1986:

D.P.7 — Group Therapy for Superhumans

In 1986, twenty-five years after the publication of Fantastic Four #1, which launched the modern Marvel Universe, Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter introduced a new fictional reality in Marvel Comics, the New Universe. This was an ambitious experiment, but it did not last for a quarter century. It did not even last half a decade, collapsing in 1989.

Through the Marvel revolution of the 1960s, Stan Lee and his collaborators had brought a new level of realism to the superhero genre. Shooter’s intention in devising the New Universe was to take that revolution further.

The Marvel Universe was filled with fantastic elements: not just costumed superheroes and supervillains, but also myriad extraterrestrial races, hidden races on Earth such as the Atlanteans and Inhumans and Eternals, gods such as the Asgardians, and sorcerers like Doctor Strange and supernatural beings like Dracula. Clearly the world in Marvel Comics was radically different from the world of its readers. Moreover, in the 25th anniversary year of modern Marvel, it was clear that time was not being treated realistically in the comics. Peter Parker, alias Spider-Man, had been fifteen when he debuted, but by 1986 was no older than his mid-twenties. (If Peter Parker aged in real time, he would now be collecting Social Security.)

In Shooter’s conception, the Earth of the New Universe would initially be just like the readers’ real world until the mysterious cosmic “White Event” took place, which endowed various individuals with superhuman powers. Most of these “paranormals” would not become costumed superheroes. Furthermore, their lives would be presented in real time: after twelve monthly issues of their comic books, they would be a year older. The goal was to attempt a more realistic exploration of what would happen in the real world if suddenly some people developed super-powers. In Marvel’s catchphrase, the New Universe was “the world outside your window.”

The New Universe line of comics was initially comprised of eight monthly series. The flagship title was Jim Shooter and artist John Romita, Jr.’s own creation Star Brand, about a man named Ken Connell, who mysteriously acquired a tattoo-like mark called the Star Brand, which endowed him with seemingly limitless super-powers. Connell sought a purpose for his new powers, initially acting in secret because he feared public exposure. Shooter seemed particularly interested in the theme of an all-powerful man attempting to find out how to act responsibly; he had done a variation on this theme with the alien Beyonder in Secret Wars II, which began in 1985 and ended in early 1986.

Other New Universe series included Kickers, Inc., created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, about a group of former football players, led by the super-strong Jack Magniconte, who became a team of heroes for hire. Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, co-created by Eliot Brown and John Morelli, centered on its leader, Jenny Swenson, who wore a super-powered armored battlesuit, making her the New Universe’s counterpart to Iron Man. The late Archie Goodwin, one of the most respected writers and editors in comics, had a hand in creating four more New Universe series: Psi-Force, about a team of teenage paranormals with psionic abilities; Nightmask, whose title character could enter people’s dreams; Justice, about a vigilante who claimed to be from another dimension; and Mark Hazzard, Merc, about a Vietnam veteran turned mercenary.

The most interesting of the original New Universe series, however, is D.P. 7, created by writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Paul Ryan, who also teamed up in 1986 on the Squadron Supreme limited series.

The first issue begins in a hospital “somewhere in Wisconsin” (Gruenwald’s home state), where Dr. Randy O’Brien receives a mysterious new patient: David Landers, a massively muscular man with superhuman strength, suffering from a drug overdose. Revived, Landers explained that he somehow “put on almost two hundred pounds of muscle in a week”; feeling he had become a freak, he tried to kill himself. The premise of the series already seems clear: O’Brien is the kindly doctor who will care for paranormals like Landers. But Gruenwald then springs a surprise. During an argument with his unreasonable boss Dr. Eastman about Landers’ treatment, O’Brien fantasizes about strangling Eastman.

Abruptly, an eerie, silent black entity in human shape emerges from O’Brien’s body and nearly strangles Eastman until O’Brien shouts at him to stop. O’Brien worries that he is imagining this shadow creature, but the reader realizes that the doctor, too, is a paranormal. For now, though, O’Brien tells himself in a thought balloon, “If the thing is real, then I’m as much a medical oddity as my patient, David Landers.”

O’Brien sees a newspaper advertisement for “The Clinic for Paranormal Research,” and he and Landers go there, seeking help. Seeing the Clinic, Landers says it resembles “an ultramodern rest home.” There, a woman named Dr. Semple tells them that the Clinic has only been in operation for three months, but is already handling many paranormal cases. “We try to teach our patients how to cope with those gifts that make them different.” When O’Brien refers to his and Landers’ “paranormalities” as “handicaps,” Dr. Semple corrects him: “Not handicaps—gifts. Some of you are society’s very gifted.”

And now aficionados of the superhero genre will perceive a similarity between D.P. 7 and the early decades of Marvel’s X-Men. Professor Charles Xavier founded his school for young super-powered mutants, in which he teaches them how to cope with and utilize their unusual powers. Xavier called his institution his “School for Gifted Youngsters,” and the title’s implication was that the young mutants’ superhuman abilities were “gifts,” the word that Dr. Semple keeps using. The mutants’ strange powers and, in some cases, their unusual physical appearances, were not handicaps, and the mutants themselves were not freaks, in Xavier’s view; instead, their powers were gifts, blessings rather than curses.

