Black in the U.S.S.R.

Posted: February 1, 2013 in On Comics

I offered them Utopia, but they fought for the right to live in Hell.”

What if our greatest heroes were our biggest threat? What if a symbol that we all associate with justice and protection became a symbol of oppression and terror? One of my favorite things about comic books (oh god, not comics again) is, oftentimes, they will take these crazy “What-If” approaches to story. Sometimes writers will paint familiar characters in a completely different light than we are used to seeing, but after all is said and done it’ll be okay, since it usually takes place in some crazy multiverse that isn’t our own. Still reading? Still interested? Alrighty. Now, one of my favorite storylines of all time is one by Mr. Mark Millar (same guy who wrote Marvel’s Civil War):

Superman: Red Son

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So, what’s going on?

Fans of the TV show Smallville or of D.C. Comics will know that Superman came in a ship from the planet Krypton, and proceeded to crashland in the small Kansas town of Smallville. Superman is taken in by the Kents, and essentially raised to be a good ol’ boy. Superman is a character often ridiculed as “The Blue Boy Scout”, meaning he stays true to virtue and justice even to ridiculously annoying lengths. Just ask Batman, it gets annoying. But what if we replaced that big iconic “S” on his chest with a hammer and sickle? In Red Son, Superman crash-lands not in Kansas as a baby, but in Cold War era Soviet Russia. Uh-oh.

The Blue Boy Scout turns into a symbol for truth, justice, socialism, and the Warsaw Pact. Forget the nuclear arms race, the Russians have a freakin’ Superman, and the U.S. Government is scared shitless. They need to catch up fast, so who better to help them out than one Lex Luthor? (yes, even in this continuity, Lex is a genius and a total xenophobe). Eventually, with the help of an all-powerful alien A.I named Braniac as well as a comrade-ified version of Wonder Woman, Superman spreads socialism to the entire world, and he rules over it with a fist of steel. All our favorite D.C. Characters are present in Red Son in ways that you would never expect. Batman is an anarchistic freedom-fighter (anarchistic in the sense of blowing shit up, not in the dropping from the rooftops sense). The Green Lantern Corps, rather than being a group of intergalactic defenders, serves as the U.S. Military.

In a nutshell: this story is crazy.

Russified Batman

Well, that’s cool. But why does this count as literature?

Much like in high school, it’s all about the themes, man! You can’t have Superman becoming a totalitarian ruler of the entire world without digging into some interesting political and social themes. The Cold War-era politics of U.S vs. USSR are very, very prevalent here. The Cuban Missile Crisis doesn’t have anything on this, boys and girls. Socialist Superman is rebuted with by Bizarro Superman from the United States (for the uninitiated, Bizzaro Superman is like Superman’s evil doppleganger in the normal D.C. Continuity). At one point, the United States is the only remaining country not taken over by Superman, because he wants to reach a diplomatic solution rather than invade. Lex Luthor successfully uses capitalism to bring a collapsing United States from the brink of destruction (unlike the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 60’s). The lines of right and wrong are extremely blurry here as well: almost everyone in the world has food and shelter, but is it worth always being watched over by the Big Brother? Is it worth one’s freedom? Is having a police force made up of brainwashed opposers to Superman’s rule morally sound? Most people would disagree.

Another big theme in Red Son is that of guilt, and I know for a fact everyone of every age can relate to that. The tuke-toting Batman in this continuity is still created by his parents being gunned down, albeit in a very different way. That’s Batman’s hook in every continuity: Batman can never have his revenge, he can never satisfy his bloodlust for the man who took everything from him, so he becomes a symbol of terror for those who would impose this pain on others. It is guilt, not Kryptonite, that serves as Superman’s Achilles heel. Any failure, no matter how seemingly miniscule, is absolutely crushing to the Red Son. Failure means he has let someone down, it means he was unable to uphold his ideals that he holds so sacred. Guilt will ultimately be the force that brings down the Super-regime.

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The verdict?

If you’re any kind of comic book reader, this is a no-brainer. Classic Batman VS. Superman match-up, crazy socio-political themes and conflicts, appearances by Stalin and other major political figures, and an interesting look into the psyche of what we usually consider to be a perfect character.

If you aren’t a comic reader, you should still check this out. It’s only 3 issues long (though they are rather lengthy), and there’s no threat of being lost on who a character is or what’s going on. The entire story is self-contained in these 3 issues. Give it a try! It might be the springboard you need to get into reading more comic books. Oh, and obviously fans of the Cold War period of history will find a lot to like here. With that, I leave you with this recycled sign-off:

 Sic semper tyrannis

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