FULL BLEED: WE'RE ALL JUST HUMANS IN THIS DAMN HOLE
Last week I talked about maybe talking about the Grant Morrison and company run on The Doom Patrol, a comic which came out some thirty-four years ago, maybe almost thirty-five? I can't recall exactly. It's been a long time. I read bits and pieces of it as it came out. Had to be happy with just a single trade of it (Crawling from the Wreckage) for a long time, due to ongoing threats of legal action against DC for Morrison's appropriation of the Charles Atlas character. I know. At that point, it was nearly "Charles who" and they shoulda been thanking him for bringing back to the attention of readers. I know. Corporate types are so touchy about image. Which is funny, because people take these icons and characters and put them through all kinds of changes on their own. But DC made a tempting target for legal action, being a unified corporation and all back then. But I'm wandering again.
I knew very little of the Doom Patrol when I started in on the books. Reprints of the Drake/Premiani run wouldn't exist for some time, and even then, they were expensive as these things went back in the early 90s. But, as usual, Morrison didn't depend on continuity or jump up and down shouting "Hey! This is a big deal if you know this little bit of history!" Spoilers for the books will follow. No I don't know what the status of any of this continuity is, particularly since John Byrne tried to retcon all of this stuff almost immediately and make some really boring comics in the process. I understand that Keith Giffen brought back Mr. Nobody and made him Mr. Somebody, but at this point, it's hard to express any interest in these characters on my part. I know they're still making books today that more or less hook into this series, but again, those are for readers younger than myself at this point. I'm okay with that. Kids gotta learn about the Doom Patrol somewhere, right?
Of course, when they're reading those old Doom Patrol comics, they're getting a good dose of Steve Gerber DNA in that. He's always been a missing component in the reinvention of al these characters (nearly every comics character, really) since the middle eighties. Yes, that's an ongoing process with writers and artists trying all manner of reinventions in an effort to keep interest in these heroes. Though sometimes the character gets left behind in all that. Right. Gerber. Stay on track. See, one of the great Steve Gerber-written comics runs (the greatest clearly being Howard the Duck, until the whole thing came down just as the character's popularity was perhaps cresting) was his work on The Defenders. For those of you who don't know, the Defenders were kind of the loser flipside of The Avengers. The Avengers were the popular kids in class and the Defenders were the weirdos who couldn't even sit at the lunch tables, instead preferring to hang out outside the cafeteria being weird and borderline troublemakers if they could be bothered. It was also described as more an encounter group than a superhero book. Yeah, that really dates things, huh?
So the Defenders were weirdo misfits who fought other weirdo misfits who wanted to break stuff instead of dealing with being broken. Granted, this was the seventies where villains never addressed their own damage and instead just ran around trying to take over or destroy the world. But there was an element to the Defenders where the heroes looked at the ways in which they were broken and actually addressed that, as much as the Bronze Age allowed for that sort of thing (which was more than you might think with Gerber at the helm.) Not that pepople got fixed or cured, but maybe they were allowed some manner of self-awareness which had formerly been anathema in the funny books. Some of them were even given the chance of getting off the crazy train, if memory serves. It's been a long time, sorry.
The Doom Patrol's great gift in this was the allowance to make this transformation explicit. Particularly in Crazy Jane, who was a new character that Morrison came up with in writing their run. She was a bow to line continuity (in this case, some kind of gene-bomb that gave folks meta human abilities, only hers were tied to multiple personalities, some sixty-four of them, some far more helpful than others.) Through the course of the book, and a couple different trips into her own psyche (sometimes assisted by Cliff Steele, the oft-befuddled Everyman in a robot body, a holdover from the original series) Crazy Jane is able to become Sane Jane. Of course this means the obviation of all her various powers right at the time when they'd most be helpful. But such is the price of integration and wellness. So, Crazy to Sane, superhero to civilian (getting a beautiful capstone story at the very end of the series which is every bit as wonderful and insightful and ultimately gently subversive to the entire genre as the story "Good Man Fall" from The Invisibles).
You can draw the parallel of superheroism as pathology to be fixed, or if you like, worked through and understood. Cliff Steele is made to let go of the last remnants of his human existence (that being the beautiful bit of his human brain suspended in a robot body). Jane integrates her personalities. The enimagtic and multiform Rebis suffers actual rebirth, twice even, more explicitly a union of opposites than even Arnold Drake might've suggested. Former member Rhea becomes a whimsical magnetic conscience/consciousness, though she's really a side character, a dangling thread of continuity from the previous incarnation of the team. Oh, and of course the Chief is revealed to be the Master Planner who believes so much in the power of his Plan that he's willing to sacrifice everything and everyone to bring it to pass, not actually knowing what will come of it. Faith or psychosis? You decide!
