Superman: Red Son #1 of 3 “Red Son Rising”
So, let’s talk about Mark Millar. A former associate of Grant Morrison’s, Mark has had an impressive career, working both for DC and Marvel Comics as well as independent titles. Several of his works have been adapted into successful motion pictures: Kick Ass, The Kingsmen, and Wanted. Also, his run on The Ultimates helped to inspire the look of some of the heroes in The Avengers. In fact, the fight between Thor and Iron Man was inspired by a scene in the second Ultimates series. On top of that, he wrote Civil War, which was the basis of, well, you know. So yeah, the guy has had a very impressive career.
And I think he’s a hack.
But whoa! you might say. Tom, you just listed the man’s accomplishments, he has quite a few wins under his belt. How can you say that? Hey, I don’t deny the man’s successes; I just hate his writing. Everything I’ve read from him paints superheroes as being either total bastards, or morally weak, or stupid. Optimism and idealism die when Mark Millar comes into a room. Admittedly, I haven’t read everything he’s written, and I’ve heard some of his later stuff seems to be less cynical, so I don’t know—maybe he bought a puppy or got married or got divorced or some other life changing event. Maybe he’s aging backwards and he’s entered his youthful, optimistic phase. Whatever the case, I soured on Millar early on.
So when Superman: Red Son came out I cast a jaundiced eye upon it. “Not for me”, I said. “Away with this!” And yet, Red Son received accolades; unlike Civil War and the Ultimates, this work of Millar’s has received universal acclaim. Still, I stayed away from it, until I saw the recent trailer for the animated adaptation. I admit curiosity got the best of me and I had to see if Red Son lived down to my expectations, or if it was deserving of its reputation.
Our story opens with an opening monologue about telephones ringing and lives never being the same again. Judging by the “insect buzz of a million conversations”, I’m guessing this is our Man of Steel talking. The “insect buzz” has unpleasant implications regarding the character’s, well, character. But I do like the lettering on the captions, with red-backed yellow text. Letterer Ken Lopez does some damn solid work on this series. We zoom in on a penthouse where “Lois Luthor” answers the phone. I’m assuming the guy with the full head of hair sleeping next to her then is Lex. It’ll be interesting to see if Mark hearkens back to the Silver Age and Superman somehow becomes responsible for his baldness. Then again, I don’t think Millar ever read a comic printed earlier than Moore’s Watchmen, seeing as he seemed to pick up all the wrong lessons from that comic. Okay, I gotta stop bashing Mark. I’m focusing on the story now, promise.
The call is from Perry White and even though it’s 6 AM, he’s 1) awake, 2) at his desk, and 3) smoking a cigar. He tells Lois that President Eisenhower is going to deliver a broadcast at lunchtime that’s supposed to be of “grave international importance”. Huh, so this takes place in the early 1950s? That’s an interesting choice. And I’m not being ironic when I say that. I might have to resort to using a different font or something when I am. Ike appears on camera and admits the Soviets have themselves a super-being that just rendered America’s fancy hydrogen bomb obsolete. After the press conference, Eisenhower wonders where the Russkies got the guy from, and “Agent Olsen” says he grew up on a collective farm in the Ukraine. Ike points out that had he gotten to Earth twelve hours sooner, he would have landed in America. Four hours sooner, and he would have been German. What would that have been like? Oh, right, Saturday Night Live already answered that question:
At the Daily Planet, we learn there have been scores of Superman sightings, along with confirmation of several new powers. Perry wonders what the hell “super-breath” is, and damn if that didn’t make me laugh. We cut to Kansas, and Martha Kent is talking with a neighbor about how everyone is lining their walls with lead, and considering the bomb shelter craze of the ’50s, this sounds totally legit. Yeah, Duck and Cover wasn’t going to do you a damn bit of good. Martha’s just glad Jonathan isn’t alive to see what’s going down with Stalin’s super-spacemen.
In some upper class American home (you know they’re rich, because they’ve got a TV) a program is airing which is parodying the classic Adventures of Superman TV show, with Supes being described by an announcer as fighting for “Stalin, Socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact!” While Perry and Lois watch this show in his office, Eisenhower sees this show in his, and has his people put in a call to Luthor at S.T.A.R. Labs. And it seems the USA is playing checkers while the Soviets are playing chess. And speaking of chess:
Luthor spends his spare time playing chess against multiple opponents while listening to a language tape teaching him Urdu. It turns out he invented the Walkman that morning while he was in the bathroom. He leads Olsen inside his lab to reveal what he’s been spending all that ludicrous federal cash on for the past three months: toys. Puzzles, specifically, which “lubricate the cogs of his brain”. Luthor points out genius doesn’t work on a timetable, but he gives Jimmy the formula to balance the budget. And I don’t wanna know what Lex was doing while he came up with it.
