Brain in jars? How long has that been a thing?
I’m not sure, but it’s been a while. Incidentally, I’m not just talking about regular (or Abby Normal) brains in jars, like in James Whales’ Frankenstein or Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein…I’m talking about sentient brains in jars. Brains in jars that are still thinking and still talking…and usually still plotting eeeeevil.
Doctor Who, over the years, has featured this trope at least three times on TV–in the 1960’s in The Keys of Marinus, in the 1970’s with The Brain of Morbius, and just recently with The Return of Dr. Mysterio. The old Wonder Woman TV show had a telekinetic brain called Gault. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 had a mad scientist called Brain Guy who felt his disembodied brain-status was superior even though he clearly needed a body to carry him around. A Wrinkle in Time features a large disembodied brain that is stealing away free will and love from the universe. Star Trek once had Spock’s brain separated from his body but still pretty lucid (though he, of course, wasn’t evil).
But…I’m specifically talking about DC Comics here, and even though this was once briefly Lex Luthor’s status quo, and DC even has a villain actually called “The Brain”, I’m particularly interested in appearances of Brains in Jars in my favorite comic series…The Legion of Super-Heroes.
The Legion, as you probably know, is a concept that was introduced in the late 50’s about teen-aged superheroes from the future. It was as much a science fiction series as it was a superhero one, and so not shockingly, there were an awful lot of Brains in Jars on display…a fact that is especially apparent when you re-read it all through in DC’s beautiful Archive editions.
So…let’s trace it through!
The first stop on our tour of Brains in Jars is The Legion of Super-Traitors, in Adventure Comics #293 (February 1962), by Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan and George Klein.
In this 14 page story, Superboy begins finds himself the victim of uncontrollable urges to wreck an endangered plane instead of saving it, and also to hurt and terrorize his loyal canine friend, Krypto. Then he’s summoned by the Legion of Super-Heroes (Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl) who show him a special Phantom Zone viewer to identify some of the prisoners there. Luckily, Superboy’s friend Mon-El (not yet a Legion member) warns Superboy that the Legionnaires are actually out to hurt Superboy and free the Phantom Zone villains. They claim it’s because they are jealous of his greater powers. Superboy destroys the Phantom Zone device but the Legionnaires zap him with Kryptonite rings. Then it’s revealed that the Legionnaires aren’t actually in control of their own actions (just like Superboy wasn’t earlier). Instead, they have fallen victim to…
The Brain Globes of Rambat!
Powers: Flight, Mind Control, Operate Complex Machinery With Their Mental Might
Weaknesses: Vulnerable to Super-Animals
Believing themselves to be unstoppable, the Brain Globes share their story.
“Eons ago, our race had bodies. But upon acquiring the power to work mental miracles, we discarded the clumsy bodies and assumed this infinitely more efficient Brain-Globe form,” they telepathically tell the dying Superboy. They realized their planet was doomed to explode, and sent a scout who found a similar atmosphere on earth. The Scout dug a supposed “meteor pit” and built a machine inside it which will allow the Brain-Globes to steal earth so they can bring it next to their purple sun, which they need to survive. There are only four Brain-Globes, as they are the only ones to have escaped Rambat before it was destroyed.
Fortunately for everyone, the Legion (who are now freed from the Brain-Globes control) realize that animals are somehow immune to the Brain-Globe’s mental dominance. Krypto is not enough to defeat them (because while he is fighting one, one of the others threatens to use a device to destroy the earth). So Saturn Girl gets the bright idea of gathering other super-powered animals–Streaky (a super-cat), Comet (a super-horse) and Beppy (a super-monkey)–to fight the Brain-Globes.
They do, and send the villainous organisms fleeing into space (where they no doubt gave up their evil ways and started doing something more productive). They pets are dubbed “The Legion of Super-Pets” and Superboy destroys the Brain-Globe’s equipment and apparently blows the earth back into its correct orbit!
