Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol #20, A Companion Reader

Doom Patrol Vol. 2 #20
“Crawling from the Wreckage, Part 2: Cautionary Tales”
Writer – Grant Morrison
Art – Richard Case
Vertigo/DC Comics
March, 1989

I’ll be following the influences and references included within Grant Morrison’s first four issues for Doom Patrol #19-22. The entire series is a gestalt of pop culture, history, literary criticism and philosophy, and is highly worth the read, but I have limited free time (and a severely limited attention span). If only Morrison had included a works cited at the end of each issue, I might have been saved the trouble. As it is, the references in Doom Patrol remain highly-elusive to all but the most dedicated pop culturalist. I’m not him, her, or it, but I have the source material and a sufficient web browser – the arsenal of the modern scholar.

Today, we’ll be looking at Doom Patrol #20, Part 2 of the “Crawling from the Wreckage” chapter, sub-subtitled “Cautionary Tales.” Here’s it’s awesome cover:

In regards to that beautiful design, I decided to go to the most knowledgeable source on Richard Case’s work — the man himself. Case replied to my inquiries:

“My best recollection was that I was just playing up the collage elements so [I] decided to work in a style that reminded me of the geometric shapes of the collage/dada artist Kurt Schwitters, crossed with a pose based on an Egon Schiele drawing” (Case).

Kurt Schwitters was a German dada artist famous for his collages, called merzbilder, made from collected waste products found on the street. Today, Schwitters’ collages remain a true delight to art critics, “transcending the number-crunching, language-mangling modern world they reflect,” including Schwitters’ own devastating personal life (Cotter).

Case’s other influence, Egon Schiele, was a 20th century Austrian caricaturist, draftsman, figure painter, and an early forefather of Expressionism. He’s remembered for his caricatures and recurring ‘hand’ motif, highly appropriate for an issue that introduces inexplicable enemies identified by the sheers on their hands (Glueck). Schiele was also “fascinated by his own appearance, and made self-portraits in large numbers” (Lucie-Smith). No doubt the portraiture in #20’s right corner imitates a Schiele selfie, such as the one below:

Brewed in with the allusions to fine art (or what is now considered fine art today) is a very obvious one to popular culture. Crazy Jane and Cliff Steele, demarcated by dotted lines, face the intrusion of blades in a scene reminiscent of paper doll cut-outs. Instinctively, this alludes to the issue’s villains, the Scissormen, with their elongated sheers akin to Edward Scissorhands. Their off-worldly nature is suggested by the way the scissors arrive from off-page (or from some reality greater than the heroes’, but lesser than our own). The extra-dimension suggests that the Doom Patrol will be dealing with enemies not entirely of the comic realm.

Doom Patrol #20 opens with a bizarre prologue that really heaps the irony on a godless priest and the non-existence of cod (no, not God, I really mean the fish). A dire fridge guest stars. The story lights on a priest strolling through the wreckage of a devastating event from Kupperberg’s run while pondering the existence of his deity (Doom Patrol #18). The priest sees a sign that reads “Have Faith in God,” only a yellow dollop of refuse has covered the bar, changing the phrase to “Have Faith in Cod.”

In a moment of revelation, the priest realizes there is no God. And then a colossal refrigerator falls on him.

The vignette is an inexplicable diddy without much connection to the plot of “Crawling from the Wreckage” other than showing another person effected by catastrophe. Most likely, the summoned fridge can be included with the non sequitur ‘signs of the apocalypse’ depicted at the end of the issue, although the the connection is never confirmed. One reviewer suggests that the vignette is supposed to be a twist on the “classic Claremont scene” (Kelly). My knowledge of Claremont is scant, but a jab at X-Men makes complete sense. The two teams of mutant outcasts have a history of rivalry (and perhaps even plagiarism). Whatever the case, I see the priest’s demise as a ‘sign’ of something else – a sign that Morrison’s Doom Patrol will be profound, unpredictable, and very, very absurd.

Morrison returns our attention to Rebis, the hermaphroditic amalgamation of Larry Trainor and Dr. Eleanor Poole. The transformation complete, Rebis now sits in a green bathcoat, legs crossed in an androgynous pose. Behind the character is a portrait of Adam and Eve grasping the forbidden fruit. Not exactly your typical hospital decor, but the symbolism is fairly easy to grasp. In the last issue, we had (as the painting recalls) the union between a man, woman, and the Negative Spirit. The result is now one being containing all components: a hermaphrodite.

