Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Brainiac Story

To most of us kids, it seemed as if Brainiac was like Luthor; one of those villains who'd always been around.  It wasn't until later that I learned that he actually had originated in July of 1958, and thus was only a little over a year older than Supergirl, in comics time anyway.

His first appearance, in Action #242, is also famous for introducing the bottle city of Kandor, an enduring plot device for the rest of the Silver Age.  Here's how his passion for reducing cities was explained in that issue:
There are a couple of oddities, however.  First, why did he only steal one city from Krypton, but multiple cities (including at least Paris, Rome and Metropolis) from Earth?  And wouldn't there be issues with expanding Kandor and Earth cities on the same planet?  Either the Kandorians would all be super, or the Earthlings would be crushed under the heavier gravity.

Superman managed to escape, and restore the Earth cities to their normal size.  But when there was only one charge of the enlarging ray left, he was left with a moral dilemma; should he restore himself, or Kandor.  Fortunately for us, a rocket ship from Kandor, piloted by Jor-El's old college roommate made the decision, pressing the button to return Superman to his normal size.  Brainiac is under sedation for the 100+ year trip back to his home planet.

He returns in Action #275.  In that story, he beams Superman with a combination red and green Kryptonite ray, which mostly impacts Supes like ordinary Red K. He grows a third eye in the back of his head, which comes in handy as with three eyes shooting heat vision at Brainiac, he is able to dissolve the villain's force field. He sends Brainiac back into the past on some remote planet, reasoning that this will get him out of his hair for awhile anyway.

Excluding the oddball Night of March 31st story which I covered years ago, Brainiac's next appearance came just five issues later:
In this story, Brainiac recovers from the suspended animation that Superman had put him in, and zooms into the future.  Along the way he hears voices of crooks imploring him to set them free.  Here's an interesting one:
Entangles his foes in a web, you say?  But Brainiac doesn't need any stooges, and refuses to help them out.  This story does see the return of the bottles, and the shrinking ray, in which Brainiac traps Superman, Lois, Perry and Jimmy, along with Congorilla, who ends up saving them all.

His next significant appearance (Brainiac often appeared in cameo flashbacks whenever the Bottle City of Kandor was mentioned) was in Action #286, when he teamed up with some other villains:
But actually it's just a nightmare that Superman had when exposed to Red K.

His "next" appearance is actually chronologically one of his first.  See, some of Brainiac's henchmen kidnap little Kal-El on Krypton and bring him to Brainiac's home planet, given a name for the first time:
Well, it apparently didn't entirely wipe out the population, as he does have those two helpers.  Brainiac intends to hold baby Kal for ransom so Jor-El will give him his latest invention.  However, it turns out that Superbaby does have powers on Bryak, and thus wreaks havoc on Brainiac's weapons and treasure, so that they return him quickly to Krypton, vowing to have revenge on that planet.  Hence the shrinking of Kandor, which I now must assume was never intended to be restored to its normal size (since the citizens of that city would be super-powered too).

In Brainiac's next appearance, a startling new fact was learned about him: he is a computer!
That's pretty cool and unique, but it doesn't fit in with the tale we've been told before about the population of his home planet (which he ruled) being wiped out by a plague.  At this point, Brainiac simply serves the other computers, and while they have defeated any resistance by the humans that originally created them, they did not wipe out the population.

Armed with this knowledge, Luthor decides to free Brainiac from the prison planet where he's locked up, and to improve the computer:
Of course, there's no honor among thieves and once the operation is done, Brainiac decides he doesn't need Luthor.  Or does he?
And back on Bryak, Brainiac gets another nasty-gram:
Again, it doesn't quite fit the story we've been told about the plague destroying all the people of his homeworld.

Brainiac and Luthor team up to rob Superman of his powers and shrink him to the size of a small bird.  But while they're bickering over who gets to kill him, Superman escapes and sends a message to the Superman Emergency Squad in Kandor.  They arrive and make short work of the villains, but in the meantime, Brainiac has put Supes into a coma, from which the finest Kandorian scientists cannot rouse him.  Brainiac makes a deal; if Kandor lets him and Luthor go, he will release Superman from the coma.  Oh, and along the way, he hypnotizes Luthor into removing the secret timer, and forgetting about Brainiac being a computer.

