Current Reviews


Action Comics #868

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008
By: Dave Wallace and Thom Young

Geoff Johns
Gary Frank (p), and Jon Sibal (i), and Brad Anderson (c)
DC Comics
"Brainiac" (part 3)

Dave Wallace:

Thom Young:

Thom: I’ve only officially reviewed two other comic books written by Geoff Johns--Justice Society of America Annual #1 two weeks ago, and last year’s Action Comics #858 (which was the first issue in his current run that Johns did without Richard Donner as a co-writer but was also the first issue that he did with Gary Frank as his illustrator).

I gave Action Comics #858 four bullets--the same rating I’m giving this current issue. I only hope the conclusion to the current “Brainiac” arc turns out to be better than the conclusion was to that “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” arc (as in either no bad science or at least a plausible pseud-science explanation for the bad science).

Even though this is the third chapter of the current story, I’ve only read this and the previous issue. I skipped the first chapter because I was certain I was done with Johns’s work on Action Comics. In fact, I only bought the second chapter of “Brainiac” (issue #867) because it received an unprecedented unanimous five-bullet score from four of our colleagues.

I was planning on pointing out some obvious flaws that our colleagues overlooked--to argue that they were giving out five-bullet scores too easily. After all, it was an issue scripted by Johns. I was sure I would find fault with it.

Surprisingly, I could not. While I wouldn’t have given it five bullets; I would have given it four and a half. It was easily the best comic by Johns that I had ever read. As you can tell by my rating here, I don’t think this current issue is quite as good as the previous, but it’s not bad.

Dave: I come to this issue from a similar position. I’ve given Action Comics a couple of chances over the last couple of years, only to be disappointed: firstly, by the “Last Son” arc that took over a year to complete (by which time I wasn’t interested, and never read the concluding issue), and secondly, by the more recent “Legion” arc (which started well, but tailed off by the end, as you say).

However, the universal acclaim that issue #867 received from our slugfest reviewers encouraged me to pick up the title again--although I’ve only just got round to doing so. As such, this is the first issue of the “Brainiac” storyline that I’ve read. I wasn’t quite as impressed by it--but I do wonder whether that might be partly because I haven’t read the story from the beginning.

Thom: Come to think of it . . . I haven’t read the conclusion to “Last Son” either. I was enjoying that arc when it first came out, but then it went on hiatus for 11 months (due, undoubtedly, to the illustrator) and I didn’t bother picking up Action Comics Annual #11 to see how it all turned out.

Anyway . . . yeah, this issue wouldn’t have impressed me if I hadn’t read the previous issue. I wasn’t lost coming in on the second chapter after having skipped the first, but this third chapter isn’t a good jumping-on point for this arc.

As I mentioned, I still haven’t read the first chapter of “Brainiac.” However, based on my reading of the second chapter, I gather that it involved an attack on Earth (or Metropolis, specifically) and Superman repelling it.

Rather than trying to find my copy of the issue (I haven’t been filing my comics in long boxes for months, so they’re all scattered around in different rooms at the moment), I’ll go from memory here. I recall that the second chapter opened with Superman in his Fortress examining the skeleton-looking android that was designed by Ed Hannigan, Marv Wolfman, and Julius Schwartz in 1983 (,em>Action Comics #544). Superman was perplexed about something--perhaps how easy it was to defeat the android--which is when Supergirl said something like, “That’s not Brainiac. That’s just one of his probes.”

It turns out that Superman has never met the real Brainiac--only his AI probes that have been sent out to survey the galaxy. It’s a revision of the Brainiac legend, but it actually helps tie together the pre-Crisis Mort Weisinger and Marv Wolfman versions with the post-Crisis John Byrne version while also returning to the original concept of the character as having originated on the planet Colu to miniaturize and capture major cities from various planets throughout the galaxy.

I liked it because it brought back the Brainiac from my childhood but in an updated form that provided plausible motivation for his actions. If I remember correctly, the Brainiac of the 1950s to 1970s was merely making a sort of zoo of miniaturized alien civilizations. He was a collector who wanted to store his collectible items in sealed containers. You know, sort of like comic book collectors who store issues by having CGC encapsulate them “inside an archival-quality interior well, which is then sealed within a transparent capsule.”

So . . . I guess there was really no need to update Brainiac’s motivations. They could have just made him an analogue of collectors who like to seal their comics under glass. Nevertheless, I’m glad that Johns updated Brainiac’s motivations while bringing the character back to the original concept.

Dave: Yeah, I quite liked the motivation that Johns provides for Brainiac here. It reminded me a little of the Borg from Star Trek. Again, it isn’t the most original idea in the world, but it’s executed fairly well, and Brainiac’s callous, ruthless methods provide a sufficiently dangerous and immediate threat for the issue’s cliffhanger to feel like a moment of genuine jeopardy. Is Metropolis going to end up in a bottle? Or is Johns going to pull a twist on us and have Brainiac attack Smallville instead?