Back at home, Luthor is watching game shows with the sound off so he can teach himself how to read lips. Lois is annoyed that the man is spending all his time creating a computer to play chess with, but he’s got to; humans are no challenge to him. I’m going to be super annoyed if this whole chess thing goes nowhere. Lois hands Luthor the newspaper, and it’s all about Superman and Sputnik. Sputnik and Superman. And of course, the thousand-watt lightbulb goes off in Luthor’s head. He puts in a call to Eisenhower.
Lex: Ike? Lex here. Sir, I need a hundred technicians, ten million dollars and permission to crash a Soviet satellite in a highly populated area. Of course you can think for a minute.
I reluctantly admit that damn, Millar’s Luthor is highly entertaining. Elsewhere in Moscow, we get more Super monologuing, and I just now realized this is the first time we’ve seen Supes in the flesh. But oddly enough, I haven’t missed him, because Luthor’s been so much fun. As Supes stops a subway car from running over a girl, he speculates that maybe people have been deliberately careless so they can see the “circus clown” show up to save them. That’s when he overhears Soviet Mission Control report that Sputnik II is about to crash in the United States.
Superman has more internal dialogue as he thinks about how people thought he was a soldier, but that was never him, because he didn’t blindly follow orders and he didn’t hate anyone; he only did what was right. Supes grabs the satellite before it can crash into Metropolis and drops it into the bay, but he realizes that he botched things a bit and the Daily Planet’s, uh, planet has been damaged and it’s going to drop on some poor capitalist bastard’s head.
It’s a great splash page, but I’m not really crazy about the costume: there’s too much blue. I get it, they wanted it to look a lot like the original. I would think it would be Soviet Army green, but then again, according the dialogue, he wasn’t a soldier. Yellow would have been too gaudy, and black would have made him look evil. But he’s Stalinist Superman, so he should at least look evil. Lois shows up and there’s an instant connection, but he spots the wedding ring on her finger and Luthor’s pic in her purse. He talks about how centuries later, some poet will write a Pulitzer prize winning work about him and Lois being lovers. Uh, spoilers? I guess Superman wins? Anyway, Supes puts the Planet’s planet back and welds it in place with his heat vision, then takes off. But he doesn’t go unobserved as Luthor saw the whole thing unfold via binoculars. He’s convinced that had Superman been American, they would have been the best of friends. Heh. He directs Olsen to bring up that satellite, because whatever Supes left on the hull is going to be valuable.
Weeks later and it’s Superman Day in Moscow. Supes has to put up with a parade in his honor, as confused people are given flags and told to wave them and cheer, or else. But Supes hears an explosion at a chemical plant three thousand miles away. Uncle Joe Stalin wants Supes to stay, but that’s not how the Marxist of Steel rolls. After he flies off, someone name Pyotr jealously points out to Joe that Supes could possibly live to be a million, and do they really want him in charge? But Stalin doesn’t give a damn; Supes might be an immortal alien, but he’s their immortal alien. And he warns the little punk to watch it, because he’s not his only illegitimate son. Later, there’s a party in honor of the delegation from Theme… Themi… Them… the delegation from Paradise Island. Queen Hippolyta is on hand, and Stalin not-so-humble brags that Hungary wants on board the Pact since Supes is so, well, Super. Hippolyta is impressed with the Soviet Union’s attitude regarding women’s equality, but not so crazy about how it’s pretty much means everyone’s equally oppressed.
Meanwhile, Supes finds a dance partner.
Aw, what a wonderful couple they make. I wonder how long it is before Wonder Woman dies or gets acid thrown in her face or something. Later, Superman—and you know, I don’t think we once saw what Superman’s real name is. Is there no equivalent to “Clark Kent” in Russian?—is told by Stalin to breed with Diana to make lots of good little super-socialists but the Maoist of Tomorrow notices Pyotr wasn’t at the party and goes looking for him. He finds the man doing what Soviet Communists do best: getting drunk while shooting off his gun. Damn, Soviets and rednecks have more in common than I thought.
The chief of security admits he’s jealous, and feels Superman contradicts the Soviet ideal; he’s proof that all men are not created equal. But Superman explains to Pyotr Roslov—oh, he’s Pete Ross. Cute—that no, he couldn’t catch bullets when he was a toddler, because his powers didn’t develop until he was twelve, and his parents didn’t let him leave the collective until he was ready. I’m sure Uncle Joe wasn’t happy about that, because he sure could have used teen Supes during the Great Patriotic War, but he’s probably smart enough to know sending Supes’ parents to the Gulag would have been a Bad Idea. It seems Pyotr is also upset because he recently shot a couple for printing up anti-Superman propaganda and their kid gave him the most unsettling murderface. Then the kid left, and he doesn’t know where the little punk is:
Yeah, I’m sure that’s not gonna bite them in the ass later. Pyotr tries shooting himself in the head, but nobody suicides on Superman’s watch. But before the pair can continue the conversation, another crisis erupts: Stalin is down, and Superman reads every medical text there is to determine that Joe is suffering from acute cyanide poisoning. He works on an antitoxin, but even Superman can’t save everyone. Stalin dies and Pyotr Roslov avenges his father’s death by tracking the poisoner down and shooting him in Red Square. It’s actually a pretty touching scene, showing that even the worst of men can be capable of love, and can experience the heartache of loss. I’m reluctant to admit that it’s a good writer who can make you feel empathy even for a monster. Darn you, Mark Millar! Stop making me like your writing.
