Monday, September 30, 2013

Doom Patrol

I've long loved Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, of course, but never checked out the series that first introduced the team, written by Arnold Drake and drawn by Bruno Premiani, originally as part of the anthology series My Greatest Adventure, then in their own series after just six issues. The Doom Patrol predated the X-Men by a few months, and built off the example of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four — with their constant bickering and sense of isolation, they always felt more like Marvel's fallible, very human heroes than DC's self-assured icons. The Doom Patrol are outcasts, their "powers" having resulted from horrible accidents that left them changed and disfigured in various ways, no longer able to fit in with normal society. Rita Farr, once a glamorous actress, is the least changed: she initially isolates herself because she can't control her size-changing powers, and would unpredictably grow or shrink, but even after she gains control of these powers, she identifies herself as apart from society, even though she could easily reintegrate. The other 2 team members, Cliff Steele (whose accident left him so destroyed that only his brain remains, encased in a robot body) and Larry Trainor (irradiated with nuclear radiation, wrapped in bandages and possessed by an energy-based "Negative Man"), are more thoroughly ostracized, considered freaks by the "normal" populace whose lives they routinely save. Drake regularly comes up with outrageous concepts to confront these weird heroes, pitting them against the equally odd Brotherhood of Evil (led by a disembodied brain in a jar) or the shape-changing Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man.

It's got all the usual problems of comics this old, being mainly targeted at kids, so there's a certain sloppiness and repetitiveness that nobody, I'm sure, expected to matter one bit. As was common at the time, in the early issues the writer and artist weren't even being credited except when someone happened to ask about it on the letters page, a sign of the status of these artifacts and those who made them. The dialogue often just consists of the gang narrating how they're going to foil their latest threat, some of the scenarios cross over from inspired weirdness to just plain dumb, and the fact that Mr. 103 is a barely different retread of A-V-M Man (and that Beast Boy taps into a similar power set as well) is perhaps a sign of the idea well running dry later in the run, at least as pertains to concocting new superpowers. Still, there's a reason these characters and this run have endured. A big part of the appeal is just how strange it all is, and how striking it is to find a goofy kids' comic that deals so candidly with issues of self-image, ostracization, and the frustration of being trapped in a flawed body. Cliff is constantly treating his robot body as disposable, warping and destroying himself, an approach that reaches its peak in an amazingly weird story in #87 where Cliff defeats a villain by using parts of his robot body to get around traps, until he's just an armless, legless torso pinning down the bad guy with metal dead weight.

These characters are very human despite their weirdness, though, and in between the outlandish fight scenes and stiff exposition, they express some very raw, poignant emotions, ranging from Cliff and Larry's sexual frustration (they both yearn for the pretty Rita, though she never seems to even acknowledge them as romantic or sexual possibilities, much preferring the less visibly weird Mento) to the Chief's increasingly desperate attempts to get out of his wheelchair and finally participate in adventures in a physical way rather than just as an advisor. Drake even extends this sympathy to the villainous Madame Rouge, with a long-gestating subplot in which the Chief tries to rehabilitate her, getting in touch with the good side that's been suppressed by the evil Brain's manipulations. This plot reaches its wacky, visually stunning apex in a sequence where Premiani draws Rouge's face being cracked, as though seen in a broken mirror, then stretched apart, until she's literally and physically divided into two twisty, stretchy beings intertwining and fighting — it's an amazing sequence, a perfect example of the visual and conceptual imagination that flows through this series.

It's also a great example of Drake's willingness to let plots gestate over time, as the Chief/Rouge plot develops in scenes scattered here and there across months of comics before it finally takes center stage. He often plotted across issues, writing around the obligatory villain-of-the-month to develop larger plots, like the courtship and eventual marriage between Rita and Mento. There's also the green-skinned, shape-shifting Beast Boy, who's slowly introduced into the title and gradually develops over much of the run's second half, the plot with his evil guardian undergoing many twists and turns across many months worth of stories before he's adopted by Rita and Mento, forming a nuclear family of the weird. Drake's multi-issue storytelling contrasted against a lot of other comics from the time, which tended much more towards done-in-one or two-part tales rather than this kind of extended continuity. The team went out with a bang, too, in a final issue where the Doom Patrol, given the choice between their own lives and the lives of a remote fishing community, chose to sacrifice themselves for the sakes of a few normal people. It's a noble and very unusual ending for a very unusual series and a very unusual cast of characters.

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