Saturday, May 31, 2008

Doom Patrol: Another World, A Better World

I finished my reread of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol yesterday, and my feelings about the run as a whole pretty much echo my initial impressions on the reread, there’s some moments that are absolutely amazing and among the best stuff Morrison has done, however there’s also some run of the mill storylines that just throw out weird concepts, but don’t really click emotionally. However, he ends on a superlative high note, with one of the best single issues he’s ever written, the beautiful “Empire of Chairs.”

“Empire of Chairs” synthesizes all of the series’ major themes in one issue, in which the Doom Patrol faces their most troubling enemy of all, the real world! Crazy Jane was sent to hell by the Candlemaker, and it turns out that hell is a world that’s pretty much our own. Colored in flat sepia tones, Jane is treated as she would be in real life, her multiple personalities are a problem, the adventures she thinks she had delusions.

It’s notable that this issue on the surface undermines the reality of everything Morrison’s ever done. He appears to reduce all the stories of the series to the delusions of a mentally ill woman, and deconstructs them, pointing out the similarities between the series’ villains and the simple underlying meaning of everything. He makes us realize how absurd and unbelievable everything that’s come before seems.

But, the central message of the series is that it’s okay to be different, that normality is boring and the crazy lives of the Doom Patrol are far more interesting than the lives of traditional superheroes. The Mr. Nobody arc is all about Cliff confronting this fact. Cliff clings to normality, he may be a brain in a robot body, but when Jane presents herself in the Scarlet Harlot outfit, you can sense how embarrassed he is by the attention she’s drawing to herself. However, his innate caring for Jane makes him realize that he’s more worried about her getting hurt than what people think of her.

In the ‘Magic Bus’ arc, Rebis and Jane realize that there’s nothing particularly worth protecting about the world they live in, so they’re not worried about Mr. Nobody disrupting it. Cliff decides that people should have the right to choose their own world, ignoring the fact that maybe they’d rather have Mr. Nobody’s world than the one they’re in. Cliff, at the beginning of the series, is a pretty conservative guy, he clings to authority figures, like the Chief, and longs to have a normal life. However, as the series goes on, he learns to change, and accept who he is.

As the series ends, Rebis and Dorothy float off to uncertain futures in the magical Danny the World. However, Cliff stays behind, he’s not quite ready to disconnect yet. He’s still got to decide whether or not he wants to leave the regular world behind. He’s been through so much awful stuff, but he clings to that normalcy. One of the most important issues of the series is the secret history of the Doom Patrol, as revealed by the Chief. On the one hand, it’s a really courageous story structure because Morrison reveals the villain behind the whole series, sets up this huge confrontation, then completely subverts it when the Candlemaker rips Caulder’s head off.

But, on an emotional level, it’s really significant because it tells us a lot about both the old Cliff and present day Cliff. As the chief tells us, old Cliff was not a particularly nice guy, he was someone who lived mainly for himself. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, in a lot of ways it’s normal, but that Cliff had little of the soul that Robot Man Cliff develops over the course of the series. It’s notable that Cliff has to lose his body and virtually everything that previously defined himself to finally learn who he is. Cliff clings to the Chief because the Chief saved him, made him the body he has and let him live. But, it turns out that Cliff is a victim of abuse that’s not too dissimilar from what Jane went through. His father figure betrayed and used him, and left him a broken shell. It’s not as bad as the explicit sexual abuse Jane suffered, but both of them went through the experience of having their worlds shattered, and their minds left in disarray.

Both of them shut themselves off from the world to deal with the trauma. Jane creates the elaborate network of alternate personalities, while Cliff throws himself into his work, into preserving the Doom Patrol and saving the world. Only after plunging into the world of the nanobots and saving the world does depression really set in, does he realize that Jane is gone, as is his best hope of ever feeling more. But, there is a better world.

Much of the series centers on the Doom Patrol’s nebulous relation to order and chaos. Sometimes they’ll find themselves fighting on the side of chaos, trying to prevent things like the Pentagon horror from destroying the world, other times, they fight for order, trying to stop the Candlemaker or Mr. Nobody from disrupting everything. Through it all, the constant remains a desire to stop people from getting hurt, a desire to make lives better and end destructive conflict. The Invisibles makes a big deal of there being no sides, so it’s appropriate that the allegiance of the Doom Patrol should shift so often.

In the last issue, Jane finds herself caught up in the conflict between the need for normalcy and the room for individual expression. In the Doom Patrol world, her psychological trauma turns her into a superhero, and her battles over the course of the series help her cure herself. But, in our world, we don’t process problems that way. We see something out of the norm and try to medicate it out of existence. There’s no room for Jane’s fanciful imaginings, here they just mark her as insane.

