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CSBG Archive

Silver Age September – The Original Origin of the Red Skull!

After a month of spotlighting the strange (if endearingly strange) history of comic books (and especially the Silver Age), I think it is worthwhile to show the comic books of the Silver Age that are simply great stories period. Here is an archive of all the Silver Age comics features so far!

Greg Pak has been writing a really impressive origin series for the Red Skull and it reminded me of the Skull’s impressive original origin from the pages of Tales of Suspense #66, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Chic Stone.


Roughly a year after Stan and Jack brought Captain America back to comics, they also decided to bring Captain America’s arch-nemesis, the Red Skull, also back. In 1965’s Tales of Suspense #65, they did a story set during World War II where they retconned some of the early Red Skull stories so that they made a bit more sense.

Then, in the following issue, #66, they gave us the awesome origin of the Red Skull…

Pretty cool stuff, right?

Eventually, the Skull continues his tale…

and on top of the impressive origin, we even have a cool cliffhanger!!!

A really well-told story by Lee, Kirby and Stone, especially in the limited pages they had available to them!


So Red Skull’s “skull face” is just a mask? The way most artists draw him, it certainly looks like it’s his real face.

I love Captain America’s “get over it” remarks on the first page, basically:

“Hey, Skull, you had a hard life, get in line buster! There was this little thing called the Depression not long ago, maybe you’ve heard of it? Whine to someone who cares!”


For me, the most striking thing about the Silver Age Skull’s backstory is how it tells, in muted form, a very Arendtian story of how the ordinary German could have become a follower of Hitler. In the Skull, we have a spectacular evil whose origin is really an outgrowth of the banality of evil; notice that Kirby never shows the Skull’s face, and Lee stresses his namelessness, as if *anyone* could have become this guy.

It’s also interesting to see the Skull internalize the logics of injustice. As a boy, he is too weak to stop others from abusing him; later, he’s jailed for vagrancy and for stealing to survive. To him, that is what power is: it’s being able to take the next guy’s meal, to dominate and destroy the weak. Having been powerless, on the receiving end, his only ambition is now to have absolute power and to dispense injustice, misery, and death. It’s one of Lee’s more finely detailed psychological portraits. What he never imagines is a better way or a better world, one where there’s more to life than just oppressors and victims, killers and corpses.

Again, the root of the Skull’s evil is, counterintuitively, his complacent acceptance that injustice is the basic, inalterable condition of the world. Confronted with the banality of evil, he decides on the essentiality of evil. From that small, but easy decision, he becomes truly monstrous, capable of genocide, torture, brainwashing, an a host of other crimes. Even loyalty ceases to have meaning in a world where power is a zero-sum game, acquired only by taking someone else’s power away. The faceless, nameless, orphan, with no ties to humanity and consequently no empathy, is revealed as the figure of the livid death’s-head, the face of Nazism.

Here’s something that would be good for an urban legend, although given the fact Kirby is dead and Stan Lee’s memory is renowned for being crappy, it’s an answer we’ll never know:

With the Marvel method, it was often the case the artist would create a scene with a specific intent, and because the writer had the “last word,” he was allowed to enter dialogue that could undo the artist’s original intent. Is that what happened with the panel of the Red Skull shooting at the Nazi? Seems quite obvious to me Kirby intended to have the Red Skull shoot the office. It seems to me that Lee, to avoid controversy, threw in some dialogue about shooting off the buttons but I feel the art clearly shows murder.

interesting story picked for always heard about the red skull being a bell boy that hitler decided to mold into the perfect solider. plus love cap telling the skull get over it. you had it hard so what.

Omar – Fantastic analysis. I was going to make a comment about how Red Skull’s origin is a brilliant subversion on the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” arc, but your take is far more intelligent and articulate than I can muster.

T. – That’s a really good theory, especially since Red Skull’s gun would have to be magic to shoot off the officer’s buttons without injuring or killing him. On the other hand, Hitler’s facial expression registers shock, and I can’t think why he would be surprised if Red Skull had simply followed his orders. Unless, of course, Kirby intended to imply that Red Skull shot the guy in the genitals, which would cement his status as evil incarnate.

T. — Mark Waid seems to agree with you; his original script for Captain America v.3 #14 makes much of the Skull killing the man, not just letting him live in terror. (I’m quite pleased to hear that Marvel will apparently be reprinting that story with the original script. Bob Harras had it bowdlerized for portraying a Nazi supervillain as –*gasp* — a psychopathic racist!)

Also, it’s odd that Lee would have made this alteration, since he and Kirby had the Skull mind-control a minion into committing suicide in a later story. At a guess, it was more fear of the Comics Code, which demanded that stories end with murderers punished; the Skull doesn’t get caught at the end of any of the wartime arcs, but he does seemingly die at the end of the Cosmic Cube story wherein he forces his underling Wolfgang to shoot himself in the head just off-panel. (This also makes the Skull the first Silver Age Marvel baddie to kill a henchman.)

What I remember about this particular Silver Age story are the voices.
I didn’t read the actual issue until the mid to late 1970’s but I saw that issue’s story in the early 1970’s when a local channel were running the old, “limited animated” Marvel Superheroes Cartoons.
You can say what you will about the animation. but IMO those cartoons were great because they adapted the original Kirby/Lee classic stories (like this one) and as a young viewer they really got me interested to seek out the actual comics.

