Publishers in the comics book industry have always enjoy greater freedom when reinventing their characters to face the change in times or to attract new generation of readers. What is also common is for them to come with one-off alternate stories that present character in new settings or new origins. DC Comics and Marvel has been more prominent on this trend with their special issues called 'Elseworlds' and 'What If' respectively.
Superman - Red Son, was one such storyline developped by Mark Millar in the Elseworlds imprint . Released in 2003 in limited three-issues series, it's bold premise, 'What if Superman was raised by the Soviet Union' was recieved with critical praise and even won the prestigious Eisner Award in best limited series category.
Normally most Elseworlds issues are released as marketting gimmicks which probably will end up in bargain bins but Red Son is a more serious written book that not just only put Superman as a hero raised under the Stalin's Soviet Union and his fight under the name of Socialism but the consequences and social repercussions that result when having a powerful and invincible Man Of Steel within your ranks. The Soviet Union becomes a major superpower with greater techonlogical advancement while the United States start falling in tatters with panic overflowing in the streets when face against a god-like alien threat. The version of Superman portrayed here is is far from the ideal superhero that we normally know. Superman is brought and raised with the Communism ideal and used as political propaganda by Stalin in the beginning but soon after, he will realised that he can use his powers for the greater good. His actions will pushed him to convert his beloved Soviet State into a utopia after Stalin's death where not only crime is eradicated but all individuals are monitored in a Big-Brother style by Superman who views this as a step in using his powers in the right direction and for the right cause.
Mark Millar also bring other notable DC characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Lois Lane and Lex Luthor in alternate versions of themselves with some very clever twists and turns in how they form part of the story. Luthor being Superman's eternal arch-nemesis start as a brilliant scientist recruited by the American government to halt Superman but his thirst for revenge will lead him to become the President of United States with the help of the alien-entity Brainiac as he dedicate his whole life to bring Superman to his knees. Luthor has a very prominent presence in the book and he is a far more interesting character as usual as his ongoing battles with Superman is a reflection of different ideals clashing together with Luthor viewing Superman way of controlling his subjects as threat to the United States and the world. This gives the book a more serious and political tone compared to other Superman storylines with historical characters such as Josef Stalin and John F Kennedy mixing with DC comics characters.
The art does capture the essence of the story and reflects the historical or social moods that occurs in the book with events starting form 1953 and spanning through several decades but is not consistent within the pages and this can mainly be attribute to different artists working on Red Son. While their styles are different in the book as they try to balance the changes and historical events that Superman witness throughout, somes characters drawings are different from what they appeared at the beginning and this can be a distraction to the story. While not a big let-down, it hinders this comic book from being a perfect one.
Minus this little blip, Red Son is a well-structured and contained story from Mark Millar who provides us with one of the most daring and alternate take on the Superman mythos including an unthinkable twisted ending. While being an Elseworlds series, Millar has crafted a story that is appealing on it's own with neither heroes nor villains but merely about what choices will you make if you have the powers to do so. Superman willl always be the most iconic superhero in the world and while different writers has tried to bring different perspectives to him and what he stands for, Red Son simply shows that while possessing immense powers, he can not always save everything and everyone.
Superman, Red Son is part of the Elseworlds imprint and has been released in a collected edition of 160 pages and can be found for about less than 10 pounds on Amazon and Ebay
Superman: Red Son is an acclaimed graphic novel by Mark Millar and first appeared in a three-issue mini-series in 2003. The premise of Red Son is simple and intriguing. What if the Kryptonian alien rocket ship that saved the infant Ka-El (Superman's real name) from the doomed planet Krypton had crash landed not in the middle of dusty nowheresville Kansas to be found by Jonathan and Martha Kent but on a Ukrainian collective farm in the old Soviet Union? The answer is that instead of becoming the all American Clark Kent of Smallville and Metropolis, Superman is instead "...the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact." He still somehow manages to be the noble Superman we more or less know though and that's one of the many clever things about the story. The plot mostly spans the years 1953 to 2001 (and far beyond ultimately) and includes alternate reality versions of many famous Superman characters - and also real historical figures like Joseph Stalin, Eisenhower and John F Kennedy. I think the greatest thing about the book is probably the lovely glossy art by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett which deliberately evokes old propaganda leaflets and materials from decades ago. As Superman is now a tool of the Soviet Union he creates panic in the United States when he is revealed to the astonished world. In effect the Russians seem to have won the arms race with Superman in their ranks. He is the ultimate weapon and Cold War paranoia is suddenly at an all time high. "They say he can see us from up in space with those super-eyes of his and he's watching our every move. Just biding his time for the perfect moment to strike!" It's bad enough that the Russkies have satellites in space and missiles waiting to be launched but Stalin's "super-spaceman" is the final straw for the Americans. CIA Agent Jim Olsen recruits brilliant scientist Lex Luthor ("the smartest man in the world") to tackle this pesky Superman problem and Luthor comes up with a dastardly scheme.