The real tragedy of the issue is that I think that most people in our world would want to ‘cure’ Jane if they knew her. They’d want to return her to our reality and give her a functioning life. But, is that desire motivated by helping her, or is it more about making ourselves feel okay. When someone’s in a psychological delusion, it’s not necessarily them who are being hurt, it’s us, unable to deal with something so out of the norm. Now, it’s not plausible for Jane to live in our world the way she was, but as the issue makes clear, that’s not her fault, it’s the fault of the world.

We live in a world where that which is outside the norm is treated as illness, and every attempt is made to bring people to the same mental place, with the same kind of feeling. Alan Moore has talked a lot about this, particularly in From Hell, where we see that mental illness used to be considered the intrusion of gods into this world, but now we view it is an anomaly to be cured.

The issue raises a lot of questions about the nature of reality vis a vis the rest of the series. Was everything simply the delusions of Kay Challis, an attempt to deal with the sexual abuse she’d suffered? Or is it the world she’s plunged into, our world, that’s the creation, born by the Candlemaker as the ultimate hell? That’s a bold call, to make our world hell, but it works in this story. In Morrison’s cosmology, it’s the boring, uninterrogated life that’s worst of all. In his reality based works, characters generally exist in relation to pieces of fiction, King Mob and Robin dream of being like characters in the books they grew up reading, and are excited when they find out that they grew up and became those characters. One of my favorite single issues of all time is The Invisibles 2.20, in which a young Robin (aka Kay) talks about reading The Invisibles and imagining herself into the story until it all became true. Similarly, Flex Mentallo’s Wallace Sage finds himself reflecting on the shitty comics he read, imagining an alternate world where they’re what’s real and he’s what’s fake.

Ultimately, Jane’s story here echoes those other stories. In each case, the character writes themselves out of the everyday world and into a fantasy world that’s more alive. It’s about moving beyond the real/not real dichotomy and choosing to live in the world we want. People want to minimize the struggles we go through, so called ‘realistic’ works are all about not much happening, but in my own perception of my life, the trials I go through are huge. And, that’s why I think superhero stories, like Doom Patrol, are important. Morrison understands that our own depression isn’t best depicted as a guy sitting alone in a dark room while it’s raining, it’s best depicted as a giant black hole that will engulf the entire universe if we don’t stop it because that’s how it feels in our own mind. If you die, your world ends. To the world at large, it may not matter, but to you, and the people around you, it’s a huge deal. Jane’s story is insignificant to the world at large, she was just the girl at a shop, ringing you up, going about life alone, but in her mind, she was involved in these huge, world changing struggles. You never know, the person you pass on the street might just have saved the world the night before.

And, in the end, she chooses to abandon the dull, boring ‘sane’ life and embrace the craziness of life with the Doom Patrol. Does Jane kill herself at the end, is that what we’re meant to perceive happened in the real world? Perhaps that’s what happens in the ‘real world,’ but it’s not what really happens to Jane. Jane moves into Danny the World, the other world, the better world that must be out there.

It’s a really beautiful story, and a perfect conclusion for the run as a whole. I think Morrison’s a bit more consistent today, works like New X-Men or Seven Soldiers are slicker and have fewer weak arcs, but there’s very little he’s done that has the emotional impact of that issue. Back then, Morrison was an outcast, struggling to find his place in the world, a feel that runs through his work until The Invisibles Volume II, when he decided to become King Mob, at which point everything became a lot slicker and cooler. I love that hypersigil pop period of work, but it’s occasionally nice to go back and read the stories of a bunch of ordinary, but incredibly strange people. That’s what the Doom Patrol is about, recognizing that no matter how strange someone appears on the outside, we ultimately all want the same thing.


nicholas reed said...

Great analysis, as per usual. Though I would take issue with saying New X-men has fewer weak arcs...

Have you read Flex Mentallo? I picked it up at WWPhilly this past weekend after pretty much a three year search, and really... it was totally worth the time (and the money!).

Patrick said...

The only New X-Men arc that doesn't really work for me is the Imperial space battle stuff, but the first half of Doom Patrol is pretty shaky for me, particularly that space arc with Rhea. But, I love the X-Men, apart from Morrison, so I'm naturally inclined to like NXM more than his other work.

I have read Flex, and I'm actually rereading it now to wrap up the Doom Patrol journey. It's my favorite Grant work other than The Invisibles, and for me, the greatest superhero comic of all time. Look for a writeup of that once I finish, though it could take a while, each page of Flex is like its own universe.

David Golding said...

I am ambivalent about the final issue.

