The year is 2115 and Earth has survived at least three potentially apocalyptic events. Despite everything, humanity endures and rebuilds, as it always does. However, there is an alien horde on its way and the combined might of Earth’s superhumans don’t stand a chance of stopping it. The only man who can stop them is an alien warrior centuries years old who once appointed himself humanity’s savior and led the world into a brief but golden age of utopia. The only problem is that he no longer cares if humanity lives or dies.
This is Red Mass For Mars by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim, a four-issue miniseries which was published over the course of about two years in the late-2010s from Image Comics. Hickman is one of my favourite modern creators, but I hadn’t actually read this comic until late-last year when I made an effort to fill some gaps in my collection, so to speak. Shortly into the first issue, I had to take a break to just reflect on the fact that one of my favourite creators had done a Superman analogue story as one of his earliest comics’ works, and I had missed it completely.
The super man in question is the eponymous Mars, who we are first introduced to as a reclusive and isolated individual, living apart from humanity on the red planet he shares a name with. However, he isn’t the protagonist of Red Mass For Mars and instead we see the character through the eyes of Marcus Farber Astorga aka Benefactor, a superhuman with the ability to see seconds into the future who had used this gift to become insanely wealthy and in turn, put his fortune towards making the world a better place.
As such, Mars is a character that we only ever see from arms’ length; we never get a full measure of the man, but he looms over the events the same way he looms over the characters. Mars looks like Ed McGuinness’ Superman but without the over-exaggerated cartoon proportions. Bodenheim’s design for the character really reinforces the silent threat Mars represents to everyone around him and the character carries himself with body language that says more about who Mars is and what he is capable of better than Hickman could with words.
Mars is somewhat of a tragic figure, having been sent to a planet that is by all accounts, too soft for him. First landing on Earth in 834 AD, he was seen as a monster or an abomination, but when he proved impossible to destroy, he was taken in by a knight in service to the king and raised in accordance with the customs of the time. However, the customs of the time stated that the person with the most power is fittest to rule and when he killed the king as a young adult, he assumed the people would look to him as their new leader but instead they turned on him, leading to his first self-imposed exile.
Mars deemed his medieval society too primitive for his power and his vision but when he returned in 2096 to lead a generation of super-powered individuals and usher in a new age of peace. However, tragedy strikes again and Mars, who could never fully grow beyond his medieval upbringing, reacts with violence and is one again forced into a self-exile by a society that now sees him as too archaic and violent to live among it. Mars is essentially a boomer who doesn’t understand why you can’t call people slurs anymore, but instead of being 70, he’s 1200 and instead of slurs, he doesn’t understand why you can’t beat a dude to death with another dude when they piss you off.
Religion is a theme running through Red Mass For Mars as the title may suggest, but it’s less about religion and more about theology, what happens when society thinks it has moved beyond the need for a god and what happens when it realises it hasn’t. We’ve talked about Samaritan, who sacrifices everything he can to save just one more life and The Plutonian, who snapped when humanity didn’t give him the adulation he felt entitled to but Mars isn’t a love savior or a spurned idol, he’s an apathetic god who doesn’t see the need to get involved.
Ultimately, it’s Mars’ ties to humanity that bring him back to help. It’s Mars’ half-human son Phobos who helps convince his father to return to fight for Earth, or rather, Phobos cashes in a favour with someone who can cash in a favour with his father, but it’s the connections we make and promises that we keep which convince god to help us one more time. Usually, Superman and saviour heroes are Christ-like figures but Red Mass For Mars presents its Superman as the almighty and its Superboy as Jesus, which means that ultimately Phobos has to die for his father’s cause.
It’s interesting that Hickman would somewhat repeat this father/son dynamic at Marvel, with Secret Warriors. One of Nick Fury’s young soldiers is also known as Phobos, but in this case he is the actual god of fear and son to the god of war, Ares. Ares is of course the Greek name for the god of war, with the Roman name being Mars. Secret Warriors’ Ares and Phobos have a similarly strained relationship but Ares is more protective of his son, not wanting him to have the kind of life he was forced to endure. Regardless of intentions, things still end the same way, as Phobos dies in both stories but in Red Mass For Mars, it’s at his father’s hands after being consumed and controlled by the alien parasite threatening Earth.
Hickman and Bodenheim are able to use Mars’ journey to tell a story about Superman’s relationship with Earth, what humans expect of their saviour and what they’re capable of doing without him. It’s not the last time Hickman will write a Superman analogue as a version of Hyperion served as a member of his expansive Avengers roster and Gladiator of the Shi’Ar has been a regular presence in titles like Fantastic Four, Infinity and X-Men. Hickman obviously sees the Superman analogue as an effective tool to convey all kinds of stories, but Red Mass For Mars still stands at his best take on the concept of the savior hero. At least, so far.