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Joshua Williamson invites us into "House of Brainiac"

Comic Books

Joshua Williamson invites us into “House of Brainiac”

We took part in an hour-long chat — here’s what we learned.

It may not be his official title, but Joshua Williamson is basically the events guru at DC Comics. Be it Knight Terrors or Dark Crisis, and even tangentially way back to Dark Nights: Metal, Williamson has help craft and guide a suite of big stories that have helped shape and define this modern era at DC. Now, he’s adding another notch to his belt by overseeing the “House of Brainiac” story/event, which officially launches this week in Action Comics #1064.

“House of Brainiac” begins as “Brainiac’s Czarnian army [invades] Metropolis,” and the story proper explores how “Superman, Lobo, Green Lantern, and the rest of the House of El respond to this tragedy.” Along the way, there’s appearances by the new-ish Brainiac Queen, big moral choices (including for Lobo!), and plenty of intergalactic action married with a deeply poignant exploration of family. And while “House of Brainiac” is meant to lead into this summer’s gigantic Absolute Power, it’s still very much a must-read event, as Williamson and his various collaborators (including artist Rafa Sandoval) are crafting a powerful story for Superman faithful and any hold-outs alike.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

For a full list of “House of Brainiac” titles, head here. (Launch week also includes the tie-in issue of Green Lantern #10.) To get a better understanding of the scope and stakes of this event, we recently took part in an hour-long roundtable discussion with Williamson. Below, we’ve organized just a few of the most important gems, insights, and other tidbits, including Williamson’s thoughts on writing/creating events, the lead in to Absolute Power, his continuing “relationship” with Superman, character arcs for Lana Luthor and Supergirl, and much, much more.

(The interview was edited for length and clarity in parts.)

House of Brainiac

A variant cover by Jorge Jiménez. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the pitfalls of big events

“I’ve worked on every event for the last eight or nine years at DC. Between Dark Crisis and Knight Terrors, and even going so far back and working as a consultant on Dark Nights: Metal and Death Metal.

With this particular story, with this kind of epic story that you’re doing…I’ve learned a lot of lessons from each of them. And you try to apply them each time. One of the lessons I learned is don’t rush the ending. That, and in some ways, work your way backwards. I always find myself, and I try to be better about it, but you realize at some point you’re going to run out of room. And it’s always better to find out as early as you can to figure this out. At some point one issue in this is going to be a little bit packed. It’s always going to happen. I always want to have as much room and to let it breathe as much as possible. And you really want to get into the characters and produce a story. At some point, you will realize you’re going to run out of room.

I see this in a lot of events that I’ve worked on. And even before I was working at DC, I was a big DC reader. I had an event shelf for all of DC. But with this one, I was working on it and I started realizing that I didn’t want to fall into that trap. And so I started working where I was like, ‘OK, I know the emotional beats that I want at the ending, and I want to make sure all those breathe.’ And so it was a matter of me working my way toward the middle and finding those places that were going to be packed, like I could tell where it was going to happen. But you want to make sure every character is able to stand alone and have their own big moments. You still have something you want to say about those characters.

I remember reading events as a fan, as a reader, and being like, ‘Huh, this part got rushed a little bit, or how this part was missing something.’ And so now I try to keep that in my head when I’m working on these things. Am I going to make those same mistakes? Sometimes they’re unavoidable.”

On letting Superman soar

“I wanted to show Superman just having fun being Superman. I’ve always believed that Superman doesn’t feel burdened by being Superman. He actually enjoys being Superman. I’ve never liked the idea that Superman feels a burden to save people’s lives or a burden to be a good person. I feel like Superman would definitely have moments where he would just appreciate what he has. And that was what this page was about…showing Superman taking a moment. Like, could you imagine if you got to fly — literally just fly over the ocean, fly with the birds, run your hand along the water. Superman essentially [has] a morning surf is how I described this page. There’s no way I could have done this without all the extra issues.”

House of Brainiac

From Action Comics #1064. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the nature of Superman

“I definitely think I’m way more in Superman’s head now than I’ve ever been.

With Batman/Superman, that title was so much more about their relationship with Batman and the two of them together. With this one, yeah, I’m getting way more into Superman’s head with this story,

In the beginning, it was about getting more in Superman’s head and who he was and finding those pieces of humanity with him because that’s so much who Superman is — his humanity.

