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Many people are surprised when I tell them I found Superman: Red Son to be unimpressive. Also, I could never say why the book didn't work for me, because I had only read it once and couldn't remember it well. However, it bugged me that I could not justify my opinion, especially for a book that is so well regarded, so I went back last month and read the book again. This time I took note of the things that bothered me and I've distilled all that down into this short review. (Only 4700 words!) I apologize in advance for any academistic language since I was a literature major and I can't help writing about books like I was writing a term paper. Also, Spoler warning: I give away the ending! Communist Superman is a good idea in theory, but it doesn't work in practice. Superman as a Soviet icon is an immediately arresting proposition. For most of our lives the USSR was the epitome of everything un-American while Superman has the 'American Way' embedded in his tagline. Superman: Red Son, which gives us a Soviet Superman, is one of many Elseworlds tales that place Superman in odd places to see how he turns out. For instance, one of the first was Speeding Bullets in which Kal-El is adopted by a childless Thomas and Martha Wayne and raised as their son Bruce in Gotham City. Of all these 'what if?' premises, however, Red Son comes with a double dose of speculation. It doesn't merely look at what Superman could have become as a communist, but what the USSR could have been with a superhero. In retrospect, the failure of the USSR seems inevitable given what we now know of their corruption, inefficiency and poverty, but we can imagine a Superman turning that all around to create a Soviet Empire that wins the Cold War. To examine Red Son we therefore need three avenues. First, we examine it as a coherent story in itself. Second, we look at its place in the tradition of Superman stories and last we look at its portrayal of political conflict. Cheap tricks and petty agendas Did you know that Lex Luthor plays chess? Really. It means he's very, very smart. Smarter than you, for sure. He's also much, much more cliché than you too. I mean, he reads Machiavelli! Lazy writers use chess and Machiavelli as symbols for intelligence. It tells me from the get go that I'm not going to actually see any smart behavior from the 'genius'. I'll just have to accept that they are intelligent while they do stupid things. Red Son annoyed me by the sheer volume of misguided throwaway lines that Millar uses to 'prove' that Lex and Superman are the smartest men on Earth. Within the first few pages for instance, Lex hands Agent Olsen a formula for 'balancing the budget', as if the problem with balancing the budget is dealing with the huge, scary numbers. Did Lex's formula cater for balancing all the political lobbies and special interests and voting bloc considerations that stretch a budget 89 million ways? Superman is given the same treatment too. He learns English in just 10 minutes when he visits England so he can speak to Bizarro when they fight. (Aside: Russia's chief enemies speak English, so it would probably have been the first language the KGB made Superman learn. Oh wait. There's no probably about it. Superman's narrator voice tells us before the Bizarro fight that he's been listening to the Americans 'plot in their bunkers'. Or were they plotting in Russian? That's sloppy writing and editing.) What we are seeing in Red Son is a hackneyed, simplistic portrayal of intelligence. And when the whole story is grounded in the idea that the two smartest men on the planet are fighting over its fate, you're limping right out of the gate if you can't show some actual intelligence. The dialogue and characterization are similarly simplistic and inconsistent. We are to accept that Lex Luthor is so obsessed with Superman that he abandons his marriage, yet with all that singular focus all he can come up with are petty villains like Atomic Skull and The Parasite to throw against Superman. This is what he does for years! The same man who can invent electronics while taking a morning dump and who could verbally hypnotize Superman into committing suicide in 14 minutes. The idea that Lex spends so much time on penny ante villainy is made all the worse because he shows at the end that he is capable of mass mobilization and deception. Lex abandoning his marriage to pursue Superman is another villain cliché. It's simplistic shorthand for obsession. If he could balance the budget, you'd figure Lex could balance work and marriage. There are much more clever, subtle and original ways to show obsession. Speaking of cliché villainy, witness Lex's repartee when Superman foils another of his plots: "Fifty-eight seconds? You're slowing down, Superman. Braniac's ship was only forty-five thousand miles away. Surely advanced middle age isn't catching up with Russia's mighty Man of Tomorrow?" It's quite possible that Lex, being the archetypal villain, is indeed this pompous and delivers this kind of overused, boilerplate dialogue, but it doesn't add to the originality of the story. And speaking of Superman's speed, it's portrayed inconsistently in the story. Superman can travel 600 miles per second, but when Batman is standing right in front of him, Superman can't