Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Best Comics Ever: Doom Patrol by Morrison and Case

The Doom Patrol has long been a favorite DC team, ever since I was introduced to them in The New Teen Titans #13, back in 1981. That issue kicked off a three-part storyline that reintroduced the Brotherhood of Evil and Robotman to the DC Universe, as well as explaining Changeling’s ties to the Doom Patrol. I found this then-forgotten super-team to be intriguing, and set out to discover more. Over the next few years, I accumulated a scattered sampling of Doom Patrol back-issues and reprints that kept me interested in this team of squabbling misfits.

In 1987, DC decided to revive the title, written by Paul Kupperberg and drawn by Steve LIghtle, Erik Larsen, and Graham Nolan. It was okay, but I recall being somewhat disappointed, as it was basically just another teen superhero team. Then issue #19 came, and with it a new creative team. While I knew nothing of Richard Case, I was already familiar with Grant Morrison from his work on Animal Man, a book I had tried and been bowled over by, so I was certainly willing to give him a shot on a book I wanted to like more than I did. Richard Case was an assistant to Walt Simonson early in his career, and his solid but quirky style was an excellent complement to Morrison's far-out scripts. Not too weird and not too staid, Case could be counted on to draw any insane thing that the script called for in a way that made it look perfectly believable.

Morrison and Case immediately made the book their own, using the just completed Invasion series as a catalyst to cripple or de-power most of the previous team, and to send Cliff Steele to the mental hospital. Issue #19 introduced new readers to a depressed and demoralized Cliff, then introduced him to Kay Challis, another victim of the gene bomb who would come to be known as Crazy Jane. Kay had been institutionalized with multiple personality disorders that were the result of paternal rape and general abuse. The gene bomb caused her to develop a stunning and deadly array of superpowers, one for each of her 64 personalities. Doctor Will Magnus, visiting Cliff, saw that the two might be able to help heal each other and introduced them. Meanwhile, Larry Trainor was also present, recuperating from an explosion suffered during the invasion. He is first seen flirting with his female doctor, when the negative energy being appears at his window, whispering to be let in. It then merges itself with Larry and Doctor Poole, forming the bizarre alchemical hermaphrodite, Rebis.

Cliff Steele meets Kay (Crazy Jane) Challis. From Doom Patrol #19

“Crawling From the Wreckage” was the first story arc of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, and it set the stage for what was to come. As the team formed, signs and portents throughout the world pointed to strange new threats emerging. The Scissormen emerged into reality, heralding the invasion of the imaginary kingdom of Orquith. A complete overwrite of reality was thwarted when Rebis confronted the rulers of the city with the paradox of their own existence, and they vanished when they realized they couldn’t possibly be real. This push-and-pull between the possible and impossible would characterize Morrison’s tenure.

The group agreed to remain a team, and The Chief, Robotman, Crazy Jane, and Rebis became the newest incarnation of the Doom Patrol. Joshua Clay stayed on as support, in order to help monitor the comatose Rhea Jones, and they were soon joined by Dorothy Spinner, an ape-faced teenager who could bring her thoughts to life, but had trouble controlling her creations. In broadest terms, Morrison’s Doom Patrol followed very standard and traditional superhero plotting tropes. A team was formed, a support team established, interpersonal conflict and subplots were advanced, supervillains and mad gods were fought, there was a space adventure, escalating threats, and an apocalyptic finale. It is only on closer examination that we see how each trope was twisted nearly beyond recognition to create an entirely new beast with familiar bones.

Issues 23 and 24 saw Rhea stolen away by an interdimensional madman, Red Jack, who claimed at once to be both God and Jack the Ripper. Once rescued, it is discovered that Rhea is mutating into something else, though Doctor Caulder admits that he has no idea what that may be. We would find out soon, as strange aliens would claim her as a pawn in their ancient conflict. The next issue was a spotlight on Dorothy, as she confronted the mysteries of puberty complicated by her imaginary friends coming to life. Then, issues 26 through 29 introduced the unforgettable Mister Nobody and the Brotherhood of Dada.

