Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol #21, A Companion Reader

Doom Patrol Vol. 2 #21
“Crawling from the Wreckage, Part 3: Worlds in Collision”
Writer – Grant Morrison
Art – Richard Case
Vertigo/DC Comics
April, 1989

In accord with the cover, which depicts a heroic last stand against the Scissormen, Doom Patrol #21 is an exciting and fast-paced issue. In just twenty-four pages, there are desperate battles, a frantic escape by jet plane, ambush, torture, an interlude in which the team discovers their enemies’ origins, and finally a suicidal assault worthy of Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. All while the world is infiltrated by and ultimately converged with a parasite dimension of bones and mindless servitors. Like I said, exciting.

Above the violence is a conflict of an ideological nature; a quarrel between reality and unreality. The Doom Patrol discovers that the invading dimension is fictitious – the manifestation of philosophical musings hidden in a mysterious book. Despite its imaginary status, Orqwith is still menacing, possessing the power to convert life into its artificial doltish empire. The Scissormen are equally dangerous, assisting conversion by literally cutting people out of reality. But none of it is real. The complication becomes one of boundaries. Where does non-fiction end and fiction begin? How can fiction harm the living? How does one destroy something that never existed?

Morrison gives his (partial) answer in Doom Patrol #22, so you’ll just have to wade through #21 to find out.

Whatever the answer, we can tell that it will be catastrophic. The issue’s subtitle is “Worlds in Collision,” implying destruction on a Doctor Whovian scale. The subtitle also refers to Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, a controversial book that theorized that astronomical events, specifically planetary collisions, were recorded by early mythology. While some of Velkovsky’s ‘terrestrial cataclysms’ have been disproven, his work remains a monumental convergence of realms, including that of science to mythology, cosmology to astrology, and fiction to non-fiction.

Doom Patrol #21 is also transitory, the narrative moving the series away from Drake and Kupperberg and toward Morrison’s own vision. Orqwith presents an ideological complexity far removed from Drake’s oddball adventures or Kupperberg’s conventional superheroes. To complement this, Morrison also transitions away from the old Doom Patrol headquarters, which has been their home since My Greatest Adventure.

The apocalyptic vanguard relocates to the Secret Sanctuary in Rhode Island, the original office of the JLA before they moved to the space-flung Watchtower. The location was first featured in The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960), and might be recognizable to younger readers as the location of Green Arrow and Black Canary’s wedding (“Secret”). But readers shouldn’t become too comfortable, as the team will move again in Doom Patrol #35 (August 1990).

While struggling to escape the old headquarters, Morrison introduces Black Annis, another one of Crazy Jane’s super-powered psyches. Black Annis, a blue hagbeast with sharp claws and fangs, is ripped straight out of English folklore. Historically, or at least within the history of mythology, the ancient crone performed the functions of a typical woodland monster; she ambushed children too far from home, ate their meat, and hung their skins on tree limbs (Briggs). You know, monster stuff. Similar to the children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman, the story of Black Annis served as a cautionary tale.

Alongside her sinister introduction, Black Annis boasts that she’s killed God. The gloating phrase twists an often-misunderstood conjecture by Friedrich Nietzsche that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Nietzsche’s thought processes in writing that phrase, and in writing Gay Science (1882) altogether, is deeply embedded in the rational, irrational, and anti-theological movements of the 19th century, and would be too long and complicated to record. Understand that, at least in popular culture, the phrase “God is dead” has become a sobriquet for the belief that life is meaningless. By evoking the phrase, and by making Crazy Jane implicit in the murder, Morrison forms the character into a pinnacle of nihilist philosophy.

In the spirit of Morrison’s ‘worlds in collision,’ another one of Crazy Jane’s personalities is a pinnacle of religious and moral principle. Mama Pentecost, a psyche exhibiting superhuman cryptoanalysis, refers to feminine attributes in esoteric Judaic tradition. By naming her ‘pentecost,’ Morrison refers to the religious festival of the same name (also called Shuvout) which celebrates harvest and the moment divine law came down from Mount Sinai in the Exodus story. In Christian tradition, the Pentecost also celebrates the hour in which the Holy Spirit descended in a flurry of fire to illuminate Christ’s appointed disciples.

