Starting this month, Joshua Williamson’s “House of Brainiac” saga spans the Superman comics line, from Action Comics to Power Girl. As one of the Man of Steel’s most notorious foes once again comes collecting, we feel like it’s time to set the record straight on something a lot of folks seem to be confused about: What exactly is Brainiac’s deal? Is he an alien, or is he a robot?

Well, the answer is…kind of both? It really depends on where you’re looking and when.

1958-1963: Alien

The mechanical comparisons were there from the beginning, when he was named by Otto Binder after ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator), the first programmable computer, built in 1945. But originally, that didn’t necessarily mean to convey that Brainiac was a machine—merely that he was as smart as a machine. Or, at the time of early computing, as smart as machines were perceived to be by the general public with their promise of infinite potential.

Brainiac first came into Superman’s life in 1958’s Action Comics #242, green-skinned and city-bottling and zipping across galaxies with a space-monkey named Koko. He was initially depicted merely as an alien dictator, stealing civilizations from different worlds to repopulate the planet he rules—first called Bryak, or Yod, then Yod-Colu, and eventually, simply Colu. A little more nuance is provided to his backstory in 1963’s Superboy #106, where we learn that his homeworld’s native population was wiped out by a plague as Brainiac traveled through space, and he merely seeks to repopulate his home. Cool motive, but it’s still mass kidnapping and enslavement.

During this time, Brainiac’s people were said to have a lifespan of 200 years—which is how in 1961’s Action Comics #276, his great-great-grandson, Brainiac 5, would come to be a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes 1,000 years in the future. (One supposes that for this math to work, Coluans would reproduce near the end of their lives, but that particular element of Silver Age biology was never addressed.)

1964-1985: Alien Robot

In Superman #167, Cary Bates and Edmond Hamilton rewrote Otto Binder’s alien dictator origin to make Brainiac a mechanical agent of a Coluan ruling body derived from a supercomputer known as the Computer Tyrants. An editorial column at the time explained this change was made due to their discovery of the existence of Edmund Berkeley’s “Brainiac Computer Kit” which predated the creation of Brainiac the character.

So, what about Brainiac 5? Way ahead of you. In the same issue that the origin switch is made, we learn that Brainiac 2, given the name Vril Dox, is a native Coluan who was adopted by the mechanical Brainiac, making the future Legionnaire no longer biologically connected to the Superman villain. In 1983’s Action Comics #544, Brainiac would upgrade himself to take on a far less ambiguously mechanical appearance, with the visage of a chrome skull.

1986-1997: Alien Mind in Human Body

After Crisis on Infinite Earths, most of what we know about Superman and his mythology would change forever—including the history of Brainiac. Once a fearsome alien dictator, then an unkillable self-upgrading machine, Superman’s most cosmic personal foe was now reimagined as a guy named Milton.

In the new Post-Crisis continuity, Brainiac was once again an alien, but one who was sentenced to death for his attempted takeover of his homeworld Colu. But at the moment of his execution, Brainiac’s consciousness was channeled by human mentalist Milton Fine, his body overpowered by Brainiac’s mental presence. If you’ve ever seen Brainiac with a goatee on his face, it’s from this era.

As for the subsequent Brainiacs, now that the original had gone back to his organic origins, Vril Dox was re-established as Vril Dox II, a clone of the original Brainiac, himself named Vril Dox. Brainiac 5 was once again Brainiac’s biological descendant, and thus he has remained.


Television (1997-Present): Kryptonian Robot

On Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini reinvented most of Batman’s rogues to give them more personal stories which would become indelible parts of their character going forward. Poison Ivy, formerly a pure femme fatale, would become an environmental activist. Mr. Freeze, fairly obscure at the time, was reinvigorated with a tragic backstory focused on resurrecting his beloved wife Nora. Even the likes of Clock King and Scarface got sympathetic facelifts. So, in giving Superman the same treatment, why not similarly personalize his foes?

A three-part pilot episode of Superman: The Animated Series in 1997 established Brainiac as an artificial intelligence of Kryptonian origin, at least partially, if not wholly, responsible for the destruction of the Kryptonian race. While Brainiac has never had Kryptonian connections in the comics (his excursion to abduct the city of Kandor notwithstanding), this particular depiction of Brainiac has persisted through television history, translating into live action with his appearances on Smallville, and most recently in My Adventures with Superman.

1998-2007:  Alien Mind in Robot Body

Perhaps it was the influence of Superman: The Animated Series that shifted the needle, but shortly after the series’ debut, it seems that old Milton wasn’t cutting it anymore. In The Doomsday Wars, a terrible accident mangles the body of Milton Fine, leaving Brainiac to seek out a new host. At first, Brainiac presents what might have been the greatest threat to Superman to date, taking up the newly revived Doomsday as his host. After their battle, however, Brainiac’s brain pattern was confined to a mechanical shell, much like Red Tornado or an alien Robotman. Neither of them are strictly robots either, but misattribution as such is understandable. Brainiac spends much of this period iterating on his own design, achieving his most dangerous form around the turn of the millennium as Brainiac 13.

2008-Today: Alien Cyborg with Robot Drones

In the 2008 storyline Superman: Brainiac, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank streamlined Brainiac’s complicated backstory in the most elegant way available—by making them all true, to some extent. Here, we learn that the original Brainiac was a Coluan who performs constant upgrades on himself to enhance his own physical and mental abilities, while also projecting copies of his own consciousness into entirely mechanical drones. Every Brainiac that Superman had encountered up to this point had been a robot duplicate, with the real Brainiac now making his presence felt for the first time in Post-Crisis continuity. This is the status quo which continues to remain in effect to this day, with iterations representing previous Brainiacs still roaming the universe, while the prime Brainiac continues to upgrade himself to boundary-crossing, godlike levels, as seen in events like Convergence and Year of the Villain.

Exactly what form Brainiac will take next is something we’ll be finding out for ourselves in the ongoing “House of Brainiac” crossover arc. But at least now, the next time you’re asked what exactly Brainiac’s deal is, you can respond by asking, “Which one?”

“House of Brainiac” continues today in Superman #13 by Joshua Williamson, Rafa Sandoval and Alejandro Sánchez.

Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for Follow him on Bluesky at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.