One of the things that has been interesting in the book is that…sometimes with Superman, there is an impulse to try to change him. And it is difficult to do that. I think that sometimes, this is where the genre stuff came in…just take who Superman is and then drop him in new situations and then let him respond to those situations. That’s been one of my attitudes with the book. Everyone around Superman is going through changes and Superman is the same, ad so I kind of want to play with those ideas.”

On the dynamics between Action Comics and Superman

“I was looking at what Superman is to me , and the Superman book to me is a lot about Superman and Lex Luthor and SuperCorp and the stuff that’s been going on with Lois being editor-in-chief. We brought back Lena.

I’ve always looked at what Philip Kennedy Johnson was doing on Action as the Superman family book. And so when I started working on this book, I wanted to keep that math, right? So even when you’re reading it, I would switch the balance up a little bit, right? When you’re reading the Superman issues, they’re a little more Superman/a little more Lobo heavy. And then when we read Action, it’s a little bit more about Supergirl and Connor, and both of them have really big moments in this book.”

On giving Superboy some spotlight

“I wanted to make sure everyone had their own little moment.

There’s a scene with Superboy that is pretty big and it’s teased a little bit in the second issue. Superboy had that encounter The Chained, and ever since then, he’s been like, ‘That person had my powers and was using them in a way that I don’t use them. Maybe I should look into that.’ And that is something that we explore over the course of this in a way. So you’ll see it’s pretty cool. It’s a two-page spread coming with Superboy. That’s pretty dope.”

DC Preview: Action Comics #1064

From Action Comics #1064. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the role of legacy

“I think legacy is really crucial to DC. Like, I think it’s built into the DNA of DC Comics. And really even with Superman — I’m a big believer that the best versions of DC are the versions where you embrace the history and you embrace the core values of what DC is, and then you add new to it,

And I think you add new characters and you continue on this legacy. One of the things that I’m looking at with Superman lately, particularly — and it’s something that we’ll be exploring with Superman after Absolute Power this summer — is just a bit about the idea of real heroes inspire other people to be heroes. And I think that’s something about Superman — like, Superman is clearly an inspiration in real life to people, but also with these characters. And so with these characters like Superboy and the Super Twins, I’m giving them their own roles. They can’t just be like sidekicks. Don’t get me wrong, I love sidekicks, but they can’t just be like the kids, right?

There’s a scene in the second issue, where Lobo is basically talking about how Superman’s family has grown, and so has Lobo’s in a weird way, like with Crush and Czarnians returning. It’s interesting to see how different people respond to it differently. Like, if you suddenly have this family around you.”

On diving into Brainiac

“This is something I was thinking about a lot in the very beginning with Superman. When I started working on the job, a big part of what I think Superman’s strengths are his connections with people. His ability to connect with people. And Brainiac is the opposite of that. I feel like he is the opposite of connecting with people. He doesn’t care about people. But there’s something going on with Brainiac where you realize Brainiac oddly does have a family, right? He has a family and he has this ‘House of Brainiac.’ And you get to see how someone like Brainiac, who is not about connection and not about family, does have a family. And what does that mean for him? And why is he doing what he’s doing? Like, what is missing? And there’s a couple of scenes where Superman and Brainiac have these confrontations. Is Brainiac trying to understand?

I’m not sure how much I want to get into spoilers, but you can have all the knowledge in the world but still not know how to live. I think that’s something with Brainiac particularly. It’s like this person who’s been a hoarder for information and knowledge, and hoarding it and wanting to own it and destroying anything that could possibly take it away. He just wants it for himself. But if you look throughout his stories, I think that he is searching for something else. And we get to explore that a little bit with him.”

Joshua Williamson invites us into "House of Brainiac"

From Action Comics #1064. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On referencing other Brainiac stories

“When you’re reading this, you’re going to know which Brainiac stories I like because it’s the ones that I borrow from. So it’s like Panic in the Sky. There’s a Brainiac trilogy that Roger Stern did [“The Brainiac Trilogy”]. Clearly Brainiac 13 from [Superman: Y2K].

