Sunday, 30 June 2013

Superman: Red Son

You could be forgiven for seeing Mark Millar’s name of the front of Superman: Red Son and assuming that it’s going to be yet another smash-‘em-up with little thought behind it. That is after all what Millar’s known for. And in his defence he’s very good at it. But Red Son is a little more than that.

In the fine tradition of DC’s Elseworld books Red Son attempts to provide a satisfying answer to a fairly basic question: what if Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, had crash-landed in Russia instead of the good ol’ US of A? The obvious answer is that Superman would grow up a red commie, and that’s exactly what happens.

Supes is raised to follow the creed of communism, but the character’s trait of caring for all the peoples of the world remains. Millar presents us with an interesting version of Superman: one who still cares about the world at large but shows it through the values and rhetoric of communism. It allows for some nice moments that play on the traditional interpretation of Superman. It’s a blend of the familiar and the peculiar, unexpected because it’s not generally the sort of thing Millar does.

The plot is a similar mix, giving us predictable and bizarre in equal measure. A Russian Batman crops up, determined to bring down the evil alien oppressor. He begins as a bad guy but inevitably comes good in the end when he realises his life has been manipulated by a power hungry comrade. It’s a fair enough use of the character, Red Son being a limited series set in an alternate universe is going to lead to things like this.

Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman and a handful of other characters make their obligatory appearances too. Here Luthor’s President of the United States. To be honest it feels like an excuse to add tension and a sense of unknowing to the Russia and America conflict. It doesn’t particularly work. Neither does Wonder Woman’s involvement. There’s no reason for her to appear beyond providing gratification to fans of continuity.

One of the more bizarre plot points sees the US army developing a squadron of Green Lanterns. It’s one of Millar’s better ideas and so it’s disappointing that it plays out over the course of a handful of pages. Considering how prominent the Lantern has become over the last several years (thanks to a seemingly never-ending stream of crossover events and the dedication of Geoff Johns) it feels strange to see the “character” occupying such a reduced role.

The strangest aspect of Red Son is its twist ending. If you want to avoid spoilers jump to the next paragraph now. Sticking around? Okay. The closing issue features scenes set on a future Earth that has been through a period as a utopia before falling to war and ruin. This future, predictably, is the result of Superman landing in Russia centuries or aeons (or however long it’s meant to be) before. A young baby named Kal-El is sent back in time… where he crash lands in Russia. Sort of like Terminator, but with more communism.

This twist is the sort of thing that could quite easily have been saved for a non-Russian obsessed limited series. It works well, and is written ell, but there’s no actual reason for it to occur here. Millar could quite easily have used the idea for another Superman series or for one of his many creator own projects. I’m not complaining though: the twist makes the book far more memorable than it would have been otherwise.

Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunket’s artwork helps to make Red Son memorable. their work is perfectly judged. We’re presented with a Moscow covered with imposing statues of Soviet Russia’s greatest hero (Superman, not Stalin), which helps to sell the idea of Russia using Superman as a propaganda tool. The hammer and sickle emblem that replaces the usual S logo on Superman’s chest is a nice touch too.

Even Batman gets a gimmick overhaul, wearing a thick winter hat with ridiculous ears in addition to his traditional black garb. It succeeds in making him look more like a freedom fighter than a superhero, which is surely the point. Johnson and Plunket’s style is dynamic and has a very nice sense of timing. Colourist Paul Mounts deserves praise too: he’s very good at selecting a “theme colour” when scenes require it, which makes them visually interesting.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Superman was Russian (and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?) then this is a natural thing to add to your reading list. For everyone else it will provide an interesting diversion. Mark Millar fans may feel cheated as the book lacks the flare he’s developed on his own titles. Everyone should enjoy the ending though. It’s clever stuff.

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