Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Doom Patois

As the more astute readers in our little imaginary audience here know, I'm a big fan of Grant Morrison's writing, heralding him as "the best comics writer ever," yes, better than Alan Moore (in my not-fully-defined list of the Top Ten Best Comics Ever, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's obscure "Flex Mentallo" beats out the highly-touted "Watchmen" by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Flex is #1. Watchmen's #2. Also on the list somewhere is Walt Simonson's run on "Orion" as well as Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and a few other things. I haven't really given it a lot of thought, but you can imagine that Morrison, Moore, and maybe even Miller get a couple of spots on the list. Maybe one day I'll do a column. Oh no, look out, here comes the end parenthesis!). Today we'll look at one specific Morrison work, and that, unfortunately, still isn't that Seaguy thesis I promised. Boo hoo. No, I'm talking about Doom Patrol, and more specifically, the first trade paperback, entitled Crawling from the Wreckage, collecting Morrison's first seven issues in his really freakin' long run on the title (he lasted from #19 to #63.)

Now, I'd never read any of his Doom Patrol before, but I knew that Morrison aficionados proclaimed it to be one of his all-time best works. I also knew that the glorious Flex Mentallo sprung from Doom Patrol's pages. I assumed it'd be one of the best reads out there. Alas, that wasn't entirely true; this trade is good, but it's not great. I'll still pick up the second trade, though, and I hope they put the rest of the series out in book form, as the original issues are hard to track down (Grant began his run in 1989). Still, this is early in the run, and I assume it gets better as it goes on, as all of his longer works do (which is why I haven't totally written off The Invisibles yet; one day, I'll pick up the rest of the series). I can see that quite a few themes that are prevalent in most of his works spring up here. The book also has decent, serviceable art, but it's not spectacular.

Before I go on, though, I'm sure my imaginary audience wants to know who the hell the Doom Patrol are, and why they should care. The original Doom Patrol was billed as "the world's strangest heroes!" back when they first appeared in the early 60's (a few months before the X-Men, who, coincidentally, share an awful lot of odd similarities with the Doom Patrol, including wheelchairs and evil brotherhoods). In fact, they were. The Doom Patrol weren't super-heroes; they were just a bunch of odd, slightly-scary, and handicapped people trying to do the right thing. There was Robotman, a brain in a robot body; Negative Man, a radioactive guy wrapped in bandages with a "negative spirit" that jumped out of his body and handled the action for him; and Elasti-Girl, a former starlet who shrank and grew and expanded random body parts. Yes, she got off easy. And they were led by a bearded chap in a wheelchair, The Chief. They had some thrilling, weird, and smart adventures before they were all killed off abruptly when their series was suddenly cancelled.

The Doom Patrol concept was brought back in a major way in the 80's, when DC Comics resurrected the title. Robotman was back, but the others were dead, and then a bunch of lame no-name characters filled in the rest of the ranks. By the end of that run, The Chief and Negative Man were alive again, but poor Elasti-Girl was still dead (and she stayed that way until madman John Byrne rebooted the whole DP timeline last year). It was a boring and generic super-hero comic.

And then, Grant Morrison came in.

Immediately the book re-embraced its weird and spooky roots. The Doom Patrol was once again strange. Robotman was still around (though he'd prefer you call him Cliff, as it's his name), and so was The Chief (though he was a bit more eccentric), but new characters were brought in, a few old ones were reinvigorated, and then there was what happened to poor Negative Man. You see, Larry Trainor was merged with Dr. Eleanor Poole by the negative spirit into a hermaphrodite wrapped in bandages and sporting a trenchcoat. S/he chose the name "Rebis" for his/her new self. Yes, it's that weird. There was also Crazy Jane, a schizophrenic whose different personalities each had a different super-power; Joshua Clay, a normal guy with some basic energy-blasts and flight and stuff who's too weirded out to really be any sort of super-hero, and so decides to help out in medical and scientific capacities only; and Dorothy Spinner, the young girl with an ape's face who had imaginary friends that had the tendency to spring to life. Also making appearance is Rhea Jones, a comotose woman sleeping her way to a new destiny.