The symbolic nature of the hermaphrodite has lent itself to millennia of application, the study of which would make for a long, confusing history dating back to Ancient Mesopotamia. Doom Patrol #19-20 narrows the spectrum by referring to “rebis,” “alchemical marriage” and by including geometric shapes (that is, circles, squares, and triangles), all of which have been traditionally associated with European Hermetic alchemy. For my purpose, I’ll be referring to the 18th century manuscript Rosarium Philosophorum, or “Rosary of the Philosophers,” which is an illustrated encyclopedia of the symbols and terminologies used by medieval philosophers.

Central to the Rosarium Philosophorum’s pseudo-science is the alchemical marriage of opposites leading to the creation of a third entity (Hyde). The concept is similar (and based on) how procreation results in children or how chemical reactions create new compounds.

In the illustration above, the alchemical marriage is formed between the “King” and “Queen,” representing the union between male and female, solar and lunar, earth and heaven, gold and silver, hot and cold. The divine couple “compliment and define one another” as necessary oppositions for reality to exist (Knapp). When the union is finally complete, they produce the rebis, or divine hermaphrodite.

According to medieval philosophy, rebis is the reconciliation between all opposing realms, the Great Work of Creation, the magnum opus of reality. The Rosarium Philosophorum concludes that this creation-culmination is Christ (Hyde). Outside of esoteric Christianity, philosophers have arrived at numerous alternatives.

Morrison also adds a racial binary not present in medieval alchemy. Larry Trainor is a white male, or Anglo-American, while Dr. Poole is African American. Their pairing could be understood as a wedding between black and white (Berlatsky). But I don’t think Morrison is that bigoted. Instead, by exposing the insincere social constructions of ‘black’ and ‘white,’ Morrison hints at the artificiality of all binaries.

In apotheosis, Rebis makes a strange oration to explain himself:

“Nothing pure… My race is mixed, my sex is mixed, I am woman and man and light with darkness mixed. Mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure. I am mud and flame (Doom Patrol #20)”

The speech is lifted directly from David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974), a British television play. Stephen Franklin, the protagonist of the film, is offered to be the protectorate of conservative values. Instead, he rejects the status quo, insisting on his impure race, agnosticism, and homosexuality. Later, the pagan King Penda advises Stephen to “be secret, child be strange: dark, true, impure and dissonant. Cherish our fame. Our dawn will come” (Rabey). Rejecting society, King Penda envisions a sacred future for the immoralists and sacred hybrids.

Okay, moving on to Crazy Jane.

Doom Patrol #20 is also a crash course on Crazy Jane’s numerous personalities. Most importantly, the reader meets Driver 8, a Virgil-like train conductor. Doom Patrol #30 will better explore Driver 8’s significance. For now, understand that it’s a reference to a R.E.M. song from their album “Fables of the Reconstruction” (1985).

Later, one of Crazy Jane’s unidentified personalities repeats the phrase “blood of the lamb, blood of the lamb,” an apocryphal allusion to The Bible, specifically the “Book of Revelations:”

“They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11, NIV).

The passage signifies a Satanic invasion of the world; similarly, Crazy Jane’s allusion heralds a direct attack by the Scissormen.

The Scissormen, foot-soldiers of Oqwith, are inspired by Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter (1844), a collection of German bedtime stories meant to induce positive behavior from its listeners by exploiting childhood fear. In other words, they’re cautionary tales, which incidentally is the title of this issue. The Scissormen themselves are adaptations of the menacing tailor from “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb,” with their scissor-hands borrowed from Shock-headed Peter’s overgrown fingernails. Because it’s an interesting read, I’ll include “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb” in its entirety:

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
to little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
he takes his great sharp scissors out,
and cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.”
Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
the thumb was in, Alack! Alack!
The door flew open, in he ran,
the great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
and caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
and Conrad cries out “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
that both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home: there Conrad stands,
and looks quite sad, and shows his hands;
“Ah!” said Mamma, “I know he’d come
to naughty little Suck-a-Thumb” (Shell).

