Comic Shots #36 with Josh Christie: Russian Imperial Stout and ‘Superman: Red Son’

Each week the iFanStaff passes along a tasty drink recipe and an even tastier comic book recommendation. The cocktail (or beer, or wine, or booze) and the comic can both be enjoyed independently, but they have a common theme and when served together they can make for the perfect reading experience.

Russian Imperial Stout, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

In the world of beer, Russian Imperial Stout (or RIS for short) is one of the most well-loved styles in existence. Reviewers of beer in print and online often point to stouts like Kate the Great, Ten FIDY, and Darkness as examples of the best beers in the universe – the pinnacle of all things drinkable. On popular beer rating sites RateBeer and Beer Advocate, half the beers among their top ten highest rated are imperial stouts.

The acclaim is understandable, given the nature of the style. Imperial stouts are dark, rich beers, packed with a decadent amount of flavor and a surprising amount of alcohol. The more cynical beer fan will also note that, since a RIS has so many flavors behind the alcohol punch, it’s easier for brewers to get away with slight imperfections. You’re less likely to notice an off-flavor buried under malt and booze than in a lager, after all. The style will never be as pervasive as easy-drinking ambers and pales, which are quicker to produce and lighter on the palate. However, the RIS stands as a great showcase for what you can pack into a beer.

The origin of the style lies in the first two-thirds of the name. Early in the 1700s, Peter the Great opened Russia to visitors and ambassadors from the West. Westerners returned to report on the Russkis’ tolerance for alcohol, and exporters eyes lit up – a huge, untapped market for beer! Legend goes that on a visit to England, Peter fell in love with stout and requested that it be shipped to his court. The first shipment of regular stout spoiled on the long trip to Russia, being not quite burly enough to make it the thousands of miles. The Barclay brewery amped up the alcohol and hops in the stout for the second batch, and the viscous brew became an Anglo-Russian sensation.

Now, the style is a favorite among beer fans worldwide. “Imperial” has become a substitute for “really f*cking stong” in the beer lexicon (think imperial IPA, imperial amber, even imperial pilsner…), and it all came from this style. While American RISs have gone off the deep end in amping up the alcohol and flavors, some Brits are still brewing a fairly traditional take on the style. For this installment of Comic Shots, I’m recommending the widely available Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout.

An opaque black ale, the Samuel Smith Imp Stout pours with a thick khaki head and an explosive aroma of roasted barley. The flavor is coffee and chocolate, a boozy cocktail somewhere between Irish coffee and an adult hot cocoa. It’s a bit lighter on the palate than the typical American RIS, and dry and crisp where some stouts are a bit syrupy. If this is brewed in the traditional style, it’s easy to see why the brew was such a hit in Peter’s court.

And a book to go with this voluptuous brew? Well, I’m taking things straight to the motherland.

Superman: Red Son

Story by Mark Millar
Art by Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, and Paul Mounts

Timmy Wood led off this week’s iFlashback with the cover of Superman: Red Son #3, the 2003 release that finished off Millar’s Elseworlds miniseries. I’d already picked Superman: Red Son as the book half of the pairing this week, but comments from the iFanbase reminded me just how well-loved this series is. It ranks among Millar’s best work, and stands as a great example of the potential of the Elseworlds line.

The premise of the series is simple — what if, instead of landing in rural Kansas, the rocket ship carrying the infant Kal-El had landed in the Soviet Union? Delaying Supes’ arrival to Earth by a couple hours is a small change, but one that’s felt around the globe. Raised as a champion in Soviet Russia, Red Son’s Superman fights for “Stalin, socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” In the states, S.T.A.R. Labs scientist Lex Luthor is recruited to destroy Superman for the good ol’ Red, White and Blue.

