Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol #19, Addendum

Doom Patrol Vol. 2 #19
“Crawling From the Wreckage”
Writer – Grant Morrison
Art – Richard Case
Ink – Carlos Garzon
Vertigo/DC Comics
February, 1989

While reviewing my notes on Doom Patrol #19 in preparation for #20, I realized that I neglected to mention a sizable musical reference that coordinates with Grant Morrison’s reinterpretation of Cliff Steele (the cyborg formerly known as Robotman). As Cliff Steele is the pseudo-protagonist of Morrison’s run, at least of #19, then this article is a necessary postscript. The reference appears in the title of Doom Patrol #19. Therefrom, the implications of Cliff Steele as a trauma survivor can be understood without even turning a page.

“Crawling from the Wreckage” is also a song written by Graham Parker and performed by Welsh revivalist Dave Edmunds in the rockabilly album Repeat When Necessary (1979). By positioning the song as the title of #19, Morrison prepares before the story begins an incredibly relevant examination of Cliff Steele’s psyche hinted at but never fully explored by either Drake or Kupperberg. The song, apparently constructed around a drunk driver in an automobile accident, correlates with Cliff’s personal experiences as the survivor of catastrophic events as well as his mental condition as a human mind trapped within a machine body.

Cliff himself has crawled away from various “wreckages” including the tragic car crash that led to his creation. This incident, from which his brain was salvaged, is companion to the chorus:

Crawling from the wreckage,
crawling from the wreckage.
Bits of me are scattered
In the trees and in the hedges.

Not only does an explosion figure into his origins story, but he is also the survivor of an atomic blast (Doom Patrol Vol. 1 #121, October 1968) and the Dominators’ Gene Bomb (Invasion #3, March 1989), both of which involved the destruction of the existing Doom Patrols at the time.

Cliff has also recovered from innumerable near-deaths, including being dipped in acid, cut by laser beams, carved apart like a tin can, magnetized by… really big magnets. Unlike most superheroes, Cliff’s robot body can be warped, wrangled, sliced, melted, flattened, and disintegrated; only the destruction of Cliff’s human brain can truly kill him. Therefore, much like Wolverine whose healing abilities are taken to their extreme limit, Cliff frequently finds himself completely annihilated save his brain.

One time, Cliff crumbled apart from a mixture of cosmic rays and his body’s construction materials — a highly-suspicious ‘advanced ceramic metal’ developed by Dr. Niles Caulder (Doom Patrol #120).

Another, Cliff was nearly compressed by a metal processor at a tractor factory (Doom Patrol #94). Yes, a tractor factory. The only purpose for that story’s setting was to compromise Cliff with an assembly line.

It’s Morrison, however, who finally explores what kind of toll an endless cycle of destruction and recreation would take on a man. Cliff’s soul is not as easily reconstructed as his metal shell. In #19, Cliff checks into a mental institution after the annihilation of the second Doom Patrol. But Morrison prepares the shrewd reader even earlier than that — if they listen to British pub rock, that is.

I’m only half the man I should be;
Metal hitting metal is-a all I feel.

A major characteristic of Morrison’s Cliff Steele is the suffering he undergoes in his prosthetic body. Beneath Morrison’s appropriation, the lyric “metal hitting metal” describes what exactly Cliff feels. Or doesn’t feel. In-story, Cliff explains to Dr. Magnus the anguish of sensory deprivation. “How can you know what it’s like to have your brain transported into a metal body?” shouts Cliff. “It’s life imprisonment!” (Doom Patrol #19). In exegesis of his characterization, Cliff pounds his forehead vainly into a wall — revealing an inability to experience pain.

From deprivation, Cliff becomes “only half the man [he] should be.” While he can think logically and creatively, he is deprived of human sensations such as pain and pleasure. The sentiment “half the man” is especially effective when we realize Cliff’s sensitivity to his emasculation and impotency from not being able to act on sexual desires. As the character explains:

I’m haunted by the ghost of my entire body! I get headaches, you know, and I want to crap until I realize I don’t have any bowels. And… when I look at a woman, sometimes I… (Doom Patrol #19)

He doesn’t have to finish his thought for the reader to understand the implication. Cliff is deprived of his ability to act on urges concocted by his brain. He is, by his own admission, a “total amputee” (Doom Patrol #19).

“Nothing seems to happen that ain’t happened before.”

I didn’t just invent the focus on repetition for my own purpose. Even the song proposes a cyclic nature. Building off the song’s concession, Morrison prepares the reader for Cliff’s cycle of destruction and reconstruction. Catastrophe is followed by reawakening, followed by catastrophe. Life, for Cliff, is in the interim between explosions — none of which he can even feel. And it’s hopelessly frustrating.

Morrison’s allusion to Graham Parker and Dave Edmunds’ “Crawling from the Wreckage,” intimated upon Doom Patrol #19, is another excellent example among many of how the subculture of music (even the lesser-knowns) can illuminate a character’s internal struggle. The correlation between music and other mediums has a long, beautiful history. When used effectively, music can open a narrative to universal, perhaps even eternal, appeal.

Next up, the mouth-watering, mouthful Doom Patrol #20, Crawling from the Wreckage, Part 2: Cautionary Tales.

Works Cited

De Vries, Peter. “Reference to Popular Music in the Novel.” Journal of Music and Meaning 2, Spring 2004, section 7.

Edmunds, Dave. “Crawling From The Wreckage.” Repeat When Necessary. 1979. United States: Atlantic Records Group, 1991. CD.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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