NATURE OVERCOMES NURTURE
Superman: Red Son
(An Elseworlds Story)
Genre: Graphic Novel, Superheroes
Publisher: DC Comics
Format: Paperback, 168 Pages
Date: 15th April 2014 (First Published 2003)
A strange visitor from another world crash lands in the Soviet Union. Raised on a Communist collective, the infant refugee is bestowed superpowers by the Earth’s yellow sun. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, this super being has the power to decisively tilt the Cold War balance of power in favour of the Soviets. But Earth’s greatest mind has other ideas, and may be the free world’s only hope in prevailing against impossible odds.
Despite being unarguably the world’s most recognisable superhero it is much harder to make a case for Superman being the most popular today. The principal reason for this discrepancy is all too apparent: the Last Son of Krypton just isn’t perceived to be cool any more (if he ever was). As for why Kal-El lacks the cool factor possessed by many rival characters such as Batman, Spider-man, and Wolverine it’s entirely down to two things. First of all, Superman is such an unambiguously flawless personality whose virtuousness makes for a boring character. Secondly, he is generally always depicted as being so overpowered that nothing and no one ever genuinely poses a threat to him, which again makes him less interesting.
At various times over the years there have been many futile attempts to make Superman more interesting, ergo more cool. One of the best known efforts is Superman: Red Son, one of the graphic novels produced under DC comics’ Elseworlds imprint. Perhaps the best thing about the Elseworlds initiative was that it gave more creative freedom to writers to conceive one-off stories outside the canonical continuity, featuring any of DC’s stable of characters, built around a “what if” scenario. And so it was in 2003 Mark Millar brought to fruition a tale constructed around the question, “What if Superman’s pod had crash-landed in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War instead of in Smallville?” As far as “what if” premises go, not only does this one undoubtedly have great potential for a compelling tale, it also provides an opportunity to explore the age-old nature versus nurture debate.
The story commences in the fifties in the wake of Superman’s public unveiling to the world by the Soviets as their answer to America’s development of the atomic bomb. Unsurprisingly, Uncle Sam is alarmed that this strange visitor from another world has shifted the balance of power decisively in favour of the USSR. Immediately, the US government sets about trying to come up with a means for countering this unprecedented “threat,” enlisting the help of the genius that is Lex Luthor, thereby beginning a five decade long struggle to defeat Superman.
As is to be expected, this drastically different alternate reality allowed the writer to depict unfamiliar incarnations of familiar DC Comics characters. While some of these changes are more pronounced than others, the one character who remains resolutely the same is Superman, and this contributes most to Red Son’s failure to fulfil its potential. Whether it was an unwillingness on the part of Millar to portray Superman in a negative light, or if it was a stipulation insisted upon by the “suits” at DC, the end result is that this alternate version of the character is still a goody two shoes boyscout who wants to save everyone, and staunchly refuses to kill. Even when Superman makes the decision to become a global Communist dictator he does so for purely altruistic reasons, to make the world a better, fairer, happier place.
Whether by design or not, Superman: Red Son falls firmly in the nature camp with regard to the nature versus nurture debate. In spite of being raised in an oppressive, militaristic dictatorship, and going on to become a close associate of Stalin, Superman remains an inherently good guy incapable of wilful wrongdoing. The principal consequence of this (presumably unintended) depiction is that it makes all the people trying to destroy Superman and bring down the Soviet Union look like villains.
Sadly, Red Son’s flaws do not end with its cop-out depiction of the Man of Steel. The story is as coherent and believable as a bad fan-fiction work. It’s hard to understand how and why it made such an impression upon its release, and why it is still regarded as an iconic title today; the high regard in which it is held simply isn’t justified. The only thing about Superman: Red Son that isn’t terrible is the artwork, but that’s no consolation. All in all, this one should only be read by diehard Superman fans, as it’s hard to believe anyone else will derive any enjoyment from it.