Morrison includes a ‘naughty child’ in #20 in the character of Stuart, a Catholic boy from Greenock, Scotland. Stuart is counting down the seconds before his next confession – apparently, the boy has been reading dirty magazines. Drawn to the mischief, the Scissormen soon arrive. Instead of cutting thumbs, however, they cut Stuart out of reality and turn him into a soulless citizen of their empire. Not too shabby; not subtle either.

By the way, Stuart is reading D.C. Thomson & Co.‘s Beano, a British children’s comic that’s been publishing since 1938, which Morrison worked for early in his career. Morrison’s also from Scotland, but I’m unsure if this is intended to be one of his readers or a ‘young’ avatar of Morrison himself.

In any regard, Stuart isn’t the only ‘naughty child’ punished. The scope of the intrusion expands to all sinful acts, which the Scissormen are ubiquitous in their ability to uncover. In a horrifying scene ripped out of a nightmare, a thief boards a subway car only to be transported to the Scissormen’s realm. The nightmare, it turns out, is Morrison’s. He recounts, “I had a dream where I was on a train going through a horrible bone-like station. The name on the platform said “Orqwith,” so I’d thought I’d use it” (Thompson).

Morrison’s Scissormen also introduce a series-long emphasis on Dada philosophy, a counter-art movement that emerged in reaction to World War I. Dada values concentrated on the creation of non-art, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) which was an overturned urinal, or L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), a mustached Mona Lisa. In literature, an early proponent was William S. Burroughs, who became known for a strange technique for creating poetry by cutting apart a text, tossing the remnants into the air like confetti, and re-arranging the slivers into new phrases. Basically, much like how the Scissormen speak:

Morrison uses an updated version of Burroughs’ cut-out technique for the Scissormen’s nonsensical speeches. On his computer, Morrison would misspell words intentionally to see what his word processor’s spellcheck might suggest as replacement (Thompson). The results were odd, but satisfactory. For the scholar interested in researching further into Morrison’s experimental techniques, I’d suggest Patrick Meaney’s Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods (2010).

The apocalyptic omens which complete Doom Patrol #20 are dadaist as well; they’re disconnected, terrifying post-modern portents that ultimately signify nothing. A mention of a bleeding John Lennon wax statue imitates the Catholic weeping statues phenomena. What this pseudo-religious imagery is supposed to mean is never explored, or meant to be explored. It’s Dada celebrating anti-reason.

Incidentally, one of the omens refers to a story from Struwwelpeter, in which a similar thing happens to a girl named Harriet (Shell). There are cats, too, in the German variant.

The issue ends creepily on a line from “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb.”

And so, we’re off to Doom Patrol #21.

Works Cited

Berlatsky, Noah. “Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol: The Craziest Superhero Story Ever Told.” The Atlantic, 17 April 2014. Web. 9 February 2014.

Case, Richard. “Delirium finds her fish — Comments.” Rhomblog Site, 6 February 2014. Web. 9 February 2014.

Cotter, Holland. “Versatile Collagist, Dangerous Times.” The New York Times, 31 March 2011. Web. 9 February 2014.

Glueck, Grace. “Egon Schiele: The Draftsman As Painter.” The New York Times, 26 July 1985. Web. 9 February 2014.

Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.

Hyde, Kathyrn, ed. The Rosarium Philosophorum. Library Special Collections Department. University of Glascow, April 2009. Web. 10 March 2014.

Kelly, Bob. “Issue 20, ‘Cautionary Tales.’” William Sherman, ed. Doom Patrol Online. Jost Enterprises, 1995. Web. 10 March 2014.

Knapp, Aaron Lewis. “Insight into The Engagement of Rebis.” Chemical Marriage Blog, 28 April 2011. Web. 9 March 2014.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists. United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson, 1999. Print.

Rabey, David Ian. Sacred Disobedience: an Expository Study of His Drama 1959-96. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2013. Print.

Shell, Suzanne, ed. “Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures, by Heinrich Hoffman.” Project Gutenberg eBook, 23 April 2004. Web. 9 March 2014.

Thompson, Kim, ed. Amazing Heroes #176: Grant Morrison Interview. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 1990. Print.

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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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