Superman: Red Son
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Is it controversial to say that this is the best comic that Mark Millar has ever wrote or is it just you know – super obvious?
I mean – the actual thing that feels really obvious (and is sure to piss off everyone everywhere) is that Superman: Red Son feels like the best Grant Morrison comic that Grant Morrison never wrote. Like the whole constant never-ending propulsion of it kinda makes you feel like you’re watching a movie stuck on permanent fast forward. Like All Star Superman starts with the massively compressed “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” but Red Son skips even that so that when the book starts Superman has already landed, become himself and is narrating the damn book you’re reading and the first spoken lines “Lous Lane. I mean, Luthor. Lois Luthor.” is a whole story in itself.
(Incidentally – am I the only one who got reminded of the start of War of the Worlds? Red Son opens with ““In the middle of the twentieth century, the telephones started ringing all across America as rumours of my existence started circulating.” which I dunno – kinda reminds me of this: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.” Like yeah it’s just the numbered century bit – but also: it’s a cool little note to strike especially because Superman is the ultimate being from another world – no?)
What is also cool is how weaponises all of the DC mythos so that what in the course of any other comic would be fun little easter eggs instead work to increase the feeling of doom and dread which hangs over every inch of everything. I mean of course it’s never the funniest thing when Batman’s parents get killed – but here it’s has an extra grim edge (coupled with the idea that pops up later in the book – that there are multiple Batmans and maybe the origin is just one amongst many – a country where the idea of Batman spreads like a disease in the water supply). But yeah – Bizarro as somekind of noble misunderstood Frankenstein, Green Lantern as an Area 51 exhibit. Whoops – sorry again with the All Star Superman comparison – but in that book when Superman’s hideway is first introduced it’s a Silver Age marvel of joy while in Red Son it’s “They say he’s building some kind of fortress” which you know – brrrrrr.
But hey actually the two most important and interesting things about Red Son is the treatment of Superman and the treatment of Russia.
Russia first: Superman Red Son was released back at the start of the 21st Century (2003) as part of the DC Elseworlds thingie (Altogether now “In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places–some that have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist.”) and obviously back then the enemy under the bed was Osama bin Laden and The Talibans and the idea of The Russians being a threat to Western civilisation would either be dismissed as nostalgia or silliness (or maybe both?). Like: one of the things that all the comics / films / TV I’ve imbibed over the years has taught me is that there ain’t no one out there who’s a threat to us and whenever there’s a mainstream consensus about “who the real bad guys are” then that’s the point when you should start to look the other way. Like I kinda way say that this whole “the Russians the Russians” thing is like Pennywise the clown being a thing again but then of course he is so I’m not quite sure what that tells us? Other than the fact that people very much like to have enemies that they can point their finger at.
(Open question: if Superman: Red Son isn’t the best Elseworld’s tale – what is?)
But even in Red Son which on the face of it would be the perfect place to do some good old fashioned Soviet-bashing (and you know what? I couldn’t fault it if it wanted to – seeing how the entire pitch of the story on the face of it seems to be: “What if Superman was one of the bad guys?” actually kinda skips over the obvious stuff and actually goes out of it’s way to highlight some of the good parts of Communist rule (“Well I must admit that the Soviet record on Women’s Rights is most impressive Comrade Stalin”). Like the in the introduction Tom DeSanto says it exactly right when he says: “In the hands of a lesser writer the story would have fallen into cookie cutter, black and white, America good, Soviets bad, feel-good propaganda. Thank God Mark Millar is not a lesser writer. And thank God his favourite color seems to be grey.” – but so much so that it’s almost impossible to discern Red Son’s political viewpoint. Like – is 2003 Mark Millar a secret communist? Or is he just a capitalist without the blinkers on? Like he’s almost on some Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin shit you know?
But then hell – I suspect the real subject matter of Superman: Red Son isn’t Russia or politics or Communism vs Capitalism at all. In fact – I think the real fascination is how it treats Superman. Namely in this very nifty little slight of hand – the obvious formulation at the heart of the comic is that – Superman will always be Superman. No matter which country he is born in. No matter how he grew up. There will always be at the heart of him a desire to make the world a better and nicer place. That bit with this falling Daily Planet globe and the kid with the balloon? That’s right there is the pure essence of Superman.
Put in a bottle and people would wear it as perfume you know?
