Nature vs. Nurture
Historical fiction is a strange beast, one I’ve never quite understood. Some people love reading fictional accounts of the lives of Civil War generals, Revolutionary War heroes, ancient Roman gladiators, and so on. It’s not my cup of tea, but to each his own. Comic books, however, have a particularly interesting sub-genre that one might label as “historical fiction” of a sort. Since most comics are fictional to begin with, perhaps we should call it “fictional historical fiction”, or, to crib the name of a defunct Marvel series, “what if?” stories. These stories ask “what would have happened if” something small in the accepted continuity of the comic book universe had been changed just a bit. What if Batman met up with Edgar Allen Poe? What if Iron Man decided to take over the world?
Every now and again, these sorts of stories gain a good bit of popularity. Marvel’s What If? series had a good run before it was cancelled for slowing sales, and then in a surge of nostalgia it was started anew, although it soon went through the same cycle. Currently Marvel publishes Exiles, a spin on the “what if?” genre that features a recurring cast of characters from the standard Marvel Universe traveling to “alternate” realities. It has managed to hold a stronger readership than What If? ever did, but it too is losing steam after the departure of series creator Judd Winick. DC takes perhaps a smarter route, occasionally publishing their out-of-continuity stories, such as Millar’s Superman: Red Son, under their ElseWorlds imprint rather than devote resources to an ongoing monthly series.
And it is a smarter story than most of its brethren. Millar tries to examine, in the most realistic terms possible, just what would have happened if that little escape pod from the doomed planet Krypton had landed on Earth just 12 hours later, smack dab in the Ukraine instead of Smallville. What if the “Man of Steel” were the Man of the Iron Curtain?
Millar’s comic is full of Easter Eggs that hardcore DC fans will love. The title plays on both Superman’s new Communist nature, and the red sun of his home planet, Krypton. The “Man of Steel” of this comic is someone unexpected—Josef Stalin, whose name apparently translates into that familiar phrase. Millar also writes alternate versions of such beloved characters as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Lana Lang. The romance between Superman and Wonder Woman that always seemed just under the surface in standard DC continuity gets a chance to blossom when she visits the Soviet Union. New origins for Bizarro Superman and Batman put a significant twist on their characters, and Batman especially promises to be an intriguing figure in the upcoming issues of this three-part mini-series. But the unexpected star of the issue has to be Lex Luthor, the not-so-evil genius who gets to utter the most prized line of dialogue in the whole book that will sure to have comics fans giggling the world over: “I honestly believe that Superman and I would have been the best of friends if he’d popped up in America.”
Still, Millar offers more than just in-jokes for longtime fans. He makes a subtle, yet powerful, statement on the old argument of nature vs. nurture. Is Superman a Communist? Yes. Does he work for the U.S.A.‘s most dangerous enemy? Yes. Is he a villain? No. He’s a good guy, perhaps the only truly good guy in the book. He’s a hero, not just to Soviets, but to Americans, Britons, anyone in need. Just like the Superman we all know, this Superman has a core of common decency and goodness that politics can’t touch, and perhaps a bit of the naiveté that our Superman always seemed to have. (How else could one explain him working for a man responsible for thousands upon thousands of murders, executions, and pogroms?) When Superman first sees Lois, there’s a moment, a brief moment, that demonstrates the cosmic connection between these two characters, now on opposite sides of the world. Finally, while he may seem like a decent guy at first, Lex Luthor eventually shows his true colors. Once a megalomaniac, always a megalomaniac.
So, as a character study, Millar provides an intriguing story. He changes everything about the world, but very little about the true core of these characters. He strips them down to their bare essentials, demonstrating what has made them icons of pop culture for 50-plus years, and why Superman is Superman no matter what side of the fence he’s on.
It all begs one question though: “What’s the point?” For Marvel, Millar writes The Ultimates, a revamping of some of Marvel’s central characters that not only redefines them, but puts them in a militarized world context to which a post-9/11 reader can relate. Red Son demonstrates the true nature of Superman. It is a strong character study. But how does it relate to the reader, to the reader’s world? While an interesting diversion and exercise in possibilities and imagination, Millar’s book doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about these characters. There is no new insight to their world, or to ours.
Of course, there are still two issues to go, so perhaps Millar will surprise me and give me something grand when all is said and done, but the criticism still stands. Despite what some might want to believe, comics are a struggling industry, with little sign that they are being taken more seriously by the mainstream. While movies like X2 and Spider-Man may be a hit, anyone who is inspired to hit the comic book store will likely find the same insular materials, aimed at a hardcore audience who “knows what they likes and likes what they knows”. The same self-consuming, repetitive, circular material isn’t the key to gaining a new audience and respect; material that goes someplace different is. Red Son, while an example of such material that is good and entertaining, is still just the same fanboy-oriented product that the major publishers have been putting out forever. We know the characters, we know who they are. We don’t need to be told again and again that Superman is a true hero and Lex Luthor is a true villain. It’s time to abandon the nature we all know. It is time for writers like Mark Millar, who certainly has the talent, to nurture something new to take comics into a new millennium.