Captain America’s long-standing German adversary. No, not the Red Skull- the other one. The one with the purple sock over his head. Usually wearing some sorta gold tiara/crown-type deal and some polka-dotted fur collar and/or shoulder-pad flairs? That guy. Same love of flashy pants and boots as the Skull, though, no doubt.
While the Red Skull is Captain America’s uncontested historical arch-nemesis, that doesn’t necessarily make the Zemos also-rans in their hate for the fighting man in the spangly costume. The Skull is ideologically opposed to the things Steve Rogers embodies and in that clear black and white dichotomy lies a billion broad-stroke stories depicting good versus evil.
The Zemos, however, are born of aristocracy and possess an innately misguided “old world” entitlement. It’s a bad base, sure, but it does make them inherently more “gray area” at times- kind of like how Doctor Doom will sometimes work with the Fantastic Four and everyone’s like: “See, now that wasn’t so hard was it, Victor??”. It can occasionally be like that with the younger Zemo as well. Once you work through the blind revenge, you can see his motivations lie more in being frustrated by how easily Rogers wields compassion- a quality he himself is unable to unlock. Truly a great character example of nature versus nurture…
The elder Zemo was a Nazi, though. So @#%& that guy. Straight up.
Related Reading Orders:
The Father, The Son and The Impostor: The 1960s and 70s
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revive Captain America in the early 60s, they famously devise a back-story of how Steve Rogers hasn’t aged since the end of World War II courtesy of cold Arctic waters and the super-soldier serum coursing through his veins. But what was Cap doing that lead to this fate? Something about a plane that explodes and Bucky- these are really the larger bullet points of the situation.
Ultimately, it is Baron Heinrich Zemo’s crazy Nazi scientist drone plane scheme that Cap and Bucky are attempting to kibosh. In this, the Baron is one of the earliest of Marvel’s now overflowing catalog of “retcon” characters- meaning he is retroactively placed into continuity.
So, naturally, once word gets out that Cap is back in the land of the living, old Heiny decides to renew his hatred. And, as Captain America now has a whole team by his side, the Baron builds his own squad: the Masters of Evil!
After taking it to the Avengers for most of their “Year One”, in a solo jungle showdown with Cap, Zemo buries himself in an avalanche of boulders courtesy of own misfiring ray gun. The end.
(Occasionally, Heinrich will return as a ghost or whatever when they do the whole undead super-villain Legion of the Unliving thing in Avengers but the character has never properly returned to continuity since 1965.)
However, his legacy lives on. A few years later, Stan and Jack team Cap up with the Black Panther in a three-part story against a guy using Zemo’s look and m.o. It’s revealed to actually be his old pilot, a man who will one day be identified as “Franz Gruber” (retcons can also be useful for making sly Die Hard homages)…
In 1973, Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella and Sal Buscema debut a new costumed baddy with a mysteriously deep-seated hatred for Cap. In the story “A Phoenix Shall Arise!”, Helmut debuts with villainous monologuing like he’d been doing it for years- a pure natural.
Although it does all seem pretty one-and-done when Helmut falls to his seeming demise into a boiling vat of his father’s own super-compound, Adhesive X. Ironic.
Interesting bit of trivia, the whole episode is also recounted in a dramatic 1970s proto-Audiobooks-type adaptation by Power Records. You can find it on YouTube here.
PS The Phoenix identity in this story has absolutely nothing to do with Jean Grey or anything associated with the mythos of the giant cosmic Shi’ar fiery bird of X-Men fame. It’s just a similar-name coincidence. That is all.
Collects: Avengers (1963) #1-10
Captain America’s World War II adversary you never heard of makes his debut in the Silver Age! Plus, Zemo’s gang of super-villains, The Masters of Evil!
Collects: Avengers (1963) #11-20
Featuring the thrilling (and deadly) conclusion of the original Zemo and the Masters of Evil story arc in mighty Lee/Kirby manner!
Collects: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2004) #1-8
21st Century re-telling of Avengers Year One by Joe Casey and Scott Kolins. Cap’s post-traumatic angst towards Zemo is really dialed up here!
Collects: Tales Of Suspense (1959) #82-99, Captain America (1968) #100
In the final story arc of this collection, Cap and the Black Panther team-up against the impossibly back-from-the-grave Zemo! But is it truly the Baron… or an impostor?!?
