The freedom of doing these DC Classics reviews over the Marvel ones is that I am free to review whatever I want. For the time being with the Marvel ones I am tied to the books I am sent every few weeks but for DC…well the world is my oyster! Because of that I can go outside of the established continuity of the main DC Universe and explore DC’s rich history of alternate timelines, universes and ideas. This freedom naturally lead me very quickly to Red Son.
Superman: Red Son for me is a near perfect Superman story and is also in my humble opinion Mark Millar’s best piece of writing. It is a tightly controlled distillation of everything I love about both Superman and the notion of alternate realities. It dares to ask that most brilliant of questions, “What if Superman was a Communist god rather than the ultimate Boy Scout?” and in the process of answering it you get a clear picture of who Superman is and how he could easily become humanity’s unexpected nightmare if left unchecked. The story of Red Son has also done more to define Lex Luthor for me than any other version of the character or any other writer. Millar’s Lex is brilliant, twisted and wears his genius on his sleeve. He is there to outwit Superman and prefers a battle of brains over donning a giant green and purple battle suit (how I despise that battle suit). We also see an interesting flip on the Luthor/Superman dynamic which is very similar but different take on their relationship.
Red Son is in my top ten list of my all time favourite comic books and I figured I would share why that is with you.
The thing I love about Red Son is that rather than taking the everything is different because… route of most Elseworlds tales it is more about subtle twists and changes alongside the more overt ones. Sure you have Communist Superman and Russian Rebel Batman because everyone wants to see Batman in a Russian hat! But then you get more subtle character changes and approaches like Wonder Woman. Who sides with Superman out of a mutual understanding of protecting and improving the world (and maybe because she fancies him a little bit!). She takes on the communist dogma because it appeals to her more than the ideals of America which despite what you might think works really well. You then get the period of time were she realises Superman has been corrupted by the power given to him and switches sides for the good of humanity. She is still the same Diana of the main DC Universe but she just happens to dealing with a different world.
The overarching themes of Red Son deal with power, control and the demi-god’s place in the world. With the demi-gods in question being our cast of superheroes. The first time I read Red Son several years ago, when I was a wide eyed teenager eager to try any comic I could get my hands on. It was the first comic I read that questioned the notion of the superhero by virtue of the fact nobody is referred to as a superhero, let alone a hero, for the whole length of the story. They are treated as both gods and people at the same time. With Superman’s constant narration humanising them and making the story all the more personal. Over the course of the story you think Superman is just doing what he does best, helping people, then at around the halfway mark things take a turn for the dark with the introduction of Batman.
The Batman presented here is a raw version of the character, vengeance unfiltered. He seems to be working with the tools given to him and relies on a backbone of anti-Superman/Communist sympathisers to fund him rather than Bruce Wayne’s considerably deep pockets of the regular DC Universe. He is a ruthless bastard who is completely focused on his task which in this world is corruption and communism rather than crime. His inclusion in the story acts as the turning point for both Superman and the tale being told. Batman’s defeat and the fallout causes Superman to start crossing the line he normally would not cross as he switches from man of the people to all pervading Super Big Brother, a one man communist state that Lex Luthor has to topple to keep humanity on track.
And boy does Luthor’s ultimate plan not disappoint! Every person, hero, character and moment is planed right down to the last little detail to defeat Superman. Everything in the huge climatic conflict happens for a reason from what Superman will do to where he will end up for the final move that causes him to stop. It is one of those simple twists that you either love or hate but for me, I am entrenched in the love camp because it matches the core themes of the story and it makes the reader think at the same time as Superman. It also shows the incredible potential for Lex Luthor as a character. In fact the whole book is pretty much the ultimate Lex Luthor story. It shows up the main DC Universe’s use of the character because it is so good!
While the writing and story are Millar on the top of his game it is Dave Johnson’s art that pushes the book over the edge of great book into being an amazing one. Johnson’s attention to detail is one of the things I love about the book. As the characters grow and age (the book is set over several decades) instead of just making them all suddenly get grey hair instead we get wrinkles appearing, blemishes and marks on their skin, changes in their bodies, etc. etc. It also leads to some amazing and emotive character beats. Action wise Superman is constantly shown to be immensely powerful while calm and collected at the same time. The panels and pages just flow together effortlessly to the extent that you will breeze through large portions of the book without realising it until you look at the page count. It is a gorgeous book peppered with some great one page panels and spreads.
I have purposely avoided detailing to much of the story here because it is a comic worth reading if you have not grabbed it already. It will not take you long to read and you can get through it in an evening. It is more akin to experiencing a movie than a regular comic, it has a clear beginning, middle and end and that is both great and refreshing in the sequel happy world of the comic book industry. The writing is brilliant and the art from Dave Johnson is even better. It all works together to create both a brilliant and well paced book that is a must read for any comic book fan or Superman obsessive.
It also finds room to throw a timey wimey twist your way in the closing moments of the book that give it a great circular structure that says more about history’s nature to repeat itself than anything I have ever read. Go read it now!