The Brain Wave is an early DC Comics super-villain, who first appeared in 1943.
He wasn’t the first super-villain, of course. There’s a broad agreement that it was the Ultra-Humanite, a strange enemy of Superman first seen in 1939.
- He was the first super-villain who fought a team of super-heroes.
- This is because he was the first opponent of the Justice Society of America who can clearly be called a super-villain. There also was Oom, but Oom only fights the Spectre in a flashback set before the team is assembled.
- This occurred when the JSA’s writer, Gardner Fox, was creating many of the tropes that would shape the super-hero genre.
So Brain Wave deserves a historical footnote. He existed in an intermediate space, halfway between 1930s pulpsCheap, often lurid novels in the US during the 1920s and 1930s. villains and 1940s+ super-villains.
This profile only covers the Brain Wave as published in 1940s comic books. So that’s four All-Star Comics (“ASC”) issues.
It doesn’t cover later material, even if set during the 1940s. Most of which occurred during Roy Thomas’ work in restoring the DC Universe’s Golden Age elements. The “royvival” I call it, using my power of great wit.
(And some occurred in 1970s revival work by Gerry Conway. The “gerryvival”, of course.)
This approach keeps the article focused. It’s also useful for those of you who need, for their own stories, an unretconned Golden AgeSuper-hero comics from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. villain to build upon.
(Furthermore, the 1970s/1980s version of Brain Wave already has Mayfair DCH TTRPG stats.)
This article ended up being inexplicably longer than planned. Though in hindsight, well, he’s a guy with complicated powers and special inventions.
So it’s presented as two short articles for everybody’s comfort :
- The Brain Wave (1940s) (part #1). This here article.
- The Brain Wave (1940s) (part #2).
- Real Name: Henry King.
- Known Relatives: None.
- Group Affiliation: Member of the Injustice Society of the World.
- Base of Operations: Originally “a big tower near Sharktooth Bay”.
- Height: 5’3″ (1.60 m). Weight: 100 lbs. (45 Kg.).
- Eyes: Dark. Hair: Bald (blond as a boy, later black and rapidly thinning).
- Other Distinguishing Features: Huge cranium.
Powers & Abilities
The abilities of Brain Wave (“BW”) completely changed between his first appearance and his next three :
- At first, he has the psionicPsionics are sci-fi style psychic powers. ability to create illusionary agents.
- Then he stops using those, but becomes more of a Luthor or Sivana super-scientist.
- First he develops a miniaturising ray that can shrink people to a height of about 8″ (20cm). He also manages to steal records from the Justice Society, but Occcam’s RazorA logic rule about favouring the explanation involving the fewest entities. suggests this was done using this shrinking tech.
- Then he builds dreams-and-delirium-inducing machines. And is a capable actor and disguise artist.
- Then he’s more of an inventor of super-weapons, including a mirage projection ray and a steel-cage-teleporting device.
He’s also a trained psychiatrist.
However, he seems badly nearsighted. And has a distinctive, unhealthy appearance.
Know your role
The stories could easily have been told using a different, throwaway villain in each instance. Reusing BW created a continuity effect, but the character was plot-shaped rather than realised.
This wasn’t uncommon back then. For instance, see our character profile for the 1940s Catwoman, whose methods and capabilities kept changing.
For RPG modelisation purposes, we’ll go with a system where he has okay core capabilities, plus a pool of points he can assign to enhance some of these skills and powers.
Basically, he has a “brain wave” and some of his capabilities become much stronger. Strong enough to be the means for his next scheme.
This proposed framework *isn’t* in the material. It’s just a way to make things more coherent a posterioriBuilding a reasoning on a series of observed facts., without changing anything in the Golden Age stories.
(Also, it helps explain his name).
Use your illusions
The psionic manifestations BW uses in ASC #15 are :
- Illusory enforcers, often in the shape of a gunman. These seem 100% real, and if they kill their victim then that person dies of fright. However, they cannot touch somebody who knows for a fact that they aren’t real. These illusions just vanish once their job is done.
- BW once created the images of a dozen thugs to fight the Sandman (Wesley Dodds) and Sandy (Sandy Hawkins). But these seemed less capable than the illusions of gunmen, and weren’t armed.
- Making it look like marble statues were talking and moving. They could converse with people, which means that BW could perceive what was going on near his illusions.
- Remotely create an illusion of famous baseball pitcher “Lefty” Madden. Training to bat his pitches was just as effective as training with the real McCoy. However, there is an implication that it was a psychological effect caused by admiration toward “Lefty”, rather than a property of the illusion.
- Doing an illusion that is the exact likeness of a person whose appearance he studied.
