John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Doom Patrol
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.