Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
Every culture has its icons. Characters or figures that are recognizable by anybody who lives there, figures that are almost impossible not to know. And America is very good at producing those icons and spreading them worldwide. I remember reading somewhere – I don’t remember where at the moment – that the United States’ chief export is dreams, and I think there’s definitely something to that.
Of all the dreams to emerge from the American subconscious over the last century, Superman is one of the most enduring. Show that “S” shield to almost anyone on the planet and they’ll probably know what it is. For most of his lifetime, he has stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way, with the third element to that tag line slowly vanishing as writers with a more global perspective take over the character.
Regardless of his jingoistic past, Superman still remains a popular American figure. He represents what we would like to be, as a country. Powerful and just, upright and honest, but at the same time kind and generous and, at heart, good. Superman has the power to control the world, but he doesn’t – he chooses not to – and we like to believe that it was his small-town, American upbringing that instilled such humility in him.
This book examines how things might have gone.
In the late ’80s, DC Comics introduced their “Elseworlds” imprint, with a pretty simple mandate: take canon DC characters and place them in new situations or environments. This way you could see how Batman might have turned out in an America that had never gained its independence, or what would have happened to the JLA without Superman, or if The Flash had taken the bullet meant for JFK. It opened creative doors, allowing writers to tell new stories about familiar characters without disrupting the regular continuity of the DC Comics line.
Of these, Superman: Red Son is one of the best. Mark Millar poses a simple question with a very complex answer: What if young Kal-L’s rocket had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas?
What emerges is a fascinating tale of a Superman brought up under Stalinist philosophy. Still the good man that we know him to be, Superman nonetheless chooses a very different means of interacting with the world. We see from the first few pages that the man cannot stand still – he is constantly in motion trying to save people, not just in the Soviet Union, but anywhere in the world. It is his responsibility, he believes, to keep people safe, much in the manner of Soviet philosophy where the government controls nearly every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
Taken in by Stalin, Superman eventually rises to lead the Soviet Union to nearly world-wide dominance. Under his rule there are no accidents, no wars and no conflicts. Crime is nearly non-existent, and those who do not mesh well in this well ordered world are mentally reprogrammed until they do. There are dissidents, of course, like the mysterious Batman, a singular force of chaos in Superman’s perfectly ordered world, but in the end, even he falls. The only true challenge to Superman’s worldwide reign is the brilliant American scientist Lex Luthor, who has devoted his life to freeing mankind from alien tyranny.
It’s a brilliant take on the myth, with a lot of very familiar characters worked in. The art is gorgeous, with a style and a color palette that evokes thoughts of Soviet-era propaganda posters, yet never fails to be dynamic and fascinating.
More important, however, is the message of the story. The idea that comics can have a message is something that a lot of people seem to ignore, fueling the idea that comics are just for kids. The message in Red Son is very important and very, very timely.
The story was published in 2003, a time when America was in great pain. We had been badly hurt and wanted to set things right. By doing so, however, we caused far more damage to the world than we had ourselves endured. By trying to fix other people’s problems, we created even more, and the harder we pushed, the more the world pushed back. And this was not a new trend – one of the negative labels often affixed to the United States is that of “world policeman.” We have a long, long habit of trying to help everyone, whether that is the right thing to do or not.
In that vein, the Superman of Red Son, despite being a Soviet, is a reflection of ourselves. He is a man of immense power, who decides to help everybody. His intentions are good, but good intentions are not always rewarded with good results. His world is orderly, yes – crime and violence are nearly unheard-of – but it comes at the price of individual freedom. People are no longer in control of their own destinies with Superman in charge, and while that may be a safe life, it is not one that I would like to live.
The political message of this book is subtle, but it’s there. More interestingly, it’s a message that can be enjoyed by a broad spectrum of political views. If you’re a liberal, then it’s taking a stance against imperialism, against the imposition of one country’s values and politics over others’, all in the name of making the world a better place. If you’re a conservative, it’s a call for individual liberty. A government that provides everything for its people is just another form of oppression – without the freedom to make their own choices, for good or for ill, people are not truly free.
In the end it’s a complex tale, with no real good guys and no real bad guys. Except for Brainiac, who will probably never be anything but a bad guy. It’s a story about the choices we make, both as citizens and as societies, and the understanding that we must have the freedom to make those choices. They may sometimes be the wrong ones, but making mistakes is part of the package. In the end, there can be no Superman to save us. We must save ourselves.
“I care about everybody.”
– Superman, Superman: Red Son