Imagine for a moment an alternative twist on the Superman mythology. What if the infant from Krypton had entered Earth’s atmosphere just a few hours earlier – and had landed not in Kansas, but in the Ukraine? And what if that prodigious alien child had been raised by collective farm workers whose values were at odds with “the American way”? How would the arrival of a superhuman being alter a supposedly egalitarian society, and how would it shift the Cold War stalemate of two military super-powers? Would utopian dreams and the power to impose them lead to massive state control?
Published in 2003 as a three-issue mini-series and soon to reappear as a deluxe hardcover volume, Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son delights in such reversals and the questions that arise. In a skewed nod to the 1940s animated series, a Soviet TV broadcast announces: “A strange visitor from another world who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands and who, as the champion of the common worker, fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.”
Millar develops an intriguing premise with a story spanning geological time, fusing events and figures from real history with those of the comic book’s own. (Stalin figures prominently, as do Eisenhower, JFK, rogue Batmen, the suppression of free speech and anxieties over terrorism.) Millar’s inverted global scenario also features a not-so-United States, in which Georgia, Texas and Detroit are fighting for independence. In a suitably perverse manoeuvre, the fate of American capitalism – and liberty itself - hinges on a brilliant and amoral scientist named Lex Luthor, a man with presidential ambitions and an estranged wife named Lois. The obsessive and brutal Luthor must stop Soviet expansionism and avert the twilight of the West, armed only with a hand-written note and a piece of alien jewellery - found, naturally enough, in Roswell, New Mexico.
The influence of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is detectable in Millar’s neatly symmetrical conclusion, but Moore’s influence is particularly felt in how Millar suggests a superhuman being might inadvertently change his adoptive society and the broader geopolitical world. As Superman deals with an increasingly routine shipping disaster, the man of steel ponders his impact on those he protects: “Sometimes I wonder if Luthor and the Americans are right. Perhaps we do interfere with humanity too much. Nobody wears a seatbelt anymore. Ships have even stopped carrying lifejackets. I don’t like this unhealthy new way people are behaving…”
Millar’s book is in part an elaborate riff on Superman#300, in which the rocket from Krypton lands in neutral waters with both Soviet and American forces eager to claim its contents; but it’s also a character study, albeit one of an alien refugee from a long-dead world. (The book’s title is both a play on our hero’s Communist outlook and a reference to the cause of Krypton’s destruction.) The reversal of political backdrop and inversion of the familiar inevitably raises questions of nature and nurture, and throws into sharp relief both the contradictions of Communism and the comforting assumptions behind this all-American symbol. With its graphic hybrid of Soviet Expressionism and Fifties comic book styling, Red Son is an engaging yarn, and likely to reward long-time comic fans and newcomers alike.
Superman: Red Son is republished by DC on November 17th.