tap him in the head with a thumb and knock him unconscious. Superman can save anyone on any ship or train anywhere in the world, but he can't stop Brainiac from imprisoning Lex Luthor in the middle of their conversation in the final battle. Again, sloppy writing. I think what is happening here in Red Son is that the writer decided all along that he was going to have his shock ending (where we find that Lex is Superman's ancestor), so he makes everything move rigidly to that point, regardless of whether it fits with the characters previous actions and abilities. So, for instance, Superman insists that the USA must accept communism of their own free will and he won't invade them, even though everyone knows the US/CIA/Lex have tried to assassinate him numerous times. Surely, he has to consider that an act of war that at least warrants putting Luthor on trial? And where does Superman's regard for the free will of America's people come from? We see that he turns dissidents in his own country into 'robots' with a brain implant, so he's got no moral qualms against mind control, much less coercion by force. But Millar's ending requires America and Superman have a showdown, so he preserves America's sovereignty with a papered-over explanation. Millar also required America to be weak while Superman makes the USSR strong, so we get an America that suffers riots and record unemployment while Lex is doing what, exactly? Building battlesuits? Fiddling around with a Metallo robot? Lex found the time to balance the budget before while pursuing Superman, so I'm assuming a man of his 'demonstrated' brilliance can fix the rest of the US economic woes. I mean, after he's elected president, he fixes the US economy in six months. The point is that Lex Luthor, being a chess-playing genius and all, would have appreciated that there was a lot of ground work built into his success as a researcher. No US steel industry for instance means no steel for his engineering projects. A weak US computer industry means no complex electronics for Lex's equipment etc. So it makes no sense that Lex would let the American economy slide into chaos when he has the ability to fix it with little extra effort. After all, he reads thirteen interesting books every morning even while he's too busy to tend to his marriage. See, Lex has to be strong when Millar needs a strong adversary in his plot and weak or absent when he needs Superman to look stronger for his plot and whether that makes sense for the characters he's given us doesn't matter. I can't be sure, but I suspect Millar holds the characterization of Luthor hostage to his plot in another aspect. It seems that Lex through the timeline of Red Son is made to follow the various styles of Lex that were portrayed in the real life comics of the time. So for instance we get President Lex for 2001-2004, just like in the regular comics and business man Lex in the eighties/nineties. It's petty villain Lex the inventor bothering Superman with 'monsters-of-the-month' to start with because that's who he was in the silver age comics. I'm sympathetic to the notion of paying homage to Lex's history, but it should never be done at the cost of consistency in the storytelling. That's the sign of a writer who's too taken with his own wonderful grand ideas to actually do his duty to the story. Millar's grand design pulls in another grating moment near the end of the book. Superman bids a fond farewell to Luthor, calling him 'old friend'. This scene is supposed to highlight the way these two men have shaped each other for the better and open the way for us understanding how Superman handed over control of the world to Luthor. Except that its implied in the book that Luthor's a mass murderer of Superman's people. Why would a heroic Superman call him friend? It's because Millar required it for his twist ending. You can see more lazy writing in the way the characters' back-stories are presented. For instance, Superman talks to Lana about "all that trouble we caused." A better writer would have mentioned a specific incident to make the characters more vibrant, e.g. "Remember that time we stole the Commissar's horses and left them on his roof?" We still get no idea what Superman's origin is like. I'm actually glad that we start the story with him at Stalin's side, but at some point it's necessary to show what shaped him. We get none of that. Are we to assume that his Russian parents were simply the same as Ma and Pa Kent in America, raising him to be good? Because that can't work. A collective farm is a world of difference from Kansas and there is a huge vein to be mined in showing how the deprivation and corruption of a collective farm would have affected his upbringing. Did the goodness of his parents extend to recognizing that Stalin was an evil man? Conversely, did they NOT recognize this and if so, how did they rationalize the poverty and authoritarianism they lived in so that Superman remained loyal? This last bit is a critical failure of Red Son: It declines the chance to create a complex and conflicted Superman. But, we'll talk more about that in the next section. These men are too super. Not enough human The Luthor and Superman of this book are two of the most powerful versions of their characters ever portrayed. Lex, for instance can talk people into suicide