Greg Pak explored World War II, the Holocaust and the rise of the Third Reich in the 2008 comic Magneto: Testament, and he's returning to that same territory with the five-issue series Red Skull: Incarnate, announced during Marvel's Cup O' Joe panel Saturday afternoon at WonderCon in San Francisco.But while Magneto: Testament depicted a victim of Nazi aggression, Red Skull: Incarnate is the origin story of Captain America's greatest enemy, a Nazi himself. Which evokes all sorts of interesting questions — was the Red Skull always evil, or did circumstances make him that way? Answering that will be a big part of Red Skull: Incarnate, with interiors by Mirko Colak (Secret Warriors) and covers by David Aja (5 Ronin), and Newsarama talked with Pak about the series, the researched involved with fictionalizing real-life events, and delving into some truly dark material to tell the tale. Newsarama: Greg, Red Skull: Incarnate seems very much to be you revisiting the same type of territory — albeit in the opposite direction — as Magneto: Testament. Greg Pak: Yeah. When Tom Brevoort first contacted me about the bookRed Skull, one of the first things he said was that he thought this could be kind of a bookend to Magneto: Testament. It’s the other side; seeing a very young person, growing up during this time period, but having a different experience. It was very similar to me, hearing Hearing him talk about this was very similar to when I , that it was when I first heard editor Warren Simons tell me about what become Magneto: Testament. I knew within seconds that I was going to end up doing the book. I had that same kind of excitement, and frankly, fear.
Doing this kind of story in the context of superhero comics is crazy, but it’s also an insanely great opportunity. I never dreamed that when I first started working at Marvel that I’d have the chance to do these deeply felt, and deeply researched, World War II stories. It’s a tremendous opportunity forto me as just a writer, and a human being, to do these stories, and the fact that Marvel is behind them, and helping them get out in the world, I think is just amazing. I’m very, very happy to be working on this book.Nrama: World War II — and the Nazi regime specifically — obviously have a rich history in fiction.
Pak: In all the time I’ve been growing up, Nazis have been the perfect villains in fiction. Indiana Jones kills so many people, but they’re all Nazis — it’s like fighting aliens or robots.
Nrama: Totally unambiguous bad guys. Pak: Exactly. Because what the Nazis, and what the Nazi regime did, is inconceivably horrific and inhuman. But at the same time, it’s worth looking a little deeper, I think, at these people, and at these characters, like the Red Skull, because one of the really scary things is how they became who they became. I think, Pparticularly in a day and age like this, when genocide is still happening around the world, and atrocities still happen. We say “never again,” but it continues. This horror is an ongoing part of human history right now, and it is forever subject matter that we should take seriously, and try and learn about. So I just feel really lucky to be having a shot at this.
Nrama: This is the origin of the Red Skull, and he’s pretty young when this starts out, right?Pak: Yes. He starts out at as a boy. We start the story in 1920s in Munich, and there are some key events that happen in the rise of the Nazis that happen during that time period, and that’s the backdrop against which the story plays out. Our character is a boy. It’s very similar to the way Testament started out. We start out with a boy, who’ is just trying to make his way through the world, and then fairly quickly gets sucked into these much, much bigger historical events, and we begin to understand the context, and what’s happening to the world through the eyes of this kid. Two very different boys, but it seemed like the right way to enter this story.
Nrama: Since he is starting out as a child, is the idea that he wasn’t evil to begin with, and then the series will show the series of events that led him to become the Red Skull we all know? Pak: I won’t answer that here. I’m going to let folks read the book and see. There’s the classic “nature vs. nurture” debate. But I’ve been reading a lot the backgrounds of killers. How a person becomes a serial murderer. It’s incredibly disturbing material to read, but I’m trying to base this on real human experiences as much as possible, in order to try and present a compelling, and hopefully honest, stab at telling the story of a boy who becomes a monster.
Nrama: Red Skull’s origin — correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s material that we don’t know very much about at all, right? So you have a lot of latitude to tell the story since not much is set in stone already. Pak: Yeah. There are a few key Captain America issues where the Red Skull tells his origin story, basically. As with the Magneto material that I researched while writing Testament, it’s interesting because there’s certain elements that maybe don’t entirely make sense when you look at the actual historical timeline. We’re definitely making choices, and establishing his definitive backstory in a way that hasn’t been done before. So tThere’s definitely a huge amount of material in the bookhere that has not been donebeen revealed before. But tThe story that we’re telling is consistent with the spirit of what you’ve seen before, and the tale that’s been told before. Of course, the tale that’s been told before has always been told by the Red Skull himself, so it’s also open to questions. We might discover how reliable of a narrator he is. Rest assured, we are striving for consistency both with the real historical record, and with Marvel continuity, as much as possible, and certainly adhering to the spirit of the character.
