Friday, June 18, 2010

Review: Superman: Red Son

Review Superman Red Son The Deluxe Edition Mark Millar Dave Johnson Kilian Plunkett Elseworlds Russian Superman DC Comics Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriter: Mark Millar
Artists: Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett
Collects: Superman: Red Son #1-3 (2003)
Published: DC, 2010; $24.99 (HC), $17.99 (TPB)

What if Superman’s rocket had landed on a farm in the Ukraine rather than one in Smallville, Kansas? What if he had been raised not in the spirit of “truth, justice, and the American way,” but had been molded instead into the poster child of communist Russia under Stalin? These are the questions to which writer Mark Millar seeks answers in Superman: Red Son, and with the help of artists Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett, he pulls it off tremendously.

Millar’s first and most resounding success in this book is that he doesn’t take the story in the course that you would probably expect based on the premise alone. This isn’t some super-patriotic, down-with-communism propaganda piece in the vein of Red Dawn or any of its brainless ilk. Rather, Millar uses Superman’s eventual role as leader of the Soviet Union as a platform from which to explore an even more basic question than the ones that opened this review: what would Superman do if he ruled the world?

Tying into that question, of course, is the issue of whether or not Superman should rule the world – something the character struggles with throughout the book. He’s not a villain, at least not in his own view and not from the story’s perspective. In fact, he initially has the same unselfish, non-political goals that Superman does in the main DC universe. In his mission to achieve world peace, though, he becomes what amounts to a world dictator, even going so far as to have his dissenters essentially lobotomized. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes, and that’s certainly where the world has gone by the end of the book.

The main character’s role as authoritarian leader results in some interesting inversions of classic DC concepts. In the world of Red Son, Lois Lane is married to Lex Luthor (brilliant inventor and, later, president of the United States), Hal Jordan wields his Green Lantern ring as a military weapon, and Batman is a terrorist trying to subvert Superman’s regime. The evolution of Luthor’s character is particularly interesting, and it begs the question: what kind of man could he have been in this reality if not for Superman’s existence?

The fact that there are significant differences from regular DC continuity doesn’t come as a huge surprise, in and of itself. Many of DC’s Elseworlds (alternate universe) stories focus almost solely on how they differentiate themselves from the main universe, relying on the “clever” ways they shuffle around basic concepts to entertain readers. (Sarcastic example: wow, Robin is a woman in such-and-such reality? How original!) Admittedly, there’s a bit of that in Red Son – in one scene depicting a Daily Planet office party, for example, we’re treated to some embarrassingly “hey kids, look at me!” appearances by Oliver Queen and Iris Allen.

Millar keeps those kinds of moments to a minimum for the most part, though, and his focus is less on making a spectacle of the tweaks he’s made to ordinary continuity than it is on giving his universe the room to live and breathe in its own right. Luthor’s determination to destroy Superman, for instance, is developed in an entirely believable way that makes him distinct from the main DC universe’s Luthor. Most importantly, his motivations make sense without relying on the reader’s preconceptions about the character simply being “evil.”

But as good as the main story is in Red Son, the book’s ending is what really blew me out of the water. To compare the book (once more) to the vast majority of Elseworlds titles, this one doesn’t simply pack up and go home once it’s used up all its tricks, leaving us to wonder what happens to the characters after the story ends. Instead, Millar closes with one of the most intelligent and self-reflexive surprises I’ve ever seen at the end of a superhero comic, one that’s sure to bring a wide smile to new and long-time readers of Superman alike.

The art in this book is quite good, and the best way I can think of to describe it is as a mash-up of sorts between Paco Medina and early Leinil Yu. Penciling duties are handed over about halfway through the book from Johnson to Plunkett, neither of whom I was familiar with prior to Red Son. I’m not sure of the specific reasons for the change, although some handwritten comments on one of the bonus sketch pages at the end of the book lead me to believe that it has something to do with Johnson being a fairly slow artist. It isn’t a detriment to the book, though; in fact, the shift is so seamless that if you weren’t paying attention, you might not even notice.

As far as purchasing Red Son (which I heartily recommend doing) goes, the Deluxe Edition is the way to go. The book is of a decent size – it’s three issues long, but each issue is about twice the length of a standard comic book – and, as I mentioned earlier, it has a few pages of sketches and concept designs at the end, including several by Alex Ross. It’s a pretty nice package, overall, which is only befitting of one of the best Superman stories, alternate universe or not, published in the last ten years.

Rating: 4 out of 5

16 comments:

  1. It's interesting about the ending - apparently Millar got the idea from Grant Morrison. He's kind of defensive about it now.

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  2. I didn't find the "Hey Kids" moments to ostentatious, nor numerous, but when they did appear, they were annoying. I loved this book, and you did it justice.

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  3. That is a very Morrisonian ending, now that I think about it. It seemed uncharacteristically cerebral for something by Millar when I read it, which I think is part of why I was so impressed.

    I felt the same way, Jozeph. There were a few times when Millar tried to show off his cleverness a bit too much (like the parts where he makes a big fuss of JFK not having been assassinated and being in his fourth presidential term or whatever), but I didn't find them to be quite as grating or as frequent as I often do with Elseworlds titles.

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  4. I've ALWAYS wanted to pick up this story(but for some reason never did...). I'll tell you one thing Marc, once I post this comment I'll be checking out a few of my online CB shops so I can finally read this one myself. It sounds 100% like my cup of tea! Fantastic review mi amigo!

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  5. Thanks X-Man, and I'm glad you'll be giving this book a shot...I can practically guarantee you'll love it!

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  6. This has always been one of my favorite Elseworlds books. Batman's hat!

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  7. This is a damn good review Marc. I've had this comic for a while, picked it up a long time ago (a year haha) when I bought Hush and some other trades but I've never really been motivated to read it but thanks to this review it's going to the top of my list now, you've really hyped it up and ya haven't let me down yet so I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

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  8. Batman's hat indeed! I think the book may be worth reading for that alone, haha.

    Thanks for the kind words, JT. I'm glad you already have it, because this way if you hate it I won't feel badly for wasting your money! :)

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  9. Now if I don't I'll blame you anyway, for making me read it as soon :P

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  10. Hey Marc, kind of off topic, but is there any way to get emails when people post follow up comments on your blog? I don't really mind checking back, but I was wondering about that.

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  11. I just got your email Ian haha, Um... to answer for Marc there should be a subscribe button right under the post box, at least there is for me anyway so you can get follow up comments.

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  12. I just realized this is totally my fault because I've just been doing name/url. I wasn't even thinking about it - I just never use my google account because I don't want it to link back to my never used blogger haha

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  13. I think I'm gonna try setting up an OpenID tomorrow, that should help me out, haha.

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  14. Yeah, like JT said there is a "subscribe by email" link under the "Post a Comment" box. I have it set so that I automatically get an email notification whenever someone comments on any post, so it's no problem to respond even when people comment on really old posts, if they feel so moved.

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  15. ohhh, you know, are we talking about the "subscribe to: post comments (Atom)" link? I just realized that's a feed. I could even send it to my reader.

    You know, all this developing and learning about web platforms and I still have total durrrr moments.

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  16. If anyone hates Red Son, well, they need to be lobotomized ;)
    The BatHat is most awesome, and I didn't find the "Hey look kids" moments jarring. Maybe that's jus cause I have a fondance for a certain man who wears green and shoots arrows :D

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