Collects: Avengers (1963) #51-58, Avengers Annual (1967) #2, X-Men (1963) #45
In Issue #56, the Avengers time-travel to WWII and witness Zemo’s infamously fiendish plot to strap Cap and Bucky to a rocket! Super-integral to the mythos of both Cap-sicle and the Winter Soldier.
Collects: Captain America (1968) #160-175
In Issue #168, Zemo’s son, Helmut, debuts as a one-off villain seeking revenge against Cap as… “The Phoenix”! (Wait, what?!)
Helmut Rising: Zemo in the 1980s through the mid-90s
In the early 1980s, Helmut returns to the pages of Captain America in a story arc by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck. It seems the falling into the boiling vat incident didn’t finish him off, it just left his face horribly and permanently scarred and disfigured. He also fully assumes his birthright title as Baron Zemo. As of this writing, these issues are uncollected but they are available through Marvel Unlimited (Captain America #275-278).
By far, though, his greatest achievement during this era is easily masterminding a 17-member incarnation of the Masters of Evil, systematically dividing the Avengers and laying siege to their mansion while their guard is down.
He ends up in a neck brace once the Avengers regain the upper hand and spends the next couple of years afterward trying to chase this level of success.
Collects: Captain America (1968) #290-301
Helmut’s first proper appearance as Baron Zemo is still currently uncollected but in his second story arc, he aligns with an aging Red Skull and his daughter against their mutual hated enemy: Captain America!
Collects: Avengers (1963) #270-277
Helmut’s revenge schemes almost come true by re-imagining his dad’s old gang as a double-digit army that lays waste to the Avengers! (It doesn’t last…)
Collects: Material from Captain America (1968) #357-364
Zemo and his recurring sidekick/lackey, The Fixer, embark on a globe-spanning quest against Cap for pieces of a supernatural gem!
Collects: Captain America (1968) #431-437
Zemo returns to once again plague Cap’s life in this mid-90s adventure alongside Superia… and his wife, Baroness Heike Zemo?!
Zemo and the Thunderbolts: Late-90s through the 2000s
When all the big name heroes of Manhattan are thought dead in 1996’s Onslaught event, there is obviously a severe vacuum for do-goodery. Who are the people of New York going to turn to when the next larger-than-life crisis hits? The X-Men? They caused Onslaught, didn’t they? Spider-Man? Not if J. Jonah Jameson is to be believed.
These sorts of concerns are all Zemo needs to hear as he launches his greatest scheme: disguising the Masters of Evil as a new team of heroes. While establishing the trust of the public and city officials, Zemo is also launching world domination plans. It almost all comes together except most of his team actually just wanted respect and just being heroes is pretty okay for that.
Oh yeah, then the Avengers and the Fantastic Four turn up not dead and the wheels really come off…
Helmut then spends the next decade in and out of the various incarnations of the Thunderbolts title. Sometimes he’s a scheming, villain adversary and other times he’s on a redemptive path- it all depends on which way the wind is blowing. Eventually, his Machiavellian “playing both sides” antics reach cosmic proportions and result in his removal from the title, and seemingly, reality.
Instead, he’s sent on a journey through his own family history. You’d think this would be the wake-up call to becoming a better person. Try the opposite effect!
Collects: Thunderbolts (1997) #1-5 & -1, Thunderbolts Annual #1 (1997), Incredible Hulk (1968) #449, Spider-Man Team-Up (1995) #7, Tales of the Marvel Universe (1997) #1
“Justice, like lightning” begins to strike here!
Collects: Thunderbolts (1997) #6-14, Heroes For Hire (1997) #7
The thrilling conclusion of T-Bolts Year One wherein the real heroes return and Zemo’s team is exposed!
Collects: Thunderbolts (1997) #15-22 & 0, Captain America & Citizen V Annual #1 (1998), Avengers (1998) #12
Zemo’s team may have swayed toward new leader Hawkeye but Helmut’s still scheming around the book. He’s even mixed up in an adventure between Cap and… Citizen V?!?
Collects: Thunderbolts (1997) #38-50, Avengers (1998) #31-34
In Issue #39, Helmut is seemingly killed by a mysterious all-new Scourge. But is this really the end of Herr Baron??
Collects: New Thunderbolts (2004) #13-18, Thunderbolts (2006) #100, Material from Tales of the Marvel Universe (1997) #1
The T-bolts may think they’re back under new management but it’s really Zemo pulling the strings all along!
Collects: Thunderbolts (2006) #101-105
Zemo uses the superhuman civil war as an opportunity to build a Thunderbolts Army- but it’s really just to service his own cosmic side-scheme against the Grandmaster!
