Friday, June 11, 2010

My Love Affair With The Doom Patrol and How Keith Giffen Makes Me Smile

Every so often a comic book is done so well by a creative team that I wish the powers that be would end the book when that team finishes their run. Just end the book on a high note and give the characters a 10 yr grace period before anyone else can touch them. Unfortunately, comics are a monthly business and good creative teams bring in readers. And for big characters, you just can't send them away. To cancel a book just when it is peaking doesn't make sense. Still ...

I wished that DC ended Swamp Thing when Alan Moore left. While Rick Veitch had good ideas, his Swampy was akin to a great hamburger after eating filet mignon. It just paled by comparison.

Similarly, I wished DC ended Doom Patrol when Grant Morrison ended his run. He seemed to have such a grasp on those characters. It was delightfully trippy. I ate up his Doom Patrol with a spoon and figured that no one else would do the characters justice.

The problem with that is ... I love the Doom Patrol. I love the name. I love the characters. I love that they are on the bizarre fringes of the super-hero community. And despite Morrison's historic run, I find myself still drawn to them. Since he left, I have been sorely disappointed ... until now.

The purpose of this posting is to lavish love on the Doom Patrol themselves and in particular sing the praises of the latest incarnation of the team ... the first version of the Doom Patrol since Morrison's that seems to just get it.

My first Doom Patrol book was Showcase #94, written by Paul Kupperberg and drawn by Joe Staton. I bought it at the local convenience store with my own money and thought it was too fantastic for words. I knew little of the original team but after a 2 page synopsis of their ending and the introduction of the new team I was hooked. Even the cover is the perfect way to grab a potential reader, the eerie font of the title, the classic gravestone cover, the mangled original Robotman body. It all worked.

I looked out for the next couple of issues of Showcase and bought them too. I learned about the Chief's origin, his wife Celsius and her powers, and General Immortus. These guys weren't the Avengers or the JLA. Heck, they weren't even the Defenders or the Champions. There was something off about them and that worked for me.

Reading those books made me seek out other Doom Patrol stories, older stories reprinted in other comics, and the occasional mangled original Doom Patrol issues discovered in dirty flea markets.

Those Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani books were ground breaking for their time, probably about as odd as you could get for that time period.

But after the Showcase issues, the Doom Patrol sort of went away. The Showcase sales must not have been enough to earn them a book of their own. And though they were subsequently seen in The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl, Teen Titans, and the Crisis, there were no new stand alone adventures.

Then, in 1987, DC figured it was time to try again and I was right there with them. It helped that Paul Kupperberg was the writer again. But the big draw for me was Steve Lightle's pencils. I ogled Lightle's run on Legion and couldn't wait to see more of his pencils.

The initial stories were fine if relatively straightforward super-hero tales. And Lightle quickly left the book. Despite the dynamic art from a newcomer named Erik Larsen (I like his steam shovel jawed Cliff), the book seemed to plod along. There just wasn't enough Doom in the Doom Patrol, there wasn't enough of the strangeness that was part of the Drake pieces. I lost interest in the book and stopped buying.

I was lucky enough to jump back on board when Morrison took over in Doom Patrol #19. I am a sucker for 'bold new direction' issues and I had this long-standing love affair with the team, so I figured why not.

He had me at hello. Morrison showed me new levels of weird and his words were matched in intensity by Richard Case's thick-lined art.

The first arc was about the Scissormen and the bone city of Orqwith (which disappears when it is confronted with it's own unreality). Then came Red Jack (or God), the Brotherhood of Dada, the living book of the Unmaker, Yankee Doodle, Flex Mentallo, The Men From Nowehere, etc etc. Each issue seemed to push the envelope more. It was a dizzying collection of stories that made perfect sense to the college student me. His run ended nearly 4 yrs later with a touching tale of Crazy Jane.

I thought the book should end. Who could ever fill the shoes of Morrison?

