Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reflections on the Revolving Door of Death 6: Saluting the Dearly Departed Doom Patrol

This is what Millennial comics should do: DP fighting a sentient black hole in front of the Large Hadron Collider. Doom Patrol vol. 5 #2 (November 2009).

We who are about to die salute you!  That's the gladitorial rallying cry of DC's ill-fated superteam known as the Doom Patrol.  On Valentine's Day, DC Comics announced the cancellation of several titles.  Among these was the fifth incarnation of Doom Patrol, written by Keith Giffen and drawn by Matthew Clark.  This cancellation to 'free up' creative talent for production of the summer comics blockbuster Flashpoint has prompted outcry from the DP's fans (there is a petition asking DC to save the title here).  This series had poor sales but great reviews; it was considered by many to be the publisher's most sophisticated title.  Today, the last issue of the series hits comic shops.

Why?  What makes any comic, belonging to a genre known for its clichéed action and romance, its cheesy borrowings from the epics, mythology, pulps, mystery, horror, romance and science fiction even come close to having pretensions? 

Comics are sometimes one of the areas of pop culture where certain ideas are tested before they become mainstream.  This series of blog posts on the 'Revolving Door of Death' is about the use of death in comics as a means to finding new values of heroism - a new moral compass - in times that are rapidly changing.  That change involves pushing the boundaries of superheroism past the point of no return.  In that regard, the Doom Patrol fits right in - and the title is still unique. 

First, the Revolving Door of Death. Comic book creators, especially mainstream publishers Marvel and DC, have earned a lot of criticism over the past twenty-five years for cheapening death and rebirth when they used them repeatedly as sensational devices for making money. More surprisingly, post 9/11, the editors at DC Comics have killed off hundreds of heroes.  Then, in a bid to make comic book killings 'more serious,' they recently announced that their characters will no longer be reborn.  But the deaths of superheroes continue.  This trend suggests a high degree of confusion and ambivalence.  DC has continually worn down the moral stature of its heroes.  The company has made them ever more flawed and weak - while building up its villains.  DC is letting evil win.

Why?  Does this reflect a crisis in American culture? Last week, DC had Superman renounce his American citizenship in Action Comics #900, a move which won the editors a lot of criticism in comics forums and the mainstream media.  Does this chime with the intense, politicized commentary against American campaigns abroad?  Marvel Comics, echoing the 1960s' voice of social criticism, can jump on that train without any problems.  But DC, the classic American comics company, is in a strange, ambiguous place right now.  Like her exhausted troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's heroes in the DC Universe are being pushed to the breaking point.  The question is where DC will go with this existential crisis and soul searching.  Comic books thrive on taking their characters to the greatest extremes possible, within the current bounds of taste and story-telling.  The catharsis comes when the heroes triumph against all odds.  DC has yet to pull off that gigantic catharsis.  Its creators are still in the midst of dragging its characters down deeper and deeper.

The Nascar accident which almost kills Cliff Steele. Doom Patrol vol. 5 #21 (June 2011).

In this context, the Doom Patrol is unusual, because they are already ahead of all of DC's other heroes as far as being pushed past the limits goes.  They were always a team 'out there,' beyond the pale.  DP stories demonstrate how changes and challenges to our concepts of life and death are transforming our society, our consciousness and our moral attitudes.

The Patrol started in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963) as characters who acquired their powers by cheating death right down the razor's edge.  Their leader, Niles Caulder, was a doctor who took his Hippocratic Oath too far.  Preserving life at all costs carried Caulder into the realm of horror - and heroism.

The Chief, Niles Caulder, builds a robotic chassis for Cliff Steele's brain, creating Robotman. Doom Patrol vol. 5 #21 (June 2011).

The first DP team created by Drake, Premiani and Bolitinoff was in every sense traumatized, but they were still identifiably human.  They had come impossibly close to death but had survived.   Their team name told a different story, though, and at the end of the first series in DP #121 (Sept.-Oct. 1968), the Doom Patrol became the first and only superteam in comic book history (to my knowledge) who sacrificed themselves - and willingly went to their deaths at the hands of their adversaries.  In the 1980s, the fact that supervillains had triumphed and murdered the Patrol haunted books like the New Teen Titans.  In the NTT, the remaining DP survivors (Cliff Steele, Garfield Logan and Steve Dayton), hunted down and killed the Patrol's killers.  At the time, mortal vengeance exacted by superheroes was unheard of (see my post on that story here).

With every subsequent series, the DP probed deeper into the kind of heroism that could arise in an atmosphere of madness, loss of identity and total alienation from society.  Four writers explored how severe trauma or marginalization gave the characters extraordinary powers of perception or abilities that they did not want - while forcing them into the realm of outcasts, the insane, misfits or freaks. At the same time, the writers slowly resurrected the original male DP members under increasingly drastic circumstances.  Robotman is the only character who has survived death several times and been a member of every team. But the Chief and Negative Man have proved similarly resilient. Under Paul Kupperberg (1977-1988), the second DP team incorporated themes of scientific experimentation and political espionage, examining characters on the fringe who did not want to be heroes.  Cut off from all the tropes that readmitted freakish superhumans back into the human fold, the DP were heroes, nonetheless.

