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.