It’s a good time to be Brian Michael Bendis. Between his perch atop the roost of writers at Marvel Comics (secured through his killing and recasting one of Marvel’s two most recognizable heroes – Spider-Man), the adaptation of his long-running superhero noir series Powers as a TV pilot, and the launch of not one but two successful creator-owned series – Takio and Brilliant – Bendis is at the peak of his game in a way that the rest of us could only dream of being. While Takio was a solid, if not revolutionary, all-ages story (though it’s notable for featuring a pair of realistically written young women as its heroes), Brilliant might wind up living up to its name, depending on where Bendis and Mark Bagley (Brilliant’s co-creator and artist – the team that gave us so many breathlessly entertaining issues of Ultimate Spider-Man has been reunited!) are able to take it. There’s potential here, but like with 90% of all first issues, adopting a “wait-and-see” strategy is probably safest.
Brilliant’s premise is a pretty simple one to distill: genius college kids invent super powers. The book opens with one of them – Amadeus – breaking into a bank, ostensibly to test out his invulnerability/mental powers. He’s successful (moreso than he might’ve anticipated, even). The rest of the issue is spent teasing out the premise during a birthday party. We meet Albert, who’s returning to the nebulous university in Seattle that our cast attends. His friend Kindred, who’s excited to have him return as a partner on this new, life- and perhaps world-changing project. Marie, who we know’ll amount to more than just the desirable, nerdy girl (this is Brian Michael Bendis’ writing, after all. Spider-Woman. Jessica Jones. Deena Pilgrim. Jinx. Scarlet. Ultimate Gwen Stacy. The list goes on, and on, and on). They overwhelm Albert with the story of Jack Parsons, a scientist who was strongly influenced by speculative fiction of his time. Albert’s friends, deciding that the influence of fiction on science in the recent years has been lacking, took up Parsons’ gauntlet for themselves and have… somehow… imbued at least one of their numbers with superhuman abilities.
It seems to me that Brilliant might have a lot in common with Rising Stars when all is said and done, in that it could well be an exploration of the choice that all supermen and -women have, whether to use their abilities for personal gain or for the public good (the “morality” of superhuman abilities, I suppose). What could well set Brilliant apart from Rising Stars, though, is the man vs. nature thematic, in that it’s not random chance that assigned these superhuman abilities to these kids, but their own sweat and will. Brilliant might well end up being more about Dr. Frankenstein than his monster this way, and that’s a little less common of a conceit in mainstream comics these days. This issue’s kind of leading in that direction, setting up the Amadeus/Albert/Kindred dynamic (with Albert getting pulled between the eventually-opposing philosophies of Amadeus and Kindred), but I could be completely misreading Bendis and Bagley’s intentions. They may not be setting out to tell a morality tale with universal implications, but a more straightforward science adventure story. While I might think it’s something of a missed opportunity for them to go down that less ambitious road, we’ll have to see how things unfold before any real judgements get made.
The opening of Brilliant gives us Bendis and Bagley back in the form I love to see from them – breezy, dynamic action with a twist, but much of the rest of the book gets sucked down into the realm of talking heads. It’s paced well enough that this development’s not too disheartening (Bendis’ dialogue remains snappy as ever), but I’m looking forward to the moments where Bagley really gets to cut loose, showing us what these kids can really do. I’m also not entirely sold on Nick Filardi’s colors; I know this is Seattle and all, but it’s still a superhero book, and I’d like to think it could do with some brighter colors (then again, the preview for the next issue does suggest just that, so perhaps I should stop complaining).
Brilliant’s a good idea, and I’m all for supporting good ideas. These guys have such a solid track record behind them that I’m willing to give them all the rope they want until they hang me with it. You might well enjoy giving them the same opportunity to you.
PS – In a bit of ill-conceived self-promotion, I feel it’s worth noting that Brilliant speaks to me strongly because I work on a comic strip that treads similar ground. I’ve been writing and drawing a webcomic called Mad Scientist High for about a year, and since Brilliant is kind of like the University of Mad Scientists, you might be able to see where I have some interest overlap. Of course, Brilliant is better than Mad Scientist High, but that just gives me a higher point at which to aim. I think I’m climbing closer than I was when I began, but you feel free to judge that one for yourself (if you’re so inclined).