Millar, Mark; Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong (2004), Superman: Red Son, DC Comics
Mark Millar is one of the young stars of the graphic novel. He has revitalized a whole gang of Marvel Characters with The Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, he has written a couple of successful standalone works like Kick-Ass and Wanted. In all this, he has been supported by a slew of great artists, most significantly, perhaps, J.G. Jones, who did a breathtakingly great job on Wanted; but Brian Hitch’s work, for example on the tantalizingly complex Ultimates, is also astonishing. As any comics writer, Millar is dependent on his artists, and so far, he has been lucky. In Superman: Red Son, Millar’s lucky streak has continued: Dave Johnson, the artist who did the covers and created and pencilled most of the characters and a good part of the book (the rest was pencilled by Kilian Plunkett), did an outstanding job. The book is worth reading for the artwork alone. But make no mistake, the writing, too, is very good, as I’ve come to expect of Millar. Here he has created an Elseworlds title for the first time. Elseworlds is a series of DC graphic novels that imagine what would have happened to DC heroes under different circumstances, or as DC puts it, “in strange times and places”.
Millar’s conceit in Superman: Red Son is this: what would have happened had Superman landed a few hours later, and crashed not in Kansas but in Stalinist Russia? The Man of Steel meets the Man of Steel. Superman becomes not an icon of the United States but of Soviet Russia. Oh, the possibilities. This scenario is huge enough to explore in thousands of pages. Millar has 150 and he makes the best of his restrictions. Whereas many of the Elseworlds titles explore the what if…? question in DC Universe terms, Millar takes great liberties by changing the DCU to fit his ideas.
Why would Lois Lane marry Lex Luthor when Superman changed into the “Comrade of Steel”? Why does Batman appear as a Soviet character? These and many other questions cannot be answered by simple DC Universe logic. The logic of these changes is this book’s logic. Since I am a comic noob, Millar’s deviation from the DC canon did not bother me, but many readers did have trouble reading the book on its own terms; yet everyone I talked to about this book told me they changed their mind when they finished the book. Millar’s artistic vision is so commanding and Superman: Red Son is so well calibrated, so coherent, that these changes are convincing as necessities. The story needs them in order for the ideas and the thinking to work, and boy, does it work.
Superman is a child of the Great Depression, a hero dreamed up by two poor boys, Siegel and Shuster, a hero who fights for justice. He doesn’t just bring down evil men, he doesn’t just fight greedy aliens and save the world from annihilation time and again, no, he also supports the poor man on the street, he is a hero with a social conscience. This is what Millar seized on when he chronicled Superman’s fate in Soviet Russia. Superman immediately recognizes the liberating power of communism, he immediately understands what this means: to free humanity from slavery and oppression. Superman needs no convincing. Supporting Communist ideology comes natural to him.
At military marches, he stands next to Joe Stalin, the other Man of Steel, the hammer and sickle emblazoned upon Superman’s superhero suit. Now, you could make the point that the book makes light of Stalin, who was, after all, a mass murderer, but who is painted in a less dire light in the book. This is a problem, no doubt, but unlike movies that cozy up to some Nazis, like Valkyrie, Millar’s novel does not even pretend to be historically accurate. The book, it bears repeating, is an Elseworlds title, with dozens of Green Lanterns, aliens and other wondrous things appearing. Yes, its depiction of Stalin is extremely problematic but it stops there. Its focus is not on historical guilt, its on ahistorical ideas (yes, there is another problem attached to that and not a small one, but we’ll ignore it for now).
As the plots picks up steam, we watch as Superman, who becomes Stalin’s successor after the Georgian’s death, implements a flawless egalitarian society in Russia and then in the whole world. He prides himself upon doing it all without any violence. In Superman: Red Son, countries are joining communism because its successful, not because they are forced to join. In the end, only the United States remain, led by President Luthor, who has sent waves of attacks against Superman, among others a copy-Superman, an army of Green Lanterns and Wonder Woman. The USA are dirt poor, people starving in the streets, yet they hold on, refusing to be collectivized. If this sounds like a cheap Manichean opposition, you don’t know Millar, who’s always expertly subverting and undermining easy dichotomies.
It is true, that, initially, Millar seems to support the old, stupid chestnut that in order for communism to succeed, one would need to shut off the human element, since human beings don’t fit communist dogma (I won’t go into details of why that old argument is fallacious, it has been disproved decades ago). The fact that Millar’s Superman controls every aspect of his citizens’ life could attest to this, as the resistance rhetoric that Luthor constantly flings at Russia. At times, Millar appears to buy into common right wing anti-Socialist rhetoric. In fact, Millar does none of this sort. In the final pages of the novel, where we learn about “Luthorism”, we realize that Millar’s point is that what seems like communism is not communism, in fact, as long as there is still oppression, and well-meaning oppression is still oppression.
This review has gone on for too long, it’s also somewhat digressive. However, one thing remains to be mentioned. Superman: Red Son may not work within the constraints and rules of the DC Universe. That’s, however, because the book needs and exploits the advantage of the outside status this affords it. Millar’s novel is as much about our understanding of our culture, epitomized in an icon such as Superman, as it is about the DC Universe itself. This becomes most striking when we find out that Batman lives in Russia. As a child, he was traumatized by Stalinist goons who killed his parents and vows revenge. In the most adorable costume in the whole book, with the bat sign on a fur hat, he becomes the most dangerous enemy to the Soviet state. This is not the DC canon Batman. Without a doubt, in his creation of the character, Mark Millar had in mind Frank Miller’s Batman, who can be best described as a mountain of hate and muscle.
Miller’s Batman loves the existing order and maims and murders anyone who he sees as a hindrance to his reinstating it. Miller’s misanthropy drips from every gorgeously written page of The Dark Knight Returns, one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Batman doesn’t love people, he loves order, but not just any order (when I’ll review Hartnett’s novel Surrender, we’ll return to this). He is part of a rigorously hierarchic society, and his mindset, vaguely aristocratic, reflects this. He doesn’t really want justice, as an abstract term, in the way that Superman, champion of the poor and huddled masses, understands it. His idea of justice only refers to upholding the laws and meting out punishment against offenders. You’re either for or against him, and if you are against him, you have forfeited your life. It is not surprising that this character would find life under a peaceful, just, and harmonious society unbearable.
Batman is a fighter for what many right wing thinkers erroneously call liberty. In Frank Miller’s masterpiece, people are not free. They live in fear, fear of criminals and hoodlums and fear of, yes, Batman. This is akin to the ludicrous notion that capitalism equals freedom. People who are forced to work by the threat of starvation are not free. People who carry the yoke of racism, sexism etc. are not free. The list could go on for a while. Superman: Red Son shows up the Western dreams of so called liberty for what they are. The fact that his Superman feels right, that he feels like a logical development of the canonized Superman demonstrates the contradictory foundations of the moralizing Western argument for liberty and it’s glowing blue icon, the Man of Steel.
Mark Millar’s book is powerful, if flawed. It is, if nothing else, a potent exercise in thinking, that is largely dependent upon its artwork. Any lesser group of artists would have made Millar’s vision fall flat upon its face but the pencillers Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett and the inkers Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong have done a spectacular job. In order for this book to be convincing upon any level, it had to match the traditional iconography with new but recognizable imagery, in short: a new iconography. The art is both dynamic, exciting, suspenseful, as it is reduced, iconic, full of pathos. I don’t think Plunkett’s art quite matches Johnson’s, but these are minor quibbles. Superman: Red Son is an original, grand work of art.
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