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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Doom Patrol

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Doom Patrol

(or “Synergy And Synchronicity”)

Among comic book historians, there’s a lot of discussion over the origins of the Doom Patrol. Not the actual origins, of course; we all know that the brilliant, irascible scientist known as “The Chief” found three people who had been transformed by unusual accidents into unwilling super-heroes, and brought them together to fight such unusual menaces as the Brotherhood of Evil, the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, and General Immortus (the same villain who had crippled the Chief.) But there are enough similarities between the Doom Patrol and the X-Men, and the Doom Patrol and the Fantastic Four, for people to wonder…did series writer Arnold Drake inspire Stan Lee and Jack Kirby? Or was he inspired by them?

The truth is probably that both of them were inspired by events around them. Just like animals will evolve similar features in similar environments, comics creators wind up with their own examples of convergent evolution. Both Drake and Lee/Kirby were trying to create a storytelling engine that would work in a very particular marketplace, and both were writing at the same time. It’s actually not too surprising that both of them would have hit upon some very similar ways of generating story ideas.

For starters, they were both operating in an era where the installation of the Comics Code was a recent event. The Code had the effect of killing off the horror comic, but not the demand for one. At the same time, the post-World War II era caused a massive boom in science fiction, as the world that sci-fi promised seemed to be coming ever closer to reality. Atomic rockets, space travel, and seemingly even aliens (this was the golden age of “saucer sightings”, too) made science fiction seem tantalizingly close to science fact. And of course, Julius Schwartz had just made super-heroes popular again by rebooting all of DC’s classic heroes with a sci-fi twist.

So when tinkering with ideas for a popular series, it was pretty natural to think about doing a book that was a) super-heroic, because super-heroes were popular, b) science fiction themed, because science fiction was even more popular than super-heroes, and c) bordering on horror, because while they couldn’t actually have horror comics, the audience’s tastes for the bizarre and grotesque had never really abated.

And so Drake, in much the same way and at much the same time as his Marvel counterparts, hit upon the idea of an unwilling hero. Not “unwilling” in the sense of “reluctant”, but in the sense of being forced into the role by powers that he or she couldn’t get rid of. Each of the Doom Patrol’s core members explores a different sub-theme of this idea. Robotman is literally trapped in a body that is freakish in appearance, and can no longer live a normal life; becoming a super-hero gives his life meaning again, even though it can never be enough to make up for what he’s lost. Negative Man has powers, but they’re not the sort of thing you’d dream of being able to do yourself; when he unleashes the N-Man, he’s reduced to a helpless spectator instead of getting to save the day himself. And Elasti-Girl? Even though she looks normal, she’s nonetheless the victim of prejudice because of what people know she’s capable of. The Chief is the only one without super-powers, but he’s an outcast from society because of his temperament and his intellect even before he loses the use of his legs.

Each of these angles provides inspiration for a different kind of story. Robotman’s stories constantly focus on how his body is fundamentally different from a human’s; he can be mangled, ripped to shreds, blown up, and still survive. (In one memorable story, he winds up sacrificing his limbs, one by one, to fight a criminal.) Negative Man is constantly pushing against the limits his power imposes on him, trying to find ways to be a hero even though all he ever does is keel over and try not to die before his other self can return to him. Elasti-Girl is always tempted by the thought that she could return to regular society any time she wants; she, of all the team, is there at least somewhat by choice. And the Chief is constantly probing the boundaries of science, while running the Doom Patrol as only an irascible, anti-social misfit can (Grant Morrison’s run exacerbates his personality problems, but it’s amazing how well the supposedly revisionist take fits in with what Drake originally wrote) and trying to contribute despite being powerless in many ways.

You also see convergent evolution in the “design theme” of the villains of the different series. As mentioned above, “bizarre and grotesque” was in vogue at the time, and that starting point inspired villains like the Brain, Monsieur Mallah and Madame Rouge (the Brotherhood of Evil) just as easily as it did the Vulture, the Leader and the Mole Man. The Doom Patrol winds up with a smaller rogue’s gallery than the FF or Spider-Man (perhaps because Lee had the benefit of working with Kirby and Ditko, both legendary writers and creators as well as artists–not a slight against Doom Patrol artist Bruno Premiani, of course, whose design work on the Doom Patrol’s heroes and villains was elegant and timeless.) But Drake makes sure that the villains he does have are good story generators; General Immortus alone could fuel a series for years.

The Doom Patrol have always been something of a “cult” series, which seems slightly unfair given that just down the road, Marvel was making a comics empire based on very similar concepts. Perhaps they just never fit into the DC universe (which may be why they packed up and went off to Vertigo for a while.) But despite their cult status, they’ve endured–a strong storytelling engine tends to do that, you see. Because every writer starts as a reader, and when you pick up a series with a good storytelling engine, you can’t help but get ideas on what stories you would tell with those characters…sort of like how Paul Kupperberg and Grant Morrison did, years later, when they respectively revived and revitalized the Doom Patrol. Their unwilling heroes might have changed a bit as the culture changed, but the storytelling engine remained sound.

11 Comments

I am very excited to finally get to read the Drake stories in the new Showcase volume.

When you stop and think about it, the standard superhero setting -where only a small segment of the population gets superpowers, and those powers vary wildly by the individual- actually requires something like Doom Patrol or X-Men to exist; because there would always be those who powers would be too dangerous, too weird, or that cause them to look bizarre. Those “freaks” would either hide, or band together for mutual support. So yeah, both DC, Marvel, and most other superhero universes would use the idea at some point.

The idea that Doom Patrol was created as a way to continue to exploit the horror/Sci Fi genres in comics after the Code came to effect is an interesting but likely true angle. It certainly would explain things like the Animal/Vegetal/Mineral man!

