Red Son was released as a 3 issue ‘event’ by DC in 2003. At the time, Mark Millar had just become a big name by writing The Authority after Warren Ellis left the series. The idea was a great ‘what if’ alternative history idea: what if Kal-el, who would become Superman, had crashed in the former Soviet Union, instead of the USA? Shoving in Wonder Woman, Batman, the Green Lantern and other favourites, it is viewed as a bit of a love-letter to DC from Millar. Interesting, he’d already quit the comics giant before it was originally published.
The art is by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett, with inks by Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong.
The edition reviewed here is the DC collected trade paperback.
So, Kal-El was raised on a community farm in Ukraine, but we join the story in the 1950’s when the Soviet Union announces Superman’s presence to the world, which causes serious concerns in the USA. The Cold War has taken a dramatic turn! Jim Olsen works for the CIA and recruits Lex Luthor, a genius scientist, to find a way to counter the threat. Meanwhile, Stalin’s bastard son, Pytor, is upset that Superman is the new favourite, as he was originally destined to replace the aging leader.
Luther tricks Superman into saving American citizens so that he can harvest his genetic material, which he uses to create Superman 2 – the US equivalent (equate with Bizarro). Later, Superman meets Wonder Woman, and she falls for him.
Soon, Stalin dies from a poison attack, and Superman reluctantly takes over, after meeting with Lana Lazarenko (read Lana Lang – she’s even a red head), his childhood sweetheart who is struggling to make ends meet. Bizarro and Superman fight, resulting in a nuclear accident in London. Bizarro sacrifices himself to save millions.
The plot whizzes through many of the normal DC universe’s events, as Luthor forms LuthorCorp, Superman robots are created out of dissidents, Brainiac shrinks Stalingrad and puts it in a bottle, Batman (an orphan at the hands of Pytor) fights Superman, red sunlight is used to weaken Superman as it mimics his native sun (instead of kryptonite), Lex marries Lois Lane, becomes US president (Olsen the VP) and discovers the Phantom Zone and the Green Lantern Corp. Quick breath – remember that this is all in 3 issues. Lois forms an alliance with a now vengeful Wonder Woman, Superman attacks the US which is defended by the Green Lantern and Wonder Woman’s Amazons, but are defeated. However, after being tricked into reading a note which says ‘Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?’, he realises the error of his ways. Brainiac has other plans, and in a final battle, Superman is destroyed in space.
The USSR falls, and becomes a state run by ‘Batmen’. Luthor forms a vaguely utopian Global United States with a benevolent world government. Lex eventually dies, and Superman appears at his funeral dressed like Clark Kent, not having died as previously thought.
The final coda is sent billions of years in the future. The sun is dying and has become a red giant. Lex’s ancestor, called Jor-L, sends his baby son, Kal-L, back into the past, which lands in a Ukrainian collective in 1938.
I think that the plot synopsis above perfectly illustrates the problem with Red Son. Waaaay too much going on. If you’re not a fan of the DC universe, most of the references will go over your head. I’m not, and some did. I’m sure there are plenty of events within the comic that I didn’t get. But let’s look at the comic in its own right: Millar’s storytelling is decent. Characters behave as you’d expect them to in any given situation; although I felt at the time there was a little too much shoe-horning going on. As an example, I don’t see why Jimmy Olsen is first an agent for the CIA and then Vice President. It didn’t add anything to the story, and if it was just a random CIA agent, the plot wouldn’t have suffered. Later, another alien pops up in the form of the (allegedly real event that was the) 1947 Roswell alien crash. Almost like Millar couldn’t come up with a better solution so just through more stuff at it. I just didn’t think it was necessary to have so much going on.
There is nothing you’ll learn from Red Son about capitalism or Stalinism, or how while a utopia is an intellectual ideal, it will require with removal of free will. All ideas looked at with more depth and intelligence in other works (1984, Brave New World, even, The Time Machine). Having said that, the political machinations in Moscow were more interesting than the scenes in the US. Lex wasn’t a very likely character for someone who has such a pivotal role in the whole story. You certainly don’t root for the Americans because of him. The US plot lines also appear rushed and therefore not compelling.
One of the issues is when small things matter. It shows that the big things don’t. There’s a scene set in London’s Oxford Street, but they show Big Ben, which can’t be seen in real life, as it’s obscured by 1.5 miles of buildings. The fact that this bothered me showed that I wasn’t really enjoying the comic.
On the other hand, I liked the idea of Batman as a terrorist or freedom fighter, depending on your perspective. And I loved his hat!
The art is fairly unremarkable. Nothing specifically wrong with it, just nothing to write home about. The replication of the communist style art is effective and Superman himself looks great redesigned. There are a lot of reds in the Soviet panels, which works well. The rest of the character design is fairly formulaic. Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett combine well, and you can’t really tell when one or the other is drawing.
Taken as a bit of a light-hearted romp, Red Son works well enough, although there is far too much going on. The early pages setting up this universe are great but there’re way too many cooks flinging stuff around for most of the collection. The main plot ending is a little messy, although the coda works very well and makes the rest of the comic seem better than it deserves to be. As a more serious work exploring capitalism and communism, I believe Red Son fails on most levels, with the exception of an Introduction for Dummies! Still, good fun and worth a couple of hours if you’re a fan of DC and alternative histories.