Comics are often maligned as inferior reading to books, as though children who read comics will never be able to make the leap to books without pictures. This belief is mainly born of ignorance, a lack of recognition that comics are an entirely different medium. Despite being seen as juvenilia comics can also be decidedly adult - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is probably the most famous example. They can tell stories far removed from the superhero genre they are most associated with. Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are two of the most moving stories I have come across in any medium, with their autobiographical stories of life in totalitarian regimes. During his run with Animal Man, Grant Morrison wrote in The Coyote Gospel an absolutely perfect piece of short fiction. The point of all this being that comics are not what people-who-don’t-read-comics think they are.
But right now I’m reviewing Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Which is exactly what people-who-don’t-read-comics think it is. No, that is doing it an injustice. It is just that it seems to be that at first glance: a bunch of misfit superheros saving the world from bizzaro baddies. Morrison is way too canny, and wacky, a writer to let it follow predictable paths. During his four year run writing Doom Patrol he created a unique piece of work. It is important to be clear, for people-who-don’t-read-comics, that reading the six volumes of Doom Patrol is not quite the same thing as reading a book. It was released as monthly episodes that have now been collated. They were intended to be read individually rather than in one go. As my husband put it, it is akin to watching Dr Who, episodic and self-contained, but with storylines that span episodes and even whole series. A linear mindset to storytelling is not always appropriate, and is especially not so in the case of Doom Patrol.
The Doom Patrol is an unusual group of characters, led by a paraplegic doctor; the parallels to the X-Men are obvious. This appears to be uncanny coincidence rather than copying; both were first published in 1963, with Doom Patrol out a mere four months earlier. Clearly it hasn’t seeped into common consciousness the way X-Men has, and it has been dropped and revived a number of times over the last forty years. I’m not familiar with other Doom Patrol series, so I can’t tell you what they are like. Morrison began his run with the series in 1989.
Morrison’s Doom Patrol revolves largely around two characters: Cliff, the brain of an ex-racing car driver housed in a robot after a catastrophic crash, and Crazy Jane, a young woman with multiple personality disorder, where each personality has its own superpower. They make up part of a gang, which includes a cross-dressing sentient street called Danny (my favourite character), and three spirits amalgamated in one psychic, hermaphrodite form named Rebis. There is no denying it is all pretty strange. The various baddies are also a surreal bunch - literally so, in the case of The Brotherhood of Dada.
Amongst all the surreal action Morrison has crafted a story with elements of genuine pathos. All of his lead characters are victims, trying to find somewhere to belong, carrying their fractured sense of identity with them. For all his super-human strength Cliff no longer has a sense of touch, of taste, or smell. Despite his origins, he is no longer a man. I found myself a little frustrated that both the female characters Crazy Jane, and the teenage Dorothy, are victims because of their gender and sexuality. Maybe it says something about the type of world we live in. Or maybe it just says something about the imaginations of male authors… Nonetheless some of the best and most emotional chapters in Doom Patrol revolve around Crazy Jane. Chapter 30: Going Underground in which we travel into the subway of her unconscious is pure genius.
The detail in these comics is incredible, whether Morrison is aiming for humour or in a serious mood. Much of this is conveyed in the artwork, for which Richard Case deserves credit as the penciller for the series. I don’t have the terminology to discuss the artwork in depth, but it is clear to me that the artwork for this is of a very high quality and excels at capturing the shifting tones of the story.
If you are a person-who-does-not-read-comics, I’m not sure I would recommend Doom Patrol as the place to start (unless, of course, Un Chien Andolou is your dream Saturday night movie). It is a wonderful series, which combines horror, surrealism, and humour to great effect. For all the freewheeling narrative of the series, Morrison gives the series the memorable bittersweet ending it deserves.