Mark Millar: Superman: Red Son

Millar, Mark; Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong (2004), Superman: Red Son, DC Comics
ISBN 1-84023-801-3

supermanMark 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 2Superman 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.

supoerman 3This 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.

superman 2 (2)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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16 thoughts on “Mark Millar: Superman: Red Son

  1. Pingback: Graphic Novels - Page 3 - World Literature Forum

  2. Thanks. Changed. As I said, I am very new to this, and I probably missed much of the significant subtext plus I talked lots of tosh. Thanks for helping me out.

  3. You’ve totally missed the point of the Batman vs. Superman dichotomy in DKR, though. Miller sees Superman as the right-wing character who has been reduced to doing the bidding of Ronald Reagan in exchange for heroes being able to survive. He’s a capitulator, I suppose, but at the same time a genuine apologist for his evil government/corporate masters. He sees the existence of greed and the imbalance of power between the rich and poor as a necessary evil. But Miller’s Batman is the champion of the people, not a liberal in today’s political sense per se (vigilantism doesn’t exactly lend itself to that ideology), but someone who stands up for what is right with no regard for compromises or consequences. He’s the progressive, revolutionary figure in Miller’s world; Superman is the conservative, preserver of the status quo. Perhaps you’d argue that Batman is making a stand for an overly black-and-white, absolute system of morality, but at least he’s drawing some line in the sand. Miller’s masterpiece lampoons the left and the right in the media and in the heroes that represent the two political poles, but I have to say that Superman is not the progressive in DKR. I agree that a society of peace is one in which Batman cannot exist, but I also think Batman is determined to exterminate criminals who threaten people’s freedom — the only people he’s trying to control are those who would control others through violence. Batman’s methods are uncompromising and he administers justice as defined by the law, but he at least affects positive change in Gotham City, which is more than you can say for Superman, the tool of the right-wing establishment.

  4. HOnest, eh? Thank you for your comments. I may have misrepresented the dichotomy, you may be right about that. You are wrong about Batman though. You work too much from Miller’s intentions here, but that doesn’t work for DKR, really, because it’s exactly Miller’s own prejudice that makes his portrayal of Batman so great. Batman is NOT the champion of the people. There’s no way to make that stick. There’s so much derision for people, so much misanthropy in what Batman does and how he does it that caling him a champion of the people in earnest is deceiving. As I said in my review, he works from principles, “the people” are an abstraction that has little to do with actual people. To say it harshly, he’s a champion of the people in the way that HItler called and considered himself a champion of the people.

  5. Well, I think the Hitler comparison is taking things so far beyond the extreme that it’s hardly worth commenting on (except to say that you’ve equated someone who won’t kill — and in fact, in DKR, is incapable of going all the way and killing Joker even in the knowledge that killing him would save many lives in the future — with someone who unrepentantly murdered millions). But I do understand what you mean about “the people” being an abstraction for Batman. I don’t know that he’s misanthropic per se, since he doesn’t seem to technically hate anyone except those who break the law (and he even takes in and genuinely loves a runaway girl as sort of his surrogate daughter), but at the same time there’s that running debate in the media about whether Batman represents the people’s inner desire to stand up to criminals (he just happens to be the only one brave enough to act on it), or if he’s subverting the people’s will by exacting vigilante-style justice (as if to say, “the citizens are too stupid and cowardly to protect themselves and their elected government is too corrupt, so I must do it myself”). Then again, that’s the fundamental paradox of Batman, isn’t it? He took a solemn vow to uphold and enforce the law, but to do that he has to break the law. He supposedly stands for justice, but his driving motivation is revenge for his parents’ murders. He ostensibly fights street criminals whose crime is motivated by poverty, poverty caused by the capitalist machine that allows Bruce Wayne to be Batman. And I admit you’re right, in DKR he uses borderline fascist methods to control Gotham’s chaos after the nuke, but he also leads a quasi-populist revolution in DK2 against Superman, who is a gutless tool of the right-wing elite. So Batman is, at his core, a character of contradictions… but maybe that’s why we love him so much — he’s the richest psychological case study in comics.

  6. Thank you for your long reply. Yes, the Hitler thing was in jest. I agree with your general assessment of Batman as “the richest psychological case study in comics”. How do you like superhero comics in general?

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  8. Can you provide links/explain about what you say about communism, that it doesn’t fit human nature being ‘disproved’? (About the quotes, I am somewhat sceptical that such a thing can be proved or disproved.)