So the Brain-Globes are pretty creepy. They can control your mind and can somehow build complex machinery, and have no compunction using either it or you to kill your friends and blow up your planet. It’s lucky they were vulnerable to the animals or we’d all be doomed. (Thanks, Streaky! You’re my hero!) They also had a pretty impressive visual appearance, as they weren’t just brains, but giant brains, and they had unexplained little tendrils wriggling around their globes.
They haven’t, as far as I know appeared again since then.
We now skip ahead to later that year in The Fantastic Spy, from Adventure Comics #303 (December 1962). We are now into the Legion’s regular feature on that title. This story is by Jerry Siegel and John Forte.
The story starts off Lightning Lad and Sun Boy recovering from injuries suffered in a rocket crash. When they return to active duty, they meet Matter-Eater Lad, a new member, whose power to eat and digest anything amazes the heroes (“Gasp! How is it possible for a human being to eat metal…and live?!” says Lightning Lad).
The Legion get underway with their regular duties, but find to their concern that their missions are being thwarted. It appears that somehow…there’s a traitor in their midst! Matter-Eater Lad feels especially bad as he assumes that the others will suspect him, as he is new.
The Legion takes numerous precautions to protect their secrets. They even wear mind-helmets made of precious lurium metal which are designed to scramble thought waves from any eavesdropping telepaths. It is under these circumstances that they must deal with the second stop on our tour with
Powers: Mind Control, Disintegrates Buildings, Flight
Weaknesses: Prone to bouts of narcolepsy
Meglaro is an evil alien who lives in a chemical bath which gives him “super mind-power.” In an unseen adventure, he tried to make the earth surrender by willing its buildings to crumble. He is also shown to have the power to make others obey him. It sounds like he might have been victorious, except that an unexpected side effect of his fluid is that he was put into a deep sleep.
Now, it should be noted that clearly, Meglaro isn’t just a brain. He has a body with arms and legs and eyes and everything. But he is specifically referred to as “Meglaro, the evil alien who exists as a brain in a globe…” so I think we have to count him on this list. And he’s pretty creepy looking. Combining that with his power to make buildings collapse with his mind, he might just be the most dangerous Brain in a Jar on this list.
Anyway, it seems that his globe is invulnerable and can’t be destroyed, and there’s no way to know when he might wake up again, so the plan is to pick him up and exile him to the future. The intend to leave him in the year 100,000,000 AD, when the sun is dying and the earth uninhabitable, where (they assume) he won’t be able to harm anyone.
(Man, there’s a story in there, isn’t there? Imagine if time travelers from 100 years ago dropped off their evil alien despot in the world today because they assumed there’d be no one left to care. Maybe it’d make a cool environmental allegory.)
Anyway, it all goes wrong.
Meglaro wakes up, and it’s said he’d easily take over the Legion except for their handy lurium mind-helmets. But just then, some criminals show up and zap the helmets with illegal Z-Rays…”the only weapon which has the power to melt our lurium helmets!” Meglaro orders the Legion to let him go (and not to turn into dust, so that’s fortunate) and flies off with the criminals.
Brainiac 5 and Matter-Eater Lad then concoct a plan to fool the criminals who are behind everything into thinking that Matter-Eater Lad is the culprit. They reveal that the real spy is a miniaturized ally criminal who was hiding inside of Sun Boy’s ankle! Brainiac 5 cleverly tricks the criminals, including Meglaro, into landing on planet Umrax which has a gaseous atmosphere which renders anyone who lands there unconscious. Superboy takes Meglaro and abandons him in the far future, as planned. The shrunken spy is captured, Matter-Eater Lad is exonerated, and Brainiac 5 is hailed as a hero!
With Meglaro taken care of (although we’ll see him again, I guess, if we live for another 99,997,981 years!), let’s jump ahead to August 1964 and Adventure Comics #323, and The Eight Impossible Missions, again by Jerry Siegel and John Forte. Hmm, did Jerry Siegel write all of our Brains in Jars stories?
