Superman comics are my kryptonite.
See what I did there?
Usually I don’t love Superman. He’s too perfect. It’s annoying. I like my superheroes flawed and fallible. But, I also like alternate histories, so I was eager to dig in to Superman: Red Son. I enjoy playing in the possibilities of what-if and what-might-have-been. One of the things I love about the established characters in the DC and Marvel universe is that because their (albeit fictional, I guess) history is well known and accepted, alternate histories are, of course, a common place to play with storylines.
Ultimately, alternate history depends on memory. If you don’t or can’t recollect the narrative that the alternative history is “riffing” on, you can’t make sense of the purpose of the retelling. It stops being an alternate history and starts being, like, I don’t know. A story. And you can get a story any old damn place. Alternate history is special.
DC has an imprint devoted to alternate history. They call it Elseworlds, which is a great friggin’ name. Superman: Red Son is part of this imprint; it’s a three-issue one-shot (that can’t be the right word for this) by Mark Millar with art by Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong. The premise is pretty straightforward: what if Superman’s capsule had crashed not in Kansas, but in the Ukraine under Soviet rule? Superman is no longer the protector of the American Way, but instead a figure devoted to the goals of Stalinist communism and committed to globalizing the Soviet Union. If your first response to that idea was OH SNAP, then your first response was correct. Oh snap, indeed.
(It’s awesome is what I’m saying.)
Also, you know it’s an alternate history because Green Lantern becomes the hope for mankind. I mean, seriously. Please never let that happen, universe.
Okay, but I was supposed to talk about memory (1). As I mentioned, alternate history, if it works, is predicated on memory, and that’s certainly true here. It’s only unsettling to consider Superman in Stalin’s hands if you have some framework for understanding both those concepts in their accepted historical context. On a macro level, the whole thing collapse if your memory fails you. On a micro level, these alternate histories within established comic world only work if you’re versed in the lore. Lois Luthor only makes your heart sink, and CIA operative Jimmy Olsen only delights you, if you know the backstory. When Superman, in a quest for a utopia, turns the Soviet people into an unthinking and incapable mass, a reader without the proper framework might see this as a case of a character overreaching in support of his ideals. Superman fans, though, know that this is a perversion of the values Superman has stood for. Without that backstory, Superman’s climactic exit makes no sense. For Marvel and DC, alternate histories are gifts to the hardcore fans, a way of demonstrating that the amount of intellectual energy they (fine, we) spend on keeping track of the characters has been worthwhile.
It’s a reward for the committed reader’s extended dedication to memory.
Because I was thinking about how memory frames and drives these kinds of stories, I was interested to see the extent to which memory is the motivating force in the actions the characters take. Not Superman, so much, as he is motivated by his ideals. But Batman, in this version, is motivated to destroy Superman (2) because his parents were killed by the head of the KGB; the memory of the night of their murder haunts him and leads him to seek to destroy Superman as a representative of that regime. Lois Lane, trapped in a SURPRISE unhappy marriage to Lex Luthor, is haunted by the memory of Superman’s face; even as she believes her government’s propaganda about commie Superman, she finds it hard to release these feelings and it shapes her response to him at the end of the text. Wonder Woman, betrayed by Superman, is motivated by the echoing memory of that betrayal to help attempt to destroy Superman. And visually, we’re alerted to the importance of all these (and other) moments of memory through the use of a chiaroscuro fog effect in the panels — we revisit the scenes visually at significant moments where memory becomes a motivator. It’s a little frying-pan-over-the-head once you start looking for it, but it works.
Memory is important to Superman: Red Son both in content and form. And the cool thing about alternate histories is that the reader’s memory of the alternate history itself shapes the reading of future “normal” history comics in the series. The interaction is fluid and variable, as anything based in memory is wont to be.
Just don’t think too hard about the end of Superman: Red Son (3).
(1) If, when you read my posts, you get the feeling that I’m the adorable but slightly less intellectually fortunate member of this ensemble cast, you’re not wrong. If Graphixia was Friends, I would be a literate Joey. Which is just Phoebe I guess. I don’t know, I haven’t seen the show in a decade. OMG, me, stop typing!
(2) For women who dig superheroes, this matchup is akin to that scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary where Colin Firth and Hugh Grant fight each other. Hashtag fantastic.
(3) Don’t read this until you’ve read the comic. What do we do with the fact that Millar sets us up for a repeat and the entire plot becomes cyclical? Lois Lane and Lex Luthor become Superman’s ancestors, right? Like, his great-great-great-to-the-power-of-a-lot grandparents? So Superman is hot for Grandma Lois? I TOLD YOU NOT TO THINK ABOUT IT TOO MUCH. You can’t unthink these thoughts!
Millar, Mark et al. Superman: Red Son. New York: DC Comics, 2004.