Doom Patrol Vol. 2 #19
“Crawling From the Wreckage”
Writer – Grant Morrison
Art – Richard Case
Ink – Carlos Garzon
I’d prefer to state my over-arcing ideas about Morrison’s Doom Patrol as little as possible. Every essay series risks the dull thrum of repetition. Plus I promised I wouldn’t be diving into mind-numbery (a promise I will not keep in this article). But I think it necessary to provide some context for Morrison’s run, if at least to explain the purpose of certain references.
I have two interpretations of Morrison’s Doom Patrol. My first interpretation is that Morrison’s Doom Patrol is a formal (in that it has a narrative and medium) yet experimental (in that it has underutilized and untested procedures) union of opposites. Without the obtrusive parentheses, that’s ‘a formal yet experimental union of opposites.’ Not a particularly original take on the property; in fact, I probably stole that from one of my contemporaries. But there you go.
Now these opposites manifest in many forms: fantasy and reality, convention and unconvention, mind and matter, man and woman, Heaven and Hell. What makes Doom Patrol so damn fascinating is how Morrison rejects the ‘essential’ divergence of parts and counterparts — leading to formations that Morrison, quoting from the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, calls an “alchemical marriage” (Doom Patrol #20). Marriage is a very appropriate term here, being the legal union of two bodies into ‘one flesh.’ As Morrison himself explains, he’s attempting to “break down the barriers between categories… Fiction and reality, what’s the difference?” (Callahan).
Therefore, the Doom Patrollers aren’t only ‘freaks’ because they don’t belong to society. They are ‘freaks’ because they are that society’s synthesis: Cliff Steele is human and machine; Rebis is male and female; Crazy Jane is saint and slut (and 62 other things). They aren’t Self or Other. They’re both.
My second proposal is that Morrison has a referential agenda to connect himself intimately with alternative popular culturalists. A variety of subculture archetypes had developed or faded by the late 80s, including the LSD scene, psychadelic rock, hippies, British mods, punk, “New Wave,” skinheads, rock shows, rave, long electronic track, shoe gaze, Brit pop, MDMA, post-punk, butt rock, epic metal, and rap (Finley). Morrison himself was a participant of the youth cultures of yore. So while some of his references might seem arbitrary (albeit improvised), he’s actually crafting a relevant message to the anti-established.
As it’s my self-appointed occupation to rob Morrison of his ambiguity and discover the sources of his most esoteric creations, then exploring the dual subcultural themes within the Doom Patrollers themselves is a significant responsibility (as well as easy filler). Doom Patrol #19 refocuses (and rebuilds) the composition of the Doom Patrol. Gone are half of the characters from the garish Kupperberg era. In riposte, Grant Morrison centers his attention on a personally-selected cast: Robotman, Crazy Jane, and Larry Trainor (or the soon-to-be Rebis).
Let’s start with nigh protagonist Robotman, although he goes by Cliff Steele now. Cliff offers the easiest dualism to decipher. In Drake’s era, Robotman was a “symbol of post-war innovation.” In Morrison’s era, he’s a “postmodern train-wreck” (Callahan). Doom Patrol #19 finds Cliff Steele in the mental institution he’s been needing since My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963). The reader is reminded that Cliff really is a man horribly trapped in a metal body. We expect RoboCop, but he’s actually Tin Man.
In his re-introduction, Morrison returns Cliff to his original conception — that of a literal interpretation of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Rene Descartes believed man had a dual existence as both mind and matter. He described consciousness as the ‘mind’ and the body as merely an extension or “machine.” All sensations such as pain or pleasure were intimate yet confusing intrusions from the body onto the mind. Hunger, for example, wouldn’t naturally occur if the body was absent and consciousness had its own volition (Descartes).
Cliff, then, is a literal interpretation of that idea: a human brain (mortal, dirty, self-conscious) shoved into the perfect metal form. Cliff lives a literal existence between “the real and the imaginary, between self and the other, between vitalism and mechanism, between mind and body” (Shaviro). However, although Cliff can’t feel sensations, he still feels their lack. These memories preserve a strain of humanity in Cliff where other cyborg properties decline to comment.
