The Great American Icon Re-imagined as a Soviet Hero by Carl Barton

Carl Barton

Professor Jason Ellis

ENG2420 E573

20 May 2020

The Great American Icon Re-imagined as a Soviet Hero

While in my ENG 2420 class we learned all about science fiction of how it dated all the way back from 2150 BC and its emergence as time moved on into what we have today. In my class I have learned that science fiction can come in various forms of literature like magazines, novels, and short stories. But in my class it was never specified that comic books or graphic novels, like shonen jump, were science fiction since science fiction has various definitions by significant writers in the field. My goal in this paper is to prove that comics are science fiction using Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, published in the 2003 issue of DC Comics: Elseworlds.

Science fiction has multiple definitions like “Speculative Fiction: stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man, or reality…to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes-imaginary or inventive-into the common background of ‘known facts’, creating an environment in which the responses and perceptions of the characters will reveal something about the inventions, the characters, or both” (Merril 60). Judith Meril’s definition of science fiction summarizes the comic because the story imagines the outcome of Superman’s pod landing in Ukraine rather than Kansas (Lewis 618) describing the events surrounding the Cold War and its effects on Russia. It also shows what the ‘Man of Steel’ would do in these situations.

Another definition of science fiction that summarizes the story of Red Son is “an historical literature…In every SF narrative, there is an explicit or implicit fictional history that connects the period depicted to our present moment, or to some moment in our past” (Robinson 54). In this case the fictional history connected to the Cold War from 1947 – 1991 where the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, were on the brink of nuclear war. The war never entered nuclear warfare because when the US fired on Russian soil, Russia never fired back. The story shows this by having Lex Luthor constantly attack Superman, in Russia, but having Superman never attack Luthor. The story of Red Son begins in Ukraine, Russia in the 1930s, 10 years before the beginning of the Cold War.

Although words and pictures started out together, literature usually for adults was eventually reduced to words alone. Graphic novels bring pictures and words back together for the adult audience. Graphic novels began in the late 19th century as a response to the appearance of comic strips in newspapers. The difference between graphic novels and comics is that a comic strip has a series of drawings to tell a story complemented with captions in a white bubble. Graphic novels are printed as soft or hardcover, high quality paper, while comic boos are made on cheap newsprint resulting in Graphic novels costing more than comic books. “Rapid growth followed in the comics market over the next few decades, not only in number of readers but also in the variety of comic genres, eventually including horror comics, westerns, science fiction, mysteries, movie tie-ins, and even illustrated classics.” (Giles 533). Even though comic book and graphic novels are slightly different they both feature the same themes as well as the same high-end artwork.

Within Superman: Red Son there are multiple uses of science fiction, in fact Red Son could be a literary form of weird fiction. Weird fiction was the story theme that drove the magazine Weird Tales, which began in March 1923. According to Howard Lovecraft (1890-1937) the characteristics of weird fiction are: Broad terms that describe fantasy that embodies a challenging view of the world, reduction of land or character with something else strange happening, usually a cult or satanism, and Doppelgangers. Red Son’s story begins like the original as Superman is placed in an escape pod, as a baby, for him to flee his dying planet. However, instead of Kansas, he lands in Ukraine where he is raised to be a soldier and protect his ‘mother country’ and its people. Fast-forward Superman’s existence stated by the president of the US. Because people now know this ‘powerman’ roams in Russia assisting them in wars, the US citizens begin to panic. So as a plan to ‘level the playing field’ the president calls on Lex Luthor to create their own ‘superman’. Superman is attacked by his doppelganger in Russia who is then easily defeated. Fast-forward some more to 1978, Superman is president of the Soviet Union and is attempting to build a global utopia, but is constantly being attacked by Luthor as he continues to send powered  agents to Russia, all his attacks fail. Afterwards he is attacked by a Russian version of Batman armed with kryptonite, Superman’s one weakness, but is defeated as well. Then to find his ‘mother country’ invaded by Brainiac, possibly his hardest enemy to defeat, but he is defeated as well. Brainiac is taken in by Superman who believes that he changed his programming to only help him and his ambitions. One by one Superman is taking control of the US only leaving 38 remaining. Fast-forward again to 2001 where Superman’s utopia is once again almost complete but “while most of the world is grateful for Superman’s protection, he still faces challenges from both without and within.”(Lewis 618). Before Superman could control the US entirely, Luther becomes president of the remaining 35 states. In a year he restored the US to what it was before Superman appeared. Once he achieved this he sends out his final attack including the Green Lantern Corps, the Amazons, and his intelligence or his technology. Once Superman powers his way to Luthor, he finds him captured by Brainiac. Brainiac successfully convinces Superman to launch an attack, something he has never done-he has been getting attacked but never fired back on their home soil, to finally complete his utopia. Superman stops when Luther says “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?”, Superman realizes he is being compared to Brainiac. It’s revealed that Brainiac was toying with Superman, faking his programming, to get him to take out all his enemies. Luther uses his intelligence to shut down Brainiac causing the ship to enter self-destruct mode. Superman with quick thinking flies the ship out of space. He is believed to have died in the explosion. Luthor establishes the utopian state that Superman always wanted to create. “Working along with these utopian issues, Red Son focuses on the notion that a few central actors can change the course of world events. Despite his occasional claims to believe in equality, Superman’s effect on world historical forces is clear and direct; his presence shapes, and in some cases distorts, world events. The same is true for Lex Luthor, who reshapes the world despite Superman’s realization that ‘leaving them [humanity] alone means they can make their own mistakes again.’ Yet Millar hints that the presence of both characters is the key to humanity’s success, as Superman notes: ‘Perhaps [Luthor] existed to keep me in check, or, as someone once hypothesized, perhaps it was the other way around.’ Without the presence of the other, either Luthor or Superman would have affected the world negatively; together, they bring a better future about.” (Lewis 619). It is later discovered by the readers that the ‘utopia’ Luthor created is actually supposed to be Superman’s original home, Superman is sent to past Earth by his father to save humanity before its destruction by the sun in the future.

