Caveat: This post delves into my nerdy side. I probably should have waited until I had more readers “hooked” before I went here, but I figure we might as well be upfront about this relationship. I’m new to the comics/graphic novel world, but I must say I kind of love it. I am not a major superhero geek, but this book was exceptional. That said if you are a major geek, please be kind; this is my first comic book review, and I’m not familiar with all the intricacies and parallel universes going on. That said kind tips and input are appreciated!
Originally published in 2003
Writer: Mark Millar
Pencillers: Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett
Inkers: Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
If you were outraged when Zach Snyder cast a Brit as Superman in his 2013 film rendition, Man of Steel, then Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son may not be for you. Your purist apple pie American view of Superman may not tolerate watching Superman rise to be the greatest Soviet leader since Joseph Stalin. You may not be able to handle Batmanikof soaring through the Moscow cityscape in a pointy-eared ushanka.
If that sounds like you, you should get over it because Superman: Red Son is a great book.
The premise is a straightforward what-if scenario. What if Superman’s ship landed in Ukraine and not Kansas? What if Truth, Justice and the American Way turned into Socialism, Surveillance and the Soviet Way?
Red Son highlights a truth that’s been implied since the beginning of the Superman legend. Nationality is an accident of birth. America’s greatest superhero is not “home grown”; he’s an immigrant, and an illegal one at that.
Watching the Olympics in Sochi the last few weeks, Jeff and I have wondered a little about what the Soviet alternatives to our cultural icons might look like. Do the Russians have their own version of James Bond, thwarting Western aggression and capitalist evil in the nick of time. I would love to see those movies. Are we always on the verge of starting nuclear war in their films?
I don’t know what particular idiosyncrasies the Russians poked fun at us for, but the reality made apparent by this graphic novel is that our foibles are another nation’s terror.
The comic pits capitalism and communism against each other, and both are found wanting. As Superman rises to power after the death of his mentor and benefactor Joseph Stalin, the soviet system offers him the opportunity to become the greatest benevolent dictator. He takes the big brother system of government to frightening and unimaginable levels. Dissidents and troublemakers stand no chance against his x-ray vision, his super hearing and his supersonic speed.
In exchange for all their free will and independent thought, Superman actually delivers what oligarchies only ever promise, peace and safety. The payoff is only possible when a veritable demi-god rules, but it works. Things are better in the USSR. A dissatisfied Russian Batman, attempts to bring down the new world order and a return to freedom and choice, but his efforts are ineffective and short lived.
Meanwhile in America…the place goes to pot. Anarchy, famine, economic collapse, the failure of capitalism lead to the eventual rise of Lex Luthor as savior of North America. Luthor’s rise and sweeping control of the country raises it to stability and prosperity. As Dictator–I mean President–of the United States, Luthor’s reign of prosperity serve as a means to take on Superman and his regime.
Soviet Superman is a cold, unemotional figure. He lacks the emotional awareness that our familiar American Superman had. There are no romantic interests for the Commie Supes. He takes his duty very seriously, but neglects the connection with humanity that characterizes our national hero. This characterization sets Red Son apart from the American tradition more than anything else.
Raised mostly away from his Russian surrogate parents and disconnected from his supporting cast of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, he doesn’t develop that sensitivity to human weakness and strength that the American version does.
Imagine your mentor is Joseph Stalin, not Pa Kent. That pretty much explains it all.
This failure to relate to humans keeps Superman from valuing our most vital and human quality–independence. Without freedom of thought (Superman’s mind-reading power lets him cut to the heart of dissension) his Soviet citizens are reduced to well-fed, comfortable robots. He drinks the kool aid of Soviet idealism and takes his mentor Stalin’s vision of control to new heights while also delivering on effectively executed communal equality of resources. His people are safe and well-fed, but not free.
The indictment of over-reaching political measures is clear. A subtler indictment of the willingness with which people allow themselves to be satisfied with security over liberty comes as Superman slowly realizes how lazy and careless his people have become knowing he can and will avert all danger and consequences.
Things come to a head between Superman and Luthor that cause Superman to realize that peace and safety are not worth the price of freedom that the world has had to pay. He realizes his miscalculation about the essential element of humanity and abandons his position as Soviet leader to rectify his mistake.
On first blush, the ending seems like a clever twist or an ironic commentary on the futility of starting over. On deeper contemplation time-travel confuses the crap out of me and creates narrative continuity problems. Epilogues exist to satisfy the reader’s desire for loose ends tied up. The end of Superman: Red Son ties up all the loose ends until they begin to unravel again. As I mentioned, I’m conflicted about the ending, and I cannot decide if I think it is brilliant or bloody.
The artwork of Superman: Red Son is perhaps my favorite of all the comics I’ve read. The images are unique and the layouts are eye catching. I like my comic book lines clean, so I appreciated the precise inking.
The battling scenes explode with color, and the narrative panels have been filled with details and subtlety that will keep you looking long after you’ve read the words. Tributes to the great propaganda poster art of the period abounds in the covers and backgrounds, which is a wonderful touch.
This book is truly a work of art. I recommend you pick it up if only for the visual treat.
What do you think? Have you read this book? Did you like the ending? Did I totally botch my interpretation? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you liked it share, follow, link, etc.!