In this story, it’s time for a new Legion leader, and instead of doing anything so passé as voting or anything, the Legionnaires present decide to have a contest, run by Proty II, of all beings. Anyone who can solve the puzzle Proty puts together can be the leader. His puzzle involves sending various super-heroes on special missions. When it comes to Phantom Girl, her mission is to discover the greatest award Superboy’s father Jor-El ever received in his lifetime on Krypton, but she must do it without time travel (or time-viewing).
She uses her powers to pass into the Phantom Zone, where it appears only one criminal is remaining, since all the others were released when their sentences ran out (this in spite of the fact that it wasn’t that long before this that Mon-El was imprisoned there with a bunch of other people. There’s an untold story in there someplace!)
Anyway, that criminal is “The Mighty Gazor”, who after a lifetime of scientific villainy decided to build an earthquake machine to destroy Krypton. Fortunately, Jor-El had build a “Shock-Wave Locator-Rod” which allowed him to track down Gazor and destroy his machine. For his crimes, Gazor, was given the longest Phantom Zone sentence ever, and Jor-El was given his greatest award…
The Brain of Garf-Og
Powers: Really good with chemistry
Weaknesses: Existential Angst (presumed)
Unique on this list, the Brain of Garf-Og is not evil or malevolent in any way. Rather, it’s simply the brain of a great Kryptonian genius which was preserved in a crystal globe when the rest of his body perished. It could talk, it seems, thanks to a little device that was hooked up to it, and in one of the only two panels it appears in, it is seen giving chemistry advice to Jor-El (“To succeed in your experiment, add ten dramons of brobnium,” it says.) The other panel that we see the Brain of Garf-Og is simply a silent recollection of Superboy’s confirming what Phantom Girl reports back to Proty. But how did Proty know?
Anyway, as I’ve said, Garf-Og isn’t recognized as evil. Or maybe he was, secretly, but just failed to get anywhere because of Krypton’s destruction. In any case, he’s not all that interesting, except as an example of pure DC Comics Silver Age weirdness.
We now jump ahead a short time to October 1964 and Adventure Comics #325, where Sielgel and Forte team up again to produce Lex Luthor Meets the Legion of Super-Heroes.
As this story begins, we are introduced to the planet Khann, which is full of criminals and villains. Whenever anyone wants to check their evil schemes to see if they are well-thought as they’d like, they head off to the “Palace of Villainy”, to run their ideas past…
The Brain-Lords of Khann
Powers: Extensive expertise on being a crook
Weaknesses: Immobile, thus completely dependent on devoted followers for protection
Now, I read on one website that the Brain-Lords of Khann are supposed to just be the Brain Globes of Rambat after their previous loss, but this is clearly not the case. The Brain Globes of Rambat were aliens who had discarded their bodies and were in search of a new home world, while the Brain-Lords of Khann are the eternally-living brains of the galaxy’s greatest criminals which were removed from their dying bodies.
The Brain-Lords of Khann don’t seem to have any powers to speak of, beyond their criminal expertise which they seem to freely share to any bad guy who comes calling. They seem a bit full of themselves, sitting around on Greek-looking daises as they do, in a room full of curtains, sharing such pearls of wisdom as “After looting planets, destroy them! That way there will be no clues left–and no witnesses!” Ultimately they are not that interesting, and only serve as a bit of a prologue to the story.
There appear to be at least four of them, but only three are named…Mighty Mog, Wondrous Incarno, and their leader, the most evil of all, Atro.
Atro is the focus here, as Legoinnaires Triplicate Girl and Matter-Eater Lad have been sent to steal him by night and return him to earth to be punished for his crimes (punishment beyond having his brain surgically removed from his body, I guess). Unfortunately, the Brain-Lords never sleep, and they alert their fellow criminals. The Legionnaires are almost captured but are rescued at the last minute by a mysterious young time traveler from the past. As the heroes and their rescuer trade compliments, Atro growls out, “Bah! Your mutual admiral is sickening!” You can still see him after the heroes have landed for one panel, but after that he isn’t seen or referred to again.