Nrama: So can we expect the entirety of the series to take the character from a young boy, all the way up to becoming the familiar Red Skull from World War II? Pak: We’re going to follow him over a pretty decent chunk of his time. His coming of age, basically. There’s definitely a real beginning, middle and end to this story that will answer a lot of questions, and definitively establish his origin, as well as cover a critical period in German history. It’s interesting because we’re seeing one boy turn into who he turns into; we’re also seeing the nation transform. The story’s hopefully going to work on multiple levels in that kind of a way.
Nrama: So does incorporating the actual historical record equal a lot of research for you, or do you still have a lot of that knowledge kicking around as a result of the work you did on Magneto: Testament?Pak: I still have this bookshelf filled with material from Magneto: Testament, and I’ve augmented that with another four or fivethree or four feet of material for this book specifically. Definitely with Testament, I certainly got a pretty good grounding in the subject matter, but this particular story, the Red Skull story, the majority of it plays out kind of in the decademoment right before Testament begins. So in that way, this book has also been really attractive to me because the books will hopefully end up working very well together in that regard. It gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into those very early days of the Nazi party.
We start off in the Weimar Republic during those interwar periods between World War II and World War II, and in the middle of all of the economic crises and political turmoil that’s happening during that time is where our story starts, while Testament began after the Nazis had risen to power. It’s been a great opportunity to learn about that moment before, which, like I say, is just a really important kind of moment for us to struggle with.
Nrama: So it sounds like, much like with Magneto: Testament, this is going to be something very different than normal Marvel superhero fare — and maybe despite the fact that it stars a famous Marvel icon, a story that could appeal beyond the usual audience. Pak: It is a critical time period in Marvel history, and if you care about Captain America, if you care about the Red Skull, you definitely want to pick up this book. At the same time, hopefully it will be different from anything else on the shelf when it comes out. I think that’s one of the glories of working for Marvel — these opportunities come up to work on these characters and delve into all different kinds of genres and kinds of storytelling.
This isn’t a dry history lesson, so don’t be intimidated, and don’t let that throw you off. Also, it is a dark and disturbing thriller in a lot of ways. And as always, we’re striving to tell an emotionally compelling story. If you want to be moved, maybe in more ways than one, come on board.
Particularly because of the art — Mirko Colak is doing the interiors. He is just amazing. I’m just constantly being blown away by his stuff. He has this really great, clean line. It almost reminds me of Jeff Smith in a way. He’s almost like a more realistic Jeff Smith, with an amazing amount of atmosphere and grit to it. As soon as I started seeing these pages, I could not have been any happier. He’s also a demon for detail, he’s doing all the historical research necessary. And of course he’s really delving deep into these characters. Just the way he’s rendering these characters, and the way he’s following them through their different dramatic moments is just something really special. I think a lot of people are going to be pretty astounded by this art, it’s just amazing. The perfect match for the story.
And David Aja is doing these insane covers, which frankly killed shocked me when I first saw them. They’re frankly and honestly scary. At first, I was like, “maybe even too scary,” but then I realized that’s a good reaction to have. This book is a little dangerous, in a way I think the subject matter warrants. In a totally non-exploitative way, it’s dangerous and challenging material, that I think these covers are really helping convey. So I couldn’t be happier with this art team.
Nrama: It sounds like, because of the subject matter, something that could appeal to people who might not normally pick up a Marvel comic.Pak: That’s another attraction for these kinds of projects for me. I think there are huge numbers of people out there who would read comics if they knew that there was the material out there that is out there. There are comics of all kinds. Comics are not a genre, comics are a medium, and there are just many different kinds of stories that could appeal to so many different people. Being able to do a Marvel book that delves into this material in this kind of a way, and has the potential to draw in new readers, as well as really provide a satisfying story for established readers, is just a great opportunity. I jump on these kinds of opportunities.
I’ve been really moved by people’s response to Magneto: Testament. I’ve had multiple people come up and say that they are maybe the grandchildren of survivors, or victims of the Holocaust, and they’ve given the book to their parents. A guy at the last con I was at told me he gave Magneto: Testament to his father. His father had never read a comic book before, and was just really moved by it. Hearing those kinds of things makes working on these kinds of books so gratifying.
I keep coming back to this, but I do think this time period is just a really important time period for any citizen of the world to study. To know something about what happened during this time period, I think is valuable for all of us. That’s one of the reasons I jumped on these projects in the first place — I wanted to learn more. Now iIt’s not as if anybody is ever going to understand everything. There are unanswerable questions here. But even having a place where you could ask these unanswerable questions, I think is important for us as citizens and as human beings. I feel really grateful to have a chance to contribute to the work that’s out there dealing with this time period, and hopefully giving folks an opportunity to delve into this, that they might not have stumbled upon otherwise.
Nrama: It’s cliché to say, but it does seem weird that the events of World War II and the holocaust were just within 70 years ago.Pak: There’s a huge amount of good work that’s been done, and ongoing education about it, but I think these stories can always be told, and in different ways, in different media. I think this is a great medium to take a stab at this kind of story.