Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Despot on the Pot

This is Brainiac:

At least, that’s one particular version of Brainiac, the genius would-be-world-conqueror who has bedeviled Superman since the late 50’s. Superman existed as a comicbook, cartoon, radio, tv and movie serial character for almost twenty years without this particular foil, but nowadays Brainiac is considered an indispensable top-tier villain in the Last Son of Krypton’s rogues gallery. He’s gone through some significant overhauls through the decades since 1958, both in terms of a reinvented and reimagined backstory and a redesigned look. His original look lasted the longest, from his debut in Action Comics #242 right through the Super-Friends cartoons of the 70’s/80’s, where he looked like this:

Then in the mid 80’s, in the comic books (as well as the nascent SuperPowers action figure line) he got a complete makeover and wound up looking like this:

Then in the 90s for a while for some reason he looked like this:

But by the new millennium he went back to looking more like this:

Or an occasional throwback appearance like this:

The basics stayed more or less the same. Brainiac’s deal is that he has a computer brain and he’s ruthlessly evil and he’s not of this Earth. Back in the space age, that was explanation enough, but of course as science-fiction became more and more codified people expected more of an explanation about how this alien could even have a computer brain: was he a robot, an android, a cyborg, a psychic entity with a telepathic connection to a planetary mainframe? The 80s look above is one I’ve always thought was pretty rad, but it’s clearly the outlier which comes down mega-hard on the YES HE’S A ROBOT answer. So setting that curve-wrecker aside, we’re left with the common recurring elements: green skin to indicate his extraterrestrial origins, sartorial choices leaning towards pink and purple (even Robo-Brainiac features pink amongst all the chrome) because, honestly, in comics the green/purple color combo is always a visual signifier for “arch-foe”, glowing nodes on top of his cranium to indicate something technologically enhanced about his mental apparatus.

(The other major outlier - SHOCKER - is Smallville:

Where they chose not to blow their SFX makeup budget on the character. But at least they dressed him in purple and green. And when James Marsters is involved, I will cut much slack.)

So, this Brainiac:

is from Superman: The Animated Series from the late 90’s. And it’s a perfectly valid riff on the character, even if it’s fairly different from the original baseline standard.

I’m going to great pains here to make sure everyone’s on the same page as far as recognizing a specific instance of Brainiac goes, and I also want to make sure everyone understands Brainiac’s place in the Superman mythos. As I mentioned above, he’s pretty much pure evil, all the moreso because he’s completely inhuman. Part of him is a cold, logical, calculating machine, and the organic part (if there is another part) is fundamentally alien. Superman obviously already had a wicked genius adversary in Lex Luthor, but Lex has a certain tragic nobility to him, and can be merely misguided just as often as he’s venal and vainglorious. Lex would never blow up the Earth, because if he did where would he keep all his stuff? Brainiac, on the other hand, might do just that, or something worse. Brainiac is Lex minus any and all redeeming traits or sympathetic emotional profile. He raises the stakes for Superman. He’s terrifying.

Or, he should be. Is it possible to humanize Brainiac? If it were possible, could my own son perhaps find a way to make it so? I discovered the answers to these questions the other day when I walked into the kids’ bathroom and happened upon this tableau:

And from another angle:

I don’t usually post personal pictures on the blog, but since this doesn’t provide much in the way of identifying details, I think I’m pretty safe.

Of the many questions which are raised here, perhaps one of the most urgent is: why do we have a little toy toilet in the house? A few years back we noticed the little guy taking great interest in dollhouses when we visited other families, and so we got him a playset (NB: it is totally a dollhouse) which is allegedly a combination firehouse/police station but which, along with the fire engine and police motorcycle for the garage, came with beds, couches, a treadmill, a kitchen dinette set, a bathtub and a toilet. So.

I also find myself asking what term to use to describe this particular combination of toys. Is it too much to call it a diorama? Or an exhibit, a narrative installation? Because it is positively fraught with provocation. Behold the intergalactic subjugator, the instrument of destruction spawned from circuits of pure malice somewhere beyond the stars! He seeks only to control, to fulfill his programming, and regrets nothing, fears nothing, feels nothing. And yet, from time to time, even he must heed certain imperatives. Even Brainiac, now and again, must drop the gestational subroutines off at the aquatic recreation complex. A tyrant has need of more than one throne.

Honestly I have no idea what the little guy was up to when he perched his little toy Brainiac on the little toy crapper. I never asked. Sometimes it’s more than enough that my kids do delightfully weird little random things that crack me up.

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