Thom: Yeah, I guess it is sort of like the Borg assimilating individuals and the technology of various species. I hadn’t considered that connection. Brainiac obviously has some cybernetic implants, and I was just thinking of cyberpunk science fiction in general rather than Star Trek’s the Borg in particular.

I like the idea of Brainiac extracting knowledge from the brains of the people in the cities he takes and then downloading it all into his spinal column so that it can be processed into his Coluan brain--albeit enhanced cybernetically.

What we also learned in last issue’s second chapter is that Brainiac took Kandor from Krypton, and that he was then somehow responsible for Krypton’s eventual destruction after having destabilized it’s core. Superman then sets out to find the actual Brainiac, and that’s where this third issue essentially comes in.

I find Brainiac’s role in Krypton’s destruction to be a very intriguing addition to the Superman mythos, but this issue merely advances the plot and gives us some fairly standard action scenes in which Superman first battles Brainiac’s watchdog, Koko, and then battles the Coluan overman himself.

I like the notion that Brainiac is an actual Coluan, biologically, rather than an android that the Coluan’s built. Otherwise, though, this issue is standard superhero professional wrestling fare. What I like, though, is that the dialog doesn’t call attention to itself and the plot is entertaining.

Johns is a much better writer now than he was two years ago--during and immediately after Infinite Crisis--especially when it comes to dialog. He still needs to get better at using science and plausible pseudo-science in his stories--as he proved with the terrible conclusion to the “Legion” arc--but he seems to be trying to get better in that area, too (as he proved with his attempt at introducing M-Theory in his Justice Society of America series.

Dave: Yes, there was nothing in the writing that really put me off--although there was nothing that stood out as particularly good either. To be honest, Gary Frank’s illustrations are really the main draw for me (no pun intended. Well, ok, pun intended).

I agree that the story of this issue was fairly straightforward and simple--but this made it accessible enough that I could easily pick it up despite not having read the previous two issues. There are some plot points that passed me by, although I assume that they have been explained in previous issues: for example, Superman’s apparent difficulty in battling Brainiac and his technology, despite his superhuman strength. However, it didn’t bother me too much, as I’m sure there’s a reason for it.

Thom: I don’t recall specifically, but they may have been in a red sun system. They might also just be in interstellar space, where Superman would have either diminished powers or no powers due to not being in the proximity of any empowering sunlight--yellow, white, or blue.

Dave: Ah, ok, that would make sense. I wasn’t completely clear on where Brainiac’s ship was meant to be (the caption “Space” seems a little vague). The simple addition of a recap page might help to avoid these kinds of questions from new readers in future, but I’m not sure that DC does those.

In any event, despite missing the first two issues, the story featured in this one was enjoyable enough for me, even if it didn’t stand out as anything special. Gary Frank’s artwork, though, elevates the book from average to above-average.

I’ve followed Frank’s artwork ever since my eye was caught by his run on Marvel’s Supreme Power, and it’s been great to see him continue to refine his style since then. He seems to have overcome his prior weakness--the occasionally odd facial expressions that sometimes made some of his characters look as though they were grimacing or gurning--to provide a very strong overall package.

Thom: Actually, his style has changed quite a bit since I first noticed his work back in 1996 on the first nine issues of the Supergirl series he did with Peter David. Back then, his style was somewhat similar to John Cassaday’s. Now he seems to be intent on getting realistic textures into his illustrations--fabric grains, clothing folds, skin wrinkles, et cetera. I think his pursuit of verisimilitude in this regard accounts for the occasional odd facial expression.

I loved his work 12 years ago, and I appreciate (and applaud) what he’s trying to do now with textures in his work. However, I think his current style would better complement the work of a writer who is interested in creating narratives and dialog with a similar emphasis on “textures.” I don’t think Johns is that type of writer at this point. However, in terms of superhero comics, the only writers who come to mind as being that type are Alan Moore and Warren Ellis (and, possibly, Kurt Busiek back when he wrote Marvels and the original Astro City series in the mid 1990s).

Johns’s writing on “Brainiac” has been good, so far, but it doesn’t have the narrative textures that match up perfectly with Frank’s illustrations. Nevertheless, they do work well together.

Dave: That’s an interesting point, but I agree that the artwork still serves this story pretty well. Johns’ take on the world of Superman seems to recall elements of the 1970s movie (possibly due to his previous collaborations with Richard Donner), and Frank’s character design for Superman evokes Christopher Reeve’s movie incarnation without being too obviously referenced. His current rendition of Supergirl is also a satisfying take on the character, making her look wholesome and attractive without being uncomfortably sexualized.

Even the more minor characters benefit from subtle visual characterization, such as the familial warmth that he gives to Ma and Pa Kent, or the tacky clothes and cocky swagger of Cat Grant (which makes a fun running gag about her breast implants even funnier as he contrasts her visually with the naïve--or at least, pretending-to-be-naïve--Supergirl).

