Chief Concerns

Back in October 2010, Scipio of the Absorbascon wrote an impassioned salute to the character Niles Caulder (a.k.a. “The Chief”) of the 1960s comic Doom Patrol by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. As a longtime fan of that period’s Doom Patrol, I agreed with almost everything Scipio said about Caudler, except for his contempt from Grant Morrison’s rewriting of the original character.  In the comments section, I said:

I’ll play Odd Man Out here and say that the Grimmy Grittification of Niles Caulder is very nearly the only such major rewriting that I don’t consider worthless, and that’s because Morrison had a Thematic Point to Make in trashing the old Caulder. Fans can try if they like to find themes in the trashing of Doctor Light or Captain Atom or whoever, but all they shall find is dross.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t consider Drake’s Niles Caulder a superior creation, though.

I like to think that when Morrison travestied Caulder, he was then still under the spell of Evil Alan Moore, and that Moore’s really the one to blame. But that’s me.

By this time, I’m sure Scipio has forgotten that he challenged me to elaborate:

What “thematic point” did Morrison have to make by trashing Caulder? And… was it worth it?

The following meditation on “continuity” is my belated answer to that question.

In a sense, real “continuity” would be very like death, because it would be a state in which everyone came to resemble everyone else.  George Bataille’s Erotism emphasizes that the nature of living beings — at least those that propagate by sexual reproduction — is “discontinuity,” in the sense of the organisms being non-identical with one another, cobbled together from the discontinuities of each organism’s parental units.

In comic books, the usual connotation of “continuity” applies to the illusion of seamlessness between the many adventures in an open-ended serial, which, if it lasts long enough, may be worked on by many raconteurs.  It’s inevitable that none of these raconteurs will have the same set of interests or priorities, no matter how much one of them may strive to write like a model.

To be sure, even though serial seamlessness is an illusion, it’s a valid part of the way we expect our serials to unfold.  A raconteur is expected not to radically change the nature of the game he’s hired to play–unless, of course, he’s hired to write new rules.

For example: One of my favorite superhero serials of the 1960s was Doom Patrol.  Though writer Bob Haney created the characters with artist Bruno Premiani, Haney quickly yielded the title to colleague-writer Arnold Drake, who wrote the remainder of the stories until the feature’s cancellation in 1969.

Within the continuity of Drake’s stories, the best character may have been Niles Caulder, the “Chief” of the Patrol.  Drake made the crippled genius a man of immense feeling and humanity, who brought together three “freaks” to become superheroes, and in so doing, fostered a kind of ersatz family.  Drake leavened Caulder’s saintliness with occasional moments of hauteur or bad temper, but on the whole he was a believably good man.  By the rules of the Doom Patrol game — which began again when the title was inevitably revived — every subsequent depiction of Caulder should’ve been the same.

But, as it happens, the best revival of the Doom Patrol did exactly the opposite.  Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was his breakout-series with American comics-fandom, but one of the big changes he brought about was to present a “Chief” who not only was brittle and arrogant but turned out, toward the end of Morrison’s run, to be a villain.

No logic-parsing could ever reconcile the selfless and self-deprecating Drake character with the coldly manipulative Morrison version, who admits in Doom Patrol #57 that he actually engineered the catastrophes that cost his heroes their normal status.

As this Chief reveals his hidden history to Robotman, he rationalizes that “we need shocks in our lives… Catastrophe forces us to think in new ways.”  Of course, a page earlier this Caulder admits to some baser motives in the case of Elasti-Girl: “Impotent in my wheelchair, I wanted to exert control over a beautiful woman.”

But though Morrison’s Caulder is a villain, Morrison clearly means us to take his rationale seriously, especially in respect to Morrison’s own rewriting of old continuity.  It’s a bit shocking to an old fan like me to see a favorite character like Caulder rewritten, but unlike many raconteurs who do so with no greater theme in mind, Morrison clearly has a point to make.  He’s not just trying to keep the illusion of seamlessness — though he is faithful to some aspects of old “continuity” — but rather, he’s showing what does and must happen whenever a later talent attempts to follow in an earlier one’s footsteps.

To put it simply, Grant Morrison makes the inevitable discontinuity an overt part of the continuity, and makes a virtue of showing off the seams amid the apparent seamlessness.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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