Axel-In-Charge: "Secret Wars" Jam Session Talking "A-Force," "Ultimate End" and More
I’m back! In case you haven’t noticed, the fine folk at PopCultureShock redesigned their site, and it became clear that a column devoted to ancient comics just wasn’t where they were going, so I bowed out. I’m glad they gave me the opportunity, but now I’m bringing my rambling love for obscure and not-so-obscure titles that I think every comic book fan should own back to the blog! This is the first one here since we’ve moved, and aren’t we all lucky it’s about what I would consider the best run on a comic book ever. EVER!!!!
So strap yourself in, because this is a long one. I usually don’t go on quite so much, but there’s a lot going on in Morrison’s Doom Patrol. For those of you who don’t know, these posts generally contain massive spoilers. MASSIVE! I do this for two reasons: I’m not really trying to review these books, instead I’m trying more for a critical reading (whether or not I succeed is entirely up to the audience to decide), and sometimes you have to spoil things to discuss them critically; and most of the time, I’m talking about books that have been out for years and years and years (with this one, the last issue came out 13 years ago), and even though you still might not know the spoilers, that’s probably your fault. Of course, if you don’t want things spoiled, don’t read the rest. Simple, no? Even knowing the big reveal in many of the books I discuss won’t ruin the reading of them, because they’re so freakin’ excellent!
Here’s a list of the previous entries, either at my own blog (yes, that’s a shameless plug, but that’s why I get up to seven readers a day!!!!), the old Comics Should Be Good blog, or PopCultureShock. Enjoy!
Are we good? Good! Now, let’s get to the actual post!
Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison (writer), Richard Case (penciller, issues #19-24, 26-35, 37-41, 44, 46-52, 54-57, 59-63, inker, issue #50, 57, 63), Doug Braithwraite (penciller, issue #25), Kelley Jones (penciller, issue #36), Mike Dringenberg (penciller, issue #42), Steve Yeowell (artist, issue #43), Vince Giarrano (penciller, issue #45), Jamie Hewlett (artist, issue #50), Rian Hughes (artist, issue #50), Ken Steacy (artist, issue #53), Sean Phillips (artist, issue #58), Carlos Garzon (inker, issue #19), Scott Hanna (inker, issues #20-24, 48), John Nyberg (inker, issues #25-35), Mark McKenna (inker, issues #36-41, 44, 46-47, 57), Kim DeMulder (inker, issues #39, 41), Doug Hazelwood (inker, issue #42), Malcolm Jones III (inker, issue #45), Mark Badger (inker, issue #49), Stan Woch (inker, issue #51, 54-57, 59-62), Philip Bond (finishes, issue #52).
DC, 45 issues (#19-63), cover dated February 1989 – January 1993.
Can you imagine what it was like for a regular Doom Patrol reader in late 1988? Apparently, there weren’t many of them, but imagine you’re one of them. You’ve been enjoying the rather forgettable superhero stories of Paul Kupperberg – there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re just regular stories – aided by the detailed work of Steve Lightle, followed by the cartoony style of Erik Larsen, and finally the smooth lines of Graham Nolan. In the last two issues you’ve seen Arani Desai, who never stopped claiming to be Niles Caulder’s wife, die heroically as part of the Invasion! crossover, and then you watched as Larry Trainor, recently freed from the Negative Force, was trapped under a pile of rubble. Finally, in the third issue of Invasion!, Scott Fischer died, either of leukemia or the plague released by the Dominator (it’s never clear) and Rhea Jones slipped into a coma. You’re not sure what to expect from issue #19, written by some guy named Grant Morrison (about whom you’ve heard good things, because he is also writing Animal Man) and drawn by some guy named Richard Case. But you’re interested, so you read it.
You didn’t quite know what to expect, but you didn’t expect a weird dream sequence in which Cliff Steele crashes his race car and emerges from the flames clutching his own brain. You didn’t expect to see Cliff in a psychiatric hospital. And you certainly didn’t expect to see the Negative Force, which disappeared from Val Vostok a few issues back, to show up at Larry’s hospital window, speaking in a high-pitched whine (as you imagine it) and saying things like, “Iamthespiritinthebottletheinvisiblefirethatworksinsecret …” You didn’t expect the Negative Force to bond with both Larry and his doctor, Eleanor Poole, in something called “the alchemical marriage.” And what is going on with this Kay Challis woman whom Cliff meets in the hospital? A woman with 64 different personalities, each with its own metahuman ability? And finally, you certainly didn’t know what to make of the ending, when a man holding a book with black pages staggers out of a car accident and says, “The Scissormen!” before he dies. You didn’t expect any of that.
If, by chance, you decided that this was your kind of comic book, despite being thoroughly confused by it, and you decided to stick with Morrison’s Doom Patrol, you would be rewarded with the experience of reading the single best run on a comic book series in history. There are other contenders, of course, and if this is not the best, it is certainly in the top five. Doom Patrol, along with Animal Man, propelled Morrison into the stratosphere of comics superstardom, a place he has occupied ever since. It’s therefore ironic that he has never written something as good as this since, although he has come close. Animal Man was more concerned with commentary on comic books, Invisibles was more mystical, JLA was more superheroic, X-Men was more conventional (in the final analysis), but Doom Patrol remains Morrison’s best work because of its heart. The biggest issue Morrison often has with his work is that he allows the crazy ideas to overwhelm the humanity that makes fiction great. Ideas are fun, but after a while, they become white noise. At his worst (Invisibles), Morrison is still interesting, but eventually vacuous. Doom Patrol never forgets that the characters make the stories great, and that is why it continues to be a top run in comic book history.
For 45 issues, Morrison threw everything he could think of at us, including the Scissormen, Rebis and his weird transformation, the Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting that Ate Paris, the Cult of the Unwritten Book, Danny the Street, the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., Flex Mentallo, the thing under the Pentagon, the Candlemaker – more weirdness, in fact, than we should be able to handle. However, he remembered certain things along the way, and it’s these things, rather than trying to process the strangeness of his ideas, that I want to focus on. Two of the themes Morrison dealt with are the place of this Doom Patrol not only within DC history, but its own history, leading to the most audacious yet satisfying retcon, possibly, in the history of comics; and the triumph of conformity and the status quo. The last theme, and the one that makes this a great comic book, is that it tracks one of the most complete and tragic love stories in comics. Who knew this was all about love?
