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Superman : Red Son

For the April 27th 2003 edition of the Sunday Times in Scotland, Mark Millar wrote a feature article about his upcoming three part prestige format Elseworlds mini series Superman : Red Son, published by DC Comics. Warning, this article contains some spoilers for the series.

 

Ecosse: Cover story: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Superman, but not as we know him.

Scots cartoonist Mark Millar is risking the wrath of the US by turning the all-American icon into a Soviet crusader. Here he explains why :

Superman is as American to me as apple pie and weapons of mass destruction. Thus, when Superman’s people called me up and asked me to write his story, I took great pleasure in turning the concept upside down and giving the Americans something decidedly unsettling in these brainwashed, patriotic times. As a Scotsman I don’t think I’ve really got quite the same reverence for men in uniform that fly around and tell people what to do as our American allies seem to have. Growing up, I always wondered why a character that could solve the world’s problems overnight with those preposterous superpowers would spend so much time chasing bank robbers and mad scientists when he could at least drop some sandwiches off to the starving in Africa if he was such a nice guy. How could a man with super hearing and telescopic vision ignore what was happening in Iraq, Indonesia, China and South America? Could Superman really be described as a hero when all he ever did was reinforce the world’s unjust status quo?
All these thoughts were bubbling around in my head when DC Comics in New York approached me and asked me to do something radical with their Superman concept. Some years earlier it had achieved great success by approaching a writer called Frank Miller and asking him to do something crazy with the Batman franchise. The result not only reinvigorated the slightly tired and creaky comicbook industry but also spawned the multi-billion-dollar Batman movie franchise and a legion of imitators. Miller gave them a political Batman with a burning rage against Ronald Reagan’s America, and produced an award-winning, four-volume political cartoon that savaged the biggest figures of the day. It has gone down in pop culture history as perhaps the greatest comicbook graphic novel of all time. It also made Miller one of the richest writers in America and Batman became one of the most successful movies of all time. The Manhattan office of DC Comics was deafened with the sound of rustling dollar bills.
It was with these quite daunting thoughts that I set out to do the same for Superman. A generation after the seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, I’ve given the Americans Superman: Red Son — and, if you’ll excuse me for a second, I’m just nipping into my air-raid shelter to prepare for the barrage of friendly fire that’s sure to hit when Red Son reaches the shelves next Thursday. It’s not as if they didn’t know what to expect. I’d made my name a couple of years ago with a stint on a radical superhero comic called The Authority, where I wrote about the world’s first gay comicbook crime fighters and featured a multicultural superhero team deposing the corrupt administration in Indonesia. Within a few issues, we were outselling their more traditional Superman and Batman titles and before long I was poached by Marvel Comics to reinvent the X-Men and reinvigorate some even more famous household names such as The Hulk and Captain America, whose sales had languished in the doldrums for more than a couple of years. What I gave Marvel was a cynical, dark, hyper-violent X-Men comic and a rejig of all its other big names in a superhero title less concerned with super-villains and special effects and more about domestic abuse, drug addiction and an Incredible Hulk with a dangerous, uncontrollable libido that only the American military was capable of stopping. Under normal circumstances, these very qualifications would make writing a conservative character such as Superman for a conservative company such as AOL Time Warner impossible, but I was lucky in the sense that both titles launched as the biggest sellers in the western world for their respective years and so a certain amount of freedom was given to this plucky Scotsman. As soon as the cash registers started ringing, the keys to the family car were offered, and I was allowed to cut loose and basically do what I wanted with this treasured icon, completely unhampered by 60 years of comicbook, movie and television continuity. As someone who had grown up with this stuff, I was essentially in heaven.
My first port of call was an idea I came up with as a small child. I was raised in a very politicised working-class home in Coatbridge, with more than its fair share of left-wing literature lying around. My father was a union guy with a sympathy for communism and one of the earliest stories I remember writing to please him was a Soviet superhero thing. America had Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, etc. But who did Russia have to patrol the rooftops? KGB spy satellites? What I created in the pages of an old school jotter was the Soviet answer to Superman, his costume based on the flag of the USSR in much the same way Superman is dressed in the colours of the stars and stripes. Just as Superman stood for truth, justice and the American way, this guy stood for Stalin, international socialism and the glorious five-year plan. It was obviously unsophisticated, but there was something so primal and different about this visual that I look back on it now as the creation of my first high concept. Thus, when DC Comics offered me the chance to do something different with Superman, I dug into my old files and decided to pitch this as a complete inversion of everything the world understood about the character.
For those of you who grew up wasting your time reading novels and textbooks instead of trashy, four-colour comic books, Superman was created in 1938 by a couple of Jewish teenagers from Ohio in the midst of the depression. This Moses-like story about the last survivor of a dying civilisation sent to Earth so that he might have a decent chance in life had a particular poignancy for the Jews, and the idea of a lone immigrant trying to make it in a strange land also resonated with every culture in an America where the Statue of Liberty was welcoming people into Ellis Island. For a while it really didn’t matter if you were Irish, Hispanic, Greek, Italian or Kryptonian. All you had to do was wrap yourself in the flag and you were an American. For the past six decades and more, this is exactly what Superman has done. Not even Mickey Mouse symbolises America to the extent Superman does and no other character in history or fiction has been clasped to the bosoms of right-thinking Americans more firmly than this mighty man of steel, whose bizarre little chest symbol was recently agreed upon as the most recognisable visual image on the planet. What fun, therefore, to roll up my sleeves and completely subvert the entire concept from the ground up. What madness to grant me the licence to mess around with this most American symbol of Americana.