  9. Btw, the stuff you say about batman is perfectly shown in I, Joker by Bob Hall (I’ve only just started DKR, so I don’t know about that, though it sounds from G’s comments as if it’s not all that explicit). It’s sort of a role-reversal involving batman and the joker, except that both still represent what they always have.
    Also, reading Year One and The Killing Joke, I realised that both catwoman as well as the Joker were a lot like batman, they just didn’t have the money and the implied trust in the establishment to become superheroes rather than supervillains.

    Also, about being free under racism etc., way I see it, in capitalist democratic systems there’s scope for progress, but there’s no scope for progress when there’s dictatorship etc.
    And, about being free when you have to work from fear of starvation, isn’t that true of all systems? (Except of course, capitalism, for the rich.)

    One more thing: did you understand exactly why Wonder Woman turned against Superman in the comic? She says that all he wants is power, but I found no other implication of that anywhere (except from batman, who just thinks so because he thinks that superman killed his parents). Am I mising something?

  10. Wow. So much. You will have to allow me time to, uh, explain communism. This review is a bit snarky, I wrote it when I still thought people were reasonably well read in political theory and could be relied upon to know the works of Stirner, Reich, Adorno and both Markuses. I wouldn’t write it the same way any more; in fact I considered rewriting it a few times now. The answers to that are rather complex. Know this, though, that the smarter communists (I am not one) make very specific assumptions about the psychological make-up of modern man, and the whole ‘nature of mankind’ is a fallacy, since they, rightly, point out that our minds don’t come pre-packaged, but are developed within the terms and bounds of our cultures and ideological systems and make-ups, which most psychologists would admit to some extent. Thus, the fact that something, under some circumstances has not worked does not mean it won’t under others. It#s also worth pointing out that writers like Reich and others have decided as early as the 1930s, that Soviet communism will not work because it’s fundamentally un-communistic. In GDR literature there’s a central strain of writers who discuss just that issue. Hence the whole dictatorship issue is a straw man. But, as I said, all of this rests on about a century of writing and thinking and I’ll see if/how I’ll bundle it all up. I will publish an essay on GDR literature later this year which’ll touch on some of these issues.

    Superman: eh. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and thinking about Batman, Superman has been a bit on the back burner, dito Wonder Woman, which is a reason why details from DKR, which I’ve read about two years ago, are not reliable re: those two. I’ve been meaning to get a new copy anyway. we’ll see.

    Proof: you do know that there is no ‘absolute proof’, or something, that’s an epistemological illusion, proof is always valid in relation to a set of assumptions, which are themselves exempt from proof. What you do is use the set of assumptions that seems most probable, occams razor’n all.

    Catwoman/Batman/Joker: I would urge you to check the books you have for depictions of the joker and batman. images and tropes of masculinity are central to the antagonistic relationship of the two (I’ve read too many inconsistent treatments of catwoman to make a statement about her). For all their similarities, this is the main difference. And origin stories are remarkably irrelevant to superhero comics, in fact, several of them exist for each major character, there is not one thoroughly consistent origin story I’ve ever seen. I’ve got a batman edition somewhere on my shelves that contains year one and a few other versions of the origin. turns out, miller’s year one is very specific to Miller’s vision of the character. I’ve recently ordered the first omnibus of his Daredevil run, looking forward to it. I think Miller has a unique insight into Batman, and he does very well with him. His writing on Electra is less inspired, for example, although the art (not his) is flabbergasting there.

  11. two additions

    (I am not one) = I am not a communist

    unique insight = yes, but his more recent All Star Batman is horrendous

  12. Political theory is like a minefield of ickiness. One always regrets writing about it the day after. The lady is currently writing a phd in philosophical theory (basically a defense of relativism) and she won’t go near any of that shit, because it’s always vague and impossible to do rigorously. Yeah. So it is. Berk.

  13. The Communism issue: Thanks. I always wondered why anyone was taken in by communism at all, apart from the heady rush of ‘equality for all’ (every person I’ve met with communist leanings is so either because of this rush or because of their hate for the wrongs of capitalism). I’ll follow up these leads (sometime :P) and maybe I’ll see what’s good about it.

    About I, Joker: it’s not an origin story, it’s more like the opposite. I’ve always been befuddled by what constitute ‘tropes of masculinity’ (and, in movies, phallic symbols), apart from the really obvious things, so I can’t say much about that.

  14. Pingback: Sonya Hartnett: Surrender « shigekuni.

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