Though he feature an unmatched bevy of superpowers gained and lost over the years (x-ray vision, flight, superbreath, heat-vision, super-strength, the ability to turn back time), one thing Superman never had was super-intelligence. He can speed-read at rates that surpass the human notion of speed-reading and absorb books in the process, but everything he feels—his lifestyle and methodology—is fueled by one thing: life experiences growing up on the Kent farm in Smallville. The conceit behind Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son—that Superman’s ship landed in Soviet-era Ukraine—should then revolutionize the character’s morality, evidencing more of a communal ideology than America’s famed “Peace, Justice and the American Way”. It promises a sociological comparison between the capitalist system Americans already know—represented by their iconic “S-emblazoned” Superman—and that of the forgotten Soviet regime; posits what the world would be like today, had Communism spread successfully. What’s delivered, however, is more a reimagining of the character that wavers between serving the established Superman mythos—Lex Luthor rivalries, ideological battles with Batman, a rogue’s gallery of super-villains well-established in the pre-existing Superman series, even an origin story largely reflective of the original—and an exploration of what a communist world would be like with Superman.
This raises the question of how beholden a writer must remain to the established mythology of a character in the comic book universe. In answering this question, I’m reminded of The Sandman series, which, at its inception, featured a brief tie-in with a handful of DC Comics regulars (most notably John Constantine), before focusing almost entirely on the development of an insular universe. Re-reading that series, the crossovers felt clunky and out of place—The Sandman is a uniquely well-contained story that develops organically; tells the tale of a man’s decision to either change with his times or perish. This is what elevates it past the realm of Superhero comics towards legitimate literature—tossing in John Constantine for the sake of mass market appeal is akin to a reimagining of Macbeth where, midway through, the titular Scotsman joins forces with King Lear and successfully beat down the peoples’ militia. It may be unfair to expect a reimagining of Superman to rebuild the character’s universe from the ground up, but to propose him as a Soviet superhero is to suggest just that.
The apparent similarities between Millar’s Soviet Superman go deeper than the casting, however; within the first twenty pages, as “Sputnik II” hurdles towards America’s Metropolis, Superman appears on the horizon already imagining the various ways he could save the city. “They called me a soldier, but that just wasn’t true,” he narrates. “I was never a soldier. A soldier always follows orders. A soldier knows and hates his enemy. A soldier only fights and dies for his own people. I just fought for what was right.” In these lines, and the predictable rescue of The Daily Planet which follows, Millar proposes Superman’s grasp of an intrinsic understanding of what’s “right”. On the surface, this hearkens back to our own Superman’s mantra of “Peace, Justice, and The American Way”—suggests that Supes is simply out to fight the good fight, regardless of who he’s saving. What his statement actually connotes, however, is a self-righteous belief that “right” can be quantified—that somehow, he has a deeper, purer understanding of what’s good for humanity than we’ve evolved to comprehend, as represented by our various ideological differences. This figures in later when, shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, he spies Lana Lazarenko, a childhood friend from the Ukrainian farm on which he was raised, waiting in a bread line. Speaking of her children, she tells him “We spent all our money traveling from Saint Petersburg for the funeral and now we have to queue here for scraps with everyone else”.
Until this point, Superman has refused the appointment of party leader everyone has pointedly suggested he accept; replying to Stalin’s son’s accusation of political aspirations, he states “How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not interested in politics or leading the party or any of that behind-the-scenes stuff. I came to Moscow to help the common man. I’m a worker, not a public speaker”. It appears Superman has drawn boundaries for himself—refuses to get involved in the “behind-the-scenes politics” that guide the social workings of a country, instead choosing to help “the common man”, (by preventing train derailments and cosmic collisions with Earth…). The contrast he makes between “the common man” and “politics” suggests a feeling that the Soviet government exists largely to serve the wealthy, utterly disregarding the poor. And so, when he sees Lana standing in the bread line and hears the surrounding peoples’cries that their “children haven’t eaten all day”—that some “haven’t eaten in weeks”—he has a change of heart, stating “I could take care of everyone’s problems if I ran this place, and to tell you the truth, there’s no good reason why I shouldn’t”. Again, though standing up for starving Russian citizens, his assumption of power smacks of a misguided egocentrism—a belief that he’s somehow “beyond” human failures. His later musing on what Lex Luthor “might have accomplished… in the name of his species” only further evidences this disconnect from humanity. Much like the superpowers of our own world—the political giants of first world countries—Superman assumes the role of leader in the role of a father figure—one who will “take care of everyone’s problems”, even if they be the problems of another “species”—the “common man”. This imagined hierarchical division between Superman and the people he governs is no less specious or harmful to a Marxist state than that of Stalin and the real-life leaders that followed him; just as they lived lives of comfortable opulence and inscrutable power, so does The Man of Steel, constructing a palatial escape from the Soviet state for himself, from which he issues absolute mandate of what the “common man” requires in life.
