Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Classic Comics: The Doom Patrol

Classic "Silver Age" comic greatness.

I am, among many other things, a huge fan of comic books, and most especially, super hero comics books. And like with most things that I love, I happen to have a much stronger affinity for the older, classic entries in the medium, more-so than the more recent, modern output. When it comes to comics, I have always been what you would call a "Marvel guy", meaning I grew up loving characters from Marvel Comics, most especially the X-Men. And in general, with the primary exception of Batman (because I loved the 90s animated series so much), most of the comics and characters I loved the most, and perhaps still love the most, came from Marvel, or more specifically, the mind of one Stan Lee, the legendary father of such heroes as the X-Men, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, Thor, The Avengers, The Silver Surfer, etc. etc. etc.

However, in as much as at one point in my younger days, I was a "Nintendo guy" but later came to also like and appreciate much Sega had to offer, I also was once decidedly a "Marvel guy", and for the most part, didn't get into or give much credence to most output from DC Comics, Marvel's biggest rival. But, much like my later appreciation for Sega, in later years I also grew up, and grew an appreciation for classic stuff from DC as well. In recent years, especially, I have made it more a point to explore and discover the many gems that DC Comics produced in years past. One of the greatest such gems, is a lesser known titled called "Doom Patrol". Seen above, is the very first appearance of this super team, in the pages of one of DC's many anthology books (comics that featured various different stories and characters), "My Greatest Adventure" issue #80 (1963). Several talents converged to create this, one of the first dedicated "super team" comics, but the main mind behind the Doom Patrol, was a man by the name of Arnold Drake, a veteran of the business known for, among other things, the equally somewhat obscure "Deadman" character for DC, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" for Marvel.

The first official, self-titled "Doom Patrol" issue.

Now, the Doom Patrol were a very unique, oddball group of characters, reminiscent in some ways of the earlier "Fantastic Four" (1961), and also the contemporary "X-Men" (1963). But even compared to those teams, Drake's creation took the cake for straight up weirdness, and perhaps even creativity (and I say that bearing in mind that X-Men and Fantastic Four are my two top fav. team comics of all time). The team consisted of four central characters: Dr. Niles Cauler aka "The Chief", Rita Farr aka "Elasti-Girl", Larry Trainor aka "Negative Man", and Cliff Steele aka "Robotman".

The Chief was, similar to the X-Men's own Charles Xavier, a crippled, wheelchair-bound man, who founded the team, and leads them on missions from his home base via radio communication. Unlike Xavier, or even his teammates, however, "Chief" is just that, a leader and strategist, with no super-human powers, only a brilliant scientific mind and inventive engineering ability, among other things. Elastic-girl, though her name would make you assume she stretches similarly to Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, was originally far more similar to Marvel's Ant-Man, as she had the power to shrink to near-microscopic size, or to grow hundreds of feet tall. Negative Man possessed perhaps the most unique powers of the bunch, as he was a former test pilot (and colleague of Hal Jordan, DC's own Green Lantern), and exposure to cosmic rays radiated and altered his physiology, giving him the ability to project an electrical "negative" of himself. While he used this power, his mind and consciousness traveled with the negative, while his body remained a vulnerable husk. And the most unique aspect of his character, was that his "Negative Man" projections had a time limit of 60 seconds, meaning if he stayed away from his body for more than 60 seconds at a time, he would fall into a coma and eventually die. Larry also had the misfortune, because of his radioactivity, to have to wrap his body in special bandages that helped contain the radiation and keep him together, which understandably made him bitter and isolated from others. But even given these handicaps, he was still arguably the most powerful member of the team, as his electrical negative could cause major damage. Last but not least of course, while Negative Man may have had the most unique powers, Robotman had the most unique nature. A former race driver, Cliff Steele got in a major accident, and would have died had it not been for Dr. Cauler's technology, which allowed his brain to live on in a metallic-ceramic body. Of course, feeling like a freak, Cliff hated this body, and had a hard time living with it (similar to the Fantastic Four's monstrous "Thing", Ben Grimm). But the robot body also afforded him near-invulnerabiltiy, super strength, near-limitless stamina, etc., making him the powerhouse of the team.

One of the best story arcs of this classic series.

The Doom Patrol naturally got into many incredible and strange adventures. Brought together and guided by The Chief, the core team of Elastic-Girl, Negative Man and Robotman would rush out in their jet plane to face all manner of threats, saving the world from various looming dangers. One of their greatest storylines, was a two issue crossover with fellow DC title "Challengers of the Unknown" (1957) . Challengers was the creation of one Jack Kirby, arguably the most famous (or infamous) comic book artist of all time, having worked on and in some cases co-created such characters as Captain America (back in his original WWII era debut), the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk with Marvel comics, as well as many others. Challengers specifically, featured a team of four non-powered adventurers, who were more explorers than heroes, who investigated all manner of science fiction and supernatural phenomenon, facing them off against all sorts of aliens, monsters, etc. Kirby would take some obvious key elements of this team with him when he left DC and moved back to what was by the early 60s called Marvel Comics (formerly Timely and then Atlas Comics), incorporating them along with Stan Lee into Marvel's first super team, the Fantastic Four, who were also a team of four adventurers who while heroes, often acted more as explorers. This crossover in particular was notable, though it only lasted two issues (one in each title), because it was one of the first ever crossover storylines between two separate, non-related titles.

Now the core cast of characters expanded a bit as Doom Patrol's run went on, eventually adding the teenage Garfield Logan aka "Beast Boy", whose green body could shift into any animal form he knew of, and Steve Dayton aka "Mento", whose self-invented special helmet enhanced his mental power, giving him telepathy and telekinesis, among other abilities. While these two weren't featured in every issue going forward, and the argument could be made neither were "official" members of the Doom Patrol, they were nontheless a part of the DP "family", and important characters. Mento was a rich, somewhat arrogant man, who originally created the helmet and donned the heroic persona to impress Elastic-Girl, though he would also eventually prove to be a reliable ally and hero. He and Rita eventually got married, and adopted the orphan Beast Boy as their own son.