Incidentally, the time traveler from the past turns out to be young Lex Luthor, who is evil and hates Superboy but is pretending to be from a time before that, so he could banish the Legion to the Phantom Zone (where, presumably, they caught up with the Mighty Gazor). Luthor’s plan goes wrong, which just goes to show he should have checked things with Atro first!
Atro turns out to be the last Brain in a Jar to show up for quite some time in the Legion of Super-Heroes series (at least if my searching through the Archive editions can be trusted).
Of course, a few years later (January 1967), in Adventure Comics #352, Jim Shooter and Curt Swan introduced Validus of the Fatal Five. He wasn’t a Brain in a Jar, but his head seemed to be.
However, that head was attached to a body, which unlike Meglaro, was capable of pretty fearsome feats, like ripping up pavement and also killing Invisible Kid, so I don’t think you can rate him beyond an honorable mention.
No, to get to the next (and final entry) in this list, you have go forward all the way to Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #226 (April 1977). In The Dazzling Debut of Dawnstar by Paul Levitz, James Sherman and Jack Abel, the Legion is trying to track down the headquarters of a group called the Resource Raiders (Paul Levitz was a great Legion writer, but he was not great at coming up with new villain characters). New leader Wildfire brings in the young mutant tracker Dawnstar to assist, and eventually she leads them to their headquarters, which turns out to be under some hydroponic gardens on earth itself (in Siberia, of all places). The Legion fight to break through the Resource Raider Leader’s defenses, and it turns out to be, you guessed it…a giant brain in a jar, complete with attached eye balls and everything.
The Leader of the Resource Raiders
Powers: Criminal Mastermind
Weaknesses: Dependent on bio-electronic consoles
It’s a testimony to how common these disembodied brains show up that nobody actually comments about the Leader’s nature. No one’s like, “What the what?! A brain in a jar?! That’s crazy!” Instead they’re just like, “Oh look, it’s a brain in a jar. Ho hum. Arrest it!” Indeed, they just shatter a few consoles, and boil the thing in its own fluids!
But, that’s not the end of the story.
Jump ahead to Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #241 (July 1978), which is the only one of these issues to feature the actual Brain on the cover.
This story was the beginning of the Legion’s first true epic, the Earthwar. Indeed, the story is called “Prologue to Earthwar” and is by Levitz and Sherman again, but this time with Bob McLeod inking. In this one, at a time of great galactic tension, the Resource Raiders attack again. The Legion drives them off, but Chameleon Boy sneaks on board their ship when they escape, in order to figure out where their new headquarters is. He succeeds, but is captured, and comes face to face with their new leader, who is another disembodied brain.
The Real Leader of the Resource Raiders
Powers: Good organizational skills plus high criminal ambition
Weaknesses: Requires oxygen
This disembodied brain is so dangerous, it doesn’t even need a jar!
The brain interrogates Chameleon Boy, and we find out here that the original leader, captured in the previous story, turned out actually to be a robot. This new brain announces that it is real, and that the robot was its agent on the earth.
Luckily, Superboy and the Legion show up, and give the Resource Raiders the pounding they deserve. The leader is defeated by Element Lad turning the oxygen it needs into hydrogen, and causing it to black out.
Ultimately, the Resource Raiders and their disembodied brain of a leader (with its disembodied robot brain assistants) are not that interesting, except they look awesome because they are drawn by James Sherman. Even here, they just serve as a precursor to far more interesting threats–the Dark Circle, the Khunds, and Mordru.
And so ends our guided tour of Brains in Jars in early Legion of Super-Heroes stories. For my mind, the first is the best–the Brain Globes of Rambat (although James Sherman drew the best looking brain). They had the visual thing going, being actual brains in actual jars (or globes, you know), plus they had the power–flight and mind control–and a willingness to use it to build world-destroying machinery.
You know, everything you could want in a good, solid, salt-of-the-earth Brain in a Jar storyline.