Morrison mixes the religious moniker with the maternal nursery word ‘mama,’ most likely to connect the character to the Kabbalah’s conception of a female presence in the Godhead. There exist many female manifestations in the Talmud and in the writings of Kabbalah, including Shekinah, a spiritual bride-queen to God, and pneuma, a female incarnation of the Holy Spirit (Malachi). Therefore, Mama Pentecost being a cryptanalyst would make sense; she would already be familiar with translating and interpreting a complicated book of codes and secrets. Furthermore, we can understand her inclusion in the story. Mama Pentecost is anti-thesis to Black Annis; one invoking God, the other committing deicide.

Tangentially, I hope the reader doesn’t feel too cheated by Crazy Jane. Morrison does use her multiple-power complex as a sort of human swiss army knife. Often, she will switch to a super powered personality exactly suited for the problem at hand. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it. The interest of Doom Patrol isn’t how they save the day, but how much they can survive with their sanities intact.

Mama Pentecost deciphers the paradoxically-titled “Book With No Title,” an occult text that functions as the Orqwith Bible. As we will see, the concept behind Orqwith is pilfered from the popular Argentine writer Jorge Borges, and principally from his short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius.” However, as the next issue delves further into the epistemology of the alternate dimension, I’ll wait to explain the reference.

At any rate, the idea of a coded manuscript is not beholden to Borges, although the trope was indeed made popular by his writings. A famous historical example would be The Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century encyclopedia that reads from left-to-right and contains surreal illustrations and an alien alphabet. A more recent specimen would be Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus (1981), also containing strange imagery and calligraphy. An honorable mention goes to Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars (1984); although written in English, it contains three encyclopedias absurdly documenting the same fictional location (Kelly). Published the year of Borges’ death, Pavic’s Dictionary acts as a love letter, or lovelopedia, to the Argentine writer.

Morrison’s “The Book With No Title” colludes with its encyclopedia predecessors, although it’s infused with Morrison and Case’s own contributions, including the aesthetics of Orqwith, the functions of the Scissormen, and shout-outs to Braille, Rene Girard’s Memetic Theory, and Feigenbaum’s Sequence of Imaginary Numbers (fabricated by Morrison, although there was a mathematician named Mitchell Feigenbaum). Nevertheless, the parasitic aspect derives exclusively from Borges, a matter that will be the utmost focus in my next article.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius.” Labyrinths. New York: New Direction, 1962. Print.

Briggs,  Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, & Other Supernatural Creatures. New York City: Pantheon Books, 1978.  Print.

Kelly, Bob and William Sherman. “Issue 21, ‘Worlds in Collision,’” William Sherman, ed. Doom Patrol Online. Jost Enterprises, 1995. Web. 10 March 2014.

Malachi, Tom. “Invocation to the Holy Shekinah.” Northern Way,  1999. Web.  1 June 2014.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Walter Kaufmann, ed. New York: Vintage Publishing, 1974. Print.

Occhigrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects. New York City: Doubleday,  1996. Print.

“Secret Sanctuary.” DC Wiki, Web. 25 March 2014.

Velikovsky, Immanuel. Worlds in Collision. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1950. Print.

Addendum: One scholar noted that the destruction of several Scissormen by the Doom Patrol’s jet looked somewhat similar to Arani’s demise in the Invasion crossover event (Kelly). I went ahead and pulled out the two death scenes for the mildly interested.

Whether this was intentional is open to interpretation.

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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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1 Comment

  1. Reed Decker says:

    I think Crazy Jane’s powers are just an extension of the multiple personality idea where each personality is there to deal with some specific obstacle or situation. Since she’s the super powered version of that, she has a list of super powers to deal with all the conceivable obstacles and situations which might occur. Or each personality is there to deal with something specific, but since she’s a super, her archetypal sub-personalities are all set to overkill.

    Anyway, great stuff. Thank you for doing this. The part about the Voynich Manuscript is very interesting. I look forward to more in this series. (Also, I think your pictures are switched. The one you’re attributing to issue seventeen is actually from twenty-one, and vice versa.)

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