Edgar Allan Poe once parodied the technical processes behind pulpy horror fiction in his obscure essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and its inseparable cousin “A Predicament.” Poe criticized the tendency of pen-for-hires to create an “air of erudition” by tossing obscure references into their writing. To Poe, a man who wrote with the precision and purpose of an architect, the author’s decision to include a literary allusion must not be for the superficial reason to appear well-read; an inclusion must bring new context, new meaning, and perhaps some sense of irony.
Unfortunate for the modern reader, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is a labyrinth of obscure references — not all of them to literature. But Morrison is no Signora Psyche Zenobia. His symbology serves higher purposes, including a conscious effort to elevate the comic as a medium on par with film and literature.
The intention of this essay series will be to devote time and attention to the first four issues of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (only #19 to #22 of a run that would end on #63). I would prefer this to be a Companion Reader (or Bathroom Reader if need be) as opposed to a deep analytical study. Think of this as an informal Annotated Bibliography, but instead of a list of citations I will list the sources of symbolic figures and references contained in the run. Like an Annotation, I will include concise explanation, comment, and some evaluation, but the high-level thinking I’ll leave to the high-level thinkers. This essay series will be for your enjoyment and education, not mind-numbery. My hope is that you will continue reading Morrison’s Doom Patrol (although feel free to start with Kupperberg or go back further to Drake) with a greater awareness of his themes and resonances alongside obscure references.
Naturally, I’ll miss a lot of Morrison’s shout-outs. I’d need Morrison himself to explain what is truly going on, and even then I’d have to unpack that thick Scottish brogue. If you’d prefer a more in-depth look at Grant Morrison or his Patrol O’ Doom, you’d best check out Timothy Callahan’s Grant Morrison: The Early Years:
Callahan explores the foundations of Morrison’s career, including textual investigations of Zenith, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol. If I had to sum up my thoughts on The Early Years in a tag-line, I’d say Callahan asks the right questions and gives the right answers about Grant Morrison. So if you’re looking for more, check out the book.
To inspect Morrison’s references, we must first look to his biggest referral — the original Doom Patrol of the ’60s. According to Morrison:
“I decided straight away that I would attempt to restore the sense of the bizarre that made the original Doom Patrol so memorable. I wanted to reconnect with the fundamental, radical concept of the book.”
What was that fundamental, radical concept? That they were, as Morrison explained, “a team composed of handicapped people” (Doom Patrol #20).
A little history lesson. In the early ’60s, underrated Silver Age writer Arnold Drake and Italian illustrator Bruno Premiani devised the Doom Patrol for My Greatest Adventure, with the team’s first appearance in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963). So popular were these guest stars that the anthology series was retooled The Doom Patrol only six issues later. As Drake explained in a 1999 interview, the revolutionary idea behind the team’s success was that they were a “group of superheroes who hated being superheroes… And they were a little bit self-pitying, just a little bit, and the Chief was constantly telling them, ‘Stop crying in your beer.’ That made them something that wasn’t around at the time” (Keller).
Indeed, the Chief, Robotman, Negative Man and Elasti-Girl weren’t superheroes as much as victims of circumstance, and their heroics didn’t make them celebrities but famous freaks. En masse, their self-loathsome and impotent frustration exposed a very intimate side of humanity rarely seen in DC properties.
Sales began to wane in the late ’60s leading to the Doom Patrol’s cancelation. Ironically, this ‘decline’ was approximately 250,000 issues per month — numbers “staggering by today’s standards” (Tipton). If I had to make a guess as to why sales ‘lagged’ I’d say that despite the bizarre concept and gorgeous artwork, the plots were very dull. Bank robberies, jewel heists, and the typical threats of world conquest characterized the five year run. Meanwhile, the success of the suspiciously similar X-Men diverted ‘freak’ enthusiasts. Facing cancellation, Drake killed off the entire crew in Doom Patrol #121 (September-October 1968).