He diverts Sputnik 2 towards Metropolis and when Superman intervenes he manages to obtain some of his DNA from the spacecraft which he uses to create a clone of Superman named Bizarro. Meanwhile, Superman finds that the people of the Soviet Union look to him for leadership when Stalin dies but - influenced by a meeting with childhood sweetheart Lana Lazarenko (clever) - he decides he wants to usher in a great era of change. Will that be possible? This is an enjoyable "Elseworlds" riff on the legend of Superman much in the vein of the Marvel "What If?" series where they would present a one-off topsy turvy story outside the established conventions where anything was possible. So you still get all the Superman supporting characters here but as we are used to seeing them. It's like a Star Trek mirror universe episode. You get an interesting new take on Batman (his origin is very clever) and inventive use of Superman's ultimate nemesis Lex Luthor. Here the twist is that he's an American scientist ordered to find a way to take down the Man of Steel (nice double meaning to that because Stalin is also of course known as the Man of Steel). Luthor is still ruthless but in a different guise and some of the lines he is given are amusingly ironic. "I honestly believe that Superman and I would have been the best of friends if he'd popped up in America..." The story is interesting and has some exciting developments (and a futuristic coda) and allows us to reflect on the essential core of Superman's personality. It captures that slight naivety that - despite being the most powerful man on earth - he has always had. Superman is in a sense the ultimate outsider. He is an alien living on earth amongst humans and even on earth he has humble nondescript origins (both here and in the conventional Superman series) that makes him feel like an outsider too in big cities. There has always been a slightly vulnerable fish out of water quality to Superman despite his legendary powers.
Superman is rather blind to Stalin's true nature but still decent and eager to use his powers for good despite the dark history of the leader of his adopted country. Superman is the pride of the Soviet Union but will help those of any nationality (American, British etc) who need his help. In a sense Superman is beyond politics wherever he happens to be from. He represents the world as much as he does a single nation despite the best efforts of self serving politicians. Luthor actually seems rather sympathetic at first but soon begins to reveal his true colours. It's quite a clever reference to the Luthor of the traditional Superman universe. To the outside world he is a businessman (albeit a nasty one) but he's far more than that as Superman knows. We may be in an alternate universe but it's as if the eternal link between these two men transcends realities and is prevalent everywhere in time and space. Luthor marries Lois Lane (!) and seems destined to be president. It's a nice diversion into the parallel imagination of comic continuity that allows us to question nature versus nurture and the true character of Superman and his villains. The mirror universe approach on established heroes and characters is hardly new but this is an inventive twist on the genre and manages to maintain interest over the course of the story and the art is definitely a major plus. The illustrations are bold and vibrant and look retro (in keeping with the general spirit of the story). Superman's visit to Metropolis is fun in particular with the lovely background detail and - of course - it's amusing to hear Superman comment on how decadent and distasteful the United States is when he goes there!
With comic characters that have been around forever (like Superman) stories like this are a nice break from the usual continuity where, let's be honest, just about everything you can do with Superman has been done by now. You can either tread down the reboot path and do the origin yet again (not a great fan of this myself) or you can dip into spin off stories like this which do something new. Certainly the idea of Superman landing on a Ukrainian collective farm and becoming the pride of the Soviet Union is new if nothing else. The story is about Superman having to question what right he has to meddle in the affairs of the world with obvious parallels to the United States and its foreign policy. The comic is fairly well balanced. It doesn't depict one system as right or one as wrong. It recognises that Communism has a noble goal even if the countries that have tried the system have never got anywhere near Utopia or fairness for the people - quite the opposite in many cases. The attention to detail is always superb too with great care and love in every panel and much to take in. The comic has dark shadowy hues and is atmospheric at times but despite the political subtexts it is also fun in the traditional comic book superhero way. Wonder Woman features a lot in the story and look too for the Green Lantern Marine Corps (led by Colonel Hal Jordan) and appearances by the Atomic Skull, Parasite and Doomsday. Superman: Red Son is an excellent book that is well worth getting hold of if you are a fan. It's not perfect but it is one of the more novel and interesting Superman stories of recent years. Superman: Red Son runs to about 170 pages (paperback) and at the time of writing is available to buy for around £8.
