Sunday, June 15, 2014

Red Son: Superman, the Soviet Hero

One of my favorite imaginative games to play is thinking up alternates.  Alternate histories, alternate plotlines, alternate universes, yadda yadda.  Maybe nothing quite so mundane as "what if the South won the Civil War," but something more along the lines of the most recent book I read, Superman: Red Son.

In this fast-paced comic (although I'm not really all that versed in comics -- they could all be like this), Superman's capsule lands 12 hours earlier than in the original storyline, putting him down in the middle of Ukraine in 1938, instead of Idaho.  Instead of the quintessential all-American boy turning into the most patriotic and symbolic of American heroes, Superman is a card-carrying member of the communist party.


No, I mean it seriously.  One of the things that always bothers me about most superheroes is their blatant jingoism (at least, from what I'm familiar with. Again, I am not much of a connoisseur into the world of comic books, so obviously there may be nuances I'm missing, and friends who read extensively into this genre, please give me a reading list!  I love stuff like that!).  It seems like every superhero, as portrayed in American movies, anyway, has to rub his/her American-ness in your face.  Either Spidey is posing in front of the American flag or Iron Man announces that the only thing he'd like after being held hostage is a hamburger or anything to do with Captain America for goodness's sake.  Ugh, he's completely my least favorite, but that's a whole other blog post in and of itself.

The other problem I have with superheroes being this way is that it's very one-sided.  Before reading Red Son, I didn't even really think about how the rest of the world would react to there being such superheroes in the US, especially on an individualized aspect.  How does Great Britain feel?  We've always had "special relations" with them as a country -- do they feel protected by superhero proxy? Is this something that they use as leverage in tense international situations?  How does Chile feel?  If we have Superman, why could Hitler do what he did?

Red Son attempts to address some of these issues.  Superman does, in fact, run the world according to his beliefs in a communist utopia.  Everyone is employed, fed, and housed, the world economy runs smoothly, and he steps in to fix basically every small problem ever, with the major exception of the United States.  Unless people are going to get hurt on a massive scale, in which case then he just goes ahead and helps them because fairness?  Not quite clear on that one.  Lex Luthor is still his enemy. . .again, not really sure why.  It seems that Lex Luthor really just doesn't like Superman.  And not really for any particular reason.  He's just another problem to fix, and Lex won't be happy unless he fixes it.  And, of course, he gets joined by a bunch of other weird superhero appearances over the course of time, like Batman.  Batman is annoyed because his parents were killed by henchmen of Stalin and Superman was Stalin's right-hand guy who took over the party, thus he hates Superman?  Again, not real clear.  Maybe Batman just likes chaos.  In which case he's kind of more of the Joker. . .technicalities!  (Oh, side note, I really hate how comics bold every, like, fifth word.  Some seem purposeful [Oh, him again!] but most just seem stylistic.  The problem comes in when I read them bolded in my head.  I get tired and feel aggressive.  Sigh.)  Luthor also gets Green Lantern (who is basically useless -- Superman travels faster than the speed of thought so the Green Lantern gadgets are useless on him!) and Wonder Woman (who has been jilted by Mr. SuperCelibacy and is now a bitter old spinster) to help him in his anti-Superman scheme.  OH, and Lois Lane is his wife.

So, they've done seemingly a lot to turn the plot on its head.  Well done there.  However, it is so poorly executed as to make your head spin.  One page, Lex Luthor seems like a total douchenozzle bad guy, having people executed that he beats in chess, ignoring his wife, murdering security guards and lab techs, having bouts of crippling insanity. . .and yet he balances the budget!  He runs for president and wins overwhelmingly!  He ultimately goes on to do so many great things it's truly absurd, even for a comic book!  So, what the hell am I supposed to be feeling?  The same goes for Superman.  One minute the book is praising him for everyone being fed, housed and employed, and the next debasing him for not allowing people the freedom to be capitalists.  He's committed to his ideals and helping people, and he does -- for 75 years or so?  But basically everyone who's important hates him because communism is stupid.  Even though the United States has been basically post-apocalyptic while the rest of the world floats along in a peaceful, gentle, gliding motion, the people who hate Superman are painted just as much as the good guys as they are the bad guys.