Normally I’d put Crazy Jane last, but Rebis isn’t fully introduced until the next issue. Kay Challis, better known as Crazy Jane, is the comic’s resident psychiatric patient as well as dea ex machina. She replaces Elasti-Girl (who is most definitely dead) as the female voice in the comic. Or, in a special case, female voices. Get it? Because Crazy Jane suffers from multiple personality disorder — 64 persons in 1 to be exact. The real kicker is that each personality has its own superpower.
What does 64 represent? It could be a lot of things. It’s the square of 8. It’s a lucky number in China. The number of sexual positions in the Kama Sutra. The number of demons in the Dictionnaire Infernal. Route 64 goes through North Carolina — where the story takes place.
What I am sure of is the origins of the character’s name. Crazy Jane is a conspicuous reference to William Butler Yeat’s poem “Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop” (1933). I’ll supply the poem in its entirety:
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’
‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’
Poetry analysis is never pretty but here’s my attempt anyway. “Crazy Jane” contains a dialogue between a Bishop and a lascivious old woman. In petite homily, the Bishop preaches a religious lifestyle devoid of sensuality. The woman counters with a semi-hedonistic argument that physical pleasure is a form of truth as well. Note the lack of Christian motif in the woman’s argument, which implies that there is more to the basic structure of the universe than the Bishop’s theology.
The ‘satirical slut’ then expounds on a pragmatic philosophy that combines the Bishop’s spiritual oration with physical pleasure. The union of “foul and fair” is justified in the lines “love has pitched his mansion in / the place of excrement” (Yeats). In other words, genitals are used for both ‘love-making’ and excreting waste matter. Why then separate the body from the soul?
So we have more binaries, such as fair and foul; vice and virtue. And they are bound together, yet again.
Soon we meet one of Crazy Jane’s many personalities: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which serves as a multi-purpose allusion. On one hand, the name refers to to acidic freak-folk Incredible String Band and their third album “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” (1968) which deals with arcane ‘hippie’ experiences in a whimsical kind of way. Naturally, there’s no song on the album specifically called ‘Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.’ Instead, each individual song smears together to form the surreal collection.
On the other hand, the name summons Angel Carter’s baleful “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter (1974) with its incestual father antagonist. As we will see, the cause of Crazy Jane’s psychosis was a sexual patriarch in her own life. The ‘Daughter’ connection foreshadows this dark history.
Here, Morrison reveals one of his resources. Maya Deren was a bohemian avant-goddess most remembered for her experimental films in the 40s and 50s. She was also an ‘acclaimed’ occultist although I don’t really want to go into Morrison’s feelings on magic. Understand that both her unconventional storytelling and explorations of the occult made major impressions on Morrison.
The ‘white darkness’ is a reference to Maya Daren’s encounter with the ‘living gods.’ During a dance ceremony in Haiti, she was supposedly possessed by the Goddess Erzulie, a Haitian embodiment of femininity and coquettishness. The mystical oxymoron ‘white darkness’ was her description of her own loss of consciousness during the ceremony (Warner). Deren writes in her metaphysical Divine Horsemen:
“I realise like a shaft of terror struck me, that it is no longer myself whom I watch. Yet it is myself, for as that terror strikes, we two are made one again… The white darkness moves up the veins of my leg like a swift tide rising, rising; it is a great force which I cannot sustain or contain, which, surely, will burst my skin. It is too much, too bright, too white for me; this is its darkness. ’Mercy!’ I scream within me. I hear it echoed by the voices, shrill and unearthly: ‘Erzulie!’ The bright darkness floods up through my body, reaches my head, engulfs me. I am sucked down and exploded upward at once. That is all.”
Oh, look. A union of opposites: the material and divine.