But one of the big ones, and I’ve had it on my desk for the last two years, is [Superman: Brainiac], when they reintroduced this version of Brainiac. I thought it was fascinating how…Supergirl is so afraid of Brainiac in this story. Don’t get me wrong, I like Brainiac with a goatee and all that stuff. Even when I was a kid, because I loved superpowers. I really loved the metal robot version of Brainiac. But I always thought this story was sort of interesting. There was a moment there where Brainiac had lost his scariness. As a villain, he loses his sense of danger, which happens to villains sometimes. They lose a bit of that over time. Usually if they get beaten enough times it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not scary anymore.’ But this story is really interesting because Supergirl is very afraid of Brainiac at the beginning.”

On more Brainiac changes and other tidbits

“I don’t feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when it comes to Brainiac. Because there’s different versions of Brainiac in this story, and I just tried to make sure they all maintained that personality of that version of Brainiac There’s what I call Brainiac Prime — the one introduced in the Geoff Johns/Gary Frank stuff that’s not an official name but it’s easier for me in the notes for the artists to just say Brainiac crime. But [with Brainiac Prime], there is a bit of an evolution there because at this point. Brainiac feels that he has all the knowledge, but there’s holes, and of course those holes drive Brainiac nuts and it’s causing Brainiac to sort of glitch trying to figure out what those holes are. And there’s a scene where Lex explains this…there are some bits of knowledge we’re never meant to know. Like, we shouldn’t know these things, and Brainiac does know them and it’s like an infection. That infection is taking the form of [Brainiac Queen]. The Queen is not what you expect.”

On Lena Luthor’s “redemption” arc

“The events of Our Worlds at War play [a role] because I read that when it was coming out and I was, ‘You know, it’s funny like Brainiac, he makes that deal with Lex and Lex basically sacrifices Lena and takes her to the future.’ And then it’s like, when Lena eventually betrayed him during Our Worlds at War, Brainiac says, ‘You’re the chosen one. You were meant to be the next step.’ And he was so offended that she was choosing to go back — choosing her father, choosing Lex, choosing Superman. And then Superman saved her. He saved Lena, gave Lena back to Lex,and was like, ‘Be better.’ And then it got forgotten completely.

There’s a hint of her in a metropolis story with Jimmy Olsen that she was at one point — a version of her that was like AI technology. But they even say in that story she’s not the real Nina. It’s always bugged me. Like, where did Nina go? And that’s why I brought her back because I was like, ‘This is so silly.’ And we actually explored where she was the whole time during the story.”

Joshua Williamson invites us into "House of Brainiac"

From Action Comics #1064. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On Superman’s wonderful toys

“I collect a lot of toys. My office is covered in toys. Whenever a new toy line comes out, there’s a lot of Batman. Why is it that Batman gets all the toys? Superman should have toys, too. So when we were going into the SuperCorp storyline, I wanted to give Superman as much new toys to play with. And it was great because I was working with artists like Jamal Campbell, and Jamal to design stuff. What I’ve learned about almost all the artists that I work with, they all want to design stuff too, right? They want to design suits and costumes. And so I was like, I want to get Superman as many cool toys as possible and find places for it. And even back in the day…they would give Superman a jet for some reason. Or there was a Superman car for some reason. I said, ‘I have to find a reason for these things now. I have to find a place for them in this story.’ So there’s an actual reason for why these things, even though it’s almost 40 years old.”

On the Superman/Lobo dynamic

“I have this notebook..it looks like a Daily Planet notebook. Like, ‘Property of Lois Lane.’ So when I got the job [writing Superman], I made lists of all of the supporting characters and then I made a list of all his villains. I started thinking about this thing we’re talking about where it’s like, ‘I want to take the characters as who they are and move them a step, right?’ So that’s Lois as editor-in-chief. It’s Jimmy having an actual good relationship with somebody. It’s Perry White running for mayor. It was Lex trying to actually do good. So trying to find a place for Lobo was always part of the plan. Like, ‘Oh, I’m doing Superman, then I’m going to do a Lobo story. That’s what’s going to happen.’

I think that this story could potentially be heavy in places, right? There are some emotional beats to it in the story and there are some big moments, but also once you throw Lobo into the situation, it adds a different amount of lightness to it in a way. I just really love Lobo and I like writing characters. I ran into this with Flash, Barry Allen…some of these characters are best when they have someone to bounce off of, right? I mean, it’s part of the DNA even of Batman, like with the Batman family.