First, the history of the Doom Patrol. DC doesn’t do the kind of thing they did with this title anymore, which is both a blessing and a curse. As I mentioned, starting in issue #19, they completely overhauled the title, but it still existed as a continuation of the book. These days DC would simply cancel the book, start it up again with a first issue, and, especially in cases like this, move it to Vertigo. Doom Patrol, of course, was one of the books that gave rise to the imprint, and although it’s nice to see creators with the freedom that Vertigo offers them, it’s also a little sad that books as weird as this don’t exist in the DC Universe anymore. Morrison, although he ignored the rest of the DCU for the most part on this book, never ignored the history of his team. While it’s refreshing to read a comic book that exists solely on its own merits and does not owe anything to a past that its readers might be unfamiliar with, it’s also interesting to read a comic book in which the creator writes something that neophytes can enjoy (and when I started reading Morrison’s Doom Patrol I had no idea at all about the history of the team) but also fits into the continuity. Too often today writers simply ignore those parts of continuity they don’t like. Morrison wants to tell the story his way, but he also recognizes that it’s a fun story to fit into what has come before. Therefore, he doesn’t begin issue #19 by ignoring the previous 18 issues, as bland as they were. Joshua Clay and Niles are there, and Niles is trying to put the Doom Patrol back together. Josh specifically references the last two issues: “Arani’s dead, Scott’s dead, Rhea’s in a coma, Larry’s hospitalized, Val’s resigned …” This is, of course, a clearing of the decks, because Morrison has Crazy Jane to bring in, and Rebis is part of his scheme, but at least he brings it up. By bringing it up, he has to deal with it. He could have simply left Rhea in a coma for the entire run, but he doesn’t. She is kidnapped in issue #23 and only briefly wakes up. She shows signs of life at the end of issue #33, but she wakes up for good at the end of issue #36, which leads into the epic in space story. Rhea has gone through what Caulder calls a “chrysalis state” and has emerged quite different. This and Rebis’ transformation are part of Morrison’s fascination with continual evolution, and he’s toying with it here a decade before he brought up the idea in X-Men. Rhea solves the problem of the war between the Kaleidoscope and the Mesh, and afterward she takes off to explore the universe. In only a few issues, Morrison takes a somewhat dull character and makes her enigmatic and interesting. He does this with Larry Trainor, too. I’m a little surprised that he didn’t have the Negative Force merge with Larry and Val Vostok, but I assume he wanted a male/female-white/black thing, and Eleanor Poole fits both criteria. Rebis is another transformative character that still has its roots in the mainstream DC Universe. Meanwhile, Will Magnus shows up early on, while Cliff is in the asylum – he actually introduces Cliff to Kay Challis, a momentous meeting indeed. Monsieur Mallah and the Brain show up for a memorable issue #34, when they declare their undying love for each other before exploding. Even after Morrison had cut the Doom Patrol adrift from the mainstream DC Universe, Magnus shows up at the end to help deal with their final test. In issue #23, Morrison decides to bring in Dorothy Spinner, a Kupperberg creation from issue #14 who watched the Doom Patrol and Power Girl fight the forces of Chaos. Morrison uses the “gene bomb” from Invasion! well, as it explains both Crazy Jane’s powers and Dorothy’s. Dorothy, of course, saves the day underneath the Pentagon, but in doing so, unleashes the means to destroy the team at the end of Morrison’s run. Kupperberg probably didn’t realize his minor guest star would be so important.
The biggest way that Morrison ties his Doom Patrol into the larger scheme of the history of DC is, of course, with the major retcon at the end. The team begins to fall apart in issue #55, after Rebis’ transformative moment. Crazy Jane has disappeared, and Cliff thinks she is going to confront her father, who sexually assaulted her as a child. Her father, however, is dead, and Jane is simply going to confront herself. Cliff and Josh, the last remnants of the team (well, Dorothy is still around, but she was never part of the “superhero” aspect of the DP), discuss how it’s all gone wrong, and Josh tells Cliff that Rebis and Jane are adults, and Cliff can’t always be the father figure for them, an aspect of their relationship I’ll get to in time. As Josh puts it, “Nothing’s holding this so-called team together except a need for emotional support. Maybe Jane doesn’t need that anymore.” In one short sentence, Morrison sums up the fairy-tale nature of most superhero teams – they exist simply to give the members emotional support. It’s a devastating critique of superteams, but not the main point. Cliff goes after Jane, but Dorothy has a bigger problem – she has wished something into existence, something more powerful than she realized. She calls it the Candlemaker, and it saved the team underneath the Pentagon, but now it wants to get out again to kill everyone and it needs Dorothy to wish it. She doesn’t know how strong she can be to keep it in. Cliff leaves while Josh and Dorothy go to see Niles Caulder, who they think can help. When they arrive at Doom Patrol headquarters, however, someone shoots Josh. Cliff loses Jane’s trail, and when he returns to headquarters to regroup, he finds Josh’s body and the man who killed him – Niles Caulder, without his wheelchair.
