It's such a shame he works
for the other side. I honestly
believe that Superman and I
would have been the best
of friends if he'd popped
up in America.
- Lex Luthor, in Superman Red Son
The Superman mythology is perhaps the most enduring of any comic book ever created because it appeals to our base desires. On some level, we all want someone who stands for truth and justice, who actually has the strength to truly fight for these causes without being corrupted by power. It is his strict sense of right and wrong, his boundless strength tempered only by his desire to always live up to a moral code that no one can truly live up to, that makes Superman such a memorable character. By his solitary nature and his constant internal struggle to find the "right" way, Superman represents the highest Randite ideals of capitalism: that indeed one man can stand alone and accomplish much.
Superman Red Son was a three issue comic series from DC Comics that had a very simple premise: what if Superman had landed in the Ukraine on a collectivist farm instead of in the United States?
Superman Red Son
Written by Mark Millar
Penciled by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett
Inked by Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
Colored by Paul Mount
Comic edition published by DC Comics in three volumes (Superman Red Son vols. 1-3, May through July 2003)
Paperback edition published by DC Comics on February 1, 2004, 160 pages, ISBN 1401201911
Superman Red Son is an installment of DC Comics Elseworld imprint, which is a collection of short comic series in which the ramifications of one key change in the story of a character has very wide ramifications (what if Batman became acquainted with Edgar Allen Poe, for example?). In this particular three issue series, Superman is launched from Krypton as expected, but instead of landing in the back yard of Johnathan and Martha Kent in Smallville, his capsule instead lands on a farm in The Ukraine in 1938.
On this farm, he is raised and indoctrinated with communist philosophy rather than the capitalist perspective he would have been raised with by the Kents, and thus in the mid 1950s, he travels to Moscow and meets Josef Stalin. Stalin sees the propaganda possibilities in Superman, which is the point at which our comic opens.
Although Superman's life as a crusader for the USSR is the focus of the comic, many other characters in the DC Universe are also given a detailed outline. Wonder Woman is recast as Superman's love interest and ally in the fight for worldwide Communism. Batman, on the other hand, turns out to be an anarchist in Russia, ardently opposed to any sort of communist rule, although he finds Superman to be a better leader than most humans would be. Perhaps most interesting of all is that Lex Luthor winds up becoming the hero of the United States and capitalism and is married to Lois Lane.
Superman. It's not
your fault. It's just
the way the system
works, you know.
You can't take care
- Lana Lang, Russian peasant and childhood friend of Superman
Actually, I can,
Lana. I could take
care of everyone's
problems if I ran this
place and, to tell you
the truth, there's no
good reason why I
- Superman, in response
Leader? Yes, indeed. In this series, Stalin names Superman as his successor and Nikita Khrushchev never rises to the top of the heap. Instead, Superman reluctantly agrees to become the dictatorial head of the Soviet state. Without giving too much away (thus far, I've only mentioned the action in the first of the three issues), communism becomes dominant in the world because of this, leaving only the United States (because of their hero, Lex Luthor) as the last shining beacon of capitalism and democracy.
The book paints a detailed alternate history of the world, with Nixon defeating Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and then Nixon being assassinated in 1963 by a communist sympathizer. In fact, that's exactly what Superman Red Son is; an alternate history of the greatest of the comic book series.
Yet it is more than just a mere alternate history; most alternate history merely intends to spell out world events in the aftermath of a major change (what if the South won the United States Civil War? What if Germany won World War II?). Here, it's almost more of a character study. How does communism, particularly the brand of communism offered by the USSR, affect the perspective of Superman? Does it make him less or more of a champion of the common man?
Whenever you do a character study of Superman, though, one of Lex Luthor is never far behind. This comic, however, only manages to change things around enough so that the heroic aspects of Lex Luthor are more obvious; they were always there. Luthor is a man who wants to win; that is his central drive in life. Luthor is quite willing to do whatever it takes to win, at all costs, but take away the game that he is playing and he fundamentally makes choices that are good. That's why he presents such an enigma as an opponent to Superman; in the light of other "heroes" in comic series, Luthor is not terribly villainous. Red Son merely provides a backdrop for these aspects of Luthor to become more obvious; he becomes a champion for the great possibilities of science and of capitalism in this book.
This isn't right,
Lana. These children
shouldn't have to
stand in line and beg
for food like they're
some kind of
- Superman, on observing a food line in Moscow
Another intriguing aspect of Superman Red Son is the use of propaganda-style art throughout. Many of the panels immediately bring to mind propaganda posters, and the covers of the issues of the comic and the cover of the paperback collection of the comics all continue this thread; they all appear to be communist propaganda posters themselves. Superman's costume even follows this trend; it looks much like the one we all are familiar with, but the S in the middle of his chest is replace with a hammer and sickle. Even the name of the series has double meaning: Red Son, at the same time, refers to the fact that he is a "son" of communism and also to the fact that he was born under the red sun of Krypton.
On yet another level, the series is very timely and pertinent to what is happening in the world today. Much of the latter two issues of the comic focus on the dangers of imperialism, when even the morally correct choice is the wrong one if it is made for everyone, denying them the freedom to make their own decisions. That in itself is the inherent danger of communism; it takes away individual choice, and it is that trap that Superman falls into in Red Son: he winds up making choices for everyone.
don't have to be
is here to
- Superman, to Russian peasants waiting in a food line
There are only a few minor issues that I have with this series. The biggest one is the nonsensical use of Cyrillic letters in various places. For example, when writing the phrase Red Son on the cover, the writers try to be overly cute and write it as Яed Son. Я and R are not mere substitutes for one another, of course; this probably isn't too major of an issue to many, but to someone familiar with Russian, it is quite an annoyance.
Another quibble I have is with the ending. I'm not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it is a little too cutesy with the whole Superman mythology, tying the future with the past in a way that is a little bit hard to stomach.
Those minor issues nonwithstanding, Red Son is a very, very enjoyable comic for anyone who read the Superman series when they were younger and would love to drop back into the series for a taste. It provides an interesting and thought-provoking twist on not only the Superman series, but the battle between capitalism and communism. It is very readable and hard to put down; thankfully, the brevity of the series makes it possible to easily read it in one sitting.