THE COMIC COMPENDIUM #3: Superman: Red Son (2003)

What would have happened if Clark didn’t land in Kansas? 

Who made it?: Mark Millar (Writer), Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett (Artwork), DC Comics (Publisher).

Who’s in it?: Superman, Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman, Batman.

Original run: Limited series, 3 issues.

Published: April-June 2003.

In terms of superheroes, who is more American than Superman? Often seen as the great white-picket-fence hero, Superman is the embodiment of that intangible American Dream. Because of that, many view him as an outdated character. He doesn’t quite jive in these cynical times.

But that hasn’t stopped writers from tweaking the Last Son of Krypton’s legend.

Back in 2003, comic book scribe Mark Millar decided to give the Man of Steel’s origin a makeover, and created one of my favourite Superman stories, Red Son. It was released as a 3-issue mini-series under DC Comics’ Elseworld line, which takes your favourite heroes and puts them in a strange time or place, assessing how they might have turned out. In this Elseworld tale, Millar alters where the young Kal-El crash lands. Instead of Smallville, Kansas, he lands in Ukraine, Russia, and grows up to be the champion of the Soviet people in the years of the Cold War. How’s that for a hook?

Millar recently left mainstream comics to work on his own “Millar-verse,” with such titles as Kick-Ass and Nemesis. Before this, he worked with both main comic companies, helping to shape the Ultimate Universe for Marvel, as well as writing The Flash for DC with fellow Scot Grant Morrison. Millar is a fine story-teller and DC obviously had a lot of faith in him when commissioning Red Son. When you think about it, it must have been an almighty challenge to re-write the most recognised superhero origin in history. Backed by beautiful artwork by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett, Red Son will stand the test of time as a wonderful “what if?” scenario.

The epic is split into three parts: Red Son Rising, Red Son Ascendant, and finally, Red Son Setting. Things kick-off in 1953. Superman has grown up and left the collective farm in the Ukraine for Moscow, to use his super powers to help Communist causes. Stalin embraces this Man of Steel, and as the first book unfolds, he goes on to control most of the world, transforming it into a paradise where nothing can go wrong. Except the Americans, who resist his call for world unity. Standing in his way, as always, is Lex Luthor, who plots to bring the “hero” down. However this time he has the public on his side, painting the Kryptonian as an alien menace that needs to be eradicated. It’s a delicious twist on the mythos that paints the entire Superman lore in shades of grey.

Red Son is an interesting experiment that takes everything we know about the character and completely uproots it. Millar has crafted one of the most intricate takes on the Man of Steel ever. But it isn’t just revisionism for a revisionist’s sake; Red Son is disarmingly clever in the way it twists the familiar, even the colour of Superman’s costume, which is now grey and red with a hammer and sickle logo – a surprisingly potent image. It is the Superman we all know and love, but not. The dichotomy is rather fascinating.

The artwork adds a dimension of grittiness that helps to touch upon the main theme of the story, which is the constant battle over who is truly the hero, Luthor or Superman. The character’s most well-known villain is given a real makeover here, as the self-proclaimed saviour of America, but his old characteristics creep in every now and again, making the reader question whether he is doing this for the good of his country, or just for the sake of his own career. You’re constantly waiting for the baldie’s real motives to become clear, and Millar milks the suspense.

He isn’t the only DC mainstay to make an appearance, of course.

We see Batman taking on a more villainous role, as he battles with the state and Wonder Woman, who grows closer to Superman at certain points. The Green Lantern Marine Corps. and other classic heroes and villains from the Superman comics also make cameos. Millar delights in building his alternative DC universe, and there’s enough material here to fill fifty graphic novels.

The idea that the good can become bad, and the bad can become good, gives Red Son a richness that is usually lacking in contemporary comic books. More heroes should be given this treatment.

This comic falls into that very small category of titles that anyone can enjoy, like Watchmen or more recently, Supreme Power. There’s no continuity barrier or hack writing that only fanboys will appreciate; it’s just a great story well-told. It comes highly recommended.

Useless Trivia

  • This wouldn’t be the only time that someone has tweaked the origin story for another nation. Actor John Cleese co-wrote Superman: True Brit (2004), which re-imagines the tale as if Kal-El landed in Western-super-Mare.
  • Red Son won the Eisner Award for “Best Limited Series” in 2004.
  • A series of action figures were inspired by the comic, one of the few to receive such an honour.

Matt Hakin

  • Puddy Banks

    “In terms of superheroes, who is more American than Superman?”… Captain America?

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