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Foggy Ruins of Time – The Long, Tangled History of Grant Morrison’s Mister Nobody

This is the latest in a series giving you the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.” To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of Seinfeld will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal). Here is an archive of all the Foggy Ruins of Time installments so far.

Today, based on a suggestion by reader Omar Karindu, we look at the history of the influences for the character of Mister Nobody, from Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol. The history goes all the way back to a forgotten black superstar of the early 20th Century…

As I discussed in an old edition of Comic Book Legends Revealed, in November 1932, Fleischer Studios had a really cool Betty Boop cartoon where Betty runs for President. Her opponent? Mister Nobody!

Basically, his whole bit is a nice healthy piece of cynicism as he sings:

Who will make your taxes light?… Mr. Nobody!
Who’ll protect the voters’ right?… Mr. Nobody!
Should you come home some early dawn,
See a new milkman is on:
Who cares if your wife is gone?… Mr. Nobody

In Doom Patrol #26, Grant Morrison and Richard Case introduced us to Mister Nobody, the new leader of the Brotherhood of Da-Da!

nobody3

nobody4

Mr. Nobody was a re-worked version of an old member of the Brotherhood of Evil called Mr. Morden (here he is from his debut in Doom Patrol Volume 1 #86)…

mrmorden

The first other cultural influence for Morrison and Case’s Mister Nobody is the way that Wavy Gravy in 1976 did their own spin on Mister Nobody running for President by having a “Nobody for President” series of events…

nopaul

Gilbert Shelton did a poster (which was later also used in 1980)…

no80gs

Morrison and Case then had Mister Nobody run for President in Doom Patrol #52…

nobody1

However, the whole “Nobody” persona from Betty Boop was ITSELF influenced by an earlier piece of American pop culture.

At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most popular entertainers in the country was Bert Williams…

bertwilliams

Who, despite being a major success, still had to perform on the vaudeville stage in blackface…

Bert_Williams_blackface_2

It’s that weird thing where he was a hit on Broadway, one of the first (if not THE first) black entertainer to do so, and yet he still had to deal with all the various racist trappings of the time (as the saying goes, “He could fill a joint but he’d still have to take the back elevator to get in”).

He had a number of hit songs, including his biggest hit, Nobody in 1905…

Williams passed away in 1922 and obviously, the foggy ruins of time have not been great to his legacy, although there are still those who remember him. Here’s a biography from 1970…

nobodywilliams

It is clear that the Betty Boop cartoon was referencing Williams with Nobody, which in turn influenced Morrison’s creation.

Neat stuff! Thanks for the information and suggestion, Omar Karindu!

If anyone else has a suggestion for a future edition of this column, drop me a line at bcronin@comicbookresources.com!

8 Comments

Mr. Nobody and the Brotherhood of Dada was the moment that I became a fan of Grant Morrison and the Doom Patrol. It was so absurd and fun.

I didn’t catch on to Morrison’s Doom Patrol until a few years ago — once I did, I quickly got all the collections. Loved both versions of the Brotherhood of DaDa. Aside from his past, brief membership in the Brotherhood of Evil, I wasn’t aware of all the backhistory that inspired the creation of Mr. Nobody.

I knew the song from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. Now I know the original. Thank you!

Hmmmmm… low taxes, nebulous statements about rights, depicting the average white man as an oppressed class… where have I seen that political strategy before?

mr nobody and the brother hood of dada was the first time i figured out grant morrison comic book work was going to be a roller coaster ride. that he was one comic book artist who was thinking out side the box

and was proably smoking something

at the very least he was smoking something. i d just finished invisibles, damn almostt ten years ago and the doom patrol trade paperbacks were out through down miracle way i think it was called, i was immediately hooked.

SPOILERS: when the brother hood of dada , was killed, Morrison’s Doom Patrol gets bad

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