Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Superman: Red Son

If you know me then you probably know I love superheroes. There's an entire room of my house that is essentially dedicated to them full of posters, action figures and comics. I tend to watch all my movies at home, but if there's anything that will get me to go to a theater, it's a superhero movie. What may surprise you is that I hate the granddaddy of all superheroes: Superman.

He's boring. His powers are over the top and too perfect and his morals are always perfectly in line. His secret identity is weak and honestly why does he need one anyway? He can apparently see and hear everything happening miles away from him so he can always save his family members in time. The first Superman movie was boring me to tears until it got to that part where he goes backwards around the earth to go back in time and then it royally pissed me off. Seriously, that doesn't work by any stretch of the imagination. I loved the X-men and Batman animated series in the 90s, and because of the X-men I watched the Spider-man, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man cartoons, but I couldn't bring myself to watch the Superman cartoon past the Batman crossover. He's just so dry. The Adventures of Lois and Clark, Smallville, Superman Returns... no matter how they attempt to reinvent him, I just can't get into it. All the superheroes I love have something to them that helps you to relate to them. A tragedy in their past, a difficulty they have to overcome, etc. Superman lost his home world when he was too young to even know it existed and his weakness is a made up substance that is generally used in the most expected of ways. His love interest is a snotty overbearing workaholic woman stereotype. I could go on, but bashing Superman is not actually the point of this post.

I'll admit that my experience with Superman in the comics is pretty thin. My brother purchased the Death of Superman comic like everyone else did, and I read it then and its possession has now passed into my hands. I kept up with the storyline that followed mostly through articles in Wizard magazine, but once again it wasn't particularly interesting. Given his extremely long history, I'm sure there are story lines out there that managed to take a more honest and human look at the character but I just haven't found them yet. I'm always willing to give something a try, even a couple tries, before I flat out give up on them. I would have sworn that Iron Man was dreadfully uninteresting until the movies came around and presented him in a new way, so I imagine the same could be done for Superman.

A friend let me borrow a copy of Superman: Red Son. The premise of this story is an alternate universe storyline in which Superman's rocket landed in the Soviet Union rather than America. It's certainly an interesting take from the get go. Unfortunately I had some problem with its choices very early on. As the book begins we see Superman standing beside Joseph Stalin. In recent years I've gained a bit of a fascination with Stalin. While everyone loves to regard Hitler as the great evil of the 20th century, in my personal opinion Stalin eclipses him by a long shot. I find it so fascinating because of the way his deeds are often disregarded these days. We saw Stalin sitting next to FDR and Churchill during WWII, so surely he had to be a nicer guy than Hitler, right? And of course in Russia itself Stalin erected his own cult of personality, an image so strong that there are apparently those in Russia these days who would willingly vote for him in an election and regard him as a great leader. The fact is he was just as paranoid and bloodthirsty as Hitler, if not more so, and is responsible for genocide and killing more people than Hitler ever dreamed of. So as the book begins and I see Mr. Goody Two Shoes standing beside Stalin, my suspension of disbelief has been blown. While I can accept that the general public would be largely ignorant of his activities, surely someone working as his right hand man would see the bloodthirsty way in which he ruled? It's not an absolute deal breaker for me, but it was distracting.

Despite this, I found Superman's rise to power to be completely logical and believable. I also highly enjoyed everything to do with Lex Luthor in this book including the fact that neither he or Superman were being shown as the true hero or villain. They were simply both men determined to do what they thought was right and doing it in a bad way. I was not particularly crazy about Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen in this book, Jimmy's role in particular didn't make much sense to me but I'll admit this may have more to do with not really knowing much about the character in the main universe either. I LOVED the re-imagining of Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern Corps. I enjoyed Brainiac a lot as a character and it really made me want to see more of him, as my only previous experience is the version in the Legion of Superheroes cartoon.

Once again, it's the altered real world history where I have hiccups. Would Superman's reign really have caused Nixon to be elected rather than JFK? Would Nixon have been assassinated in 1963, and would the people have elected JFK afterward? From what I have read it seems like the story is attempting to completely role reverse the US and the USSR without stopping to think about whether it would all logically happen. The one thing I will say I agree with is the idea of the states seceding from the union again in an effort to save themselves. I'm just not convinced that the US would have collapsed so badly to begin with just because the USSR fared better. The book essentially suggests that Superman is the great difference here, rather than the differences between a capitalist democratic republic vs. a communist totalitarian structure.

I will give it this though: It certainly got me thinking. I read it Sunday and I've been debating in my head on various matters presented in the book ever since. The further I get away from it the more its issues don't really matter so much as the concept as a whole. Watchmen, as great a story as it is, fails in its own altered history at times and that doesn't take away from how good it is. While Red Son isn't as earth shattering as Watchmen, it's a great take on the "absolute power corrupts absolutely" theme. The characters are three dimensional and you really feel for them. I even kind of felt bad for Superman at times, believe it or not.

While cold war history buffs may have a hard time with it, I'd still recommend it as a good strong story, particularly if you're a fan of George Orwell or enjoy seeing iconic superheroes presented in a different light.

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