Strange Visitors: Millar’s Red Son

At a party the other day, two friends of mine mentioned, in regards to this story, something along the lines of the fact that they were “Morrison Red Son truthers.” Which roughly translates to, I like Red Son but would rather not admit to liking a Mark Millar book. Put another way, it’s impossible to look at this book without talking about Mark Millar, and it’s impossible to talk about Mark Millar in 2004 without talking about Grant Morrison.

This works out well for me, since we’re heading over to Grant Morrison’s take on Superman next. Huzzah for the segue.

So, to start. Mark Millar is loved and loathed in somewhat equal portion. Curiously, he is a comic book writer who manages to be very influential without ever being terribly good. A lot of that influence falls outside of comics and lands in the realm of film. His impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is basically unmatched. The Avengers as a film concept owes a deeper debt to Millar’s The Ultimates than perhaps any run of 616 Avengers, although thankfully the movies leave off many of the less savory elements of Millar’s version of the characters. 2017’s Logan, which along with Deadpool may have jolted the X-Men film franchise back to life, is to some degree based on Millar and McNiven’s “Old Man Logan,” although, again, much of the unsavory stuff got left on the page. And for better or worse (SPOILER: for worse), 2015’s Fantastic Four film relies on Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four as its source material in terms of basic character traits.

Outside the world of franchises, Millar has been wildly successful at getting his work optioned for film. Wanted, Kickass, and Kingsman have been adapted into a total of five films so far, and basically every creator-owned property he’s written is under option or in development at a large studio. As of last year, Netflix jumped the queue and just bought Millarworld, Millar’s imprint, flat out.

The reason so many Millar books jump to film while (let’s face it) better writers like Morrison, Gaiman, and Moore have a lower output-to-option ratio is that Millar is very good at the elevator pitch. His work exists best at a concept level, rather than an actual story, and this gives other people lots of room to work. Take, as a counter-example, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, which tries to strip the concept out of Alan Moore’s book and run with it. It turns out what made that book work wasn’t the concept (literary figures team up to fight…other literary figures!) but Moore’s execution. With Millar, it often turns out to be the opposite. Any of his creator-owned works can usually be summed up in a sentence, and often the sentence is better than the fully-realized result.

For example, “Old Man Logan” and Logan. The elevator pitch is “Wolverine gets old.” For Mangold, this is an opportunity to explore aging and exhaustion of characters, actors, and a franchise all at once. He zeroes in on Logan, Xavier, and Laura for a film that feels small and big at the same time.

Millar and McNiven use the same brief to explore a post-superhero Marvel Universe complete with an incestuous rapey bunch of Hulks and I don’t even remember what particularly fucked up Red Skull thing happened in that book. It is big all the time. The goal for Millar is taking down icons and playing for shock value. Shocks are Millar’s go-to, often in lieu of character development and at the expense of something you actually like. This is what I mean when I talk about the “less savory” bits of Ultimates, too. And Civil War, if you actually read it, it is kind of a string of gut punches, and canonical superheroes acting wildly out of character and making fantastically poor decisions to set up those gut punch moments. The “philosophical debate” at the book’s core is somewhere between incoherent and irrelevant.

This puts Millar just off-to-the-side of Moore and Morrison in terms of goals as relates to superheroes. Moore’s superhero work is often in the mode of classic deconstruction, delicately taking the idea of the superhero apart to see how it works, and how it does. Millar, like Garth Ennis in The Boys, is more interested in smashing superheroes for the sake of a gasping audience. Morrison, particularly in his 90s superhero runs, is interested in what comics can do that movies can’t, upping the ante and scope in pursuit of constant cosmic crisis. Millar wants to see what superhero comics can do as well, but more in the sense of violating “standards of good taste”.

Since we’re slagging Millar, we might as well put his rape comment out there. In a 2013 interview for The New Republic, Millar had this to say:

The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.

Where to start? We could say that interest in “the ultimate taboo” feels like a concern exclusive to male writers. We could point out the shift to passive voice in the first sentence, the move from centering the perpetrator to centering “somebody being raped” speaks to an oft-cited reason why rape and sexual abuse in fiction function differently from murder in that they leave a living victim/subject/survivor who is, almost always, irrelevant to the story being told. Or we could say that Millar approaches narrative with the logic of a game in which shock tactics are both the means and end. It’s the callous in it for the lulz strategy that paves the path from hipster ironic racism to GamerGate trolling, down the trash spectrum to the “alt-right” vein of white nationalism, where Nazism, another “ultimate taboo” is “ironically” engaged for shit and giggles. Millar’s said some things about Brexit and Trump that indicate his politics have an element of this “it would be kicks to see the world burn” attitude.

With all that in mind, is Red Son a total trash-fire?

No, it is not at all a trash-fire. Also I am bad at building suspense.

Millar is still in a bit of a journeyman phase here, coming off a long apprenticeship with Grant Morrison. Much of Millar’s previous DC work by this point is either co-written with Morrison or spins out of one of Morrison’s books. Millar had started writing for Marvel by the time he did Red Son (Ultimate Fantastic Four, which has Morrisonian fingerprints all over it, and The Ultimates, whose first series was coming out concurrent with Red Son), but he hadn’t scored his first major blockbuster, which would come a couple years later with Civil War.

Like many Superman Elseworlds stories, Red Son’s premise is, “What if, rather than landing in Smallville, Superman’s rocket landed in X?” In this case, X equals rural Russia in 1938. Which, first off, I admit is a really good pitch. But you know what else would be a really good pitch? Historicizing/politicizing Superman’s landing in the US in 1938. This seems so obvious that there must be an iteration of it out there. If not, DC: Call me.