Back in the U S of A, Jimmy Olsen is visiting Lex’s laboratory, where he’s up to some seriously mad science. Luthor wonders what it is about the Man of Steel that makes his head work so much faster, and I’m wondering if I’m reading more into that sentence than I should. Lex claims most of what Jimmy is seeing shouldn’t have been invented for another fifty years, but hey, they need it now, and now they’ve got… Superman Two!
Ew. Looks about as well put-together as Nuclear Man. The real Superman talks about how America’s response to rumors of their own super-being was to stockpile nukes in various European countries. Meanwhile, Superman is being pressured to take Stalin’s place but he’s not having it; as a good Communist, he doesn’t see how his powers make him any more or less qualified than anyone else. Later, not-Bizarro and Superman have a confrontation over contested waters. I’m sure the two will have a nice, calm, rational discussion about how dangerous this super escalation is…
…or they’ll just beat the crap out of each other. It turns out Bizarro’s (they don’t call him that, but you know it’s Bizarro) x-ray vision is dialed up to eleven, and it cooks the men in the submarine below, and one of the sailors accidentally launches a missile. Or maybe not so accidentally. Maybe he knew he was dying and just once wanted to fire one off to see what it was like. But Bizarro doesn’t care, because he just wants to smack Superman around. Their fight carries them to London where hundreds of British people die as collateral damage. Supes can hear them “snap”, and The body count triples. Superman pauses the fight to point out to Bizarro that Russia has no intention of harming Great Britain, and the USA shouldn’t be putting missiles there. That… really sounds a bit like Mark Millar projecting. I guess maybe he never heard of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five? But whatever. That missile… remember the missile? That missile flies across the sky and I’m thinking maybe Superman should have be doing less political dissertating and more missile stopping. But surprisingly, Bizarro’s on the case; he uses his super-breath on Superman and then flies the missile high up into space where it explodes harmlessly, more or less, taking Bizarro with it.
Later, the other Man of Steel AKA Stalin is laid to rest and Pyotr and Superman once more discuss the order of succession. Pyotr thinks the idea of the inner circle believing Supes can save them is just silly, but is that an honest opinion, or just jealousy? Meanwhile, Lois stands atop the Daily Planet building talking about some dream she had since she was a child, where she was falling and someone saved her. And now that someone exists and she sees Superman in the clouds. Um… okay. This is pretty, well, random. I get that the pair had a moment and Lex is apparently completely ignoring her needs in favor of defeating Superman, but… Okay, I guess maybe it’s not so random. Perry finds Lois and tells her Lex is on the phone. Her husband tells her their marriage is now officially on hold, and he’s left S.T.A.R. Labs, and also terminated the contracts of his employees.
Terminated with extreme prejudice, that is. Why has Luthor gone to such extremes? Is he upset that his Bizarro was defeated? Why no; it’s because a computerized version of Superman beat him at chess. Back in the USSR (you don’t know how lucky you are!), Superman talks about how flying at near-light speeds around Earth calms him. You’d think a human-sized body moving close to 186,000 miles per second near a planetary body might have some sort of detrimental effect, but whatever. He hears his name spoken by a woman, and the reason this stands out is because it’s his next-door neighbor from that Ukranian collective, Lana Lazarenko. And yeah, it’s Lana Lang. It’s interesting how so many people from Superman’s supporting cast wound up in the Soviet Union, but Ma and Pa Kent still exist in Kansas. But it’s an Elseworlds story, so don’t expect it to make complete sense. We learn Lana got married, and her husband died and she and her two kids are queuing up for food. Supes tell the guy in charge to feed Lana’s kids, but some of the people in line point out they haven’t eaten in weeks, and some of them have kids too. Lana tells Supes it’s okay, and this is just how things work. But this isn’t good enough for Superman:
He’s going to save the day. So, as much as I’m loathe to admit it, issue #1 is pretty damn strong. Luthor is an entertaining bad guy, Supes feels like Supes, and the setup is intriguing. I can’t wait to see how Millar screws it up. But does he? Stop by next week to find out.