Doom Patrol #57 is the “secret history” of the team, as Niles Caulder paralyzes Cliff and tells him his story. It’s a brilliant retroactive change to the way we look at the DP, and should serve as a model for how these kinds of things should be done. Without changing anything about any incarnation of the Doom Patrol, Morrison shows that Niles Caulder has always been evil, not just eccentric, like everyone thought. He shows Cliff his “nanomachines,” which can repair things at a molecular level – which is how he can walk – and can create anything out of random raw materials (we first get a glimpse of this in issue #46, when Rebis warns Caulder that he may have to stop him from what he’s doing, but Rebis has his own problems by issue #57). He says that this will eliminate illness and disease, as well as famine – when you can create food out of trash, no one needs to starve. He then admits to Cliff that he killed Josh. Unfortunately, Dorothy was Josh’s friend, and when she finds him dead, she makes a wish – and the Candlemaker comes and brings Josh back to life, only to kill him again. Niles Caulder takes this time to explain his grand plan to Cliff. He tells Cliff he always wanted to create life, and he’s finally figured out how to do it. He goes back to the beginning, retracing his roots and explaining how his experiments had led him to create the Doom Patrol. As his world had been changed by catastrophe, he wanted to find out how it would affect others. So he caused the accident that led to Cliff’s brain being implanted in a robot body. And Cliff, who had been an arrogant and selfish man, became a hero. He did the same thing to Larry Trainor and Rita Farr, both with unexpected results. After a time, he felt he was neglecting his own work to concentrate on the Doom Patrol, so he contrived to be blown up, protecting himself with a force field. He also admits that Arani was actually his wife, even though he denied it when she confronted him. He had used her as a test subject for his immortality serum, and even if she hadn’t died, the serum was slowly eating her brain. Caulder tells Cliff that everything he has done is leading to this point. He’s going to introduce catastrophe on a global scale using his nanomachines and see what happens. How will humanity adapt? He admits that he might die, but luckily, he has Cliff’s body into which he can download his consciousness. He has set the machines in motion, but before anything else can happen, the Candlemaker appears. In a shocking moment, not only does the Candlemaker rip Caulder’s head off, he also tears Cliff’s brain from his head and crushes it on the floor. Morrison has shredded our nerves and left us breathless. This is an unbelievable issue, and the wonderful thing is, it makes perfect sense. This is the beauty of a shared universe: we can appreciate how everything fits when someone comes along and upsets the apple cart. Morrison did this a little in Animal Man, but that was much more self-conscious. Here, he’s just telling a story, and in a rare moment in comics, nothing will ever be the same again.
The second theme that Morrison explores in this run is the triumph of conformity and the status quo. On first look, it appears that it’s anything but that. Morrison turns everything on its head and never lets us feel comfortable with what is coming. The ultimate proof of this, you could say, is Caulder’s revelation – that overturns the entire status quo of the Doom Patrol as we know it! However, the tragedy of this book is that the status quo wins, and those who want us to conform to the norm are too powerful for the madness of the Doom Patrol and their allies. We get a “happy” ending to the book, but one laced with despair because the only way these characters can survive is to leave reality behind. For a great deal of the book, of course, the Doom Patrol themselves are the champions of normalcy, and they defeat those forces that are trying to break down reality. The first story, about Orqwith and the Scissormen, brings up this theme that Morrison will explore. The reality of Orqwith is intruding on our reality, and the Doom Patrol must stop it. They have to reset the status quo. As Caulder puts it at the end of issue #22, “When the rational world breaks down, we can cope … because we’ve been there, in ourselves.” The only way to fight madness is with madness. Caulder, of course, is simply using the DP as an experiment, but he’s right on one level. As the series progresses, however, Morrison shows us that the madness of the Doom Patrol cannot possibly continue to exist in a world that doesn’t believe in strange things. That is when the series twists into the forces of conformity fighting both the agents of chaos and the Doom Patrol itself.
We see this early on with the first incarnation of the Brotherhood of Dada. Mr. Nobody, who was once part of the Brotherhood of Evil, has become, as he puts it, “the spirit of the twenty-first century, the abstract man. The virtual man. The notional man.” He gathers a group of misfits to him and then launches into a speech that could be the anthem of the series: ” ‘Good’! ‘Evil’! Outmoded concepts for an antique age. Can’t you see? There is no good, there is no evil in our new world! Look at us! Are we not final proof that there is no good, no evil, no truth, no reason? Are we not proof that the universe is a drooling idiot with no fashion sense? From this day on we will celebrate the total absurdity of life, the gigantic hocus-pocus of existence. From this day on, let unreason reign! The Brotherhood of Evil is dead! Long live the Brotherhood of Dada!” The idea of complete absurdity is at home in comic books, and Morrison has already given us a taste of it, but with “The Painting that Ate Paris” storyline, he turns DP into a full-blown challenge to what can be done in comics. The first indication of how he plans to show the victory of conformity is in this storyline. The Brotherhood of Dada trashes the Doom Patrol (the Quiz has “every superpower you haven’t thought of,” and traps Rebis because s/he doesn’t think of the power to create escape-proof spirit jars, a fun power if there ever was one), but by activating the painting, they have woken “the Fifth Horseman,” which is extinction and oblivion. The Horse is about to launch into the real world when the Doom Patrol and the Brotherhood, working together, send it through the Dada section and turn it into a rocking horse. The world is saved, but the Brotherhood decide to stay inside the painting, where they can make their own reality. They are misfits in the real world, but they are able to enjoy life only within a new reality. This is foreshadowing to the end of the run, as Morrison is making the point that the Brotherhood – and ultimately the Doom Patrol – cannot survive in the real world and must withdraw from it.
The battle between madness (or creativity) and conformity shows up again and again throughout the run. The Cult of the Unwritten Book wants to bring about the end of the universe, a pretty big change to the status quo, but the DP stops them – in a clever way, as they simply slow the Decreator down so that it’s destroying the universe so slowly that no one will notice. In issue #35, Morrison introduces Danny the Street, one of the more fun characters in comic book history. Danny is a street that can exist anywhere in the world, and the Doom Patrol will eventually use him as a transportation device. The fact that he’s sort of a transvestite (if a street can be such a thing) makes him a target of the forces in the world that want to destroy the unusual. Danny will become crucial to how Morrison shows the triumph of conformity. In this issue he is important as a target of Mr. Jones and the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. Mr. Jones lives in a bizarre world of 1950s sitcoms, where his wife activates a laugh track when he comes home but he shoves a fork through her eyes when she makes the wrong dinner. Mr. Jones and the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. “act as normalcy agents” in order to eradicate quirks so that they can bring about “a normal world where decent people know what’s around the corner and can plan effectively for the future.” Morrison isn’t terribly subtle with Mr. Jones, but he’s not trying to be. These Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. (we learn later they aren’t the real Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E.) are just parodies – they are part of the story to introduce Danny and Flex Mentallo, who shows up in issue #36. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a threat, especially when Mr. Jones completes his delirium box (which, hilariously, takes longer to have any effect on Cliff, probably because he’s “normal” in that he doesn’t have 64 personalities or is a strange male/female amalgam), it’s just that Morrison makes them so over the top that we can’t take them too seriously. And Mr. Jones’ fate – getting caught by his boss after the cabaret talent on Danny the Street dress him in a blond wig and fishnet stockings – is too goofy. However, by so obviously taking the side of the weird and dispossessed, and by giving Mr. Jones such a silly and ironically just fate, Morrison is setting us up for later in the series, when he appears to still be on the side of the Doom Patrol even as he makes it clear that they will remain outcasts.
