Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?

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Review of 'Superman: Red Son' by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong, Titan £10.99

The abstract 'S' symbol which Superman sports on his chest is, like Mickey Mouse or the Coca-Cola logo, a universally recognised icon. Paradoxically, very few people actually buy or read his comics any more. Figures released in early 2004 show that Superman comics sell fewer than 35,000 copies a month.

However, when Red Son, featuring 'the Man of Steel', hit the shops in the US it was a runaway bestseller, with an audience far beyond the ever-contracting ranks of comic enthusiasts. It received massive media attention for a comic, and was reviewed by everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone, with no little outrage expressed at the transformation of this conservative icon into a 'red' superhero fighting for what he sees as 'international socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat'.

For this is Superman's story told as if he'd been raised on a collective farm in the USSR instead of Smallville, Kansas. It opens in the early 1950s with Superman just starting out on his career as 'the comrade of steel'. He's already a favourite of Stalin, who realises that Superman makes the USSR the world's only genuine superpower. When the US government find out about him they turn to the mad genius Lex Luthor for help, beginning a decades-long struggle between the two. By the late 1970s most of the world has joined the Superman-led Soviet Union, with only Chile and the US remaining outside. Superman has built a utopia where 'poverty, disease and ignorance have been virtually eliminated from the Warsaw Pact states'. But for all the prosperity that the new USSR has achieved under the leadership of someone who can personally fulfil a Five-Year Plan in minutes, vestiges of the old totalitarianism remain. State surveillance is ubiquitous, heavily armed police patrol the streets and dissidents are subjected to lobotomies to make them conform. We are informed that 'disobedience to the party is virtually dead'. Superman patrols the planet, imposing 'full spectrum dominance' beyond George W Bush's dreams. The only internal resistance to the new order comes from disgruntled apparatchiks who have been pushed aside and from a Russian Batman, now re-imagined as an anarchist refusenik, committing 19th-century style bombings against symbols of the state. The only external threat comes from Luthor, who replaces Jack Kennedy as president of a US in near collapse, turns its fortunes around overnight, and in a climactic showdown moves to smash Superman and the world he's built.

But for all the extra sales and media attention, Red Son isn't a great comic. The artwork is crude, derivative and bland, and it doesn't serve the story very well. The story, written by Mark Millar, the son of a Coatbridge trade unionist with Stalinist sympathies, has been told better elsewhere. The key theme of Red Son - of a utopia created by a god-like superhero and its social consequences - goes back to the pioneering work of Alan Moore. In 1982 Moore revived the 1950s British superhero Marvelman (later changed to Miracleman to avoid potential lawsuits) and began a story arc in which he took the superhero fantasy to its logical conclusion. Miracleman abolished all existing authority and ushered in a golden age in which capitalism and its works - money, hunger, poverty, ecological destruction - were ended. Even Margaret Thatcher was powerless before him as he overthrew the free market state and sent her packing into the dustbin of history. Practically every superhero comic since has been influenced by Moore. They have also drawn on Frank Miller's wonderfully gritty 1985 Batman opus, The Dark Knight Returns. This gave us an ageing Batman in post Bernard Goetz America now much more ambivalent in its attitudes towards vigilantes and superheroes. Red Son is hardly in this league.

Millar insists that his Superman is 'an allegory of George W Bush' and the story 'vilifies America's "unethical foreign policy"'. Millar started work on Red Son in 1996 but the project stalled. It was revived and completed during the so called 'war on terror', and hit the stores at the tail end of the war on Iraq. This was the making of it. It found an audience among those who had seen what the Bush doctrine of 'pre-emptive retaliation' meant, and responded to an Orwellian fable about the 'moral implications of one man or one country policing the entire world'. That's why socialists should welcome its success.

Finally, though it seemed deliciously subversive to draw Superman with a hammer and sickle on his chest instead of that world-famous 'S', it should be remembered that Superman didn't always stand for 'truth, justice and the American way'. Like many who were eventually assimilated into the establishment, he had a radical past. The early Superman was less powerful than he'd become later. He was able to leap tall buildings with a single bound but he couldn't fly. He was also a vigilante whose enemies were often respectable pillars of US society. He took on slum landlords, corrupt businessmen, politicians and warmongers, and it made him an immediate success. His first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938 sold 500,000 copies. By 1939 Superman's own comic was selling 1,250,000 copies per issue. If DC Comics, who publish Superman, want to make him a regular bestseller again they might like to think about that.