I’ll come right out and say it: Nobody cares about Clark Kent. Whereas Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight Trilogy was all about the man behind the mask, what Man of Steel got right was in focusing on Clark Kent as Superman. Bland, bespectacled nebbish Clark may have started out as the son of Jonathan and Martha, but he simply becomes a front for the Last Son of Krypton, a conveniently inconspicuous face to hide behind. Similarly, Superman works best when dealt with as a symbol: unlike with Batman, there’s not a great deal of complex psychology at work behind that spit curl. Its these reasons – and various others – that make Mark Miller‘s Superman: Red Son so intriguing.
If Superman has come to stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it makes sense to wonder, “What if Superman stood for something else?” What if, by quirk of fate, the infant Kal-El had touched down in the Soviet Union? What if he’d been raised to believe in Communism over capitalism, the cult over personality over the power of democracy? Superman: Red Son is divided between the US and USSR, but, appropriately, takes place on the world stage, the battlefield for two ideological superpowers, one of which has just discovered itself to be at a huge disadvantage. In one corner, standing in for the Soviet Union, we have Comrade Superman; in the other for the USA… Lex Luthor?!
Superman: Red Son is an alternate reality period piece. What really sets it apart is how recognizable elements from the mainstream DC Universe are incorporated into this new world. Lois Lane is the neglected wife of Lex Luthor, Jimmy Olsen is a CIA agent, and Batman wears a furry hat. However strange it may sound having the Man of Steel hobnobbing with his Russian namesake, Stalin, Miller makes you understand how a Superman raised by Ukrainian peasants might well come to be the leader of a tyrannical regime. In this context, it seems only natural that Lex Luthor might become a hero. Superman v. Lex Luthor, Communism v. capitalism, but neither of them is necessarily bad or good.
The whole story thrives on this moral ambiguity. Superman, the title character, the Big Blue Boy Scout himself, may want to make the world a better place, but he does it by turning people into indentured servants or, on occasion, literal robots. Lex Luthor, meanwhile, is willing to sacrifice millions of lives to prove his superiority over the Man of Tomorrow, but he succeeds in ushering humanity into a new Golden Age. Superman: Red Son shows us the latter half of the 20th Century (and beyond) as it would be if shaped by these two dueling forces, a scope and ambition that no other DC comic I can think of can compete with, no comic, in fact, short of Alan Moore‘s Watchmen.
But Superman: Red Son is more than just some dry sociopolitical treatise: It’s also a lot of fun. As well as Batman in a furry hat, we get new takes on Wonder Woman, Bizarro, the Green Lantern Corps – almost every major DC character makes an appearance in one form or another. While this risks giving the story a throwaway feel – there goes POW Hal Jordan; oh, look, it’s Stalingrad as Kandor – were they not also treated with such respect. Say what you want about Mark Millar’s other work, but he fundamentally *gets* Superman, and, as such, isn’t afraid to try something new. There’s nothing extraneous here and it all comes together magnificently. Even the title is a portentous bit of wordplay.
Superman: Red Son is the story of a world that is the same but different from what we expect. Superman, while arresting the falling wreckage of Sputnik 2, will still pause to return a child’s balloon. Lex Luthor might be the greatest human to ever live, but his jealousy of an alien visitor comes to define his life. Batman is an anarchist whose parents were murdered by the KGB. Even so, when Superman and Lois Lane first lay eyes on each other, it’s still love at first sight. It’s touches like this that make Superman: Red Son more than intellectual exercise, that saw Millar nominated for an Eisner Award – which, in my opinion, he deserved to win – and which make the whole thing truly special.
But what do you think? Is socialist Superman a masterstroke or is furry-hatted Batman a step too far? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!