Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is certainly not an easy book to recommend. On the surface, it’s a very dense work with dozens of different literary references hiding in every corner, and it can seem pretentious and overwhelming if one is not prepared to face the zany, bizarre adventures of Robotman, Crazy Jane, Negative Man and The Chief. However, in order to be able to fully enjoy this book, it’s imperative that one stops worrying about the “meaning” of every little strange creature or cryptic statement and embraces the absurd of it all, the Dadaism that impregnates every panel. As the man themself put it:
People seemed to pick up on all the wrong elements of [Doom Patrol], and feel that there were things which they couldn’t understand, when they were basically things which they didn’t have to understand. There weren’t any secrets in it, nothing was symbolic in Doom Patrol.
I don’t think Morrison was saying that Doom Patrol is a story without a meaning, however. I believe what he’s trying to convey here is that if a reader focuses on deciphering every reference, every nonsensical choice of dialogue, every visual symbolism, they’re going to be disappointed because that’s not where the true meaning of the book is hiding. I’ve seen this run described as “weirdness for weirdness’ sake”, and I honestly could not agree more, although perhaps for some readers this could be a weakness more than a strength. Like I said, this book is not for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine.
The actual message of the book comes from the arcs each character experiences: all of the main characters — and even some secondary and minor ones — are somehow struggling with their identities: Cliff suffers from dysphoria, as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he’s literally a brain in a jar; Jane is constantly fighting against herself both literally and metaphorically; and Rebis… well, we don’t know exactly what’s going on inside their head, but the fact that they’re intersexual in a world that’s obsessed with binaries is already challenging enough, in my opinion. They’re all misfits, people who not only have personality issues, but also struggle to fit in “normal” society because of their inherent otherness.
The members of the Doom Patrol are not sexy 20-somethings with powers they must keep a secret from society (looking at you, X-Men), they’re actively rejected by society because of their physical appearance, their personalities, or a mix of both. They can’t hide who they are, and they shouldn’t have to in an ideal world, but they’re seen as freaks by most non-powered, non-Dannyzen characters that show up in the run. Hell, even some of the members of the Justice League consider them weirdos.
Most of the enemies they face during the run personify their struggle to find a place in the world, manifesting not as strange, psychedelic creatures that want to personally hurt them, but as normal human beings. The Patrol’s worst enemies are not the parasitic dimension that wants to engulf Earth or the giant eye in the sky that’s slowly making everything disappear — no, the most sinister villains featured in this run are in fact “normal” people. These individuals not only want to destroy all things strange, they often instrumentalize the very creatures they hate to achieve that end, as seen in how the government uses the Avatar, the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E, and Yankee Doodle Dandy to fight back against anything they deem menacing to the status quo, with often disastrous consequences. Most importantly, when Jane is sent to a place the Candlemaker calls “Hell”, she experiences what it’s like to live in our world, a world without superpowered individuals, and a psychologist attempts to “cure her” via electroshock, once more depicting a group of normal people who serve the status quo trying to eliminate something that doesn’t quite fit.
The idea here is that the group of misshapen heroes is incapable of functioning in what we consider normal society, but here’s the thing: they don’t (or rather, shouldn’t) need to. During the course of the run, all of them overcome their personality issues, and rather than find a way to fix them, they learn how to live with themselves without changing to fit into an arbitrary set of values. They embrace the strangeness instead of fight it, as exemplified by their respective character arcs, which I’ll discuss in more detail later.
This is a very transparent analogy for how society ostracizes and rejects minorities while favoring everything that fits the societal canon, one which was built solely upon historical factors and not upon any kind of rational understanding of how societies should work. Like most other aspects of modern society, literature also suffers from this arbitrary dichotomy that often invisibilizes works by people of color, members of the LGBT community, or the mentally disabled.
Postmodernism rejects this literary canon in the same way that the queer movement and other minoritarian organizations reject the metaphorical “canon” of our society and suggests an alternative world in which we don’t discriminate people over arbitrary factors such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. As stated by Steven Shaviro in his book Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism:
A single page of Doom Patrol may also contain allusions and references to Gnostic heresies, pop music, and chaos theory, to Thomas De Quincey and Andy Warhol and Jack Kirby, to the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali and Mr. Ed, to X-Ray Spex and My Bloody Valentine and T. S. Eliot and Terence McKenn.