But here’s the really interesting thing for me: if Red Son version Superman is just the same as Original Recipe Superman – then where is the break between how they end up? Like there’s that bit when Red Son Superman meets Lana Lazarenko in the bread queue and he has this epiphany when he’s all like “Tell your friends they don’t have to be scared or hungry anymore comrades. Superman is here to rescue them.” which again you know – is a very Superman thing to say but also sets up the rest of the book. But erm – here’s the thing: if Original Recipe Superman ever saw a homeless person in American – wouldn’t he say the very same thing? (Maybe it would help if it was a homeless person he knew? Altho erm – that doesn’t seem like a very Superman thing to do but whatever: it does make more emotional sense if it’s someone he knows: but then ha – maybe that’s problem with emotional sense?). Or to put it another way – Superman doing his best to make the whole world a better place doesn’t seem like somekind of Soviet aberration to me instead it just feels like – oh yeah well of course: that’s like the logical end point of Superman. Of course he would make the world a better place. Like at the risk of being too crass – how do you guys feel like Superman would act if he lived in a world where Trump was President? Hell – if any of the presidents were president. Like: someone with all that power and that sense of morality would be compelled to make the whole world a better place right? And not just draw the line at fighting super-powered bad guys… (Whoops sorry – are my politics showing?).
And yeah: that for me is the cool thing about Superman: Red Son – is that it takes the idea of Superman to the next logical step. And actually the Russia stuff is all just a smoke-screen. Like: you could land Superman in Kansas and still actually tell the exact same story.
By the way: did anyone else ever hear about Mark Millar’s pitch for a Godfather-like Superman trilogy? “”I want to start on Krypton, a thousand years ago, and end with Superman alone on Planet Earth, the last being left on the planet, as the yellow sun turns red and starts to supernova, and he loses his powers.”
Who knows? Maybe it’ll still happen.
Anything is possible – right?
So despite the fact everyone loves it I ignored Red Son up until now because I was worried is portrayal of Communism would be tediously predictable. And it was.
Joel is absolutely right that it is a smoke screen in the story, but I guess if you gave me the exam question: what would a Communist Superman do – a Superman who really stood for justice? He’d be preventing yet another black teenager being shot by cops; preventing Western arms shipments to Syria and Saudi Arabia; smashing holes in Guantanamo Bay and Yarls Wood; reporting as a front line journalist on corporate murder by extractive companies – and that if he was just operating within the US sphere of influence. Instead he ends up in Soviet Russia and not that Millar’s story is simplistic but ugh as a backdrop it’s like if Superman lived in Vichy France to fight the Nazis but it portrayed France like “Allo ‘Allo.”
There is an excellent episode of the Justice League Animated Series (genuinely hard to think of any DC output which is better than this) called A Better World (2003) where Superman uses his heat vision to fry Lex Luther’s brain (lobotomising him). Chillingly Batman arrives 2 seconds later and sighs “it had to be done”. This leads to the creation of the Justice Lords where the league rules with an increasingly intolerant iron fist. It’s not as epic as Millar’s version but it does the “what if Superman were president thing” really well in about 30 minutes.
That being said I do really like the setup, which I guess is like being outside Nato or the nuclear umbrella, where fantastically powerful forces could crush your country and you would be complete powerless to stop them – indeed as they destroyed your home they would be telling you I was for some greater good. What if America were in the position of Iran where people on the news openly discuss your country being flattened as if that was not only just the cost of doing business, but something necessary for the world order? But having made this brilliant set up the critique seems to almost lose interest in itself and it becomes a sort of game of Risk between Lex and Superman. I get what Joel is saying about it being on fast-forward mode, but I feel like I wanted more of what it said on the packet. Red Sons says Fruit and Fibre but it’s mostly fruit.
The Soviet Batman is also just Batman. Yeah he’s anti-authoritarian but he is basically doing the same stuff – he could have been Bat Qaeda. As it happens I really like the idea of a Batman from the other-verse where we never see Bruce Wayne and Batman is purely the antagonist. I am sure it’s been done (please let me know) but following the story of a petty criminal on the margins of society, he robs the jewellery store, escapes across the roof tops and down the fire escape into a darkened alley. Suddenly he is flung down the alley with force that’s like being hit by a car except completely silent, he picks himself up and looks around for what hit him. There’s only darkness. Then in the gloom 2 points of light appear, like eyes, they are moving towards him, the darkness is moving towards him and he can feel the weight through the air like an incoming train, he cowers oblivious to the piss running down his leg. Then with a rush he is suddenly held a loft for a second in the air and his whole vision is just the outline of the mask and the cold unblinking eyes as he is held up powerlessly like a child, those eyes beyond law, beyond mercy. He hears the horrible clicks as both his shoulders are dislocated and then the darkness is gone. He lies on the ground in agony but it’s almost a relief to hear the sirens in the distance.
