I mentioned already that one thing I like a lot about crappy horror comics from the 1960s and 70s is that they consist of encapsulated, one-off stories that don’t involve superheroes and their stupid fucking personal dilemmas. However, I was lying when I wrote that. Horror comics (and their nearly identical cousins, war comics) would routinely showcase heroes and serial stories in an effort to get people to buy the stupid things on a regular basis. In the post-Golden Age era, I think the first hero team created solely to deal with supernatural and monster-sized threats was Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, who debuted in a decidedly non-horror comic, Showcase number six. Consisting of four daredevils with no super powers, the Challengers would take on any job too dangerous or weird for usual government task forces and agencies, which implies that until they came on the scene we were totally vulnerable to countless attacks by inter-dimensional squid and gigantic beasts made entirely from atomic energy.
There were often regular serial features included in these horror comics, almost always to bad effect (and quite often, only in the DC titles). Dr. 13: The Ghost-Breaker was featured as the last story in issues of Ghosts from 1980-1981, questionably chronicling a character who debunked hauntings in a comic titled If You Don’t Believe in GHOSTS We Challenge You to Read True Tales of the Weird and Supernatural. Johnny Peril, an “adventurer of the weird,” was featured in issues of The Unexpected. And most of these DC horror comics were hosted by some forgettable Vampira reject (no dis to Cain and Abel), a throwback to EC Comics’ trio of witches that hosted their horror titles. But there is one group of superheroes who, though they arguably did not debut in the pages of any horror comic, are the best defenders of humanity against supernatural forces bar none. And that group of heroes is known as the Doom Patrol.
I first became familiar with the Doom Patrol when I was in my first year of junior high and Grant Morrison had taken over writing duties for a resurrected version of this weird team’s title. I was unaware of their legacy at the time, though it didn’t impede my enjoyment of the series under Morrison’s authorship one bit. I read it for a little while, until my dad quit working for DC Comics (for the second time) and I stopped thinking about the Doom Patrol. I forgot about the series completely, in fact, until the late 1990s when I began creeping my way back into comics by way of trade collections and saw it in a burgeoning section of Vertigo titles at Cosmic Comics on West 23rd Street (now Manhattan Comics under seemingly new ownership). I remembered having enjoyed the series as a pubescent pre-teen and vowed to pick it up again sometime, after I’d waded through The Preacher and collections of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Having already tested the comic years earlier, I felt sure that I would like it, unlike my hit-or-miss attempts at reading DMZ or Ex Machina.
And then, I forgot about it for another eight years.
Eventually, I read through Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol and loved every weird, surreal minute of it. It was, and remains, the best self-aware comic–yes, even better than Morrison’s Animal Man and John Byrne’s She-Hulk–and this title is truly the only one of its type. There are plenty of superhero teams with weird abilities that secretly keep the space-time continuum in check, but how many of them also have issues dedicated to complete parody and satire of other genres? I read through the entire six paperback run of Doom Patrol in about a week, then re-read it, then did something I could never have done when I read the first issue in 1987: I went on the internet and did a search for “Doom Patrol.” And there, I made a startling discovery: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol wasn’t the first one, in fact it wasn’t even the second or the third. The first Doom Patrol series began publication in 1963, a few months before John Kennedy’s brains splattered his wife’s dress in the back of a convertible in Dallas. At that point, being who I am, I determined to read the original series and learn more about this strange group of freaks that saved the world so many times from unseen and incomprehensible disasters.
Then, I forgot about it for three more years.
About a month ago, I was poking around that venerable New York institution The Strand, and I discovered volumes 1-4 of the DC Classics Archives edition of Doom Patrol at a very affordable price, and I quickly snapped them up. I am no stranger to the Silver Age of comic books, having learned long ago to read these titles with my tongue planted firmly in cheek when regarding the patently obvious pandering and ridiculous pseudo-science that is their hallmark. I began reading these hardback editions, and you know…I started to like them. Really like them, not just in a detached, ironic way. The Doom Patrol were freaks, yes, and their stories formulaic and largely predictable (though I could never have predicted a villain as stupid and weird as Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man), and yet there was something more real about these odd characters, more real to me than billionaire Bruce Wayne or zit-faced Peter Parker. The action is telegraphed: wheelchair-bound leader Niles Caulder gets a distress signal and sends the team out to deal with some incorrigible disaster. But in between the action, there are quips, quarrels, self-reflective statements that make these fictional mutants seem much more human. There’s even a marriage and an adoption within the series, a rare Silver Age moment where there’s a change to the plot that isn’t wiped away by the next issue. I think the best example of this kind of chicanery was when the Doom Patrol set out to find a group of atomic mutants bent on destroying the world with their eerie mutant powers (which consisted of them shooting rays out of their eyes and/or limbs). The team splits up to cover more ground, and in doing so two ancillary members of the group, Mento and his adopted son Beast Boy (later Changeling, then Beast Boy again) discover the Abominable Snowman. The creature starts to attack, but Beast Boy thwarts the Snowman by showing him a picture of Alfred E. Newman of MAD magazine fame. It’s a little aside that has nothing to do with the immediate story but which sets the tone for the series nicely.
I liked the first four volumes so much, I went and found the final, fifth volume, where the Doom Patrol actually sacrifices their lives in order to save a remote fishing village in Maine (under stupidly complicated circumstances, take my word for it). How many comic book series end with the protagonists dying? However, no comic book series ever “ends,” as evidenced by the subsequent versions of the Doom Patrol that continue to the date of this writing. Having read only two authors’ work on it, I am far from an expert, but in my opinion the Doom Patrol are the best bunch of supernatural superheroes, or perhaps superheroes of the supernatural, in comic books. If only they’d been building superintendents, they’d be supernatural superhero supers.
I can’t end this without addressing a bit of controversy: the contention that Marvel Comics bit the idea for the X-Men from DC Comics’ Doom Patrol, and the lesser controversy that the idea for the Doom Patrol came from Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Those uncanny Marvel muties debuted three months after Doom Patrol, suggesting that a direct cribbing is unlikely, yet a salacious rumor persists that shadowy double agents of Marvel overheard Arnold Drake pitching the idea for Doom Patrol and scurried back to Stan Lee to divulge this million-dollar notion. Except it didn’t actually make DC a million dollars, so clearly the concept was wielded more effectively by Kirby and Lee. Whatever the case and its thin premises, I don’t think it matters who came up with the idea first. Sympathetic uglies have been saviors of luscious damsels throughout literary history, and if these guys hadn’t thought up the idea, some other loser eventually would have. In conclusion, comic books are for nerds and if you’ve read this to the end then you definitely are one.