Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Who let Luthor into the prison workshop AGAIN?

Superman #167 (February 1964)

A look at Superman's Rogue's Gallery should start with Lex Luthor. And Luthor plays an important part in this story. But Brainiac's origin story overlapped with our look at Kandor, so we'll finish up with him before moving on to the big bad baldie.

In his initial appearance, Brainiac was presumable a living alien being. Now, we discover, he's actual a computer. (Actually, he's presumably a robot with a computer brain, but we won't nitpick.)

Luthor discovers this after his latest jail break. A jail break he manages because he was able to smuggle stuff out of the prison workshop. Who let Lex Luthor into the prison workshop? Never let Lex Luthor into the prison workshop. It's just not a good idea. It's something that really ought to be spelled out very clearly in any prison warden's How-To guide.

Anyway, after he fails in another attempt to kill the Man of Steel, he realizes he needs an ally. So he uses a space-time mental scanner to look for a likely candidate.

This is the Macguffin that writer Edmond Hamilton uses to recount Brainiac's true origin.(The DC Wiki, by the way, lists Cary Bates as a co-writer.)  He was created by the computer tyrants that once ruled an alien world--made to look humanoid so he could spy out other worlds to conquer. Eventually, the computer tyrants were overthrown and destroyed, leaving Brainiac the only surviving member of his mechanical race.

It's a great origin, though it directly contradicts several aspects of the original story. It also comes up with a weak reason for justifying Brainiac 5's existence--that member of the Legion of Super Heroes was supposedly a descendant of the original Brainiac. This no longer makes sense, so it turns out that a young man (renamed Brainiac II) was forced to join up with Brainiac to "enchance his human disguise." The kid escapes, keeps the name Brainiac for no good reason at all, and becomes the true ancestor of Brainiac 5.

That aspect of the retcon is about as contrived as you can get, but I'm okay with it. The retcon as a whole--making Brainiac a computer rather than a living being--gave him a uniqueness that enhances his already nifty visual design.  The contradiction of past details is justified by the retcon's overall coolness.

That brings up the subject of how important a coherent continuity should be in a fictional universe. I'm a firm believer that continuity is important. A fictional universe has to have a definable history and a consistent internal logic. Otherwise, the suspension of disbelief snaps and the foundation for good storytelling is lost.

But we can't be completely dogmatic in this point-of-view. Sometimes, you have to ignore something simply because it was a just-plain bad idea. It becomes dis-continuity later on because that is simply preferable to acknowledging its existence.

In this case, though, there was no need to ignore a bad idea. Brainiac was, rather, a strong edition to Superman's Rogue's Gallery. His visual design and his shrink ray combined to make him memorable.

Which is why he started to make return appearances, even though his first adventure was constructed so that it looked as if Brainiac was meant to be a one-shot villain.  That meant he eventually needed a strong origin story. Hamilton gives us that--so it's easy to forgive a few continuity glitches.

So continuity is important, but violating continuity can be excused if the story is good enough. Of course, whether or not the story is good enough is a matter of personal opinion. But since my opinion is clearly more important than everyone else's, we'll just go with it.

Which finally brings us back to the story, which progresses with Hamilton's usual flair for wonderfully bizarre story construction. Brainiac is currently a prisoner on an alien world. Luthor has to think his way past the various traps and safeguards Superman installed to keep anyone from springing Brainiac. The two team up, but plot to double-cross each other almost as much as they plot to kill Superman.

They do manage to keep from killing each other long enough to trap their arch-enemy, strip him of his powers and shrink him down. But Superman without his powers can still think--he's soon free long enough to signal Kandor that he needs help. The Superman Emergency Squad pulls off a last-minute rescue, though they are forced to allow the villains to go free in exchange for bringing Superman out of a coma and returning him to full size and power.

The story not only gives Brainiac more "personality"--making him more than just another evil alien--it's also a darn good story. Like the other Superman stories we've looked at in our tour of the Weisinger Era, it flows along from one plot twist to another without ever violating the bizarre but consistent internal logic of Superman's universe. Artist Curt Swan gives the whole thing a proper backbone with his strong and imaginative art.

You can, by the way, read this story online HERE.

Next time, we'll take a closer look at Lex, examining how his feud with Superman began and taking a look at what I believe to be the single best Lex Luthor story ever written.

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