It’s difficult to like or empathize with any protagonist who utters the phrase, “Shut your mouth! Higher life forms are talking!” with himself being one of the higher life forms he’s referring to. In fact, that statement pretty much encapsulates what Brain Boy is all about. Matthew Price, also known as Brain Boy (much to his chagrin), is the most powerful psychic, telepath, and telekinetic on the planet, and he clearly sees himself as some sort of ubermensch.
Based on a very short-lived comic from the 1960s, this rebooted version from Dark Horse is presumably a lot darker than the original. The titular Brain Boy was orphaned as a child, raised in a top secret laboratory, and trained to use his incredible powers to be a weapon. Now, at 18 or 19, he works assessing threats for the United States Secret Service. He’s also been spoiled rotten in the process, given everything by his superiors, from money to cars to girlfriends, in payment for his amazing work.
When not one but two jobs of his go horribly, horribly wrong, Brain Boy finds himself on the trail of another psychic, seemingly the only person on the planet who’s more powerful than he is. Along the way, there’s a whole lot of death and violence, and a somewhat distressing amount of it is perpetrated by Brain Boy himself. Much of it is sort of self-defense, and all of it is directed against bad guys and their henchmen, so I guess it’s technically okay, but the utter casualness with which it’s treated is alarming to say the least.
For instance, when surrounded by enemy soldiers, he implants horrific memories into their minds to make them kill each other. When temporarily unable to use his powers, he shoots someone in the head. He threatens a possible enemy/possible ally who has valuable information by saying he’ll telekinetically squeeze them until their organs pop. The enemy/ally responds that such behavior isn’t in Brain Boy’s character, which is supposed to make us feel better, only that seems like exactly the sort of thing he would do.
The writers attempt to play off this casualness and make Brain Boy more likeable and charming by giving him that common superhero trait, a quick wit. Much like Spider-Man, he accentuates his adventures with a running commentary of quips to the bad guys and a wink and a nod to the audience. Except that with Spider-Man, it was always clear that he was a good person, trying to do the right thing against greater odds. “With great power comes great responsibility” and all of that. Spider-Man never referred to himself as a “higher being.”
With Brain Boy, on the other hand, it seems like the heroics he performs are nothing more than part of the job he’s getting paid for—or to salvage things when the job goes wrong. There’s little indication that he cares at all about the innocent lives that are at stake or the consequences if he can’t save the day apart from his bosses being angry at him. Because of this attitude, his witty quips come off less as charming, and more as arrogant. With Spider-Man, the witty barbs were his way of whistling in the dark, trying to cope with situations that would otherwise be pretty horrifying for a teenager to get caught up in. With Brain Boy, his quips seem more like expressing boredom with these situations and writing them off as inconsequential.
There’s still fun and excitement in this comic. The action is compelling, the plot is interesting, and it’s engaging enough for us to want to see how it all plays out. Not to mention the variety of mental abilities wielded by Brain Boy and others, and all the innovative ways in which they’re used. The art is good, too, colorful and detailed. If you can get past the near-Nietzschean arrogance and superiority of the protagonist, you might enjoy Brain Boy. For myself, though, I was mainly left feeling uncomfortable.