The war in space that occupies issues #37-41 is perhaps Morrison’s weakest of the entire run, but it serves an interesting purpose in that it rids the team of Rhea Jones, who becomes a true lodestone and ends the war between the Kaleidoscope and the Insect Mesh. It’s certainly an interesting story, but is really only memorable for the craziness of the ideas – and, as mentioned above, ideas without characterization become tiresome after a time. Morrison gives us a small bit of interaction between the characters, but Rhea’s fate is the only thing that comes out of this story – she decides to explore the universe. During this run, however, Morrison is slowly setting the stage for the terrifying story of the Pentagon horror, which is the turning point of the series in a few ways. In it, of course, Dorothy wishes up the Candlemaker for the first time – well, the first time we’ve seen it. This story also shows that Morrison is subtly shifting his focus away from the triumph of the weird to the destruction of it. In issue #38, we start to get a sense of how well Morrison does horror. He uses the mystery of a flight of Navy planes that disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle as a jumping-off point, but slowly brings it around to the weirdness underneath the Pentagon. Wallace Sage, who shows up in the Flex Mentallo mini-series, first appears here, and we hear the first mention of the Ant Farm. In issue #39 Dolores Watson, Flex’s old girlfriend, visits a psychic, who tells her horrible things. Dolores meets a terrible fate in issue #41, but unfortunately for all concerned, she’s not dead. Issue #42 brings us the secret origin of Flex Mentallo.
Anyone who wants to can find out about the problems that DC has had with the Charles Atlas people and their version of Flex Mentallo. It has held up reprints of these issues and the mini-series starring Flex for years, but apparently it has all been sorted out now (at least I hope, as the mini-series is unbelievably cool). With Flex, Morrison reveals once again his love for the goofiness of the Silver Age (something he wallowed in during Animal Man). Flex says early on, “It’s just like the old days, isn’t it? When we used to get together and swap origin stories. Magic rings found in Christmas cakes, words of power spelled out in bowls of alphabet soup …” In a perfect parody of the old Charles Atlas ads, Flex is just a skinny guy on the beach who wants muscles. Instead of just getting muscular, he discovers the secret of “muscle mystery,” which developed muscles “to such a degree that [they] could be used to read minds, see into the future, into other dimensions, even.” Flex becomes the master of muscle mystery, gets a “hero halo” (“Hero of the Beach” appears above his head in neon-like letters) and rejects his girl. He hooks up with other heroes (the “Fact” is crucial in the Flex Mentallo mini-series) and, in a key panel, meets a kid named Wally Sage, as well as Dolores. It all went wrong when he met Norman Grindstone, a reporter. Grindstone is working on a story about a missing writer, Harry Christmas, who had discovered something about the secret government and the Pentagon horror. Grindstone disappears right after he tells Flex what he knows. Flex only remembers what he did next – he used his muscles to try to turn the Pentagon into a circle. Dolores left him because he spent his entire time flexing, and he begins to bend reality around him. But he failed. So he went into the Pentagon, but his mind couldn’t comprehend what he found there. The Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. got him, and he spent years trapped. Now that he’s out, he knows they have to stop what is underneath the Pentagon. On the last page, we see Dolores. She is practicing saying “Flex! Flex! It’s me! It’s Dolores! Oh, Flex, I thought you were dead.” A machine juts threateningly from her neck. Someone is going to use her to get to Flex.
The Pentagon horror, which is in issues #43-44, is an extremely creepy story. Basically, the United States government is turning the dead into soldiers. They are also using the imagination of Wally Sage, who is their prisoner, to dream up all sorts of crazy things. As General Honey, the commanding officer who explains all this to one of the new men on duty, says, “You asked me what our ultimate aim was, Sergeant Washington. Well, it’s simple and it’s going to happen very shortly: the final and complete annihilation of the irrational.” Again, Morrison is using this juxtaposition of weirdness and conformity. Of course the army wants everyone to conform, to the point that they are trying to destroy anything that doesn’t. The (real) Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. show up on Danny the Street, having used Dolores to get there, and they take Flex and Dorothy Spinner with them. Dorothy’s power is not unlike Wally Sage’s, so it makes sense that they would take her. We find out that the Pentagon is five-sided because it’s a lens to focus energy from the fundamental reality, and using this energy, General Honey and the Avatar, which is in the Ant Farm, will “exterminate all eccentricity and irrationality.” He is going to use Wally and Dorothy to channel the energy. At that moment Danny the Street brings the Doom Patrol into the Pentagon to rescue their friends, but Flex and Dorothy have already been taken to the Ant Farm. Flex finds Wally, who gives him power as he dies so that Flex can fight. Unfortunately, the Avatar comes out of the Ant Farm. The Avatar is an unholy monstrosity of telephone wires and dials, created when Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first words through the telephone. It rules America. Flex does the only thing he can – for a moment, he changes the shape of the Pentagon, weakening the Avatar. He begs Dorothy to kill it, but she doesn’t know how. She goes deep within herself and begs the Candlemaker to help her friends. He tells her she’ll “have to wish on the candle and you know what that means. The death of the real. Revolving doors start to open. And each time you let me look out, I grow a little brighter.” We have no time to reflect on what this means, because on the next page the Avatar is dead and it’s all over. Irrationality has won again.
