Big Brains In Comics

Last week I reviewed Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansens’ new original graphic novel Genius, which has me thinking about smart people in comics. Which lead to a mental list of my favorite brainy folks in comics. Which I then wrote out as an actual list. Which lead to me thinking about the problems my list represents. So that’s what you’re about to get below. Enjoy!

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5. Bruce Banner

Believe it or not, I can relate to this guy. His story is a classic of the modern scientist. You discover something you hope will be a boon to humanity, only to realize the money is only there to make it a weapon. I also think that the Bruce/Hulk dichotomy captures something essential about being a scientist, which is that some intelligence is required for the gig, but mostly it’s just how you’re trained to think, ask questions, and solve problems. These are useful skills, but it doesn’t mean you’re smart across the board. I get caught doing and saying dumb things all the time. These are my Hulk moments. (That and when I get really angry and smash things.) You can be good at science and terrible at everything else, and I think Bruce embodies that more than most. A lot of this also applies to Dr. Manhattan, but that dude is way too in control of his emotions.

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4. Michael Holt

What’s not to love about the heir to the Mister Terrific mantle? While Lex and Bruce vie for spots 1 and 2 on the DCU smartest dude around list, Holt happily hangs back as #3 without issue. Yet I never hear Lex or Bruce talk about what they studied in grad school, whereas Holt has 14 PhDs. Just saying. Holt is also an athlete, which is an aspect of scientists that is often left out of fiction. Yes, we are nerds of the highest order, but I also competed in a mountain bike race yesterday where I saw at least 2 other professors taking on longer races than I did. I’m not saying I’m going to become a decathlon champion like Holt, but it’s nice to see a brainy dude not afraid to display a bit of brawn even without superpowers. Plus I love the jacket. If DC sold his jacket, I would wear it un-ironically. Fair play, y’all.

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3. Peter Parker

Peter Parker is great because he has had to learn a lesson that many other scientists have also gone through: science doesn’t always pay the bills. Many a scientist have been forced via economic necessity to abandon the grant-funded grind and take positions far beneath their level of education because you can’t grow hamburgers with just science (oh wait…). Regardless, I think his need to work any job he can get makes Parker of the most well-rounded and realistic of the superhero nerd community.

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2. Hank McCoy

I just really like Hank McCoy. He’s got a lot of reasons to be bummed out, which I get because we’ve all had experiments go wrong. Just yesterday I jumbled a tray of samples that weren’t labeled so now I have to redo the whole batch. But does Hank let that get him down? Sometimes, yes, but that’s an appropriate amount of pathos in a normally chipper guy. Hank also relies on coffee with something bordering on religious fervor, another all too true trope of scientists. We’re often ranked as the profession most reliant on caffeine ranking above the likes of surgeons and pilots. Plus Hank is a great multi-tasker. I envy his feet in a way that is probably not healthy.

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1. Reed Richards

Who else could be #1? He invents more things than he probably has time to name, he locks himself in a room of equations, and unlike any other scientist on this list: he goes into the field. Not all sciences are field sciences, but I’m a paleontologist so I’m biased towards occasionally leaving the lab to get covered in sweat and dirt. Plus who else can actually make their brain bigger if they need some more mental RAM for a particularly tricky problem? And much like Holt above, I have a weird fondness for academics deserving of the term Doctor who voluntarily go by Mister. As smart as they are, and as egotistical as the names Terrific and Fantastic are, respectively, I like the simple nod to at least attempt to be of the people. If you ever meet a scientist that insists on being called Doctor, they probably do have more in common with Victor von Doom than my man, Reed.

 

When I make lists like this I really do just try to let my mind wander and snag whatever floats by. As with my last list, I’m disturbed by the fact that this list is mostly white and all men, even if one is now blue. There are obviously heroes of other races and genders who are written as smart, but for some reason they don’t immediately come to mind for me. T’Challa, the Black Panther, is a certified genius, but still seems to be written as second fiddle to Reed Richards most of the time. John Henry Irons is obviously a bright guy too, but once he built his suit seemed content just to smash things with a hammer. Ryan Choi is Chinese, but I never read the book when he was the Atom so I have no context with which to add him to the list. Barbara Gordon is also written as decidedly brainy, but she has to contend with Bruce Wayne, whom we’re constantly reminded is 2nd only to Lex Luthor in the DCU. I’ve mentioned before that Wonder Woman is supposed to be a scientist, she even invented a purple healing ray! But when was the last time that was mentioned in any of her books? (Although I admit that forcing in a nod to science in Azzarello’s mythology-biased book would be out of line with the overall tone.)

In even my short scientific career I have worked with probably as many women as I have men, as well as people of many races, creeds, orientations, and whatever other label you want to toss in there. Scientists are a diverse bunch (as diverse as we should be? Not yet) and I think comics should bear that out a bit more. But I also get that it’s a bit of a catch-22. The characters listed above were created during a time when science was far less diverse, and creating new characters that stick around in the modern world is a challenge. Here I am saying we need more diverse science-characters while also not having read the Atom’s book when the hero role was fulfilled by a young Asian professor. So maybe I’m part of the problem too.

