Monday, June 22, 2009

What's the matter with Kansas?, part 1: Red Son

This post is the first installment in a short series about various Superman Elseworlds. Nudged by the news that DC is releasing a hardcover edition, I re-read Superman: Red Son over the weekend. That got my brain going, and I wanted then to re-read other stories. Look for posts on Superman & Wonder Woman: Whom Gods Destroy, Superman: The Dark Side, Superman Inc., and probably at least one other, in the near future.

Right from the start, Red Son (written by Mark Millar, pencilled by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett) creates an all-encompassing sense of horrifying inevitability, like there is absolutely no way it will end well. At the same time, though, that inevitability almost makes it read like dull, state-sanctioned propaganda. Accordingly, I found Red Son to be rather a frustrating comic -- not in the reading, which was fairly engaging, but in the message (or lack thereof).





First, a bit of personal perspective on Red Son. Lefty though I may be, I did grow up during the last two decades of the Cold War, and lived under the shadow of mutually-assured destruction. We didn't have "duck and cover" drills in the '70s and '80s, but we did have The Day After, Red Dawn, and "Amerika." While a lot of that turned out to be right-wing nightmare fuel, I wasn't particularly eager to have the United States turned into the Workers' Paradise.

It seems to me that Red Son plays on those kinds of fears and expectations. The big surprise, apparently, is not that Superman is a Commie; it's that he's a compassionate Commie, eschewing outright conquest in favor of winning the world's hearts and minds. Even so, I found it hard to root for Superman, simply because of what he represented in this story; and I'm sure that's just the way Millar wanted it.

See, Red Son argues that as a Soviet operative (and later as Soviet leader), Superman gets to examine how the apparatus of the state could be used for the benefit of all. In the capitalist United States, Superman/Clark can be just another guy, doing what he can to help out. However, if the state is charged with taking care of everyone, and Superman is the state (for all practical purposes), then he has an obligation to give the people food, shelter, etc.

Nevertheless, these are background and motivational details. Millar doesn't really make a case for communism (Soviet-style or otherwise) -- or, more accurately, he doesn't use Superman to "rehabilitate" communism -- as much as he implies that a communist viewpoint enables Superman's actions in the pursuit of social justice. Thus, Red Son is another in a long line of "Superman takes over the world" stories, and like those, it ends with the realization that Superman can't impose his personal morality on humanity as a whole.

"But that would mean," my straw-man says, "that if the world got too corrupt, evil, depraved, etc., for Superman, he wouldn't do anything about it!" I agree -- and remember, that's exactly what turns the Kingdom Come Superman into a bearded, pony-tailed hermit, living on a holo-farm in the Fortress of Solitude. Both the KC and RS Supermen have one last red-eyed rampage which ends in the above-described come-to-Jesus moment.

And as much as I shudder at the thought of a Soviet Superman leading the Red Army triumphantly down Main Street USA, I think Red Son would have been better had it not given into that familiar character bit. Admittedly, Millar sets up RS's come-to-Jesus moment pretty well, equating Superman's global victory with his one unquestioned failure, but its first two chapters are so chilling that it's almost a cop-out for Millar to bring in conventional Superman morality.

I want to stress here that I am not trying to connect said morality with uniquely American values. Instead, I just think it would have been more interesting for RS-Supes to have embraced fully the benign totalitarianism he'd been practicing for most of the story.

That's the unspoken point of Elseworlds generally, though, isn't it? Superman is Superman, whether he's in the Middle Ages or the Civil War or raised by the Waynes. At some point, however, it makes these stories exercises in rearranging the details. In the end that's what I didn't like about Red Son: all of its radical visions -- Wonder Woman traumatized by the loss of her lasso, JFK an aging buffoon, Hal Jordan waterboarded -- seem only skin-deep. Indeed, the critical moment in the third part comes when President Luthor pretty much only has to snap his fingers in order to reinvigorate the United States' moribund, third-world economy. There's your communist-vs.-capitalist showdown in a nutshell: Superman spends decades shaping the USSR into the world's only superpower, and Luthor reawakens the US practically overnight.

Like I said, frustrating. Is Red Son shaggy and padded with high-concept "moments," or is it all necessary in order to get to Luthor's "checkmate?" Is it shrewd satire, not just of Superman but Bush-era foreign policy; or is that undercut by the eventual redemptive moment? Did Superman deserve some comeuppance beyond the loss of his identity and prestige? Certainly Red Son is thought-provoking, but I'm not sure the answers justify the effort.


Richard said...

I can't say much more than that I'm inclined to agree with pretty much everything you say above. I'm not sure I even bothered to read Red Son a second time; clearly I found it somewhat less engaging than you did. But I needed to post a comment here all the same simply to heap praise on the post title, which is absolutely perfect.

Matter-Eater Lad said...

When I read Red Son (just the once), I was struck by how completely Millar buys into the Great Man theory of history -- everything comes down to, first, Superman in the USSR and then to Luthor in the US. Note how Millar talks about something called "Luthorism" revitalizing the US, without the details -- it's as if history is nothing but great men's systems warring with and succeeding one another.