Or has it? The Candlemaker says that each time he gets out the “death of the real” becomes more possible. We don’t know what Morrison means by this, but we don’t have much time, because Morrison’s inversion of the “norm” and the apparent triumph of the eccentric kicks into high gear after this storyline, even though he is still subverting it. Issue #45 is the very funny anti-beard story, in which Niles Caulder is stalked by a psychopath with a hatred of the bearded. Issues #47 and 48 give us, well, the Devil. It’s a bizarre little story that I’ll get back to, because it deals with Cliff and Jane’s relationship. During the story, we keep getting little interludes of the Painting that Ate Paris, which heralds the return of Mr. Nobody and the New Brotherhood of Dada. This story is when Morrison begins to shift the balance and favor conformity. The New Brotherhood (which includes Agent “!”, who “comes as no surprise!”), get Mr. Nobody out of the painting, and then the fun begins. Mr. Nobody owns the bicycle of Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, which has become a focal point of consciousness-altering. Mr. Nobody rides the bike around Venice and freaks everybody out. He commandeers a bus and escapes, but not before he gives a speech: “Will you slap on the irons and take us to prison? Is that the plan? We’re all in prison already, Crazy Jane. You should know that. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize you’re on our side.” He continues, “We stand for liberation, laughs, and libido! Spanners in the works! Flies in the ointment! More fun than a barrel of chittering chimps! It’s time to stop defending a world sick with reason! Aristotle and Newton were useless farts who made a machine of this whirling, wonderful world. Let’s stop all the clocks and kiss the walls goodbye!” After he leaves, Cliff voices what they’re all thinking: “What if he’s right?” Mr. Nobody hooks the bike up to a bus and decides to run for president. Of course.
Issue #51 is when the shift really begins, as Mr. Nobody begins his campaign and attracts a great deal of attention. Jane, for instance, thinks he’s a great candidate, even though Cliff, as usual, frets about how he is getting away with it. Some of the attention comes from the United States government, where the weird things in the Pentagon still exist and are malevolent as ever, despite the death of the Avatar. The FBI wants to use an agent named John Dandy to stop Mr. Nobody. John Dandy was a master of disguise who went down into the city under the Pentagon and changed into something horrific – a man with no face, but with seven different faces hovering around him that he uses to claim victims. Cliff and Josh try to stop him, too, but just because Cliff can’t face a world where Mr. Nobody is right and there’s no point to anything. Before Cliff and Josh can do anything, the government agents and John Dandy launch their attack, and in short order they have killed the members of the Brotherhood. The massacre is brutal and swift, and despite Morrison giving us a bit of hope at the end, when a young girl dances through the streets, finds a small section of the destroyed Painting that Ate Paris, and throws a rock through a car window, in this case, eccentricity and weirdness have lost. At the last moment, Cliff realizes that Mr. Nobody might not have been right, but he didn’t deserve to die. The destruction of the Brotherhood of Dada is a forerunner of the destruction of the Doom Patrol, who are as weird as Mr. Nobody’s bunch.
Things go downhill from there. Crazy Jane leaves the team to seek out answers to her problems. Again, Morrison’s theme comes up, as a person with 64 personalities, each with a different superpower, simply cannot exist in the world without someone trying to destroy it. Jane’s harrowing journey ends when she confronts all her demons and accepts them, finally integrating her split selves. She disappears into a fantasy world, which is a part of Danny the Street we’ve only glimpsed briefly, and returns, without powers, when Cliff and Dorothy are in New York, fighting the Candlemaker. The Candlemaker, after killing Caulder, went to New York and began killing “the Manhattan of dreams and drug visions, the city beneath the skin of reality,” as Willoughby Kipling, a renegade Templar who helped the Patrol defeat the Cult of the Unwritten Book and returns to fight the Candlemaker and is an even more misanthropic version of John Constantine, tells them. “This is New York’s soul, if you like,” Kipling says. “The first task for the Candlemaker is to destroy the anima mundi, the soul of the world. When the world’s dream of itself is dead, the world’s people will have no spiritual base.” The Candlemaker is trying, in its own way, to destroy magic and craziness, the very thing every other “bad guy” in the run is trying to do. Rebis returns to fight it, but the Candlemaker kills him/her (sort of), then sends Jane to “hell,” as it puts it. We will revisit her destination soon. They defeat the Candlemaker when Rebis returns from the dead and Dorothy finally overcomes her fear of it. The Candlemaker has failed. We think.
Issues #62 and 63 are where we see the final victory of conformity. Cliff stops Caulder’s nanomachines from remaking the world, which is a triumph of the status quo in the first place, and then he checks back into the psychiatric hospital. Rebis shows up and takes Cliff to Danny the Street, who tells him the story of how he came to be. Danny tells Cliff of a world full of magic, where anything was possible, but it slowly fell apart until the only thing left was Danny. But now Danny has decided to try to replace that world, and before Cliff’s eyes, he starts to spread out. Morrison’s prose is sentimental, but after the nightmare the team has been through, somehow appropriate: “Danny’s chimneys sigh clouds of mauve smoke as he begins to stretch out in every direction. Dusty libraries with shelves full of wonderful books. Weird shops that never close. Bridges and houses and parks and cinemas showing unearthly films. The real world shuffles aside to make way for cobblestone alleys and lamp-lit stairways. Cathedrals and towers rise up through the dark. Roosting gargoyles gaze over the spinning carousels of mysterious funfairs. Rattling trains shuttle through haunted subway stations.” Danny the Street slowly becomes Danny the World, which is, as Rebis puts it, “A world of infinite novelty. It’s impossible to visit the same place twice, unless you want to.” Then he tells Cliff one of the saddest things in the series: “Danny the Street will be the tunnel between the worlds, through which the lost and heartsick can enter this realm.” Conformity has won. Only on a different world can the eccentric truly be free. He leaves to explore Danny, and the issue ends with Dorothy heading back to the “real world.” She chose conformity.