Mister Nobody was the most forgotten and forgettable member of the original Brotherhood of Evil. You probably won’t remember boring old Mister Morden, the man who piloted the giant red robot ‘ROG” in one of the Brotherhood’s earliest appearances, but after he failed, he fled the Brain and Monsieur Mallah, and took refuge in Paraguay. There he underwent mad science procedures meant to give him mind-control abilities, but that instead changed his body into an abstract, shadow-like form and drove him mad. Mr. Nobody then recruited the first Brotherhood of Dada: Sleepwalk, who has super strength only when asleep; Fog, composed of the quarreling spirits of those whom he has absorbed into his misty form; Frenzy, a Jamaican man who can transform into a cyclone; and the Quiz, a germ phobic Japanese woman with every super-power you've never thought of.

The brotherhood of Dada make their Paris debut. From Doom Patrol #27

The Brotherhood devotes itself to irrationality above all, and steals a psychoactive painting, which they use to absorb the city of Paris, France. The Doom Patrol investigates, and battles the Brotherhood inside the painting, tracking them to layers that represent Surrealism, Photo-realism, and Impressionism. The two teams then have to join forces when the Brotherhood accidentally unleashes the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse from the painting. Jane is mentally traumatized by the ordeal, and retreats into her own mind.

Issue #30, “Going Underground” was a critical story in the development of Crazy Jane, and explained the mechanics of her Multiple Personality Disorder. Her sixty four personalities live in the “underground” of her brain, connected by a complex map of tunnels and navigated by a personality named Driver 8. After the previous arc, Cliff volunteered to get her back, leaving his robot body and joining her inside her mind. The internal battle leads to a showdown with Jane’s “father” a monstrous manifestation of one of her personae. Jane defeats Father when he attacks Cliff, and begins a journey of healing that would continue in future stories.

The next year saw a barrage of increasingly bizarre threats and imagery, as the Doom Patrol battled the Cult of the Unwritten Book, the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., the hidden threat under the Pentagon, and a pair of dueling alien races that abduct Rhea and whose conflict defies easy explanation even within the story. As with the rest of Morrison’s run, the team found itself defending the strange against the forces of conformity, and defending reality against entropy itself. The space adventure was a mad twist on standard comics space opera, and space was presented as a run-down, dusty place, with with twisted, bony aliens and jagged cobwebbed spires replacing the usual bug-eyed monsters and shiny tech. New supporting cast were introduced as well: Flex Mentallo, a forgotten crime fighter, about whom I’ve already written, Willoughby Kipling, a low-rent John Constantine who manages to be even more drunken, obnoxious, and cowardly than the original Helllblazer, and Danny the Street, a sentient transvestite street that would soon become the Doom Patrol’s new headquarters and de facto teammate.

The Brotherhood of Dada made their return in issues 49-52, in a strange case of role-reversal. Mister Nobody escaped from the remains of the painting he had been trapped in, and gathered a new team: Agent "!" (He comes as no surprise), The Love Glove, Alias the Blur, Number None, and the Toy. Riding a psychedelic school bus powered by the bicycle of Albert Hoffman across the country, the new Brotherhood went from town to town tripping everyone out. as Mister Nobody ran for President. This time, when Cliff wanted to go after them, Jane and Rebis declined, deciding that they were harmless. The story became a sort of Christ parable, in which Mister Nobody was the sacrificial figure, and the Doom Patrol, as well as the US government were the oppressors.

Issues 53 and 54 make for an interesting contrast, in that 53 is the most “normal issue to date, featuring a dream sequence in which the Doom Patrol is a Kirby-esque superhero team. Issue 54, by contrast may be the weirdest issue of all, featuring the baffling “Aenigma Regis”, or rebirth of Rebis.

Issues 55 through 63 complete Morrison and Case’s run on the book in a shocking and climactic way. It’s impossible to say too much without spoiling an excellent tale, but after the concentrated weirdness and almost mannered non-action of the earlier issues, the action kicks into high gear, and no one is spared. An ultimate, unstoppable threat decimates the Doom Patrol. Dark secrets are revealed that reach back to the earliest days of the Doom Patrol, shocking Cliff to his core. Jane leaves the team to confront her abusive father in Metropolis, and in the end, finds resolution. Finally, a happy ending is achieved for nearly all of our cast. With this story, Morrison and Case wrapped up their run on the Doom Patrol with a bang, and in the process, gave us some of the Best Comics Ever.


diana green said...

