Superman: Red Son
Collects: Superman: Red Son #1-3
Writer: Mark Millar
Artists: Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett
By Michael David Sims
In Brian K. Vaughan's Y-The Last Man, where a young man named Yorick is the last man on Earth, things are not as one might have previously perceived. Many have speculated that if it were not for men (the gender, not the species), women would create a utopian society built on art, not war. Peace would be a given and the environment would flourish. But that is not so. Vaughan did not copout and create a peaceful wonderland, but a dystopia littered with corpses and ruins, power stations and factories left unmanned, dwindling supplies, and murderous Amazonian biker gangs. Where would the conflict or story be had Vaughan created a peaceful, man-free, matriarchal world? Quite simply, there wouldn't be one.
The same can be said about Mark Millar's Superman: Red Son. Instead of crash landing in a Kansas cornfield in 1938, baby Kal-El's rocket smashed into a Ukrainian farm and was raised under the watchful, Communist eye of Joseph Stalin. To say the world was forever changed is quite the understatement.
Much like Vaughan's decision to create a matriarchal dystopia, Millar took the hard road and did not re-envision Superman as an evil Commie with his Red mind set on destroying the United States. Quite the opposite, really. Superman, who's never called anything else besides maybe "comrade," has his sights set on world peace without bloodshed. Not quite the vision of Communism our parents grew up with, eh?
Superman's willingness to preserve all life, no matter the national borders, is demonstrated quite early when he saves Metropolis from a rapidly descending Sputnik Two. And it's here that we realize two things:
01. Mark Millar isn't some hack who takes the easy way out by preserving and, worse yet, continuing outdated stereotypes.
02. Lex Luthor is still a dick.
We must remember that before Luthor became the baldheaded, diabolical, industrialist supervillain (and later President of the United States), he was a redheaded, masterful scientist. And just in case we've forgotten our comic book lore, Millar is here to remind us.
One might think that by separating the two age-old enemies by continents, their feud might never have started. However, Luthor, who's ever the opportunist, wants to destroy the alien not so much out of patriotism, but for personal gain — and sport. So in an effort to learn more about him, it was Lex who sabotaged the satellite and sent it towards what could have been a fiery end for Metropolis. When asked by Agent Jimmy Olsen how he knew Superman would save the city, Luthor replies, "Mathematics, Olsen. Pure Mathematics." Despite his hatred for the man, Luthor recognizes an innate goodness in him, and, much like the Lex Luthor we know and (I'm hesitant to say) love, he uses this knowledge against his enemy. In part to better understand him, but, mostly, in an attempt to destroy him.
1998 saw the release of Paul Dini and Alex Ross's Superman: Peace on Earth, where the title character sought to rid the world of hunger. And he failed, something we don't see often. Much like in Peace on Earth, it isn't the death of Stalin, America's amassment of nuclear weapons, or even Luthor's creation of the monstrous Superman Two (think Bizarro) that sparks Superman into his role as a world leader — but the hunger his people must suffer thanks to the infamous breadlines. It's Kal-El's peaceful, caring nature that takes hold as he assumes his position as President. And, in a scant few years, Russia has become the poverty-, disease-, and ignorance-free ally to the world. All save the United States, whose economy is on the brink of collapse.
And while Superman could single-handedly force the United States to join the rest of the Warsaw Pact States, he'd rather they come of their own volition. One only has to look at the current state of Iraq to see that the forceful taking of a country, even in the name of peace and goodwill, is not always welcomed. So, before invading a sovereign nation, one must make the citizens and leaders believe they have chosen/asked for said invasion of their own freewill. Similarly, when raising a child one must limit their options in order to gain their obedience. Ask them an open-ended question, such as what they want for dinner, and more often than not they'll respond with some sort of junk food — which you as the adult knows makes not a healthy meal. However, by presenting them with two options (such as mac 'n cheese or hotdogs), the child feels as if they've made the dinnertime decision, is left with a sense of freewill and power, and is content with the meal. Never do they realize you had full control of the situation. And one must never doubt that the government — all governments — sees us as children who need limited options and handholding. Why else are third parties and independent candidates seen as throwaway votes? Because our two-party system makes us believe they are. Superman's Socialist world is no different, except the two options are peacefully join us or inevitably fall. So Luthor, who is (as always) portrayed as the villain, is a pseudo hero in that he is not willing to throw away his other options: freewill and resistance.
It's in taking away the freewill of the people that Superman's government becomes just as corrupt as any other oppressive regime that has come before — especially in the name of peace and goodwill. Any citizen who dares question or oppose the law becomes a law-abiding drone (think Alexander de Large) who:
01. Has no choice but to fall into line.
02. Forces others to do the same. (Or mops Superman's floor.)
Despite his slow decline into corruption, it's our loyalty to Superman and his toting of truth, justice, and the American way that gives us trouble when we're asked to envision him as the Big Brother villain of Red Son. Especially after he saved Metropolis. But like it or not — good intentions or not — that's exactly what he's become. And, oddly enough, it's Luthor's ego (as well as his defiance and unwillingness to trade in his freewill) that firmly places him in the role of hero. He demonstrates to America, the rest of the world, and Superman (as well as the readers) that one does not have to bow down to ultimate power just because our options seem limited; that freewill is more than choosing between A and B, or the lesser of two evils; that sometimes we have to break down a wall when we've run out of doors. Our options only become limited when we stop looking, or when we let the government tell us they are. And Red Son demonstrates that perfectly.
Superman's Socialist world might have been a safe place to live, but, as Ben Franklin once wrote, "Those who would sacrifice their freedom for safety will find they inherit neither."