- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

As a pop icon, he’s as big as they get. So why is it so hard to find someone who’ll just come right out and say they love Superman?

Batman fans don’t hesitate to wear that wicked-cool bat logo on their T-shirts . Those “Star Wars” freaks come out of the woodwork every couple of years, inexplicably drawn to the latest Phantom-Clone-Jedi mess.

Beatles fans are everywhere. People still buy Marilyn Monroe and James Dean posters. The classic triumvirate of monsterdom — Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman — they’re are all on top again, starring in the summer’s first hit, Universal Pictures’ “Van Helsing.”

Other than Jerry Seinfeld, though, nobody seems to care much about Superman. Oh, he’s still out there, saving the world in every other issue, flying across the odd lunchbox here and there.

In the primary-colored pages of Action Comics, Superman could squash Peter Parker like, well … like a spider. But in the world of pop culture, Spidey is kicking Supes’ red-underwear-clad rear. It’s not even a fair fight, folks.

“Spider-Man 2”? Just this summer’s half-billion-dollar blockbuster-in-waiting.

The Marvel Comics heroes have been enjoying a renaissance lately, ringing up huge box office, brought to big-screen life by reverential filmmakers such as Sam Raimi, a self-confessed lifelong Peter Parker fan, and Kevin Smith, with his note-for-note recreation of legendary comics writer and artist Frank Miller’s classic Daredevil stories of the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, Superman, the biggest kid on the superhero block, seems completely earthbound, slogging through low-budget small-screen dreck such as ABC’s “Lois and Clark” in the 1990s and the WB network’s current “Smallville,” a darn-near-unwatchable series featuring Clark as a joyless and insufferably boring teenager putting thousands of Nielsen families to sleep every week.

It’s hard to feel sorry for Superman. He’s still Superman, after all. Real strong. Can fly. Got that X-ray-vision thing, don’t forget. But “Smallville” comes close to doing the trick.

Still, it’s not the worst.

No, the worst has to be “Red Son,” the DC Comics graphic novel released this month that asks, “What if Superman had grown up a communist?”

That’s right. Superman, all in red, with a hammer and a sickle on his chest instead of that big, glorious “S.”

The author of “Red Son,” a Glasgow, Scotland comic-book writer by the name of Mark Millar, transforms the Superman story by having the infant refugee from planet Krypton crash-land not in the American Midwest but in the middle of the Soviet republic of Ukraine.

Instead of fighting for truth, justice and the American way, Superman grows up in Stalin’s USSR, serving history’s most prolific mass murderer (conveniently glossed over) in the battle against the global evils of capitalism — personified by American industrialist and longtime Superman arch-nemesis Lex Luthor.

Mr. Millar, who earned his name in the comics biz by introducing the world’s first homosexual superheroes, said in an interview that he wanted to turn the whole Superman story upside down.

And while he was writing, he realized that what he really wanted to do was create an “Orwellian fable” about what a danger modern-day, single-superpower America poses to the rest of the world.

“How do you stop a man who declares a war on evil when he’s backed up by more weapons than the rest of the world combined? Texans are invulnerable to Kryptonite, unfortunately,” he wrote in an article that appeared in Scotland’s Sunday Times.

At the end of the graphic novel, a Balkanized America is run by gangsters, and communist Superman commits suicide.

Wow. Kind of a downer ending. Hope “Spider-Man 2” doesn’t go that route this summer. I sorta like my heroes a little more… uh … heroic.

The Scot’s got one thing right, though. It’s a thankless job embodying America’s most idealistic image of itself — strong and fair and indomitable.

Save the world a couple of times over, and what do you get? Batman’s always sneering at your sense of duty. Wonder Woman won’t give you the time of day. And then there’s always some cynic like Mr. Millar who wants to be The One Who Destroyed Superman.

Like the America he represents, though, the guy in the cape keeps picking himself up, dusting himself off and going about the business of doing what needs to be done.

What’s not to love?

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