It began on the planet Colu, a world of green-skinned humanoids with advanced brains who prized intelligence and logic above all else. In the Coluan scale of measurement, the average human being has a 6th-level intelligence and the average Coluan has anywhere from an 8th-level to 10th-level intelligence. But one Coluan named Vril Dox was born with a 12th-level intelligence and then installed augmentations to his brain to increase it even further. Earning the nickname of “Brainiac” among his people, this villain embarked on a quest to gather all knowledge in the universe.
Exploring the galaxy in his famous (and way creepy) skull-ship, Brainiac would go from one planet to another, absorbing its information and then destroying the world so that the knowledge he’d taken from it would now be more precious. He also made a habit of shrinking down entire cities from each world and imprisoning them in bottle-like force field containers, keeping the millions of still-living inhabitants as test subjects. To help in his exploration, Brainiac launched several probes and avatars that acted with his basic personality. A few of these avatars fought Superman and recently he made an enemy of the true Brainiac himself. A dangerous thing since, despite his claims that he prizes logic and information above all else, Brainiac is still capable of feeling hatred for his enemies.
He’s creepy, he’s powerful, he’s smart and he does not have any capacity for mercy. He also predates the slang term “brainiac” by a couple of decades and some believe that he is the direct origin of the term (a Computer kit also called Brainiac predated the comic book character, but it wasn’t as popular and didn’t last as long). Yet despite this notoriety and his long-standing status as one of Superman’s greatest enemies, the villain from Colu has not always had the best tailor. So why don’t we look back at this villain’s wardrobe?
By the way, before we begin, I am not including Brainiac’s descendants at all. This is focused on our primary villain, so apologies in advance for fans of Brainiac 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 13. Sorry, just how it is.
SILVER AGE ALIEN
Brainiac first appeared in Action Comics #242, published in July, 1958. That year was the true beginning of the Silver Age of Superman, making him more of a sci-fi adventurer with fantastic things added to his mythos such as time travel adventures when he was a teenager and a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. With advanced alien weaponry, incredible intelligence and a force field that even Superman’s great strength couldn’t penetrate (which was unheard of in those days), Brainiac was definitely going to be a formidable foe for the Man of Steel. Yet his first cover appearance here leaves something to be desired. That something? Pants.
Here we have this guy who is able to laugh off Superman’s strongest punches and yet the moment is spoiled by short-shorts. And pink and green? That color combination doesn’t make for an intimidating figure. But interestingly, this costume only appeared on the cover. Within the pages of Brainiac’s first actual story, he had a decidedly different ensemble.
Evidently, Brainiac was originally the kind of alien who believed you could be laid back during an invasion. Here he’s sporting a loose fitting mock turtleneck and what seems to be the alien equivalent of khaki pants. And that funky belt is balanced out by the matching color of his collar.
This isn’t a bad look, actually. It’s a little odd that Brainiac’s trousers are the same color as his skin-tone, but I could actually get behind an alien conqueror who’s so comfortable with his power that he doesn’t feel the need to impress anyone with a fancy get-up. Heck, in the same story we also see him sporting a green leather jacket that is actually not a bad accessory.
This outfit definitely makes Brainiac stand-out from other super-villains. Of course, here’s the problem. As the years went on, Brainiac became a colder, more sociopathic character prone to egomaniacal speeches. Which made sense since his name was a combination of “brain” and “maniac” (our villain here actually predates the slang usage of that word to mean a smart person). And for such a personality, this look doesn’t feel right to me. It’s too relaxed. This GAP version of Brainiac only works for the first story, before he became firmly established as the insane monster we came to know and love.
Later on, Brainiac showed up again but was now sporting the tight, collared shirt and short-shorts he had been seen wearing on the cover of his first story. He also now had that funky looking headpiece. In later re-printings of the original Brainiac story, this head-piece would be drawn in so that newer fans wouldn’t ask why it was missing.
Whereas he’d originally been introduced as an alien, this second appearance told us that Brainiac actually a sentient android and the head piece was actually part of his technological body. This was done, by the way, to avoid a lawsuit from the Brainiac Computer Kit.
Brainiac was now seen as a sinister computer-mind. The headset indicates that and is a nice addition to his look. But the rest of the costume isn’t working for me. It just looks like a generic alien/futuristic outfit the likes of which also appeared in Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and the world of Krypton. And that collar seems to be prescient of the rise of disco fashion in years to come.
But sometimes it’s not the outfit alone. Sometimes it’s also the artist or tone and colors that are used.
Take a look at the same outfit done by a later artist. A few minor touches and this guy seems more fearsome. The human-looking eyes are replaced by red orbs that have no pupils, a clear indication that this guy isn’t human. And fashion wise, we get a different impression now that the pink color has shifted into a darker violet, almost purple shade. And the light green skin-tone has become a darker jade color.