Unfortunately, rather than walk away myself, I suffered through about 6 months of Rachel Pollack's run. Again, she had some ideas ... but it felt like she was trying to write like Morrison and you just can't copy him. I wasn't alone in my feelings. Lots of people left the book and it was soon canceled.

It was so distasteful that I decided that I wouldn't read any more Doom Patrol. Morrison's was definitive. So I would shy away from others. Better to reread his issues then suffer through an inferior new version.

Well, in 2001, John Arcudi wrote another version of the team in which Robotman is charged to mentor some young heroes. I couldn't resist and bought the first issue and no others. For all I know the rest of the book was spectacular. But I felt if the first issue didn't grab me, that I would stick fast to my 'only Morrison' rule.

And then, perhaps, the version that angered me the most. John Byrne's attempted reboot in 2004. I didn't buy a single issue so again, the book might be great.

But I heard he was retconning the team so that this was there first appearance. I consider myself something of a continuity nerd. I don't mind soft reboots. But to erase the Doom Patrol from prior stories meant major down stream things. How do you explain Beast Boy? Or the Morrison stories? Or any other place they were. I know ... continuity nerd.

But this was too much of a faux pas to have me even give the book a sniff.

Which brings us back to the current series and my appreciation of Keith Giffen and artist Matthew Clark.

I will admit that I purchased the Blackest Night crossover issue to get the promotion ring. But I have to say, it was good enough to get my attention. It seemed like Giffen realized that the book had to be off-the-wall, had to be strange and creepy, if the characters were going to work. A couple of months after that issue, my local store had a '50% off books on the rack' sale. I bought the rest of the run and devoured them.

All of a sudden those feelings I had with Morrison's run were coming back. Okay, maybe this run isn't as innovative and trippy as those issues, but they are strange and off-kilter, with a nice spicy flair of fatalism. The characters are all wonderfully flawed. I love the book.

What's more is that Giffen realized that he could fold their convoluted multiple versions into the story as another way they are so bizarre. He doesn't ignore it ... he embraces it. Yes, we have the main team being the original Robotman, Negative Man, and Elasti-Girl. But we also have Danny the Street and Crazy Jane from the Morrison run. Even in the above issue, the Negative Man acknowledges that all of the prior versions of him are ... well ... him, even if they can't all be him if there is one timeline.

So like a long-lost lover, I am back with the Doom Patrol. And I am happy that they are in good hands with this creative team. The book is definitely worth checking out.


Tom Hartley said...

It's too bad Rachel Pollock thought she had to spend her first few issues tying up loose ends from Morrison's run. Not many readers stuck around long enough for her to find her own voice, but for some reason, I was one, and I'm glad I did. Not that she was ever as good as Morrison, but in her later issues she at least had her own brand of weird. And there has never been a Doom Patrol artist trippier than Ted McKeever. If you ever find some Rachel Pollock Doom Patrols in a quarter bin or really cheap on eBay, they won't be the worst things you ever bought.

Tom Hartley said...

(Rachel Pollock's Doom Patrol is my own Justice League Detroit.)

Diabolu Frank said...

Great post, Anj! I love sharing first experiences with comic books/characters. I never found my in with the Doom Patrol, as I always seemed to sample them at their worst (Kupperburg, off Morrison issues, Pollock, Byrne.) I have a love/hate relationship with Giffen's writing, and planned to avoid the first trade as part of a general weaning off DC comics, but now I think I'll check it out. Besides, I'm curious to see what Ambush Bug was getting up to over there.

Anj said...

(Rachel Pollock's Doom Patrol is my own Justice League Detroit.)

If I still had the issues, I would reread them to see if I missed something. But they are long gone.

Anj said...

I have a love/hate relationship with Giffen's writing, and planned to avoid the first trade as part of a general weaning off DC comics, but now I think I'll check it out. Besides, I'm curious to see what Ambush Bug was getting up to over there.

I would love to hear your experience with the book. The truth is Giffen throws in a lot of stuff from the Morrison run and that thrills me. I wonder what your thoughts will be having not read those issues.