The story picks up in the 1950s with the Soviet Union’s public announcement of Superman:

Surely there is a better way of expressing the values of the mid-20th century Soviet Union than “Stalin, Socialism, and the International Expansion of the Warsaw Pact”, something that’d be a closer analog to “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” but the shift points out the inherent horror of a state-aligned Superman.

As a foil to Soviet Supes, we get Lex Luthor, whose introduction is directly out of the Superman 2000 pitch. Here’s the page:

And here’s the pitch:

We see Luthor playing chess with twenty grandmasters simultaneously while reading untranslated Il Principe and teaching himself Urdu via a Walkman he made for himself in five minutes back in 1962.

This we can explain away by saying it’s something Millar brought to the table on the Superman 2000 pitch, and something he was allowed to walk away with when the pitch failed, rather than say it’s lifted from Morrison, whose take on Luthor will be substantially different.

Lex is arguably the hero of the book, to the degree the book has a hero in it. His motivation to destroy Superman is bog-standard American anti-communism, and to be fair, Millar sets up a demonized vision of communism as a straw man for him. The story validates Luthor post hoc, so much so that when the shift to Luthor as the hero becomes apparent, it’s surprising, and maybe not in a good way. Surprising as in it doesn’t entirely make sense.

The idea of Luthor “cracking the code” of the Green Lantern ring is a genius bit.

I may knock the “smash the toys” approach, but sometimes the resulting pieces have a glimmer to them.

Lois is here too. It’s unclear entirely why.

She’s given very little to do other than suffer emotional abuse from her husband and vaguely pine for Superman. Lana Lang and Wonder Woman are also on hand to vaguely pine for Superman, and, again, not much else.

Which brings us, at long last, to Millar’s Superman. And the unavoidable truth of Millar’s Superman is that he’s a dupe. He’s duped by Stalin, and later duped by Brainiac. Reading him as a dupe is actually the most charitable take on the character, and it’s only possible because Millar seems incapable of documenting actual historical atrocity. Stalin’s purges are mentioned, but only on an incredibly small scale: the killing of Thomas and Martha Wayne analogs in order to provide Millar with a Batman. I’m assuming Millar intends the reader to think Superman is ignorant of the mass killings Stalin carried out. But his Superman is pretty much omniscient:

And he does seem to mention it:

And if nothing else, Batman thinks he’s guilty:

At some point down the line, I’ll be looking at Frank Miller’s state-aligned Superman, but as I recall, Miller keeps Superman’s hands fairly clean. His involvement with the US government, which in the 80s would have been up to its eagles in shady-ass dealings, is limited. In Red Son’s first issue, Superman is established as Stalin’s right hand, so plausible deniability it tough to track.

It’s an even harder sell when it comes to Superman’s partnership with a “reformed” Brainiac, and their rehabilitation efforts:

This is, by the way, not an egregiously Millar-ian thing to do. In the most recent issue of Action Comics, written by Dan Jurgens, Superman neutralizes the threat of Cyborg Superman by locking CySupes into his most treasured memory. Which is basically the plot of Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything”, except that we obviously understand Mongul’s actions in the latter as really really evil. And Superman locks people up in the Phantom Zone like, once a week. There are many versions of Supes that take their Lawful Good alignment to the extreme, and here we see why that take on the character, pretty consistent across many writers, has scary implications. It becomes more visible when the “law”, or prevailing ethics, are foreign to us. A Superman who imprisons scary super-powered criminals without due process might not seem horrific. I mean, the CW’s The Flash has been doing it for five seasons and it’s rarely addressed. But a Lawful Good Superman raised in an environment where individual freedom isn’t prioritized over the communal good is immediately recognizable as a tyrant.

The book feels like a Mark Millar book in that it’s more interested in the implications of its premise than in anything approaching character consistency or, god forbid, character arcs. The stuff that is identifiably Grant Morrison mostly comes in at the end. I’m talking about two plot points, one Morrison will pick up on in his own work, and one he’s on the record as having handed Millar.

The first is Superman as immortal. This is, as far as I can tell, not standard DC canon. If it were, teenage Supes would be running into his much-older self when he visits the Legion of Superheroes in the future. But Morrison will repeated stress that Superman never dies, only evolves. The idea of Superman’s evolution is the core concept of the Superman 2000 pitch. Here, Superman as immortal, narrating the book’s events from the far future, feels dropped into the narrative as an afterthought, given the fact Superman ages like a normal human over the course of the book.

And then there’s the ending, a wha-huh? moment that does pretty much nothing for the story, lending credence to Morrison’s claim he gave Millar the idea and Millar just threw it in. I’m a fan of the “all this has happened before” narrative move (which is to say, last post I said I’d defend the ending of Lost, and here I am going on record as a defender of the ending of Battlestar Galactica) when it connects to the story being told. But the erasure of Superman’s Kryptonian origin, or the evolution of Earth into Krypton, or whatever is supposed to be going on here, doesn’t inform the pages that come before it, or change the way we read them.

If there’s a coherent statement in Red Son, it has to do with the corruptibility of the Lawful Good superhero, and how easily their efforts can be channeled into fascism. The implication of course is that the Lawful Good superhero is always or inherently fascist. Millar tries to dodge this by having Superman “tricked” into fascism, but the result isn’t any more comforting. Like with a lot of Millar’s work, it’s an interesting idea that deserves a more engaged execution.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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