Review: Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar

Because I am perverse, the first Superman comic I ever read was Superman: Red Son, by famed Scottish comics creator Mark Millar, whose name I thought sounded vaguely familiar when I was scanning the comics shelf at my library. The premise here is that instead of being dropped in the middle of Kansas, Superman ends up in a Ukrainian collective farm. He fights for Stalin, socialism, and the neverending expansion of the Warsaw Pact; while American scientist Lex Luthor plots how to bring him down. Fun, right?

Superman: Red Son

Art is by Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Kilian Plunkett, and Walden Wong; colors by Paul Mounts; letters by Ken Lopez.

If you haven’t read any Superman, Red Son will still make sense, and it’s a good comic to read because it’s contained to the one volume. The introduction to the volume assured me that it was so, and indeed it was so. But I think it was also a little bit like reading Kurt Busiek’s Marvels without knowing, for instance, the classic Spiderman / Gwen Stacy story. It still works; the story explains what’s happening. The punch is just less punchy. As I was reading, there were (many) times when it was clear there was a callback being made, and I was missing it because I don’t know anything about Superman’s history.

That said, Red Son is a very cool story that takes away Superman’s heroism mostly without taking away what’s fundamental to his character. Lex Luthor fights against Superman not because he believes Superman is wrong — he explicitly doesn’t care — but because he doesn’t like to lose, which means that this is a book whose two primary characters are both fundamentally villains. The heroism of other characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman, or the team of fighters trying to oppose the spread of Russian autocracy1, are no less brave for being ancillary to the work that Superman and Luthor are trying to achieve. It also has a hugely satisfying (to me) ending.

Ready for your Angry Feminism Minute? You must have known it was coming! Lois Lane is around basically to mope over Lex Luthor (her husband in this universe) and, now and then, wonder what her life would have been like if she were with Superman.

Lois: Listen. Bring Norma Jean and Jack to dinner if you want. Lex, I’m not sure I even care anymore.
Lex: Oh of course you still care, Lois Luther. Why else would you have chosen to live alone all these years, eh?
Lois [with image of Superman in background]: I guess you’re right, Lex. Maybe I am just a one-man woman.

Framing one of the only women in the comic as fundamentally about her romantic life is tediously regressive. I’d say atavistic were it not for the fact that comics just have not come that far from the days of this shit in the first few issues of Iron Man.

Happy: Are ya brushin’ me off… Me, Happy Hogan, who has finally found the dame of his dreams?
Pepper: My dear Mr. Hogan, your dream would only be my nightmare! In short…you wouldn’t be my type even if you were my type!
Happy: Hm, I get the picture…it’s him…Stark…who makes yer ticker go thump thump. Right?
Pepper: Right! Only he doesn’t know I’m alive, but someday he will…and then he’ll give up all his actresses and debutantes…and I’ll become Mrs. Anthony Stark!

Again, this Iron Man comic is from 1963. Red Son was published four damn decades later, and it’s still coming at me with this same retro gender shit. I googled “Mark Millar gender” to see if I was being oversensitive, and it turns out that this is a thing he told the New Republic in an interview with (omg of course) Abraham Riesman.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

Ah.

Comics, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

  1. Jenny sobs into her tea
  • Ha! My knowledge of Superman extends to the Christopher Reeve movies, and even those are pretty much a blur now. Still, the premise is interesting. I wonder if the US still comes out as winning the Cold War with Superman as its foe.

    • I cannot possibly comment. Well, except that I don’t want you to read this book unless you genuinely want to, because the Lois Lane stuff really irritated me. But also the answer is more complicated than “yes the US won the Cold War” or “no the US did not win the Cold War,” so I am not sure how to answer anyway. :p

  • Uhg fuck that guy. I’ve never been a big fan of Super Man, tbh.

    • As I say, this is my very first Superman comic experience. I’ve only ever seen the Christopher Reeve movie and I saw the Brandon Routh one as well and did not comprehend until fairly recently that he is a completely separate human being from Henry Cavill. (I’m still not sure they’re two different people.)

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    The story overall sounds interesting but a well deserved Angry Feminist Minute. I’m still not convinced I want to venture into DC waters. Though I admit I am really hoping the Wonder Woman movie this summer is all kinds of awesome.

    • I’m excited for the Wonder Woman movie and I remain determined to wade into DC waters. I will love DC or I will die trying! The problem is, when Marvel comics are problematic-tm, I am a little more forgiving because I have a pre-existing love of those characters. But I don’t have that with DC comics. Maybe I can train my little nephew to like DC as well as Marvel and that can be our thing, and then I’ll associate DC with this sweet kid and it’ll help.

  • Katherine Koba

    Oh man, I love the hell out of Red Son but there are . . . bits. Wonder Woman’s fate in this one bugged the hell out of me. I don’t even remember what it was, anymore! (I read Red Son something like 7 or 8 years ago.) I just remember being *viscerally upset* about it.