There’s a widespread belief among comics fans that one of the worst comics of all time is the 1968 series Brother Power the Geek. But those fans are wrong, dead wrong.
Brother Power was a deeply weird comic, undoubtedly one of the weirdest comics that DC Comics ever released. And in fact what makes it great is also what makes it weird: the comic is the deeply personal reflections of Joe Simon to the extraordinary breakdowns of societal norms that he saw all around himself.
The comic represents the reflections of a man caught on the wrong side of a very popular phrase at the time: the generation gap. Simon at that time was in his 50s and clearly was struggling to come to terms with the strange world in which he suddenly found himself. The world was suddenly full of hippies and dropouts and rebels against the norms of society – the very norms that men of his generation had created.
At the same time, Simon wanted to embrace the values of the new generation, showing some sort of kinship to the belief systems that the kids in those days were embracing. Who could be against loving one’s neighbors or finding a good way out of the Vietnam War?
Furthermore, and perhaps most basically, Joe Simon simply wanted to sell comics. He knew that the vast majority of people who bought comics in 1968 were children, and he certainly wanted very much to have a smash hit comic. Though Simon was drawing a nice salary from the MAD imitator Sick, it couldn’t have escaped Simon’s notice that his old collaborator Jack Kirby was the biggest star in comics at that time.
The result of Simon’s dichotomous approach to the comic is a bizarre and awkward mess, but it’s a brilliant mess. It’s insightful and thoughtful, and, like most accidental autobiography, reveals more about the creator that he might otherwise want to have seen on the printed page. The comic accidentally tells more about Joe Simon than he probably intended, but that’s part of why the comic is so brilliant.
I don’t follow the DC solicits very closely, so it really surprised me to see this issue of The Brave and the Bold at my LCS. Heck, I almost jumped out of my rain-filled shoes when I saw that Batman was teaming up with, of all characters, Brother Power the Geek. How could I pass this book up, and how would J. Michael Straczynski take on the character and legacy of the Geek?
Thankfully JMS does a fine and respectful job of presenting Brother Power. In fact, he adds a level of depth and insight on the character that wonderfully added to the character’s legacy while also paying respect to the era that he represented.
The issue begins with a bit of a flashback from Batman as he describes how young Bruce Wayne and his parents enjoyed watching old monster movies together. It’s a clever and sweet moment that achieves several purposes. First, the scene announces that this is not a typical action-packed Batman story; this is a story intended as much for reading as for the action within. It also nicely gives readers an intriguing insight into Bruce’s father and his way of dealing with the world. The poignancy and cleverness of his comment is interesting:
It’s good to confront fear when there’s nothing at risk, a luxury we rarely have in real life. Consider it a kind of rehearsal, so you know how to act, and what to do, when the real fear comes… and everything is at risk.
This setup also nicely sets the stage for the return of the Geek. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Geek was also man-made, and like Frankenstein’s monster he was pure of spirit and tremendously misunderstood. When we see the Geek’s hand emerge from rubble, there’s a nice feeling of parallelism to the story. It feels like history is repeating itself on one level, which gives the story an interesting and appropriate level of depth.
Finally, readers also get a sense of Straczynski’s ambition in this story with his use of parallel and overlapping narratives. JMS uses this tool quite effectively throughout the issue to amplify and deepen the most dramatic moments of the story. Like Alan Moore and Watchmen, JMS uses the beat and meter of comics to make all the moments in his story more interesting.
When Batman confronts the Geek, there’s a strange and eerie disconnect between the two. Batman is of course his usual paragon of seriousness, while the Geek clearly feels completely lost in 2009, mumbling clever old catchphrases that clearly make Batman feel uncomfortable and off-guard.
It’s that discomfort that forms much of the tension of this issue, which obviously makes it stand out from the vast majority of books that DC releases. Though he has essentially risen from the dead, the resurrection of Brother Power doesn’t have the kind of melodramatic emotion that we’ve been seeing in so many Blackest Night crossovers. Instead, this issue has a kind of wistful and sad quality to it, the feeling that there’s something that has been lost in our character as people, attributes that were embodied by Brother Power.
Those attributes become clear in a flashback that informs a scene that takes place in the present day. In the flashback, we see the reaction that the Geek and his friends have after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. His friends go crazy with rage, rioting in the street. But the Geek shows real courage, choosing to walk away from the riot in a bloodstained shirt, muttering, “This is wrong. You’re not just burning down buildings. You’re burning down what you believe in. And I don’t think anything pretty is going to grow where it once lived.”
As the living embodiment of the best dreams of the ’60s, the Geek chooses to walk away from violence rather than embrace it.
Flash forward to 2009 and an arson in a building inhabited by squatters with a baby. The Geek doesn’t hesitate to enter the burning building, literally sacrificing his own existence to save a young baby. The symbol of the past saves a hope for the future. Nice symmetry there.
Jesus Saiz does a magnificent job with the art on this book. JMS specifically sets Saiz up to carry much of the weight of the storytelling. Straczynski’s use of parallel narrative and symbolism requires an artist who can confidently carry the story forward using just the artwork. He needs a partner as strong as him to help the story flow. And the story flows wonderfully.
Saiz does a terrific job of framing the story, of amplifying the key moments with just a few specific lines or strokes. More importantly, his people – and I include the Geek in that list – have real human qualities to them, seem to really inhabit the world in which they live. It’s especially impressive how Saiz draws the Geek as almost handsome but also monstrous, a creature that really bridges the boundary between human and not-human.
J. Michael Straczynski and Joe Simon are dramatically different creators, but each brings their own unique and singular vision of the Geek to the page. JMS’s use of the tools of the storytelling trade are clever and intriguing in this comic, and serve to make an odd and outdated character feel interesting and relevant again.