Art by David Aja
Born to a troubled and violent childhood in the interim between the two World Wars, Johann Schmidt’s life was changed when he met the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, himself. Hitler saw potential in the young man and took him into his tutelage. The Fuhrer gave Johann the mask that would become his trademark, and Johann Schmidt became the Red Skull!
In the beginning, the Red Skull was Hitler’s personal agent of fear, instilling terror wherever he was sent and leaving a massive body count. In one of such missions in the United States, the Red Skull first encountered Captain America, the man who would become his most loathed enemy.
Schmidt rose through the ranks of the Nazi regime quickly and became second only to the Fuhrer himself in Germany. Hitler began to fear Schmidt, and the Skull did indeed intend to overthrow the Chancellor one day. Soon after, the Red Skull co-founded his own organization with Baron Wolfgang von Strucker designed to subsume the Nazi Party. This organization was called Hydra.
Defeat of the Axis Powers seemed inevitable. The Skull was in a bunker in Berlin while the city was besieged by the Allies. A shell hit the bunker, and a chemical was released that put Johann Schmidt in suspended animation within the ruins.
The Red Skull was later revived by an organization known as THEM, the elite ruling caste of still-alive Hydra. The Skull believed that this new world was ripe for the conquering with Hitler gone. However, his nemesis Captain America had also been recently revived from a similar state of suspended animation.
The Red Skull used numerous methods to seize control of the world as well as destroy Steve Rogers’ homeland of the United States. He took control of Hydra once more, and he cooperated with the likes of Hate-Monger (an honest-to-God clone of Adolf Hitler, no lie), Crossbones, Baron Zemo, Baron Strucker, and others. He’s hired mercenaries such as the Serpent Society and Batroc the Leaper. He also parented a daughter through an unknown servant woman. That daughter was Sinthea Schmidt, a girl as vicious and hateful as her father.
He frequently pursued the all-powerful alien artifact called the Cosmic Cube. This item grants its holder near-omnipotence, and the Red Skull has come close to wielding many incarnations of the item.
He unintentionally created another enemy for himself through small-time criminal Sam Wilson. Wilson was in the Caribbean on a criminal assignment. Schmidt captured the young man, and gave him (perplexingly) the ability to communicate with birds and sent him after Steve Rogers, whom was on the same island in search of the Red Skull. Sam Wilson aided Captain America and helped him defeat Schmidt. Wilson would go onto become the Falcon, one of Captain America’s most trusted allies and valued friends.
When Steve Rogers briefly became the hero Nomad, a man named Roscoe Simmons replaced Captain America. Infuriated by having, as he perceived, an inferior foe, he brutally crucified and murdered Simmons as a message to Rogers to never allow another man to use the identity (a lesson that never really seemed to sink in).
When the chemicals that had preserved Schmidt all these years began to show horrific side effects, the Red Skull was reduced to an aged husk. He poisoned Steve Rogers with a similar agent, and the two old men battled it out yet again. The Skull was once again defeated, and he expired soon afterwards, leaving Rogers to be cured and restored to his peak state.
Arnim Zola, an android super-scientist colleague of Schmidt’s from World War Two, managed to preserve the mind of Schmidt, and he transferred it to a clone of Steve Rogers. The reborn Red Skull used his intellect to infiltrate and destroy America. He placed a mole on the U. S’s Commission on Superhuman Activities and used this organization to replace Steve Rogers as Captain America. The new Captain America was John Walker, who was ultraviolent, unstable, and near-fascist. Steve Rogers eventually defeated Walker and took back the shield.
Around this time, the Red Skull was dosed with a poison that mutilated his face, turning it into an actual red skull.
Schmidt managed to manufacture his own Cosmic Cube. This put him in the crosshairs of a former Soviet general named Alexander Lukin. Lukin used an assassin known as the Winter Soldier to kill the Red Skull. As he lay bleeding, Schmidt used the Cube in his possession to transfer his mind into Lukin’s body.
The two began a constant struggle over control of the body. In his moments of control, the Red Skull created a group of Master Men (the Master Man being a Nazi super soldier from World War Two days) from an angry group of British skinheads to terrorize London. He also awakened a Sleeper, a type of giant robot that he had created during the war, to attack the city as well.
At this point, the Red Skull began working constantly with Sin, Arnim Zola, Crossbones, and an evil psychologist named Doctor Faustus.
The Cosmic Cube over which Lukin and Schmidt had struggled was destroyed by the Winter Soldier after Steve Rogers restored his memories of being Bucky Barnes.