From that fairly benign starting point, we’re off to the races. Despite the frame, the internal conflict remains largely the same — Lex Luthor schemes to destroy Superman. It’s interesting to see how Millar plays the nature of Lex and Kal-El against the environments they are raised in. Though he’s still a good guy with hope for humanity at his core, Superman’s life in Russia leads him to become something of a Big Brother figure. Luthor’s still a self-involved prick, but come across more than once as the hero of the story. Slightly tilted versions of heroes Hal Jordan and Wonder Woman show up, too.

My favorite alternate character in the book is Batman, whose story makes up the middle third of the book. After his dissident parents are shot in from of him, the young Russian becomes an anarchist thorn in Superman’s side. I’ve always liked the idea of Batman as a guerrilla foe to an oppressive force, and his story makes for some of the most exciting pages in the book. Plus, the character design is pretty killer.

The art, from Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett, is spot-on. The book missed the over-detailing of the 90s by a couple years, and the style is instead slightly cartoony and expressive. The design changes to characters, from Superman and Wonder Woman to bit players like Jimmy and Perry, are inspired. If you pick up the book I highly recommend the Deluxe Edition, which includes sketchbook pages from Johnson, Plunkett and Alex Ross. The color palate is subdued, and the USSR scenes truck mostly in the reds, grays and blacks of the cover. It’s coloring used to great effect, and makes the splashes of color even more striking.

Superman: Red Son wears a lot of hats; it’s an allegory for the US/USSR arms race, an Orwellian dystopia, another Millar action-packed blockbuster, a referential Elseworlds tale, and a self-contained story for newcomers. It, amazingly, succeeds on all these counts. It’s a book that I’m happy to hand to first-time and long-time comic fans looking for a great story. With the story of Superman looming so large in pop culture, there’s enough of a hook to make this story work for anyone.

It’s a great story well told, and it goes perfectly with a great beer well brewed.

In Soviet Russia, Josh Christie reads you. Follow him on Twitter for plenty of talk about beer, books, bookselling, and even comics.

Please obey the law and only drink if you are of age. Drink responsibly and never drink and drive. Buy the comics that make you happy. Smile more.


  1. Still the best thing that Mark Millar has ever done. They should make this into the next DC animated feature.

  2. Old Rasputin from North Coast is also a phenomenal RIS.

    • That is definitely my go to when I want one that is available year round. I haven’t had one in forever now that I think of it with it being summer and all. My favorite off the top of my head is Czar from Avery.

    • It is, and the Anniversary editions aged in bourbon barrels are even better.

  3. “really f*cking stong”


  4. LOVED “Red Son”!!

    The ending blew my mind

    • The ending was Morrison’s idea right? I remember reading that he said he gave Millar that idea to use…it must have been from the failed Superman 2000 pitch.

  5. I read Red Son for the first time a few years ago and remember liking it. Still, I don’t think I retained much of it. I’ll have to track down my own copy of the book one of these days.

  6. Living only 7 miles from the Samuel Smith’s Tadcaster brewery, I’m familiar with their cracking Imperial Stout…perhaps too familiar. On the other hand I found Red Son a lesser work in Millar’s oeuvre. I enjoyed it at the time, but it hasn’t been something I’ve felt the need to revisit.


  8. Im now a fan of this feature, as I just ordered Red Son via Amazon using that helpful link. Now I gotta track down some Russian Stout Ale

    • One of the best RISs brewed in the US is Old Rasputin (which MaxPower, Spoons, and lifesend mentioned above). It’s brewed in Fort Bragg by North Coast Brewing – definitely something you should be able to track down easily in NorCal.

    • I did find some Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Had my first beer thinking it would be something like Guiness, and I was completely wrong. Drank it straight from the bottle. It was a vastly different experience than I had ever tasted. Don’t know how to describe other than really strong taste and strong aftertaste. Plus it packs a punch. Had a nice buzz just after drinking one beer.

      But overall I do like this beer, but not enough to regularly consume it, as Coors Light is my beer of choice

  9. Old Rasputin is the best RIS.