Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Back Issue Box: Action Comics #544

The House of Brainiac event  by Joshua Williamson is underway and off to a solid start. 

One of the pieces of the plot that has grabbed my attention is the appearance of multiple iterations of Brainiac which have been seen on the villain's ship. Are these all within current continuity? Plucked from different timelines? Or universes?

With this mystery on my mind, I thought it would be interesting to look back at some Brainiacs as a back issue review.

Action Comics #544 was given the 'Anniversary' gold ink trade dress that DC used back in the day, celebrating 45 years of Superman being around. It contained two separate stories, updating Luthor and Brainiac in the immediate pre-Crisis days of 1983. 

From the viewpoint of history, this issue hit the mark. The Luthor armor introduced here has been around in some version ever since. And the updated, skeletal and monstrous Brainiac has been a staple since, even if used more for the villain's drones. 

In this time, Action Comics was being written by Marv Wolfman with art by Gil Kane. Wolfman was doing his best to sort of re-invigorate the Man of Steel, bringing in new villains like Lord Satanus, having Clark date Lana, and issues like this where old school villains got a bit of a polish. 

I won't be covering the Luthor story on this post but it is harrowing. 

The Brainiac story is almost a bit magical in its plot. and ends on a cliffhanger. Alas, I'll have to hunt for Action Comics #545! I don't own it. ]
I'm not the biggest Gil Kane fan but he does his best with the story. It features some seriously Kirbyesque sequences as well as alien landscapes and war. But Kane is up to the task. I love the cover with the almost scared Superman surprint looking at the new villains. Dick Giordano brings a bit of smoothness and polish to Kane's work here.

On to the book and the 'new' Brainiac!

'Rebirth' starts with a flashback. We see Superman a year earlier, lamenting how busy he is as Superman and wondering if he'll ever catch a break. 

Still he does what he needs to do. 

Nice splash of a stern Superman standing on the Daily Planet.

After a few mundane Metropolis missions, he whisks into space where he stops a star from going supernova by inverting the energy onto itself, forming a black hole. 

To get to the star he needs to fly by a 'death star' like mechanical planet created by Brainiac. Back in Action #528-530, Superman and Brainiac teamed up to stop this 'planet-eater' which had run amok. At the end of that story, Brainiac was trapped in the planet's core, unable to escape. 

Now you would think that Superman would be intrigued about the proximity of the stellar emergency and Brainiac's defunct weapon. Or at least use his super-vision to check in on Brainiac as he flew by. 

But nope. He has to get back home to Earth.

Well, it turns out the sun going nova was somehow triggered by Brainiac from his prison, his hope to use the energy released to somehow free himself.

How did he trigger the nova? How will he absorb the energy to free himself? There's no real explanation.

Things don't go as plan and Brainiac is broken down to a noncorporeal form by that energy.

And here is where, I feel, things get a little metaphysical.

Somehow, his consciousness (or his vaporized atoms) remains intact. The Brainiac mind goes out into the universe where it stumbles upon some technological unnamed world where he links to this planet's core 'living computer' and absorbs all its knowledge.

After that, still just a mobile consciousness, Brainiac travels from world to world, gathering knowledge from 'a hundred million galaxies'. 

Pretty trippy page for a stalwart like Kane. 

Then the consciousness enters the black hole Superman created from the star and moves back in time to learn more until he sees 'the hand'. 

Now I have to assume this is the hand that Krona saw. But Kane draws it much more ominously, trying to grab a sun-like spark rather than cradling a galaxy.

But before 'the hand' can destroy Brainiac, he sees Superman's face and this spurs him to return to the present.

Again, a cosmic page by Kane. The insertion of the Krona hand is a nice nod to DC history by Wolfman. Indeed, Krona's peek at the origin of the universe and 'the hand' play a big role in the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths.

And the fact that Superman's face is a spur in Brainiac is a nice touch.

But this whole origin of a disembodied robotic 'spirit' finding a magical evolutionary computer world, learning all things from all beings in all times, before being reborn, is a definite new wrinkle for this character, almost spiritual. 

So it's back to that death star world, which I guess Superman just trusts will never reactivate and therefore has left out in space. On the planet, Brainiac's essence enters a womb and gestates, emerging as the new version. We see how all of this has happened over the last year, with Wolfman giving us snippets of his time on the title to catch people up. 

Caught up to the 'present time' of the book, Brainiac has the planet also form his classic octopus-like head-shaped ship. And off he goes to basically take over a world, Systus 2.

At the Fortress, Superman receives a distress call from the planet that they are being invaded by Brainiac. When he arrives, Superman is shocked to see his villain's new form. Moreover, the people of Systus 2 have rolled over and joined the villain, helping Brainiac attack.

With a red sun missile strike, Superman is laid low. 

Again, Kane really does some top notch work here, showing aliens running from and taking part in war. And his Brainiac is oddly terrifying. 

And so we end on a cliffhanger, the new Brainiac standing over the defeated Superman.

"I am ,,, the new Brainiac. And I am your death."

Gripping ending. Solid enough to get me to look for part 2!

Add to all that a killer mini-poster of the new Brainiac by Ed Hannigan and Dick Giordano and you have a winner. Brainiac wielding a spear? Wearing a purple cloak? Fascinating.

I wish Hannigan was around because I'd ask how much James Cameron's Terminator movie influenced his design. 

This book is worth looking for. As I said, the Luthor story is a tragedy. The Brainiac story is definitely a different take. And both origins stuck for a bit, in one shape or another.

Overall grade: A


H said...

I generally don’t like Marv Wolfman’s Action Comics run (or much of Marv Wolfman’s work, for that matter), but this was a good one. I even have the next issue- obviously, it couldn’t live up to the hype but still a solid story.

The whole cosmic consciousness thing made sense to me- the Construct’s not much different than that, and he’d been around for a while at that point. Also, I interpreted Brainiac as having used some sort of technology to make the star go nova- there was a Superman Special a couple of years later that was sort of an alternate reality where Brainiac escaped another way and kept his original body, and they explained how he used technology to escape in that one.

Oddly enough, I didn’t care for Cary Bates’ Luthor story in this issue, and he’s one of the better Superman writers to me. It just doesn’t have the right tone for Luthor (or at least how Cary usually wrote him). Oh well, Luther’s not one of my favorite Superman villains anyway so it doesn’t make a huge difference.

Martin Gray said...

Thanks for the look-back. I remember the excitement of this issue; I loved the Lex story, Lexor tales were always great because we saw another side of Lex (sadly, Ardora was as wet as ever). The Brainiac one, though, was pretty dull, and I’ve never been a fan of uninked Gil Kane art.

What a shame, taking Superman’s most cerebral foes and making them both more into fighters.