After completing the first arc on Action Comics, Morrison spends one issue in the alternate universe of Earth-23 where Superman is not only black, but also the President of the United States. President Superman had previously appeared briefly in the last issue of Final Crisis, but he is center stage for this issue. While it may seem strange for the narrative to shift so dramatically for one issue, it is welcome shift because it allows for Morrison to do what he does best – tell a high-concept story in a single issue. This issue is more than just a simple diversion; it’s an essential part of the overall run that moves forward a number of the themes that Morrison had been toying with to this point.
The main theme of the issue is construction. This motif was previously seen in the first issue as Superman protects citizens as their building is being torn down. Metaphorically, the scene represents Morrison tearing the foundations of Superman to rebuild him. However, this issue will play upon the corporate greed involved in the creation of super-heroes as simply products rather than in constructing them as defenders of good. If the mission statement of Morrison’s Action Comics was to bring Superman back to his golden age roots, then this issue is about the changes that others feel are necessary to make the character more relatable and human.
The issue begins with President Superman finishing off Lex Luthor’s latest scheme involving a giant mecha warsuit. Luthor is accused of being racist, but the villain insists that it isn’t President Superman’s skin color, but rather, “it’s everything else about you I hate!” Until this point, Morrison had avoided the standard confrontation involving Superman battling a tech-enhanced Luthor, but in this issue, he shows us the end of a battle that we’ve seen dozens and dozens of times and then subverts the idea by adding that Luthor might be a racist. It’s amusing that Luthor embraces his xenophobia of the alien other, but absolutely denies being racist. And if Luthor is supposed to be humanity at its worst, then it is further interesting that even he thinks that racism is wrong.
President Superman investigates Luthor’s latest scheme and finds “some kind of musical meta-machine ringing at impossibly oblique frequencies” which opens a portal to another universe where a Kryptonite gun-toting Lois Lane with an eye patch emerges with a burning Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy is dead on arrival and Clark is barely holding on as Lois says, “We just prove there’s more than one planet Earth. And more than one weak, watered-down imitation of Superman.” Given that this issue is about creating Superman, Lois’s comment about more than one imitation of Superman can be viewed as a critique against heroes that were rip-offs of Superman.
On Lois’s world, Clark Kent returned from his travels to discover that the universe is a chime. So, the three of them “used sound vibrations to make thoughts you could touch. We’d invented solid mind movies.” The technology that they developed wouldn’t work with one mind meaning that no one person was responsible for Superman, but instead was a collaborative effort. Lois’s comment “of course, we took it too far” almost makes it seem as if they shouldn’t be held accountable for the disaster their idea would bring; as if it was inevitable for ideas to be taken too far whenever they are ever imagined. Perhaps Morrison is condemning the creative process here by showing that if any creation is commercially viable, then it will be taken as far as it can go for the sake of continuing profit.
Lois explains that they “tried to imagine a champion, a thought-powered redeemer capable of saving the world” and that their first creation “lived for twenty-five glorious minutes.” In typical Superman fashion, this thought-powered, mind movie creation spent every second of his life “to articulate a code of ethics so pure and simple and good we all wept.” Even though this Superman wasn’t real, the idea itself was so powerful and pure in its goodness that it moved its own creators to tears. However, despite the power of his words, the three couldn’t remember anything he said.
Here, Morrison is playing upon the irony that so many people can read Superman comics or work together each month to craft Superman comics and they can still be horrible people to one another. Despite the influence that Superman has had on the world through comics, cartoons, TV shows, and movies, people still treat each other poorly and forget the things that Superman stands for. There’s something sad and horrible in the idea that Superman can have endured for decades and people are still so horrible to one another.
In order for the Superman idea to grow, Lois explains that they “needed money, funding, more brainpower.” And, of course, the face of the corporate structure is the same little weasly man that keeps popping up throughout Morrison’s Action Comics; the Dealmaker. Lois, Clark, and Jimmy have good intentions for the Superman idea and want to retain the rights to it, but because the Dealmaker is proiding the money, he is the one taking the risks and therefore will get the rights to the Superman idea if they sell their souls and sign on the dotted line. Lois uses the possibility of fame as her justification for selling out and Jimmy notes that they can’t take it further on their own and the corporation will just steal the idea if they don’t sell out. And so, they sell Superman to the corporation.