Doom Patrol is an amalgamation of references and ideas, a book that defies modernism by blurring the lines between what’s considered high art and popular culture, and in doing so it mirrors its themes of self-acceptance, rejection of the status quo, and the search for another world where minorities don’t have to worry about fitting a mold that has been forcefully imposed upon them. The point is not to dissect every nonsensical piece of dialogue or bizarre, alien symbolism, but to see them as part of a bigger picture: as a whole, they represent the otherness that the Doom Patrol are at first rejecting, then embracing.
The alternate, better world Morrison proposes manifests in the story in the form of Danny the Street, a sentient, teleporting street with the personality of a cross-dressing cabaret performer with definitively feminine attributes, which codes him as an outcast from the very beginning. During most of the run, Danny serves as a refuge for people who don’t fit the canon: Morrison makes an effort to depict its inhabitants as neurodivergent, queer, poor, or physically disabled. However, after the final antagonist is defeated, Danny expands and turns into an entire alternate reality, where some of our main characters end up moving to at the very end of the story. Many have interpreted this as Morrison saying that there is no hope for the broken, the lost, and the marginalized in our society, but given the theme of transhumanism and self-improvement that permeates their work, I’d say this ending means that this better world exists, we just have to learn about it and dare to cross the threshold.
Once more, this idea is a reflection of Cliff’s personal journey of self-acceptance. He started the run fighting to defend the status quo and actively rejecting any major change, but once he gets to know and understand his new teammates, he becomes a much more open-minded person, and even if he has a lot of growing up to do by the end (he still doesn’t understand Jane’s assimilation and refuses to stop calling Rebis “Larry”), he’s shown to be on the right path. He even starts to accept his body, made evident by the fact that he looks less and less human and more robotic as the run progresses, to the point that he immediately rejects what may very well be his only chance of recovering his body so he can save a world that he knows won’t be thankful for it. It’s also worth mentioning how he begins as very paternalistic (borderline condescending, at times) personality problem that no doubt comes from the fact that he cannot be harmed and feels compelled to protect others with his unfeeling body. He lets go of a lot of people and things during the run (Rhea, Tempest, even Rebis), and that forces him to stop assuming a pattern of paternalistic behavior, especially towards Jane. He learns to let people go and live their own lives, like he let go of his organic brain once the moment came.
Likewise, Crazy Jane hates herself and her condition for most of the story, and she’s deeply traumatized by the events that shattered The Woman into 64 different personalities. While the depiction of a superhero with dissasotiative identity disorder with different powers depending on their personality may seem a bit tasteless, Morrison handles her arc beautifully and with a ton of respect for real-life mentally ill people. She doesn’t “get better” by the end, because her problem didn’t come from her multiple personalities, but from her own internalized ableism. Once she started reconciling with her personalities, she became a much more functional person, not because society said so but because she wanted that for herself. Even better, she manages to stop letting her trauma define her while still acknowledging the impact it had on her life.
Rebis is a bit more complicated. They’re, to this day, one of the most brain-melting characters I’ve seen in any comic book. And considering that I’ve read this run, like, five times already, even I can’t quite figure them out yet! But they’re by far the most overtly queer character in the group, even if their condition is mystical in nature. Since Aenigma Regis allows us a quick glance into their mind, however, I can say that even them, as sure of their identity as they seem, are not only in doubt about who they really are or if they should choose between one of the two binary, normative options, they hate themselves to an extent (or at least, the part of Rebis that is Larry Trainor does).
There are more characters in the run who defy the duality that apparently defines modern society, of course: Mr. Nobody goes from a D-list supervillain to an anarchist who rejects the mere idea of good and evil; Flex Mentallo is both overtly masculine and very sensible and caring, which are considered to be feminine traits; even the Chief, during his misguided attempts to turn the world into a “stranger place” considers the Doom Patrol’s otherness impressive and exceptional in his own twisted way. And as for Morrison themself, we could look at their retcons as a defiance of continuity in comic books, which in a broader scope symbolizes an opposition to the values history has forced upon society and the constant questioning, revisiting, and re-contextualizing of that history.
I could ramble on about how each character represents a rejection of canonicity and normality, but the point is every aspect of the story is subservient to the idea that what we consider normal is highly malleable and can (should) be questioned. Danny the World is not a physical place in our reality, but a very possible future we should fight for, one that doesn’t discriminate people based on a bunch of random, outdated sets of values that fall apart when under the slightest scrutiny. Because there is a better world. And if it there’s not, perhaps we should start working on it.