But Morrison makes it a point to put these characters through transformations to show the essence there. Not to reveal it but to show that which does not change no matter how much the body is reshaped or splintered. Is it cliche to say the book is about humanity? Or is that just lazy? Or is that what makes it really special? That amongst all the absurdity and dada and (declared) forced obscurity, the real issue is what you carry with you even when you think you've lost everything. Or everything has been changed so deeply around you that you may as well have lost it. That's a nice thing to hear from time to time, and of course it's a theme that Morrison has worked with in, well, all of their work, that essential nature of these characters.
I know. It's easy to get lost in the crazy, even to insist that there's nothing beyond that surface lunacy, the treacherous exhibitions of cut-up scripting and (sometimes forced) remixing of familiar elements (such as craven Knights Templar Willoghby Kipling, once intended to be John Constantine, but like most comics reinventions, made better by not leaning on the easy signifier.) And sure, some of it reads dated. That bit with Red Jack and scratch-sampled Mozart always sticks somehow, that and the 1991-era read of nanotechnology and Lorenz Attractors. But where else are you going to get a comic book about a hungry painting and the Gnostic Fifth Horseman who isn't defeated by a Care Bear Stare but instead by the refusal of Dada to adhere to any manner of authority including itself.
Speaking of the Brotherhood of the Dada (neé Evil), the rogues gallery of Doom Patrol is unparalleled in weird. Like some deranged and remixed Monster Manual, single-shot strangeness monsters come on fast and furious and without end. Too many to name, yet all thematically perfect. Fiction becoming real, Unmaking shadows of God, the voices of the dead in the white void, the man who leaves a feather for his foes, the army of keys leaving every lock opened and every mystery laid bare and dead. That just scratches the surface. Some of them, though, aren't even necessarily villains, though certainly corrosive to a stultifying social order (and indeed, some of the villains are a sort of super-order, so strait-jacketed they wrap right back around to crazy.) And the team recognizes that say the Brotherhood of the Dada aren't Evil (hence dropping the name, get it?) Well, some of the team does. Cliff, still rooted in a body he thinks he actually inhabits, holding onto some sense of normalcy, isn't eager to go down without a fight when Mr. Nobody and the other Dadaites mount a campaign for President of the US.
But even he can recognize the injustice of a violent and pre-emptive assassination attempt by the Normies, in this case the US Government (who'd tried to wipe out the Doom Patrol more than once by now in the series, granted through a series of very non-regulation catspaws.) Cliff's humanity brings him to try and save a dying Mr. Nobody (rapidly becoming Mr. Morten -- it's a long story) by relocating him back into the un-real-ity of the Painting that Ate Paris (did I say this was a long story?). Which, alas does not pay out, at least in the book as presented. Like I say, I don't follow the continuity now because that's a whimsical and liquid thing.
Speaking of continuity, one of the great things about this run of The Doom Patrol is that Morrison really did honor the old work and characters but wasn't afraid to let them become something new. Something new yet still true to their essences. I know. Back to the essence. I sound like Gen. Jack D. Ripper. But this is something Morrison has done in basically all of their work, particularly big team books. They're not afraid to reinvent, something desperately needed in comics (though really, inventing new characters and places and giving them the time and resources to actually grow into something sturdy would be even better. Nope, haven't changed my tune on that one.) Now, I'm sure oldschool fans of the team were probably pretty upset with the changes that Morrison put on the team. But then there's folks who are upset that they're not making comics like they were when they were kids. They're always gonna be here. Only thing we can do is outlive them.
I'd talk about how these comics read compared to today's superhero books, but, honestly, I'm not reading them anymore. With a few exceptions, mostly for art teams, and then I'm looking at the art. There was a time that these daring, even dangerous reinventions were wild and fresh. But even that can be made to feel tired and easy if done wrong. Or if you're just putting out a reskin of one property with the flavor crystals of another sprinkled on top. But you read Doom Patrol and you might see cross-pollination and inspiration. You won't see lazy two-things action.
And maybe the reinvention trick only feels fresh the first time you read it? Maybe it's the tension between what you know and having layers peeled back to reveal something new beneath that really makes this stuff sing.
It still works for me.
Okay, about out of gas on this subject. I'm sure that's a mess. Good luck getting through it.
I'm supposed to be getting ready for a trip to the UK starting Saturday, and I'm kinda mostly done, but nothing that can't be done tomorrow, really. Looking forward to it, worried about it. I've got my reasons. No blog updates from the road, maybe some posting to Bluesky.
Speaking of blogs, I did want to talk about why they're not coming back, even in the face of ever-increasing social media awfulness. Maybe I will next time.
See you in a couple weeks.