Friday, April 15, 2005

Superman: Red Son

By Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong
Published By DC Comics

Young Kal-El finds a home in a collective farm in the Ukraine rather than Smallville, and as a result the Cold War has a much different outcome in Superman: Red Son.

I’m not usually a fan of Elseworlds/What If stuff, as much as I desperately want to be. The concepts are often promising (not always,e.g. Superman/Tarzan: Sons of The Jungle), but in execution the drama often revolves completely around the alternate history, and ultimately sloppy storytelling is the result.

Take The Nail, for example (an Elseworlds story in which Superman is absent from the world of superheroes). Considering it a story on its own, divorced from standard DC continuity, it has one of the dumbest endings in superhero comic book history: the uber-powerful bad guy who has made mince meat out of the rest of the world’s superheroes is laid low when, in the last few pages of the story, he accidentally comes across an Amish guy who just happens to possess the same powers. Regardless, the series apparently enjoyed high sales, considering DC green-lit a sequel.

Initially, Superman: Red Son threatens to be more of the same. Particularly in the first chapter there are numerous references to the “real” Superman, too many to be more clever than annoying. “Centuries later, after a thousand interpretations of this meeting,” Superman says of his first meeting with Lois, “a famous poet would write an alternate history of the world where Lois Luthor and I became lovers...I still don’t know what appeals to people about this notion.” Earlier, when President Eisenhower learns of the Soviets’ new weapon: “Just think...if that rocket had landed twelve hours earlier, this Superman they’re talking about would be an American citizen.” Yeah, yeah, we get it. How ironic, dontcha think?

Despite the warning signs, Red Son eventually proves to be one of the better Elseworlds tales, and the secret to Millar’s success is that–despite his Soviet upbringing and the Orwellian world he molds–Red Son’s Superman IS Superman. It would’ve been easy to create a menacing, commie bastard Superman, or even a gullible man-child like Supreme Power’s Hyperion (and in fact it’s difficult to read Red Son without hearing echoes from the aforementioned MAX series, its predecessor Squadron Supreme and the sadistic Ultraman of JLA: Earth 2). Millar takes the more difficult route: giving us the Kryptonian hero we all know, and somehow making us believe him capable of creating a world not unlike the ones we find in 1984 or Clockwork Orange.

Millar’s Lex Luthor–a federally funded scientist in this alternate history, as well as Lois Lane’s estranged husband–is one of the highlights of the series, and like Superman the Luthor of Red Son is essentially the same old Lex (if a bit funnier). In spite of the fact that he’s essentially on the side of the angels (though morality is hardly black-and-white in the story), there are never any illusions in regards to his true agenda.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about the series is the ending. I still haven’t decided whether or not I think Lex’s “ultimate weapon” against Superman was ingenious or just trying really hard to be ingenious, which I guess is indicative of how well it reads regardless. The resolution to the story, while not completely predictable, is kind of “Elseworlds predictable.”

The very concept of Superman: Red Son is one of its greatest strengths, but not because of how different the Russian Man of Steel is from the "real" Superman, but because it shows how different he's NOT. It may be, as Tom DeSanto writes in the intro to the trade, “social commentary on capitalism vs. communism and current America foreign policy.” But for those of us who have followed the Man of Steel's adventures for some time, I think it reveals something that's so easy to forget.

I don’t remember the quote verbatim, but I recall an interview I read with Mike Myers. He talked about how his parents moved from England to Canada when he was a kid and said something along the lines of, “English people are never as English as they are when they’re not in England.”

Likewise, Superman is never so wonderfully and dreadfully American as he is when he’s wearing someone else’s flag.

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