I’ve always been a fan of Superman, the myth: that is, the mythical idea behind Superman—the alien who is the last of his kind, who grows up in the similarly ‘mythical’ setting of small-town America, and becomes a champion of the common man. Unfortunately, once past this point there isn’t a lot you can really do with Superman: he’s potentially quite dull, since he lacks the psychological depth of a Batman (no dark secrets whispering beneath his cape). Yet Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son reminded me that a myth can do anything, especially a myth born from the frames of a comic book. Comic books are unique in that you can have 400 issues of a comic and then go right back to the beginning. Continuity is not really possible when a reader comes in at issue #45, only to leave around #98, and perhaps return at #225. That’s why the superheroes that last are the ones with the best origins; you can continually go back to the well and imagine how the myth might blossom in new and exciting ways.
As Joseph Campbell expressed in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey is quite similar throughout time and culture—only the face/mask changes. As readers, we love the story about how the mask is put on, or why the hero decides to embark on such a dangerous and epic quest. Much of what happens later is tangential, or at least not part of the character’s true immortality. This is certainly the case with Superman, whose early comics introduced many iconic characters—most notably, Lex Luthor—but didn’t contribute to the stories we tell and re-tell today. After all, who remembers Superman’s early tussle with a nefarious villain named “The Light”? Though I’m sure you can imagine who came out on top...
Superman: Red Son starts at the beginning—or in a way, ends with the beginning (but you’ll have to read the entire book to understand that statement). However, a simple idea becomes a profound variation on the Superman legend: what if he had landed in the Soviet Union (which is a much larger country, after all) and grown up in a collective farm in the Ukraine? Again, nothing substantial changes here: in both stories (old and new), he becomes emblematic of the heartland, where the ‘true’ nation exists. And in both stories, he rises up to defend the common citizen and become a flag-waving emblem of democracy—or in this case, Communism. Here the similarities end, though Millar is clever enough to sprinkle in all the familiar icons in surprising ways, making the comic a rich, complex narrative—and indeed, a novel. Not all comics collected into a book format seem deserving of the title ‘graphic novel,’ but this one does; it’s a gripping story which is part science fiction and part pulp superhero. Yet the overwhelming sense at the end is having read a very good story—and one you’ve never heard before.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Superman becomes Stalin’s right hand man, and once the ‘great’ man dies, Superman is urged to take over. At the same time, Luthor is plotting to beat Superman at his own game, making one villainous monstrosity after another—all sponsored by the US government—in order to defeat him and prove the superior intellect. Once Superman accepts leadership of the Soviet Union, his reign becomes a true utopia—which in the science-fiction world always means dystopia (since “utopia” is Latin for “nowhere”). Crime and poverty are eradicated, and all dissidents are carefully ‘reprogrammed’ to fall in line with Superman’s enlightened views for peace and prosperity. True, it all works, but some people would rather die than be saved by a superhuman tyrant: enter Batman, a notorious terrorist who plots Superman’s downfall and soon cultivates a network of dissidents. Superman’s only true ally is Wonder Woman, the superhuman ambassador of Themyscira, who secretly pines for Supe’s affections.
The final showdowns with ‘evil’ (meaning Luthor and the USA) pits Superman against Batman, Green Lantern (or a whole squadron of Green Lanterns, whose power comes from a crashed alien spaceship in ‘Area 51’) and Braniac, who has his own plans for humanity’s future. Within the usual comic book heroics, Millar takes a page from Moore’s Watchmen, blurring historical fact with fiction to ask the question, who should be allowed to save—or rule—the world? Who acts in humanity’s best interests? Could even Superman show us the way forward? In a powerful scene, Lois Luthor is discussing her husband (now president’s) plans for ruling the world and destroying Superman. As she notes, “Superman might be a nut with a messiah complex, but don’t you think we’re in danger of just replacing one demagogue with another?” The response, from one of Luther’s functionaries, is simply, “Very possibly, darling, but at least Lex Luthor is a demagogue who speaks English” (113). It’s a chilling point in a narrative where both good and bad intentions seem to lead to the same result—only the language changes.
The rest I’ll lead for you to read and explore for yourself. While this is a Superman cut from the cloth of Miller’s Dark Knight or Moore’s Watchmen, it’s still a distinct and moving work—dark in its prediction of human morals, but optimistic in the possibility of the power of simple men and women (those without great powers) to make the right decisions. I consider this one of the most satisfying graphic novels dealing with a mythical hero I’ve ever read, and I’ll go back to this time and time again. Superman will always be reinvented, and many new Superman comics have followed in his wake; but after Superman: Red Son, none of them will be able to resist a glance over their shoulder to ask, “what can I possibly do after that?”