Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Superman: Red Son

Superman: Red Son - cover by Dave Johnson 2004 - available in soft cover

Written by Mark Millar. Pencils by Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett. Inks by Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong.
Colours: Paul Mounts. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Mike McAvennie, Tom Palmer, Jr.

Reprinting: the three issue, prestige format mini-series

166 pages

Additional notes: intro by Tom DeSanto; sketch gallery; covers

Published by DC Comics

Cover price: $17.95 USA

DC Comics Elseworlds line of alternate reality stories have seen both major and minor efforts presenting mini-series and one-shots re-interpreting their line of characters in different realities, postulating various divergences from established DCU history. But few seem to have engendered as much controversy as Superman: Red Son.

The premise has Superman coming of age in the 1950s -- having been raised, not in Kansas, USA, but in what was then the Soviet Union. And he's a good communist, to boot.

Those expecting a nitty-gritty examination of Superman raised in the paranoia drenched Soviet Union will be disappointed. This isn't the Superman story as imagined by, say, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Nor is it a serious dissertation on capitalism vs. communism. This is a fantasy, a bigger-than-life spectacle re-imagining the entire world re-shaped by the presence of super beings, with action and intrigue. At its heart, it is a character study. And a rumination on the nature of power.

You see, this Superman isn't much different from the one who appears in the monthly comics. He's still a good-hearted champion...except he's been raised in a state where the use, and abuse, of power is accepted as the norm. In a sense, it posits the question that if Superman is the same, but raised in a different environment, how then does that affect his out-look? This is still a Superman who believes he has an obligation to help people...the question is, how far will he go to provide that help?

It begins in the 1950s, at first focusing on the United States and the reaction as the world learns of this Soviet Super Man. Writer Mark Millar nicely captures some of the likely paranoia of the times as panic spreads and people report seeing flying men all over the place. Then the story shifts to Supes himself. Millar's Soviet Union is, perhaps, a bit too squeaky clean, with even Joseph Stalin seeming almost avuncular rather than a despotic tyrant (but them some have said Stalin could be personable as long as you weren't on his bad side). But, in a sense, that's the point. We are not seeing the Soviet Union from the point of view of the man in the street, but from Superman's more priviledged position as a favourite son of the revolution. In America Supes gains an arch nemesis in Lex Luthor, here a synergy of the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the character (a scientific genius and a big business man). Ed. note: The Crisis on Infinite Earths was a mid-1980s mini-series which, literally, re-invented DC Comics' "universe"

The saga spreads over the next few decades as we see a radical re-shaping of global politics. Under Superman's ostensibly benevolent guidance, the U.S.S.R. actually becomes a thriving enterprise, wooing more and more countries to its side, the United States increasingly an isolated, unstable third world nation. How a man with super powers can create a strong economy is never really addressed, which is why you can't take the story as a serious political thriller. The how isn't important, it's what happens from there that's important. Superman sees himself as a benevolent force, ruling through compassion and by heroic example...even as he authorizes behaviour modifying surgery on dissidents. While Lex Luthor is America's greatest hope...even as he is, well, Lex Luthor. At times, Millar can be nicely subtle, portraying a reality where we aren't always sure where right and wrong lie. At one point, a character observes that Luthor might be as much of a demagogue as Superman, to which another replies, "but at least he speaks English". A cutting comment on knee jerk nationalism. There's a particularly effective line when Superman remarks that his system must be working because no one complains...not even in private. It takes a moment or two for the chilling implications of that comment to take effect.

Throughout, the pacing is good, and the dialogue effective (witty at times, heart felt at others) and with Superman not a black hat bad guy, he can retain our sympathy. Albeit, Millar so focuses on the broad canvas ideas that the human drama can sometimes be sidelined, such as Lana Lang, here a Russian peasant, who crops up...but doesn't really affect the story much, or a Soviet security chief whose relationship with Supes never quite rises above being a plot device.

