Book Reviews

Revisiting “Superman: Red Son” 17 Years Later

Image Credit: comiXology

When Superman: Red Son was released back in 2003, I consumed it like a ravenous 27-year-old who had just discovered comics. Now, this surely wasn’t the case. Up until that point, I had been an avid reader – voracious, even – since my return to the literary medium a few years prior (I had fallen off the wagon from my teens through my early twenties – unforgivable, I know); and I was already a faithful disciple of anything Millar was writing at the time. The first volume of his initial Ultimates series (running concurrently and in full swing) was gospel to me, and I was on board for any book he was writing from this point forward. So, you can imagine how excited I was when news broke that he was doing an alternate take on the Superman mythos; and not just your conventional run-of-the-mill “take,” either. He was putting the “Boy Scout,” a character synonymous with America, in a tale where his ship never crash-landed in Kansas, but rather in the farmlands of Ukraine, during Stalin’s Soviet Union. I was in from the moment I read the solicitation preview.

I vividly remember how blown away I was by the story in 2003. It wasn’t just the freshness of the concepts and ideas that we were given, but also the sheer cleverness of what Millar created, and how he brought it back full circle in the end (we’ll get to this small bit of brilliance in a bit), that made me love it as unabashedly as I did. And the funny thing is, as much as I loved it back then, I hadn’t really thought about the book in the past seventeen years. That is, not until news was dropped at Comic-Con that an animated version of it was coming to Blu-ray and VOD in the near future; and even then, I was only like, “Cool. I remember loving that book. I hope they do it justice.”

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when I picked up the Blu-ray from Best Buy. Watching an adaptation of a book I remember really loving, after said book evading my thoughts for almost two decades, was just like enjoying it for the first time all over again. There were so many things I had forgotten about the story. Seeing it come alive in 1080p completely reinvigorated my love, and gave me renewed interest in revisiting the book to see if it stood the test of time for my palate. Spoiler Alert: it absolutely did.

Right off the bat, Millar tips his hat to the canonical truths we know to be self-evident, kind of as a wink and a nod to let us know that he knows how life really played out in the “prime” universe; but in Millar’s world, this “life” is a work of fiction. It’s a nice touch, and a brilliant way to wave us off as we venture into what “could have been”.

The Lois/Superman chemistry exists, but the love story is only a work of “fiction” in Millar’s universe (comiXology)

When I first read the story as three, single issues, I was a wee lad in my twenties. I would like to reflect upon those times with a definitive notion that 27-year-old “me” certainly had a grasp on world politics, and the foibles of human behavior; and my grasp may have been firm. However, reading this book as a 44-year-old definitely gave me a greater appreciation for the concepts and ideas that Millar was tackling. Ideas such as racism, xenophobia, American exceptionalism, imperialism, hubris and free will.

There’s some small, but poignant commentary on the destructive nature of men, as well.

Themyscira is unsullied by the “taint of men” (comiXology)

But maybe the reason that the book has resonated with me so much more now, in 2020, is because of the environment in which I’m consuming the material. These concepts and ideas feel so much more relevant today, given everything that is currently going on, than perhaps they did back in 2003. Or maybe they were just as relevant, but my younger, less evolved self merely couldn’t comprehend the full gravimetric-weight of Millar’s words.

In addition to my enlightened understanding, I was also slapped (in the proverbial sense, that is) with an epiphany regarding the relationship between Kal-El and Lex, and the sort of symbiosis that has always existed between these two characters. I say “epiphany” when it was really rather a host of “questions” that came to mind. But sometimes it’s all the same when the “lights” go on “upstairs”. Here’s what was born out of my “Aha!” moment:

Is Superman the “Achilles’ heel” to Lex’s potential? Would this potential, which is slighted by his hatred, jealousy, and bigotry towards Kal-El, exponentially grow if Superman had never landed on Earth? Or is this growth both stunted, as well as stimulated, by his presence, creating an unsolvable conundrum for one of the planet’s smartest men?

Millar not only provides insight for these comic-book queries of mine, but in doing so, gives us one of the cleverest takes on the Superman/Lex Luthor relationship that has still not been surpassed by any other writer to this day. Remember that small bit of brilliance I spoke of earlier, and how Millar brought it back full circle in the end? Well, here’s what he did: he made Superman a descendant of Lex.

And Millar didn’t stop there. He made Krypton a future Earth, and all of its leaps-and-bounds in technology, biology and medicine a result of Lex’s unfettered and focused intelligence (a “Level Nine Intelligence,” according to Braniac).

Under Lex, Earth saw exponential prosperity….

A prosperity carried forward and nurtured by all of his descendants….

Eventually bringing Superman’s story full circle in the end (comiXology)

Superman: Red Son is one of those books whose cult-classic status is wholly deserving of the hype. Now, is the adaptation from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment worth watching? Absolutely. Will it give you a sense of how great the book is if you’ve never read it? In my humble opinion, no. You’ll need to dive into the source material for that. But both will give you different appreciations for the story. While the book is all-encompassing (something an adaptation can never be), the animated feature more deliberately focuses on the consequences of Superman’s isolation. How, without the guidance, wisdom, and teamwork of the JLA, left to his own ideas and devices, and completely cut off from other heroes, Superman would most definitely overreach, and his good intentions would ultimately lead him down a sinister path. The road to hell is always paved with good intentions. Even for the Man of Steel….

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