Over the next two decades there were several attempts to revive the property, mostly by fanboy-turned-writer Paul Kupperberg. In Showcase #94 (September 1977), Kupperberg introduced a new Doom Patrol led by original team member Robotman. Due to the success of the one-shot, an ongoing series was developed but dropped during the hyperbolic ‘DC Implosion of 1978,’ a marketing event that led to the cancellation of thirty-one titles (Black). Kupperberg would finally receive his relaunch a decade later with Doom Patrol #1 (October 1987).
The late ’80s saw an outbreak in Chris Claremont-style mutant outcasts, Alan Moore-style superhero deconstruction, and gritty Frank Miller-style realism (Singer). It’s an era referred to as the Dark Age of Comic Books, where many a fan-favorite property was rebooted with a shade of nihilistic cynicism. Unfortunately, Kupperberg’s run combined the dark pathos of his peers with the conventional stories (and gaudy costumes) that characterized the Silver Age. The result was well-intentioned but ultimately derivative and forgettable.
Even Kupperberg agreed that he “took Arnold Drake’s Doom Patrol and broke it” (Kupperberg). Recently, Kupperberg wrote a pitiful and somewhat humorous anecdote about a time in which he apologized to Drake:
Just before we had our picture taken together, I said [to Arnold Drake], “I really regret that I messed with the Doom Patrol. It was perfect the way you set it up. Changing it was a big mistake.”
Arnold was gracious, shrugging as if to say, ‘What’re you going to do?’
“What I did with the Doom Patrol’s really one of my biggest creative regrets,” I said with a sigh.
He sighed too, nodding his head and patting me fondly on the shoulder. “I know, my boy,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I know.”
Luckily, the revival’s lagging sales and fan vexation led to the introduction of a new creative team — led by Grant Morrison — after Doom Patrol #18 (January 1989). Yet we must show some gratitude to Kupperberg. As blogger Ray Tomczack writes, the man “made it possible for talents like Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen to destroy and ignore all that he did to tell some great stories of their own” (Tomczack). In addition, Kupperberg proved himself a good sport by complying to Morrison’s wishes and killing off most of his team.
On a side-note, I find it morbidly charming that the DC Wikia glosses over the Doom Patrol’s massacre as Kupperberg “actively altering the roster” (DC Comics Database). Those guys just can’t catch a break.
My next article will sift through Morrison’s Doom Patrol #19. To the first time Patroller, trust me when I say that Morrison is about to showcase some stunning work. Anyone familiar with The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo or All Star Superman will understand that’s not such a farfetched idea.
Black, David. “The DC Implosion!” Fanzing, 2000. Web. 1 February 2014.
Callahan, Timothy. “Grant Morrison: The Early Years.” Sequart, 2012. Kindle AZW file.
DC Comics Database. “Showcase Vol. 1.” DC Wikia. Web. 1 February 2014.
Keller, Katherine. “This Old Drake Still Has the Fire in Him.” Sequential Tart, January 2000. Web. 29 January 2014.
Morrison, Grant. “Doom Patrol Vol. 2, Issue #20.” DC Comics: Burbank, California, 1989. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “How to Write a Blackwood Article And a Predicament.” (Broadway Journal, July 12, 1845) Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore Site. Web. 30 January 2014.
Singer, Marc. Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. Print.
Tipton, Scott. “Gloom and Doom.” Comics 101, 29 January 2014. Web. 30 January 2014.
Tomczak, Ray. “Credit Where Its Due: Paul Kupperberg’s Doom Patrol.” Gutter Talk Blog, 8 October 2008. Web. 30 January 2014.
Tolworthy, Chris. “Marvel and DC Sales Figures.” The Fantastic Four 1961-1988 was The Great American Novel, July 2006. Web. 1 February 2014.
Kupperberg, Paul. “A Brief Introduction.” And Then I Wrote, 21 August 2014. Web. 1 February 2014.