In this issue, Baron Zemo takes over from Mother Superior in trying to break Captain America, as they and the Red Skull have been plotting since issue #290. As is suggested by the cover, he does this by forcing Cap to relive his greatest failure and loss at the hands of Baron Zemo the Elder back in 1945—but might Cap’s determination be able to change the past this time around?
We join our hero in the midst of confusion, alongside a familiar face.
As father and daughter Skull somehow look on, Cap accepts his new reality and what he must do, falling back on his natural sense of duty and responsibility.
Gradually, Cap starts to realize that he is not simply a passive observer in a dream—or nightmare—that he’s relived a thousand times, but an active participant…
…and so he begins to take control, hoping to change an outcome that he can’t seem to remember but fears nonetheless, especially when we reach that fateful scene.
At a crucial moment, Cap remembers what is about to happen, while he becomes aware of his recent aged appearance (as of the last issue), contributing to the perplexity of his current situation and also giving him hope that, this time, things may turn out differently.
And he succeeds!
This comes as a shock to Mother Superior, although perhaps not her father…
…but definitely to Baron Zemo, who just needed this one thing to work, gosh darn it.
Beat yourself up somewhere else, young Zemo… the Red Skull is taking over now, and he has a particular talent for turning defeat into success (especially the defeat is due to someone else).
Blah blah blah… the important point is that the Red Skull acknowledges Cap’s will, applauding his success at saving “Bucky” and actually congratulating him for it.
At the same time that he reaffirms his burning hatred for Cap—in very personal terms, without a hint of his usual political goal of destroying the living symbol of American democracy—the Red Skull admits the esteem in which he holds him, and proclaims that his success in Zemo’s dreamworld (or whatever it was) will only make killing him all the more satisfying.
Rarely have I seen the Skull portrayed with this sense of honor and respect, which I associate more with Doctor Doom in his better moments. While it does make him a more complex enemy for Cap on a personal level, I think it also compromises his representation as the “ultimate evil in man” in the Marvel Universe.
The last page sets the stage for the next two issues, in which Cap and the Red Skull face off for what may be the last time. (Ha, it’s not, but readers didn’t know that then!)
Captain America (vol. 1) #297, September 1984: J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Paul Neary (pencils), Roy Richardson (inks), Bob Sharen (colors), Diana Albers (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
Collected in: Captain America: Death of the Red Skull
PREVIOUS ISSUE: Captain America #296 (August 1984)
ALSO THIS MONTH: Secret Wars #5 (September 1984)
NEXT ISSUES: Captain America #298-299 (October-November 1984)
I never saw this issue as presenting the Red Skull as honorable. He’s totally driven by delusional self-interest. All the stuff the Skull rambles about here, and in the next couple of issues, feed into his Inferiority Superiority Complex. The Skull is trying to present himself as this horrifying force of nature, and his longtime struggle with Captain America as an epic conflict between two gods. Even if he is unable to admit it to himself, the Skull is just deceiving himself, denying that in reality he’s just a sad, petty, pathetic excuse for a human being.
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I can see that, good point — his praise of Captain America may have been meant more to reflect well on himself, given his belief that they’re “opposite equals.”
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