Cliff enters the abyss to save the world from one of the Chief's destructive designs, achieves transcendence akin to Samadhi, but doesn't feel enlightened and doesn't think the world is worth saving. DP vol. 2 #62 (Dec. 1992).

Grant Morrison (1988-1993) brought a new team cult status with heightened levels of surreal eccentricity, starting with Robotman voluntarily checking himself into a mental hospital; with Cliff, Morrison explored themes of physical-mental disconnection, dissociation and suicide.  His run culminated with the revelation that the Chief had caused the original DP's accidents in order to create the Patrol.  At times, Morrison was able to break the characters through to the other side in startling moments of transcendence.  Ultimately, he depicted the character Danny the Street as a sentient path to a metaphysical portal, to a realm of imagination where, if the characters simultaneously accepted their mortality and immortality, they would find peace in another version of Danny that passed for our world.

Danny the World and a resurrected Larry Trainor show Cliff why the world is worth saving. DP vol. 2 #62 (Dec. 1992).

But really, DP has never been about breaking free from the cycle, and Rachel Pollack (1993-1995) explored themes of alienation further in terms associated with Judaeo-Christian mysticism, transgenderism and bisexuality. Arcudi's version of the team (2001-2003) was a meditation on lost identity: this was yet another DP team living in the aftermath, of the aftermath, of the aftermath - of the aftermath - of multiple catastrophes.

The Chief nefariously doses his bride with an immortality elixir; he later denies she is his wife, then acknowledges her again.  Secret Origins vol. 2 Annual #1 (1987).

The first team reflected the 1950s' pop culture fascination with science fiction. But DP was more than a sci-fi title. The DP has long been known for pure weirdness. But DP was more than a weird fiction title. Subsequent series were about alienation. But DP was more than a series on social alienation.  In all these series, over the course of almost fifty years, the DP has really been about one thing - transcending death.

One of the Chief's big, ugly revelations to Cliff Steele. DP vol. 2 #57 (July 1992).

Over time, the Chief bore the negative moral responsibility for the team's criss-crossing the line between life and death.  As a young researcher he was forced to investigate the secret to immortality by the DP's original foe, General Immortus.  In order to escape Immortus's control, he had to cheat death himself.  This conflict made the Chief and Immortus two sides of the same coin.  Caulder fed his wife Arani a chemical elixir of immortality on their wedding day.

Niles Caulder's radical decisions about the role of medicine and science in preserving and enhancing life at all costs drastically affect the fates of all characters associated with him.   In Morrison's run, he began to play God and create life - not just extend it (DP vol. 2 #57 (July 1992)).  Under writers John Byrne and Geoff Johns, the impact of the Chief's decisions became clearer while the original version of the DP was slowly restored to life and mainstream DCU continuity. Interestingly, Garfield Logan, the adopted son of two DP members, Rita Farr and Steve Dayton (and the DP's only legacy character), has been faced with situations similar to those faced by Caulder; and he has generally taken a different path than the DP's founding leader (see my post on this legacy here).  In 2006, the most recent version of the team discovered their leading arch-enemy, the Brain, had been a product of one of the Chief's experiments to transcend death.  The Brain's group, the Brotherhood of Evil, sought vengeance for Caulder's breach of that boundary (my post on that storyline is here).

Rita Farr explains her resurrection. DP vol. 5 #13 (Oct. 2010).

The current series, cancelled as of today, drew the DP's various series into a single continuity.  It also dealt unflinchingly with the characters as posthuman entities who cannot die, reflecting our society's current obsession with science and tech, anti-ageing, and the virtual-real dichotomy.  The DP's immortality is the answer to all our contemporary questions; yet that immortality is presented as an almost impossible existential burden, which strains the enduring psychology and spirtual existence of the characters to a breaking point.

Justice League refuses help.  DP vol. 5 #20 (May 2011).

Largely due to the Chief's machinations, the heroism of the DP is admirable and tragic well beyond the old conventions of heroism, because unlike the heroes of myth, of legend, they cannot die.  Like the heroes of religion they can be revived past death - but in resurrection they cannot achieve godhood.  They are immortals who cannot escape the daily grind of the human condition, even when they die - and die again. 

No sanctuary with the Titans.   DP vol. 5 #20 (May 2011).

The DP don't even fit in with other superheroes because the conflicts engendered by their posthuman struggles are too bizarre, too dangerous and push them beyond the bounds of law and human society. They are heroes who are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Issue #20 saw the characters cast out from the community of superheroes - the only beings who could possibly understand their plight. 

Batman escorts Larry Trainor to Gotham city limits.   DP vol. 5 #20 (May 2011).

At twenty-two issues, Giffen's and Clark's series of the DP should have been much longer.  It was as relevant an inquiry into the moral implications of the Millennial challenge to the limits of our mortality as anything I've seen right now in pop culture.

All DC Comics stories, characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © DC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Read all my posts on the Revolving Door of Death.

My history of DC's character Terra: How the Doom Patrol legacy continues in the Titans.

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  1. loved it! Great addition of Celsius! Arani is amazing part of the DP, as the wife of Niles.

  2. Thank Anon. I only wish the series had continued.