Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar & Dave Johnson

DC Comics, 2009 re-edition of 2003 series, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-2425-7

I don’t have much use for the standard superhero comic-book, which is too often an exercise in comfort reading, featuring melodrama that never amounts to much real growth and useless fight scenes thrown in to satisfy fan-boys.  Someone who stops reading a series and picks it up again years later misses out on little: The same archetype will continue to battle it out for as long as there is demand for it… and now that superheroes are big in Hollywood, you can bet that no one wants to upset the moneymaking genre, as narratively stale as it can be.

I’m not completely immune to the genre’s charm (I’ve got too many Batman trade paperbacks on my shelves to claim otherwise), but I won’t pick up superhero stories unless they’re sold at a bargain, they’re particularly striking examples of the form (Identity Crisis) and/or they’re different.  And Superman: Red Son is certainly different enough.  The premise is suggested early on: What if Superman, rather than landing in a Kansas cornfield, had landed on a Soviet farm?  Audaciously blending Cold War history with the DCverse, writer Mark Millar delivers an alternate history that ends up veering far from ours, and reflecting upon Superman’s innate potential for fascism.

It’s quite a change from the usual quasi-moronic goody-two-shoe persona that writers often impose on Superman.  This Man of Steel eventually takes up political power, shamelessly uses friends until their breaking point, has a few significant control issues and ends up remaking the planet to his liking.  Brainiac, Lex Luthor and Lois Lane plays important (and unusual) roles in the story, Batman goes against Superman, we get to feel sorry for Wonder Woman and even the Green Lantern corps makes an intriguing appearance.  On top of everything else, Red Son also ends up being an occasional critique of US imperialism and inner power struggles –Millar, of course, is not American.  Best of all, the ending actually wraps everything together, delivering a resolution, an utopian epilogue and a poignant coda.  For a three-book miniseries, it certainly contains a lot of material, even though some of the fights (most particularly the final one) seem a bit gratuitous.  The artwork is fair, although a bit more consistency would have been helpful –along with a better respect for Batman’s aesthetic preferences (you‘ll understand once you see the hat.)

This vision of Superman is intriguing in part because it plays upon the Superman archetype itself.  A symbol of American power becomes its opponent, and Lex Luthor becomes the noble (and arrogant) genius taking up the task to preserve American Hegemony even as the United States starts seceding.  Millar’s Sickle-and-Hammer Superman also gets free reign to indulge his gift for invention, the genius of which is an aspect of Superman that has often been forgotten in recent incarnations of the character.  After taking up the reins of the Soviet Empire, Superman is free to impose his own version of peace, order and good leadership –as long as it goes through him.

Red Son is also refreshingly told in shades of gray.  Free from years of accumulated history, Soviet Superman makes mistakes, over-coddles the planet and goes up against enemies that are led by pure and honourable motives.  Lex Luthor is a study in genius-level intelligence tainted by easy cruelty, but he ends up doing good despite his methods.  Wonder Woman is destroyed and discarded.  Batman, well, you’ll have to read it to see for yourself.  Despite the somewhat optimistic tone of the story, terrible things happen along the way.  Superman’s always been about power fantasies, but Red Son tackles the flip side of raw unchecked power.

The result is something I wasn’t expecting: A Superman story that manages to make a believer out of a confirmed superhero sceptic.  Superman: Red Son is about as good as superhero comics get, even acknowledging that it gets most of its power from upending what everyone knows about Superman.  The 2009 deluxe edition is serviceable enough and while the end sketches don’t add much, the entire package is a good showcase for a series that is actually worth reprinting in hardcover.  Don’t miss it, even if you think you don’t have any interest in Superman.

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