But Xavier’s institution was a school. The original X-Men were unusually gifted students attending a private high school or college to train them for careers as superheroes. The X-Men ‘s lives paralleled those of typical college students: taking classes in standard academic subjects, Xavier’s version of gym classes (combat training in the Danger Room); rooming together as if in a dormitory; heading into the city for nights on the town at places like Bernard the Poet’s coffee house.

In contrast, D. P. 7 are based in a hospital. Showing O’Brien and Landers into the gym, Dr. Semple explains that “you’ll be placed in a therapy group composed of other paranormals who will help you get in touch with your feelings about your gifts. You’ll also receive individual counsel and instruction. And in between all that, you can use our facilities to have fun and get healthy.”

The X-Men are students; the members of D.P. 7 are patients. Moreover, the particular focus of the Clinic is on the paranormals’ mental health. The X-Men are members of a class; the members of D. P. 7 are in a therapy group.

Now certainly Xavier’s school benefits its students’ mental well-being. Scott Summers (Cyclops) was on the verge of despair when Xavier recruited him; according to a backstory that Chris Claremont devised for her, Jean Grey had emotional difficulties coping with her telepathic abilities as a child until Xavier began helping her; Wolverine famously suffers from berserker rages. Xavier’s school provides all his students with a sense of family and community; without the school they would feel alone and alienated from society.

But D.P. 7 implies that having a super-power is inseparable from needing psychiatric help. Why is that?

Perhaps one answer is that a super-power is a metaphor for whatever makes a person different, for better or for worse, than other people, perhaps a metaphor for individuality itself. And to be an individual, to be different, is to be alienated to some degree from the rest of society, and anyone can use help in adjusting to that.

It may also be that D.P. 7 simply reflects contemporary American society, in which psychiatric help and treatment are no longer unusual, or administered only to the mentally ill, but are in widespread use. D.P. 7 suggests that not only that there is no shame in seeking psychiatric help, but that everyone, including the series’ heroes, can benefit from it. This positive view of psychiatry in D.P. 7 sharply differs from other portrayals of psychiatry in comics over the last three decades, most notably the neo-Gothic chamber of horrors that is Arkham Asylum in the Batman books.

D.P. 7 may also show the influence of the popular trope in 1960s pop culture according to which the supposedly “mad” are actually saner than people in the outside world, as in the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the film King of Hearts. The members of D. P. 7 are certainly not insane, but they are a community within a psychiatric institution who prove to be sane, morally upstanding, and as good or better than anyone in the series who is not a patient.

Perhaps D.P.7 is simply following the logical evolution of Stan Lee’s revolutionizing of the superhero in the 1960s. Stan Lee endowed his superheroes with psychological conflicts and emotional problems. All of them suffer from stress; Spider-Man has been described as neurotic; the Hulk has multiple personality disorder and considerable anger management problems. To read Lee’s superhero stories is to watch the heroes soliloquize or have an internal monologue voicing his angst over whatever new troubles beset him in life. Perhaps the typical Marvel superhero story is a sort of metaphorical therapy session in which the hero grapples with his personal problems. So why not take a further step and do a superhero series involving a team who really are in group therapy together?

Indeed, Dr. Semple brings O’Brien and Landers into a group therapy session in which they meet the other five members of D.P. 7. Charlotte “Charly” Beck is a teenage African-American dance student who can stick to solid objects and cause other people to lose their balance. Jeff Walters is an African-American with the power of super-speed, like DC’s Flash and Marvel’s Quicksilver, but Gruenwald uses Walters to explore some of the difficulties that such a power would actually cause. (For example, Jeff has a super-fast metabolism, and must frequently eat extraordinarily large amounts of food.) Dennis “Scuzz’” Cuzinski is a rebellious teen who exudes a substance from his skin that causes things, even his clothing, to disintegrate. Lenore Fenzl’s skin emits a different sort of substance that has a tranquilizing effect. Stephanie Harrington can impart energy to other people by touching them, and can utilize her own energies to boost her strength.

In at least some cases, the powers of the D.P.7 members seem to have a connection to their personalities. Landers falls in love with Stephanie, but does not think she would ever return his feelings; his supposedly freakish appearance thus reflects his poor self-image. (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had already done something similar with the Thing in Fantastic Four, but whereas the Thing soon found love with Alicia Masters, Gruenwald does not resolve Landers’ romantic distress until the series’ final issue.) Stephanie’s energy-boosting abilities fit her sunny, positive personality; certainly Landers regards her as a kind of life force in human form.

The first issue’s narration refers to the silhouetted form that emerges from O’Brien’s body as “his phantasmal other self.” O’Brien later dubs it his “antibody,” but it inescapably seems to be a variation on Negative Man from DC Comics’ Doom Patrol. The major difference is that Gruenwald depicts the Antibody (and later Antibodies) as if it was a manifestation of a side of O’Brien’s psyche. As we see in its first appearance, it tries to carry out the desire of his id by killing O’Brien’s boss. O’Brien’s control over the Antibodies varies; perhaps he does indeed need psychiatric help to gain mastery over these embodiments of his subconscious self. Although the Antibody resembles Negative Man, the relationship between O’Brien and his Antibodies may parallel that between Bruce Banner and the embodiment of his id, the Hulk.

But while D. P. 7 parallels the classic Marvel superhero series in various respects, is D. P. 7 itself really in the superhero genre? Or is it something very different? This is the subject we will explore in the next installment.

Copyright 2013 Peter Sanderson

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

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