To be honest, it's not like much of this hasn't been tackled before, in other comic book mini-series and specials, most notably in Squadron Supreme. And conceptually (not so much socio-politically) there are echoes of JLA: Earth 2.

It's a testament to Millar and company that those comparisons, though noteworthy, don't really detract from Red Son. Because the work is quite strong in its own right, the presentation grandiose. It's a thoughtful examination of serious concepts, while also a fun, larger-than-life fantasy; the heart of the thing is character-based, even as there are plenty of action scenes. It's a strength (and a weakness) of the book that, despite the obvious high-minded intentions, it seems, first and foremost, entertainment.

That can be a mixed bag. Lex Luthor's super-genius borders on goofy which, I think, (I hope) is part of the point. Millar wants this to be a gee whiz super hero adventure, even as it surrounds a core of serious discourse. The "reality" of the story is more meant to be symbolic, to allow the themes to stand untainted by the demands of reality.

Some of the controversy the book has acquired is intentional, as is made clear in the introduction by filmmaker Tom DeSanto and by interviews Mark Millar has given. It's meant as a metaphor, with Superman's U.S.S.R. standing in for George W. Bush's U.S.A., asking: just because a nation has the power to re-shape the world, does it have the right? (Again, we're speaking in theoretical ideals -- the quagmire that is "post"-war Iraq seems to show that it ain't that easy, even for a superpower, to exert its will). Such politicizing may turn off some readers, but they can always pick up JLA: Liberty and Justice instead which seemed, at least metaphorically, as an endorsement of the war on Iraq.

Millar's story, though, encounters some unfortunate bumps. Millar suggests that Supes, being an alien, may be interfering in a world he has no right to be interfering with. Does that mean if Superman was an earthman, everything would be all right? And since Supes is, symbolically, an immigrant, when does he get to be treated as equal to everyone else? I don't think Millar intends his point to have a racist or anti-immigrant theme -- far from it. I think he's just imbibed one too many comics tackling similar themes using similar language. There are also moral qualms raised. If Superman is, essentially, a decent man who, nonetheless finds himself taking on the role of villain...does that mean Lex Luthor, who's actions are clearly villainous, is a hero? In fact, Luthor no more seems to represent democracy, nor the "average" man, than does Superman. The presentation of Luthor as this uber-genius led me to wonder if the twist ending would be that it was just a dream fantasy of Lex's (it isn't). But Millar seems to let the epilogue get away from him a bit, jettisoning his own themes to set up his (admittedly clever) final scene

The art is quite frankly, beautiful. I'd only seen Dave Johnson's art as a cover artist, where I wasn't always impressed with his craggy figures. But here, his work is very good -- dramatic, striking, and intimate when it needs to be. Even more surprising is that the art chores are assumed by another artist, Kilian Plunkett, part way through...and one can barely notice the change, the two styles are so similar and equally striking, with shades of Howard Chaykin, Michael Lark and Gil Kane at times. The colours by Paul Mounts are also most effective, capturing a brooding but vibrant look, without miring the thing in too dark shades that obscure the action. I don't mind admitting that the engrossing art goes a long way to helping gloss over any narrative pot holes.

Because this is an Elseworlds story, there are plenty of nodding references to established Superman mythos...and the DCU in general, with Wonder Woman, Batman, and even a certain green power ring playing a part in the story. That's fun for the regular fan reader, and can provide layers of resonance (like a certain poignancy to the Lois-Superman relationship...or rather, the lack of a Lois-Superman relationship). But it also means that Red Son isn't always going to be an easy fit for casual readers, an audience for which DC's marketers were presumably hoping.

Not quite as penetrating as I expected, nor fully exploiting its idea of Superman in the U.S.S.R., Red Son nonetheless emerges as an engrossing read that, despite covering familiar themes and ideas, might very well deserve taking its place among the better comic book epics of the last decade or so.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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