The uses of science fiction include, Brianiac’s invasion, Wonder Woman’s lasso, Batman’s toolbelt, Luthor’s intelligence, and the story of the Cold War, in Russia’s point of view. Brainiac is Superman’s second strongest villain after Lex Luthor. Born on Colu, he uses his superior intellect and robotic body in battle. Brianiac’s only goal is to obtain knowledge of the entire universe by trapping select cities of planets to watch how their people act. Lex Luthor is a human with a genius intellect rivaling the mind of Batman. He uses this intellect with his technological engineering skills to build a suit that has the power to defeat or in the rare case kill Superman. Batman is another human with this genius intellect, used to be a rich kid before his parents were shot, he became Batman to help those in need. Batman like Luthor has no powers, but he has a toolbelt armed with gadgets, ranging from smoke bombs to explosive gel. When the gadgets are not enough he uses close quarter combat, and ‘fear’ to quickly deal with his enemies. Like Luthor he is armed with kryptonite, a material from the planet Krypton, Superman’s home planet, is Superman’s one weakness. Wonder Woman is this ‘goddess’ born in Themyscira, a unknown and unfindable island inhabited by only women. Her strength is slightly less than Superman but she does have a sword and the Lasso of Truth. The Lasso of Truth can be armed by any who wields it but whoever caught wrapped in the Lasso of Truth can never lie and can usually never break the lasso. The story of Red Son closely follows the events of the Cold War. From Joseph Satallin’s death to the attacks by the US to Russia, and Russia not firing back only defending. 

The Red Son story itself is an alternate timeline, DC Entertainment calls Elseworlds. Anything can happen in these timelines, from having a world without Superman or Batman, to having Batman actually kill his foes, “The vast majority of Elseworlds tales, however, instead offered variations on the origins of characters, either focusing on alternate histories or transplanting those characters into altogether different time periods” (Jennings 1469). Elseworld was created in 1991 and ran until the second half of the 21st century. Elseworlds went through its most fruitful period in the late 1990s and the early 2000s (Jennings 1468). Following the timeline of DC Entertainment, Elseworlds was created by Flash aka Barry Allen, ran back in time to attempt to save his mom from dying. When we ran back to the present it was a post-apocalyptic land where Batman was Thomas Wayne, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were fighting to the death, and Superman was practically skin and bones and had dysarthria, difficulty with speech. To fix what he caused he ran back in time once more to stop himself from saving his mom. But the timeline was never the same, this event was called the Flashpoint. Flash accidently creates another timeline after fixing what he had done resulting in the creation of stronger enemies and weird multiversal problems. Now because of his actions the existence of multiple Earths came to light resulting in problems like the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the discovery of Supergirl.