The metaphor for the “deal with the devil” that Superman creators Siegel and Shuster had to make in order to create Superman is as blatant as Morrison’s criticism of the corporate structure that has changed Superman over the years. But the real crux of this issue comes from Morrison’s interpretation of Superman’s creation in Supergods, “when a god elects to come to Earth, he has to make a few sacrifices. In order to be born, Superman was called upon to surrender a few of his principles . . . and so it came to pass that our socialist, utopian, humanist hero was slowly transformed into a marketing tool, a patriotic stooge, and, worse; the betrayer of his own creators” (16). Corporate greed had to power the Superman brand in order for Superman to exist and influence the lives of countless people over the years. Without the capital necessary to fund the various Superman products, the socialist hero would never have survived.
While the Superman idea was pure when it was created by three people, it becomes polluted when the corporation brings in 500 experts to work on the idea. Lois laments that “they built a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero, concealing a tragic secret life, a global marketing icon.” The corporate built Superman is nothing like the pure Superman that we know and love; they are the characteristics of what writers and publishers have done over the years in order to achieve that mythical idea of “relatability.”
Soon after the corporate Superman is created, the Superman sigil spreads out into all aspects of life. Instead of being the standard “S” symbol, the corporate sigil looks almost like a swastika. The connection between the Nazis and Superman was first set up earlier in the issue when Lois says “I called our creation Superman after Nietzche and Goerge Bernard Shaw” but the image of the swastika “S” makes it perfectly clear that the sigil has been perverted to Nazism. This one page recalls Morrison’s Pop Magic! article where he writes,
It’s easy to see the Nazi movement as the last gasp of Imperial Age thinking; these visionary savages still thought world domination meant tramping over the ‘enemy’ and seizing his real estate. If only they’d had the foresight to see that global domination has nothing to do with turf and everything to do with media they would have anticipated corporate stealth-violence methods and combined them with their undoubted design sense; the rejected artists who engineered the Third Reich might have created the 20 century’s first global superbrand and spared the lives of many potential consumers.
The world Lois comes from is a nightmare that has turned the swastika Superman sigil into the superbrand that Morrison discusses in Pop Magic. It can be found on the uniforms of stormtrooper-like police officers, on clothing, on restaurants, and it even has its own musical (no doubt an inside joke to the 1966 Superman musical It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman!). Perhaps the most frightening detail is a billboard that is seemingly ripped right out of George Orwell’s 1984 that reads “Condition Red. Dial 911 if you witness anything suspicious. Win valuable prizes.” But is our world any different? Six Flags theme parks exploits the Superman brand for all its worth. A number of years ago, Superman’s likeness was used to promote American Express cards along with Jerry Seinfeld. And surely Siegel and Shuster never intended for the Superman “S” to be used to make women’s underwear sexy.
As Lois finishes her story, a portal opens and the evil Superman from her world (later to be named “Superdoom”) appears. With the help of Lex Luthor, President Superman is able to imprison Superdoom by trapping him between wavelengths. In the end, President Superman has saved Lois Lane just as Superman always does. The two seem to bond over the idea that they are both survivors and the issue ends with Lois saying, “I guess you must be Superman done right.”
Of all the issues in Morrison’s Action Comics, issue #9 is the most complex of all. It’s a commentary on corporate greed, race, the nature of art, magic, sigils, heroism, and so much more.
Action Comics #9 is further interesting when compared to Batman Inc. While the Superman sigil is corrupted through the corporate structure, Batman’s symbol is given more power through the corporation. This could be due to the opposing natures of Superman and Batman; Superman being the ultimate socialist hero (who ironically has to use his individualism to inspire the collective) and Batman being the ultimate capitalist hero. Also, Batman Incorporated wasn’t created by a board of directors looking to make a profit – it was created by Bruce Wayne to hire heroes to act as agents of Batman around the world. The Superman sigil isn’t altruistic; it is used to attain wealth for stock holders.
While it’s a shame that Superman as we know him is nowhere to be found in this issue, President Superman absolutely shines as the hero in the issue. This was exactly the kind of issue that Grant Morrison fans had been waiting for since the writer was announced on the title.