I started at the beginning and went straight for the jugular. Instead of Superman’s rocket ship crash landing in the wheat fields of Kansas, Superman: Red Son details his landing on a Soviet collective farm somewhere in Ukraine. Instead of being raised by simple, Methodist farming folk, he is raised during the cold war with an appreciation for Karl Marx and a devotion to Comrade Stalin. Instead of making his big trip to the fictional New York of Metropolis, he makes his way to Moscow to become not only the darling of the 1950s communist elite, but also the country’s primary defence initiative. Imagine a world where a man can travel at light speed and weld tectonic plates together and Eisenhower’s hydrogen bomb suddenly doesn’t look quite so nifty. Courageous in its foreign policy, this Soviet hyper power therefore stretches its muscles and extends its boundaries across western Europe and even to the United Kingdom. By the mid-1970s, every world economy has become part of a global Soviet Union except the US and Chile. Tony Benn is puffing his pipe in Downing Street, artists and thinkers are running the Soviet states of France, Germany, India and Australia and Superman is sitting back and watching the world tick to his way of thinking. America, by contrast, is falling apart. Resistant to his communist ideology, it tries to go it alone and finds its 50 states fragmenting like the real-world eastern bloc, its streets run by gangsters. Marrying rich Soviets is the only career option for pretty young American girls. Watching all this from a crumbling White House, a fat, jaded and disgraced John F Kennedy watches in impotence as everything he was raised to believe in disappears down the plughole.
Writing such a story, which starts with a simple high concept in the 1950s and brings us up to date (where Superman narrates the whole thing shortly before his suicide), was always going to be a laugh. Playing around with reversals on this kind of scale was really my only original intention, but events in the real world were having a bigger influence on my plans. People say that all the best science fiction is really a commentary on how we live today, so this alternate history I was creating was becoming more and more about what America was becoming, particularly in light of a few hanging chads in a Florida polling booth. Here was a country that had become an empire. Like Superman’s fictional Soviet Union, it was making pre-emptive strikes on infinite targets until the whole world bowed before the orthodoxy of its single religion and nobody was powerful enough to stand in its way. Just as Superman’s existence causes Stalin to proclaim that there was only one real superpower now, events in the real world created a hyper-powered America, which, I fear, might only just be beginning to flex its muscles. The more I was writing, the more I realised this was a cautionary tale for America; a country where people are asked to give up their freedom in the name of security. Superman: Red Son had become an Orwellian fable of what happens when too much power ends up in one pair of hands and when huge power goes unchecked. In the series, we lament the cold war stalemate because the zealotry of an individual nation was always neutralised by the nuclear triggers of the enemy. But how do you stop a man who could take a Polaris missile on the chin? Similarly, how do you stop a man who declares a war on evil when he’s backed up by more weapons than the rest of the world combined? Texans are invulnerable to Kryptonite, unfortunately.
I’m a political person who was raised in a political country during the Thatcher years, so it was always a given that I was going to cause trouble when I got a chance to redecorate the flag. When I started writing Red Son, news of it trickled out and I was greeted with some harsh words from right-wing commentators in the United States who saw it as a corruption of something intrinsic to their way of life. Sometime later, when much of America has suffered from what can only be described as a cultural nervous breakdown, I thought images of Superman tearing down the stars and stripes and kicking in the White House doors with a hammer and sickle on his chest might be the international equivalent of making a Diana, Princess of Wales joke somewhere between Earl Spencer’s sincere little speech and Elton John singing that song. But a bizarre thing seems to have happened. Everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone has been calling or e-mailing to say how much they want to promote it. What I thought might mark the end of my career in America looks set to become what might just be my biggest-selling book yet. Forty thousand people in George W Bush’s USA have already reserved their copies of the first edition, and I just received an e-mail this morning from www.michaelmoore.com wishing me the best of luck. Just as Moore’s much-derided Oscar night speech brought Bowling for Columbine to millions of people who had never heard of him, launching a vilification of American foreign policy immediately after a war might not be anywhere near as crazy as it sounds. Marvel Comics, where I do the majority of my work, has reached dizzying heights in the past couple of years with Spider-Man, this week’s sequel to the X-Men movie and June’s Hulk feature looking set to shatter all box-office records. By comparison, DC Comics (Marvel’s main rivals and the publishers and owners of Superman) has all but collapsed in the market it used to dominate. Propped up by everything from Superman toothbrushes to Batman pyjamas, its publishing figures are at a historic all-time low and its Superman character sells less in an international market than some newspapers do in a small city such as Glasgow. AOL Time Warner has been an understanding parent company so far, but it’s only a matter of time before someone pulls the plug unless something radical is done. Is a communist Superman radical enough to save the world’s most famous superhero? If not, be sure to catch me next year with my controversial, three-volume graphic novel about an Aids-ridden man of steel sleeping on the streets and pimping his bright red shorts for his next ounce of crack cocaine.

Mark Millar writes The Ultimates for Marvel Comics. Superman: Red Son is published by DC Comics. A collected edition is now available.

Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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Original content (c) 2004 Jim Connick