Jewish World Review May 20, 2003 / 18 Iyar, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

New Superman offers anti-American hero | I never much liked Superman.

In my personal pantheon of American archetypes of moral clarity, the Spandex savior ranks well below Jefferson Smith, or Laura of Little House fame. The Man of Steel was a little too powerful (and the contrast with his nebbishy reporter alias was a little too pat) to evoke my empathy or spur my imagination.

Seems like Mark Millar agrees. Millar's take on Superman is even more jaundiced than my own: "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. ...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?" And now Millar is minting money off his new comic takedown of the original American hero.

Millar is the author of Red Son, a new three-issue Superman series presenting the alternate history of an alternate history: a world in which little Kal-El crash-lands on a collective farm in the Ukraine rather than a Kansas wheat field. Millar first drew a Soviet superhero comic as a child to please his left-wing labor unionist father. Now he has given us a world in which Superman tears down the American flag, with the hammer and sickle blazoned on his famous chest.

In Red Son, Superman is raised by that other man of steel, Joseph Stalin, and becomes a true believer in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead of maintaining a humble facade as a writer (one hesitates to say "a reporter") for Pravda, he rises to political superpower, replacing Stalin upon the dictator's death. (This makes a certain kind of sense--in a polity based on the supremacy of the collective, the only way for exceptional individuals to make their mark is by running the collective.) Superman gives in to the temptation of infinite paternalist power, musing, "I could take care of everyone's problems if I ran this place." By the end of his reign as the leader of the world's sole remaining superpower (the USA is reduced to economic and social chaos), the Soviet superhero has wiped out crime and famine, but the subjects of his global empire lack basic civil liberties.

The comic offers crisp, active artwork--and many varieties of Schadenfreude. If you've ever wanted to see Superman, or America itself, taken down a notch, now's your chance. The comic tries to have its moral-equivalence cake and eat it too: America is still the more-or-less good guy in the Cold War, but anti-Americans get the fun of seeing the Great Satan in ruins. We can glory in Superman's fantastic feats on behalf of "the proletariat," but we can also feel morally superior to a Superman who's been taken in by Stalin's lies. Communism is, of course, whitewashed--many fans have castigated Red Son for its inattention to details like the gulag. The comic opposes liberty and material well-being in a way that suggests a false choice; while there are obviously going to be times when that choice is necessary, for the most part capitalism and civil liberties, not collectivism, have brought home the bacon. It's also difficult to figure out how Superman could have spent his formative years hanging around Stalin, the man who perfected the use of famine as a weapon of terror, and not realized that Communism did not have the workers' best interests at heart. So the comic's message is mixed at best.

There's a hidden--and, I'd guess, unintentional--conservatism in Red Son's ultimate rejection of paternalism and its endorsement of liberty over material well-being (even though, again, there are problems in framing the question that way). Superhero comics have always walked a fine line between celebrating the power of the individual and worshiping the individual with the most power; a Soviet superhero might be an interesting way to explore that dynamic. But from interviews with Millar, it doesn't sound like Red Son's creator is interested in a Lord Acton-style parable about the temptations and corruptions of state power, or even a more general exploration of the temptations of charisma or the responsibility of the powerful and privileged.

Instead, Millar intends a cruder parallelism: Superman = Bush ("Texans are invulnerable to Kryptonite, unfortunately," Millar quips in the Times of London); the USA after 9/11 = wealthy but oppressed Soviet Supermanland. Millar even made Batman a terroristic anti-Soviet agent, calling him an "Al Qaeda"-like figure. (I must have missed the bit where Soviet dissidents killed thousands of innocents in the service of a brutally repressive ideology. Maybe they censor that stuff in US textbooks.)

The nice thing about his fictional framing of the story is that he gets a platform for his views (not only in comics stores, but in an oddly self-congratulatory essay in the Times) without really having to answer questions about those views, like: Is a balance of power really always better, or are there some times when it's worth it to have a superpower because all the options for "balancing" powers are truly horrible? (For example, would it have been better if the Russian Revolution had failed, even if that meant the USA would have been the world's sole superpower through most of the twentieth century?)

Is all use of power equally corrupting? Is the problem with Superman, in Millar's version, the fact that he's a superhero (and thus the most powerful guy in town) or the fact that he's a Communist? Can power ever be used without corruption; if not, is it possible to avoid the use of power?

Is the desire to run other people's lives to protect them really the same as the desire to free other people from the dictators running their lives?

Why is Batman a terrorist? Is terrorism in the defense of liberty no vice? Are there any actual good actions, and good people, or just tainted actors and morally-superior Monday morning quarterbacks?

Whether because of the "edgy" content, graphic style, publicity hype, or aforementioned Schadenfreude, Red Son is leaping off shelves in what Millar calls "these brainwashed, patriotic times." Millar is being oppressed all the way to the bank.

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© 2003, Eve Tushnet