I agree that Kirby intended Skull to shoot the guy. This happens a great deal in the Lee-Kirby issues of Sgt. Fury, where it’s clear form the artwork that Kirby is depicting the Howlers killing dudes and then Stan papers over everything with his dialogue. I don’t blame Stan at all for doing this — he obviously knew what he was doing in terms of appealing to the readers plus he had a firm grasp of what he could and could not show due to the code — but I would have loved to have seen these stories with writing to match Kirby’s art. It would just be interesting to see the comparison.

This was a great story, I’m glad they didn’t show the Skull’s face. Unfortunately they did show his face in Captain America 117, when the Skull uses the Cosmic Cube to switch bodies with Cap. Then Cap takes off the Skull mask and we see what the Red Skull really looks like.

I love how Hitler goes on and on about how evil he is. You know, like you do.

That’s a really good theory, especially since Red Skull’s gun would have to be magic to shoot off the officer’s buttons without injuring or killing him. On the other hand, Hitler’s facial expression registers shock, and I can’t think why he would be surprised if Red Skull had simply followed his orders.

Well, that’s assuming the copious dialogue in the preceding panel is what Kirby intended. It could have been:
“Now I’d like you to meet my right-hand man, General Schw…. Wait, what are you doing with that gun?”
“I’m your right-hand man now, mein fuhrer!”
“Damn, dude, you shot him! That’s cold as ice. You’re one bad mother…”
“Shut your mouth!”
“I’m just talking about the Red Skull!”
“And I can dig it.”

OK, maybe not that last part.

The other thing about Hitler’s face is that it could have been intended by Kirby to be sheer awe at the viciousness displayed by his own handiwork.

The Red Skull is so over-the-top evil as to border on ridiculous. But then, he’s a comic villain so that’s kinda necessary to make the hero look even cooler. Love this issue.

I read this like a month ago, and it was awesome. The whole issue was good too.

Is the Red Skull Mini-Me to Hitler’s Dr Evil?

@ sandwich eater – In Captain America 117, Steve molds clay around his face to disguise his features encase the Skull’s exiles may recognize him. He actually worries that he may be sculpting his new face in such a way as to resemble Steve Rogers. Stan could sure be corny!

@WackyWally- I thought we got to see his face before he put the clay on, but I just checked the issue and you’re right. His face is turned away from the panels as he puts on the clay. My faith is restored.

The “shooting the buttons” part seemed weird to me, too.

My alternative guess is that Hitler didn’t tell Red Skull to kill the instructor. Rather, Hitler was giving the instructor a dressing down and Red Skull took it upon himself to shoot the instructor. That would give a reason for Hitler to be surprised, and then Red Skull gives an explanation for why he shot the instructor.

But you could come up with all sorts of alternative takes. And “shooting the buttons” isn’t be outside of comic book logic, itself.

@Richard John Marcej —

Same here, except in my case it was that syndicated series’ original airing, back in ’66-’67. Other than the issue of Amazing Spider-Man #29 I was given about a year earlier right before I started first grade, those cartoons would’ve been my intro to the Marvel Universe. The Red Skull &, especially, the Sleepers episodes have resonated with me ever since.

Cap is saluting with the wrong arm on the last page. Was that a Comics Code thing, or a suggestion that the Red Skull’s mind-control was incomplete?

I read the first couple parts of the current Red Skull miniseries, which mirrors this tale — and I’ve never seen the original before. I thought the new mini was wholly original.

RE: Stan Lee re-interpreting the art via his scripting,

If memory serves, John Byrne has argued that Kirby’s original intent in page 5, panels six and seven was for the Gestapo guy to be interrupting Hitler’s training of the Skull, perhaps with word that he had again failed Hitler. Stan Lee, according to Byrne, had a better take on the scene, and used the dialogue to reverse the action, so that it is Hitler who is bursting in on the Gestapo guy as he is training the Skull.

An interesting controversy over the scripting vs. pictures thing. My first take on the “training interruption” panel was that Hitler was doing the training since he is in front of the soldier, but by the script it seems that Hitler is just a very fast walker.

In the shooting scene, I figure Stan scripted it that way to cut down on the brutality of the kill, though the strong image still implies plenty of violence, and the Skull’s spoken explanation about making another fearful slave just adds another layer of deviousness to his character. Kind of like under the old Hayes production code in Hollywood, it was found to be much more effective to just imply sex or violence rather than show it. Working within certain constraints forces the writers to be a bit more clever, at least in the best cases.

Also, I just gotta say how much I love the old-style fleshy face Kirby gave the Skull as opposed to later versions where he is more skull-like and has no lips. That way he just looks like a million other skull-faced villains, but the grotesque fleshy face is much more expressive of loathing, ugly bigotry and revenge, like the dear Red Skull we all know so well! Just look at that last panel, he looks like an ugly, wrongheaded old man whose opinions will never change, and who hasn’t known someone like that?

Props to Omar, that was a great summation of the Skull’s character. Well done, sir. Now explain Capt. Carrot.

“Also, I just gotta say how much I love the old-style fleshy face Kirby gave the Skull as opposed to later versions where he is more skull-like and has no lips.”
He started off lipless back in the 40s, though.

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