Whether it be social, recreational, or professional, some of what represents me is here. Post a comment, or contact me at should you so desire.

The posts are in reverse chronological order, and are pegged by topic on the links to the left. For more of an introduction, please see the About this site page listed above.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Superman: Red Son

While waiting for the last picture to come in from Comic Con, I decided to write a review of Superman: Red Son, it being one of my favourite graphic novels, and possibly the best Superman story of all time.

That may be a huge claim, and I welcome anyone to challenge me on it. With the exception of Kingdom Come, (my review will be coming soon!), Superman: Red Son is one of the best Superman stories to ever grace the page and, being an avid fan who's read every Superman comic from 1986-2006, the first 10 years of the Superman stories and countless issues in the middle and afterward, I am a self-proclaimed expert.

And humble, always humble. I warn you now that there are spoilers below, and that this review can never hope to present all that is good about this story.

Known as an Elseworlds tale, (DC's version of the what-if), Red Son's premise is simple: What would the world be like if Superman crash-landed in Moscow? That simple question evolves into one of the most striking, exhilarating, poignant political stories I have ever seen in graphic novel form.

The great thing about this graphic novel is that you don't need a history of Superman's normal origin in order to understand what's going on. In fact, that's the point; this story is to replace the original, and rewrite it in a new and creative way.

The story takes place during the Cold War, that tense time which seems to have provided so many interesting superhero graphic novels (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, etc.), and opens with America receiving notice that the Russians seem to have some sort of new superpower which threatens capitalism and democracy everywhere. This superpower is, of course, Superman, a dyed-in-the-wool (or whatever it's made of) communist, who spent his early years growing up on a farm in Russia and learning to embrace the ideals of communism and the ways of Stalin.

For quite some time, nothing can stand against the might of Superman or the communist regime. I mean, you've heard the phrase, "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive"? Well, Superman's powers tend to go beyond that. He has superhearing which allows him to pretty much hear everything in the world at once if he concentrates, he can move "6 times the speed of thought" if he wants to, and not only does nothing seem to be able to kill him, he's immensely strong.

Pretty much single-handedly, Superman carries the ideas of communism across the globe and shuts down anyone who stands in his way. Now, it's important to say that Superman doesn't just force the world to see things his way, as that's not his style. Rather, he promotes communism and whenever the Russian Empire expands, Superman's mere presence is enough to dissuade most opponents.

At first, Superman is willing to just use his presence to persuade the world to fall in line, and he uses his powers to avert any disasters as they arise. What's so great about this story is that the character of Superman is virtually the same as the original: he's trying to be a good person, fighting for what he believes will benefit the greater good. Additionally, communist rule is not, generally, portrayed as evil, but rather a system to try and help everyone achieve equality. In fact, for a while, the empire and all its citizens are doing quite well, if total employment, peace, and a lack of poverty, crime, and hunger, are any indication of a well taken care of society. It's that last part which poses the problem; being taken care of.

The entire conflict of the graphic novel stems from those who would fight the communist rule, namely America, and strangely enough, Batman. America's chief opponent to Superman is, of course, Lex Luthor, and I'll get into that a little more later. Russia's main opponent to Superman is the aforementioned Batman.

Here, we see a bit of re-imagining in characters as well. Instead of being a rich family's American son, whose parents were murdered by a criminal, inspiring a man to seek a life of avenging crime, Batman's parents were Russian citizens who protested communist rule. They argued that the people of the motherland had traded freedom for security and, as Ben Franklin once wrote, this gains nothing. During their protests, Batman's parents were murdered, shot down by a high-ranking member of Stalin's party.

Batman then spends his life working toward bringing down the system imposed by Superman. Batman is the perfect "symbol of rebellion that would never fade as long as the system survived" as Superman himself puts it.

And he almost does it. I mean, it's Batman. In a horrifying standoff, Batman nearly beats Superman to death and attempts to cage him forever. Wonder Woman plays a part as well. At first, she is Superman's most devout of comrades, but Batman's last stand with Superman changes all of that. Batman fights to the death against Superman and his rule and after this, Wonder Woman is convinced that Superman is not trying to achieve world peace, but rather world domination.

As the story progresses, Superman has to take on more and more power in order to enforce communist rule. While he's seen as a tyrant, Superman does what he does because he believes he can help people. He becomes the President of Russia because he sees that the current system is not feeding his people, not providing for them. Because total control seems to be an inherent necessity for communism to work, at least as far as comic books and my limited political/historical knowledge are concerned, Superman must take on more responsibilities in order to protect his people, keep them safe, and raise their quality of life.

The problem, of course, is that he goes too far. Contrary to the normal Superman story where The Man of Steel sees problems with the system but refuses to interfere, the Superman in this story feels that it's his responsibility to step in, because there are problems with the world, and he needs to fix them.

Unfortunately, power corrupts, and in order for Superman to have total control, he must have no dissidents. While the beginning of the story seems to question the red scare, the latter half shows us how bad things can get. Superman's need for control causes him to brainwash anyone who opposes him. With his communist rule spreading, only America, lead by Lex Luthor, stands in his way.

