September 24, 2006

Their Greatest Adventure

It began in high school, when I was reading the Wolfman/Perez run on New Teen Titans. Gar Logan, aka Changeling, aka "the jerk with a heart of gold", was on a quest to "avenge" the death of his former teammates. Within months, DC released one of their dollar reprint digests, and I was hooked. Having just reviewed all five archive editions - and at risk of getting publicly stoned - I want to offer the following:

DC needs to do a Showcase edition of the Doom Patrol. Immediately.

Well, they'll probably do so in light of news of a potential film project, and the inevitable comparisons with X-Men will arise, but make no doubt - the Doom Patrol is probably one of the few Silver Age comics with a slight indie sensibility.

Much of it has to do with the writing - at a time when DC was camp, and Marvel was angsty, Arnold Drake smashed the two together - the early adventures (created for a dying anthology entitled My Greatest Adventure) have a slight moodiness to them, but eventually it got displaced by a slightly loopy sense of humor. Wisecracking, feuding between members, and flat-out surrealistic humor - this is a comic unlike no other. Drake seemed to have a damn-the-torpedos-full-steam-ahead attitude: when the comic was ending, Drake chose to break the fourth wall and show the DP giving their lives, and urging readers to vote to bring them back....which didn't happen for a long time. It's a knowing, not-quite-camp-but-not-quite serious sensibility, shared by only one other then-contemporary pop culture artifact, in my opinoin.

Even his handling of storylines had a certain loopy charm - for example, the irony of a "famous actress" (Rita Farr, aka "Elasti-Girl") being known as a "fabulous freak." The Chief is confined to a wheelchair, Negative Man wears special bandages, Robotman is a brain in a metal body, and Rita's only "freakishness" - she can grow or shrink. When Steve Dayton, aka "Mento" (neither the Jamaican musical style nor the freshmaker!) decides to "woo" Rita away, he's shown as being, well, an arrogant jerk with a crappy Jay Garrick-lite helmet. Rita doesn't just shrug off Mento's personality and instantly fall in love with him - there's a give and take, where she attempts to balance her desire for a relationship with her desire to stay in the Doom Patrol. In the mid-60's, seeing a woman trying to balance relationships and career....probably was not as prevalent. Yes, she's treated with a slight patronizing attitude (after all, a male was writing her), but such thinking about women seemed....unusual. And was trailblazing at the same time. Yes, she eventually married Mento, and began one of the first "extended families" in comics.

(This is also what made John Byrne's revamp such an abomination - denying that those stories took place and essentially starting from scratch was an insult to the characters, to the concept. Thankfully, his version didn't last too long. I liked what Johns did recently in Teen Titans - made the DP kind of creepy - but seemed to lose the loopy humor. Except, of course, for Mento's (the freshmaker!) threat to the Chief that, if he ever disrespected his family, Mento would "reduce [the Chief's] IQ to that of a chimp's".)

Two other aspects of the book insured that it would be an interesting ride - the first is the art of perenially undersung Bruno Premiani. Just thinking about seeing his art in black and white makes my fanboy heart beat a little faster. It's a very clean style, but on the early stories, there's a slight noir-ish moodiness to it. Even as the stories got loopier, there's still an expressiveness to Premiani's art - why he never got full accolades, we'll never know. He got robbed, ladies and gentlemen.

The final one - Drake chose to integrate some unusual concepts which, if you read the original stories in context of Greg's analysis, provided some great material for Grant Morrison's run on the title. Larry Trainor and "Negative Man" arguing, Robotman going into a rampage when he finds out his condition, even the Chief as manipulator...all first suggested by Drake in his storylines. Even Gar Logan, when first presented, isn't seen as the "jerk with a heart of gold", more as "mouthy jerk who is hard to like." (Eventually, we learn that Rita and Mento "adopt" Gar as a son).

Right now, in the midst of mega-crossovers and badly-written continuity-driven titles, we need a nice, little corner of the superhero universe for a group of misfits. For forty years, these characters have toiled in relative obscurity, being dusted off for various revivals, some more successful than others...but what we need now is a team whose adventures don't follow formula, but gently push against the boundaries...and can provide a welcome breath of fresh air.

And that could be the Doom Patrol's greatest adventure.

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