Well I think I’ve said more than enough on this topic so I’ll leave it with you lot. Tell us in the comments, who are your favorite big brains in comics?

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Ryan Haupt looks forward to the year 2099 when we’ll finally have Hispanic smart heroes too. Go check out his science podcast, which is open to all comers.

Comments

  1. I always thought it’d be a fun thing if Ray Palmer was actually the smartest man in the DCU because it makes sense but it’s also kinda unexpected. I’d throw in John Henry Irons and Hardware as two other geniuses who are also criminally overlooked (though being overlooked is a central point of Hardware’s origin).

    • You also got Dr. Light II, though they downplay her brilliance to upsell her abrasive attitude — she’s the DCU’s Temperance Brennan! — and June Robbins from the Challengers of the Unknown who is their tech whiz and apparently beat Will Magnus and TO Morrow to making the first artificial intelligence.

  2. Valeria Richards! She and her dad are my favorite at the moment.

    • +1 for Valeria – I wish that Hickman was still writing her. Bring her and Doom into the Illuminati. Doom, Namor and Valeria just getting sassy with each other for an entire issue.

    • @zlbenson, that’s brilliant — I’d buy it.

      Isn’t Valeria supposed to be potentially smarter than her father?

    • She’s claimed that she is smarter than her Dad, but that could be the fact that she is youthful and overly arrogant – like most kids. It’s the lack of wisdom and experience that differentiates. Man, I really wish Fraction would have left her back with the Foundation – Bentley needs someone to verbally spar with.

  3. I actually haven’t read many (any?) stories where Banner gets to do cool science stuff, but that’s probably just my limited Hulk reading list.

  4. Tony stark anyone

  5. Amadeus Cho and Prodigy are probably the most recent genius level characters of diversity that have even stuck just a little bit.

  6. I think the important thing is context; yeah maybe T’Challa plays second fiddle to Reed, but maybe he wants that, or doesn’t care what people think of him. The point is his genius, it’s not really his fault if people don’t maintain an interest in him.

    What about Amadueus Cho? The young Asian boy from Pak’s Incredible Hulk. Or the Toy-Man from Superman/Batman (who I think was also japanese). Virgil Hawkens is smart, pretty much a black Peter Parker. Isn’t Mile Morales up there too somewhere? And Brainic 5, green. So there’s others. In fact you should have an honorable mentions list Ryan.

    My favorite big-brain in comics? Tough, lots of competition there. If I couldn’t pick the Doctor (who’s a Dr and not evil) then either Mr.Fantastic or …Ozymandias.

  7. NO t’CHALLA?

    **COMMENT MODERATED**

  8. One of my favorite jokes during the Johns JSA run has to do with Holt talking about being “Third Smartest” and that he accepts that title because “the other two are really insecure about it.” Holt is one of my favorite characters and one of the few prominent atheist characters in comics. (How did you resist the urge to list Holt as #3!?)

    I would definitely say T’Challa over Peter, though.

  9. The obvious choice to me is Lex Luthor.

  10. Tom Strong came to mind after reading your list, but he wouldn’t be in the top five, probably not in the top 10 either. He has the problem solving skills and that intellectually inquisitive aspect to him which I feel like fits him into the scientist category, and in the realm of Big Brains.

    As for your number one, I must agree. Reed Richards is always my go to guy. You have to go off planet to find a better scientist and big brain, and even then no one else comes to mind at the moment.

  11. Stark is an glaring omission, but Ryan did state that the list is comprised of his favorites. So maybe Tony just doesn’t rank among them.

  12. Isn’t Destiny kind of omniscient? 😉

    I’d have to go with Adrian Veidt… ‘Nuff said, I think…

  13. I’ll include Dr. Niles Caulder from the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol. Caulder applied the Catastrophe Theory to the team. Crazy.

  14. Reed and Val are my personal favorites.

  15. MadCowDzz MadCowDzz (@DarylFritz) says:

    Hank Pym?

  16. Hmm, Stark, Luthor, and Pym should be on this list over Parker and Holt, and make first place a Stark/Richards tie.

  17. DOOM!!!!!!!!!!!???????

  18. I guess you had to put in someone from DC… but in terms of comparison – everyone knows who the 4 Marvel characters are. Mr. Terrific? c’mon…

    How about Dr. Manhattan? Doc Ock?

  19. Am I the only one that read the introduction where Ryan says these are his “favorite brainy folks”?

    This isn’t a list of the top 5 smartest people in comics it’s a list of his favorite ones.

  20. Where would Paul Montgomery fall on that list? Surely his PotW reviews earn him a spot…

    • Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      I got a D and an F in Physics for Design I and II in college. I did get a B in the Dinosaur class I took to make up for the latter a few years later.

  21. “Dinosaur class”… Send him to the Savage Land.