Superman: Red Son

July 25, 2008

For those embarrassed by John Cleese’s Superman: True Brit (John, stick to TV) and disappointed by Countdown’s Search for Ray Palmer, here’s the one that truly got it right. Mark Millar’s Red Son belongs among the rarest of comic writing. It teases you with strangeness, keeps pushing beyond mere novelty, becomes at some point completely believable, then brings strikingly clear perspectives to real-world issues, and ultimately changes your life. Yes, it does the last bit too, and how many books can claim that? Not a week of newspaper-reading has passed since my own first encounter without the story’s underlying hard-hitting choice slapping me anew: freedom or equality?

By just 12 hours’ difference, the spacecraft bearing Superbaby falls not in Kansas but in Ukraine, and the last son of Krypton grows up to become the new son of Stalin, champion of proletariats everywhere. Instead of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, Superman upholds the codes of socialism and Marxist classlessness, bringing the flames of revolution to the ends of the world. USSR (remember it?) becomes the undisputed only superpower while, for once, the US of A is depicted as a country in crisis, unable to save itself from total social and economic collapse. All that has allowed an evil Lex Luthor to start again and thrive in DC continuity is shown to be as capable of making him genuinely good when the basis for his being, the space of inalienable freedom, is being threatened.

This book drips with tasty allusions and possibilities from the moment you see its Superman wearing an inverted-S hammer-and-sickle symbol. Suddenly, the red cape becomes all that more charged — and do you further know that the name Stalin means “made of steel”? And are not the notion of a superhero and of a superpower synonymous, especially in the context of Cold War paranoia?  Does not the existence of a Superman contradict anything good he may possibly stand for: individual freedom (since he can take it away), struggle to excel (since he kills the competition), or equality (since he’s better than everyone else by nature)? Or, if you wear serious pants, must liberal democracy be the natural end of all political systems, or is Millar smarter than Francis Fukuyama?

And how do you re-interpret an almost endless list of key relationships for this otherworldly formation: Superman-Luthor, Superman-Jimmy Olson, Superman-Louis Lane, Superman-Lana Lang, Superman-the Kents, Superman-Bizarro, Superman-Wonder Woman, and, above all, Superman-Batman? In fact, this book turns Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns on its head, with its showdown between Supes and Bats being similar but different as you won’t exactly know who’s proper to cheer for. And it also alludes to other powerful storylines such as New Gods, What Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Watchmen, and President Luthor. The geekier you are, the more you take away.

In 3 movements, each building seamlessly over the last, Millar weaves an epic tale that shocks you on every page with its audacity, intelligence, seriousness, and implications. This is comic presentation as perfect as you will ever get, right down to the remarkable concluding pages which a million monkeys on a million typewriters for a million years will never produce. Not only is it highly difficult to better this interpretation of Superman, but it is probably impossible to provide a sequel since all elements are tightly fused. Just look at Search for Ray Palmer’‘s recent revisit: tried that and failed miserably. I could have told the DC Bolsheviks that you can’t copy a true original. Do yourself a favour: read this book, and, every time you feel that the world is a whole bag of cheap fertilisers, read it again, until you get it.

Gweek goose-marches around this book 10 times the times of 10.


One Response to “Superman: Red Son”

  1. judith Says:

    haha my jc boyfriend gave me this for my birthday. good stuff!

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