“Superman is one of the most durable icons of American popular culture” (Yockey). Superman was co-created by Jerry Siegel, the writer and Joe Shuster, the artist and designer. Siegel, born in 1914 and died in 1996, was an avid reader of pulp magazines, which came about roughly in the 1920s and roughly ended in the 1930s. After the death of his father in 1932, Sigel devoted himself to becoming a writer. Siegel self-published his Siegel self-published his own pulp magazine with fellow classmate and artist Shuster called Science Fiction, a pamphlet that ran for five issues starting in October 1932. In the third issue (January 1933), Siegel introduced a villain called “The Superman” who had strange mental powers and was illustrated by Shuster as a bald madman. Their work eventually made its way to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who had just begun publication, through his National Allied Publications (the forerunner of DC Comics) of New Fun (February 1935), a national “big” magazine of all-new comics material. After several failed attempts of changing Superman into a hero, Shuster created the now-iconic costume and together they worked on the character origins. So by 1939 the 13-paged color story called Action Comics #1 (1939) featured the new Superman (Ricca 347). Joe Shuster, born in 1914 and died in 1992, was a self-taught artist with an adaptive style to various subjects. Shuster started drawing all kinds of comics for Siegel, including “Snoopy and Smiley,” “Kane,” “Bruce Verne,” and “Interplanetary Police,” among several others, all in an attempt to make it in the big game of newspaper syndication. Though many of the comics were artistically quite mature, Siegel and Shuster could not get them published. Siegel and Shuster sold Superman for $130, which included signing over all their rights to National Comics (Ricca 345).In 1947, Shuster joined Siegel in suing National Comics over the rights to Superman and the new character Superboy. The court ruled they had been wronged over Superboy, but had no claim to ownership over Superman, and National promptly fired them. After he and Siegel’s Funnyman comic flopped in 1947, Shuster devoted his time to teaching in New York and to doing occasional cover and art assists (Ricca 347). Which brings us to Mark Millar, born in 1969. Mark Millar authored some of the most influential stories of the modern era. His works include “Civil War” (2006), “Old Man Logan” (2008), Kick-Ass (2008), Ultimate X-Men (2001) and Superman: Red Son (2003). Because of his work he was nominated for the Eisner Award (Fuijoka). Later Superman: Red Son would be adapted into a film like Kick-Ass on 25 February 2020, directed by Sam Liu.

In conclusion, comic books or graphic novels are science fiction. Their themes are usually about the supernatural, with powers like flight, super strength, super speed, intellect. Science fiction is the ability to adapt into all forms of the literary genre.

Works Cited

Millar, Mark. “Superman: Red Son”, 3 issues, “Elseworlds.” DC Comics, 2003. Print

Merrial, Judith. “What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?” SF: The Other Side of Realism. Ed. Thomas D. clareson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971. 53-95. Print

Robinson, Kim Stanley. “Notes for an Essay on Cecelia Holland.” Foundation 40 (Summer 1987): 54-61. Print

Lewis, Jacob. “Superman: Red Son.” Encyclopedia of Comic Books and Graphic Novels, edited by M. Keith Booker, vol. 2, Greenwood Press, 2010, pp. 617-619. Gale eBooks, Accessed 17 May 2020.

Jennings, Jackson S. “Elseworlds.” Comics Through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by M. Keith Booker, vol. 4: 1995-Present, Greenwood, 2014, pp. 1468-1470. Gale eBooks, Accessed 18 May 2020.

Giles, Cynthia. “Graphic Novels.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 2, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 533-534. Gale eBooks, Accessed 18 May 2020.

Yocket, Matt. “Somewhere in Time: Utopia and the Return of Superman.” The Velvet Light Trap, vol. 61, 2008, p. 26-37. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vlt.2008.0007.

Ricca, Brad J. “Siegel, Jerry.” Comics Through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by M. Keith Booker, vol. 1: 1800-1960, Greenwood, 2014, pp. 347-349. Gale eBooks, Accessed 18 May 2020.

Ricca, Brad J. “Shuster, Joe.” Comics Through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by M. Keith Booker, vol. 1: 1800-1960, Greenwood, 2014, pp. 345-347. Gale eBooks, Accessed 18 May 2020.
Fujioka, Brent A. “Millar, Mark.” Comics Through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by M. Keith Booker, vol. 4: 1995-Present, Greenwood, 2014, pp. 1647-1648. Gale eBooks, Accessed 18 May 2020.

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