BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS: DOOM PATROL #18
You can tell “Doom Patrol” #18 is the issue that almost changes not quite everything and nothing will ever sort of not really be the same again, because it says “DC Comics Aren’t Just For Kids!” right on the cover, beneath other words like, “Invasion Aftermath Extra!” and “The Doom Patrol is Dead!”
Yes, folks, we’re back again with another installment of the beloved semi-monthly feature “Before They Were Famous,” in which I write about a comic book series with a focus on the issue right before a famous run. In the past, I’ve done:“Swamp Thing”!, “X-Men”!, “Captain America”!, “Supreme”!, “Batman”!, “The Incredible Hulk”!, and “Iron Man”! Yeah!
But this time, it’s a comic from a run I actually enjoyed, and one that immediately preceded a run that is considered one of the all-time greats, at least in this house. I had been reading Paul Kupperberg’s “Doom Patrol” since it launched with issue #1, with the Steve Lightle artwork, but when Grant Morrison and Richard Case came in with issue #19, they began a multi-year absurdist, tragicomic, satirical, thrilling epic that remains one of my favorite comic book runs by any creative team on any superhero book.
Grant Morrison came in to take over “Doom Patrol” with a clear mission: to make it strange and unsettling like it was in its original form in the 1960s, back when Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani gave us the first look at the Chief and his super-weirdos as they faced off against that brain in a jar guy, and that gorilla with machine guns, and that giant red robot, and that animal-vegetable-mineral person. But Morrison didn’t want to try to recapture the flavor of the original series by using the same rogues gallery, and he knew that the late 1980s were no early 1960s, culturally-speaking.
(Comics weren’t just for kids now, remember?!?!)
So Morrison’s run on “Doom Patrol” was all about exotic oddness and villains ripped from Borges and Dadaism and Jungian Alchemy and Truddi Chase, and all the heroes wore jackets and looked cool and had mental problems and it was grim and hilarious and when ill-informed readers say “Grant Morrison’s on drugs” or whatever it is that they say, they might be talking about the later issues of “Doom Patrol” when he did, in fact, begin doing drugs and the Insect Mesh doesn’t make as much sense as it might have otherwise.
But that’s not what we’re all about this week. This week, Before-They-Were-Famous-style, we’re looking at the Paul Kupperberg, Graham Nolan, Timothy Dzon, John Workman, and Michele Wolfman “Doom Patrol” #18, entitled “Endings… …Beginnings.”
How much background do you need for this? The Doom Patrol’s pretty famous in comic book circles, right? With Niles Caulder, aka “The Chief,” and his assembled squad of broken, misfit heroes like Robotman and Negative Man and Beast Boy and Elasti-Woman? At the end of the Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani run in the Silver Age, the heroes seemed blown to bits.
Paul Kupperberg brought them back — or at least brought back their legacy — with some “Showcase” action in the late 1970s, introducing the never-before-mentioned wife of Niles Calder, Arani Desai, an Indian martial artist who could blast hot and cold. She wouldn’t have fit in at all in the 1960s version, and in Kupperberg’s new version, she was joined by Tempest, who could shoot energy blasts, and a Negative WOMAN. Oh, and also Robotman. He survived, because he’s a robot and all that.
Pretty bland stuff, but a half-decade after their limited tryout in “Showcase,” the new, less-interesting, less-weird, more-typically-superheroic Doom Patrol kicked off their own series. I didn’t have much history with the team when that series launched, and I didn’t know what a drop off it was from the quality of the Silver Age version, and I loved what Kupperberg and Lightle did with the title. It was basically just a slightly more off-kilter version of a Marv Wolfman/George Perez superhero team comic. It was Titans-Underground, or something along those lines, with a reveal that Niles Caulder was not dead. Oh, and a bunch of new young heroes joined the team over the first few issues as well. Like Lodestone, magnetic girl. And Karma, who was a punk rock superhero that your granddad might have created because he once saw an after-school special about a kid who spiked his hair. I didn’t love that character so much. I once wrote a letter to the editor of the comic detailing why Karma was an inaccurate portrayal of youth culture. The letter remains unpublished to this day.
So that’s the context and then…Erik Larsen shows up to draw some issues and the series goes slapstick by the end of its first year and then it sort of stabilizes — still with Paul Kupperberg writing the whole time — with the journeyman work of Graham Nolan providing some sturdy pencils. And then “Invasion,” that Keith Giffen/Bill Mantlo/Todd McFarlane/Bart Sears event comic of 1988 hit the DC offices, and it was a perfect time to say goodbye to many of our friends.
Paul Kupperberg turned it into a killing spree.
Before turning the book over to Grant Morrison — who would continue to deconstruct the superteam before building it back up to a position where it could handle Danny, the transvestite street, and the awesome power of Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery — Paul Kupperberg cleared the decks. He cleared them, then swabbed them, then handed the keys to the decks over to Grant Morrison, after making sure there was nothing left on those decks, except maybe dead bodies.
Eh, I’m exaggerating a bit.
But Paul “Bloodthirst” Kupperberg could barely be restrained, from the looks of it.
In “Doom Patrol” #18 — a comic that isn’t “just for kids anymore,” and you can tell that because the characters call each other by their code names a lot and team up with a green, alien version of Sydney Greenstreet known as Garguax — the heroes fight some invading bad guys from space who wear studded dominatrix gear and then they have a funeral in the end.
That’s basically the whole comic.
And in the middle it has dialogue like this: “You are doomed now, Robotman! This acidic compound is powerful enough to eat through even your robotic form.”
To which Cliff Steele, the Robotman of past, present, and future, can’t help but exclaim, “We’ll, what d’ya know–! You’re right…and ya just gotta know that ticks me off somethin’ fierce! Say g’night, Gracie!”
Then a super punch and a nice-looking John Workman “THOOM!”
I’m not sure what “we’ll” means in that Robotman sentence, but I guess it’s southern-accented robot talk for “well.” You may notice other bits of vernacular, phonetically lettered for your reading annoyance.
It’s a comic book so terrible that it makes me rethink my passion for Grant Morrison’s “Doom Patrol” run and wonder if it isn’t something like the experience of someone who had been eating dirt pudding for eighteen months suddenly trying some rum-topped ice cream.
But it’s not just the dull alien-fighting story, or the embarrassing dialogue that makes “Doom Patrol” #18 a “Before They Were Famous” not-at-all-classic. It’s also the final scene of the comic, in which Niles Caulder and the remaining Doom Patrol members stand over Arani Desai’s grave — because she’s totally dead — and basically say, “That was weird how she turned up and pretended to be your wife, huh? Wonder what was going on with her? Oh, well, she’s dead.”
That is my paraphrasing of the scene. The actual dialogue is probably more sensitive and poignant. Let’s see…here it goes: “It’s bizarre, ain’t it Niles? Arani came into our lives four years ago, claimin’ t’be your new wife, bringin’ new life t’the Doom Patrol…and now she’s dead…and we’ll probably never know what the hell she was all about.”
Clearly, my memory was way off.
And I used to enjoy “Doom Patrol” even before Grant Morrison took over the series and actually made it readable? Shame on me. Shame on us all. (But mostly me.)
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.