Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #333: Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison, Richard Case, and others (3 and/or 6 volumes)

More time has passed since these stories per published than had passed for the whole history of the Doom Patrol to that point. As with so many things in corporate comics, in 2018 we're now deep in second- or third-order nostalgia, memories of particular revised versions of things that have been around, and generating income for some corporation, for five or eight decades.

I tend to think Grant Morrison, and his Doom Patrol characters, would be just fine with that: they already think the world is random and bizarre and mostly unbelievable, a thin scrim over chaos and madness and conspiracy theories and various kinds of unlikely mysticism.

Doom Patrol was always pretty weird, right from the initial '60s version by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani. Introductions in the current editions of the Morrison run lean heavily into that: the idea that this team was always "freaks" and "misfits," the ones fixing weird and surreal problems that more conventionally superheroic characters couldn't handle. I haven't read much of the Drake/Haney/Premiani run, so let's say that's correct: it sounds a bit like special pleading to me, but clearly it was weird by the standards of the time.

Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, on the other hand, is weird by any standard. A hundred or more years from now, if people are still around and reading comics, they'll still think this stuff is really out there. And it is.

Morrison took over what was a more-or-less conventional superhero team with declining sales in early 1989 and bet all of his chips on the freaks -- it worked out, with the Morrison Doom Patrol  becoming an immediate success and eventually becoming one of the core books of the new Vertigo line a few years later. Morrison's issues ran from early 1989 (#19) through early 1993 (#63), plus a piss-take of the then-popular X-Force called Doom Force.

The Morrison run has been collected twice in the last decade: first as six volumes from 2000-2008, and then as three double-sized books in 2016 and 2017. (There's also, as there must be, the single big-crushing volume for those who must own something larger than anyone else.) For various quirky reasons that are very Doom Patrol appropriate, I read the first two big books and then volumes 5 and 6 of the previous series -- all of the Morrison stories, in order.

It begins, very much corporate-comics style, in the aftermath of a crossover: Invasion! in this case. The members of the old team are dead (Celsius, Scott Fischer) or retired (Tempest) or comatose (Lodestone) or depowered (Negative Woman). Left standing alone is Robotman (Cliff Steele), who, maybe because of that, has since become the iconic character who is in every version of Doom Patrol. And the Chief (Niles Caulder) who originally formed the DP, is back to run it again.

Cliff is in some kind of psychiatric facility -- modern and rehabilitative, so I won't call it an "insane asylum" -- where he meets Kay Challis, a woman who was systematically abused in childhood and developed sixty-four personalities from that abuse. And, from the "gene bomb" in Invasion!, all of those personalities now have independent superpowers.

Meanwhile, Larry Trainor, once Negative Man before the "Negative Spirit" left him, is also recuperating from his own problems when that spirit returns and forcibly merges Larry, itself, and a doctor named Eleanor Poole into a single entity that starts calling itself Rebis.

The three of them will be the new Doom Patrol team -- Robotman, Kay as Crazy Jane, and Rebis. The former Tempest, Joshua Clay, becomes the team doctor but isn't active even though he still has his fire-energy-beams-from-his-hands power. And they're soon joined by Dorothy Spinner, a pre-teen with a deformed face who can bring her dreams and ideas to life (sometimes even on purpose), who is also what the Chief calls "the support team."

They battle weird existential menaces for a few years of comics time -- the Brotherhood of Dada, trying to drag the world into a painting; the Scissormen, foot-soldiers of a rapacious metafiction; Red Jack, who claims to be both God and Jack the Ripper and abducts the former Lodestone as his new bride; the Brotherhood of the Unwritten Book, in a semi-parody of Alan Moore's post-Crisis Swamp Thing story about a magical apocalypse; the inter-dimensionally warring Geomancers of the Kaleidoscape and the Orthodoxy of the Insect Mesh, who also have plans for a now-awake and -transformed Lodestone (who is called by her real name, Rhea, throughout); the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., who want to make the whole world "normal;" and a few more variations of the same themes.

Along they way, they meet the sentient dimension-hopping Danny the Street, who becomes something between their new HQ and a member of the team. And they meet the long-lost Flex Mentallo, man of muscle mystery, who wandered off for his own mini-series and I don't think has been seen much since. (Or maybe he's in the Teen Titans now; stupider things have happened in the DC Universe.)

In the end, the last villain of Morrison's Doom Patrol run is inside the team, of course, and he gets to run through one more level of deconstruction before ending his Doom Patrol stories with a bang. (And then, to close out all of these books, comes that Doom Force one-shot, a deliberately ugly and dumb takedown of the stupid comics from the people who would very soon found Image and get rich very quickly.)

There's not much else like this Doom Patrol: it's the first major flowering of Morrison's tropism towards metafiction and superhero-as-mythic-figure and a strong example of a case where his magpie gathering of every last random thing he reads or experiences really works well. And he's ably assisted on art through this long series -- primarily by Richard Case, who pencilled the majority of the stories, with other contributions by Simon Bisley (most of the iconic covers), Kelley Jones, Jamie Hewlett, Ken Steacy, and Sean Phillips.

For me, this is the quintessential Grant Morrison Big Two comic. I like to pretend that these are the kinds of characters and stories that his career focused on, that he didn't turn to telling ham-handed episodes of superhero porn. Remember: we all create our own canons in our heads; we don't ever need to let anyone else tell us what matters.


Rusty said...

Read Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man. I haven’t read all of his Doom Patrol stuff, but quite a bit. Animal Man is just as freaky, and maybe more personal. It’s also far more meta-fiction. And I think it comes about the same time as Doom Patrol.

I put Grant Morrison in the same pantheon of revolutionary writers as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is better at reigning in the literary excesses that Moore and Morrison sometimes flounder in.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Rusty: I should have included a link to my post on Morrison's Animal Man from last year.

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