Luthor had spent years trying to destroy Superman, and for anyone familiar with the normal DC universe, it is interesting how in this story, many of the villains and creatures who oppose Superman, like the Parasite and Doomsday, were all creations of Lex Luthor.

Becoming the president of the US and promoting capitalism, Luthor presents a real threat to communist rule. The people are no longer willing to be so obedient if they see that another way exists and works just as well, if not better, to keep the people safe, equal, and strong. Superman realizes that if he doesn't take control of America, and garner total world domination, everything he has worked so hard for will be ruined.

Lex Luthor is an interesting character and, as a friend of mine always puts it, "A character rarely done correctly." While I argue with my friend on the point of whether Lex Luthor is a good guy or a bad one, in this story, he is mostly portrayed as a good guy. His genius is prolific, and he uses it to try and stop the Russian superthreat. Sometimes, his measures are a little extreme, but they always work, and in this story, they are always for the greater goal of stopping Superman and ending the march of communism.

Luthor, of course, has been planning for Superman's eventual invasion, and toward the end of the story, we get a fight of epic proportions. A corps of Green Lanterns, Wonder Woman, and the entire American forces face off against Superman, to no avail. All hope seems lost, until Luthor presents his version of Kryptonite.

By the way, there doesn't seem to be any normal Kryptonite, the material which can kill Superman, in this story. An obvious and interesting plot choice, obvious because with it, the story would be over faster than, say, a speeding bullet.

Anyway, earlier in the story, Brainiac, a supercomputer from Superman's long lost homeworld, shrunk down Stalingrad in an attempt to capture and enslave Superman. The city's citizens are perfectly fine, except that they are extremely tiny and try as he might Superman is unable to revert them to a normal size. It haunts Superman that he is unable to fix this problem, and it is this problem which Luthor uses to destroy Superman.

In the crescendo of the story, Luthor asks, "Why don't you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?" It is a momentous climax, in which Superman realizes what he has done, realizes he is no better than Brainiac, and realizes that his ways must end. As usual, missiles, bombs, and bullets are no match for the Man of Steel, but it is his heart which brings about his downfall.

As the denouement unfolds, we are shown a world wherein Lex Luthor, and his genius, make Earth a paradise. All diseases are cured, life expectancy is vastly increased, and the people unite in a way never before dreamed. The interesting part of the tale is that as the future is described, we notice that things seem familiar, or at least familiar to anyone who knows the original Superman tale. It seems that the lost world of Kryton, which Superman is from, is in fact Earth many eons in the future. Sensing that their world is dying, Jor-El, Superman's father, and in this story Luthor's descendent, sends Superman back in time to try and save their planet.

Superman: Red Son is 99% perfect. The art is an incredible blend of the classic Superman style with that of Cold War propaganda. The harsh, angular lines, combined with the predominant red and black seen throughout Russia, complement the ideas of stern communist rule. Unlike some graphic novels, I found nothing to be exaggerated unnecessarily. The artwork is believable where it needs to be, and incredible in the true sense of the word where it needs to be.

The story itself is a brilliant re-imagining. Starting from a simple premise, we see a world unfold, staying true to the characters that die-hard fans know and love, but spinning them differently. The story's themes, are captivating and wonderfully thought-provoking. Power, control, and how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions, all are explored and analyzed and torn apart in this tale.

Superman is a force of good. That is his character, that is how he has been portrayed everywhere. But here, like an over-protective parent, Superman goes too far. At first, his people embrace it, and take it for granted, even going so far as to not wear seatbelts because Superman will save them. Eventually, they realize they are being coddled and not everyone can stand for that. Superman's need to protect people causes him to feel the need to control them. It is a wonderfully depressing journey and speaks a lot about the human condition, asking the age-old question as to whether the end justifies the means.

You may have noticed I said it was 99% perfect. The reason I believe is, is because the ending of the story depicts Superman's craft crashing in the Ukraine, thus continuing the time loop we've seen so far. However, I think if he had crashed in Kansas at the end of this story, we would be left with something more. Instead of a cyclical, somewhat depressing ending in which nothing was bound to change, this story could be considered an alternative to the classic origin story, and would leave the audience considering the dichotomy between Superman being raised as a capitalist American and being raised as a communist Russian. This mirror, this duality of approach, incited by having the loop be broken, would make the story a perfect comparison between the Superman we know and love and that which was featured here.

But, you can't win them all, and really, the story is still sheer brilliance. Honestly, whenever anyone asks to be introduced to comic books, a good Superman story, superheroes, and/or compelling story-telling combined with a questioning of morality and the human condition, I recommend this story. I don't get asked for my recommendation often, but if I did, well, haha, I would recommend Superman: Red Son.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone interested in reading about another side of Superman, check this out:

    Anyone interested in reading about why Lex Luthor is awesome, give this a read: