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.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Broken Arrow

I spent some time this weekend catching up on recent Green Arrow events, after hearing all the uproar over the conclusion of Justice League: Cry for Justice.I hadn’t been buying the series, but I did pick up issue #7, to see if it was in fact the Worst Comic Ever, as I had been led to believe. After I read it, I came to the conclusion that it was merely another fairly bad comic; late, rushed, and with an editorially mandated ending. I was stunned by the death of Lian Harper, but only because I was sure that the Teen Titans misery machine had already chewed her up by now.I was amazed to see that she had been a Titans supporting character for something like a decade without being eaten by Wonder Dog or ripped apart by Trigon yet. Hell, “just” having a building dropped on her is relatively merciful, in Titans terms.

So now, Green Arrow has gone off the rails and turned killer. The Justice League: Rise and Fall Special released last week shows Black Canary, Green Lantern, and the Flash dealing with the aftermath of Green Arrow’s murder of Prometheus, and future chapters will follow suit. That’s all good and well, but that got me remembering that Green Arrow racked up quite a body count during his “Longbow Hunters” phase, and nobody seemed to mind back then.

When Mike Grell reinvented Green Arrow in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, he relocated GA and Black canary to Seattle, and shed all of the fantastic trappings of the series, recasting Green Arrow as an urban Hunter completely removed from the superhero world. For a few years, the series was designated “mature readers”, and Green Arrow eschewed his gimmick arrows for lethal force. He basically disappeared from the DC Universe during this time, and when he did interact with others, his ethics weren’t discussed. Of course, this was in the badass 90’s when every other “hero” was a killer, so perhaps Green Arrow’s extreme methods didn’t seem that out of line.

As that iteration of the series aged, however, DC saw a need to bring him back into the main universe, and when Grell left the writing duties, the next writers began steering Ollie back to superheroics. The plot saw him grow weary of killing and violence, and he sought peace at a monastery, where he met his lost son, Connor Hawke. He eventually returned to the DCU with Connor at his side, and the two worked together for a time until Ollie’s death, when he tried to infiltrate a group of eco-terrorists, was locked to a bomb, and died in the explosion.

But death is never permanent in comics, and when Kevin Smith revived Green Arrow a few years later, he contrived to have Hal Jordan revive Ollie during his time as the cosmically-powered, morally-confused Parallax, and Green Arrow was given a new lease on life. He began a new set of adventures with a new, younger body, and went on to rejoin the Justice League and marry Black Canary. Death, time, and the cosmic reset all served to muddy the waters of Green Arrow’s murderous past, and again, none of his superhero colleagues mentioned anything about his killings. You would think Batman in particular would have an issue with this, but the Dark Knight said nothing (that I know of).

Of course, “The Fall of Green Arrow” just began, so for all I know, the next chapter may deal with all of these issues in depth. It may turn out that he kept his history in Seattle a secret somehow, or had Hal mindwipe everyone, or who knows what. Finally, a bit of speculation: when Green Lantern and Flash brought Prometheus’ body back, his helmet was missing. Then in a bid for escape, Green Arrow grabbed his key and disappeared. If he does have to go on the run, it seems like Prometheus has a bigger bag of tricks to draw from than Green Arrow. Could Oliver Queen become the new Prometheus?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Bearded Gentlemen's Club of Metropolis

The Bearded Gentlemen's Club of Metropolis: an exclusive, non-profit fraternal organization dedicated to the cultivation, appreciation, and promotion of the noble beard!

Also referred to as the Beard Band, the club first appeared in Superman's Pal: Jimmy Olsen #23. When cub reporter Jimmy tried to infiltrate the secretive society by attending a meeting with a fake beard, he was foiled at the door by a doorman who vetted would be attendees by tugging on their beards. Leaving, he was stopped by a stranger who offered him a vial of hair growth tonic, guaranteed to grow a beard instantly. Being Jimmy, he quaffed the formula without hesitation, and sure enough, grew a beard! He then gained entry to the secret hirsute world of the  Bearded Gentlemen's Club of Metropolis:

And so, tasked with evangelizing the mighty beard, Jimmy failed miserably, to no one's surprise. He attended one public event after another, and various crazy mishaps forced him to cut off his beard each time. When he returned, the Beard band was so enraged, they decided to implement "Operation Whiskers", a secret plot to dump beard tonic into the Metropolis water supply! Then, the Club reasoned, all men would be forced to love the beard, and mass beard appreciation would result. Unfortunately, that meddling Superman showed up before the dream could be realized.

But that would not be the end of this noble organization. Beaten but unbowed, they continued on, and were next seen in Doom Patrol # 45. 
After a stinging rebuke by the so-called "genius" Niles Caulder, the Beard Band decided to avenge their honor by enlisting another outsider to destroy the reclusive Doom Patrol leader. It is said that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", and with this in mind, they enlisted Ernest Franklin, the so-called "Beard hunter" to eliminate Caulder:


While the wily Caulder managed to kill the Beard Hunter, the Bearded Gentlemen's Club of Metropolis can at least rest easy knowing that the beard-hunting psychopath won't be returning to hunt them. While we haven't seen them recently, I like to assume that the Bearded Gentlemen's Club of Metropolis is still alive and well and preaching the beard gospel to this day. 

Full disclosure: the author of this blog sports a dashing, regal beard!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Little Ultimate MODOK, Anyone?

I don't follow the Ultimate universe in general, but I'm still perversely interested in the Ultimate versions of my favorite characters. The Ultimate Universe has been going on for over ten years, and at long last, we finally got a glimpse of Ultimate MODOK in Ultimate Armor Wars #2:


The old guy was Ultimate Doctor Faustus, and apparently, he has a li'l bitty MODOK living in his noggin. Ultimate George Tarleton was last seen as a severed head running around on spider legs, so Faustus must be his conveyance of choice now. Faustus makes it sound like a mad science accident though, so who knows? Unfortunately, that was all we saw of Ultimate MODOK, as the rest of the story moved on to other villains and locales. Look for Ultimate MODOK, coming to "Dancing With The Stars" soon!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Five Profoundly Disturbing Hostess Ads

Hostess Snack cake ads. A beloved relic of comics ephemera from yesteryear. Goofy, innocent and completely harmless, right? WRONG. For they were written by men, and within all men lurks madness. Bite into a cream-filled treat...of despair, as you learn the truth about these truly, Profoundly, Disturbing Hostess Ads!

Iron Man looks into the abyss, and Twinkies look back.
Existential despair blankets the city, as Kwirkegard poisons the water with the truth: that existence is pointless, life is meaningless, and that all mankind's struggles mean nothing. What's the point of even finishing this paragraph? Is it supposed to be "funny"? Hah. Foolishness for fools. Nothing can fill the emptiness...within.

Nothing but golden sponge cake and creamed filling, that is! Life may be a hollow, empty sham, but at least you get a big delight in every bite of Hostess Twinkie Cakes!

There's nothing depressing per se about this Wonder Woman ad, except the depressing certainty that, like all vintage Wonder Woman comics, it will be absolutely crazy-ape bonkers. Originally seen in 1977, this  ham-handed homage to  the then-36-year-old film The Maltese Falcon was largely lost on the kids of the day. It reads like the writer had the script for a rejected Falcon spoof in his drawer that he hastily reworked into a Wonder Woman cupcake ad at 12:30 AM one bleary, deadline-driven night. Given the rambling, recklessly punctuated dialog, it's entirely possible that said writer might well have been coked out of his fucking gourd, too. Anyway, I find the whole thing strange, seedy, and damned disturbing.

Hostess Cupcakes: Even better than rape!

Speaking of rape, I'm not sure what these nasty little green men mean by "uplift", but I almost hope they only want to eat these two humans, and not, er, "sample" their Earthly Delights. Whatever their sick intentions, the ever-lovin' Blue-eyed Thing shows up to placate them with fruit pies, an event that happens on a nigh-daily basis in Hostess world, but never with implied human-eating or "delights". Until now.

Finally, the Hulk vs the Roller Disco Devils, or more accurately slaughters the Roller Disco Devils. The entirely human Devils are apparently beyond the control of any civil authority with their roller skating and Disco listening-to, and it falls to the Hulk to restore the children's access to the Hostess Fruit Pies the only way he knows how: by brutally murdering eight human beings in the most gruesome manner possible. New digital technology allows us to zero in on old comic book panels to see heretofore unrevealed details in the art. Lets zoom in on panel four to see what Hulk is really doing:


Good Lord...>choke<
That's profoundly disturbing.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Frank Miller, Spider-Man, and Twinkies

I went looking for Hostess Ads online this weekend, and look what I came across: a lost early work by none other than Hollywood glamor-boy Frank Miller himself!  I've seen a lot of the Hostess ads in my day, but I've never seen this one before. Turns out it was one of a few Marvel Hostess ads that got farmed out to Gold Key comics, and was printed in an issue of "Chip N' Dale" of all things. The Hostess ads were produced under contract by the Marvel bullpen, and this one is dated 1979, so it's likely that young Frank was pressed into service one day when he came in to drop off Daredevil pages. The Demolition Derby seems like a goofier, genteel version of Miller's Bullseye, hurling his hat with destructive precision before being taken down by the delights of golden sponge cake and creamed filling. Maybe Elektra should've just tried tossing some Fruit Pies at Bullseye, hm?

Ad found at Seanbaby's Hostess Page.