Superman: Red Son (2003)
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett
There is a school of thought (explained most famously in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable) that places comics at the center of an alternative documentation of history. The way this works is simple: it does not matter how outlandish the hero his. It does not matter whether he is impervious to bullets, is bitten by a radioactive spider or possesses a green ring that outstrips the most dangerous weapons known to mankind. If he or she fights real-world, historical villains, or engages with an issue that has got the attention of the public, these adventures can present us with an unbroken chain of historical shadow accounts. And because these documents are armed with the sort of license that actual historians are seldom afforded, they may end up being more vibrant and more honest than a lot of other accounts. Even a cursory examination of the villains that Superman or Captain America have fought in their canonical comics is a virtual who’s who of the gallery of rogues: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and the spectre of communism in general; even American superheroes believe in the occasional dose of shock and awe.
This is where DC’s Elseworld imprint came in. It sought to take heroes like Superman and Batman and place them in scenarios that invert their loyalties, their motivations and to an extent, the choices that end up defining them. The high point of this experiment was Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, a three-part limited series that re-imagined Superman as a champion of communism; he was raised on a “collective farm” in Ukraine and grew up to become Stalin’s greatest weapon and the shield of the USSR.
“Who do you think you are flying around and wearing our flag? How can they call you a symbol of everything we believe in when you aren’t even from this planet? You’re the opposite of Marxist doctrine, Superman. You’re living proof that all men aren’t created equal.”
The smartest thing that Millar does in these books is that he doesn’t merely invert Superman; he treats Cold War-era America and USSR as characters and completely turns their rhetoric around as well. Most American comics of yore portray Russia as a power-hungry rogue state while their own country is depicted as well-intentioned but poorly governed. In Red Son, this is reversed neatly, through a simple plot twist: the most powerful and influential man in USA is a red-haired scientist called… Lux Luthor, who likes nothing more than to humiliate a half-a-dozen scientists at chess simultaneously (chess being the real-world Soviet Union’s strong suit). Millar’s point comes through loud and clear: with the right spin, the most blatant tyranny can come across as a benevolent, rights-based regime.
Millar, best known for Wanted and Kick-Ass, both successful movies now, has a strong panel-by-panel grip on the action and dialogue is his strength area. When Stalin’s chief of security (who’s also his illegitimate son) goes off into a drunken rant against Superman, he raises more than a few uncomfortable questions, things that would have been almost equally valid in the canonical Superman world as well. “Who do you think you are flying around and wearing our flag? How can they call you a symbol of everything we believe in when you aren’t even from this planet? You’re the opposite of Marxist doctrine, Superman. You’re living proof that all men aren’t created equal.”
The fun really begins when Pyotr narrates the story of how he gunned down a dissident couple in front of their young boy. “The kid couldn’t be more than nine years old, but his glare would have stopped a clock ticking. Those weren’t a child’s eyes. They looked too patient. I will never forget the way that boy stared at me.” The accompanying art work shows the buy letting out a primal scream of fury even as a swarm of bats fly in formation overhead… you know that this will come back to bite Pyotr and the (Soviet) Man of Steel in the ass. This boy, who comes to be known as “the anarchist in black”, is just one of the many tricks Millar has up his sleeve. Red Son is a must-read because of its political wisdom and its entertaining subversion of the canon.