Monday, March 24, 2008

Doom Patrol: Crawling From the Wreckage

I’ve written about a lot of Grant Morrison works on here over the years, but I’ve never delved into Doom Patrol. I’ve only read the series once, back in 2003, the pre-blog days. But, with the recent release of the series’ last trade paperback, I’ve decided to upgrade my single issues to TPB and reread the series.

While the series undeniably has its moments, particularly the heartbreaking last issue, it’s not one of my favorite Grant works. Reading the first trade again, it made me think about the very clear switch in Grant’s style that occurred during The Invisibles, specifically issue #17, the first issue of ‘Entropy in the UK.’ The issue, and much of his subsequent output is all about pop glam characters, cool people in a cool world. But, Doom Patrol is of the decidedly earlier mode, more down to Earth, with less showy art and style. I prefer the crazy pop period, but Doom Patrol does have a lot going for it.

In Morrison’s two big early DC works, Animal Man and Doom Patrol, he uses an everyman protagonist, a down to Earth guy in a crazy world. In this case, Cliff Steele, a.k.a Robot Man, is not really at home in the world of strangeness. He stills calls Rebis Larry, unable to accept that his friend has become a kind of transgender spirit being. He’s an everyman, who just happens to be trapped in a robot body. I’ve always found it ironic that Morrison’s early work feels much more like the work of an older man, it’s more down to Earth and less gimmicky and explosive.

But, it’s not exactly staid. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on, but the surrealism is in a different mode than late period Invisibles. It’s more conceptual strangeness, very specific spins on reality. The late period Morrison has surreal ideas flowing, and they’re not always delved that deeply into. For each of the storylines in the first volume, he takes a specific idea and develops it over the course of the story, playing it out to a logical conclusion. It’s a much more narrative work than his later stuff. I frequently hear people criticizing Grant for an inability to string together a basic story, but I don’t really mind that. I like the tangents and strangeness.

I think Grant’s goal with the book was to come up with villains so strange that they make the heroes look normal. That said, I think there’s a bit of repetition in the first two arcs. The Scissormen and Red Jack have a similar look, and in both arcs, the Doom Patrol get transported to a strange other dimension to battle the villain. But, it’s always a joy to watch Cliff and Jane in action, their relationship is the greatest strength of the book.

I’ve only read a couple of issues of the second trade so far, but already, Mr. Nobody and the Brotherhood of Dada have stolen the book out from under the Doom Patrol. They feel like a proto-Invisibles, spreading anarchy across the land. The Mr. Nobody origin story is the strongest part of the book so far, a conceptually mind bending sequence. I also love how strange it is that he has become just a black outline, and no one seems bothered by it. Their anarchic spirit is a major difference from the essentially conservative mandate of the Doom Patrol. The Doom Patrol are there to battle the strange threats while Dada is there to disrupt social order.

When I first read it, I thought of Doom Patrol as a solid, occasionally great work, but not up to the level of most of Morrison’s longform work. But, it’s still a great read, Cliff and Jane are fantastic creations, and Morrison always throws in some strange, fascinating concepts. Plus, this time I get the added bonus of knowing the DCU better, so I can appreciate the Will Magnus cameo in the first issue, as well as the Booster Gold and Animal Man appearance later on. It’s all connected.


nicholas reed said...

I just finished a straight-through re-read of all the Doom Patrol trades. All the Brotherhood of Dada stuff is most definitely my favorite.

I do think the book suffered when someone other than Case drew an issue. His style was such an integral part of the book, that it was jarring seeing the characters portrayed differently. (Though, with that said, Philip Bond's issue was awesome.)

David Golding said...

I've only read Morrison's Doom Patrol in trade, so I've only just finished it all. At times it was amazing, as good as anything he's done, but at other times it seemed pretty clumsy.

I love lots of details to the Orqwith story, but it just doesn't gel for me somehow, I don't know. It certainly pales next to its inspiration, 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' by Borges.

Red Jack on the other hand suffers from being just another "blasphemous" 2000AD story, which I had read hundreds of (including many superior examples) by the time I got to this. Similarly, Dorothy's story is little more than a 2000AD Future Shock.

I'd disagree, though, about the strangeness being conceptual, and therefore not delved that deeply into. I think the strangeness here is primarily meant to be about language, the flow of words, the same as the surrealists and dadaists were interested in.

But Morrison absolutely nails the Chief and Cliff, and Jane is an excellent addition to the team. It's the latter two's developing relationship in the second trade that really got me, as much as I appreciated the Brotherhood.

Patrick said...

A lot of the time Doom Patrol feels like Morrison turning the most recent book he's read into a story. A lot of The Invisibles was like that too, but I think the difference was back in the Doom Patrol days, his life and the work were separate, as with most writers. He'd write a story and it could be great, it could be okay, but it feels like a story. In The Invisibles, the lines between fiction and reality blur and you get the sense that the whole book is a mix of Grant's own fantasy life, real life and views on the nature of the universe.

I love Cliff and Jane, and think in a lot of ways they're more relatable and complex characters than King Mob or Robin, but they don't have that insane energy that the people in The Invisibles, or Seven Soldiers do. In The Invisibles, the conceptual stuff and the emotional stuff all work together to form a cohesive experience. My biggest issue with DP is that the emotional side of things, like that wonderful Cliff in Jane's mind issue, are too separate from the plotty stuff, like the rather lackluster 'Cult of the Unwritten Book' storyline.