After that, Brainiac pretty much becomes Superman's generic villain from space.  Oh, occasionally we hear about his twelfth-order computer brain, or his hatred for Kandor, but there's no real attempt to fill in the holes in the back story of Bryak, although I assume a lot of that has chanced since the end of the Silver Age.


Diane said...

I'm sorry this is off topic - it was a fascinating post - but I've wondered about that "Electro" character since the first time I saw that cover. Is this his only appearance?

Pat said...

Diane, it is and it isn't. Electro also appeared in Action #271 (you can see him on the cover), but it was a hoax orchestrated by Lex Luthor to make it seem that Superman was needed on an alien planet.

Scott said...

So when exactly did Bryak become Colu?

Pat said...

Scott, good question. The Superman wikia page on Brainiac indicates it's in the same story where it was revealed that he was a computer (Superman #167), but I've read that story closely and see no mention that it's a different planet than we were originally shown. Still, it does make some sense as an attempt to reconcile the differences between stories; we could assume that Colu was where Brainiac was created, but at some point he decided to set up his own little dictatorship on Bryak.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall an explanation in an LSH letter column that the different names for Colu are the result of different languages.
Interestingly, I recently stumbled across an explanation for why DC changed Brainiac to a computer ( It seems there was an electronic computer toy whose maker thought DC was infringing on trademark. By promoting the toy and identifying Brainiac as a computer, they satisfied the complainant.

Anonymous said...

I always liked the term "twelfth level effector brain." I spent a surprising amount of time trying to figure out what, exactly it meant and how much smarter it made him.-Fraser

Kirk House said...

Re-casting Brainiac as a robot also required retconning his Legion of Super-Heroes "descendent," Brainiac 5. The new version included a human (or Bryakan) boy who was tattooed with the name and assigned to accompany Brainiac on his expedition, lending verisimilitude to his narrative. They boy escaped at the last minute, and the schedule left no time to dragoon a replacement.

Pat said...

Kirk, good point. I talked about the (multiple) problems with Brainiac V here:

Fraser, the Brainiac Toy is mentioned at the bottom of one of the panels in this post.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see it once I enlarged the panel. I think that's another example of reprint-changing, since it's not in the version I have.-Fraser

Kirk House said...

Ah, yes, Pat, I see what you mean about your Brainiac 5 ancestry post. I THOUGHT maybe you had done something on that... but it's too hot here in western New York to go a-searching.
Did you also address the general character design thing? In the first story (art by Al Plastino, I suppose?), Brainiac has high boots, bloused trousers, a general pulp-magazine Captain Midnight look, and no electrodes. BUT doesn't he appear on that same cover with the Curt Swan science-fiction design... including electrodes and hot pants?

Pat said...

Kirk, yes, the initial Plastino story doesn't show Brainiac with the electrodes and does have him wearing long pants, unlike the cover which shows electrodes and shorts.

There was a similar discontinuity in comparing the previous issue/cover as well; the key to the Fortress of Solitude on the cover is a very standard-looking house key of the time (albeit giant), while the key in the story is the familiar Silver Age airplane marker/arrow design.

BTW, I have many fond memories of childhood summer vacations in Western New York (Oneida Lake).

Kirk House said...

Ah, that's great, Pat. We're out near Keuka Lake here. Dick Ayers lived here for two or three years during high school. About ten years ago I got to curate an exhibition of his work which he lent to the Glenn Curtiss Museum. He and his wife Lindy are both wonderful people.

Liam 13 said...

Anyone noticed that Braniac and Luthor have virtually identical facial features (except one's green of course)? I feel a Roy Thomas continuity moment coming on..... Just say those computers needed a ruthless human personality for their android. Who better to provide a base model than Superman's nemesis? Ah you say but how could Braniac then have shrunk Kandor before Superman existed. An earlier and different model was involved as you can see from perusing how he looked in his original appearance and comparing him to the later model.

quadibloc said...

My understanding had been that the robot Brainiac was created on Colu, but he pretended to be from Bryak as part of his concealment of his robot origins. So the people of Bryak no doubt had been killed by a plague. And Bryakis looked like Coluans, which is why a young Coluan, Brainiac 2, was sent with him to pose as his son, but ran away, to become the ancestor of Brainiac 5.