and fixes both the US and USSR economies respectively within six months. That's beyond human and into mutant territory. The problem is that since Red Son is largely about how things are different from the regular books, you can't help but compare the Lex of Red Son to the regular Lex. Why has regular Lex never talked Superman into suicide? Why hasn't regular Lex used his mastery of economics to take over all of the corporations? Technically, I know, we can just hand wave this away by saying that it's a different Lex in a different timeline so deal with it. Except that the point of this book is the counter-factual portrayal. For that to work best, you have to keep most of the materials the same while changing just one key ingredient to see what changes result. I suspect the reason we have the super-Lex is that Millar was hell bent on his plot which hinges on the whole concept of Superman's plan being "worked out to the 10th decimal place, forty years ago." Millar needed a Super Lex to counter his super-Superman. In Red Son, Superman is also a superbrain, unlike his portrayal in the comics of the previous 20 years. This is because Millar is a slave to the plot point of Superman's grand plan which manipulates everyone into creating a perfect world. The over-powerful Superman never works as a hero. And Millar is trying to make him a hero. Flawed, with roots in evil, but still a hero. We've seen a super-Superman before. His sales crumpled in the face of more realistic heroes like Spiderman and the X-men and DC made a more human, non-genius Superman in 1986, which they have stuck with in the regular comics. Yet, I'm not against a communist Superman being a super genius. I just don't think it's an interesting story unless the super-Superman is also a supervillain. Let's step back for a moment. Red Son is following a path many other Superman alternate histories have trod. In The Dark Side We saw a Superman who was raised to be the top war dog of the planet Apokalypse. That Kal-El comes to Earth in an invasion and discovers his inner hero and fights against Darkseid. In the 1995 Superman Annual, Kryptonians conquer Earth six generations before Kal-El. As the heir to this evil empire, Kal-El discovers his inner hero and fights to free the humans. In JLA: The Nail, Kal-El lives as an Amish farmer and the JLA struggles to fight injustice by themselves until the JLA finally find Superman and convince him to embrace his inner hero and fight with them. Sensing a pattern here? There have been so many of these stories where they pull off the same character arc for Superman, yet that's the tired cliché Millar picks for his book too. Why not use a Superman who is Stalin's protégé: a killer who gives mind control implants to everyone. At least then we can feel like something is at stake. Just do something different! Even if Millar wanted to go the route of heroic journey, he picked the least interesting way to get there. He used the super-Superman and had him face very few internal conflicts. Yes, there's his friendship with Stalin and Roslov, his mind control devices and his police state. But in the regular comics Superman questions Capitalism all the time. Why does the communist Superman not seem to question his nation's politics? He is like a sphinx and Millar never lets us see much of his internal workings. It's all part of the plotline of course. Millar is pulling his Sixth Sense ending on us, where he reveals that Superman was using his short term restriction of rights to launch a human golden age of freedom. So the end result is a Superman who is bland when he could have been so much more exotic. When Superman fights the Green Lantern Marine Corps in Red Son there was ZERO tension for me, because I knew he was too goody-goody to kill and I knew they were not powerful enough to win. I was bored. The irony is that while Millar makes the case that Superman is good no matter what his starting point, he has Luthor be evil only as an effect of his hatred for Superman. Luthor becomes benevolent with Superman gone. Either we need to see the conditionality of Luthor's ethics balanced out with some source of good in Superman's upbringing, or Superman should have come out twisted from growing up in the Soviet system and especially by his role in the backstabbing and corrupt ruling class. Lana Lang gets a couple of cameos to hint at this goodness, but it's too vague to be effective. The great failure of Red Son as a Superman story is that at the end of the book I could not answer the question of how, in the face of a political and economic system that was all about power corrupting people, Superman, the most powerful person, emerged a hero. The issues of economics and politics are very relevant to Red Son and we'll look at how they are not given proper treatment. Wishful thinking and 5th grade perceptions of power At one point, Superman pulls Wonder Woman and the Amazons into a political alliance. This lasts almost until the end of the story. The alliance consists mainly of Wonder Woman pining away for Kal-El, missing the opportunity to explore the huge field of Marxist Feminism and what women like the Amazons could do in Russia or in the world. But maybe that's just my personal preferences talking. I want to start with a more basic mistake: When Lex launches his final attack