On the positive: Case's gorgeous art; reductionism vs romanticism; the confrontation between text and subtext; the chairs; the insistence on a point of view being reality; Cliff never giving up on Jane.

On the negative: bad psychiatry; flirting with suicide; false fantastic/real dichotomy.

Artists like Moore and Morrison make a big deal about mental illness as simply a different, privileged point of view. I suspect they've never encountered it in the real. I would like to see them sustain a character who never uttered something that got to the heart of things, who got pregnant or an STD, who sold the Hand of Glory for a little money for heroin, who chopped off a piece of their own sexual organs or smashed their teeth, who smeared everything in shit, who was randomly violent, who hurt everyone who loved them or cared for them... I suppose mental illness = special is better than the superhero mainstream that maintains mental illness = evil, but not much. Both views can be found during the time of the birth of the superhero comics, and I suppose that's why they still exist, along with the valorisation of newspapers, and universe-saving heroes who mostly hang out in a single suburb. Arkham Asylum deals with that source, going back to the '20s, making sense of why Bedlam exists in the modern Batman era, why Maxie Zeus is the Lord of ECT. It's hard to see why we get the same with Bill Jaspert in #63. ECT is a humane and beneficial treatment, and was even as far back as 1993.

Perhaps #63 is set not in the real world, but the "real world" mandated by DC after Crisis on Infinite Earths. A world of anachronistic teenage angst. But given Morrison's repeated position on mental illness, I don't think so.

"There is another world. There is a better world. Well, there must be." The last lines of #63, and also the refrain of 'Asleep' by The Smiths, a song about suicide. Jane's story is 'Kid's Story' from the Animatrix, the same story that many world/body-denying spiritualists have told: kill yourself, go somewhere better. I've been suicidal, I've had friends who have been---who are right now---suicidal. I've not lost anyone yet, but I have friends who have. So this kind of story makes me angry.

Of course the last issue isn't set in our world. In our world we have art. The colourful imaginations of Henry Darger, James Joyce, Grant Morrison, etc. Even in the superhero world, Jane gets to paint. And the superhero world is more real, less fantastic than Danny the World. So #63 is less fantastic than our world. It seems to have lost the ability to vada itself properly, as Danny says.

Patrick said...

I don't think Grant is doing a blanket condemnation of all psychiatry, or even saying that Jane doesn't need help. The whole series, up to her appearance in the Candlemaker arc, is about Jane's struggle to integrate her various selfs, to heal herself after the trauma she suffered. It's thanks to the kindness and caring Cliff shows her, being in a safe place for the first time in many years, that she's able to eventually heal and become one again.

But, it's notable that healing isn't about getting rid of aspects of herself and fitting into a specific model of normality as defined by society. Instead, it's about learning to function as a whole in a way that will work within society, while maintaining that which made her unique.

The real critique in #63 is not psychiatry as a whole, it's the use of ECT and other violent fixes that will make her normal at the cost of her individuality. The other doctor offers a therapy that might work given time, but nobody's willing to take the time. And, that gets to the core of what makes the Doom Patrol unique, the fact that they're all so messed up in some way that they have the time to stick together and help each other out.

But, I can definitely see your point. It's easier to do a story about the way society shuns mental illness and kills the magic than to explore the nuances of actually trying to live with that mental illness. But, I think Morrison exaggerates the points here to make a more compelling story.

Either way, as much as I love the issue, I think Flex Mentallo is a great revision of the point, featuring a similar extended suicide narrative, but ending with the main character realizing, why would I want to die? I've got an awesome life, rejecting the self indulgent adolescent angst and re-embracing the world around him. In a lot of ways that's what Crazy Jane does, only with that ambiguous suicide imagery mixed in, it becomes a bit less clear.

Anonymous said...

I love this issue. I see all David Golding's points, and they're good points, but I love it anyway.

Two things that haven't been mentioned. One, notice that the "good" doctor is sexually attracted to Jane, but fights this because it's inappropriate. Well, it /is/ inappropriate... but Jane is dying from the absence of love and wonder, and the doctor's attentions surely couldn't have made things worse. This harks back to the middle issues that explored sex as power and liberation -- Shadowy Mr. Evans and all that -- and also forward to the Marquis de Sade's work in _Invisibles_.

Second, notice that the brown and grey tones of this issue exactly match those of the issue of _Animal Man_ set in the "real world". So, is this 'Earth Prime'? Or someplace even worse? The Candlemaker said he was sending Jane to Hell; is Hell, for a comic book character, exile to the real world? Again, this harks back to Animal Man's trek across a ruined wasteland populated by abandoned comic book characters.

I don't have much more to add, except that I just like this issue a lot.

Doug M.