The Good: Most of the artwork, Moments of character, Moments of mood
The Bad: Utterly boring plot progression, Terrible protagonist arc, Diminishes the villain
The Basics: Enthusiastically, I picked up Superman: Brainiac and discovered a rare disappointment from Geoff Johns.
I have no issue with admitting that I am not, traditionally, a fan of Superman. The character, who is most often characterized as an unfailing, unwavering good does not sit well with my “shades of gray and multiple colors” worldview. Still, I was drawn to Superman: Brainiac because I have found I have generally enjoyed the works of Geoff Johns and Brainiac is the villain in my favorite graphic novel of all time, Justice (reviewed here!). So, I figured that if anyone could tell an intriguing story with such a cool villain as Brainiac and make it enjoyable to me, despite being a Superman story, it would be Geoff Johns.
Alas, it was not.
The fundamental problem with having an incredible villain is that they must have a strength, weapon, or ability that the hero lacks . . . and a vulnerability that the hero must be able to exploit in order to defeat them. The greater the villain, the greater the triumph if the hero when she or he overcomes that adversary. The worst kind of villain is one who is built up to an incredibly great stature and then defeated by something utterly mundane. Sadly, that is exactly the direction of Superman: Brainiac.
The plot is simple enough: while Clark Kent and Lois Lane get used to new reporters at the Daily Planet, in the form of the sexed-up Catherine Grant and the jockish Steve Lombard, Supergirl continues to acclimate herself to Earth. After Superman encounters one of Brainiac’s probes, Kara tells Superman of how he has never me the actual Brainiac and she recounts the story of Brainiac abducting the Kryptonian city of Kandor. Seeing the terror in Kara, Clark Kent visits his parents before going off into the cosmos to hunt down Brainiac away from Earth.
There, Superman tries to rescue another planet from Brainiac’s ship and assimilation into his collection and, in the process, he is captured. Coming face to face with the one, real, Brainiac, Superman inadvertently informs Brainiac to the existence of Kara and Brainiac’s drive to possess all that remains of Krypton leads him to Earth. After attacking Metropolis and preparing to assimilate Kara, Superman must thwart Brainiac, though in the process he again informs Brainiac of one of his vulnerabilities: his identification with humanity and his family on Earth!
The fundamental issue with Superman: Brainiac is that the villain and the hero are so vastly outmatched for one another that the set-up is rationally preposterous and the solution to the conflict is so mundane as to be insulting. In fact, Geoff Johns seems to realize this when, in Chapter Five, he has Brainiac declare, “You are a simple brute” of Superman. Brainiac is right; Superman just beats the piss out of the enemies he encounters when all else fails (and, let’s face it, all else always fails, so it comes down to Superman’s strength to stop the villain, but stop just short of killing the enemy) and there is nothing at all compelling about that.
The problem with that approach in Superman: Brainiac is two-fold. First, outside of plot convenience, the sudden appearance of “the one, true, Brainiac” makes no rational or reasonable sense. Brainiac has survived in suspended animation for three hundred years and not left his biosuit for five hundred years (68). That means that when Krypton was destroyed, Brainiac did it in his sleep and used his probes, not sullying himself or risking himself to do the dirty work directly. And, in every subsequent encounter with Brainiac, he has managed to be distant and gain the benefits of his apparent interactions with Superman, Earth, etc. without assuming the risks. So, seriously, we’re expected to believe that the smartest being in the galaxy (having absorbed the knowledge and experience of hundreds of worlds) is changing his entire risk-free philosophy at assimilation . . . for one person, one person who is essentially a duplicate of an entire culture he has already absorbed and the adopted culture of an inferior planet that cannot possibly resist his influence?! Really?!
The second fundamental issue is that Brainiac is supposed to be the smartest entity in the galaxy with the knowledge and experience of hundreds of worlds. He’s like the one-Coluan version of The Borg. His intelligence should be undeniable and so formidable that he has Superman outmaneuvered before the conflict even begins. In other words, he should be so smart that Superman’s intelligence and sense of strategy are so outmatched that Superman has no real chance. To do that, he has to be written by someone exceptionally intelligent, with a mind that can make that level of villainy credibly. If that is Geoff Johns, it is not evident in this particular anthology. Brainiac in Superman: Brainiac is written in an analogous way to Snooki trying to write dialogue for Sheldon Cooper. Brainiac’s psychoanalysis of Kal-El could have been devastating, an emotional fistfight that left Superman crippled in such a way that the love the captured Lois Lane expresses to him cannot simply redeem. But then, how, would Johns get Superman out of the predicament? That’s the rub and that’s where great storytelling and characters come in.
Superman: Brainiac is not that. It is yet another hyped-up villain whose plans for universal domination collapse under Superman’s right jab. The subplots with Supergirl overcoming her fear of Brainiac and the plot progression leading to the death of one of Clark’s inner circle are more original or compelling than the main thrust of the book and that is the true tragedy of Superman: Brainiac. This is not the great revelation of Brainiac, not his greatest triumph, Superman’s greatest triumph, or Superman’s greatest defeat. Instead, it is just another fistfight for Superman with vastly more interesting serialized elements stuck in the background to dress it up.
The artwork is fine; usually I try for more sophisticated analysis, but frankly, for such an underwhelming book, I’m done spending my time and thought on it.
For other Superman books, please visit my reviews of:
The Death Of Superman
World Without Superman
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
For other graphic novel reviews, please check out my Graphic Novel Review Index Page for an organized listing of the graphic novels I have reviewed!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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