Nazis in Comic Books: A historical perspective

In the following blog Charlotte Mears, History PhD student at Kingston, points to some important questions arising out of her research.

Those Nazis seem to get everywhere, don’t they? It seems that every month a TV channel shows a new documentary on Hitler’s reign of terror or on a leading Nazi, while Hollywood remains fascinated by the topic of the Third Reich. While our continuing quest to learn from history and never repeat the mistakes of the past is a noble goal, has this fascination with the Nazis gone too far?

Rather than confining ‘the Nazis’ to the world of scholarship, the Nazi ‘baddie’ has now become the token villain in a series of popular comics and video games, as well as becoming a new staple in the ‘horror’ market, as I have discovered during my research into the visual representations of female concentration camp guards in wider culture. This raises a difficult question: has artistic licence allowed the crimes of the Nazis to become free reign for popular mass entertainment?

red-skull-1The world of comic books is a good case here. Comic books in general are a long-running media, popular with both children and adults. They go through some of the biggest peaks and troughs in terms of their cultural popularity, but the main superheroes and their foes are somewhat consistent. How many times, for example, has the villainous Nazi ‘Red Skull’ (see images) appeared to face his final defeat, yet somehow always returns from the dead for another evil scheme?

In fact, what does not change is the comic world’s fascination with the Nazis. Fascism has been a major story arc in both the Marvel and the DC world, as well as in numerous independent comics. This popularity is such that this fascination has also transferred into the Hollywood movie adaptations of superheroes as a popular plot device.

The most infamous Nazi villain in the comics must be ‘Red Skull’, mentioned earlier, who was the nemesis of Captain America. Red Skull (whose name was Johann Schmidt) first featured in the Marvel universe in Captain America #1 (March, 1941), during the War. Hitler declared he would make Schmidt into a ‘perfect Nazi’. The story evolved in multiple veins until, when fully developed, Red Skull had become an immortal monster, who was the righthand man of Hitler and was intent on destroying both Europe and the rest of the world in his fight for the dominance of the Aryan race.

This was not Marvel’s only foray in to the world of Nazism for its super-villains: indeed, there were several super-villain groups all operating according to fascist ideals. This began with the ‘Super Axis’ who were defeated by the heroic invaders, but appeared again later as part of ‘Axis Mundi’ (apparently a play on the description of Auschwitz as the ‘Anus Mundi’ – ‘Arsehole of the World’). Following the defeat of this particular group, the fascist survivors went on to found several neo-Nazi groups which are ultimately destroyed by the super-heroes.

red-skullMarvel was not the only major comic house to buy into the gold-mine of using ‘the Nazis’ as their super-villains. DC are well-known for this, too. ‘Wonder Woman’ first came onto the scene battling the Nazis, and this was then expanded into a whole comic book realm of Nazi super-villains in the ‘New World’ Universe. If Marvel have the ultimate Nazi in ‘Red Skull’, then DC can match it with ‘Captain Nazi’.

Both villains, in turn, seem to command multiple Nazi henchmen, all intent on promoting fascism but all – in the end – overthrown by good old America and its heroes. In fact, what you can be certain about in such comics is that the Stars and Stripes will always save the day (other Allied countries that fought in the War were often ignored in favour of the idea that it was only America that had the power to defeat those ‘pesky’ Nazis).

The phenomemon of Nazis as the ‘go to’ bad guys in comics is not just linked to the main comic-book houses, but can also be seen in numerous independent comic publications, such as (to name just a few) Iron Siege, Nazi Werewolves, and Fearless Dawn. It is very apparent to me that when a villain is needed it is far too easy for the comic-houses to turn towards the Nazis. But is that okay? Are we in danger of minimizing the Nazi crimes of the past by making them the fodder of the world of comic-book villains?

This is an ongoing part of my main research, where I have been exploring the backstories of the comic characters and their creators, especially those who have made regular use of ‘the Nazis’. If you are an avid comic-book fan, by any chance, or know these comic characters and want to share some of your thoughts and opinions, then this blog will be continuing at: www.charlotteschatter.wordpress.com

Or you can continue the conversation @Charlieemears

Images: WikiMedia Commons

 

 

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This entry was posted in American history, European History, Fascism, German History, Media history, Public History, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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