Thursday, June 7, 2012
Best Comics Ever: Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison
The original Doom Patrol started way back in '64 or thereabouts, in a short-lived DC comic called MY GREATEST ADVENTURE, and the odd thing about it is that, three months later, Marvel launched the X-Men. Odd, because the similarities between the two titles were extraordinary: both comics featured a small band of misfit heroes, hated and feared by the world at large, and led by a genius-type in a wheelchair. There's been speculation that X-Men was a rip-off of Doom Patrol, but really, it's more likely just one of those odd coincidences. There's a lead time in comic publishing, and it's pretty unlikely that Stan Lee could've known anything about DP.
The original Doom Patrol, as written by Arnold Drake, featured main characters Robotman (not a startlingly original name, I know): a human brain in a robot body; Elasti-Girl (she could, you know, stretch and stuff) and Negative Man, who was... I'm not sure. An alien negative being inhabiting a human body? Something like that. Regardless, this odd team was led by the afore-mentioned wheelchair-bound genius Niles Caulder, and they faced off against some fairly bizarre villains, like the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, the Brain (a genius brain in a jar) and Monsieur Mallah (a genius ape).
It was a strange comic. Which is probably why it didn't last very long.
Drake killed the Doom Patrol off in 1968, and for a long time that was the end of them.
But comic companies are always loathe to write off old characters for good. After a failed bid at a re-introduction in 1977, DC tried again in 1987 with a brand new Doom Patrol, written by Paul Kupperberg. The only original DP member to return was Cliff "Don't Call Me Robotman" Steele-- all the other members were brand new characters, and this new Doom Patrol was very clearly an effort to cash in on the success of Marvel comics like X-Men. Gone was the free-wheeling weirdness of Drake's DP, replaced with a rather traditionally super-hero-ish comic full of sexy young good guys and typical bad guys.
It was pretty boring.
Readers thought so, too, apparently. By the time the title reached it's teen numbers, it was dangerously close to being canceled. So DC turned to young British turk Grant Morrison, who had been doing spectacular and weird stuff with Animal Man, and said, hey, you want a shot at this one? Do whatever you want with it.
So Kupperberg, in his very last issue of the title, very kindly killed off almost his entire cast. With issue 19, Morrison had very nearly a clean slate. And he proceeded to write the weirdest, most fun and bizarre mainstream comic anyone had ever seen up to that point.
Again, the sole link to the past was Cliff Steele, suffering depression at his unfortunate circumstances (human brain, robot body, etc). Cliff would prove to be the most normal member of the new team, the every-man who the reader would identify with over the course of the strangeness.
Rounding out the new team were Crazy Jane, an emotionally damaged young woman with 68 different personalities, each one of them possessing its own super-power, and Rebus, a radio-active alien hermaphrodite.
Yep. A super-powered schizophrenic and a radio-active alien hermaphrodite. Being a human brain in a robot body doesn't seem all that unusual now, does it?
Once again, the team was guided by Niles Caulder, although he wasn't quite the benevolent father figure of before. There was something vaguely sinister about him now. The DP's support team were the two survivors from Kupperberg's team, Josh Clay (who could shoot force beams out of his fists-- yawn) and Dorothy Spinner, an adolescent girl born with an ape-like face and the ability to call her dream and nightmare images into reality. Dorothy would play a huge part in Morrison's denouement on the title.
So those were the good guys.
The bad guys were, well... amazing. Over the course of the run, the level of weirdness in the villains grew greater and greater, starting with the Scissor-Men, ultra-dimensional beings who could actually cut people out of reality, leaving gaping human-shaped holes where the people used to be. From there, the DP almost immediately faced off against Red Jack, the Butterfly Collector.
There was the Shadowy Mr. Evans, and his boy assistant. There were the Sex-Men. The Beard Hunter, a homo-erotic parody of the Punisher, who's sole purpose was ridding the world of facial hair. But most notably, there was the reformed Brotherhood of Evil, now calling itself the Brotherhood of Dada, led by Mr. Nobody. Mr. Nobody's greatest scheme involved stealing a bicycle belonging to Albert Hoffman (the scientist who invented LSD), attaching it to a bus, and criss-crossing the country getting everyone stoned on acid and running for president. Before his scheme could take root, Mr. Nobody was assassinated by the strange creature called Yankee Doodle Dandy, on orders from the government.
The Doom Patrol allied themselves with another hero called Flex Mentallo, Hero of the Beach-- a character inspired by the famous Charles Atlas physical fitness ads. They faced all these strange threats from their headquarters on Danny the Street-- a sentient, teleporting, transsexual street that acted as a safe haven for all the world's persecuted misfits.
Amid all the free-wheeling, fun weirdness, there were genuine moments of empathy and emotion in Morrison's Doom Patrol, especially in the ever-changing relationship between Cliff Steele and Crazy Jane. Cliff's desire to save her from her own deepening madness over the course of the series was genuinely touching. And Rebus' attempts to regain his rapidly-dwindling humanity were frightening.
And the end of Morrison's run was... wow. If you'd read the series from the beginning, you couldn't help but have an emotional stake in it, and so the revelations in that last story were just shattering. The DP were nominally up against the Candlemaker, a rogue creature from Dorothy Spinner's nightmares, but what they-- and Cliff in particular faced-- was a monstrous betrayal and the complete destruction of everything they thought they knew about themselves.
No spoilers here, but in the very last issue, Morrison still manages to find a glimmer of hope for his characters, even after all the destruction and shattered dreams. He leaves Doom Patrol with the promise of a better world, a place where the fragile and outcast can live safely from all harm.
The entire run is available in trade paperback, if you have trouble finding the individual issues. It is, without question, one of the Best Comics Ever.