Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Exfanding Review: Superman: Red Son

Superman: Red SonToday, I have another one of those reviews that would probably have been better served had I written it five or six years ago. Released by DC Comics back in 2003, the epic Elseworlds tale, Superman: Red Son, by then up-and-comer Mark Millar, made quite the impact on the comics world.

I remember the first issue selling out very quickly, and for the life of me, I could not find a copy anywhere. By the time the second issue shipped, the first issue was "hot," and selling for well over twenty bucks online. Wizard was shouting about how great the book was, and it was consistently in their Top Ten Hottest Books every issue for several months.

Now, remember, when this book came out, I had really just gotten into comics, so the idea of a new book being out from a publisher, but unavailable to the public, was still a concept I didn't quite grasp.

How I would learn...

I remember actually having the second issue in my hands at some comics shop, but because I knew I'd never find issue one, I decided to put it back on the shelf and wait for the trade.

Now, I know what you're thinking.

If I was willing to wait for the trade, only months into my new comics hobby, why then have I not been able to do that since? Well, here's why--let's call it my trade waiting origin story, if you will.

I did wait for the trade--and, when it finally came out, I couldn't buy a copy. No one had it. Comics shops were out, book stores didn't get it, and even Amazon was out of stock at some point. This series was so hot for so long that even the collection was selling out.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was in a comics shop--a local store, but not the one I visit every Wednesday--and they had a couple of action figures that were inspired by the book. And they looked so cool that I was reminded of how badly I wanted to read the series, and I immediately went searching for the trade again.

Of course, that particular store was sold out. And so the story goes for another couple of months before I finally found a copy of the trade at a Borders in town. Only, it looked like a dog had chewed on it for a considerable amount of time.

Now, had the book been readable, I would have bought it. But the cover and the interior pages were in such bad shape that I was forced to pass on it. Flash forward to last quarter, 2009. DC finally decided to make Red Son available again, albeit in a Deluxe Hardcover that retails for $25.
Superman: Red Son DeluxeLuckily, with the help of Christmas gift certificate money, I was able to snag a copy recently. And I had a chance to read through it this past weekend. So, now that I've rambled on and on and not said a word about plot or anything remotely interesting for those wanting an actual review...let's get to it.

As I mentioned, Red Son is an Elseworlds story, and, for the sake of those who might not know/remember what Elseworlds is/was, a recap is necessary.

Elseworlds logoElseworlds was an imprint of DC Comics that basically told stories featuring familiar characters told out of continuity, and usually in different time periods or even on different worlds.

Starting with the imprint's first title in 1989, every Elseworlds book that DC printed contained the following blurb on the inside front cover:

"In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places--some that have existed, and others that can't, couldn't or shouldn't exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow."

The most famous Elseworlds stories are probably the Batman & Dracula series by Doug Moench and Kelley Jones, which was launched by the insanely popular Red Rain graphic novel in 1991.
Batman/Dracula: Red RainA watershed moment in the history of the line, however, came when Mark Waid and Alex Ross contributed one of DC's greatest stories ever, Kingdom Come, to the imprint in 1996.

There have been other memorable (and some not) Elseworlds books, like Batman: Holy Terror and Gotham by Gaslight, and Red Son fits in nicely with the best stories the line had to offer.

Set in an alternate reality, Red Son tells the story of what the DC Universe might have looked like had little baby Kal-El crash-landed in Mother Russia instead of a farm in Smallville. A Communist Superman helps Joseph Stalin's Russia emerge as the world's greatest superpower and together they spread the ideals of Communism around the globe.
Superman: Red SonWhile most of the world's leaders fall in lock step with Russia, the United States refuses, and instead its leaders turn to genius scientist Lex Luthor to develop a way to fight Superman. As you can imagine, this goes according to plan, and everyone is safe and happy and fine.

Or, you know, not.

As Superman defends Russia against each new threat posed by Luthor, the United States devolves into a borderline third world country. [SOME MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW, so tread lightly...]




While Superman initially proceeds with good intent (because he's Superman)--and helps anyone who needs him, including Americans--eventually, power finds a way to corrupt even the man of steel. Superman takes control of Russia, and he begins to lose himself in the lofty ideals of a broken system.

We also get to see alternate versions of DC mainstays Batman and Wonder Woman, and Batman's turn in the graphic novel is especially memorable.
Batman: Red Son[END SPOILERS]

So, what'd I think of the book? Well, considering the fact that there was literally six years' worth of hype leading up to my finally reading it, I have to say--this was a solid, entertaining, and thought-provoking read.

Millar is known for his (way) over-the-top action series, such as The Ultimates, Old Man Logan, Kick Ass, and Wanted, and going in, I expected more of that with Red Son. To my surprise, there wasn't much in the way of bombastic action (y'know, other than the whole man who can fly fighting robots thing), and this felt almost like a classic, older DC story, told in a very modern way.

Millar wrote one of my favorite series of the last year for Marvel, 1985, which was a love letter to the comics of his youth. In many ways, Red Son felt very much in the same vein, and even though Millar wasn't writing the "real," in-continuity Superman of the mainline DCU, it was very clear that he has a great love for the character.

The best part about this book, though, is that you need zero prior knowledge other than the most basic pieces of back story--Superman was sent to Earth from a dying planet, Batman's parents were killed in front of him, and Wonder Woman is a princess from another place.

That's it.

And that's one of the things that made Elseworlds such a great line, and so much fun to explore. Red Son is one of those books that I can pass along to friends with just a passing interest in super heroes, or an interest in history or politics, and I know they'll come back for more.

I wish I didn't have to wait so long to find a copy of the book, but it was well worth it. Now if I can only manage to find those cool action figures...
Red Son toys


Scott said...

I never knew Red Son had that much hype surrounding it (and I'm still pretty much oblivious to writers except for Kevin Smith's initial run on Green Arrow), but it never really struck me as something amazing. It's good for an Elseworlds book (they're relatively hit or miss for me), but I'd probably recommend Kingdom Come or The Nail over it. I'm not saying it's terrible, but it's just not something I'd expect to be that in-demand.

AJG said...

Maybe it was a local thing, but man, I could not find issue one anywhere for the longest time.

I eventually saw it on a back issue wall in some store, for like $35...

Oh, also--great post the other day, and thanks for doing it!

Scott said...

No problem! I'm glad I could help you guys out.

Couldn't your LCS special order it for you?