Naturally, a superhero isn't much without threats and evil to fight, and the cast of Doom Patrol's "rogue's gallery" was no less unique and strange than the heroes themselves. The primary of these, were the immortal "General Immortus", who would be revealed to be responsible for the Chief's crippled body, the strange "Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man" who could change his body into just about any of those three categories you could imagine, and the most notable, the "Brotherhood of Evil". The Brotherhood, led by perhaps the strangest super-villain of all, "The Brain" (literally just a living human brain in a bottle), consisted of various nefarious types, the two most infamous of which were "Monsieur Mallah", an intelligent and speaking gorilla (who also happens to usually pack a machine gun), and "Madame Rouge", a French stage-actress gone bad, with the ability to twist and stretch her body into various shapes (ala Mr. Fantastic), as well as the ability to alter her appearance to disguise herself. It would be the Brotherhood that would wind up being the Patrol's greatest nemesis, and (SPOILERS), their ultimate downfall.

Perhaps the most shocking final issue in comic book history.

The irony, given their name, of the Doom Patrol, is also what they are (sadly) perhaps most well known for. By late 1968, sales on the title were lagging, and so DC decided to pull the plug. Now often throughout comic book history, especially super hero titles, when a title gets cancelled, there is often little real conclusion, as the decision is usually made as a last second sort of deal, not giving the writer and artist time to really come up with a fitting finale. Some have been lucky enough to tie up some loose ends and present readers with some sort of acceptable conclusion. Many others, however, were not so lucky, and would wind up ending abruptly, with no real "the end" at all, sometimes even right in the midst of an ongoing storyline. With the Doom Patrol, however, this was not the case. Arnold Drake had enough advance warning of his comic's impending cancellation, to allow him to plot out his team's final adventure, and going against typical comic industry practice (even to this day), he decided to do something that, for it's time especially, would be incredibly shocking and would continue to be remembered. In the final issue, #121, published October 1968, he scripted a series of events that saw the villainess Madame Rouge seeking revenge upon the Doom Patrol (who had once tried to rehabilitate her). Joining forces with a former Nazi U-boat captain who held a grudge against the Chief, she and her henchmen sent the Patrol a message, by attacking (and presumably destroying) her old colleagues Brain and Mallah. She then attacks the Patrol's secret base, ultimately informing them that a bomb has been planted both at the base, as well as a tiny Maine fishing village called "Codsville". Expecting them to choose to save their own lives, they are given the ultimatum to choose which bomb gets detonated. But in a surprising act of self-sacrifice, they choose to spare the innocent village, and their base is detonated instead.

So in the final issue of a comic, for the first time (and honestly something that hasn't been totally duplicated since), not only does the bad guy basically win, but the heroes are all (presumably) killed at the end. I guess you can't really get more of a dramatic and heroic end than that, sacrificing yourselves to save innocent lives. Of course, I would imagine that at the time, it was an ending few fans of the series were likely happy with. And while the issue itself featured letters from some of the staff urging readers to write in and demand the return of the team, the title never was resurrected, and the characters remained canonically dead for years. Beast Boy, who wasn't present at the end, would later go on to join a Teen Titans offshoot team called "Titans West", before later becoming more famous as part of the 80s comic "The New Teen Titans", under the new codename "Changeling". Mento even made a return as a temporary villain, having gone insane with grief over his wife's death. The Doom Patrol concept suffered various attempts to resurrect it, though the only character actually brought back to life was Robotman. The worst of this 80s reboot, was Grant Morrison's run, which typical for the writer's work, featured all manner of nonsensical storylines and dumb characters (in my opinion). Given that I am not a fan of Morrison's work, and that he basically ruined my favorite comic of all time (The X-Men), I'll just leave it at that, that he got famous in part by shitting all over what was once a great concept in the Doom Patrol.

All was not totally lost, however, as DC apparently re-rebooted (as they've been known to do) the title, this time bringing the whole original team back. I haven't read it, and don't have much interest, but at least those classic characters got another shot I suppose, even if their original death was tragically fitting. Of more important note, at least to me, is that the Patrol also featured in the final season of the cartoon series "Teen Titans" several years back, in the very first episode in fact. They completely omitted the Chief, and made Mento the leader of the team, which was odd, but otherwise, it was a great representation, and the Brotherhood (Brain, Mallah, Rouge, etc.), would go on to feature as the primary villains of that final season, in what was undoubtedly the second best story arc of that show (the first of course being the Slade/Deathstroke storyline). But even though the actual Patrol only got featured in one two-part episode, it was still great for the team to get mainstream exposure like that, and to have it do them justice (instead of ruining things as Hollywood so often does). That was good enough for me, and a nice surprise to boot.

So if you ever find yourself wanting to read some good classic comics, go hunt down the Doom Patrol, and give them a read. You won't be sorry. I highly recommend watching that two-part Teen Titans episode, "Homecoming", as well. Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. I was really into comics for a time back in the 90's. I still have my collection, but it consists of mostly comics from that time, mainly Marvel (lots of X-Men). Unfortunately I never got the chance to read much of the really old ones. It's just one of those things, if I had the money I would like to get more into, but with my other hobbies can't really afford to. I still like to go to the comic store occasionally and browse though. My personal favorite comics are the Marvel Presents Wolverine drawn by Sam Kieth. I absolutely love his artwork, and will still buy comics by him if I run across them. He also did The Maxx, and Scratch, which I like a lot.


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