Superman: Red Son

What would the world be like if Superman had crash landed in Soviet Russia instead of rural Kansas?

Thus is the basis for Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s re-imagining of the Man of Steel. I was exciting to read this Elseworlds story, curious to see what sort of subtle shifts in Superman’s personality would be created due to this change in location.

Superman has been re-imagined as a Red, serving as Stalin’s right hand man and eventually taking over as Russia’s reluctant ruler after the leader’s death.  It was nice to see that this comic didn’t take a standard “capitalism good, communism bad” approach, and instead addresses the concepts from a more rational standpoint, highlighting the good that either party could do with Superman at its helm.

Without the love and caring of the Kents though, Superman seems to have lost something. He doesn’t maintain a secret identity, and he seems almost robotic at times. He still strives to save people and doesn’t promote violence, and yet he was bred in a world in which violence is a key component of the regime.  Although not a villain, Superman is striving to gain control over the entire world so that he may keep it peaceful and safe.

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Throughout much of the comic we are given glimpses of America without a Superman. Lex Luthor is an even more prominent figure in society, yet he is still hell bent on destroying Superman in any way possible.  He crafts numerous creations in his attempt to murder his rival, yet all fail.

Most of this felt like name-dropping within the DC universe, meant to impress the readers with small cameos by various heroes and villains alike.  We see what becomes of Batman and Wonder Woman, as well as Hal Jordan and Brainiac.  We also catch glimpses of other characters and see what fates would have befallen them: Lois Lane is in a depressingly loveless marriage to Luthor, while Jimmy Olsen works for the government.  Unfortunately I suppose it wasn’t exactly what I expected going into the comic, and so it ended up not grabbing my attention as much as it could have.  The changes just felt too severe.  Would Lois Lane really have married (and stayed married to) Lex Luthor if Superman and Clark Kent weren’t around?  That mplies that her entire personality lives and dies with Clark, and I can’t really get behind that sentiment.

With the premise of an alternate history, I assumed that other characters’ origins would remain the same, and that this one key aspect of the DC universe, Superman’s landing location, would be all that changed in that regard.  I realize the changes could be attributed to the butterfly effect, but I can’t get past the concept that now Bruce Wayne and his parents lived in Russia and that Hal Jordan never received his power ring directly from Abin Sur, all because Superman landed in Russia instead of the US.  The numerous differences felt a bit forced, and were distracting to the overall story rather than adding to it.

With that said, the comic picked up steam and completely subverted my expectations with the last twenty pages or so.  Surprisingly, this coincided with what happened to the world after the death of Superman.  Forced to fly Brainiac’s ship far away from Earth to save it from a destructive blast, Superman is presumed dead, and the world continues without the man of steel.  As a result, Lex Luthor essentially reigns supreme, bringing about a period of wealth and prosperity not only to the US, but the the entire world.

Disease is eradicated, life expectancy increases exponentially, and overall the world evolves into something akin to paradise.  As Luthor lays dying at an absurdly old age, he is asked what his greatest accomplishment was:

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With all that he did, defeating Superman was still his proudest moment.

The story now provides a brief summary of future generations of Luthors, with each generation bringing about a new key addition to society.  Eventually, so much time has passed that the sun now burns red, and one of Luthor’s descendants, Jor-L, believes the world will soon end.

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As a solution, Jor-L decides to send his son back in time to the mid twentieth century, in the hope that he will be able to change the path of humanity and prevent the destruction of the planet.

I found this “twist that’s not really a twist” ending to be intriguing, albeit it flawed.  The time travel paradox is pretty apparent, as Superman would have had to go back in time in the first place in order for these future events to have happened.

Then again, maybe we’re just not supposed to think too critically about it.

I enjoyed the idea that Superman’s actions doom his own planet to the same fate Krypton faced, all because of where he landed and how he was raised.  The story poises interesting questions about the concepts of nature versus nurture, and tangentially reinforces the importance of Jonathan and Martha Kent in the ultimate formation of Superman.  He is simply not the same man when raised by others, and although the comic never comes right out and says it, the Kents’ role in making Superman a true hero is clear.  This is one of the only reasons I disliked the ending, revealing that this Superman is actually a descendant of Lex Luthor.  With that implication, it could be argued that Superman behaves so differently because it’s in his blood, with less emphasis placed on who raised him and how.  I would have preferred that his origin remain the same, so that the marked difference in his personality was more clearly defined as having been a result of his surroundings and interactions with people.

I found that I enjoyed the concept of this comic more than the comic itself.  I didn’t particularly love reading it, and yet I’ve been mulling it over for the last few hours.  It’s an intriguing alternate history for a hero whose basic premise has remained unchanged for decades.  Although the execution of the story may not be perfect, the concept is enough to carry the story, and for that alone it was well worth the read.

-Jess

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