When I was on Flash, it was part of what led to the creation of Godspeed — I needed someone for Barry to talk to. It can’t always be internal monologues. Like, ‘I need someone to talk to, but I also like having someone to talk to who is very different from me.’ That’s where the real fun begins…when it’s somebody that’s very different from them. And so with this, the idea that Superman and Lobo are very different, but then also not. They’re both the last sons. I mean, there’s obviously a massive difference because of the fact that Lobo killed everybody on his world. There’s this idea that over the years — and this is brought up in the second issue — they both were the last sons and at one point they had a family. Like, how did that happen?

But also the idea of the two of them on this, like, 48 Hrs. ‘buddy cops who don’t like each other,’ Lethal Weapon-style [adventure]…going into space, chasing after the Czarnians.”

DC Preview: Green Lantern #10

From Green Lantern #10. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the surprising arc of Supergirl

“I think everybody’s going to get a moment, particularly the characters that are in space. Lois is still going to be in Metropolis, and she’s dealing with some of the aftermath of what’s happening there. We have a lot of really cool stuff with Lois coming throughout the summer; we’re definitely doing more with Lois

The character that surprised me was Supergirl. I knew she was going to play an important role. So was Superboy. But Supergirl, I really liked writing her, and she took over a couple of scenes. I found that Kara is also angry. She’s seen what Brainiac is capable of and she’s not afraid of him anymore. But she has enough knowledge to be like, ‘I know what I have to do in these moments.’ And so Kara does some really bold stuff. There’s a moment in the fourth issue, I think, where she does something kind of crazy. She makes a decision to do something that might be a little nutty. And then she’s just like, ‘No, I’m going forward, we’re doing this.’ And that came from just writing her.”

On playing with history and pushing Lex Luthor

“It’s funny, when I started writing Superman, I had certain rules for myself where I was going to try not to go backwards too much. Like I have a habit, you can see with some of my work, I go backwards. I’ve got to look at stuff from the past and bring it forward sometimes. So with Superman,I said, ‘I know we want to try to focus a little bit more on the new. This story is the only one that I feel like we went back a little bit because we were referencing a lot of older Brainiac stories and some of the stuff with Lena. But it was the same idea…take those things and then take the next step with them. And then Lex has some really big moments in here, and the reason I bring that up is because Lex does something that definitely references a story from the past in a major way that some people are going to be like, ‘Holy shit.’ I think we answer the question, ‘Is Lex lying or not? Is he really trying to do the right thing or not?'”

On the vital work of Rafa Sandoval

“The work that Rafa is doing on this book is bonkers. Like, Rafa is doing so much cool stuff.

We have Lobo essentially when he meets the House of Lobo, it doesn’t go exactly the way you would think it would go. But then if you go and look at some of the covers we have planned

Rafa might draw, like, a 10-page Superman versus Lobo fight that’s pretty bonkers in this story. So those are definitely things that might be happening in May.”

DC Preview: Green Lantern #10

From Green Lantern #10. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On telling deeply personable stories

“It’s funny, even working on this book, I’m constantly asking for more pages. Like, the backups in Action are part of the story and I’ve found ways to really incorporate them into what we’re doing and make them so the backups aren’t standalones — they’re actually really important to the story we’re telling. And even with this first issue, we use all 30 pages of Action for the first issue.

I like disaster movies. I like when you watch these disaster movies, whether it’s something ‘modern’ like Independence Day, which is almost 30 years old. But you look at something like Independence Day, or you go so far back and look at some classics like The Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno, they spent a lot of time with the cast first before the thing happens, you know? And so with this, I was like, ‘I want to spend some time with the cast.’ I want to do a check-in with everybody. I want to bring you in. And I love Lois Lane, and I think the idea that like Lois Lane finally gets a day off and then literally Lobos start raining down from the sky just feels like the funniest thing. But that meant having extra pages and letting it really, really breathe. I mean, the first 10 pages of this book are check-ins with everybody.”

On genre-centric stories

“Because we were doing a crossover…there’s some mechanics with crossovers that can be a little tough. And then because there’s Absolute Power in the summer, I had to take my foot off the gas on exploring some of the genres a little bit. But with this one, it’s a disaster movie. We’re doing the whole, ‘We get to meet everybody first and then something happens’ kind of thing.

Joshua Williamson invites us into "House of Brainiac"

From Green Lantern #10. Courtesy of DC Comics.

I wish the Western issue we’d been able to do as a two- or three-issue thing. I was very much about trying to let the stories breathe a little bit, but now that just doesn’t work for the schedule.

