Today, I have learned a trick to keep my pace of reviews up. Graphic novels! If you’ve been reading this blog (and if you’re actually here, you probably have) you’ll know how much I love and respect graphic novels and comics. So I’m not denigrating them, but simply stating the fact that they are much quicker to read than pure text. Up first, I look at one graphic novel with a historical bent. Superman fights for Socialism, Motherland and the Soviet Way in Superman: Red Son, from the Trolltastic Mr. Mark Millar.
(Apologies for the double colons in the title of this post, I’m trying to keep to a consistent format. Yes, I am that anal.)
Historical Setting: The Cold War, from the late Stalin-era to the 1980’s and beyond
Appearances by Historical Personalities: Stalin, Eisenhower, JFK, Marilyn Monroe
Historical Events Covered: The Sputnik launch (though at an anachronous time), Stalin’s death
(Un)Timely Dialogue: “And who, as the champion of the common worker, fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, Socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact?”
Like the Sputnik launch, the Warsaw Pact is mentioned as being around in 1953, which is a couple of years too early. But I’m not going to moan about historical accuracy. This is an alternate universe after all. The Warsaw Pact, was effectively a military alliance that was the Soviet Union’s answer to NATO. For years, nervous children imagined World War III would be a shooting war between these two alliances, ending with mutually assured destruction. What does it say about our world that we actually look fondly back on the Cold War these days?
Which Historical Personality Is This Book?
Charles XII of Sweden. He was a young military genius in the early 18th century, back when Sweden was a major European power. He had dreams of conquest and very nearly defeated Peter the Great’s Russia until it all ended in disaster because he got too full of himself. This book, like Charles, had so much potential for greatness, but like every other attempt to take on Russia, ended up being a disappointment.
If you don’t generally follow comics, you might be asking, Wait a minute, what’s going on? When did Superman go to Russia and why is he wearing that hammer and sickle? To keep things “fresh,” comic companies like to juice their venerable properties with “what if” scenarios, taking beloved characters and stories and retelling them through alternate timelines/universes/realities. In this standalone story, Superman’s capsule lands, not in the middle of Kansas, but in 1930’s Ukraine.
You can definitely see the potential in this idea. It could have gone in a couple of intriguing directions. We could have seen how the traditional DC Comics superheroes would have integrated into Soviet society. What’s the Soviet equivalent of Justice League of America? How would Batman operate on the streets of Moscow? Would Aquaman be just as easy to ridicule living in the Arctic Ocean as he does in the Atlantic?
Or maybe, with the focus staying on Superman, we could have seen a more explicitly political and historical story, seeing how Superman’s presence in a Communist regime would have impacted the Cold War and how he would have been involved in various events such as the Space Race, the raising of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Instead, what do we get? Yet another iteration of the “Superman gets taken down a notch” trope. See Batman v Superman (actually, I’ll save you the trouble – don’t – even my 5 year old didn’t like it!), The Dark Knight Returns, etc., etc. As an aside, my favourite take on this subject was from DC’s Armageddon 2001 event. In yet another alternate reality, Superman decides things would be much easier if he became President of the United States and ends up making a mess of it. In hindsight, he actually did a pretty decent job, compared to some Presidents (alright, just one.)
Writer Mark Millar, with art by Dave Johnson, brings little that is fresh to this sub-genre. Millar has built a very successful career on being provacative, supposedly in the service of satire, but he does so in such a blunt manner that he comes off as more of a troll than anything else. Cheer for pyschopathic Lex Luthor! Socialism only works on the brain dead! See JFK become bloated and corrupt! Lex married to Lois Lane!?
These ideas seems more like a series of gags rather than a continuous story. Once you move past their shock value, there isn’t too much of substance. And yet, there are parts that hint at a far more interesting work, if only Millar had had the inclination to pursue it. The idea of Batman as an orphan from one of Stalin’s purges, rather than a random street crime, is one notable example. But where does that lead? Batman fighting Superman, again. At least this time, he doesn’t lean on a convenient supply of Kryptonite.
Overall, I thought the execution of the story was quite good, and told in a compact, three part structure. There were enough Easter Eggs to keep devoted fans amused. If it was a purely standalone story, without the baggage of the Superman canon and the many alternate reality takes already out there, I probably would have thought that this was a pretty solid graphic novel. But I couldn’t separate it from all of that history, nor could I separate it from the obviously trolling on the part of the author. I probably marked the book down a star for that. I get the sneaking suspicion Millar would be pleased.
My rating: ★★★ (of out 5)