‘Doom Patrol: Planet Love’ Review
And so we come to the end. It’s taken DC Comics sixteen years to collect all of Grant Morrison’s classic run on Doom Patrol, but it’s complete now. I don’t know if new readers coming to Morrison’s Doom Patrol in 2008 can understand how different that series was in the early ‘90s – the era of million-copy runs, of the Image founders becoming Marvel superstars and then packing up to become “Image,” the biggest boom that superhero comics have ever seen.
There was bombast in the air, then, on all sides. Superheroes were long past their days of stopping bank robberies and foiling minor criminals. The era of cosmic threats all the time had been inspired by Secret Wars II and the first Crisis, and had grown through Marvel’s summer crossovers and everyone’s monthly gimmicks. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a would-be world conqueror, or a megalomaniac with an anti-life formula, or some other unlikely threat to everything.
You have to remember that background when you read Morrison’s Doom Patrol, just as you have to remember the stolid seriousness of ‘80s superheroism when you read his Animal Man of the same era. Morrison wasn’t parodying what everyone else was doing – he’s only very rarely been one to specifically poke fun at other creators – but he was pushing it further, in the direction of his own obsessions and ideas, than anyone else was willing to do. (Take a look at his Arkham Asylum for another example; it’s the epitome of the “crazy Batman” idea that percolated all through that time — the concept that Batman attracted so many damaged and insane villains because he was inherently damaged himself.)
Doom Patrol was always explicitly a group of misfits, back to its original incarnation in the ‘60s. But to make a team that really were misfits in the comics world of the late ‘80s – after a dozen teams of odd mutants, after the Legion of Substitute Heroes, after Justice League Antarctica – Morrison had to go really weird.
He took over Doom Patrol after another one of the group’s periodic catastrophes, in which most of the pre-existing group had died or quit. He kept the quaintly named “Robot Man” (ex-racecar driver Cliff Steele – how terribly ‘60s that all seems now!) as the core of the group, made the wheelchair-bound Chief even more irascible and undependable, stuck two other survivors as supporting cast, and brought in two “new” heroes.
One of them wasn’t particularly new – Larry Trainor had been Negative Man back in the ‘60s, but he’d died and gotten better since then. Morrison trendily stuffed him into one glowing, bandage-clad body with a black female doctor – dualities were very “in” for British comics-writers in those days – and called the resulting creature Rebis. Rebis was the most superhero-esque of the Morrison Doom Patrol – a flyer who shot energy beams – but was also the least knowable.
And then there was Crazy Jane, one of the quintessentially Morrisonian creations. A young woman with many, many multiple personalities, and a backstory tied loosely to one of DC’s least memorable crossover events, Jane had superpowers for each of her selves. She could have easily become a deus ex machina, but Morrison played her MPD basically straight, so she couldn’t call up personalities to deal with problems. (And those of us who remember those days still wonder what debt she owes to Mike Baron’s Badger, an earlier hero with various personalities and abilities.)
Cliff was the audience stand-in, the man who asked the obvious questions so that everyone else – Jane, Rebis, the Chief, various secondary characters and villains – could explain what everything meant. He was also the necessary brick, the strong man whose role in any battle was to run into the middle and hit things.
But Morrison’s Doom Patrol villains often didn’t have anything obvious to hit — they were typically shadowy groups, or beings from other dimensions, bent on destroying the universe in odd and unlikely ways. In this volume, the main such villain is The Candlemaker, a Lovecraftian horror seen through a mainstream comics lens, who came out of the psyche of a minor Doom Patrol member to threaten the soul of the world with destruction. (There’s also a gray goo problem later on – runaway nanomachines that threaten to eat the Earth, yet again – but that’s more traditional, and more easily solved.)
Before that, there was the Brotherhood of Dada, which wanted to make the world meaningless, and The Men From N.O.W.H.E.R.E., a secret group deep beneath the Pentagon, and the alternate world of the Kaleidoscape. They had started to seem very similar by the end of Morrison’s run, because they all were similar: they were all existential threats with intellectual/spiritual underpinnings, and could only be explained in multi-panel strings of really long, complicated words.
Doom Patrol was a very wordy comic, even for its day – and its day was one of very talky comics, a peak of talkiness just as the pendulum was about to swing the other way, to full-page splashes of characters who couldn’t even spell “existential.” Everyone explained everything at great length in Morrison’s Doom Patrol, talking about literary movements, magical theory, and personal mythologies. It was all individually plausible, in a superhero universe, but the weight of all of it was getting to be a bit much by this point.
It’s clear that Morrison knew that; he can’t have missed the fact that he was repeating himself. So he ended his run on Doom Patrol, not in the traditional Doom Patrol way by killing most of the characters, but by giving them what superheroes rarely get: a happy ending. I’ll leave you all to discover what that was for yourselves, if you haven’t read these issues already.
Planet Love also contains Morrison’s single-issue piss-take on the Image creators, the Doom Force Special. It’s a parody of early ‘90s bombast played almost completely straight – one could almost take it for a naturally bad comic, and not one that was made bad for effect. It also functioned as Morrison’s bad example of what Doom Patrol could have become after he left – as if he was saying “If this is what the book looks like in six months, don’t blame me – I warned you!”
As I said up top, I’m not sure how Morrison’s Doom Patrol will read to someone who wasn’t there at the time – the threats to the universe are inventive and thoughtful, and the characters are reasonably plausible, for early ‘90s superheroes, but it is basically a philosophy major’s version of the team comics of its day. I enjoyed it, reading it again, but it was an odd kind of nostalgia for the early days of Vertigo, when that was the line for quirky takes on the standard DC universe (Hellblazer, Shade the Changing Man, Swamp Thing), and not for…whatever it is these days. (And I’m not sure what that is.)
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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