Much as i like and admire Morrison's DP run, I'm in the minority in that I'm a big fan of the Rachel Pollack run as well. Her brand of Tarot-infused wierdness was off-putting to many, but I found it eminently enjoyable, and the introduction of the first transsexual superhero, Kate (named after Kate Bornstein) was a different kind of seditious writing. I especially liked her challenge to Cliff, who had a problem with her altering her body despite being a robot whose body was at least three times removed from its original form.
Not sure how I feel about the current Giffen run, but it has enough going for it that I'm going to stick with it for a while. The constant sniping between characters is getting a bit tedious, however.
Doom Patrol is one of the best su

Brian Hughes said...

I'm going to have to re-read those Rachel Pollack issues, but as I recall, I didn't hate them at all. They just suffered in comparison to what came before, and I remember the art being pretty weak as well.
I'm digging the Giffen run, but I'm worried about Danny!

tome said...

I know very little about comics, but I suddenly know I want to read these. You are about to tell they are all gone and impossible to get - right?


Brian Hughes said...

Actually, the whole run is currently available in six trade paperback collections, whose Brian Bolland covers I've used to illustrate this article. Ask your friendly neighborhood comic shop for details!

Jack Norris said...

I liked Rachel Pollock, and stuck with the book to the end.
(The fact that I really didn't like the art, but kept on because of the story should say something).

權選 said...


demoncat said...

actully Dan the road was the first tansexual before kate arrived in the doom patrol. though rebis kind of has both dan and kate beat for being both negative man and woman mixed together and a hermaphrodite. though to me all of grant morrisons doom patrol run was a read while being on acid for most of his doom patrol characters one wonders what he was smoking to create them.

Chad Parenteau said...

Thanks for likely being the first blogger to give props to Richard Case. I don't think he gets enough credit for the art he did in this series. He was working on the cusp of all the hot artists couming in out in the late 80's/early 90's and seems to be regarded poorly when people look back on the book at least partly because of this.

Given how many of Grant Morrison's runs suffer when he goes through an infinite number of artists (Invisibles, X-Men), I appreciate what Case was able to do for damn near the entire run.

Baccar Wozat said...

I'm one of those who liked the Rachel Pollack issues, but once Ted McKeever showed up, his art was unusual (and I'm a big fan of it) but it didn't mesh well with Pollack's story, which seemed to meander through a lot of Jewish mysticism which didn't jell with the sexually remaindered spirits from before. And then, two series later, Byrne retconned the whole thing. So, did it happen in continuity or didn't it?

El Hombre De Mantequila said...

The late 80s and early 90s was difficult time as a fading teenager and becoming the first version of so-called adulthood in the post industrial age, pre-internet generation. As mentioned profusely in the days prior to online self-narcisism and flameful gloatings, It took “Watchmen” to get comics noticed, “Sandman” (pre-issue 51 original run) to follow through a monthly title, and Grant Morrison’s “Doom Patrol” to hit the proverbial spot. Arriving at the perfect time when life was a whirlpool of mixed sensory stimulations before the over-amplified overload of wireless and cellphone plague, to say “DP” was an important series is the proverbial understatement. It became the absolute escapism when sober, a stimulating journey into what comic books would be if allowed to explore areas and concepts with a flair of absurdity and subconsciously-inspired train of thought process. Richard Case was perfect for Morrison’s vision, able to capture the conventional comic book feel with elements of pure madness, effectively bringing the imaginary into a concrete form, all the while never looking pompous, pretentious, nor ridiculous. I often wished Morrison would have lasted longer but like all things, change is the only constant, and all things must come to an end. However I also thought Rachel Pollack’s turn was a good way to continue from the ashes left behind, continuing the lunacy and oddball approach to good effect, and quickly managing to make the title her own. I too was a great fan of Ted McKeever, but thought that his visual style was at times a bit too much when trying to compliment the tales of Pollack. By this time, the weirdness of the tales was also being seen in the graphic design, perhaps now having become exactly the marriage required for such a title. Alas, that run also “ran out”, and I was never able to connect with any subsequent re-vamping of the team. Once in a while, I open up a box carefully stashed in my closet, and revisit the main reason I remained moderately (or at least functionally) sane during the late 80s and early 90s. Oh and would you believe I actually purchased the Vertigo collected graphic novels even though I already had every single issue already?