By the end of his first twenty years in power, all but the US and Chile operate as communist states, yet even within his own country, there is a collective group of discontent souls—individuals who long to throw off the ubiquitous gaze of “big brother”. Upon entering a bar, a yet-unnamed man overhears a fellow drinker complain “We’re like his pets. Animals in a cage. He might shelter and feed us, but we’re never going to be free while that monster’s running the show”. He’s talking about Superman, the figurehead of the now nearly-global communist state; though it nurtures peoples’ bodies with “shelter” and food, it doesn’t allow exercise of the mind, as we soon find out with the stranger’s reply. “Dangerous talk my friend,” he says, “especially when you’re criticizing a man with super-hearing…Incitement to disobey is all it takes to be turned into a Superman Robot these days”. In the panel in which this discussion occurs, a man’s face is centered in the foreground, mindlessly clutching a mop, his eyes zombified by some alien mechanical device consisting of three circles attached to his head. As the stranger indicates, “Incitement to disobey”—any expression of dissatisfaction with the Super-Communist regime—is grounds for an external lobotomy. In exchange for providing the people assured necessities, Superman has revoked their ability to think or assemble freely—has instituted an Orwellian state where dissent is met with very real “Soviet reprogramming”.
The stranger, we later discover, is Batman, an anarchist crusader who spends his nights causing social upheaval, primarily in the form of civic explosions. After he destroys the “Superman Museum” and four other buildings alongside it, Pyotr bursts into Superman’s chambers and begs him to just kill the caped-crusader, to which he is told “No. There must be no killing…This utopia will not be built on the bones of my opponents.” This sentiment is echoed later when Superman is faced with an invasion by Lex Luthor—he states “I don’t want to invade them…Everything I’ve accomplished so far has been done by winning the argument”. And yet, the very existence of Batman and his fellow dissidents suggests he’s won no such thing; how hard is it to win a debate against a lobotomized opponent? And why, if the argument is being won, is there dissent on the level of public destruction?
Perhaps ironically, when Pytor calls for Batman’s death, Superman is busy chiseling away at a slab of stone, crafting a heroic statue in the image of himself. Likewise, he is molding the world to fit his understanding of what’s “right”—to serve the intrinsic notion of good he founded his global-state upon. He eventually questions his influence, telling Wonder Woman “Sometimes I wonder if Luthor and the Americans are right…Perhaps we do interfere with humanity too much. Nobody wears a seatbelt anymore. Ships have even stopped carry lifejackets. I don’t like this unhealthy new way that people are behaving”. The boundaries Superman initially set up between himself and the “behind-the-scenes politics” have broken down, the result being humanity’s easing into reckless, carefree comfort. He is both scribe and enforcer of the laws—the great protector, ever-available to prevent even the tiniest mishap, and the great judge, quelling any sign of protest or rebellion with silence. Soviet Superman is, in many ways, the embodiment of a perfect fascist state, providing coverage and protection for the people by mandating what they are to believe and own.
The later revelation that “Every adult had a job. Every child had a hobby. And the entire human population enjoyed the eight hours’ sleep which their bodies required. Crime didn’t exist. Accidents never happened. It didn’t even rain unless Brainiac was absolutely certain that everyone was carrying an umbrella” echoes any number of national promises—America’s turkey in the oven, Franco’s daily bread, etc. It represents a complete control of the people and the world they live in—a sort of totalitarian dictatorship wherein the dictator honestly wants to help his people. The disconnect which continues to breed dissent, fueling America’s refusal to bow before Communism, can be explained only by examining the question of at what point must humans be held culpable for, or allowed to make, mistakes? At what point must a government impose boundaries on its social reach to ensure its people maintain free will, but also achieve an acceptable standard of living? This is a much greater question than a simple comic can answer, as its implications exceed that of the Superman character; indeed, one must first decide what level of injustice and inequality we’re willing to tolerate in the real world—and whether the concession of personal freedom is a valid exchange for supposed comfort and safety. This question has been asked throughout the ages by opposing ideologies; in modern America, the conservative right claims the forfeiture of freedom as a necessary deterrent against terrorist-inspired crime, while calling for the abandonment of social programs like welfare and medicare, while the left proposes greater government regulation and social outreach at the expense of a reduced military budget. The partisan divide, though an ever-present headache, is likewise a necessary evil to avoid the creation of a militaristic socialist country—one akin to Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Neither is particularly all-encompassing (though the conservative agenda skirts closely on such totalitarian thinking), yet were a bi-partisan candidate to realize both parties’ goals, we would ultimately end up with something akin to Superman’s Communist state.