Collects: Thunderbolts Presents: Zemo – Born Better (2007) #1-4
Helmut has a time-travel adventure taking him through the entire Zemo family tree!
Return to Villainy: Zemo in the 2010s
Zemo re-establishes himself as a bad guy by renewing beefs with Bucky Barnes, Hawkeye and his old team, the Thunderbolts. But nothing really sells the giant light-up arrow that blinks “Villain: Right Here!” quite like hooking up with Hydra. And that’s exactly what Helmut does.
He is also installed as the ruler of the nation state of Bagalia- an island populated entirely by super-villains. By the end of this current decade, he’s even managed to regain control of the Thunderbolts brand.
Yep. It all seems to all finally be coming up Helmut. Except his machinations have managed to put him pretty high on the Punisher’s personal hit list. So, you know, except for that one little thing. No big… (*resumes mentally twirling in a mountaintop field Sound of Music-style*)
Collects: Captain America (2004) #606-610
Writer Ed Brubaker takes Zemo back to his villainous roots by outing new Captain America, Bucky Barnes, for all the Cold War brainwash assassinations as the Winter Soldier!
Collects: Hawkeye: Blind Spot (2011) #1-4
The Baron next turns his revenge schemes towards Clint Barton!
Collects: Thunderbolts (2006) #158-162
Despite having a parting of ways with the Red Skull’s daughter in the prologue chapter, Zemo still finds his way to side-arch his old team in this 2011 event!
Collects: Thunderbolts (2006) #169-174
The time-lost T-bolts of the 2010’s encounter Zemo as Citizen V and the whole circa-late 90s original team! What could go wrong?!?
Collects: Captain America (2011) #1-5
In this Ed Brubaker relaunch, Steve Rogers retakes the role and faces the combined forces of Zemo and Hydra!
Collects: Captain America (2011) #6-10
More Zemo/Hydra co-plotting! Featuring Alan Davis on art! Plus, the Serpent Squad!
Collects: Captain America (2011) #15-19
Ed Brubaker’s time on Cap concludes featuring Zemo, the Hyrda Queen and Madbombs!
Collects: Avengers Undercover (2014) #1-10
Traumatized teen heroes attempt to infiltrate Zemo’ s Masters of Evil- it doesn’t go as planned…
Collects: All-New Captain America (2014) #1-6
When Sam Wilson steps in as Cap, Zemo does not miss a step in his arching!
Zemo’s Secret Empire
Collects: Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill (2016) #1, Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Alpha (2016) #1, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2016) #3-4, Uncanny Avengers (2015B) #7-8, All-New, All-Different Avengers (2015) #7-8, New Avengers (2015) #8-10, Captain America: Sam Wilson (2015) #7-8, Illuminati (2015) #6, Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2015) #6, Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Omega (2016) #1
Zemo is lead among a town of villains being reshaped by a Cosmic Cube under S.H.I.El.L.D. supervision- until the Avengers shut it down!
Collects: Captain America: Steve Rogers (2016) #1-6, Free Comic Book Day 2016 (Captain America) #1
A once-again youthful Steve Rogers finally catches up with Zemo after Pleasant Hill- just in time for the big reveal!
This story arc kicks off the road to Secret Empire. You can find the full guide on Comic Book Herald with the Secret Empire reading order!
Collects: Captain America: Steve Rogers (2016) #7-11
Zemo plays into making HydraCap’s Cosmic Cube-inflected backstory actual reality!
Collects: Captain America: Steve Rogers (2016) #12-16, Civil War II: The Oath (2017) #1
Zemo joins HydraCap’s High Council!
Collects: Thunderbolts (2016) #7-12
Zemo is out to retake his old gang from Bucky Barnes!
Collects: Secret Empire (2017) #0-10, Secret Empire Omega (2017) #1, Captain America (2017) #25, Material from Free Comic Book Day 2017 (Secret Empire)
Zemo is front and center for HydraCap’s take-over!
Collects: Punisher (2016) #224-228
During Secret Empire, Hydra manipulated Frank Castle into working for them. Now in possession of the War Machine armor, Frank’s looking for some revenge against Zemo!
Collects: Punisher (2018) #1-5
Frank may no longer have the War Machine armor but his war with Zemo is just heating up!
Collects: Punisher (2018) #6-11
Frank’s sent to prison on Zemo’s island of criminals!
Collects: Punisher (2018) #12-15
The thrilling conclusion of Frank versus Zemo featuring an all-new Thunderbolts!