Tarot, Trans-Gender Robots, and Friendly Bandage-People:

The Doom Patrol Interview with Rachel Pollack

Jacurutu Ninety-Nine: The beginning of your run on Doom Patrol coincided with the beginning of the Vertigo line at DC. Grant Morrison left his run with a spectacular ending, but the series was very popular and was to carry on. Can you share what your overall strategy was beginning your run on the series? Did you have specific ideas on what characters should stay behind on Danny the World and who would be going back to the “real” world? Were there any sort of mandates from DC on what characters to use?

Rachel Pollack: One of the problems I had with some fans was that in the world of comics at that time, there was a kind of Oedipal approach expected of new writers.  That is, they expected the new “guy” would sweep away everything that had happened and put a completely new stamp on it.  That never occurred to me.  I wanted to write DP in the first place because of what Grant Morrison was doing.  I’m going to make one of those terrible generalizations and say that women are more likely to want to keep connected and build on what previous creators have done.  So my strategy was to keep it weird (as they say in Austin), keep it surreal and bizarre, and maybe make it funnier — hence the new HQ in an upstate town.  At the same time, some of my own themes of sexuality, identity, and self-acceptance began to emerge fairly early.  In regard to mandates I was indeed given some clear directions.  Could not use Jane, or Danny the Street, they were too personal to Grant. (The editor indicated this, I actually did not have contact with Grant–he preferred not to.)  Cliff and Niles were essential, though I was told that Niles would be a head without a body.  Some people complained about that, but it suited my themes.  The funny thing was, I suspect that Grant was having Tom (the editor) on a bit.  That is, the disembodied head actually appeared in a kind of dream or fantasy story, but I’m guessing he told Tom that would be Niles’s state at the end of his run, because Tom told me that as well.  Tom also told me — his own point of view — that there had to be a character or characters in bandages.  Out of that directive came George and Marion, who were modeled on a pair of elegant ghosts in the movie / TV show Topper. They represented the idea of embracing life and experience even if you’re just pure energy contained in a shell of bandages.  And then there’s Dorothy.  I thought she was one of Grant’s brilliant creations and was very pleased she was not off-limits.  Grant had hinted that her unique powers came from menstruation (and the emotional pain that represented for a girl who was always treated as too ugly to be part of society).  I made that more specific — and of course ran into some fans who thought I was being grossly feminist, or something.  But that was in Grant.  Of course, the menstrual flood threatening to engulf the town might have been a bit much for some people!  And then I added Kate, and a lot of the story coalesced around her.  She was the one who had gone through the process of coming to terms with who she was, and accepting herself.  This allowed for more dynamics with the rest of the team.

J99: A few of your letters appeared in the Doom Patrol letters page toward the end of Grant’s run. A popular belief online is that you got the writing assignment via your letters. (I tend to think a bit more went into it than that.) So would you like to explain how the Doom Patrol gig was offered to you? Was Vertigo aware of your previous work? Were the letters suggested by the editor as a way to acclimate you to the readership? And finally, at what point in the run did you know you would be taking over as writer? How far ahead did you know?

RP: I have always been amazed that people actually believe I got the job through those letters.  To me, they were so clearly a stunt.  Here’s what happened.  I met Tom Peyer, the editor of DP, at a party.  I’m not sure if we discussed my writing credits (including two award-winning novels), but I know I told him how I thought what Grant Morrison was doing with DP was brilliant, and like nothing else.  At the time I was interested in writing graphic novels, but I commented that if there was any monthly mainstream comic I would ever want to write it would be Doom Patrol.  Well, he said that Grant was actually moving towards ending his run, and I should submit a sample script.  That’s when he told me of what he knew about where Grant would leave things.  So, I wrote a script and he liked it so much he said it would be my first issue.  There would be several months’ lag time.  At some point I decided to play a trick on Tom.  I knew he was in charge of reading letters (actual letters in those days!), so I sent him a letter as if a fan.  It went something like “Wow, DP is the coolest thing in the whole world!  Grant Morrison is a great genius!!  If he ever gets sick or dies, can I write it?”  It took Tom awhile to discover this, but he thought it hilarious, and suggested I write one a month for the remainder of Grant’s run, and with the last he will say he’s hiring me.  So I had fun getting more extreme.  In the next-to-last letter I got hostile, wrote something like “Hey!  When do I get to write Doom Patrol?  You may think I’m just a kid, but I have friends.  You wouldn’t want sugar in your gas tank, or your head stuffed down a toilet bowl, would you?”  Then, for my last letter I wrote “Oh, gee, Mr. Peyer.  I am so, so sorry for threatening you like that.  That was terrible of me.  The thing is, I told my mom I was writing DP, and she told all her friends.”  Tom then responded, in the letter column. “Well, folks, what can I do?  She’s already told her mother.  Rachel Pollack is the new writer of Doom Patrol.” How could anyone possibly not realize that was a joke?  Especially when in the same issue I wrote an essay in praise of Grant Morrison, in my normal grown-up style of writing.  And yet, people seemed to want to believe it.  And not just young fans hoping it could happen to them.  I was at another party (a DC thing), and there was a reporter from the Village Voice, and I think from the New Yorker as well, and when I said something about that they both acted shocked and said “You mean you didn’t actually get the job by writing to the letters column?”

