Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Books: Superman: Red Son


Superman: Red Son
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

It's all about limitations.

Back in 2004 Mark Millar wasn't really that much of a known quantity. Nowadays if a book comes out that he's written then it's his name plastered across the top of the cover in big letters [1]: as the evil genius behind such comic blockbusters as The Ultimates, Wolverine: Old Man Logan, Nemesis, Wanted and (of course) the pretty much infamous Kick-Ass (like him, love him or hate him [2]) he's in the comic book writer big leagues - up there in the pantheon with the big boys [3] like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison: so much so that he can appear on Cultural Television shows on the BBC, run his own Comic Book Convention (Kapow!), his own magazine (CLiNT) and (this is the big one) - even my literary flatmate knows who he is ("The Scottish one with the ginger hair right?").

But - like I said: in 2004 he wasn't really much of a thing: (which is why his name is barely noticeable in the top left hand corner of the cover up there) and so - when he was given the chance to write this DC Elseworlds title ("where heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places...") his normal exuberant self - responsible for some of the most stomach-churning comics of the past decade (and not always in a good way) - was on pretty limited display. It's like when you're invited other to your boyfriend's / girlfriend's house for dinner for the first time: you're not going to tell them all your great dead baby jokes or show them how many matchsticks you can fit up your nose - no: you're going to wear something smart, make sure your hair is as neat as can be and put on a voice so that you sound just a little bit more posher than what you actually are (what's up with that?).

Like I said below - a lot of people (rightly or wrongly) - really can't stand Mark Millar: so much so that they don't say "Oh I don't like the stuff he writes" they said "Oh I don't like him.": so you know - it's a dislike that creeps under the skin and becomes actually personal somehow. They say that he's obnoxious and that he panders to all the worst excesses of geek culture: he's too violent, too mean and way too unappetizing. You know how pretty much the whole culture of comic books nowadays is about trying to raise the medium into the place of "serious art-form" so that people won't laugh in your face when you bring it up at a dinner party? Well (so say the haters): Mark Millar is (seemingly) one a one-man crusade to reverse all the good will built up by your Mauses [4] and Fun Homes and drag comic books back under the rock of pubescent kicks and thrills.

Which I guess is why (for a hell of a lot of people I've spoken to) Superman: Red Son is their favourite Mark Millar story by a long long way (sample quote: "Oh god - I can't frigging stand Mark Millar but yeah: Red Son is like one of my favourite comics ever.") because it's pretty much the sweet spot just between when he first started to gain his superpowers and yet (crucially) hadn't reached the point where all the restrictions were removed. Let me put it this way: nowadays I get the feeling that he laughs at the idea of editorial control ("Who are you to tell me - the fabulous Mark Millar - what to do?") but back then - with Red Son being his first shot at the big time - I'm guessing he was a lot more compliant. And - after all: when you're messing with a property like Superman (even if it is in an Elseworld's tale) you can't ever really go too crazy (no putting Superman in a gimp mask or anything like that - thank you sir).

The funny thing is - if you accept the thought that Mark Millar works best (or produces the work that everyone likes best at least) when he's boxed in and controlled and ever-so-slightly censored (you know: given some limitations) - the opposite is true of Kal-El: the last son of Krypton (or at least how I see it: but I guess I should try and explain).

So: at this point everyone knows who Superman is right? He can fly, he's super-strong and his spit curl is always immaculate: basically the dude is the pinnacle of all power fantasies ever made [5]: which is both a good thing (it's one of the reasons he's managed to be such a towering cultural icon for so long) and - yet - also a bad (that being: why there are so few good Superman comics out there [6]): because - you see - while it's loads of fun to tuck in a red sheet at the back of your neck and pretend you're an invincible alien from another planet etc etc it's actually pretty tough to take that character and put him in a story that's interesting. Mostly (and this is the obvious one) because it's hard to think of things to stop someone that's pretty much unstoppable (apart from those pesky glowing green rocks): I mean - most stories are about overcoming adversity right? So if you have someone who doesn't really experience much in the way of adversity - then there's not much for him to overcome (oh well).

But the second problem (which is less obvious) - and this is where we start to get to that idea of limitations again - is that it's really difficult to construct a world where you have an all-powerful god-like being floating around and doing things and yet not have that world change in any real significant way. I mean: come on - if tomorrow we found out that we lived in a world where not only there was a man who could fly: but that man was going around fighting crime and evil wherever he found it then within just a few years I'm thinking that society would probably be warped in quite a significant (and I'm imagining very cool) way: I mean - would people even think about committing major crime if they thought there was a chance that a flying man might drop from the sky and stop them? Would celebrities still seem some glamorous and cool playing pretending games (sorry - films) compared to someone with actual real magical powers? Would we all end up wearing our underpants on the outside of our trousers? And how would the major religions react to the fact that we had proof that we were no longer the only intelligent beings in the universe? And you know: all the stuff like that [7].

I didn't mention this before - but the major counter argument to the idea that there aren't really any good Superman stories would be the commercial success of the Smallville TV series: I mean -that went on for ten seasons or something right? And everyone thought it was great [8]. Of course what's interesting about that is that it's a show about Superman - where Superman isn't really Superman yet. Instead: it's all prologue with the idea of Superman slowly forming (hey - ten seasons right?) and coming together bit-by-bit and I'd say that the reason for that is because - once Superman is formed: well - it's hard to make a long-running story work without having to deal with the fallout of how his presence is going to change the world [9]. Which I guess is why the large majority of the best Superman stories are origin stories [10]: you know?

