Marvel’s five issue series about the meager beginnings of one of their most infamous villains is a great blend of fictional and non-fictional brutality. The mix of actual history is what gives Incarnate such a different and immensely appealing feel. The story follows young Johann Schmidt as he is in a home for wayward boys in 1923. Here we get our first glimpses into the pre-Hitler Germany and the life of Schmidt before he is hardened into the super villain, as we know him today.
When we first meet Schmidt he is a good friend with a boy named Dieter. Schmidt takes on the roll of a protector to his young friend, who is made out to be somewhat of a coward. As the protector Schmidt gets brutality levied against him early and often. There are so many moments were someone is punching or slapping an innocent just because. The times were violent and brutal, so the comic does a good job relaying that feeling throughout. The interaction of most of the main characters is through a series of violent acts. Violence is just as much of a character in the story as Schmidt himself.
Obviously the Nazis are a major part of the identity of the Red Skull and his entire upbringing is an exercise of which team to join up with. He is never so easily led to the Nazis, but rather struggles to figure out which way in life is right and wrong. Other characters are constantly pushing him to one moral decision after another. For example, he meets a man who shows him how to kill, and clearly Schmidt isn’t truly ready for the answers of his own request. Of course in perfect fashion for the times the man doesn’t hesitate and shows Schmidt how to kill an animal. The scene is immensely brutal and Schmidt’s reaction to the sight is troubling at best. There are vignettes that give you clear insight into Red Skull’s psyche this is one of them.
As we move on to Johann’s homelessness and street thug tactics he meets a Jewish family. The plight of this family in pre-Hitler controlled Germany feels very real from historical accounts of that time. Once again, the fact that history is intertwined with the comic book story works so well. Johann is made to be a sympathetic character that is just trying to make his way. He is a kid who is trying to survive. He has no ideology like the Nazi true believers. He lives by his own set of moral codes, which are explained throughout the series.
In some moments you almost feel like Schmidt is a good guy, almost. I think this is the mark of a good character, complexity. If he were portrayed as the ultimate barbarian it would be just a bloody mess for five comics. Not particularly interesting, just brutal. However, Schmidt is written as having a floating moral center and that connects well with most people, I would imagine. The backstory of Johann Schmidt is one that is very interesting and well written by Greg Pak and illustrated by Mirko Colak. The covers of each issue are perfectly drawn and look eerily similar to Nazi produced newspapers of the time. All in all, I would suggest picking this series up on Amazon or your local comic shop.