Superman Simplistic

I recently read Red Son, the graphic novel re-imagining Superman as a Soviet hero.

It's an interesting idea. The basis for the concept is that Superman is the all-American-spinach-eating-protect-the-flag hero, but suppose instead of dropping down into Kansas, his pod had landed in the Ukraine during the age of the Soviet Empire?

There are a few snags right from the beginning, the most basic being the implausibility that farmers in the Ukraine were any more devoted to Lenin's principles than Kansas farmers in 1938 were to FDR's New Deal (the latter being slightly more plausible than the former). It also implies a huge amount of environmental determinism. However, I'm willing to allow for the basic assumption of the concept--that the all-American boy could become the all-Soviet boy.

Unfortunately, how that concept is worked out is not at all plausible. At the heart of the Superman story is the problem of power. Superman can do just about anything he wants to. He can rescue people before they want to be rescued. He can enforce government policies or undermine government decisions. He's a god. How does a god handle that power? Does he allow for human agency? Does he allow badness to continue if it can't be stopped by legal means? Some really interesting questions, which Frank Miller, in his Batman series, deals with at length.

The essence of the American Superman is that he doesn't act outside of the law--any more than a vigilante must, that is. He allows a tremendous degree of latitude amongst his enemies. He restrains his power. The proposal in Red Son is that Superman will choose the alternative--to help people against their will, help them for their own good. Mormons would call this Lucifer's plan: that all of us will be saved, willy-nilly, whether we choose it or not.

Again, interesting idea, but in order to make an idea like this work, you have to know something about power and the problems of power and the problems of restraint. And I'm not entirely convinced that the folks who wrote Red Son do.

The first problem is that smartness and ability do not automatically translate into success. Soviet Superman decides that he must take over the Soviet Union because only he can prevent hunger and suffering. Well, okay, but those are pretty difficult problems to solve without causing catastrophic financial and social side-effects. The Soviet Union bankrupted itself trying to solve similar problems, with a great deal more personal interference in people's lives than FDR's New Deal. Yet, Superman effortlessly solves them.

The problem here is that human institutions, run by a god or not, are still human institutions. This is actually a problem that shows up a lot on Superman shows. In the delightful show Lois & Clark, the writers often had Clark use his superspeed to hunt up data on the Internet. As those of us with dial-up can attest, the Internet can only work as fast as its connection. Just because you may find things quickly, doesn't mean you can. Just because you have super abilities, doesn't mean super solutions will result, no matter how many people you mind-meld with. (To mix my cultural icons.) Just because you want to feed people doesn't mean you won't have to get the food from somewhere. Where do you get it from? Well, how about another country? But then you've just demolished the exportable goods of entire nation. So much for their economic infrastructure--what are you going to do about it? All this would take a little bit more than an occasional mind-fixin' on Superman's part to smooth out and a lot longer than sixty odd years. (It is possible that the writers are saying that Superman perceives the problems as fixed, not that they are actually fixed. However, I get the impression that the writers are saying that even if Superman could fix such problems, the loss of agency wouldn't be worth it.)

Of course, the most devastating side-effect of Superman's presidency is the destruction of freedom/personal agency, something the writers of Red Son address at length. The problem here is that it is a rather obvious side-effect. If Superman is as smart and as good at government planning as the writers attest, loss of liberty would be pretty obvious pretty fast. It would not take Superman several decades to figure out.

Once he figured it out, he might or might not make concessions to the issue--rather the way die-hard Maoists in China sort of make concessions to Hong Kong. (Why turn down a money-maker on your downstep?) But he would have to grapple with it. I find this a far more interesting dilemma than the sudden shocking realization that oh, my gosh, using absolute power annoys people. I'm thinking here of Orson Scott Card's Worthing Chronicle where a goddess is faced with a similar decision. When she decides to interfere for the sake of compassion, her father-figure is pleased, even though he disagrees. After all, how can a good person just stand by and let awful things happen? When Picard does this in Star Trek: Next Generation for the sake of the Prime Directive, you want to march into the television and punch him. (Especially since he is never consistent.)

Yet, as the writers of Red Son point out, life in a bottle--no matter how clean and safe--isn't worth much. Which is to say that the writers have a point, it's just a rather obvious one and not one that Superman could really avoid for more than, say, three seconds. Or would avoid. Issues of control usually come down to the possibilities of benefit,and every society has this issue. At its most basic level, we allow the government to put up road signs, detour traffic, and enforce driving laws for the sake of better roads and safer travel. A Superman who was far enough gone to give insurgents new personalities would not be overcome by remorse at the thought; he would be wholly convinced of the necessity. When Nixon and Krushchev had the Kitchen Debates, it was not "Control is bad" versus "Control is good." Rather, it was "Look how freedom produces such a wide range of choices" versus "Ah, you crass Americans with your love of materialism. We aren't so shallow." (And if you don't think people are still having this argument, you haven't been in higher academe lately.)

In other words, it would have been much more interesting if, during Red Son's Batman-Superman confrontation, they had debated the merits of their separate ideologies; except Frank Miller already did that in The Dark Knight Returns.

To be fair, many of the elements concerning power and its side-effects are in Red Son; they just seem too tidily disposed of, resulting in a resolution that is unbelievable (within the confines of the novel), although clever.

I do like Batman in a big Russian hat.


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