Those illusions aren’t powerful agents. But they are 100% disposable, can instantly vanish without a trace, are 100% under King’s control, etc..
They are also perfect for psychological terrorism. By :
- Producing specific images tailored to a subject’s fears and guilts.
- Creating a feeling of paranoia and unreality with vanishing assassins, imaginary messengers, being unable to tell who’s real and who isn’t, etc..
Use your illusions part II
The illusions can be seen and heard by any person who’s present. They even produce smells, such as burnt gunpowder when shooting.
Whether the illusions can interact with the physical world (outside of causing death by shock) is unclear. But they can be made solid enough to be punched, and the baseball pitcher illusion presumably threw actual baseballs.
They could also carry bags of cash, but had to drop these when they vanished.
One illusion mentions that it comes from “the great dimension of thought and memory”. This may have been an allusion to Jungian concepts about a shared subconscious. Possibly.
This vaguely implies that the illusions, if in the likeness of a historical or fictional character, might have access to that character’s knowledge. Even if BW doesn’t have that information.
Some period country music would be the better choice, I think.
Let’s go with a hit 1943 hillbilly tune. Here’s Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys playing “Night Train to Memphis”.
History (part 1)
By cover date, the Brain Wave first appeared in February 1943.
However, as discussed in our Justice Society of America profile, you can opt to shift the events in the past by a few months. So they match real-world dates.
If you do that, then the Brain Wave appeared in late 1942.
Back then, the nerd usually was evil
Henry King was born circa 1900. He grew up in an unspecified rural area of the US – possibly Western MA.
Some flashbacks show him shoeless, perhaps to imply poverty.
He was an unpopular kid, introverted and nerdy. He apparently had but two friends, Edwyn Ackerman and Lucy. Lucy was wary of him, especially after she realised that Henry had an unrequited crush on her.
As a boy, Henry discovered that if he focused long and hard enough he could summon illusions. Imaginary friends, as it were.
At first, these were Arthurian knights from his favourite book. Or the “ghost” of Blackie, his late dog.
To better harness this, he went on to study psychiatry and the human mind at a special college – possibly in Boston.
(Apparently there’s an institution there that studies psychic phenomena, and whose students can produce minor telepathic transmissions. In the story, this is presented as not-that-remarkable scientific research).
By this point, Mr. King was increasingly bald, near-sighted and odd-looking, with a bulbous cranium. This suggests that he was some sort of mutant.
(Mutants were already an established sci-fi trope. One early example is The Wonder, from a 1911 novel. A somewhat more high-profile example was the 1928 story The Man Who Evolved, by notable sci-fi writer Edmond Hamilton . Mr. Hamilton also wrote for DC Comics).
His behaviour was also more sinister. When Edwyn and Lucy married, Henry made bitter, unhinged predictions that Edwyn would murder her.
(Mind, it is possible that something *was* also wrong with Edwyn).
The story of the man who created images !
Craving money, King sent thought projections to grab cash for him, then vanish.
He then started strong-arming criminals into working for him, terrorizing them with illusionary envoys.
Over time, he came to have multiple mobs under his thumb. They called him the Brain Wave.
Part of the money served to buy an isolated, sinister-to-the-point-of-Gothic-horrorness stone tower near the ocean. It had jails, gas chambers and other day-to-day facilities.
Much justice no peace
However, in 1942/43, Justice Society members foiled several of his plots.
As was the style of the day, they each discovered a separate BW-ordered scheme at about the same time.
- An underworld contract to kill a young chemist. This man had designed a synthetic rubber to ruin the mob-connected rubber plantation investor responsible for the death of his father.
- Convincing a wealthy sculptor that he was insane, so he would be institutionalised. His wife would therefore get the moolah, and give the mob its cut.
- Protecting a fake museum, whose main activity was to hide stolen valuables among its seldom-visitable exhibits (!).
- Restoring the skill and confidence of a washed-out baseball player, by having him train with illusions of champion players. However, the price was throwing matches so the mob could collect on the bets.
- Sending illusions of the Sandman and Sandy the Golden Boy to racketeer shady businessmen.
- Stock take-the-money-and-run bank heists.
I love Lucy
At the same time, King was driving the Ackermans mad. He had illusions of “people of the electrons” harassing Edwyn, telling him that his particles physics research was killing them.
BW also had illusions of a chained Lucy harass Edwyn, to drive him into killing his wife.
Starman (Ted Knight) stopped this. He and the rest of the Society then stormed Brain Wave’s tower.
In the fracas, King fell off, seemingly to his death.
Source of Character: 1940s All-Star Comics (All-American).
Writeup completed on the 9th of August, 2022.