The final issue of Morrison’s run makes this much clearer. Jane, who was sent to “hell,” is in the “real world,” which Morrison clearly implies is ours. He did this kind of thing before, of course, in his last issue on Animal Man, but whereas that was a personal love letter to comics and the magic they hold, this is much more ugly. The story is called “The Empire of Chairs,” and it’s not terribly subtle on the symbolism. Jane goes back and forth between her life in the psychiatric ward, where her doctor wants to help her but also finds herself falling in love with her, and the world of the Doom Patrol, where she is living with sentient chairs and trying to defend them against the Keysmiths, who want to unlock every mystery. As I said, not too subtle. Another doctor – Bill Jaspert – wants to use electroshock therapy on her, but Marcia, her psychiatrist, is convinced she simply needs therapy. In her own way, Marcia is as destructive as Jaspert is – she wants to divorce Jane from this world where chairs talk and Cliff and Rebis exist and mysteries exist. Jaspert wants to shock her into the real world, while Marcia wants to tear the fantasy down brick by brick. Marcia even admits this to herself: “People like that, people like Kay, inhabit a world where everything is alive and significant. So we cure them. I thought she liked me but in the end I’m just one more Keysmith.” Jaspert, of course, gets his way, and as he shocks Jane, the Keysmiths break in and start to destroy her world. First Rebis dies, then Cliff, and finally all of Jane’s personalities lie sprawled across the plain, dead. As she is wheeled out of the operating room, Kay gives something to Marcia. It’s a wooden coin with a question mark on it, something she brought back from her now-dead world. Kay becomes a “functioning” member of society, Marcia writes, with a boring job and a boring life. Finally, she leaves a note on her lamp that says “It’s not real” and disappears. As she is standing on the bridge, deciding whether to jump, Cliff shows up and takes her home. Marcia writes, “She left a note and she went to the bridge and they still haven’t found the body.” As she clutches the mystery coin, she writes, “I hope they never find the body,” as Jane and Cliff stand on Danny the Street, happy at last. It’s a bittersweet ending, because, once again, Morrison is saying that there is no place in our world for people like Jane and the rest of the Doom Patrol. The status quo must be maintained. Everyone must conform, because if they don’t, they will be crushed. It’s a depressing thought, because Morrison obviously favors those eccentricities, but he also recognizes that they are too bizarre to survive in our staid world.
Although this is a major theme, it is not the only reason why this run resonates. Morrison, despite his predilection for despair, is also a romantic at heart, and this is why Doom Patrol and Animal Man remain his two most triumphant works. When he wrote about Buddy Baker, he could cheat a little, as Buddy came with a wife and children. He killed them but showed the absurdity of such an act in fiction by simply returning them to life without an explanation. He never really explores the relationship between Buddy and Ellen beyond a superficial degree. What makes Doom Patrol better and more satisfying is the romance between Cliff and Crazy Jane. Morrison created Jane, so he needs to build the relationship from scratch, and it becomes one of the great love stories in comics. The other characters, especially Rebis and Dorothy Spinner, are nicely developed, but not to the degree that Cliff and Jane are.
Cliff meets Jane in issue #19, during his first stay at the psychiatric hospital. Will Magnus introduces them to drag Cliff out of his self-pity, because Jane is obviously a lot worse off than he is. The first thing we learn about her is that she was badly abused by her father when she was child. This is before rape in comics became the clichÃ© it is today, but does that mean we should let Morrison get away with it? I say yes, because too often in comics today, the rape of a female character is dealt with in two ways: how it affects the male characters, and how it turns the female character into a wild-eyed avenger. Male characters can become superheroes out of altruism, but women have to want revenge! Morrison does neither of these things. Because the abuse occurred years ago, it doesn’t have much effect on the men in her life today – with the exception of late in the run, when Cliff goes a little nutty about it, which I’ll get to. Second, Jane doesn’t become a superhero because of it – she’s not really a superhero at all. Morrison takes the time to examine the effects of the rape on Jane herself, and that’s why this abuse doesn’t bother me as much as some others do. You may disagree.
Cliff watches as one of Kay’s personalities – “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” – paints in the rain, a painting that is “psychically active,” meaning it reaches out to Cliff, spooking him. Magnus knows that Cliff can help Jane, but Jane eventually helps Cliff, as well. After a brief exchange, Cliff tells Jane, “Come in out of the rain.” It’s also the last piece of dialogue in the entire run, as Cliff repeats himself on the bridge in issue #63. The words, however, mean different things. This admonition is Cliff taking charge, acting like a father, which he is accused of doing by different people during Morrison’s run. He sees Jane as someone who needs taking care of, because she is so fragile and he, as a robot, is not. Cliff’s robotic shell becomes a grand metaphor as we track their relationship, and here Morrison uses it well. In issue #20 we get the first mention of “the underground,” where Jane’s personalities live. Driver 8, who drives the train through the underground, tells Cliff that the others like him. She specifically mentions Black Annis, who says Cliff is the first man she hasn’t wanted to castrate. Cliff jokes, “Tell her she’d be too late anyway.” This is another crucial exchange in their relationship. Could Jane fall in love with him if he were an actual man, with the possibility of sex? She has been hurt more than once by sexual predators, and the implication is that Cliff is her ideal man because sex will never intrude on their relationship. Morrison never addresses this directly, but it lingers in the background. Cliff assumes a patriarchal role with Jane almost immediately. In Kansas City, after Black Annis manifests, Cliff comforts Jane when she returns. After Red Jack kidnaps Rhea and Jane goes to discover what happened, Cliff can only follow along and look after her. He attempts to help her by writing down her different selves, which is a way for him to make sense of the craziness. Cliff is pragmatic in a world gone slightly mad, and he thinks by categorizing Jane’s personalities, he can help somehow. In this way he’s not unlike Marcia, the doctor in issue #63, but less intrusive. He does this out of love, not lust, as Marcia does. When the Fifth Horseman comes up through the Painting, Jane becomes its rider. Cliff freaks out when she teleports into the heart of the horseman, because he believes she can’t handle it herself. Again, this is his paternalistic nature coming through – Jane is, after all, a small woman, while he is a man of metal. Jane succeeds, but lapses into a coma. This sets the stage for issue #30, when Cliff goes into the underground and sees what it’s really like. This experience changes their relationship, as it must.
Cliff goes into Jane’s mind, where he meets Driver 8, who tells him that the underground is in chaos, with no one wanting to take control because they don’t want to get hurt. Cliff is the only one who can get close to Jane, and now he’s even less of a “man,” because his physical body is not present. Driver 8 tells Cliff that she’s afraid Jane has “gone to the well,” which is a terrible place that leads to a buried section of the underground. She tells him that one of Jane’s personalities (she calls the body in which they all live “the woman,” but it’s easier to call her Jane), called Miranda, had a normal job and a normal life until two years earlier, when something bad happened and Miranda went to the well. That almost destroyed Jane, and she checked herself into the hospital where Cliff met her. Before Cliff can get to Jane, Black Annis stops him with all of Jane’s selves blocking the way. Cliff says that they have to let him through, because he’s not a man. “It was all burned or ripped away or amputated,” he says. “All they left was a brain.” He strips off all his clothes and stands before them. Lady Purple, who acts as some sort of judge, allows him to pass. Jane is standing on the edge of the well, but before Cliff can get her out of there, a grotesque and horrific vision of her father rises from the well. Her father grabs Cliff and bites into him, which spurs Jane into action, and she destroys him. She wakes up, but Cliff’s brain appears to have died. He has sacrificed himself for her. But of course, he’s not dead. Will Magnus builds a new body for him, and Jane, as Baby Doll, runs in and hugs him. So far, Jane cannot express her feelings for Cliff, but her other self can, even though Jane is embarrassed about it. It’s significant that we haven’t seen Baby Doll until now, because Jane has not has a need for her. Cliff is beginning to change that.
