Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! Superman: Strange visitor from another world! Who can change the course of might rivers, bend steel in his bare hands and who, as the champion of the common worker, fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.
Let out enemies beware: the is only one super-power now.
– Russian propaganda broadcast
I’ve remarked before, and many others have remarked as well, that Superman is a very tough character to write for, particularly after seventy years of publication. This is a fact reflected by the difficulty even comic book aficionados have in picking the iconic Superman stories – the essential collections, as it were. Undoubtedly Alan Moore’s work on the character would be collected (handily in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?), as would Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. I’m fairly sure that this collection would also make the shortlist. As far as interesting and insightful takes on the character go, Mark Millar has what might be termed a “doozie” here: what if Superman had landed in Russia? What if instead of fighting for “truth, justice and the American Way”, he fought for Mother Russia? It’s certainly an intriguing idea, and Mark Millar’s execution is near-flawless as well.
The concept is straight-forward. Superman arrives on Earth twelve hours later than he did in regular continuity, so the Earth’s rotation lands him in a commune in the Ukraine rather than a farm in Kansas. Acknowledging the metaphysical flexiblityof the genre, Millar suggests that the entire DC Universe bends and distorts around this fact, perhaps paying homage to the fact that Superman the character shapes this universe in much the same way as his creation shaped the imagery. Happy-go-lucky reporter Jimmy Olsen becomes a CIA advisor, Pete Ross becomes Stalin’s illegitimate son Pytor Roslov, and so on. Even though there’s no reason for this beyond the laws of narrative, we’re comfortable with this.
Millar then takes the age-old dilemma concerning Superman and puts it to his audience: Superman possesses the power to physically make the world a better place – to stop wars and famines, to overthrow governments – so why does he settle for stopping runaway trains or meteors? I remarked in my review of Grant Morrison’s tenure on The Justice League that it’s a tough question that doesn’t needan answer. It’s like the reasoning for poor signal in horror films, or artificial gravity in science fiction – it’s a narrative convention that audiences are comfortable with. It’s awkward if addressed in an unsatisfactory manner, like drawing attention to the fact the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Morrison suggested that Superman was simply there to catch us if we fall, which doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t stop ethnic cleansing or any of the attempted genocides in recent memory. Millar succeeds in addressing the question because he demonstrates what it would actually be like to see Superman interfere – and it isn’t necessarily pretty.
Sometimes I wonder if Luthor and the Americans are right, Diana. Perhaps we do interfere with humanity too much. Nobody wears a seatbelt anymore. Ships have even stopped carrying lifejackets. I don’t like this unhealthy new way that people are behaving.
As the posterboy for Communism, Superman single-handedly swings the Cold War the other direction. The United States slips into anarchy, with Millar unable to resist the pun of having Georgia depart the Union (and alludes to a Civil War of 1986). On Superman’s sixty-fifth birthday, “the world now contained almost six billion communists”. It’s a world where “crime didn’t exist” and “accidents never happened”. In many ways, it represents a paradise on earth, but at what cost?
Millar suggests that Superman’s presence has stunted humanity. Nobody cares anymore. If anything happens, Superman will save them. They need never take an risks, nor make any sort of decision. After all, what is there to do in paradise? What more could be accomplished? Isn’t human endeavour pointless when an alien hand has already achieved beyond your wildest dreams?
The novel uses the none-too-subtle imagery of “Superman robots” (a shoutout to regular continuity), former dissidents and critics lobotomised by Superman’s heat vision and put back to work as the grindstone of the Soviet economy – all their individualism sapped away. A world where people are afraid to be caught “criticizing someone with super-hearing”. A world ticking along with “Swiss watch precision”.
It’s an effective way to explore the fundamental principles underpinning the character. As comics moved away from the innocence of the Golden and Silver Ages, a common criticism of Superman was that he never really used his gifts for anything beyond being a vigilante. It became frequent for parodies and homages to the character to be shown affecting “real change” – most notably with The Authority physically overthrowing the government of the United States to impose their own style of rule. Even Frank Miller reserved a bit of disdain for the character, painting Superman as a US government patsy in The Dark Knight Returns, arguably an inversion of his role here. Here, Mark Millar instead takes apart this criticism – offering pehaps a deconstruction of the deconstruction of Superman.
He paints a world upside-down and topsy-turvy. The iconography of Superman turned on its head to champion Russia to victory during the Cold War is mirrored throughout the piece. “That country has never been the same since Nixon was assassinated in nineteen sixty-three,” Diana remarks at one point, after chastising the still-living JFK for “those painted movie stars he seems to pursue with such vigor”. It’s strange how changes to a few simple events can distort our perception of people. Twelve hours is all it took for Superman to end up with close friends like supervillains Brainiac and Doctor Sivanna and to turn Batman from a crusader for justice into a crazed terrorist, with his “cave” littered with torn American flags and symbols of Americana instead of those trophies of adventures we are so familiar with. Something has gone very wrong here indeed.
Millar’s portrayal of Lex Luthor is interesting. He may over-egg the “level nine intelligence” bit just a little, with the reading of thirteen books before breakfast and so on, but the core of the character is perhaps the best incarnation of the character in some time. In moving Superman from hero to anti-hero, Millar has the freedom to move Luthor from villain to anti-villain. The reader is given an insight into his reasoning and logic. His hatred of Superman seems almost sane, given the world we are presented with. Millar also recognises the truly tragic qualities of Luthor, those which make him an iconic villain (and those which the big-screen adaptations of the character tend to omit): Superman at once drives him to excel at their petty battle of wits and to better and improve himself, but his vendetta against Superman also holds back his truly limitless potential. Lex can never really be his own man because of his rivalry. As Superman remarks of his rival becoming US President Alexander Luthor and single-handedly revitalising the United States, “like everything else in his miserable life, this was just the first stage in a master plan to finally eliminate me”.
The idea is ingenious, and the execution fantastic. There’s certainly a lot of food for thought here. Those factors alone would make the book worth picking up. Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of material here which pushes the collection past that threshold and into the realms of a classic. The first is the fact that Millar seems to hold a genuine affection for the character and his universe. He sweeps through timeline peppering it with little references which are almost too many to note – note the colour of Luthor’s hair (red, like in his original appearances) or the Luthor robots (green and purple, like his original battlesuit) or spot the classic Superman foes in the Superman museum. Hell, his “Winter Palace” is populated with trinkets that belong to Batman in regular continuity.
But above that level of geekery, Millar crafts a truly epic – and yet accessible – story that draws in all aspects of the DC Universe. Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern Corps, Brainiac and Batman all intercept the story at some point, but never in a manner that seems forced. I’m surprised at the almost unreserved warmth which Millar seems to possess for these characters, given the deconstructionist tendencies demonstrated in Ultimate X-Men or The Ultimates. There’s a lot of love here, and it’s hard to supress a smile while reading.
The artwork by Dave Johnson perfectly complements the story. It looks like a skewed Fleischer cartoon, a throwback to the old style of drawing. There’s no hint of excessive shading or photorealism here. Nearly every panel drips with love. The redesign of the Superman costume in particular deserves a mention, making the blue spandex more of a military uniform and replacing the “S” with a hammer and sickel.
There aren’t too many classic or essential Superman books out there, but Red Son is one of them. It’s an epic in the best sense of the word and a truly original look at the character. Which, given his age, is certainly something.
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