he sends Lois Lane to secure the assistance of the Amazons. Lois doesn't know where Diana's loyalties lie but she goes ahead and tells Wonder Woman that she's there because the big attack is about to begin. What? There's like a 50% chance Wonder Woman will take that information straight to Superman because she's got such a history with him and you trust her with that secret? I'm guessing Lois didn't read Machiavelli. And why is Lois the messenger? Lex doesn't have people for this kind of thing being the president and all? The whole scene seems designed to get Lois together with Diana so they can compare notes on how dreamy Superman is. But back to my main point: That's not how political alliances are negotiated. And the whole book seems to have a poor grasp of political dynamics. Consider what happens in book three when Superman gets the entire world under his control except for the USA. America becomes a war zone on the brink of total starvation and is refusing aid packages. Why would America be a war zone? Sure, the US isn't up to the high standards of living that Superman has lifted the rest of the world to, but why would they have dropped below the level of today's North Korea? I mean, in the real timeline that we live in, the US did OK. There's no reason story reason given why it wouldn't do just as good in Red Son, especially since there's so much cool stuff happening elsewhere that it could trade for. (And we find out later that America has indeed been trading with other countries.) It's not that Superman is making them suffer, mind you. He says to Brainiac that America is falling because of its 'outdated economy' and he's only going to pick up the pieces. Also, why would Americans refuse Superman's aid? Is the American sense of superiority so great that they can't stand the idea that they might need outside help? Millar is making a caricature of the US here I suspect, making 'Better Dead than Red' the reality rather than a mere slogan. Which is dumb considering how the US population has really behaved in our world. Even in the eighties at the height of the Cold War, or nowadays when the Soviet Union and other attempted communist systems have proven to be failures, there's a whole lot of sympathy for socialism and communism. If there was an actual successful Communist system in the world, much less the WHOLE world like Red Son shows, does it really seem likely that America would remain hardcore Capitalist hold outs? What's more, right before this we are told that America is full of dissent with communist sympathizers bombing the White House and states talking about independence. So we know that not all of America is in lockstep behind the Capitalist agenda. Curiously, 14 states eventually DID secede, but not to join Superman's communists. What were the two sides fighting over then? Who was more Capitalist? It's ridiculous to characterize Americans this way and I can't decide if it would be worse if this was done to ridicule Americans or because Millar actually believes that's how America is. And the ignorance extends to what is possible in economics too. Luthor becomes president in January and within a month(!) has doubled the standard of living. And doubled it again in the next month. Oddly, the term used is 'standard of living' not 'wealth' or 'the stock markets' or 'the economic output'. Standard of living is a pretty concrete thing. It's based on tangible criteria like housing, food, schooling, infrastructure, policing, and most of all physical items. You cannot double the standard in a low income country just by creating a financial bubble or some trick like that. Doubling standard of living means increased production on the ground. So in a month Lex was able to build all those factories and train all those people and increase housing and food production? It's January. Winter. You can't suddenly start making more food. What's he using, Soylent Green? And to show you how simplistic Millar's ideas on economics are, he never mentions this production issue. No, Lex does it exactly the way we know it can't be done, by taking 'strict' control of the financial sector. Also, he stops American's from trading. You know, trade was what kept the real life Russians alive during all their internal economic failures. (Also this idea betrays Millar's latent authoritarianism. Both on the right and the left there's this idea that if we just had the right smart person/s in charge of everything, the world would be run right. The more modern idea that order and the best strategies can come from the crowd doesn't seem to have found purchase with Millar. Decentralized, distributed decision making is proving better in everything from computer architecture to military strategy to legislation, but Millar gives us the 'Top Men' fallacy.) And why doesn't Superman just march into the US and take over? He says he's led a bloodless revolution so far and wants to keep it that way. But that was Brainiac's point! Letting 350 million Americans starve is bloodless? And saying, 'We won't attack America" is one thing, but book two opens with Superman finding Lex with 8 million stolen Soviet citizens after Brainiac miniaturized Stalingrad. As I mentioned before, it makes no sense for the US and the USSR to never go to war in Red Son. This isn't Clark Kent. If he could lobotomize