By Joshua Williamson, Luca Pizzari, and Rainier Beredo
Tie-in and spin-off comics are usually the bane of an event comic, usually falling prey to inflated pacing and unoriginal storytelling that adds very little to the series they’re meant to complement. Red Skull so far seems to be walking the thin line of tie-in comic limbo in a precarious balancing act between focusing on its own, well-imagined, story and being subsumed by the broader Secret Wars saga it exists within. This has to do primarily with the competing interests of concept against plot.
The concept of Red Skull is actually fairly novel and original across the multitude of Secret Wars tie-in comics. Essentially the idea is that the Red Skull previously led a failed uprising against omnipotent Doom and has since become a rallying symbol for anarchic unrest within Battleworld. This goes a long way to set Red Skull apart from its contemporaries, as it’s one of the few Secret Wars comics that actually picks up the focus on political intrigue that punctuated the early issues of the series. Additionally it adds the very clever idea of pitting Doom’s will and forces against a more ethereal enemy than the various schemers angling for increased political power. Unlike Future Imperfect or Attilan Rising the Red Skull’s power resonates throughout Battleworld, but without requiring him to actively pursue such breadth. This all stems from the simple and ingenuous concept that the Red Skull threatens Doom more as an ideology than an individual.
This is the core concept that helps elevate Red Skull above its peers because it helps Battleworld seem more fleshed out and real. Despite how much was established in Secret Wars #2 we still know essentially very little about the universe of Battleworld and none of the tie-in comics have expanded that knowledge base till now. We’ve learned about the internal logic and concepts of Battleworld’s various provinces, but they all remain ultimately static leaving Battleworld as a whole much less than the sum of its parts. Stuff like the Red Skull’s political rallying cry of anarchy and violence spreading throughout the entire continent really makes things seem like a coherent universe instead of a bunch of unconnected parts. Where Red Skull #1 falls down is in what they do with this idea.
As the cover conveys masterfully well thanks to Riley Rossmo’s very dynamic and cinematic artwork, the central story of Red Skull is about a group of hunters heading off to find the Red Skull and make sure he’s dead as everyone assumes. What drags Red Skull #1 down is that this plot exists in a sort of storytelling limbo between the bigger plot of Secret Wars and what author Joshua Williamson has planned for future issues. This is the key problem with tie-in comics because we, the reader, are uncomfortably aware of the fact that they can’t actually impact the main event in a truly meaningful way. So, regardless of how invested we might be in the Red Skull’s schemes and plans we know they won’t amount to anything of genuine significance because he’s completely disconnected from the narrative of Secret Wars.
Generally a good tie-in comic can overcome this by keeping the focus on character to engross the reader rather than stakes and scope, but Red Skull falls down pretty hard in that category. Of the 7-man team going after the Red Skull, only Magneto and Winter Soldier have something akin to a personality and even then it’s pretty shallow stuff. There’s a sense at the end of the comic that this was intentional and all building towards a more focused story in issues to come, but that doesn’t make this first issue any more engaging. This leaves most of Red Skull curiously inert once the comic’s expository introduction is concluded.
The other big problem with Red Skull is the art and color work. The big problem is that characters lack a strong sense of definition, both in terms of line work and color balance. People are constantly blending into one another, a problem made all the worse by the incredibly busy backgrounds and foregrounds. The inking is so heavy and the colors so washed out that it can be difficult to tell where characters end and the backgrounds start. It’s a real shame because whenever there’s a backgroundless panel the character designs are actually pretty clever and unique, especially 1602 Lady Deathstrike.
The best word to describe Red Skull #1 is conflicting. There are the seeds of a great comic within it and you can begin to see them germinate near the issue’s conclusion, but it’s a lengthy process to arrive at that point. When you combine this with the jarring and unpleasant art the whole issue feels like more of a prolonged slog than a great first impression. Here’s hoping for better in issue 2.