The interesting thing about the Cliff/Jane relationship is that it builds slowly and organically. Small things occur that, on their own, are simply exchanges between the two, but add to the tapestry that binds them together. In issue #39, when they are gazing at the Insect Mesh, Jane says to Cliff, “Aren’t you impressed? Don’t you ever get excited, Cliff?” to which he answers, “Not really. Not any more.” Small words like this show us the dynamic between a world-weary man trapped in a body that doesn’t allow him to feel, and the young woman who has had only bad experiences and is seeing that life can be decent for the first time. Later on, after Cliff’s jacket is ripped to shreds, Jane tells him she likes his look, rather playfully. At the end of the space epic, we get another small glimpse into Cliff’s psyche. Rhea takes off for a distant star, and Cliff says, “She can’t go out there on her own.” Jane says, “She just did. You’re not her dad, Cliff.” In issue #51, she tells Danny that Cliff worries about everything. He wants to be everyone’s dad. He believes that his robot body protects him from emotional harm as well as physical harm, and therefore he can protect those he loves. He learns the hard way with Jane that it’s never that easy.
Issue #46 is a benchmark in Cliff and Jane’s relationship. After the Pentagon horror story, Morrison gives us the team on some downtime. Cliff gets another new body, and Jane tells him that she doesn’t care what his body looks like, because she likes him for who he is. She tells him that she is now Liza Radley, who is a new persona. Cliff brought Liza out – he is becoming the catalyst for change within Jane, whether he knows it or not. It’s an important step. Danny takes them to a place that isn’t “on the map” – a precursor to Danny the World – and Liza tells Cliff that thanks to him, she can feel again. Cliff saved Jane and gave Liza the strength to manifest. She is the first persona to manifest because of love rather than cruelty. Before Jane can tell Cliff she loves him, the wind blows her hat away and interrupts her. This scene, however, is a very beautiful one, and it shows that Jane is trying so hard to become a real person again, and Cliff, who remains silent and stoic throughout the whole thing, is not yet ready for it. Although it’s beautiful, it’s also slightly sad, because Cliff still doesn’t see Jane as a potential lover – he still thinks of her as someone who needs to be saved. Later in the issue, we get another lovely and heartbreaking scene. She says, “Cliff, we’re not alone in this world. We don’t have to be.” He says, “Maybe,” and she replies, “I’d hoped you would …” but Cliff interrupts her: “Look, you’re talking to the wrong guy about hope. Life’s hard enough, Jane, without bringing hope into it.” He tells her she at least has a chance to get well, but he doesn’t even dream about having a human body anymore. In a devastatingly honest statement, he tells her, “I’m doing my best to live with what I am but I’m not good or special or any of that shit. If you’d met me before my accident, I wouldn’t have given you a second glance. You can’t help me, Jane. Really.” She tells him that love and life mean nothing at all. Before she can explain this to Cliff, the scene switches. It’s a tremendous scene, not only for Cliff’s honesty, but for his continued self-pity. Jane couldn’t allow herself to love because of her past, but she managed to get past it, thanks to Cliff. But now he’s the one who can’t over his past.
This wonderful issue sets the stage for the Shadowy Mr. Evans and the sex police, when Jane goes a little nutty. Her feelings for Cliff are throwing the underground out of balance, and she attempts to deal with it the only way she knows how – by bringing forthÂ previously unseenÂ personae. She puts on a blond wig and slutty clothes and begs Cliff for sex as Scarlot Harlot, who has been buried until now. The Shadowy Mr. Evans shows up and exacerbates the situation, but it’s still within Jane – this longing for sex, and the only way she can express it is toÂ bring outÂ a persona who only wants sex. Jane could never act that way around Cliff, because they are friends. It’s fascinating to watch as each aspect of a normal personality is expressed in the extreme by Jane. After Scarlet Harlot goes away, Baby Harlot emerges – an integration of Scarlet Harlot and Baby Doll, so she is a persona who is extremely expressive about her love but still dresses like a slut. Jane is slowly integrating, which is what will help her become a functioning adult again. Jane shows her independence even more when she refuses to fight the New Brotherhood of Dada, even though Cliff wants to stop them. Cliff, ever the pragmatist, is at odds with Jane the artist, who doesn’t think Mr. Nobody’s campaign is all that bad. It’s not a row, exactly, but it does show that Cliff has helped Jane more than he knows, to the point where she is able to decide things for herself. When the Brotherhood is destroyed, Jane is nowhere to be found. Where has she gone?
She has gone to the well. In issue #55, Cliff and Josh go into her room to look for clues. Cliff says, “Jane can be pretty tough, Josh, but inside she’s like glass. I can’t help worrying about …” Again, we see the paternal aspect of Cliff come out. Jane has shown, subtly and not-so-subtly, that she doesn’t need Cliff to be a father figure anymore, but he can’t get past it. When he finds a note, supposedly written by her father but really written by Jane herself, he freaks out. Jane has gone on a journey that only she can make. Josh says, “Maybe it’s time to let go, Cliff. You have to let Jane take charge of her own life. … All I’m saying is you can’t keep playing the father figure, Cliff. That’s what Jane wants, but it’s the last thing she needs, you know?” Cliff is blinded both by his own belief that only he can keep everything together because he’s the only one strong enough as well as his nascent love for Jane. He wants to let the paternal attitude go, but he can’t. Rhea has transformed, Rebis has transformed, and now Jane is going to transform. Cliff is finding it hard to do so himself. But he can’t see it, and he ignores Dorothy’s fear about the Candlemaker, suggesting instead that she and Josh go see Caulder, a suggestion that leads to Josh’s death and the unleashing of the Candlemaker itself. Cliff has allowed his love to suffocate and blind him. Jane is able to take charge of her own situation so that she can be a complete person to love him, but he still can’t do it. The Doom Patrol has defined him for so long that he can’t move past it and embrace a new role, that of lover.
