As you may have heard, Geoff Johns is introducing the "real" Brainiac in this story arc (of which "Action Comics" #868 is part three), right after he did something similar with Toyman earlier this year. It's Johns' way of saying, "you haven't seen the real character yet, all the other versions were just the advance scouts" (or in Toyman's case, toys). There must be something in the DC drinking water, because Morrison said the same thing about Darkseid going into "Final Crisis." Or, more likely, it's a clean way to pave through the inconsistent continuity of past decades. It's almost impossible to reconcile the various deeds and behaviors of Brainiac over the years, but if you say, "oh, those were all different (robot) guys," it makes things a lot easier.
I'm not necessarily a fan of such an approach. Especially since it's been popping up regularly this year, but this particular comic, "Action Comics" #868, is exceedingly well-drawn and cleanly told. I may not particular like the concept, but I like the execution enough to recommend it.
Johns recently said that Gary Frank is the Curt Swan of his era, or something to that effect. I wouldn't say that -- and Swan seems to be regarded more for his overwhelming presence than for his particular style, anyway. Swan was the look of Superman from the 1960s up through the mid-1980s. Frank will hardly make such a lasting impact, in this age when a creator rarely stays with a comic for more than a year or two, but I kind of understand what Johns was getting at. Frank draws a Superman who, while muscular, isn't a ridiculously jacked-up thyroid case. Compared to a lot of depictions of the character over the past fifteen years, Frank's version is almost slender. (Slender only according to the skewed world of superheroes, obviously.) Like Swan, Frank seems to be able to express the humanity and dignity of the character, which is essential for the portrayal Johns presents here.
Johns has also been mining from the Superman supporting cast recently, digging up Cat Grant and Steve Lombard who have often been used as simple cliches (Grant is rude and slutty, Lombard is an ex-jock idiot and a bully), but at least provide some flavor to the Daily Planet. Johns hasn't done much yet but re-establish their presence, so they haven't had a chance to rise above cliche status under his guidance, but I enjoy seeing them appear. In this issue, he uses Supergirl for a Cat Grant gag that tells us a lot about Supergirl and provides a bit of lightness before the bad news that is Brainiac. The "real" Brainiac.
The real Brainiac isn't much different than the old Brainiac. He's green. He has dots on his head. He's super-smart. But he is much more of a physical threat to Superman than the original character or the robotic revamp of the 1980s. He's bigger and seemingly stronger than Superman, and the tentacles of his mechanical ship recall something out of "The Matrix." Brainiac, as presented here, is intimidating, but we don't get to see him display much of his reported intelligence. He's just another intergalactic thug, although he does have an explicit connection with Krypton (not the same way he did in "Superman: The Animated Series," but a connection nonetheless) which makes him more of a specific problem for Superman. It adds some psychological baggage to the relationship that deepens the conflict.
Ever since Johns got back on track with "Action Comics," and especially since Gary Frank has come on board, I've enjoyed this comic every month. This is probably one of the weaker single issues from the duo, but it's still a slick, well-told Superman story, and it's only the middle of a larger Brainiac story that has yet to unfold. It's a story that may or may not include an important part for the long-forgotten Ultra, the Multi-Alien, who appears in a few panels this month. Johns and Frank are always worth reading, and if they unleash Ultra onto the populace there's going to be no way you can ignore them.