The first big story in this volume is about a fictitious, unreal world that's becoming realer by the second, with only the Doom Patrol able to stop it, by journeying to said unreal world and unraveling the contradiction upon which its built. It starts out in a mental hospital and ends up in the new Doom Patrol headquarters, which used to be the old Justice League headquarters. Along for the ride are the classic and creepy Scissormen, sci-fi updates to an old fairy tale. The best moment is a little sidenote, where a priest sees what he believes to be a sign from God to have faith (but the curvy bit of the G is obscured) when it suddenly begins to rain every kind of fish ("No cod, though.") Then, suddenly, the poor priest is crushed by a refrigerator.

The second, and best, story in the book, focuses on Red Jack, a strange and frightening villain for another dimension, who is seemingly omnipotent and claims to be both Jack the Ripper and God (and who's to say for sure he's lying?). He collects Rhea and goes back to his home dimension, but the Doom Patrol follow him to get her back. The best issue in the whole thing is #24, "The House that Jack Built," where the DP journey to Jack's world and confront him. Poor Cliff gets his face bashed in and an arm ripped off, but the heroes triumph by freeing all the poor butterflies that Jack tortures constantly in order to maintain his existence. As Red Jack withers away to nothing, he says "I... I thought I was part of the grand story... the story that... that would at last give meaning to this senseless trajectory... the loop and spin of being... Instead... instread I have learned a horrible truth about existence... Some story have no meaning. Oh, bugger..." The DP are left wondering how the hell they're going to get home. (My other favorite moment in the issue is the opening, which takes place entirely in the dark. Two people are talking to each other, and you don't realize till the lights come on that it's only Rebis.)

The final story is a one-off about Dorothy's imaginary friends coming back to get revenge, with only Joshua around to save her. It's a pretty nice little tale that combines the Wizard of Oz with menstruation metaphors. The book also ends with little scenes that lead up to cliffhangers, as it seems a new and even-odder Brotherhood of Evil is forming.

All in all it's a pretty good book, but it's also lacking a bit. One can already see Morrison repeating himself (The DP travel to a weird, possibly-imaginary dimension, and fight weird enemies. Meanwhile, other weird stuff happens. Wash, rinse, repeat ad infinitum). However, the formula appears to work quite well. And by the end of the book you can already see Richard Case's art improving (although the Joshua/Dorothy story is a fill-in by Doug Braithwaite). Morrison, as usual, fills the thing with wild and brilliant ideas, and occasionally his characterization suffers for it. Crazy Jane is pretty well mapped-out, but some of her super-powered personalities come off like Deus Ex Machinas (well, actually, pretty much all of them do. I think that's the point). Cliff, aka Robotman, works well as the central character, as he's the perfect everyman, but sometimes he comes off like a "tin-plated Arthur Dent," as I think I once read somewhere ("What? What? What's going on?" "What?") The Chief, however, exudes a nice badass demeanor every once in a while, and Rebis is verrrry interesting (Rebis visits Eleanor's fiance and he pretty much undergoes an emotional breakdown, but Rebis just can't feel the same way, coming out with hilarious lines like "Don't get blood on the coat" at inopportune moments. The interplay between both halves of Rebis is a fun thing to watch... and just what's the deal with the negative spirit?). Josh is still a bit of a cipher, however, and Dorothy is nice and all, but at times annoying. There's also weak spots when it comes to pacing, plotting, and dialogue, but there's also a lot of good stuff to make up for it, especially in the thematic and metaphorical arenas, as well as some cool imagery and even cooler moments, whether they're humorous, emotional, or dynamically action-packed.

Still, however, I recommend the trade, and I'm definitely going to buy the second one (it's called The Painting That Ate Paris, in case you were wondering). As it stands, I'm giving this book a 7.5/10. I think later volumes will get even better.

There. I think that covered everything. If not, well, I'll be back. (Look for a second Celebrity of the Moment in an upcoming, and hopefully shorter, episode of The Lithium Age. This one's long enough.)

(Okay, now I'm done with the overuse of parentheses (I really mean it! (No, really.)) ...right.... (wait for it...) now!)

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