Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Superman: Red Son Review


Superman: Red Son

No "in Soviet Russia" jokes... I promise.
Writer: Mark Millar

Artists: Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson

Collects: Superman: Red Son #1-3

Background Information:

This is usually where I write what you need to know before coming into the book. This time, I want to talk about the perspective I took to reading Red Son, and how my experiences prepared me to read this collection.

I lived about two years in the Baltic nations; the countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania- all formerly under control of the Soviet Union. I met people who had very mixed views of the communist era. Coming from a largely capitalist culture, I went to the Baltics thinking that all of the locals would view soviet occupation the same way I do; a terrible regime that destroyed lives for the sake of the state. And to be fair, plenty did. I heard the stories of brainwashing in ways that some erroneously only associate with religion and saw the graves of those killed by the KGB. I also met plenty- some not much older than I- who looked back on the communist era with a sort of fondness- a time when things were simpler. It was surprising to me that people who experienced the exact same government could emerge with such dramatically different views on it.

Review:

And it’s that experience that really coloured my perception of Red Son; more than just a great superhero story, Red Son is a great look at the shades of grey that surrounded both the USSR and the USA during the cold war. It’s also, surprisingly, one of the books that seems to get Superman better than anything else I’ve read.

He's Russian to help people out... hyuk, hyuk, hyuk!
This story takes one thing central to Superman and turns it on its head; namely, Superman’s American heritage. Here, Superman was raised on a farm collective in the Ukraine. Growing up as a communist, Superman spends years working for Stalin before taking over as the new president of the USSR. The role sees him make some pretty disturbing decisions, such as reprogramming rebels into “robots” and ruling with a more or less iron fist.

Writer Mark Millar is also known for writing Marvel’s Civil War, which also dealt with themes of moral ambiguity. Throughout Civil War, it was kinda hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys were. Millar amps that up in Red Son. Sure, Superman has his enemy in Lex Luthor, but it’s near impossible to say who you would support. They both come across as people with heroic intentions, but the means by which they achieve these intentions are often so disturbing. It’s a pretty amazing understanding of how the USA and USSR conducted itself- sure, America was right to reject a system that treated its own people more poorly than ever, but did that justify McCarthyism? At the same time, yes, Luthor is right to fight a Superman who effectively brainwashes his enemies, but the extents to which he goes to do so are hard to accept.

Superman fans who constantly get annoyed by Batman fans when they refer to The Dark Knight Rises as proof why Batman would always beat Superman need look no further than Red Son. This is not the best part of the book, by far (that award goes to the way that Luthor eventually stops Superman- but I shan’t spoil that), but it’s worth mention that even with prep time, Batman is not guaranteed a victory. Red sun lamps, ultimately, aren’t enough to keep Superman down when there are plenty of people around who would leap to help the Man of Steel- as shown in the middle chapter of this collection.

The best thing about this collection, though, is that Millar shows that he understands what Superman is meant to be. It’s ironic that in the last decade, the book to be the most representative of what it means to be Superman is one where Superman is the opposite of what he normally is. Even without the mark of ‘murica, Millar seems to fully understand Superman’s greatest struggles; his otherness to people that he considers his own, his constraining ties to his adopted nation, his compulsion to save everyone even though he can’t- and possibly shouldn’t. These are all things that I feel make an excellent Superman story- it’s the overcoming of these obstacles that inspires hope; not fights against Zod or flying so fast that you turn back time.

He's a powerful man, and that's Putin
it lightly. Missing those "In Soviet
Russia..." jokes yet?
There’s a separate artist for each issue of Red Son. Normally, that would be a bad thing, but here, it looks great- a clear indicator that each issue is a different stage of Superman’s life. What’s more, each issue makes Russia look like Russia- the architecture (not just the Kremlin) and character costumes (which thankfully don’t limit themselves to furry hats and headscalves) look very soviet. Even Batman’s equipment looks very soviet-era; less about form, more about function. Then there are the small things (the eagle design on Wonder Womans chest, for example, that resembles the two-headed bird of the Russian coat of arms) that help to solidify that you aren’t just seeing these characters visit a different location; these are Russian heroes in every sense of the word.

There’s really nothing bad I can say about Red Son which is why it gets a perfect five out of five marks of ‘murica.

*****

+ Amazing job of moral ambiguity.

+ Understands Superman better than any other book from the last ten years.

+ Superman beats Batman

+ Art gives that real “soviet” feel

Alternate Option: All-Star Superman

It’s still the second-best Superman that I’ve read, but nowhere near the worst.