J99: The entirety of your run recently went up on Comixology, allowing a whole new generation to explore the themes in the series. I believe that if your version of Doom Patrol came out in this day in age it would be able to find a much wider audience, with gender issues and acceptance being much more in the mind’s eye of young people than the early ’90s. Do you think the series was ahead of its time in some aspects?

RP: I would like to think so.  I had an amazing experience recently.  I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a university conference on transgender writing.  Now, I had done some articles on trans themes in the early ’90s, and written a novel with a transgender detective, but also way back in the ’90s, and of course DP from that same time.  But I had kind of assumed that all that was mostly forgotten.  When I got there people were saying how thrilled they were to meet me, how I was a “legend.”  I finally asked someone about this and she said it was largely because of Doom Patrol, especially the new generation.  So that was exciting, but what was really amazing was the quality of writing and writers.  Very exciting experience.

J99: You do all of your writing longhand with fountain pens. Would you begin a Doom Patrol script in this fashion and then have to convert it to another format later for the artists?

RP: Yes, all my first drafts are written with fountain pens, in large journals without lines.  Some of the pens are modern but some are antiques. (I actually have a couple hundred, many of which are just a few dollars on eBay.)  There’s something intimate about a fountain pen that gets me more deeply into the story.  Then I type them into my computer for the second draft.  Having to write it all out twice (pen, computer) is a good way to edit.

J99: The Tarot has been a major force in your life creatively. How did this impact Doom Patrol?

RP: The Kabbalah story came from Tarot in a way, since the two have been linked since the 19th century, and I really learned about Kabbalah through Tarot.  And Tarot is like comics in a way, a story constructed in pictures.  When I first encountered Tarot it struck me as so like a comic, in the best way.

J99: How would you approach the Doom Patrol today?

RP: I’m not sure I would do it that differently.  I honestly think we were ahead of our time.  I might portray Kate slightly differently, just because I’ve been meeting some of the new generation of trans women and men.  There’s’ a strong literary movement, so maybe I would make her a poet or a punk novelist.  And it might be interesting to have Cliff feel threatened (and not admit it) by some of the new advances in AI, and the transhuman movement of downloading consciousness.  Actually, I suppose Niles would have been very drawn to that.

J99: With issue #75 the run almost becomes a “series within the series” with the addition of Ted Mckeever on art, a penciler who was matching the Doom Patrol‘s weirdness visually with his experimental art. Thoughts on Ted’s art and work in the series? Any other discussion you would like to include on the artists you collaborated with?

RP: Working with Ted was amazing.  He would have this knack of doing a few minimalist panels, then something very detailed, as if directing the reader’s consciousness to what was essential.  I especially liked the way he portrayed the merger of Cliff and Kate in the Teiresias story.  He avoided all the obvious clichés that so many artists might have found tempting, and instead gave us something that captured what they were feeling, their sense of terrible exposure and at the same time profound connection.  In regard to other artists, it was very exciting to me to work with Richard Case for the first few issues.  He had been so integral to what Morrison had done, and as I’ve said, I approached the work with a desire for continuity.  I also got to do a short story with Eric Shanower in a Vertigo anthology.  His clean lines and detailed panels were so different than Ted’s work, yet just as wonderful.

J99: Did you ever have plans to introduce any other new / established DC / Vertigo characters into Doom Patrol, along the lines of the Geek, whom you did a one-shot Vertigo special on?

RP: Not especially.  I’m not sure the standard characters — or even some of the Vertigo ones — would have fit in DP‘s world.  The Geek story was something special, and I loved doing it.  Neil Gaiman had suggested he might be the elemental force for dolls, and when DC asked me to do a one-shot comic, I really went with that. The villain, Dr. Abuse (whose name is a play on Dr. Mabuse, a film character from the 1920s), was inspired by a story someone told me once, long ago now, about a famous British Tory politician (my friend wouldn’t name him), who would hire “rent-boys” for an evening, and just talk to them over an elaborate dinner, after which he would let them choose from a bowl of diamonds.  My friend said that the young hooker who told him about it said he would never ever do it again.  So the enemy of the innocent doll became someone who could see into a person’s soul and destroy her or him just with words.

J99: Any long term plans which never got to see fruition with the cancellation of the series?

RP: Not exactly long term but I did have a couple story arcs I would have liked to have done.  One involved Tarot.  Called “ATM,” it would have featured a homeless guy (the Tarot Fool) who finds an ATM card, but when he puts it in a machine it turns out to be Automatic Tarot Machine.  With the card, he keeps changing from one trump to another, by dialing in the PIN for each card — 0001 for the Magician, 0002 for the High Priestess, etc. – making him very difficult to overcome.  when he reaches 0013 (Death) all the DP die (probably I would have found some excuse to keep one alive, maybe Dorothy), but they come back to life with 0020 (Judgement) an image of resurrection.  When he gets to the last card, 0021 (the World) he threatens to engulf all of Creation, but then someone (Dorothy?) puts the card in the machine and types 0000, returning him to the Fool – the homeless guy who’s forgotten everything.

