John Pistelli's Reviews > Superman: Red Son

Superman by Dave Johnson
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it was ok
bookshelves: comics, twenty-first-century


I had a dim memory of having read this 2003 graphic novel about a Soviet Superman—and having dismissed it—almost a decade ago, when my interest in Marxism was greater than it is now. But Red Son's brilliant time-paradox ending, apparently gifted to writer Mark Millar by his erstwhile friend, fellow Scot, and literary superior, Grant Morrison, cast a mostly undeserved glow of profundity over the whole book in my memory, so I decided to revisit it, as the present moment sees socialism once more squaring off against nationalism, not to mention Superman against Batman.

From a literary standpoint, Red Son is just not very good: it is an assemblage of clever continuity gags for aficionados of the DC Universe that fails to say much about communism or capitalism. While the major characters ostensibly stand for warring ideologies—Superman and Wonder Woman for a collectivist and statist vision of social justice, Batman for a left-anarchy opposed to all authority, and Lex Luthor for a right-libertarian ethic of heroic individualism—the merits and demerits of each worldview get lost among the banal action sequences and DCU nerdery. Millar's historical imagination seems limited; he borrows a few surface-effects of political allusion and alt-history caricature from Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns without having Moore's and Miller's command of actual political philosophies or their own strong controlling perspectives. The time-paradox conclusion, in which the Cold War rivals Superman and Luthor are revealed to be iterations of the same superior bloodline, is more cynical and fascistic than anything else, as it implies the natural dominance of certain men and women and the almost mystical inevitability of historical cycles, thus making political ideology itself redundant. Such cynicism per se does not necessarily offend me, but it renders the seeming subject of the book pointless.

And Millar's historical sensibility is weak in the particulars as well, as when he has his '50s Soviet Superman say, "Parties and parades just aren't really me"—evincing through his words a concept of the individual that such a person in such a place would not hold or express. I am not asking for ingenious verbal devices—Alan Moore, if faced with similar subject matter, would no doubt rigorously pattern the dialogue after the somewhat stilted Constance Garnett translations of the Russian classics—but Marx, like God, is in the details. Millar is simply in over his head.

As Tom DeSanto points out in his introduction to this edition, the art and coloring by Dave Johnson and his collaborators is superb, credibly evoking political propaganda posters and the epic neoclassicism of totalitarian regimes. There is more material for historical reflection—on the relation between American super-heroes and European illiberalism, for instance—in the art than in the writing.

After all that dispraise, let me say something nice in conclusion: Red Son is just the book to read for a kid of about 11 or 12, on the cusp of outgrowing super-heroes (if anyone still does) and ready to move on to more complex material, in comics or out of them. It is only a bit more sophisticated than a standard Superman adventure, but it does raise serious subjects in that format, exciting a curiosity that can only be satisfied by other, better books.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 1, 2016 – Shelved
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: comics
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: twenty-first-century

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