Both of these shifts, along with the eye change, give Brainiac a more sinister, more alien look. He’s also now visually a better counterpart to Superman. There’s an unspoken rule in comics that when you have a hero decked out in primary colors, you need at least one arch-enemy to be wearing secondary colors, usually purple and green. There are exceptions of course, but it’s still pretty prevalent. Look at Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Wonder Woman and the purple-haired Circe. Even Lex Luthor has sported purple and green on multiple occasions.
But even with these alterations, I just can’t get behind that collar or those shorts.
PULSAR STARGRAVE! YEAH, THAT’S HIS NAME!
In the late 70s, a new villain appeared in the 30th century, plaguing the future-born team known as the Legion of Super-Heroes. This man called Pulsar Stargrave initially claimed to be Brainiac’s descendant Brainiac 4 and later claimed he was Brainiac himself. His history has been revised several times since then and continuity now says he is very definitely not a future version of Superman’s arch-foe.
And thank God, because what is with this look? I guess disco came back in full force. This guy doesn’t look like a villain, he seems more likely to try and invite me to some hedonistic bar where even the beer is served with a tiny umbrella in it. Not that I wouldn’t go, I’m just saying he looks silly.
I know I said I wasn’t including other Brainiacs, but Stargrave is an exception since for a while it was decided he actually was, indeed, the main villain in question.
A NEW LOOK
In the early 1980s, comics across the board began taking a darker turn. DC advertised that soon, Brainiac would get a complete design overhaul and they started showing this image of a strange robot in a purple cape. Eventually, we saw the new Brainiac in action, though sans cloak.
People have occasionally called this the “Terminator-Brainiac” look but I think that’s a bit misleading. Look at this guy. This is not a human skeleton in robot form. The skull is very funky and eerie, especially the way it slope down to form a toothless mouth. The feet are funky and seem to be designed not only for multiple terrains but also so Brainiac can shift his weight in any direction and change his position on the turn of a dime. And the exposed circuitry that can bee seen through the Plexiglas arms adds some necessary color to an otherwise shiny, metallic figure.
The villain Ultron of Marvel Comics is an evil robot and looks like an evil robot. This version of Brainiac looks like he might be an alien life form that is techno-organic in nature. He’s weird enough that we aren’t quite sure what to make of him at first. A nice design. I constantly debate over whether I like it or think it makes him too much like many throwaway robot characters rather than a living computer-mind that is truly unique and has a very obvious capacity to lust for revenge.
I do love that skull-ship though. So creepy, especially with those metallic tendrils. Why has this not made it to live-action yet?
DC’s crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths re-wrote and revised a lot of comic book continuity. In the new reality, writer/artist John Byrne reverted Brainiac back to being an alien and gave him a blonde mohawk. He then had the villain journey to Earth not by spaceship but by transmitting his mind into the brain of a circus psychic named Milton Fine, who performed as “the Amazing Brainiac.”
After briefly battling Superman in only a typical magician’s tuxedo and cape, the Milton Fine/Brainiac hybrid grew out a mohawk and got himself an actual costume. And wow, was this lame.
Seriously, how did you give Brainiac an outfit that makes him even less threatening than when he was in short-shorts? Not only does he lose his alien pizazz by putting him into a human body, but then you adorn him in a baggy jumpsuit with belts that look like they’re ready for adjustment in case he gains weight?
After Byrne left the Superman books, Brainiac got something resembling his old headpiece, with the explanation being that it was meant to enhance and stabilize his telekinetic and telepathic abilities. But it didn’t make up for the rest of the outfit remaining pretty weak.
Eventually, the alien personality of Vril Dox took over entirely, erasing all semblance of the human Milton Fine. Not wishing to spend any longer trapped in a human form, Brainiac gained control of LexCorp technology and grew a new body for himself that resembled his original Coluan self (though he did keep Fine’s goatee).
With a new body came a new outfit. Brainiac has gone as simplistic as possible here, with no decoration other than his belt, bracers and a purple cape. In later adventures, the headset would be partially removed, revealing a green, exposed brain beneath, making him a little creepier. He also finally got himself a new headship to travel through space and started using advanced tech and shrink rays again.
But this outfit still isn’t cutting it. A black dancer’s outfit and a cape? At least give him a chest symbol or some kind of design down the sides of the legs. At first glance, this looks like a lazy Halloween costume of an evil wizard. It’s not the worst look Brainiac has had, there’s just nothing to it.
In 1996, Superman: The Animated Series began airing on the WB network. Since the cartoon existed in its own animated continuity, separate from the DC Comics Universe, the show’s creators decided to re-imagine Brainiac and give him a stronger connection to Superman’s past. In their story, Brainiac was originally a computer system that helped run much of Krypton. Whenever Brainiac would speak to people, the image of three discs connected by two lines would appear on the monitor, evoking the image of the comic book villain’s headpiece.