J99: Your final arc was heavily embedded in Hebrew magic… would you like to explain some of the themes you were tying in? Did you always envision this arc as an ending point from the beginning, with the cup being revealed within Niles Caulder?

RP: Partly I was a bit annoyed with the heavy reliance on Celtic myth that seemed to permeate so much of fantasy, and just thought it would be fun to do a Kabbalistic story.  The villain, Joseph della Reina, is a figure from medieval Jewish myth that has fascinated me ever since I read about him.  I’ve used versions of him in novels and stories, but this was the only time I had him as himself.  Isaac Luria is one of the greatest of all Kabbalists, and it was exciting to have him be a character in a comic. When I was planning it I did not know it would be the final arc, but when we got the word it actually seemed perfect as a way to end the run.

J99: Speaking of Niles, he became a very interesting character with the dynamic of the rest of the team hating him and being very wary of his schemes at all times. I take it you found this to be a much more interesting use of him rather than just leaving him off as the main villain at the end of Grant’s run? Thoughts on your “Chief dream issue” (#73) and Niles seeking forgiveness in his own way?

RP: Well, it’s always more interesting to delve into a villain than just have him be a villain.  Chris Claremont certainly showed us all that in his early run on X-Men.  Part of the dynamic of the team was that no one could trust him but they needed him.  It was an interesting challenge to see how I might redeem him.  Since one of the main themes that emerged in the run was bodies, and our relationships to our bodies, it seemed perfect to have someone who had achieved a certain kind of person’s dream, to be a head without a body.

J99: Huge Thanks to Rachel Pollack for sharing her Doom Patrol memories with us!


Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol changed my life.

Sure, you hear many people today say the same of Grant Morrison’s mind-bending run on the title… but I missed it, as it came out on the racks before I was anywhere near a driving age and had no hope of making it out to a comic shop regularly in the rural area I lived. I had a special place in my heart for the “weirdness” of Robotman and Larry Trainor who I had come across in old DC back issues in a flea market.

At the same flea market, I would come across a new “Who’s Who” that focused on the darker / weirder characters that would soon be making up what would be known as the Vertigo imprint and one issue of Grant Morrison’s run (issue #54, “Aenigma Regis), which I simply had to have based on its photo cover of the character I formerly knew as Larry Trainor. It was like checking in with old friends some 15 years later and seeing how much they had changed.

Based on these two books, I saw that a lot had changed indeed with the Doom Patrol and I needed to be there monthly… it was so weird and surreal that I had to try to understand it. It was the one book that made me get to a comic shop every month, any way that I needed to get there, even hitchhiking.

I picked up Doom Patrol #64 in a comic shop. The stranger corners of the DC Universe had just been collected into the new Vertigo imprint, and it seemed the perfect jumping on point for me. Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol took place from issues #64 to #87 (May ’93 to February ’95), taking over the series right after Morrison’s run.

I had no idea just how “weirder” the Doom Patrol would become in the issue I had just picked up. Quite literally an entirely new world opened up right before my eyes on a comics page.

Growing up in a rural area I would never in a million years have “known” characters like I did in this book. It was something I had been looking for my entire life; the weird, the different… it was magic and it was all delivered to me monthly in a mass market medium.

There was a place where I was going to be able to grow up to be myself. And so I did. I was exposed to the idea of transsexuals via Kate Godwin; what it means to have / not have a body via Cliff Steele, Robotman; Dorthy was every lonely, ugly young person in the world who just wanted to be understood. The ideas I got from Rachel’s run carry on with me to this very day.

I imagined others across the world reading the same book I was and becoming part of this new, weird world. I’ve never read another comic where I heard the voices of the characters so clearly.

I came back Morrison’s take on Doom Patrol later on and loved it, but Rachel’s run was the first I could pick up month to month. To me it is just as important as the Morrison run, and it was what showed me that not everything had to be the same. There were different ways to write, to create, and live.

Doom Patrol #64-87 is the closest you can get to reading a dream spilling out onto the printed page.

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Jacurutu:99 will accept responsibility for such filth as Linear Mathematics In Infinite Dimensions: (or the man who fell to earth), The Alpha:1989 series, Alphaaa:Blue 2012 -the rise, fall and inevitable rebirth of Jacurutu23, Alex The Planet and other Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children and appears within 'CUT UP! An Anthology Inspired by the Cut-Up Method of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin'. Founded the One True Topi Tribe alongside friend and mentor, Genesis P-Orridge. He lives with his 43 cats in Shibuya, Japan. J99 is also adapting several of his books to the comic book format including the anthology comic "Serpent Cube K. Recently released by Oneiros Books is the semi-autbiographical “Prepare to Become Fictional.”

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