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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Panel Vision - Soviet Super Soldiers #1 Review

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Edited by Robert Beach

As globalization continues to be the dominant force of the 2010s, the first major foreign superhero film has finally gotten off the ground. This was relatively inevitable as foreign markets have always looked to America for inspiration. With superheroes, things were a little trickier. The Superhero is a quintessentially American art form. While there are superheroes from other nations, they’re rarely as common or as widespread. 

This first entry into the genre from a major outsider comes from Russia in the film The Guardians. It looks pretty fun; at the same time, it’s eerily reminiscent of another Russian superhero group. I’m not sure if this is a case of The Guardians borrowing from what already exists, or Marvel just being really good at encapsulating the Russian heroic aesthetic. Either way, it’s given me excuse to showcase on of my favorite culture artifacts: Soviet Super Soldiers #1.   

Let’s go back to 1992 for a minute. 1992 was a momentous year, and not just because it was the year I was born. 1992 marked the first time since 1949 that the threat of nuclear war wasn’t hovering over America, thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. 1992 was also the year Marvel Comics celebrated its 30th anniversary, how it transformed itself from scrappy upstart to comic empire. Of course, the ease of post-Cold War hegemony and Marvel’s massively profitable empire were not to last. For one moment in time, these two things came together in the strangest of ways: the special single issue that was Soviet Super Soldiers. 

The book was framed as a prequel to the fall of the Soviet Union within the universe of Marvel Comics, taking place about a little over a year before the December dissolution. That’s a unique angle and fits well with Marvel’s prevailing mission statement going back to its inception: the Marvel universe existed as predominately parallel to the real world. 

The comics would directly reference ongoing major events like the Vietnam war or the Kent State protests. Characters were meant to age in real time. This didn’t stick, obviously, but the idea of the Marvel U co-existing with topical, real events has managed to remain a cornerstone of their universe. Events like Obama meeting Spider-Man and being a key character in big comic events like Siege. 

That connection to the real world is tied to the other major reason to do a book like Soviet Super Soldiers, especially in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. From its earliest days, Marvel had leaned on the USSR as a source for several of their bad guys. Most specifically, the Iron Man arch-foes Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man embraced their USSR roots.  

Even without them, the USSR had piled up a ton of various government-mandated heroes and villains over Marvel’s 20 years of publishing prior to 1992. And the question in the wake of the USSR’s collapse would become "what happened to all those characters?" Soviet Super Soldiers became formatted to answer that question, even going so far as to tie the Soviet Union’s collapse to elements of its superhuman population. 

That particular element is mutants (it's the '90s.) It’s easy to forget this, but after making a big splash in the mid-'70s, the X-Men franchise spent most of the ‘80s building up to a huge crescendo in the ‘90s where it became Marvel’s biggest cash cow.  

"Mutant Mania" was upon us by the time this book came out, published the same year as the beloved animated series. Even though the major Soviet X-Men like Colossus or Omega Red don’t appear here, the mutant population IN Russia is at the crux of the story. 

The primary lens we view Soviet Super Soldiers through is a trio of Russian mutants who attempted to defect in an issue of Captain America before the USSR sent their dogs after them. The three mutants are Ursa Major, a guy who can turn into a bear; Vanguard, whose body is protected by an impenetrable force field that also lets him defy gravity; and Dark Star, a woman with power over shadow energies. The comic opens with the three being returned to the Soviets when they’re rescued by the mutant underground railroad. 

See, mutants in Russia were more persecuted than those in the US, treated as completely devoid of any human rights and are the current victims of an attempted genocide. The three mutants were rescued were going to be experimented on and dissected to produce more government super soldiers.  This mutant resistance is the core force working to undermine the Soviet authority in the comic, though not the only force. 

Aside from the resistance, we also get a good look at the state-sponsored heroes and some of their overlords as well. In that previous Cap issue featuring the Russian mutant defectors, we also got a good look at Russia’s premiere superhero team The Supreme Soviets, a group modeled specifically on the Avengers.  

The team comprised of Red Guardian, who has his own shield like Captain America. Perun, named for the Russian God of Storm, is a man with electro-kinesis. Crimson Dynamo is the armored Iron Man antagonist. Fantasia is a woman who can turn into vapor. And Sputnik is an android similar to the Vision. The mutant trio had been members of the team before defecting and escaping.

We also meet Anatoli Fyodor, our designated villain of the piece. He’s a high-ranking Russian oligarch that smells the end approaching and is working to position himself to be in power when it hits. To that end, he sets the book's key plot points in motion. Firstly, he distracts the Supreme Soviets with other missions. That way he can capture the rampaging villain named the Unicorn before contracting the murderous and psychotic Russian assassin Firefox to hunt down the mutant resistance. He also sends Crimson Dynamo on a mission to the US to retrieve the Titanium Man, Russia’s other premiere armored superhero. 

The stuff with the Unicorn and Titanium Man is pretty solid superhero fair in its own right. It gets downright inspired when it’s revealed to all be a set up by Anatoli to increase his power base before the USSR’s collapse. The stuff with Firefox hunting the mutants is the real stand out, especially given how unsettling Firefox is. There’s an early scene where he takes out an entire room of super-powered beings. It's so gruesome and shocking; it manages to avoid feeling cheap. 

It emphasizes how unprepared the mutant resistance is. They’re just kids and people trying to survive. Going up against deadly Cyborg assassins wasn’t something they expected. Firefox does get his comeuppance eventually when he goes up against the powerful mutants. It’s an intensely satisfying, yet bitter sweet moment as we see the menace and technology ripped away from him. But his malevolence, that burning hatred that animates his inhumanity, no force seems able to remove that. 

I won’t say Soviet Super Soldiers is perfect because it does have some serious flaws, mainly in the structure. The Supreme Soviets end up as an afterthought in their own comic. The set-up from this issue like the mutant resistance or Anatoli’s growing power base were never meaningfully followed up in later installments. The only real lasting change to come out of the book was the Supreme Soviets being renamed the People’s Protectorate, which later changed to Winter’s Guard. 

However, there’s still a lot of retro charm to this old comic, especially if you like books about foreign superhero teams like I do. It probably won’t change your life or anything, but I recommend tracking down a copy if you get the chance, just because you won’t find many Russian-themed superheroes gathered together anywhere else anytime soon. 

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