Image the Russian's found baby Kal-El first. Thats the basic premise of this story but don't let the simplicity of this idea fool you. Mark Millar has an amazing talent for taking ideas that no-one has ever thought of before but seem immediately obvious and running with them. What follows is one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, mixing in old areas of the mythos with clever reinventions. One in particular that appears at the end that i found particularly inspired.
The story follows our hero through the various stages of his life, being the omnipresent figure that many fear a man like this could become in the standard Superman universe. However something that is never lost is his desire to do good. This is not a Superman gone bad story, for something like that i'd recommend Mark Waid's excellent Irredeemable. This story perfectly highlights the damage someone with Superman's powers could do if manipulated. The story features a few recognisable faces from regular DC universe including Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman and a russian activist Batman. The artwork is of an excellent standard and perfectly captures the world in which this version of Superman would inhabit.
It's a book i would heartily recommend to any comic book fan, whether they liked Supes or not.
Superman Red Son is written by Mark Millar a comic book writer who is particularly gifted at reworking an established comic book stories. For example his reworking of Marvels The Avengers in the series The Ultimates, which is a work of genius. Superman Red Son is part of the Elseworlds series for DC comics where complete liberties can be taken with the DC universe and our own historical time lines.
In this alternative universe Superman's ship as a baby crashed on earth 12 hours earlier, which would have landed in the Ukraine rather than America. So rather being the All-American Hero he becomes The People's Hero.
At first I was a little apprehensive about reading this, as I was worried it would end up at a piece of anti communist propaganda. Which I'm sure is fine if you wish to get a political point across, but can make for tedious reading when you're after a bit of escapism. Quite soon into it, you start to think that this is the case and I started to get disappointed in Millar, but suddenly remembered this an Elseworld's story everything is up for interpretation. Once you remind yourself of this you can really get into this story, which I have to say is fantastic. Because Russia is how you would expect them to be in a piece of propaganda, but America is treated to the same slamming as a capitalist country. So much so that Superman is a hero to the world all over, but America is just hell bent of having a cold war purely because Lex Luthor is paranoid and just as much of a megalomaniac as Stalin.
However the twist comes when Stalin dies and the people want Superman to become their leader and this is where things go desperately wrong. In Superman's best interest to bring piece to the world, he sacrifices everyone's freedom, which only gives Lex Luthor the impetuous to continue with his insane bitter 40 year cold war battle against Superman.
The twists and turns in this are brilliant. Millar has taken great care with the characters and made them integral to the new plot line. For example Jimmy Olsen works for the secret service, Lex Luthor is still a villain but he's never accountable for his crimes because he keeps them all in line with government keeping, a bit like Nazi scientists helping with the American Space program. Lois Lane is married to Lex. Batman is a Russian dissident and terrorist.
The story takes place over about 50 years and starts in 1950. The artwork particularly for the 50s section has a kind of cold war propaganda poster feel about it, which is lovely. I do enjoy the fact that even though this world has a communist Superman, he still stops a satellite falling out of the sky that would kill millions of innocent people in America, because lives are more important than politics.
My favourite plot line is wondering why Batman in this world is a terrorist, once you find out the resolution is very satisfying.
All in all Red Son is a wonderfully rounded and a gripping read. I think Millar really gave himself a hard task trying to put a story like this together and he succeeded with flying colours. You can tell he must have taken his time to get this right. Once of things to remember this is Elseworlds where everything is different and they have as much licence to do as they want and sometimes I wish this was the real Superman story as he made the character a hell of a lot more interesting that his usual counterpart.
One slight down note, the last few pages do make you roll your eyes a little, but this is Elseworlds where anything can and did happen.