A good question would be: in this times, where superheroes dominate then industry, and society is more sensitive to outcasts, does Doom Patrol still have a place? Morrison basically used it as an excuse to pour out all his weird ideas, which, while interesting, felt really out of place in the DC Universe. Now we’re having Keith Giffen handle them. That means it’ll either be 4th-wall breakingly funny, or depressingly tragic, or both. That MIGHT fit in with DP… but still feels out of place. Will it work?

A long time ago, Humanity sold planet Earth to a group called the Evers in order to gain peace and a virtual utopia for themselves and for future generations. However, the cost of this paradise turns out to be too much for some to deal with and the humans soon find themselves ruled cruelly by the very beings who offered them salvation and at one point given them so much hope.

Humans that were originally treated with high regards, made to feels special, are now being treated as animals, some humiliated and shipped away to some unknown fate…each being told what they could or could not do, under the guise of it being in humanities best interest.

With a feeling of dread, a small group declares war on the more advanced Evers in hopes of returning things to the way they should be…to the way they had been. John and his make-shift crew of humans and hybrids (half human/half Ever) must not only find a way to break free of the mistakes of the past and find out the disturbing secrets that the Evers have hidden away, but they must also deal with their own personal issues and learn to live, grow, and deal with each others’ emotional issues of love, regret and fear.

Will man give up youth and perfect health to live in the past? And will John take the chance of restoring Earth to its former state even though there’s a good chance his life-threatening disease can return?

” Morrison basically used it as an excuse to pour out all his weird ideas, which, while interesting, felt really out of placte in the DC Universe. ”

Not really, given how little of the human condition’s scope the popular franchises in the DCU cover. The highest compliment I can pay to the Doom Patrol is that they’re one of the most Marvel-like casts in the DCU ( a point made prominently by the Kirby-tribute issue Grant Morrison did, which basically recast the Doom Patrol as the Fantastic Four with little difficulty ), because they were the angels with dirty faces who operated on the fringes of their world. The more famous DC heroes were pretty white people who held respectable community positions in both identities and had powers that were completely desirable. This made most of them entirely unconvincing as heroes, when most of the Justice League had the profile of Skull and Bones alums. The villains weren’t much better either, and the result was making superheroes vs. supervillains an elaborate gentleman’s sport with no relevance to anyone else. And I can’t really say it’s that much better now, since while Identity Crisis was much more violent, it didn’t concern anyone other than the upper class version of superhumanity that DC represents.

The Doom Patrol is one of DC’s few credible glimpses of the world outside itself, full of contradictions and not always conventionally pretty. Morrison just took that as far as he could go, and the fact that the collections of his stories have the Vertigo branding isn’t the fault of him writing out of sync with the DCU, but the DCU having such a narrow profile of what it’s in sync with.

Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is one of my favorite runs on any comic series, ever. He recognized the weirdo aspect of the original book and completely ran with that idea. He turned it into a Dada-ist take on the silver age strange book pehnomenon that permeated DC books of that era. I really loved his take on that team and all the bizarre turns the story arcs took.

Seconded. If I were trying to get someone into reading Morrison, “Crawling From The Wreckage” is where I’d start every time. Every now and then I’ll see someone say they couldn’t get into his work, and when they provide a list of books they checked out that doesn’t include Doom Patrol, I wonder what the hell the person who advised them as to what to try was thinking.

I gotta go buy that new Showcase Presents DP. I’ve only most of those comics once, and I could definitely go for another run-through.

Another thing that’s interesting to me about the Doom Patrol is that the book’s regular writers have alternated between excellent and poor.

Arnold Drake (some of the craziest, most fun stuff of the Silver Age)
Paul Kupperberg (just bland and unmemorable)
Grant Morrison (full of some of Morrison’s best ideas, and more heart than anything he’s ever written)
Rachel Pollack (too much of a Morrison imitation)
John Arcudi (the new characters were fun, and the story went forward at a mad pace for 22 issues)
John Byrne (2004-era John Byrne. Do I really need to say more?) (Actually, I will. It was a terrible choice to let him reboot the series even though the team’s ever-advancing continuity has always been part of its appeal.)

From what little I have read of Byrne’s Doom Patrol, it seemed to have little interest in being about the DP characters. It looked like a New Mutants proposal under thin disguise.

I can be wrong.

I loved the Morrison “Doom Patrol”. That title, Gaiman’s “Sandman” and James Robinson’s “Starman” were the only comics that I was reading in the early ’90s. I haven’t read much of the title by other creators, so this was extremely helpful. Thanks.

Sijo said:

Now we’re having Keith Giffen handle them. That means it’ll either be 4th-wall breakingly funny, or depressingly tragic, or both. That MIGHT fit in with DP… but still feels out of place. Will it work?

To which Nitz replied:

The more famous DC heroes were pretty white people who held respectable community positions in both identities and had powers that were completely desirable.

The main line of the DC Universe is the Justice Society to Justice League to Teen Titans superhero dynasty. It certainly feels like an old line WASP dynasty stretching from the Country Club to the Boardroom to the Prep School. Marvel tends to be more Jewish with all its doctors (Richards, Banner, Pym, Blake, Strange and Doom) and lawyers (Murdock and Walters) coupled with an outsiders ethos.

Both are fine. There are lots of great insider stories and lots of great outsider stories.

Of course, in order to be either an insider or an outsider, you need people on the other side of the fence around. Marvel has a great set of insiders in The Avengers, but DC has always struggled to have a consistent cast of outsiders. To me, Giffen is a perfect fit for creating a Doom Patrol to fill that role. His JLI and later Defenders titles really had that ethos.

RE: “just down the road…”

A missed opportunity for a Danny the Street reference.

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