But while I am happy with that bit of writing, if you zoom out it leaves lots of questions. Why was the man stealing? Did he even have a choice? So maybe he wakes up in hospital and gets an envelope with a cheque for his kid’s leukaemia treatment and an interview invitation at a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises, but every time he goes to sleep he sees those eyes.
Similarly when we meet Superman he is just preventing disasters, but disasters while terrible are not the big social killers. Not by a long way. And naturally it turns out that disasters often affect the poor more severely. As Joel says even Capitalist Superman after a 2-3 years of returning to the same flood planes and earthquake zones would realise there was a need for long term intervention – if only because it’s not a good use of his time.
Mr Incredible points this out at the very start of The Incredibles “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know?! For a little bit. I feel like the maid: “I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for, for 10 minutes?! Please?!”
So this maybe state intervention, but it’s not necessarily communism, and Superman’s philosophy is just Big State. It’s the same philosophy Frank Miller criticised in Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a parent pleasing Boy Scout even in the USSR.
Reading what Jonathan wrote I had my skinny fist pointed like an antenna to heaven. Hell yes! Fully Automated Luxury Communist Superman FTW! Like – how awesome would it be to read something where instead of fighting bad guys that were just individuals Superman was actually fighting the bad guy that is the system of neoliberal Capitalism that is slowly killing us all / making us miserable / etc.
But then wait – here’s the thing that’s been in my head recently – like what does it matter? Even if Mark Millar wrote the best version of Communist Superman that there could ever be – how much would it really change? Like when I was just a kid I was a totally pure 100% believer in the idea that – dagnamit – if we could only change the media products that people consumed then overnight we would wake up in a glorious new dawn of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. The only thing holding us back was that more people need to listen to Radiohead.
Nowadays tho I’m a lot more cynical. Like we had a guy from South America at the Barbican Comic Forum last week talking about how there needs to be more South America superheroes and yeah you know – I’m not against the idea (What if Superman was from Brazil? What if Superman was from Cuba? What is Superman was from England?*) I’m doubtful as to it’s power of social progress. Like basically: if someone’s viewpoint can be changed by reading a comic then hmmm – well – that seems a little bit suspicious no? Like maybe it’s the case that your opinions were changed by the things that you read but then we’re getting into a whole twisty little loop about how if you’re the sort of person that has an open-mind then you’re always going to more susceptible to the media you consume while those that aren’t – aren’t.
(Is it… dynamite?)
And at the risk of being slightly damning – I kinda think that this urge to want the media we consume to be more right-on and woke and morally good and the rest of it is maybe more about ourselves than the rest of the world (search your feelings – you know it to be true). Like – speaking personally: yeah I know that lovely feeling that you can feel in your chest when you watch something that agrees perfectly with your worldview (erm for some reason The Mist springs to mind LOL) but as hard as it might be to admit this – I don’t think there’s going to be a revolution if everyone opened their Netflix and that was the only film available you know? Like as much as I wish it were otherwise – real social change isn’t to be found in making sure our media is all on message it’s probably more well you know – doing actual boring social change stuff… organizing / protesting / speaking to people / changing hearts and minds (and LOL who has time for that?).
And well yeah: the trick of superhero comics and their ilk is how they create that thought and feeling in those that read them (and I’ll put my hand up and say I’m as guilty of this as anyone) in that when you read them the power fantasy isn’t only that you can imagine that you’re super-strong and all the rest – but that the world can be so simple and so easy and so right that it can all be fixed if only people read the right things.
You know – David Cameron said he liked The Smiths and I bet Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t even know who they are.
*Oh wait – actually – that last one is a real comic which OMG was co-written by John Motherfucking Cleese called – URG – True Brit? And you should never ever read it as long as you all shall live. Amen.
“I’m doubtful as to it’s power of social progress. Like basically: if someone’s viewpoint can be changed by reading a comic then hmmm – well – that seems a little bit suspicious no?”
I figure it’s like chaos theory. The right thing at the right time can maybe make you ask yourself something, get you questioning things and maybe thinking a thought you otherwise wouldn’t. No-one (sane) is going to read a leaflet and magically change outside of hollywood/fox news, but if you believe people can grow, something has to start that process.
If people don’t know it, I’d recommend (with caveats) a read of Strong Female Protagonist. It rapidly vanishes up it’s own arse, but it’s a genuine attempt to explore ‘hey, what if a superhero reallised how just punching the joker out each week wasn’t solving anything’.
I loved Red Son when I read it – I was drunk, uni-age, and knew fuck-all history, which made me about the perfect audience. I’d always hated superhero stuff for being so predictable, so it was really fun to see something really push who a character was. In hindsight, it feels a bit weak when I know Watchmen was out first.
