[Contains spoilers for Superman: Brainiac]
The collected Superman: Brainiac follows a string of Action Comics successes for Geoff Johns, but this may be the best of the library. Johns and then-Superman writer Kurt Busiek effectively rebooted the Superman franchise with Up, Up, and Away and Last Son, but on the eve of the "New Krypton" storyline, Brainiac feels like another reboot -- one that firmly grounds Superman in his Metropolis supporting cast and portrays the best Clark Kent I've seen in years.
As he's has done before in Green Lantern and Hawkman, Johns revitalizes the Superman/Brainiac rivalry by offering a new take which simultaneously preserves everything that came before. The iterations of Brainiac that Superman has fought before, he learns, are simply probes of the one, true Brainiac, which Johns can now introduce for the first time. Never mind that this makes no sense in the context of the original stories; that Johns offers even this partial nod to continuity is what counts.
Johns's new Brainiac is actually a bit mundane as Brainiacs go, essentially a rehashing of the Superman: The Animated Series Brainiac. But in tying Brainiac to Krypton, Johns makes Brainiac a better foil for Superman than he's been before ("You've told me Lex Luthor is everything bad about humanity," Supergirl quips. "Well, Brainiac is everything bad about aliens."). The even bigger selling point for the new Brainiac, however, is artist Gary Frank, who channels his inner Ridley Scott for a decidedly Alien take on Brainiac, complete with organic-mechanical tubes drilling through Superman's forehead and down his throat. As in Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Frank draws a suspenseful, pulse-pounding ending to the story as good as any Superman movie.
Where Johns really succeeds in this volume is in the small set-up scenes, before Brainiac arrives, of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. Pre-Infinite Crisis, Greg Rucka wrote a more traditionally nerdy Clark Kent that differed from the mid-1990s budding novelist Kent, but that lacked the tongue-in-cheek sparkle we saw in the nerdy Clark Kent of the Superman movies. But as Johns's Clark Kent mildly but pointedly defuses the over-the-top Daily Planet staffers Steve Lombard and Cat Grant, with a Margot Kidder-styled Lois Lane smirking behind, we not only get a perfect demonstration of how Clark Kent and Superman could exist in the same person, but why Lois Lane and Clark Kent are perfect partners -- without the mushy declarations of affection found in James Robinson's The Coming of Atlas over in the Superman title.
Johns makes the choice in this volume to kill Pa Kent. While I don't mind the unabashed love Johns and company show for the Superman movies in this current Action Comics run, I was disappointed by the loss of a character that I felt added a lot to the 1990s-era Superman stories (though thankfully Johns spared us the "All my powers ..." line). I do understand that this affords Johns the opportunity to truly differentiate his run from that of the ground-breaking 1980s Superman revamp by John Byrne that kept Pa Kent alive for the first time in decades; I also understand the thematic dichotomy of Pa Kent dying at the same time Superman enters the "New Krypton" storyline. I'm not entirely convinced the thematic tie was worth it though; I'll be watching "New Krypton" for that moment, if you will, that without Pa Kent's death it wouldn't have been possible to achieve.
Despite my indecision, however, Superman: Brainiac is a good comic, it's good Superman, and as with Geoff Johns's Superman tales before, it's based in continuity while at the same time something I think I could give a new comics reader and they'd understand all the beats. I'm a long-time Superman fan, and it's been a while since the title's been this good as Johns's Action Comics.
[Contains full covers]
Green Arrow/Black Canary and Legion of Super-Heroes coming up next week. Stay tuned!