Don’t even worry, we’re totally going to get back to doing more genres as we go.”

On the personal nature of storytelling

“Every story I do, whether I outright say it or it’s subtle in the text, they’re always about something about me, or about me trying to say something about the characters. Or, how I’m feeling about these things. When I was working on Flash, it was about some personal stuff. And then Dark Crisis was about something totally different. So with this, I do look into the ideas of human connection. Like, you can have all this stuff, but you have nowhere to share it with, right?

The question I had was like, ‘Why does Brainiac even do this? What is the end game? And when you start asking the questions about why does a hoarder do what they do, it can get real personal real fast. And then trying to find those personal sort of connections to it, and when you start understanding where Brainiac is coming from. And then, how does Superman deal with that? Again, it comes down to connections with people and how important connections

Everything I work on is always personal in some way or another. I always start putting that. Don’t get me wrong, I like explosions and I like aliens punching each other in space and all that stuff. But you want to make sure that you are putting a piece of yourself into it.”

On Absolute Power

“This story does lead into Absolute Power. The ramifications of this do have a major, major impact on Absolute Power in a lot of different ways. And the Superman issues that are connected to Absolute Power that follow this are very connected and they very much have bigger moments with that [story].”

Joshua Williamson invites us into "House of Brainiac"

From Green Lantern #10. Courtesy of DC Comics.

On the Brainiac/Superman evolving “relationship”

“Because we go from this right into Absolute Power…and Superman is dealing with what happens in Absolute Power before he deals with anything else. Like, we won’t really see the ramifications of this story and Absolute Power until we get to issue #19 in the fall. A lot happens in the end. So it’s hard to answer how it impacts Superman right now because I don’t want to ruin it. Some stuff happens at the ending that has a major impact on a lot of the characters.

I was saying this before about how Superman is dealing with the idea of anger. Something happens that might really piss him off at the end…[something] that can make him even more mad. So it’ll definitely impact him and how he sees Brainiac moving forward.

Like, how do you have this moment where you feel compassion for this person? Superman is a person who gives everybody a second chance, and he feels like the only person he ever really let down was Lex Luthor; he couldn’t save Lex Luthor. Some of those feelings are going to also be involved with what happens with Brainiac at the end. There’ll definitely be a moment between Superman and Brainiac that will sort of harken back to some stuff with Jor-El and the idea of losing a parent or losing a child.”

On coordinating with Power Girl and Green Lantern

“With Power Girl, Leah [Williams] and I have met a few times over the years and I had actually recommended Leah for some DC stuff years ago. And so when we were talking about how this is going to impact Metropolis…the conversation was, ‘Well, Power Girl’s there and we should definitely do something.’ We all saw it as a good opportunity to bring that book a little bit more into this story. And so I did a Zoom with Leah last year and was just like, ‘Tell me what you’re doing in the book.’ Because I don’t want to derail someone’s comic. I don’t want to come in and be like, ‘I’m doing this story, and now you have to do something with it.’ I want to be like, ‘What are you doing in your book and how can we like blend that in?’

And then I told Leah everything that I was doing and explained the whole story and gave a bunch of pieces to Leah. And then just bounced back and forth. And it’s only three issues, you know? So it was easy to talk with Leah about what those three beats would be. The funny thing is, we’re doing this story with Lobo and all these Czarnians and we have to find a place for Crush. And Crush being over in Power Girl made a lot of sense for the story in that moment.

Jeremy [Adams] and I are friends; we’re chat buddies and text buddies. I knew what he was doing in Green Lantern. And Jeremy also really loves Lobo. We started talking about in Green Lantern [how] there’s a major story point. There’s a quarantine and people can’t leave Earth and you can’t come in. So it was like, ‘OK, well, Brainiac’s coming in and these things are happening. We should talk about it.’ And so Jeremy and I just talked and Jeremy was like… OK, I’m going to ruin stuff. Basically, Guy Gardner has encounters with the Lobos and stuff happens.

Let everybody go do their thing because I don’t I don’t like dictating to people. I’m a big believer of let me put these toys on the table for you and then you play with them how you want to play with them.”

On the fate of Jimmy Olsen

“I’m always trying to find more for Jimmy to do. I love [Jimmy and Silver Banshee] together and I just want them to be happy together. Like, that is my goal: let’s just let them be happy.”

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