Schmidt managed to, at last, destroy his most hated enemy by having him assassinated after the conclusion of the Super Hero Civil War. Doctor Faustus had been brainwashing Captain America’s lover, Sharon Carter, for a time. In the chaos caused by Crossbones attempting an assassination on the super soldier, Carter was able to approach him and fired multiple rounds into his chest, killing Steve Rogers.
However, the role of Captain America was taken up by his loyal friend, Bucky Barnes, and he continued the fight against the Red Skull.
Schmidt then initiated a plan to have a politician named Gordon Wright come into power through a series of seemingly heroic deeds, such as breaking up a riot and surviving an attack by the Serpent Squad. This was sabotaged by his overzealous daughter, whom attempted to kill Wright.
After a botched attempt to transfer his mind into the body of the yet-to-be-born child of Sharon and Steve (that was also sabotaged by Sin, who caused an honest-to-God miscarriage by attacking Sharon), Sharon Carter killed Alexander Lukin. However, Arnim Zola was able to transfer the Skull’s mind into one of his spare mechanical bodies.
The Skull went underground for a time, but he resurfaced when he attempted to place his mind in another body. He had managed to preserve the body of Steve Rogers from an earlier point in the time stream. He placed his mind within this body while Steve’s mind lay dormant, reliving past events. Then the Skull, Sin, Crossbones, and an army of M.O.D.O.K drones attacked Capitol Hill.
This attack was met by Bucky Barnes, the Falcon, and Sharon Carter. During the battle, Steve became aware of what was happening around, and he and Schmidt entered an epic final battle within the landscape of their own minds. Steve Rogers won by literally strangling the Red Skull’s consciousness out of existence. From there, he took over his body once more.
While this was happening, a M.O.D.O.K drone crashed near Sin, burning her face until it resembled the visage of her father. For a time, she took up the legacy of the Red Skull.
However, a clone of the Red Skull created by Arnim Zola was later awakened. This incarnation of Schmidt has a particular distain for mutants. He exhumed the deceased body of Professor Charles Xavier and used the brain matter to give himself the telepathic abilities of the man. He founded a group of monsters called the S-Men (intending to mock Xavier’s X-Men) and began a crusade against mutantkind.
He lobotomized Avalanche, former member of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood, and had him attack New York to defame mutantkind. He used his newfound telepathy and caused a mass riot in the streets of the city. This garnered the attention of the newly founded Avengers Unity Division (the Uncanny Avengers, an alliance of mutants and Avengers), and they were able to stop this play by the Skull.
His next move took him to the ruins of the former mutant state of Genosha. Here, he began kidnapping and experimenting upon mutants and Inhumans. He was found by Magneto, whom slayed his S-Men and Schmidt himself. This allowed Schmidt’s mind to travel to the body of the Red Onslaught, a being of immense telepathic and physical power.
As the Red Onslaught, Schmidt began spreading his message of hate globally. The Avengers and the X-Men attempted to stop the Red Onslaught, but they were captured by Adamantium Sentinels created by Tony Stark. Magneto returned to the scene with a group of rogues that were able to liberate the heroes. Doctor Doom and Scarlet Witch cast a spell intended to bring Xavier’s mind back to control Schmidt. It worked and reverted Schmidt back to his human form, but it also swapped the moral identities of the heroes and villains present.
The Avengers took Schmidt with the intention of killing him, but Doom and the spirit of Daniel Drumm (dead brother of Brother Voodoo), who had possessed the body of Scarlet Witch, reinverted the heroes and villains back to their previous identities.
After the universal rebirth caused by the most recent Secret Wars, Schmidt had infiltrated the S.H.I.E.L.D prison known as Pleasant Hill and befriended the sentient Cosmic Cube known as Kobik. Through Kobik, he corrupted Steve Rogers, making him an Agent of Hydra. He also helped cause an uprising at Pleasant Hill and began antagonizing Baron Helmut Zemo.
He has been controlling Steve Rogers since then, and the full extent of Schmidt’s plans have yet to be revealed. He has created a new Hydra organization. This one has been formed from the homegrown hatred and intolerance that has sprouted up in the United States.
The Red Skull is not a complex villain. He doesn’t have anything resembling a moral compass or layers of identity. He is just a purely evil and ruthless monster, and I love everything about him. He is a vile and reprehensible piece of human scum, and he makes evil monologues that are to die for (and some do).
He is the archetype of evil in Marvel Comics, and he is the perfect opposite to the endlessly optimistic and altruistic Steve Rogers. He is a Nazi, a bigot, a genocidal maniac, and I love him for it. This is what places the Red Skull at Number 5 of my top ten favorite Marvel Villains of all time.