"Action Comics" #9's lead story by Grant Morrison and Gene Ha is the sort of comic that promises you one thing, then leads you down an entirely different and better path. Looking at the cover, you might think that a story about a dark-skinned Superman would focus on the differences between him and the regular Superman, dwelling on what it would be like to be a "black Superman."
Instead, save for Lex Luthor swearing that he's not a racist on the first page, that's not what we get at all. The important part of the setup for "Action Comics" isn't Superman's skin color, but rather that it's set on a different, parallel world. That's the lynchpin "Action Comics" #9 rotates around, with the book launching in a story about what it takes to really be Superman.
The story itself is in many ways classic Superman; victory is achieved in no small part through a combination of intelligence and virtue. It's fun and in many ways it reminds me about how the character can anchor a sense of nostalgia while still being forward-looking. You wouldn't find issues of '60s "Superman" talking about a, "musical meta-machine ringing at impossibly oblique frequencies" after all. And when the villain of the piece is described as, "a violent, troubled faceless anti-hero, concealing a tragic secret life, a global marketing icon" it feels like Morrison is taking a stand on what Superman should and should not be. In many ways, "Action Comics" #9 feels like a mini-manifesto for his run on the series in general; it's going to jump around in terms of setting, but each issue is going to try and plumb the depths of what it means to be Superman.
Gene Ha's art looks good here; his depictions of the Superman of Earth 23 in particular are lively and realistic, more than just the regular Superman with Art Lyon applying a different hue to the character. It's some of the smaller details that I loved though, like the universe-breaching device with its strange spirals of machinery, or the glimpse we get of the Superman-branded world that feels like the worst excesses of advertising crammed into every available space.
Sholly Fisch provides another back-up story, this month with Cully Hamner. But while both creators are talented, it felt pointless and unnecessary. His story of President Superman doesn't give us an additional glimpse into his life, but rather just goes by the numbers from start to finish. Hamner's art is always a treat, but this isn't the sort of story I'd like to see it attached to. As strange as it might sound, this forgettable back-up story, by being at the end of the issue, actually drags the overall comic down a bit.
Initially I was a tiny bit disappointed that we'd once again zoomed away from the main narrative in "Action Comics," but this issue was enough fun that by the end of the lead story I didn't mind any more. I am ready, though, to see the back-up stories dropped (and perhaps the page count and price along with them). They're starting to distract now and while Fisch and company have turned out some nice enough pieces before, I'd rather see them on a different project.