To the hopeful chagrin of the authors (there seem to be no less than five, and one has to wonder why), they were trying to create complex characters.  Nooooooooooooooooooope.  Instead, they created confusing characters.  The book is over and I'm still not sure who to root for.  If this were a big series in which the characters could really develop, I would argue in favor of moral ambiguity.  But as is, it just feels muddled.  I can't seem to work out what the point or message of this book is, aside from providing a vehicle for an alternate universe story.

To me, this had such great potential.  To show to Superman could be used as a positive tool for the workingman, not so much against aliens or bad guys with big weapons, but against hunger, famine, possibly the KGB?  But instead, in this book, he's the one running the KGB. I just don't think that's fair.  If he's an American hero (not brainwashing people with the help of the CIA), then he should be just as much of a Soviet hero, espousing their ideals and providing a shining model.  I wanted the United States to be the true bad guy.  There is a lot wrong with the American way of life.  It is often harsh, ruthless, single-minded in its pursuit of success.  It's very individualistic; there's not a lot of true helping hands in the U.S. as compared to some other cultures and countries.  There are many in this country currently who are destitute -- homeless, hopeless, without adequate food, shelter, or healthcare -- and I feel like all too often they are overlooked.  I know I am guilty of this very thing.  How am I being altruistic in my own life?  Well, right now, not very.  I am looking into some options but have I started doing it yet?  No.  So why can't this reimagining of Superman reimagine a working Communist state, where perfect equality really works and there is no one playing the puppet master and forcing everyone to buy into the Communist Manifesto?  Because in this version, if you don't get with Superman's programs, he reprograms you.  Seriously.  With brain stultifiers, or something, but it's basically a Communist lobotomy.

Instead of this being a tool to look deeper at America's flaws and the potential of another system, this book was a confusing and ultimately disturbing alternate universe.  Are we so closely tied to our national identity and the lies that we tell ourselves that we can't even write a fictional account of ourselves as less than the good guy, as anything other than the rugged rebel who ultimately has the right idea?  Because spoiler -- Lex Luthor wins.  Okay, it's a hollow victory because it turns out Superman is actually Luthor's extra-great grandson sent from the future to save the Earth, but still.  In the end of Red Son, about how Superman is a Soviet hero, he "dies," rambling on about how if there are mistakes to be made, they should be made by humans and not aliens, the obviously insane Lex Luthor takes over the world, and literally every problem of all time is solved by his gigantic mass of gray matter.  WTF?  How is the titular character NOT THE HERO?  But he's not.  The bad guy is the hero, basically by virtue of upholding American ideals and not the tenets held by those wacko commie pinkos.

I despair.  Or I go off to write my own version in my head as I drift off to sleep.

On another note, saw the new X-Men movie.  While I've never really liked the X-Men (can no one ever just sit down and talk to each other??), this movie wasn't half bad.  It was probably my favorite of the bunch (all of which I have inexplicably seen. . .still don't know how I've managed that), and even though the climax was a solid third/half of the movie, I felt genuinely invested.   Whaaaaaaat.

In other literary news, I have powered through five Pretty Little Liars novels, each one essentially identical to its predecessor, and I have concluded that the show is much better.  I'm also working through Game of Thrones (again), hoping to start my new Dickens novel soon (Dombey and Son) and am finally, finally, FINALLY in the home stretch for the Mistborn series concluder, The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson.  Maybe I've been drawing it out because I'm so invested in these characters and would hate to say goodbye, but I have only about 6 hours left on my audiobook.  Oh yeah.  Be jealous.

Until next time, happy reading!