In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, undergraduate student Tricia Johnson, a senior majoring in English Literature, recommends Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar with art by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunket.
As a new reader of comic books, I’ve already been confronted by some of the stigmas that accompany the genre. I’m a frequent bus rider and often read to pass the time, but I’ve noticed different reactions when I pull out a novel versus a comic book. When I read a novel, I most often get asked if I’m doing homework. When I read a comic book, I most often get asked “You like [insert comic series here]?” with a note of surprise or even of judgment.
There seems to be a disconnect between the ideas of the comic/graphic genre, its readership, and its perceived legitimacy. While comics have been gaining critical attention as a narrative medium through works such as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus, Alison Bechdel’s Fun House, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, among many others, that sense of perceived literary value often doesn’t seem to transfer inside the world of criticism to superhero comics and outside the world of criticism to sequential art in general, a disconnect mirrored by the dual identity of the genre itself. Are these “graphic novels,” made with great seriousness for adult audiences, or are they “comic books,” long associated with kiddie escapism?
While not all comic books are created equal in the same way that not all novels can claim the same narrative or stylistic prowess, I would submit Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar and artists Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett as a recommended read. Red Son uses its fun, fan-pleasing premise—what if Superman’s spaceship landed in the Soviet Union instead of the United States—to comment on American foreign policy and the power, exceptionality, and sometimes corruption that haunt one’s status as a superpower—of the national or comic book variety.
Removing Superman from the status of default American icon allows Red Son some critical distance with which to approach Superman’s nearly limitless power and the ways and reasons that he uses it. The story is fairly simple: Superman’s spaceship, launched several seconds later than in the original version of the story, lands in Soviet-controlled Ukraine instead of crash-landing on the Kent farm in the American heartland. While Superman grows into adulthood still refusing to kill and believing in the importance of protecting all innocents, he is brought up to believe in Communism and the Soviet Way and is used in the Cold War arms race against the United States. Ultimately, Superman leads a Soviet Union that becomes the world superpower.
Slowly corrupted by his own near limitless power, Superman uses his abilities to execute an Orwellian total surveillance of the planet, protecting the security of all the world’s inhabitants at the cost of their freedom, privacy, and even free will. As Stefan Buchenberger notes in his essay “Superman and the Corruption of Power,” since 1972’s Superman #247 “Must there be a Superman,” Superman comics have frequently returned to the ethical tightrope between interfering too much in others’ affairs, and the duty to help others that accompanies greater power (192). Even through Red Son’s Superman isn’t American, Superman is as engrained as part of the American image as football and McDonald’s, and can never be fully divorced from national association. This balance between viewing the Soviet Superman as both “us” and “not-us” allows Red Son to use Superman’s well-intentioned world domination as a cautionary commentary on the imperialist tendencies of recent American foreign policy, portraying the damage done to someone else’s “world” when outside powers attempt to police government and private life.
Also, Red Son is a lot of fun to read—and that’s okay. In keeping with the theme of the work as an alternative take on an American icon, the artwork of Red Son is often referential, alluding to past versions of the Superman story and to movements from comics and art history that have contributed to the modern Superman mythos. The Soviet setting gives occasion for panels that mimic the aesthetic style of Soviet propaganda posters from the ’50s, many of which directly reference some of the more iconic and recognizable posters.
Likewise, the artists use the opportunity of a new version of Superman to pay homage to the history of representation in the comics and superhero genre, including illustration and panel layout styles reminiscent of different artistic periods in comics history. Characters also make cameo appearances as versions of themselves outside the comics world, including a panel in which Lois Lane is drawn as Terri Hatcher from the television series Lois and Clark and Wonder Woman is drawn as Lynda Carter from the Wonder Woman television series.
Red Son offers readers the best of both worlds, remaining proud of its superhero roots by embracing and referencing the history of the genre and its role in popular culture while using its superpowered protagonists to explore the ramifications of exercising political and military power to ensure security. Red Son makes labels like “serious” graphic novel or “childish” comic book irrelevant, weaving together humor and satire to create a thought-provoking and entertaining read.
Millar, Mark, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong. Superman: Red Son. New York: DC Comics, 2004.
Buchenberger, Stefan. “Superman and the Corruption of Power.” The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times. Ed. Joseph J. Darowski. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012.