I’m trying to think – who would Superman really be if he was the great communist? I don’t think it’d be a great comic book, because he’d be so differently-focused. He’d be all about groups, social improvement, and putting others before himself, right? (my knowledge of trad-communism is… not great, but can’t be much worse than Rando J Farmer’s, right?) Maybe he’d just have been “hey, you (ALL of you) guys don’t worry about farming anymore, I got this. Send me some borscht once in a while, ta.” Maybe ‘hey, lets sort some sort of crank-based power system”?
“yeah I know that lovely feeling that you can feel in your chest when you watch something that agrees perfectly with your worldview (erm for some reason The Mist springs to mind LOL) but as hard as it might be to admit this – I don’t think there’s going to be a revolution if everyone opened their Netflix and that was the only film available you know? “
Oof, the power of art to change minds. [cracks knuckles, rolls up sleeves]. So I guess for me there are 2 roles for art in ideology, but neither of those are supply. Wherever you get them from you need to build some theoretical principles about how the world works and for me that’s a basic analysis of class relationships which then filter through media, politics, law, school, food and of course art. Being able to criticise art on a capitalist/anti-capitalist was like my first step in to a wider world because once you see it you can’t unsee it. Weird how I got that by the age of 16. It it took me the same length of time to again to gain a useful feminist critique. Maybe destroying capitalism will be much easier than ending the patriarchy 😦
But anyway once you see the war and how that’s played you wonder why nobody else can see it, because damn it’s an actual war and you turn on the news and the presenter doesn’t acknowledge this huge struggle at the heart of every story. They will say “well how can the government deal with housing crisis, hmm yes it’s a very thorny issue, so complex” and I’ll be yelling at the radio “there’s no crisis for them, the Champagne they are drinking right now was directly paid for by the iniquity in property ownership, arghhhh! [throws radio against the wall where it lands in a pile of broken and dented radios].” And this is everywhere in every film, book, comic and TV show.
So exactly as Joel says, in this desert when you see something, anything, like La Haine, or the Bill Hicks “We looked at the receipt” bit, or fuck even the joke in Friends about GI Joe https://youtu.be/wkKs3RXJGtc then it’s the warm friendly feeling to know you’re not alone screaming into the void. So for me art isn’t changing my mind, but it can provide mental sustenance which was super-handy when everyone says “you’re just a conspiracy theorist” or they say with a patient smile “well it’s a nice theory but they tried communism and it didn’t work” at the very least you can know that if you are delusional then you aren’t the only one. But man it was bleak in the 90s, everyone thought that Blair and Clinton and the EU were gonna fix everything, and if like me you find yourself on the wrong side of that you have to be like a truth camel, storing up little pieces of reality until the next Noam Chomsky book comes out.
So I’m not getting the “hmm tasty solidarity” flavour from Red Son, I already know that I’m gonna get “well even Superman couldn’t get Communism to work lol.” Like the story (presumably for issues of brevity) glosses over exactly how Lex trebles American GDP or whatever, because it wouldn’t work in the situation they were in, that would be magic. You can only sustain our way of life with a vast global empire, to do it with just resources found in North America, and to get the cheap labour required to build all that would require an actual twelfth level intellect. It would also ironically require dismantling the class system and putting in place some sort of Leninist war-communism.
So the second role of art is useful is as a reference-able short hand example of underlying principles. I mean we’ve all done it but 1984 as the sort of go-to text for Liberals is super handy as a sort of bogeyman story. I’m watching Handmaid’s Tale at the moment and I guess that’s doing the same job. But the message for both of those is not revolution for the Proletariat, it’s just “enjoy what small freedom you have now cos fascism is just round the corner.” At least where Handmaid’s gets it right is that it notes that surface level contradictions bound up in liberalism mean that fascism will always be round the corner. Red Son thinks that… well who knows what Red Son thinks? it’s all over the place – but it’s something something if you try to babysit humanity then by extension you must enslave them. Completely reasonable point but means that sadly if you are a post-capitalist then you either have to draw out a really detailed Smurfs analysis or you have to hope the person in the pub you’re arguing with happens to be a massive Ursula Le Guin fan, and then not in the hope they’ll instantly join Antifa, but that they won’t be completely disingenuous for the rest of the argument (also if I trick them in to telling me their real name I can control them magically).
