The WTF Comics Club is a monthly reading group for Women, Trans, and Femme-identified fans in Minneapolis. In its second year, the club is taking a look at some of the major comic book “must reads” and asking: Must we really read this?
Part of DC’s Elseworlds alternate-reality comics, Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son has the Man of Steel growing up in—and taking over—the Soviet Union. It features everything you’d expect from a story about Communist Superman, plus a few pleasant surprises.
Red Son hits the ground running and zooms through almost 50 years of story in three issues, from the unveiling of Superman as the USSR’s new nuclear deterrent to the ultimate downfall of his utopian communist regime. Meanwhile, back in the good ol’ US of A, government-funded super genius, Lex Luthor, becomes increasingly obsessed with defeating Superman and increasingly distant from plucky reporter, Lois Lane, to whom he is inexplicably married. Other familiar faces from the Supes/DC roster also appear, including Jimmy Olsen, first an agent and later head of the CIA, Batman, now an ushanka-clad anarchist on the streets of Moscow, and Wonder Woman, who acts as Superman’s friend, victim, and enemy at different points in the story.
Published in 2003, Red Son won the 2004 Eisner award for best limited series, and it is consistently granted a place on lists of the best Superman stories and best comics of all time. Perhaps a little hyperbolic, but the WTF Comics Club agrees: It’s a damn fine comic book.
As long as you ignore the women in the story, it’s a damn fine comic book.
Most of Millar’s alternate reality adjustments to the DC universe make sense or, at the very least, can be ascribed to general multiverse weirdness, but a few are just downright perplexing. Perhaps the most befuddling change is Lois Lane’s loveless marriage to Lex Luthor, who is, apparently, a jerk in every reality. Why a life without Clark Kent would lead Lois to get hitched at all is puzzling, and the only explanation the WTF readers could think of for her marrying Luthor is the convenience of a wealthy husband who doesn’t care what she does. Another possibility is that Millar simply couldn’t think of another way to involve her in the plot, though given that she’s an investigative journalist in a story about global politics, I can’t imagine it would be that difficult.
Another question is why, while Lois languishes at the Daily Planet, erstwhile photographer Jimmy Olsen has been given the role of CIA agent? While it’s certainly an interesting twist on the character, one has to wonder why one journalist gets an upgrade and the other remains more or less unchanged, aside from the addition of a wedding ring. Considering how fascinating it would have been to cast Lois as a fellow agent or other government representative, it’s hard to think of a good reason not to. (Spoiler alert: Sexism is not a good reason.)
Other women in Red Son are few and far between, largely cast as hangers-on to powerful men—the exception being Wonder Woman, whose role in the story is problematic for entirely different reasons. First, there’s the intimation that Diana is secretly pining for Superman, a controversial characterization and one that tends to ring false with fans of the Amazon princess. Her devotion to Superman ultimately leads to her downfall and the temporary loss of both her powers and her mind. Unbelievably, Diana is put in this situation after being defeated and captured by the caped crusader of Moscow: Batman. How exactly Batman manages to get Wonder Woman bound by her own lasso is completely unexplained, and it happens off-page.
That being said, Red Son is an exceptional example of comic book storytelling and an expert reimagining of a classic character. It deals with themes of power and freedom, and it does so with remarkable finesse. Johnson and Plunket’s art delivers a striking fusion of classic comic style and art-deco iconography, turning Millar’s Elseworlds parable into a stunning, textured spectacle. What ultimately elevates Red Son from a really good book to a truly great book is the ending, a perfect grace note of an epilogue that brings everything back to the beginning, just like any good ending should.
On the whole, the WTF readers have a low tolerance for casual misogyny and are more than ready to call shenanigans, even on books we love. However, though we might have chosen an easier read for the Superman book on our list, we agree that Red Son is a must-read for comic book fans. Just remember to ignore the women, and you’ll be fine.
Title: Superman: Red Son
Creators: Writer: Mark Millar; Art: Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunket
Publisher: DC Comics
Popular Rating: ?????
WTF Rating: ????????????????
Must read? Yes, but turn off your casual misogyny alerts.
The books for WTF Reads were determined by cross-referencing recommendation lists from four online publications: Forbidden Planet, Empire, BuzzFeed, and Complex . Titles were then selected based on a number of criteria, including popularity, importance, accessibility, and thematic continuity. Popular Ratings are on a five-star scale, averaged from ratings across Comixology, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. WTF Ratings are on a five-monkey scale, based on responses from club and community members. Only books that receive five monkeys will be preserved after the gender apocalypse.
(header image via DC Comics)
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