Because really (and this is where I get to my point finally): if you want to tell a really good Superman story: one that actually manages to press some buttons and not just feel rote and played out before it even begins - then what you need to do is take away the limitations. So instead of just running a Superman story where he goes up against the bad guy and manages to beat him and everyone cheers - you need to kind of address (in some way) in what ways he's affecting the world: not because it's realistic and you always need to be realistic and oh-god-give-me-some-more-realism or whatever: but because otherwises it just starts to get a little incongruous and stilted - you know.

Which is a very roundabout why I'd say that Superman: Red Son is in the running for the title of best Superman story ever. Because - by re-jigging the (now legendary) origin story of the Man of Steel and landing his little space-craft in the Soviet Union instead of the USA and slapping an Elseworlds sticker on the front - you basically have an excuse to (finally) write a Superman story where you no longer have to worry about his limitations and there's no real reason to rein things in. Instead: you can finally let things take flight in the way they've always promised and step out from shadow of that origin story and let the chips fall in a way that's a lot more interesting and fun than they ever have before.

If you haven't read it before you should know that's it a lot more clever and canny than just a series of "what if Superman was Russian" style escapades ("In Soviet Russia etc") [11] instead Millar takes the opportunity to remake the legend of the Man of Tomorrow in a way that is constantly surprising and exciting. The first time I tried to write something about this book on this blog I said that it had "interesting political undercurrents for anyone paying attention" but I think I was just saying that in order to try and sound smart: if you're looking for an analysis of Communism versus Capitalism then I'd say that you should look elsewhere: apart from the factoid that Stalin was also known as "The Man of Steel" there's not really that much in the way of depth here [12]: I mean - I guess people are welcome to look at how things end up and say "ah - that would have never happened in America" but if you take it apart the moral of the story is more that Superman should always have a Clark Kent style secret identity to keep him balanced (but whatever).

With big bold colourful artwork from Dave Johnson (the guy responsible for all those striking 100 Bullets covers) and Kilian Plunkett (fan-favourite Star Wars cover artist apparently) Red Son lovingly takes all the familiar age-old battered and worn Superman characters and clichés and smashes them into thrilling and exciting new shapes and sizes. To say too much would be to give the game away: but rest assured your brain will fizz, your loyalties will be torn and all your preconceptions will be smashed. Featuring cameo appearances from everyone from Batman to JFK to Pete Ross (as "Pyotr Roslov") [13] this is up there are one of the greatest stories ever told about comic's original superhero that will keep you on your toes all the way until it's final page.

And until the day that someone decides to make Mark Millar's "Godfather-Like" Superman Epic trilogy (which sounds like the most amazing thing ever: ""I want to start on Krypton, a thousand years ago, and end with Superman alone on Planet Earth, the last being left on the planet, as the yellow sun turns red and starts to supernova, and he loses his powers." [14]) then - well - like I said: this is one of (if not the) most compulsively readable and flat-out astounding tales of Superman ever told: just the way it should be: without limitations (hell yes).

[1] If this book had been written today then I'm thinking that the cover would say: "Mark Millar's Red Son" (featuring Superman).

[2] And to be fair - most people opt for choice number three.

[3] I realise that sounds sexist. But it's apt seeing how there aren't really any female comic book writers who are household names. The closest one I could think of would be Alison Bechdel and even then if you did mention her name in a household people would be much more likely to know her from the Bechdel Test than from anything she'd actually written (and please note: there is a (big) difference between being well known and being good at something: and I'm not saying that there aren't any good female comic book writers out there: I'm just saying that there aren't many that are that famous: yes? Good).

[4] Or whatever the right plural of Maus is supposed to be: I don't know.

[5] With the exception of - I guess - God. So yeah ok: being God is power fantasy number one. And being Superman is (a very close) second.

[6] Especially when you compare him to his best friend forever Batman who has amazing comic book stories coming out his big long bat-ears (and better movies too).

[7] And just in case you were about to think it: Batman doesn't have this problem because his whole shtick is hiding out in the shadows and disappearing in smoke bombs and basically being all urban-legendy (Is he real? Isn't he? Who knows?): plus he's pretty much a one-city guy - so he doesn't have to worry about radically altering the social structure of the world so much

[8] Didn't they? I must confess that I never actually watched it: it seemed a little bit too cheesy for my tastes.

[9] See: the other major exception would be that Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV that used to run back in the 90s. But I'd say the reason a show like that was possible was because it was made before the advent of the new generation of TV (as exemplified by the likes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The West Wing and (of course) The Sopranos) which re-jigged audiences expectations from expecting each episode to be it's own separate thing to making them demand that things took place in a world where actions had consequences (no one more reset buttons basically). And - you know: the special effects were so poor back then that Superman was less a god and more a demi-god: diet coke as opposed to the real thing - which made the idea that he would affect the world in any real major way much easier to accept. No?

[10] The one big exception to this would be Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman: but that's like it's own special beautiful unique thing - so whatever.

[11] If you're looking for that sort of thing then I very much recommend the completely dismal Superman: True Brit as written by (no joke) John Cleese. "Kal-El, instead of landing in Kansas, was intentionally sent to England. He is found by the Clarks, who, viewing a headset video found with Kal-El, learn of his origins, but mistake 'Kal-El' for 'Colin' and name him Colin Clark. Being raised stereotypically British doesn't help Colin's self-esteem, being raised to believe in the philosophy of "What would the neighbours think."

[12] And the fact that Stalin was also known as "The Man of Steel" isn't really depth either - but I just really wanted to mention it.

[13] I have to admit that I didn't even notice that until afterwards and it was only reading something that someone else had wrote that I noticed it. Oh well.

[14] Taken from here.


Further reading: SuperiorSuperman: Secret Identity, Superman: All Star SupermanSuperman: BirthrightKingdom Come, Irredeemable, JLA: Earth 2, The Ultimates, Kick-Ass, The Twelve, The OneWatchmen.

Profiles: Mark Millar.

All comments welcome.

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