in a clever twist on previously established continuity – it is through his own machinations, deceit and betrayal that he cements his place in the Third Reich while posing as a mere bellhop.

In lesser hands, he above could veer into cliche and the more Hollywood-inspired romantic depictions of Nazis as unflinchingly evil (which I still love in certain contexts), but Incarnate represents a thorough psychological portrait of its protagonist Johann. The character does evolve and the major turning points of his life are often delivered in unexpected ways. Dieter, who inspired Johann to commit his one major act of ‘kindness’ in the story, for instance, is used as a measuring stick to gauge Johann’s evolution since his time at the orphanage. Johann’s sacrifice of Deiter to gain Hitler’s favour, in turn, represents his shedding the last remaining vestiges of innocence and humanity, finally primed to change the world. No excuses are made for Johann and his decisions, and yet at the same time he is never made entirely unsympathetic – especially in those final moments as we see recollections of his journey – despite the foreknowledge of the character’s trajectory. Incarnate may indeed represent Pak’s most masterful work to date.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

Here I cannot but also applaud Pak for his creative choice of subtlety in both works. Max’s powers manifest in less overt ways than his later incarnation, as he wins a javelin competition at school, dodges his executioner’s bullets and has a knack for finding gold fillings as a Sonderkommando. He is never shown donning the cape and helmet and crushing Nazi tanks with his powers. Johann likewise never dons the red mask that would define his legacy and the wider Marvel universe for years to come, although it becomes increasingly clear to readers that, given more time, a more dangerous maniac will take Johann Schmidt’s place. By refusing to keep superheroics out of the stories, Pak keeps the reader’s sympathy for his protagonists and keeps them wholly human. This, in turn, keeps his protagonists as perfect foils for each other, their future incarnations born out of their divergent circumstances coming of age in the same significant and turbulent period.

Historical Accuracy

In fact, if it weren’t for the covers adorning the two books and the different issues, there would be almost nothing giving away that these are, technically, superhero comics. Both Testament and Incarnate are indeed ‘true’ tales of the Holocaust and the rise of extremism and Nazism in Germany, respectively. As listed in his own end-notes, Pak does his research, which really shines through in his attention to detail and how he manages to marry history with fiction with ease. Dates, chilling statistics and numbers and landmark historical events such as the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, the Kristallnacht, Hitler’s failed Putsch and the destruction of the Reichstag, are noted and re-produced with accuracy and used well in the personal stories Pak is tells. Notes and bibliographies added to the books point readers towards additional material on the subjects at hand.

More importantly, however, Pak manages to capture the emotional core of the period. In the afterward to the first issue of Testament, he writes: “In an age in which Holocaust deniers still spread their lies, we’ve done our best to ensure that the real-world history we explore in the series is entirely accurate and that we deal with this unfathomably harrowing material in a way that’s honest, unflinching, human and humane.” He is, indeed, successful in that regard, as Max’s experiences uncannily mirror many first-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors. Both the capability of man to inflict unspeakable horrors on his fellow man and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of such insurmountable odds are shown and examined to great effect.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

Much like Max could stand in for any member of the Jewish community under the Nazi regime, Johann represents a good part of the German population which was part of the regime. Pak clearly does not sympathise with them, with Incarnate ending with a reminder of the Germans who rose up against the Nazis and “paid with their lives”, while those who followed Hitler to the end “paid with their souls.” However, Johann’s story provides an intriguing opportunity to understand them and how they were seduced by evil. In his afterward to the first issue, Pak writes that he seeks to examine how a capital of European culture could descend to such barbarism, with the corruption of Johann Schmidt paralleling that of Weimar Germany. War reparations imposed on Germany through the Versailles Treaty and the eventual economic downturn left its people economically and spiritually devastated. Off-hand comments in Incarnate about the increasing decadence of the inter-war Weimar Republic and the increasing violence in Germany Johann experiences reflect the very real desperation of a society looking for order and retribution – if not justice – in the wake of its loss of one of the worst wars in history. It is in this context that the extremism of the Nazi party and its relatively easy and simplistic solutions – eliminating minorities and political opponents altogether – could flourish.

Both Testament and Incarnate represent great examples of historical fiction – in mainstream comics, no less – never shying away from horrifying truths and providing a more balanced view of the Holocaust and the circumstances that led to its conception when read together.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

Art

The quality of the Pak’s writing for two books is complimented by some excellent art. Carmine Di Giandomenico’s internal art for Testament is clean and clear and captures the tone of the darkening times depicted, often capturing the genuine emotion behind both horrors and the quietest of moments. His faces and figures are not photo-realistic – seeming, for lack of a better term, somewhat squashed – and can get some getting used to to at times,  but I feel it adds to the overall feeling that Pak wants to convey. Di Giandomenico’s people are fragile creatures – as well indeed all are – and as the story progresses they seem appropriately and increasingly downtrodden. One of the most notable features are the large eyes, which make characters such as Max and Magda even more sympathetic and expressive.

The colours employed by Matt Hollingsworth are used are rather somber, excellently setting the mood for the story. A key component in the use of colour is, in fact, its fading out once Max is placed in Auschwitz. Seemingly taking a cue from Schindler’s List, the remaining strong colours until the epilogue are the crimson of blood and the bright colours of the burning flames of the crematorium. It serves as a stark reminder of how life in the camp is reduced to these elements of persecution.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

Mirko Colak likewise proves himself to be a great fit for Incarnate. He has a great attention to detail and staging, being able to produce some excellent splash pages depicting iconic moments such as Nazi troops marching down the streets of Munich and the last page with Johann’s end point. His facial artwork is expressive and clear on all fronts, and Johann in particular is at times shown to be both clearly driven yet somehow inscrutable.

When it comes to colour, Colak and colourist Matthew Wilson’s overall approach is opposite that taken towards Testament, as the book retains a certain vibrancy throughout. The colour red, however, retains its importance in both works, as backgrounds are lost to a flash of the colour whenever Johann unleashes his wrath. It not only effectively invokes the rage of such moments, but also calls back to the persona his future self will take on. Indeed, one could be forgiven for concluding that the colour of the Nazi flags makes Johann’s gravitation towards the party they represent almost a foregone conclusion.

The covers for both series also deserve a mention. Marko Djurdjevic’s work on Testament is exceptional, with the crimson used against a grey and black backdrop resonating with the protagonist’s struggle in the midst of a bleak world and hinting at his future incarnation. David Aja’s Incarnate covers are just perfect. If you’re going to dedicate comic series to the ultimate Nazi icon, you can do no better than a series of striking propaganda posters in the style of real posters, newspapers and Nazi propaganda from that time.

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

(Copyright Marvel Comics)

Final Thoughts

Both Testament and Incarnate provide an unprecedented and precise look into two of Marvel’s strongest characters, adding such depth that I would call both the definitive origins of both Magneto and the Red Skull, respectively. There are, admittedly, more focussed and profound recollections of the Holocaust and the War available in graphic novel form, like Art Spiegelman’s classic Maus, but these two books essentially don’t need to be that. Indeed, Testament and Incarnate still represent the best use of real-life, if at times horrifying, history in a mainstream superhero comic I have read so far. Expertly written and balanced with excellent artwork, well researched and realistically touching and disturbing at times, they offer an great insight into the two sides of the Second World War and the Holocaust, both victim and aggressor. As we remember one of the bloodiest and most significant conflicts in history, I cannot recommend Testament and Incarnate enough.

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