Twenty-five years on, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is a trip

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Still crazy after all these years

The early nineties were a boom time for comics, thanks not just to the alternative comics championed by Fantagraphics but also DC Comics’ Vertigo line. Much more than now, the imprint was a Wild West of creative freedom. Leading the pack was Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol.

Anything went in the monthly series; nothing was too outrageous for Morrison and his collaborators, whether it was an army of sentient chairs or the charismatic Cubist Mr. Nobody running for president or a foray into outright in-joke comics spoofery.

I still have vivid memories of parking myself at my favourite watering hole (the Railway Club, in downtown Vancouver) late on a Friday afternoon to pour over the latest issue of Doom Patrol, or Animal Man (Morrison’s other title at the time), or any of a myriad number of other comics, beer in hand.

The memory of the reading experience may be vivid, but as to actual content – well, rereading the dozen Doom Patrol issues (#51-63) collected in this latest reprint volume (Doom Patrol Book 3, Vertigo, softcover, $45.99CDN, 424 pps), I realized very little had stuck with me. In fact, I may as well have been reading them for the first time.

Rereading the comics in this collection, what struck me most was the unfettered imagination in these pages. Not everything works, but a sense of joy and creativity lives on, a quarter century later. Here’s a brief breakdown of what I liked (and didn’t).

The stories: Okay, some of these are borderline incomprehensible, perhaps owing to the fact that I didn’t brush up on the two volumes previous, which collected the first 30 issues of Morrison’s run (#19-50). In this arc, the Doom Patrol (Cliff Steele, a sentient robot; Niles Caulder, team leader and floating head; Crazy Jane, who is dealing with childhood trauma and seems to have lost her powers; Dorothy, whose imaginary friends come to life; Larry/Rebis, bandaged head-to-toe, a composite of three individuals, one male, one female, another simply malevolent; and Danny the Street, a sentient street) go up against Mr. Nobody, who is a Cubist entity, with floating eyes and… you know what? I don’t feel like trying to describe these stories. They’re nuts, mostly entertaining, sometimes packed with ideas to a dizzying extent. Morrison also seems to be trying to get at the roots of the origins of the members of Doom Patrol (a cast of misfit characters that had been created in the sixties), with each individual coming into focus in his or her turn. One thing that struck me: the team seems to suffer from an inordinate amount of defections, as characters decide to leave suddenly to pursue their own interests/identity issues, with poor Cliff more often than not left holding the bag.

Cliff Steele and Crazy Jane in Doom Patrol. Richard Case art.

The art – Twenty-five years on, Richard Case’s art doesn’t always work for me. It’s competent and tells the story, more or less, though at times it’s hard to tell what’s going on, particularly in the action sequences. I found the best art to be in the issues “And Men Shall Call Him – Hero!”, which features guest artist Ken Steacy paying tribute to the Jack Kirby-Stan Lee cosmic comics of the sixties, and “After the Cabaret”, another story early in the volume with guest inker Philip Bond giving a smooth surface to Case’s pencils.

Doom Force – This is a true oddity. It was I believe published at or near the end of Morrison’s run on the title as a stand-alone book and bears little relation to Doom Patrol except for two characters who are carried over from the team. It’s included here at the very end, and the 40-page story doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, which is a straight-up parody of Image Comics, the publisher set up by defecting Marvel artists like Todd McFarlane. To be sure, there wasn’t a more deserving target at the time than Image, which seemed determined to take the art form back several decades with unrepentant misogyny (see below), anatomically ridiculous art (here’s looking at you, Rob Liefield), and juvenile storytelling.

Today, Doom Force is a leaden spoof that lands with a thud, but there is one good joke (besides the purposefully terrible art, by a host of different pencillers) – the bad guy insists that his sister (!)(also evil, but still) don an even skimpier costume than the barely-there outfit in which she first appears. Sample dialogue: “I have one question, my sister. Why, why, why must you insist upon covering yourself up?” “What? Anton, I was a little cold. Surely this dress is sufficiently revealing for…” “Cold? What kind of excuse is that to be dressed like some old woman on a daytrip to Alaska? Go and change into something more befitting of our heritage!”

It’s not a subtle jab, exactly, but it certainly makes its point.

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