Graphic Novel Review: Superman – Red Son by Mark Millar
(A) I don’t like Superman.
(B) This is the best Superman story I’ve ever read.
Twelve hours. That’s all it would have taken to change the course of history and turn the Superman we have grown up with into someone entirely different – or is he that different after all? In Red Son, the capsule from Krypton lands in Russia instead of the United States and, after the boy’s powers manifest, he is taken and raised by Joseph Stalin himself. Superman grows up a communist but, while he appreciates his adoptive father’s ideals, he does not approve of the violent methods. Stalin is grooming him to rule in his stead – just as the people want – but Superman cares nothing for politics. He just wants to help people. I loved this idea because I originally thought that the major motivation behind Superman’s desire to help everyone was primarily instilled in him by Ma and Pa Kent. This implies that it truly is his nature. I adored the scene with Stalin’s jealous son Pyotr who rages at Superman’s compulsive need to fix everything.
When Stalin is murdered, Superman discovers that his super powers can’t save people from poverty. He realizes that the only way he can help everyone is to become president. He puts Russia in order and moves on to the entire world, with only the United States stubbornly refusing him. All the while, the brilliant Lex Luthor continually attempts to defeat Superman in new and interesting ways.
This is a what if? story, but one that doesn’t just skim over the details or throw characters into this alternate realm without good reason for their existence*. Several popular DC characters appear in this story and I was very impressed with their manifestations. I loved how much depth Millar goes into for all the characters, even if for some it is brief. Even though this was an alternate version of the characters, I learned far more about them all than I ever have in their main stories.
*The only character portrayal that really bothered me was Lois Lane – er Lois Luthor. The feisty, bull-headed reporter we know doesn’t really show her head here at all. Instead, we get Jean Grey without the Phoenix entity – a woman defined by the two important male figures in the story. Rather than being Superman’s girl, though they share that brief spark, she’s with Lex who doesn’t give a damn about her because he’s too busy being level 9 intelligence awesome. I would have liked to see Lois as a balancing force in Luthor’s life, but instead he discards her as his focus on Superman intensifies. At least he is polite enough to call her to let her know. And Lois just accepts this. While I appreciate her devotion and determination to stand by her man despite him having no obvious need for her, I just do not see this as Lois Lane and I don’t see any justification for her being with Luthor just because she isn’t with Superman in this incarnation.
I was also a bit concerned with Luthor’s sociopathic portrayal as it began as somewhat caricature-ish. I prefer the Animated Series Luthor who is ridiculously intelligent, but not unaware of emotions. To me, that Luthor simply chooses not to acknowledge emotions, but recognizes that he and others have them and is able to factor emotion into any equation. This Luthor seems oblivious; closer to a mad scientist archetype. But by the end of the book, I was content with where Luthor’s careful machinations ended up.
Otherwise, I loved the incarnations of Wonder Woman – the utter joy she expresses when she tells Superman that she’s happy to finally be talking to someone who can understand her and the sad realization when she comes to understand him. Batman – who’s parents death forges the same man, but this man isn’t merely a well funded crime fighter, and he’s willing to go to any length to bring down Superman and the oppressive communist regime. The Green Lantern Corp and the selection of Hal Jordan as recipient of the ring makes so much more sense than what I’ve known in the past.
And I loved poor, naïve Superman himself – yeah, you heard me. Millar takes the time to show us how smart Superman is, but makes it clear that reading a book really fast and retaining the knowledge does not equate with wisdom. Add to that his misguided idealism and Superman is a deadly force. He is so desperate to help everyone and fix everything that he doesn’t realize that we need be able to help ourselves. I love that Millar didn’t let Superman merely figure this out in the finale. It’s an issue that Superman himself raises and discusses with Diana, but ultimately fails to comprehend as he tightens his grip on humanity in desperate need to protect and fix us.