Written by: Mark Millar.
Penciled by: Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett.
Inked by: Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong.
We all know the basic origins of Superman–in the dying moments of a distant world, a lone space craft carrying a baby is sent off into the void. This ship ends up crashing on Earth, where the boy, re-named Clark by his adopted parents, slowly discovers that he has extraordinary powers, including flight, super strength, near invulnerability, and heat vision. Deciding he is morally obligated to use his powers for good, Clark embarks on a life of crime fighting, and adopts the alter-ego of Superman. All this is more or less common knowledge to most people. But what if, instead of crashing in Kansas and being raised on Mid-Western values, Superman landed in the Soviet Union, and was raised to be a champion of Communism? This is the question that Mark Millar seeks to answer in Superman: Red Son.
Set at the height of the Cold War, the graphic novel begins with Stalin unveiling a new weapon to the World; Superman, a being with near god-like powers. Realizing that nuclear weapons are more or less obsolete when compared to a guy who can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and pick up buildings, the US government asks Doctor Lex Luther, a scientist of impossible brilliance, to develop a means of combating Superman. Over the next several years, the two engage in various battles, with Lex eventually becoming President of the United States, and Superman becoming supreme dictator of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. Luther devises several strategies for defeating the latter, including making a deformed clone of Superman, and using a Green Lantern ring recovered from a crashed alien space craft, but all to no avail. Superman, for his part, uses his powers to bring the rest of the world under Communist control, and, with the help of the alien robot Brainiac, ensures equality and good living for everyone.
Eventually deciding that America, too, must be perfected, Superman launches a full-scale invasion of the continental United States, only to be stopped by a simple piece of paper that Luther’s wife, Lois Lane, holds out to him. On it is written the simple question, “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?” This query destroys him, as he now sees that he is no different from Brainiac. Both of them are just aliens bullying less-developed species. Neither one was born on Earth, and neither one has the right to interfere with the affairs of creatures they don’t know or understand. Realizing that he must leave for good, Superman destroys Brainiac and vanishes. Many centuries pass, and Luther’s descendent, Jor-El, discovering that the sun is about to explode, sends his son, Kal-El, back in time, where his pod crash-lands in Kansas, starting the whole saga anew.
There’s a lot to admire with this comic. The story is compelling, the artwork is, for the most part, brilliant, and I personally love it when writers are able to re-imagine classic characters in new settings. Something that this book does very well–and that a LOT of other re-imaginings don’t seem to understand–is the fact that, even though the characters are occupying different positions than the ones they have in ordinary continuity, they are still very much the same people. They have the same personalities, the same interests, and the same goals. Superman in this book is still an overgrown boy scout who wants nothing more than to do the right thing. This universe’s Luther is still a narcissistic asshole with nothing more on his mind than destroying the man of steel. By keeping the characters and their choices consistent, Millar is able to make the story, as a whole, more believable, and the re-interpretation of the material more acceptable to die-hard readers, like myself. There’s never a point in it where I put the comic down and say, “Oh, bullshit! Superman would never do that!” Which is always a good sign. I also like the fact that you get to see the fictional characters interacting with real historical figures, like JFK and Stalin. I don’t know why, but whenever I see real people walking around in a work of fiction, I feel happy. I guess it’s because it gives a whole new level of depth and texture to the narrative. But perhaps the greatest strength of this work is its setting, the Cold War. I thought it was absolutely brilliant of Millar to have the conflict between Luther and Superman be emblematic of the real-life conflict between the United States and Soviet Union. It’s impossible for most people to understand the complex social, historical and economic factors that drive countries to fight one another, but we can understand fights between individuals. And in the case of Luther and Superman, that conflict does mirror the one that actually took place. Luther in the book, like the United States following World War 2, wants to show off his intelligence and strength, and eliminate anyone whom he views as a threat to maintaining authority. Similarly, Superman’s naive desire to foist prosperity and equality on everyone without their consent mirrors the doctrine of Global revolution practiced by the USSR and other Communist states. I thought it was a clever metaphor, and an effective means of educating the readers about how, very often, it is people wanting to do the same thing, just in different ways, that causes conflict. Wonderful stuff! Wonderful stuff!
Now, with all that said, the graphic novel does still have problems. First of all, as much as I praised the artwork earlier, there are certain places where I don’t think it looks all that good. The design for Batman, for instance–yes, Batman is also in this story–is kind of odd-looking. He has this weird little Ushanka–that’s the flappy, fur-lined hat you see Soviet officers wearing in old photographs–on at all times that looks a little silly. I mean, he’s supposed to be dark and menacing. He’s supposed to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies. Having him wear big wooly hat just makes him look cold, and I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot less scared when I see my assailant shivering in the breeze. The second major problem with the graphic novel is the inclusion of other superheroes, like Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Each of them is only featured for a brief amount of time, and none of them really has any bearing on the plot, so I don’t think their appearances were necessary. Not only this, but if the whole idea here is that Superman’s existence is enough to change the course of the Cold War, doesn’t the presence of other super-powered people lower the stakes? I mean, if America has access to individuals with the same level strength and speed as Superman, why get scared? Why talk to Lex Luther? The theory of mutually assured destruction still stands. In my humble opinion, the story would have been stronger if it had just included characters from Superman’s mythology, like Luther, Lois, Brainiac and Jimmy Olson, and nothing else. But, for me, the absolute biggest problem with the book is the ending. I mean…really? If you’re going to go through all the trouble of writing a story that re-imagines the Superman mythos and creates new rules, why throw it all away at the end just to give the readers stuff that they already know? Doesn’t that make everything you just did pointless? I don’t know. For me, the ending just felt tacked on. It felt like Mark Millar was trying to be clever. The book would have been perfect if it just ended with Superman leaving Earth for good after realizing how horrible he had become.
But, all these flaws aside, I do still think the book is a strong piece of work, and would highly recommend it to you comic readers out there. It’s smart. It’s well-written. It’s a re-imagining that truly understands the mythology that it’s adapting. It’s an 8 out of 10. If you love the man of steel, or re-imaginings of classic stories, give this comic a look.