In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say at the outset that I’ve never liked Superman outside of the first two Christopher Reeve movies. At various times in my life, I’ve tested the Superman waters again, both on paper and film, and have been disappointed. My problem has generally been that you can’t relate to him. He’s perfect, really. If you’re a human villain trying to defeat Superman, you have to either find some kryptonite or become a magician (or realtor, apparently.) Otherwise, you have to be a super powerful alien or an alien robot. When someone pulls a gun on Superman, we yawn. Also, my impression of Clark Kent was that he’s a bit of a wiener. That’s mostly an act, because Superman (Kal-El) is quite confident and fearless. But the fact that either we see Clark as a fuddy-duddy weakling or Superman as an all-powerful half-god exemplar of interstellar perfection, there’s not much to relate to. Also, his method of hiding the fact that he’s Superman (thick-rimmed glasses) is stupid. The explanation I once received that he actually hides his identity by some kind of mind control (on everybody!?) is stupider.
The point being that when I approached Superman: Brainiac, I was not expecting much. What this book confirmed for me was not that I hated Superman, but that I tend to hate the way he’s written or the way he’s drawn. Many of my problems with the character have been problems with my approach to him, not inherent problems with the character himself. I’ve always read comics like Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Batman. While Daredevil and Spider-Man had superpowers, and Batman was soaked in old money, still, they had real flaws and struggles, and they could be killed just like any human being. When someone pulls a gun on Daredevil, I tense up. But what I realized is that you can’t approach Superman on your own level. You have to look up to him; aspire to him. You have to be awestruck by his unbelievable power. This is why stories about Superman playing basketball are laughably bad, but stories about Superman beating the hell out of an alien are more compelling. Spider-Man is like a folk tale while Superman is like Greek mythology. Both are a fantasy, but they serve different functions and work on different levels of understanding. When I was finally able to see Superman in this way, I was able to approach the story with a more open mind.
Geoff Johns gets Superman right in many of the ways that count. If the idea is to look up to a hero with incredible powers, I demand that I see those powers put to use (I’m looking at you, Bryan Singer.) I was very happy to see Superman throw good punches, get knocked down, and then come up swinging. Brainiac is a formidable opponent. Gary Frank’s vision of Brainiac being both physically and intellectually dominating, creates a frightening villain who poses a real challenge for Superman. The confrontation between Superman and Brainiac lasts for a good three issues, and in the previous two issues we see the Man of Steel engage a handful of robots to great visual effect. Johns also achieves that Superman-as-inspiration goal, particularly toward the end when all seems lost and Superman has to dig deep to find the strength to beat Brainiac. It’s an exciting scene, and really flexes Superman’s proverbial muscles. During the fight scenes, I was totally on board for Superman. But this book does have some fatal flaws, unfortunately.
First off, this book commits what I consider to be the cardinal sin of Superman: sacrificing Kal-El on the altar of history. For a character often referred to as “The Man of Tomorrow,” it’s strange that this book lives in Superman lore rather than creating a new legend. Singer did this in his Superman Returns movie by following many of the tropes, expectations, and even music of the Christopher Reeve films. Likewise, artist Gary Frank made sure to draw Superman so that he looks exactly like Christopher Reeve. While some Superman devotees may get a kick out of this, I find it painfully boring and overplayed. Enough already. Yes, Christopher Reeve’s Superman is legendary and wonderful. But it also happened forty years ago. Christopher Reeve wasn’t Superman. He was an actor who played Superman. It’s time to move forward with a new vision (The New 52 is attempting to do this with some very unsatisfying results. Big blue line-filled diaper anyone?) His attitude also meets standard Superman expectations. As Clark Kent, he’s kind of a loser. When the new sports writer at the Daily Planet makes an extremely lewd comment to Lois right in front of Clark, does Clark say something to shut him down and let him know he crossed a line with his wife? No. He subtly uses his heat vision to break the leg of the writer’s chair so he falls back. Wow. Good one, Clark. Later, when Lois privately complains to Clark about the new sports writer and the new celebrity gossip writer (more on her in a minute), Clark actually says that he doesn’t seem so bad. Doesn’t seem so bad!? This is coming after the man just made a three-way innuendo to his wife! I recognize that Lois is a strong character who can defend herself, but nevertheless, where are Superman’s balls? I thought the same thing when I read that the cover of issue #4 originally depicted Clark and Jonathan Kent holding beers, but the issue was quickly recalled by DC Comics and replaced with the current cover showing Clark and Jonathan holding sodas. Is Superman going for his abstinence merit badge? How neutered and safe does DC have to make this character before he morphs into a Care Bear? I’m not asking that Superman be as badass as Batman or Daredevil, but just that he be, you know, a grown up who lives in this century. There’s a difference between being a good example and being St. Ridiculous.
This is actually a good segue into another problem I had with this comic, namely, the unstoppable sex robot known as Cat Grant. This comic’s portrayal of women is limited to a sorely underrepresented Lois, a scared-to-death Supergirl who Superman has to soothe, and…the unstoppable sex robot. Brainiac‘s portrayal of women leaves much to be desired. Cat Grant serves absolutely no purpose to the story other than to be a shameless sex object to the entire Daily Planet office. Every word that comes out of her mouth has to do with fucking, or how sexy she is. The two outfits she is seen wearing throughout the five-issue series is a laughably unprofessional low-cut shirt which exposes her generously sized breasts, and later a dress that looks more like she’s going to a skanky club, not working for a prestigious metropolitan newspaper. As a man, I find this extremely patronizing and obnoxious. As Jason Cohen has discussed previously on the Secret Hideout, while there is absolutely nothing wrong with sex in comic books, there is something disturbing and lazy about using women in comics purely for the edification of male sexual fantasies or abuse. All of Cat’s appearances in this comic serve no purpose to the story, and are merely an embarrassment for Geoff Johns. My humble request for comic books, is for writers to include realistic, fully-realized women, not sexual totems. DC Comics shows a very odd censoring schizophrenia by determining that Superman having a brew with his dad on a Kansas evening is inappropriate and unacceptable, but including a woman with double-D breasts falling out of her shirt is totally okay and meets DC’s standards of Superman-appropriateness. It makes no sense that Clark’s superhuman liver is treated with more respect than the women in this comic.
Brainiac is a mixed bag, to say the least. The action and the threat posed by Brainiac create a compelling story. But the problems with this comic are just as staggering. It strangely treats Superman like a 1950’s anachronism while also having women strut about the pages with their breasts falling out of her shirt. This is not the first time that Superman writers just didn’t know what they wanted to do with Superman, or how to frame his world. Until someone does finally “get” this character, Superman will remain on my “don’t bother” list. Another letdown from the Man of Tomorrow.