I have long been a fan of superheroes but I have always found that one in particular has never been my cup of tea: Superman. While I will gleefully read stories that have me diving into Gotham with Batman, going on mythic adventures with Wonder Woman or planet hopping with Green Lantern, I have never made my dislike of Superman a secret. My problem with Superman has always been that he’s quite frankly rather boring. He has a million different superpowers and never seems to struggle or even think much about anything. Why think when you can just use one of your superpowers to defeat anything you come across? So it takes a talented writer and a unique perspective on the Man of Steel to make him compelling to me. Since Graphic Reviews looked at a Batman Elseworlds story last week, this week I’ll be taking a look at a Superman Elseworlds story that I consider to be one of the best Superman stories ever written. Superman: Red Son was a short series of three issues that have since been collected in a single volume. It was written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett and gives the readers one hell of a “what if” scenario.
Superman: Red Son asks the question: what if Superman’s spaceship had landed not in Kansas but in the heart of the Soviet republic? How much different would the world be with a Communist Superman? Millar’s answer is incredibly disturbing. In Red Son, Superman’s spaceship crashed on a collective farm in the Ukraine and Superman was raised by doting parents in the Communist doctrine. Upon adulthood, Superman decides to use his powers to save the lives of his fellow workers and makes his way to Moscow. Unsurprisingly, Stalin is eager to snap him up. The story opens with Superman being celebrated as the Communist hero and ultimate super weapon. The news of his appearance sends the United States into a frenzy as they try to figure out how to combat the sudden shift in power. In this, they turn to brilliant scientist Lex Luthor. Luthor’s eventual solution sends both countries into a supermen arms race and ramps up the Cold War. As tension escalates, Superman seizes on a solution: as a figure with almost god-like power, he could just save everyone from themselves by preventing them from hurting themselves. No more bread lines, no more crime, no more war. Superman can hear everything and be anywhere in a second. What starts with noble intentions quickly turns into a Big Brother scenario. And defeat is not something Lex Luthor will take lightly. As the story progresses, Luthor and Superman’s battle extends into the decades and shapes both countries in incredible ways. The only question is, whose side will their allies choose when it rapidly becomes clear that neither is particularly good for humanity?
I loved Superman: Red Son because it takes the uber boyscout morality of the Man of Steel and takes it to the furthest possible extent. Instead of being raised in an atmosphere that prizes personal responsibility and individualism, Superman has been raised to believe in working for the common good regardless of individual desires. Is it any wonder that he simply wants what’s best for everyone? Superman’s struggle to provide safety for everyone at the expense of personal liberty is exacerbated by his alliance with the previously villainous supercomputer Braniac. Braniac helps Superman to develop mind control devices that can be used with any dissident. So not only can you not speak without Superman hearing what you’ve said, but if you ever step wrong, you can expect to be re-programmed back into line. This is an intriguing take on Superman and the question of whether to value order over chaos to the detriment of personal liberty is absolutely perfect in this context. Best of all, the story of a Soviet Batman hit all the right notes for both superheroes. Batman forces Superman to confront the reality that at least some people want to be able to choose for themselves, even if those choices aren’t the best for them. That standard Batman/Superman dichotomy was not only incredibly well done, but also featured Batman as a ushanka-wearing freedom fighter. That alone would make it worth reading! And I love that Millar actually brought in a number of historical figures from the start of the story in the 1950’s to the end in 2001. Having the historical ties just makes the story that much more interesting.
Millar’s writing is fantastic and I am happy to say that the art was spot-on as well, Johnson and Plunkett take character design to a whole new level with many of the most recognizable faces in the DC universe. Besides Batman, they bring in Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and many others. Some of these characters have been changed drastically and seeing the changes was part of the fun of Superman: Red Son. In particular, the propaganda posters in between issues were so perfect that they almost seemed historical.
Since I first read it years ago, Superman: Red Son has been one of my favorite DC stories. It was the first story I ever read that made Superman into a questionable character. So often his “truth, justice and the American way” core has meant that his stories have little punch to them. Superman: Red Son takes a “what if” concept that in turn upends everything you think you know about the DC world. Millar is in his element with his tendency towards hard-hitting, morally ambiguous stories and Superman: Red Son is one of his best. If you haven’t already picked this one up, you need to! Even if you’re a hardcore Superman fan (in which case, you probably hate me now), it’s an incredibly compelling take on the Man of Steel.