Larry Trainor was the identity of Negative Man, another original team member. Although he ‘died’ during the end of the Drake run, the Kupperberg era had the audacity to have him mysteriously ‘wash ashore’ sans powers. His revival was pointless in terms of the team dynamic, having been replaced by the ‘new bad girl in town’ Negative Woman. By ‘bad girl’ I mean the precise definition of bad: ‘poor quality, inferior or defective.’
Negative Man had the ability to release a radioactive ‘negative energy spirit’ from his body which could make a variable amount of damage. Due to the radioactive nature of the energy creature, Larry’s body was badly seared and he had to wear medicinal bandages. Additionally, the energy creature could only exist for 60 seconds outside of Larry’s body or else both host and spirit would die.
Morrison’s run follows the return of the energy spirit to Larry Trainor. I’ll be exploring the results of this union in #20. However, Morrison implants two very interesting literary references in the few scenes we get with Larry in #19. One is an allusion to Harlan Ellison; the other to the Brothers’ Grimm.
Larry is depicted here reading Harlan Ellison’s Partners in Wonder (1971), an anthology of collaborating stories between Ellison and other writers of the 50s and 60s. The book’s influences on modern science-fiction and fantasy are unaccountable yet most of its stories are artifacts of their day—defiant then, not so relevant now. Some of the introductions are more compelling than the stories themselves, as in Ellison’s preface to “Sons of Janus:”
“These are stories I have written with other writers. Collaborations, they’re called. They are in the products of two minds working together, sometimes in complete harmony, more often in opposition.”
Oh Grant, you saucy minx. However, I’ll bet the inclusion of Partners is mostly an appreciative nod to the literary influences behind Negative Man.
Negative Man’s appearance is paired with quotations from the “Imp in a Bottle,” a tale taken from The Brothers Grimm (1814).
To paraphrase, a woodcutter’s son finds a bottle by an ancient oak tree. From inside the bottle a voice cries, “I am down here amongst the roots of the oak tree. Let me out. Let me out.” The woodcutter’s son releases a spirit from the bottle, which then threatens to kill him.
The boy is able to trick it back into the bottle by playing on the spirit’s pride: “If you’re really so powerful, I’ll bet you couldn’t shrink yourself down and fit back in that bottle.” When the spirit does, the boy caps the bottle and puts it back by the oak. Later, he returns and the spirit rewards him with arcane treasures (Grimm).
So Morrison tosses in a few parallels between science fiction, fairy tales, and the Negative Insert-Gender.
And then the comic goes nuts.
Yeah. That’s Larry Trainor merging with an African American female doctor into the Negative Being called Rebis.
However, the hermaphroditic allusions being made about Rebis are better explored in Doom Patrol #20, which rounds out the ‘union of opposites’ as seen in Morrison’s ensemble. The next article should also become more of the Companion Reader I intend this mini-series to be. I just felt it necessary to lay some groundwork for safer passage later on.
Callahan, Timothy. Grant Morrison: The Early Years. Sequart, 2012. Kindle AZW file.
Carter, Angela. Burning Your Boats. City of Westminster: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company, 1983. Print.
Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Eds. and Trans. John Cottingham. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
Ellison, Harlan. Partners in Wonder. New York: Walker & Company, 1971. Print.
Finley, Klint. “Are We On the Verge of the Next Psychadelic Explosion?” Technoccult, 4 August 2011. Web. 3 February 2014.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Imp in a Bottle.” The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Bicentennial Edition). Maria Tatar, ed. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.
Theopedia. “Pantheism.” Theopedia. Web. 1 February 2014.
Shaviro, Steven. “Cliff Steel.” Steven Shaviro, 1997. Web. 28 January 2014.
Warner, Marina. “Dancing the White Darkness.” Tate, 1 May 2007. Web. 31 January 2014.
Yeats, William Butler. “Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop.” Collected Poems. London: Collector’s Library, 2013. Print.
I’m so happy to see this series of essays. Morrison’s Doom Patrol is my all time favorite comic and Morrison’s masterpiece, in my opinion. I look forward to reading future entries.