Red Son takes the Cold War one step further than it ever reached on its own—militaristic warfare. In order to avoid the realization of a unified dystopian world, Lex Luthor does the unthinkable—enacts a first strike against Superman using the Green Lantern Corps and Wonder Woman’s Amazonian Squad as an initial attack. In doing so, Luthor has almost all but ensured his country’s demise, but subsequently made one last stand for individualism—a final push for free will and individual expression. Forced into battle, Superman abandons his brainwashing tactics and springs into action, disarming the Green Lantern Corps, pummeling Wonder Woman’s Amazons, and ultimately defeating the fleet of supervillains America releases from its prisons to do battle with The Man of Steel. Hovering over the White House, all that stands between him and total global domination is Lois Lane (Luthor) and a letter her husband penned the night before. Warned by Superman that The White House and everything within a several block radius would soon be destroyed, Lois stands her ground, instead pointing his attention to the letter inside her jacket. Insulted, the super-leader uses his x-ray vision to peak inside—and is brought to his knees by its contents.
“Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?” the letter reads.
In a flashback we see Lex handing the letter to his wife, telling her “They say the pen is mightier than the sword”.
The “bottle” hearkens back to an earlier incident in Red Son’s storyline wherein Brainiac shrunk Stalingrad down, trapping it inside a bottle—something which Superman refers to as the “single black spot” on his career. Of course, Luthor’s letter contextualizes Superman’s global reign as mimicking the forced isolation of those in Stalingrad—equates Communism’s total reach, Superman’s imposed acceptance of his system, and the elimination of ideological diversity with the only act of villainy even The Man of Steel has been incapable of correcting. Luthor’s statement that “The pen is mightier than the sword” strikes deeper than even his letter suggests; the cliché motto connotes the triumph of thought over might—is encompassing of the entire Cold War. Though focused on winning the hearts and minds of his fellow man, Superman does so through forceful manipulation—imposes his will on others by way of brainwashing and reprogramming—and is likewise a figure of strength, not intellect. His forced spread of a narrow-sighted notion of what’s “right” for humanity—a group he views as a “species” separate from himself—fails to foster individual thought, and is likewise at ends with “the pen”. Indeed, the very act of reimagining Superman as a Communist superhero is only made available through free will and the ability to think as an individual—in a metatextual way, Red Son exists only because people are free to think, because “the pen” has won out over “the sword”.
Once Superman backs down from his assault, however, he’s questioned by his assistant—the reprogrammed Brainiac—an individual whose intelligence is so great he apparently remained unaffected by the Soviet brainwashing. As he pronounces his intent to bomb America to the ground, thus successfully implementing a globalized Communist state, Luthor commits one final act of heroism—pulls the plug on Brainiac’s ship. Unfortunately, the supervillain accounted for this, installing a nuclear self-destruct sequence which kicks in immediately thereafter. This moment is a realization of so many historical fears—of those who sat anxiously on edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis, learnt “Duck and Cover” during childhood, and felt an air of relief at the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; a nuclear first strike has been initiated—and the only man on Earth who can prevent its detonation is the leader of the party who’s responsible for its launch.
Fortunately, that man is Superman. Like several decades’ worth of political leaders who allowed good intentions to mar the face of countless developing nations during the Cold War, Superman only wanted the best for his people; though his attempt to render paradise on Earth ultimately gave birth to an ideological dystopia, he never intended to hurt anyone—sought only to help. And so, without hesitation, Superman does what Superman always does—grabs the ship, flies into space, and martyrs himself on the ensuing nuclear blast to save the world he’s fought so hard to defend. This does not nullify the nuke’s influence, however; just as a nuclear detonation would destabilize and uproot nearly any country, the Soviet Communist regime quickly dissolves globally—replaced, of course, by a Lex Luthor-led empire.
With this conclusion, we see how even people with the best intentions, when placed on an extreme seat of power, can cause great social havoc. Superman, an individual arguably limitless in strength and capability, functions best when operating behind social boundaries; as he implies at the beginning of the comic, when you combine the brute strength he uses to help the “common man” with an individual running the politics of a country, you ultimately end up with a militaristic dystopian state. For all the drama that ensues in our own world over ideological differences concerning social programs and civil rights, these are unfortunately (and paradoxically) the glue that holds society together; just as continued crime ensures the merit of our justice system and unification of our society, the continued debate over what’s “right” and “wrong” on a governmental level ensures the preservation of a diverse, globalized world. The world must therefore defy a “Superman” for leadership—must continually rely on flawed individuals with personal interests in order to ensure the continued peace of a state.