The Madness of Brainiac 5 Saga

(Various Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes comics.)

Usually when I do these "They Ain't TPBs...but They Should Be" reviews, it is of particular, linear story arcs. But this time, I'm highlighting disparate issues by a variety of creators that were spread over four or five years! It's an odd "story arc", but reflects a not uncommon situation in comics, where creators come and go, leaving plot threads dangling for other writers to resolve, or where a later writer might feel compelled to "fix" a glaring inconsistency.

As such, reading this "arc" you're not under any illusion that this was a carefully thought through progression, or that issue "A" was really intended to foreshadow a revelation in issue "D", but nonetheless it makes for an oddly enjoyable, occasionally eclectic read. Part of the appeal for me was that I assembled most of these issues purely by happenstance, picking up a random issue in a back issue bin and being surprised that it tied back into an earlier issue I had. It was only once I had many of the issues that I decided to make the effort to deliberately "fill in" the gaps. Or, at least, the "key" gaps. And as I'm detailing this, I will be a bit vague, just to avoid spoilers if you did happen to track down these comics.

So let's begin.

We'll open our imaginary TPB with Superboy #213 -- it's not actually essential. I'm only throwing it in because the Legion's Miracle Machine is referred to later in these issues, and so it might behove us to begin with a story involving the Miracle Machine, merely so its later usage is foreshadowed. It could be any Miracle Machine story. I chose this simply because I have it in my collection, it's from the same creative era, it gives some focus to Ultra Boy (who has a significant role in latter issues here) and it's an enjoyable story written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Mike Grell of a master thief threatening to steal the all-powerful Miracle Machine that the Legion is charged with protecting.

Then we really start the ball rolling with Superboy #223-224, also by Shooter and Grell. Members of the Legion are ambushed by old foe, The Time Trapper. #223 is not an especially memorable tale, save that the Time Trapper is being studied (and evaluated) by the mysterious Pulsar Stargrave. The Legion defeats the Time Trapper, so in #224, the all-powerful Stargrave comes to them, demanding they help him conquer the universe. This is a good issue, moodily illustrated, and setting up an emotional dilemma for Brainiac 5 which we can infer as being the beginning of his instability.

Unfortunately, both Shooter and Grell left with that issue, and the next creative regime seemed not to know, or to be interested in, where the plot had been headed. So it's ignored until Superboy #226 -- specifically the back up story by Paul Levitz and Mike Nasser in which Brainiac 5 discovers Stargrave's duplicity. Which then leads into the full-length #227, now by Gerry Conway and Joe Staton, in which the Legion tackles and defeats Stargrave. (Even here we see an inconsistency with the changing creators, as the short tale ends with the cliffhanger of Brainiac 5 vowing to kill Stargrave -- violating the very rules of the Legion...yet in the next issue, he's calmed down).

Then we jump ahead to Superboy #239 -- a double sized issue (as the Legion issues were at that time) plotted by Jim Starlin (with Levitz scripting) and beautifully illustrated by the combo of Starlin and inker Joe Rubinstein. Someone has framed Ultra Boy for murder, leading to the Legion hunting their own. By issue's end, Ultra Boy is exonerated, but the true killer is still unknown.

Then comes Superboy #250-251, Starlin's follow up tale (still with Levitz as scripter) -- except it was originally intended for a one shot spectacular or something, and Starlin was sufficiently unhappy that he substituted the pseudonym "Steve Appolo". (You can detect hints the story had been sitting on a shelf for a bit as Wildfire acts as the de facto team leader -- as he was in #239 -- even though dialogue makes token references to how another character is now leader). Inked by Dave Hunt, the art's not quite as effective as in #239. One of the Legion's own is plotting to destroy the universe and it's an okay page-turner that strains plausibility, at least until references are made to the all-purpose Miracle Machine (hence my suggesting we start with #213) ...but seems as though the "shocks" are a bit forced, with one of the Legion revealed as a murderer and the story ending with no less than two of the characters insane -- including Brainiac 5. It smacks a bit of the way comics are written now, with the need to be shocking or gritty sometimes at the expense of continuity or character logic.

And clearly others felt the same. So then we get Superboy #256, by Conway and Staton in which the team cures Brainy by attempting to drag him out of his insane state with a bit of Freudian regression (and providing some interesting insight into Brainiac 5's childhood and sense of alienation -- making Starlin's tale work better in retrospect).

But that still left some dangling problems, narrative-wise, and ethics-wise, so finally Conway went at it again (this time with artist Jimmy James) for Legion of Super-Heroes #273 in which we learn the guy who framed Ultra Boy back in #239 wasn't who we thought, tying it all together and wrapping it up.

Now, the problem with those last two issues is that in #256, the Legion's actions to cure Brainiac 5 ruffle some legal feathers and it ends with the characters being arrested. I haven't included the next issue in my imaginary TPB, because I didn't want to get too far away from the "core" theme, but assuming that plot is resolved in the next issue, it might be worth including (this was also during a longer sub-plot involving someone trying to bankrupt Legion financier R.J. Brande). While #273 has Ultra Boy seemingly killed in the battle with the villain. He's found alive the next issue...but that only leads to him being "killed" again, leading to another long story arc before he is brought back. In fact, since Matter Eater Lad is left insane at the end of #251, it might "tidy up" the collection to include the issue where he gets better (for that matter, since his presence comes out of nowhere in that issue, maybe an earlier issue where we see him would make sense, ala my suggesting this mythical collection could begin with a Miracle Machine story -- hmmm, this collecting-issues-into-a-graphic-novel can get trickier than I thought!)

Strangely enough, I'm not saying that too many of these issues stand out as "classics" in and of themselves -- though most are perfectly enjoyable page turners. But read as part of an "arc", as chapters (however unintentional on the part of some of the writers) in a longer work, it makes for a kind of fun read. The changing writers and artists makes for a lot of inconsistency, but it also is part of the fun, too, lending the telling some variety. Sometimes the way the next writer changes or ignores what the previous writer set up can be disappointing (Shooter's introduction of Stargrave hints at what could've been a truly classic Legion epic) while in other ways, a later scribe's "patching up the plot holes" approach can actually improve the earlier story.

Funnily enough, I'm not sure either Marvel or DC has really tried assembling many TPBs like what I'm suggesting here. TPBs usually feature a consecutive run of issues, or are just random Best of... collections, or sometimes "theme" collections (stories featuring the same villain). But to cherry pick through a long run of comics, selecting issues that anticipate and reference each other, and shape them into a kind of "graphic novel" -- I'm not sure it's been done. This despite the fact that it's not uncommon in comics -- with their polar extremes of changing creative teams and yet continuing the series as if part of a consistent continuity -- for plot threads to be teased along, forgot about for dozens of issues, then finally dealt with unexpectedly. Though this may be one of the more extreme in its twists and convolutions.

So, just to recap, here are the issues that could go into a TPB collection -- issues in brackets are less essential/optional Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #(213), (223), 224, (225), 226 (Brainac 5 back-up tale), 227, 239, 250-251, 256, (257), The Legion of Super-Heroes #273.