Jane goes back to Metropolis, where Miranda threw herself down the well two years earlier. She goes to the church where Miranda “died” and relives what drove her to it. When she was Miranda, she was raped again, and it brought back all the feelings about her father. Miranda threw herself in the well while the other selves rose up to protect the woman. Now she has remembered it, and all her selves are screaming again, because they enjoy being free and don’t want to integrate. She trashes a police force that has come to arrest her and walks away. Cliff, still trying to find her, visits the psychiatric hospital where they met, where he finds out her father is dead and that Jane wrote the note. He loses the trail in Metropolis. Jane, meanwhile, goes back to her childhood home, where she confronts all her memories. At one point her mind screams for Cliff, but she knows she has to do it without him. She goes down the well in the yard, which takes her to a place where her father is still alive, but hooked up to machines. Jane has to give the okay to unplug him, because she is keeping him alive. She tells the doctors to switch the machine off, and then she is able to go through a new door and into Danny the World. She has successfully integrated, and her father no longer has any power over her. She shows up again in issue #59, when Cliff and Dorothy are fighting the Candlemaker, and she tells Cliff that her personae have come to an agreement, because they were at war and that was holding her back. She tells Cliff that “there is no ‘me.’ To limit ourselves to one way of seeing and thinking would be to diminish our potential, you know? Everyone has a voice. It’s like seeing the world from every angle at the same time. … This is the way it’s meant to be. Everyone should be like this, Cliff.” Before they can talk more, the Candlemaker shows up. Cliff tells her to stay back because she doesn’t have any powers anymore. He still can’t stop protecting people. Jane doesn’t like it, but she accepts it. Finally, just before the Candlemaker sends her to hell, she finally gets through to him. Cliff says, “Who’d have figured we’d end up like rats in an alley?” She says they’re human beings, and again he tells her that he’s never going to be human again. She finally snaps and says, “I forgot. It’s not just bullets and missiles that can’t get through that goddamn armor, is it? Don’t you know there are people who love you? Stop feeling sorry for yourself! Come out of that shell, Cliff! Before you end up like …” She never gets to finish, because the Candlemaker arrives, and Jane is gone. Cliff has blown it.
But he hasn’t. Just as issue #63 shows the final triumph of conformity, it also shows that Cliff has grown up to a point where he can accept Jane’s love. At the end of issue #62, Rebis tells him not to worry about her, and he doesn’t. He trusts in Danny and his love to find her. In Jane’s fantasy, Cliff is a knight in shining metal, but he’s killed by the Keysmiths. When he finds her on the bridge, in the beautiful scene that wraps up the run, he stands on Danny the Street in order to take her to their world, which is more real than the one she now lives in. He says, “Didn’t I promise? We’re going home now. Come in out of the rain.” He is no longer ordering her, as he was at the beginning. Now he’s inviting her, offering her his love, and instead of taking her arm like he does in issue #19, he holds out his hand so she can take it willingly. They have finally reached an equal partnership, and we can only imagine what happens next, as they stand on Danny the Street hand in hand while everyone celebrates around them. Morrison ends the issue with: “There is a better world. Well … there must be.” Tragic in its own way, but hopeful at the same time.
I have neglected Richard Case’s unbelievable art work on this series, but will only mention it briefly because I’ve gone on too long. Morrison needed someone who was equally at ease with the fantastic and the mundane, and Case fits beautifully. His Jane is a marvel, as he effortlessly makes her a lost girl, with tendrils of hair dropping shyly over her pixie face, or a vixen, or a monster like Black Annis. Cliff changes throughout the series, as well, becoming more and more robotic as Cliff’s humanity becomes more and more evident. It’s an interesting choice by Case. With Rebis, Case shines. Issue #54, “Aenigma Regis,” which is devoted to Rebis’ transformation into … something different, is visually stunning, which is good, because I still don’t get what happens. Case easily goes from human faces to grotesque images of bandaged women giving birth. Throughout the series he takes Morrison’s fevered creations – Agent “!”, Mr. Nobody, the Candlemaker, the Scissormen, the Insect Mesh, Lodestone, and others – and gives them each a distinctive look. When you see one of Case’s creations, you don’t need to be told in narration what they are. We can see his work maturing right in front of us. In early issues he was occasionally sketchy, as if unsure of his ability to clearly show what strange things were going through Morrison’s mind. By the end, he’s more confident, and he fills each panel with such detail it’s breathtaking. His work is terrifying when it needs to be, but he also handles the beauty of Danny the World wonderfully. This had to be a difficult series to draw, simply because the tone shifts so much throughout it, but Case is up to the task. The guest artists, for the most part, are up to the task, highlighted by Ken Steacy’s wonderful dream issue #53, in which Danny the Street dreams about a Doom Patrol adventure that is remarkably similar to an old issue of Fantastic Four (the number of which I can’t recall). Although each artist brings an interesting view of the DP to the series, Case shines above them all.
I apologize for writing so much about this series, but, to be honest, you could probably write a book about it. The power of it is in the ideas, but Morrison gives it something even more with the love story. It is a tragedy, ultimately, but one that is so uplifting that we forgive its despair. It features one of the most horrific villains in comic book history, and it has one of the most satisfying retcons in comic book history. It takes a team that had grown stale and uses them to make statements about art, love, conformity, sexual abuse, fear, and growing up. It never once compromises. Unfortunately, DC decided to keep the series going, and has even revived it twice since. The nice thing is that we can pretend it ended here, with Cliff and Jane heading off to Danny the World to love each other purely and completely. Because that’s how it should be.
DC has finally gotten around to collecting this in trade paperback. Three have come out, collecting issues #19-41, with a fourth apparently out just recently (supposedly a few weeks ago, although I didn’t see it on a shelf anywhere). I really can’t recommend this enough, as you can probably tell. It is simply the best run by a specific creative team in comic book history.
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