Batman and Pete Ross, why won't he at least grab Luthor and slice open his- Oh, right, because it's all part of the plan. Superman is setting Lex up to take over as the savior of the world. And just how does Lex save the world? Writers? Think a lot of yourself don't you, Millar? Look, I've hung out a lot with professional writers at workshops, conferences and readings etc. I'm a writer myself. Writers are full of hate. All of them. They are the most jealous, vindictive pack of uninformed jackasses you will ever meet, even more so than the regular population because their arrogance is superhuman. When Dante wrote 'The Inferno' he put all his personal enemies in the various levels of Hell and then gleefully described their faults and consequent punishments. Shakespeare put inside jokes about his enemies in his plays too. These people should never be in charge of anything. Not even the fate of a paper boat. Artists save the world? This is such a simplistic view of politics as to be worthy of a 5-year-old. The problem has never been the politicians. Politicians are a symptom of their people. If Lex had done some kind of 'logical thinking' implant on everyone, that might have been believable. Psychological surgery of some kind to get rid of the sociopaths who seek power might have worked. (But then again, Lex is the biggest sociopath of them all so what's the point?) Which brings up an important question. Why did it have to be Lex that brought about this utopia? Superman already proved himself smarter than Lex, so I'm assuming Superman could have created this poetic and musical world government on his own. Why didn't he just, imprison Lex back in the 50s, invade the US for repeatedly attacking him, take the one hundred million smartest kids and train them to sing Kumbaya the way Lex did and then Superman could have just flown off and said, "Hey, you guys got everything you need. Bye."? In the book, nothing comes of Superman faked death. 'The world' rejoices at his death, but we aren't told why. He wasn't a villain to them in the book. In fact, it had been implied that the entire world except America were living in utopia with high-tech luxury. And there was no impetus from Superman's death for people to create a better world or anything like that. They just 'gloried in their triumph'. No word on what the hangover was like. Except that, believably, the Soviet Union fell into six months of chaos until Lex rescued them. So Superman's plan was completely convoluted even though it could have been accomplished much less dramatically with no reason for faking Superman's death or keeping Lex around. Now, this next part might seem unfair, since I'm basically complaining that the writer didn't write the story I would have wrote, but I think there's some legitimacy to the accusation: How did Superman make the Soviet Union work? Book 2 starts with him having solved the problems after Book 1 ended with him deciding to solve the problems. That's kind of a big omission. Did he go plough the fields himself? Has he been going through all the production records by hand at super speed to make sure no one's cheating on the sales of nuts and bolts so that the economy runs as planned? Soviet communism had real, documented, and ultimately fatal, growing pains. It would have been fun to see how Superman overcame them. And we never see the life of an ordinary person in this whole book. It's a shame given that communism is about 'the people'. I was eager to see how people lived in Superman's utopia. Did they live like Marx envisioned, pursuing their own interests, working as much or as little as they wished? Did the technology Superman's abilities made possible really free mankind from the need to labor? These are the kinds of things a truly smart story about communism would have addressed. Or maybe Luthor's world was the true Worker's Paradise? But all we ever find out about his world is that people live a long time and colonized space. Nothing about happiness, lifestyle, art and the relationship between the people and technology which is what Marx saw as the key to future history. How very underwhelming. A missed opportunity, destroyed by maudlin dedication to being clever. To summarize then, Red Son suffers from poor characterization and plotholes, gives us an unheroic superhero and couldn't even get the special spice of its politics right. There was so much potential here: the grandest political confrontation since Persia marched on Greece, a good character given the reins of an evil empire, technological and social science fiction speculation...and it was all wasted. Part of me thinks Millar was just too underpowered as a writer for the job. But he's done good work before. Maybe the reason is that he brought too much political baggage to the story? I hope it wasn't just that he was so committed to his M. Night Shyamalan moment that he let his ego override his judgment. Don't get me wrong. This wasn't a bad book. For instance, it makes the brave decision to keep Lois and Superman separate and that works surprisingly well. But it's far from good, much less great, and deserves few of its accolades because the execution was so bad. In the end, just like when we look at the ruins of the Soviet Union, we can only wonder at what could have been if things had taken a different path.