What if the spaceship that brought Superman to Earth as a baby had landed 12 hours later? Right in the heart of the Soviet Union? What if the Man of Steel had grown up on a collective farm in Ukraine and become the archetype of all Socialist virtues and values?
Welcome to Superman: Red Son! A revolutionary (pun intended) reimagining of one of graphic fictions most beloved and well known characters. See familiar faces in completely new roles… Lex Luthor, the All-American Patriot. Batman, the anti-Soviet insurgent. With special guests appearances by Stalin, Eisenhower and JFK! Enter a tale of wonder, excitement and International Socialism narrated by the Comrade of Steel himself.
So hold on to your party membership card Tovarish… this take on Superman will make you see Red. Da!!
Superman Gone Red
I’m not a fan of the continual rewriting of Superhero origins and backstories that has become a hallmark of the large American graphic fiction publishers (i.e. DC and Marvel). ‘Reboots’ of entire fiction universes seem to happen every leap year. There are so many alternative timelines and universes, it’s hard to keep up!
But every now and then you run into a piece of alternative reality fiction that blows you away! Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson is one of those graphic novels. Originally printed as a three part mini-series under DC’s Elseworlds imprint, Red Son takes a character as American as Appple Pie and the 4th of July and, bravely, turns him into… an ardent communist!
It’s the 1950s and the USA wakes up to the news that the Soviets have a new super weapon. God old Ike (President Eisenhower) tries to reassure the American people that all is not lost. Mass panic ensues.
The good folk of Smallville, Kansas rush to the Kent Hardware store to buy lead to line their houses. We can’t have a commie with x-ray vision spying on god-fearing Americans while they are on the toilet… No Sir!
Who can the US government turn to but Lex Luthor, the smartest man on Earth. While Stalin touts the superiority of the Soviet system and the Warsaw Pact keeps expanding, Lex becomes obsessed with ‘solving’ the Superman ‘problem’. Much to the dismay of his wife and Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane… I mean Luthor. Lois Luthor.
Oh boy… things are seriously wrong in Metropolis…
Lex’s obsession with beating Superman pushes him to try something truly insane and evil. Just like his megalomaniac counterpart in the original Superman timeline he is driven by his ego and monumental arrogance. When his inevitable defeat happens, it sparks of a life-long cold-war feud of epic proportions. Good times.
We witness how Josef Stalin takes a shine to our hero of the working masses and begins to groom him for greater things. We see the first meeting between Superman and Wonder Woman at a diplomatic ball. And we get to see what kind of man Superman is.
The Tale of an Unintentional Dictator
It is in this that Red Son really stands out to me. Superman, we are never told his real Ukrainian name, is a decent, kind and upstanding person who truly wants to help and protect other people. Be they Soviet or American. Communist or Capitalist. Superman doesn’t care. He wants to eliminate poverty, hunger and suffering from the world.
But it is here that the story pivots and takes us into unexpected territory. When Stalin dies, poisoned by his secret police chief, and the US starts war mongering –the people and rulers of the Soviet Union beg Superman to take power. And believing that he can rule fairly and improve people’s lives, he does.
It’s in this chapter of the story that we see a gradual shift from the idealistic champion of the proletariat to unintentional dictator. We also see that the human condition is one of never being satisfied.
Having virtually eradicated poverty, disease and ignorance –the Soviet Union rules over the globe. Disobedience to the party has also been eradicated. Almost.
From the mist of the past, a shadow rises to haunt and challenge Superman. The Batman strikes fear into the heart of the Soviet regime. Part myth, part political insurgent, part terrorist. Driven by nothing but a yearning for revenge.
We see Superman get frustrated with the people he has given so much to being disobedient and subversive because they languish for this strange concept called liberty. How far will the Man of Tomorrow go to ensure he stays in power? After years of being attached by one Lex Luthor created villain after another, is Superman’s patience running out.
The last act of the story takes us into the present, and the Cold War gets hot. What happens when old friends turn on each other? When a lifelong rivalry comes to a head? What will a good hearted man who only wanted to help humanity do in the face of all this?
The Art and Writing of Superman: Red Son
Superman Red Son isn’t just an entertaining retelling of the Superman mythos. It’s a scathing indictment on human nature. Mark Millar takes the paranoia of the Cold War and shows how both sides fed off each other’s fears. He shows us how a man of principal is slowly corrupted by power.
The absolute power to help people and make their lives better. How utopia comes at the cost of choice. And how choice, that is the perverse longing for the illusion of choice, destroyed paradise. Original sin. The Sickle and the Hammer. The Eagle and the Stars.
Millar has a wonderful grip on his characters and makes Red Son come to life with vibrant and strong tales from an alternate Cold War. He pays homage to Superman’s origins and everything that makes him one of the best loved fictional characters in the world. And then twists it into a tales of good intentions and the path to tyranny.
In some ways Millar’s writing is a little presumptuous. While he stretches himself further than many other authors could. He still assumes that the concept of freedom and liberty at all costs justifies all. The actual values of the society that Red Son deals with are only explored superficially. But hey… it’s all philosophical at the end of the day.
That said, Superman Red Son is a larger-than-life tale of hope, conflict and clashing visions for the future of humanity. The little twist at the very end… just when you think it’s all over is pure genius!
Dave Johnson’s art is a wonderful hybrid of the realistic and cartoonish. Sometimes he is minimalist, sometimes he gets detailed. But he is always balanced. He really spent time getting the period feel of the story right. From the backgrounds. To the clothing. To a Soviet Moscow inspired by the socialist Superman.
You feel the decades pass -visually. You see characters age. Only Superman is eternal. Johnsons’ action sequences are dynamic and remind you that you are reading graphic fiction from the superhero genre –which was really nice. All in all Red Son falls into the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ category of graphic fiction.
Even if you are not a fan of superhero fiction or unfamiliar with the characters, give Superman: Red Son a chance. It’s a fresh, and sometimes troubling, look at a character and world that are legendary in their continual appeal.
Hardcore Superman and DC fans will not be disappointed either.
Superman: Red Son respects its inspiration and summarizes over 50 years of stories and experiences into three entertaining chapters.
PS: If you like alternate-reality stories, Superman or enjoy a twist on the traditional hero genre read Superman: Red Son today.