The only misfire is the design of the “real” Brainiac, who emerges from his isolation chamber this issue. I’m guessing that Frank is responsible for the design. Whilst the new look for Brainiac made for an enjoyable build-up sequence (with a great piece of sequential storytelling from Frank, as the unseen Brainiac rises up and towers over Superman, casting his shadow over his face), I felt that the bulky, muscular design for the character made him look a little clumsy and unintelligent.

I can appreciate that Johns is trying to set up Brainiac as a physical as well as intellectual equal for Superman, but the first image of the character just wasn’t as imposing as it could have been.

Thom: It’s not something that I really took note of when I read this issue, but I see your point. I knew from an interview that I read that Frank was working on a new design for the character. I think I recall that his and Johns’s first inclination was to simply go back to the original Al Plastino and Curt Swan design from the character’s first appearance in Action Comics #242 in 1958 (cover by Swan and interior pencils by Plastino):
At first I wanted to just do an update on his original look, but it just came out looking way too camp (I later sent the sketch to everyone else for a chuckle and it has since become known as "Disco Brainiac"), which was not really where we wanted to go. (Interview with Vaneta Rogers on, posted June 17, 2008).
However, I think that was a reference to the 1958 costume since they did return to the green skin of the Coluans (and to the pink USB ports on his head that Swan showed on the cover of issue #242, and that he permanently included when he took over as the interior illustrator of the Superman titles in the 1960s).

Having a “bio-shell,” which not only keeps muscle and bone tissue from atrophying while in space but that actually strengthens it, is a technology that space-faring races would undoubtedly try to develop. NASA is currently investing in research that would be able to provide the benefits of exercise in a pill that will keep the muscles of astronauts from atrophying during long-term missions in orbit or on the moon and Mars.

That’s my longwinded way of saying I don’t mind the bulked up Brainiac from a “realistic” perspective of a humanoid attempting to maintain physical conditioning during hibernation in deep space, but there would also be something aesthetically pleasing of seeing an atrophied Brainiac using his technology and superior intellect to deal with the imposing physical brawn of Superman.

Oh, while I’m on the subject of Brainiac’s first appearance in 1958, I want to mention that it was also the first appearance of his pet, Koko--though the 1958 Koko looked vastly different from the 2008 version. He’s been transformed from an extraterrestrial white monkey into an extraterrestrial white guard dog. I guess the white space monkey with antennae was also “too camp” for Brainiac’s 50th Anniversary.

Dave: Yes, I think that some Silver Age concepts just wouldn’t work for comics readers today. Having said that, I think that an update of the original design would be preferable to Frank’s redesign of Brainiac here. However, I don’t want to labour the point extensively, because it was the only real visual weakness in the entire issue for me.

Frank’s greatest success this issue is in his renderings of the interior of Brainiac’s alien ship. The scenes that deal with his alien technologies are highly atmospheric, with an eerie realisation of some unsettling bio-mechanical concepts that evoke H.R. Giger’s designs for Alien.

Thom: Yes, in that Newsarama interview that I mentioned earlier, Frank mentions that Johns told him to think of Giger when he was designing Brainiac’s technology. He came up with a Giger-esque design that is “bio-metallic with pink strip-lighting.”

Dave: That’s interesting to know. It’s so similar that I suppose that it had to be intentional, really. Frank also draws some wonderfully creepy sequentials that sell the alien nature of Superman’s enemy very effectively, with some coherent and flowing panel-to-panel storytelling as Superman tentatively ventures upwards into Brainiac’s chamber. There’s also an unnerving earlier sequence in which Superman extricates himself from Braniac’s various probes and implants that’s almost certainly another “homage”--this time, to a very similar scene from The Matrix.

My final comment on the art is to commend this issue’s colourist, Brad Anderson, for making Gary Frank’s images feel vibrant through his use of strong primary colours and other vivid shades (such as the weird glowing purples and greens of Brainiac’s ship). Frank’s artwork occasionally looked a bit washed out under Dave McCaig’s colours in the “Legion” arc, although that may have been an intentional choice--either way, I much prefer this approach.

Despite not enjoying this issue as much as some other reviewers have, I’m still quite interested in the story--and the visuals are good enough that I’ll probably continue to pick up the book for the moment, if only for more of Gary Frank’s artwork.

This feels like a better, more involving premise for a story than we saw in the “Legion” arc, and I enjoyed it enough that I’m also going to pick up the first two issues of the arc to catch up, so I guess that’s some kind of recommendation.

Thom: Yeah, I’m going to pick up the first chapter now that DC is reprinting it. My two local stores sold out of it, so I was pleased to hear it’s going back to press. I only wish Johns and Frank would give us a white or light blue extraterrestrial monkey with antennae--but then, I have a thing for simians in comics, especially extraterrestrial simians.

Also, when Brainiac said, “Koko” to order his dog to attack . . . instead of having Superman say, “Koko?” Johns missed an opportunity by not having him reply, “Cocoa?”

Superman might have thought Brainiac was offering him a cup of hot chocolate to offset the coldness of deep space and the undoubtedly air-conditioned environment that is needed for all of that otherworldly technology.

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