Review – Superman: Red Son
Written by: Mark Millar
Pencils by: Dave Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong, Killian Plunkett
Letters by: Ken Lopez
Colors by: Paul Mounts
Release Date: 2003
Arguably one of the most iconic Superman stories, Superman: Red Son is an Elseworlds story from 2003 that shows what a DC universe would look like if Superman’s rocket landed on a farm in The Soviet Union instead of Kansas. Superman: Red Son was written by Mark Millar, a name you may recognize from Old Man Logan, The Ultimates, Kick Ass, or Civil War. The book was released as a three issue mini-series and has recently been adapted as an animated film. It is one of the most popular and well known Elseworlds stories.
The plot is pretty straight forward on the surface. A Superman raised in the Cold War Soviet Union instead of Kansas. However, the way the story comes together is what makes it special. Millar’s use of Luthor’s obsession and brilliance to propel the plot is ingenious. The resolution to Luthor’s plot might seem a little convenient but I really feel they earn it in the world. Even the climax, before it devolves into a classic fight, is a brilliant bit of clever writing that understands Superman so clearly. The very end of the book though, avoiding spoilers, really cemented it as something interesting. The way Millar plays with the mythos of Superman in the context of this story caught me off guard in the best way. I love a double entendre almost as much as I love folks being extra clever in obvious ways.
Besides playing with the idea of a Superman molded by Soviet ideals instead of American ideals, the book also gives us alternate universe versions of classic DC characters. Superman Red Son proposes the idea that Superman’s arrival to the world was a catalyst for multiple foundational DC events and the way they played out. Outside of geo-political events, it shows massive shifts for Lex Luthor, Batman, Wonder woman, and more. These character twists are fun, although some of them don’t make a ton of sense of you scratch beneath the surface. The Green Lantern and Batman bits are great fan service, but they aren’t as logically strong as the rest of the book.
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The art is, excuse the cliche, iconic. This is meant in regards to the art in the book as well of its use of icons in general. The design of our Red Son is one of the most recognizable secondary designs of Superman. The designs of other recognizable DC characters feel both honest and unique. Instantly recognizable in the lineage of those characters, they still fit in this universe so well. It’s not an Elseworld full of change for changes sake though, with some classic designs maintained.
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The way the art style shifts with the “timeline” of the story is brilliant too. The first issue feels more like Soviet Era comics, while the third feels much more modern. It somehow makes the story feel honest and like we’re viewing an alternate history. Homages and similarities to classic comic designs help feel like you’re seeing an alternate version of the world we know. The use of Soviet iconography and colors makes the story feel authentic and serious but still a viable part of the medium we love. It’s impressive to see DC embrace Soviet iconography for the sake of the story, despite them being a step behind Nazi Germany.
Mark Millar has been responsible for some pretty iconic stories in the comics medium. Having a classic American hero raised in a Communist Soviet Union is such a fun contrast and the book takes the opportunity to play with that. The nice part of the book is that it doesn’t turn Superman into a totally different person. At his core, Superman still feels the same just with a different set of cultural values. There’s an authenticity to the character, despite the differences, that lots of creators lose when creating alternate versions. I would argue this is a big part of why this book and version of the character captivated audiences so much.
Superman: Red Son is a fantastic cover of one of your favorite songs. It’s a fun Elseworlds story but also a touching Superman story. It’s ultimately a character study, more than it is a superhero romp. While it has logical leaps of convenience and fan service, the core of the book is strong enough to compensate for it. Millar shows an understanding of who Superman is, and despite his Soviet upbringing the character shines through. Luthor and Superman both come across as villain or hero at different moments. The art is flexible and gorgeous, balancing homages with unique imagery. Superman: Red Son is iconic for a reason and it’s a must read for fans of Superman or comics in general.
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