The Doom Patrol – A team of societal rejects that should by all accounts be dead led by the manipulative genius Niles Caulder as an expendable solution to a no win situation. The series was created in 1963 and has been revived several times ever since. Comparisons to the X-Men are rife (outcasts led by a wheelchair-bound leader protecting a world that fears and hates them), but the proof is in the pudding and in this case the pudding tastes of self-loathing. I had the pleasure of meeting the DP’s creator Arnold Drake at a comic book convention and he stated with glee that the defining characteristic of the team is that they hate each other, but are forced to stick together because no one else will have them.
What a brilliant premise for a superhero comic.
In the Beginning…
Drake had developed a name for himself as a comic scribe of some talent from his work on Showcase and his humor strips for Fox and Crow, but his collaboration with Italian artist Brono Premiani really put him on the map with Doom Patrol. Starting in My Greatest Adventure, the series began with several disasters leaving beautiful starlet Rita Farr
a mutant who could expand or shrink any part of her body or all at once, test pilot Larry Trainor a bandaged radioactive freak containing an energy being called Negative Man, and Cliff Steel a human brain forever encased in a robot body as Robotman. Brought together by Niles Caulder, he gave them purpose by showing them that they could use their abnormalities to protect the world from evil geniuses and the like as superheroes. The trio bicker and snap at each other almost constantly, but begrudgingly agree to work as a team. The addition of Gar Logan (Best Boy and later Changelling of the Teen Titans) brings a level of family to the comic and someone new for Cliff to snap at. Steve Dayton, the wealthy mentalist called Mento (yes, Mento), marries Rita and adopts Gar as their ward, thus solidifying the family angle and making both Cliff and Larry look all the more absurd.
I only got into the classic Doom Patrol material later on and I must admit that the series is so good that it eclipses almost all other super hero strips. The action is explosive, the writing is inspired and the humor dark. While nearly every issue features the destruction of one of Cliff’s robot bodies, one of my favorites depicts the steady destruction of his form one limb at a time until he is just a torso and head wriggling toward his goal. Scary stuff!
The series culminated in an adventure where the team sacrificed their lives in order to save an anonymous town. The last issue ended with their arch foe laughing maniacally as he exploded an island where the Doom Patrollers were, leaving the fate of the characters firmly sealed. Mento and Beast Boy of course were not on the island and Gar Logan went on to become a Teen Titan years later.
Post 1985 Crisis
During the 1970’s, a three issue revival of the Doom Patrol was released in Showcase Presents, revealing that Cliff Steel had survived the blast that took the lives of Rita Farr and Larry Trainor. Along with three new teammates, Celcius, Negative Woman and Tempest, the concept failed to really catch on. Aside from a few appearances here and there, it looked like the days of the DP were over.
It was during a crossover event with the New Teen Titans that I first encountered the Doom Patrol as a youth and thanks to the storytelling skills of Wolfman and Perez I was enthralled. Pity there was no series but a handy digest edition released around the same time kept me happy.
It wasn’t until after Crisis on Infinite Earths where the revival of the Justice League series under Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire proved that the audience for superhero team books was out there that the next iteration was launched. Written by Paul Kupperburg and drawn by Steve Lightle, the new DP series was a minor hit and a very slick looking book.
After Lightle moved on, the series faltered and eventually the entire team suffered a fate similar to that of the first team as their plane crashed into the side of a mountain.
Enter: Grant Morrison
Perhaps the most popular of the iteration of the Doom Patrol is the period written by Grant Morrison. Before there was a Vertigo imprint, there were just bizarre comics that DC published, such as Hellblazer and Sandman. But standing far out from them both was the Doom Patrol.
There were no other comics that featured a super villain team of absurdists or a sentient transvestite street named Danny, but in Morrison’s Doom Patrol series. In places things got a little too wacky but perhaps thanks to the grizzled and practical member of the team there was always a focal point.
Convalescing in a hospital, the indestructible but clearly mentally damaged Cliff Steel met Crazy Jane who had multiple personalities, each with its own super power. Negative man returned but as a synthesis between both Negative Man and Negative Woman called Rebis. The young disfigured Dorothy Spinner communicated with imaginary friends and rounded out the team. The comic seemed to be about many things but came back to confronting madness over and over and surviving disaster. The absurdity of a super heroic lifestyle was laid bare many times as well, making it one of the first post-modern super hero books. Morrison’s run ended with the entire team disappearing except for Cliff Steel, who was becoming the one constant of the series.
Novelist Rachel Pollack took over where Morrison left off, developing some of the most beautifully written if thinly veiled statements on sexuality and identity. Perhaps interest had moved on or Pollack suffered from Morrison backlash, but in any case, the series was canceled in 1995.
The John Arcudi Phase
In 2001, DC attempted to bring the DP back again, this time as a comedic action series. Rather than introduce interesting new heroes, Arcudi’s Doom Patrol had an open awareness about it and made the new team members shallow character types.
Dealing with several contemporary concepts such as a corporate-run superhero team, this Doom Patrol series was a pointed joke at superhero comics. While not as successful as the Vertigo series, this was an attempt at a more accessible while still quirky superhero team more in keeping with the Keith Giffen Justice League series of 1985. Standout issues include the two-parter feature some fantastic art by the late Seth Fisher.
Arcudi was famous at the time for his work at Dark Horse where he developed the Mask. His unique humor style is unfortunately very hit and miss with readers and as he struggled to find a suitable home at DC Comics the experiments usually ended up getting canceled just as they gathered a strong following.
It’s a shame because this iteration of the series was delicate balance between the Morrison and Drake comics.
John Byrne’s Doom Patrol
2004 saw yet another revision of the Doom Patrol, this time from writer/artist John Byrne. Byrne has once built such a strong following that placing him on any title was like guaranteed sales. This was not the case with this version of DP. Forever viewed as ‘back to basics Byrne,’ this version ignored all of the previous Doom Patrol comics and introduced the characters ‘for the first time.’
Again, I had the good fortune of meeting with Arnold Drake and he was very open about his disdain for this version, feeling that Byrne just didn’t ‘get it.’ This probably greatly influenced my experience reading the series and it wasn’t until years later when I read the entire run altogether that I could appreciate it. While it doesn’t feel like a real Doom Patrol series and as a diehard DP fan the revisions are very distracting… it’s not all that bad.
The series had lots of oddball characters ( I love Grunt, the four-armed gorilla) and interesting plots including a convoluted time travel story, but again, cancellation loomed.
Writer Geoff Johns found a way to subtly revise the entire Doom Patrol legacy after Infinite Crisis in his Teen Titans series, finding a way to say that it all happened, somehow keeping Byrne’s version in continuity without jettisoning anything else. It seemed that a new DP was just around the corner.
You may have noticed the name Kieth Giffen a few times in this article. It’s interesting to note that the writer of the current Doom Patrol series is non other than he. Equal parts action, clever sharp dialog and absurd out of this world situations, the new Doom Patrol is just fantastic. I do think that it may get a bit too smart here in there with its plots and dialog but that may just be that I’m out of practice in reading Giffen’s material. Think Fantastic Four written by the Marx Brothers.
Matthew Clark has lovingly redesigned the team and they look great. Headquartered on the mad scientist stronghold from 52 Oolong Island, the team is clearly emotionally damaged from their lifestyle and each member also has a death wish, making their thought processes very erratic. I’m overjoyed to hear that it has been selling well and hope that this bodes well for the future of the comic.
I’d hate to make this article any longer!