Friday, January 19, 2007

The Legionnaires: Brainiac 5

Brainiac 5, aka Querl Dox of Colu, aka Brainy, 5, Brainiac 5.1 (Note: it’s spelled ‘B-R-A-I-N-I-A-C’, not ‘B-R-A-N-I-A-C’. Because he has brains, not cereal.) Created by Jerry Siegel and Jim Mooney.

Brainiac 5 is the best character in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Has been for a long time. Here's one reason why: he doesn't have any powers, and he's not that good a fighter, and he’s indispensable anyway. Are there any other superheroes like that around? Oh, sure, he's got a few gadgets he likes to use, particularly the force shield belt, but they're incidental. Brainy's value to the Legion is entirely due to his intelligence. He's the smartest character in comics.

And he knows it. Original-recipe Brainy wasn't portrayed as being all that arrogant with his intelligence very often; he had his moments but was generally friendly with the rest of the team. Reboot and threeboot Brainy are much pricklier, with much more disdain for the rest of the Legion. Reboot Brainy eventually became somewhat reconciled to the notion of treating his teammates like more than furniture, but threeboot Brainy really hasn’t, yet.

A note on Brainy’s physiology: he’s not a robot. He’s just a regular humanoid super-genius. The animated series made him a robot, but I guess they had to do something to make him useful to the team in a way obvious enough for little kids.

One thing about Brainy that’s not true about the rest of the Legion: he’s a legacy character. He is, in some way I’m not really sure about, the descendant of Brainiac, who of course is one of Superman’s villains, and he’s the more direct descendant of the equally arrogant Vril Dox of L.E.G.I.O.N. (although Vril, as a character, was created long after Brainy). One would think it would be tempting for comic book writers to have a fine old time delving into this topic, to have Brainiac’s villainy much on Brainy’s mind, especially when he’s dealing with Superboy, but I’ve never read a Legion comic that made anything of this. I suspect the animated Legion series is setting something up, though…

To me, Brainy is the one absolutely indispensable character in the whole Legion mythos. You need Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy in there somewhere, but you don’t need to keep them around the whole time. You need Mon-El if you really want to do it right. You should probably have Chameleon Boy and Ultra Boy, and of course there are a lot of important others. But it’s just not the Legion without Brainiac 5. He’s so useful to the story: he’s the problem solver and he’s also the source of a lot of problems. The 31st century would be a pretty boring place without him around.

It’s difficult to pick out just one appearance of Brainy’s that serves as his signature moment. I might choose a throwaway moment from the story where the reboot Legion is trapped in the 20th century and the Legionnaires are trying to persuade S.T.A.R. Labs to lend Brainy a science lab so he can work on getting them home (“He blows up labs?!” “We think it’s part of his standard methodology.”) I might pick the first Legion Annual story, in which he’s trapped in the medical bay with a civilian, an unconscious Dream Girl and a paralyzed Mon-El, and menaced by a frighteningly powerful Computo who’s watching his every move, and he still manages to orchestrate Computo’s defeat. And there are many others. Certainly there are lots of times where he’s in a tight spot and has to build a supersonic framistat to save the day, but that’s not satisfying.

So I think I’ll pick Legion of Super-Heroes v3 #50, the final showdown against the Time Trapper.

See, I said before that Brainy could be arrogant, and he is. It’s the most fun thing about him. (I think Mark Waid has said that he writes Brainy in the same voice that he uses for complaining about being stuck in line behind some guy who doesn’t understand how the drive-thru works.) But there’s another part to it, too, which is that he stops being arrogant right when he’s got you where he wants you and is ready to lower the boom.

I offer the following as examples: in DnA’s Robotica story, reboot Brainy realizes that the only way to defeat Computo is to give him what he wants—and as soon as he forms the plan, he starts talking nicely to Computo, agreeing with whatever he says. Or how about the threeboot story where Brainy is furious with Cosmic Boy for breaking into his lab, and smashes everything up until he figures out what to do about it… so when Cosmic Boy tries to clear the air with him, Brainy just answers, “Fine. Yes. Fine. Whatever,” until he goes away. Curt, yes, but the point is that he was going along with whatever Cosmic Boy was saying until Cosmic Boy fell into the trap.

In LSH v3 #50, a rogue force of Legionnaires, including Brainy, Duo Damsel, Mon-El and Rond Vidar, have decided in the wake of Superboy’s death that it’s time to take down the Time Trapper once and for all. This is difficult, because a) the Trapper is amazingly powerful, and b) to get to him you have to time-travel to the end of time, and the Trapper has put up barriers to time-travel to prevent just this sort of thing. Anyway, they manage it, and fight the Trapper, and it doesn’t go well. Brainy turns out to be the last Legionnaire standing. And he surrenders… or does he?

What a nice young man! How agreeable!

Right here is where the Trapper should start to feel a chill down his spine.

At which point Legion fans all over the world slammed their hands down and shouted, “Goddamnit, now that is what I call some good thinking! Why didn’t I come up with that?”

It’s a natural, after all: the Legion has two major time-travel-based villains, based on contradictory principles. Why didn’t anyone else ever notice that they were obvious natural enemies? It doesn’t take a twelfth-level intelligence to be able to predict that the two of them could, as does actually happen, polish each other off. (In fact, I think there was one guy who wrote into the letter column who did figure it out ahead of, you should pardon the expression, time.) I can almost imagine the Time Trapper saying to himself, “Hmm, cyclical time, interesting. So what is the nature of time, then, after all? And why am I wearing these purple robes if I don’t know?” It’s like Hercule Poirot keeps saying. The little grey cells of the mind, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish with them.

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