In the cartoon, Brainiac saved himself when he learned Krypton was going to explode and downloaded his consciousness into an android form. Now having a physical body, Brainiac later confronted Superman many times, becoming a hated enemy. And we can see very clearly from this design that we are dealing with an emotionless, robotic being. His very form, the way his shoulders are, the strange brace around his neck, they all scream of someone who is stiff and does not move without purpose. The metal discs acting as ears and the discs on his forehead hint that he’s an actual artificial being and not just an alien in armor.
There’s also a change here in Brainiac’s body type. In the comics, he’d always been portrayed as someone of thin, wiry proportions compared to Superman, looking more like a marathon runner than a weight lifter. But now, Brainiac is considerably bulkier and it’s a visual clue that this is someone who can bout with Superman hand-to-hand as easily as he can match him in a battle of wits.
I would prefer a stronger shade of green for his face and the neck brace is a bit much for me. But still, an interesting design and it makes sense for the cartoon interpretation of the character.
RETURN TO ROBOTICS
After a few years, Brainiac wound up transmitting his mind into a robot body, partially inspired by his cartoon incarnation that had been appearing on Superman: The Animated Series.
I dig the colors of this look. The dark purple and reflective metal play well off each other. Once again, the eyes are inhuman. The armored head and exposed robotic parts on his torso certainly advertise that the famous villain is no longer an organic being in any way. Nor is he an android that is trying to appear fairly human, such as the android heroes the Vision or Red Tornado II. This is clearly a monstrous figure.
Not a bad look. I’m just not sure about the shape of the headpiece. Maybe it’s the odd shape of it. Maybe it just seems odd that Brainiac would only put fake skin on part of his robotic head. I’d either have the entire head be green-skinned or be entirely robotic. But that’s just my own personal preference.
Soon before the crossover story Infinite Crisis, Brainiac appeared again with a new look. This was not an android body but was actually a form composed of millions of nanites. As you can see, it’s a modern take on the Silver Age look. This time though, pink is very decidedly replaced with a deep purple and we’ve got a full-on bodysuit instead of short-shorts.
The white shirt collar has been replaced by organic looking tendrils that around around Brainiac’s body, giving him a very alien appearance and matching the new style of headpiece he’s sporting, which likewise had a slightly more organic look and seems to be growing out of the villain’s skull.
Looking at this guy, I immediately think “freaky, evil alien.” And the fact that his chest unit and headpiece glow in the same way that his eyes do hints that he’s a machine of some sort. Really interesting look. If I had to make one change, it’s that I would have the headpiece altered slightly so that it formed the Brainiac symbol fans got to know from the cartoon series.
MEET THE REAL BRAINIAC
When Geoff Johns began writing stories for Superman, he sought to unify the different takes on Brainiac over the years while also presenting something new. In his comics, he explained that the true Brainiac was an evil Coluan scientist of 12-level-plus intelligence who had been terrorizing planets for centuries now. His personality and motivation was a mixture of his Silver Age and 90s cartoon incarnations. It was said he was also concerned with personal, biological perfection and evolution. Refusing to leave the sterile environment of his ship, he sent out different avatars to act for him, ones programmed with his basic personality. One such avatar was the Brainiac who had possessed Milton Fine and then had created a new robotic body for itself. But now Superman would meet the real Brainiac for the first time.
Artist Gary Frank here has given us a whole new take on the character. The headpiece is replaced by glowing nodes for the villain to plug his computers directly into his brain. The lighted areas of the outfit and the seams of it indicate that this suit is technological and definitely not of Earth design. And like the animated series of the 1990s, he is a physically imposing figure as well, towering above the Last Son of Krypton.
It’s a very interesting take. I do enjoy that it conveys Brainiac as a creepy and intimidating alien figure but one whose form also immediately lets you know he’s a powerful figure. The dark colors make the alien green-hue of his skin pop out more. And it’s a clever touch emulating the pink of his old uniform by making that the color of his lighted areas.
I would just give this look a few tweaks. One, I’d avoid the impression of a Speedo over Brainiac’s pants. Two, I find the circle on his abdomen a bit odd. It makes me think Brainiac has a glowing belly button. And three, since the cartoon symbol has become so recognizable, I would’ve had it on the chest, glowing eerily.
Brainiac is constantly striving for perfection and so we can safely assume that he’ll soon change looks on us again. We’ll just have to wait and see what bizarre new fashion he’ll sport as he continues his quest to conquer all knowledge in the universe and destroy any organic life that gets in his way. And who knows? Perhaps we’ll finally see him in a movie soon. This has been Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.