What’s weird for me is the extent I am a Corbynista is that I think that in a sensible society The Labour Party’s views would represent the most right-wing end of reasonable political discourse. “What’s that you think we should still have police and an army and prisons? Fwoof calm down there grandad, I guess you’re too set in your ways to know any better.” It would be cool to see some stuff that articulated that unspoken vision of freedom which presently occupies the gaps between cultural artefacts, that currently exists at best as a photo-negative of our existing culture which is the promise Red Son makes but gets nowhere near.
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
Ima run off my own take before I engage:
So this is part of the era of work that made MM the IP factory he is today. Between this, Kick-Ass and Wanted (not to mention the earlier springboard of Ultimate Avengers) – he was in many ways, the definitive main stream comic writer of the decade.
There’s a thread that runs through this work, much in the way Alan Moore defined the 80s by deconstructing the underlying absurdity of the moral absolutism that the genre was based on. MM is about zooming in on the wish fulfillment that presupposes engagement with Superhero comics, that child like hook “that I want to be the strongman in the sky” (as well as a desire to be that morally strong/good) and turning it into a Faustian pact.
“You want super powers? I’ll give you superpowers”
With Kick-Ass, it was all about the fact you could save the world, but you’d still be the nerd at high school – the external power change wouldn’t change who you were on the inside (Nolan is crying). With Wanted, it was about following the rage that so often comes with a sense of powerlessness and following it through to the end without consequences. It’s fun, but it’s also horrible and pointless. You can yell fuck you all you want and rule the world – but your still a twat.
So where does that leave Red Son? Well it leaves us with Luthor. In a way he’s the hero of this story – he saves the world. And the how he manages to eventually do that, tells us a lot of dark things about aspiration, at least from MM’s seat in the room.
Luthor could have always saved the world, but he spent 50 years trying to kill Superman. Which to me, says 2 things – one actively political, the other comic book.
1.) It’s a pretty apt satirical take on America – Luthor, is introduced as a mind that is pushing America forward to impossible heights, lets it go to rot when he gets busy trying to kill Superman. He only reclaims America from dystopia when it suits his last, great anti-Superman plot. So America, post WW2, FDR, Marshall Plan, they weren’t being complete geopolitical dickheads. Then there’s an enemy in Russia and they spend the next forever tearing up everything – instead of continuing on with things like Glass-Steagal or the new deal, they turned themselves into “Freedom Land “, let itself quietly go to rot whilst busying themselves trying to set the rest of the world on fire in the name of…stuff? Luthor could have saved America whenever he wanted, he let it go to shit because he was trying to kill Superman/Russia.
2.) The strength and power that the heroes in the genre have, that wish fulfillment lust that drives us to them? It’ll never save the world, brains will. Superman’s journey is to accept that for all his moral and physical strength – the best thing he can do is walk away and let a Luthor, content with the belief that he is the best, save everyone.
So Red Son then, it’s place in MM’s commentary on the messy logic behind the power (physical or moral) lust drives so many of us into the genre, is to take the most powerful hero of all, play him as a great hero – regardless of where he lands (which is really the point of Red Son) – and say, super good people with super strong powers will never save the world – extreme intelligence and aspiration, regardless of whether or not their heralded by a amoral jackass will.
“You’ve got your powers. Now go read a fucking book”
Superman saves the world and his own story by realising that all he’s done is let the smartest man imaginable fixate on the wrong target – an individual over the collective.
(One thing I want to flag up – the way MM writes intelligence in this story is peak Moffat good. He’s clearly having all the fun in the world writing stuff like “no this is just the formula to balance the national budget, you have to apply it” or Luthor’s speeches about how easily he won chess matches. Intelligence is truly a superpower with Luthor and it’s painfully fun here. It’s some of the best writing I’ve come across of late)
The nature v nurture stuff you guys have touched on is interesting as well, defo agree on that front. I do like Millar’s vantage that these guys would be heroes wherever they land. Superman would still be Superman, Batman would still be Batman – and a douchebag is still a douchebag regardless of whatever political idea they want to justify their behaviour through.
Jonathan – you say many brilliant things, but The Smurfs and Chomsky images are some of the best things I’ve ever seen. I for one want to see the unified underlying linguistic patterns of Cybertron.
On the whole power of art to change minds/make us go “allelujah” – I mean it’s all a matter of being open minded isn’t it? Frank Miller’s Holy Terror is offensive and gross – but it’s still deeply powerful storytelling. When a truly great story teller is on form, they can rewrite your brain. Good stories always come from a seed of human/political truth – if they’ve got a good idea (and all the rest) they can inspire you to think differently. Think what Fight Club did to you when you were a wee one and saw it for the first time.
I mean that’s the definition of great art – it made you think differently. That’s kind of the point of it for me – I want to open a book or walk into a room and come out with a rescrambled bigger brain.