Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark, and Justiniano, Doom Patrol (DC Comics, 2009). $3.99, monthly.
By Alex Boney
Doom Patrol came along at pretty much just the right time. After The Spiritwas cancelled this year, I became a bit…well, dispirited by the book’s loss.The Spirit wasn’t a nostalgia act for me, but it was an example of how classic, familiar characters can be used by talented creative teams to tell smart, entertaining stories. Classic done modern done well. When a new Doom Patrol book was announced in February, I immediately saw it as the book that would fill the gap left by The Spirit. This probably isn’t a smart response to a book whose long-term prognosis is inscribed in its catastrophic title, but it seemed to have a lot going for it up front. Written by Keith Giffen and featuring Metal Men back-up stories co-written by Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis (and illustrated by Kevin Maguire), Doom Patrolpromised to be a book that DC was finally determined to get right. After five issues—and despite its recent incorporation in the Blackest Night event—Doom Patrol is living up to my expectations.
I might not be the most impartial audience when it comes to the Doom Patrol. Actually, I’m pretty snobbish about these characters. When I read the original Arnold Drake/Bruno Premiani Doom Patrol stories from My Greatest Adventure in reprint volumes, I quite liked the dark, nihilistic, “world’s strangest heroes” approach. It was edgy, experimental, and morbidly modern for its time. These were freaks who rarely let themselves forget that they were expendable. Although the team and concept became diluted in Doom Patrol’s 1980s re-launch, I was pulled in again by Grant Morrison’s early-1990s run on the book. Morrison used the Doom Patrol as a perfectly-suited platform to test out many of the bizarre, disjointed ideas he would later hone and focus in books like The Invisibles and Seven Soldiers. It was unpolished and fractal. But I loved the illogical, unbalanced, brain-bending chaos of it all, and those stories still hold up well. When DC pretty much ignored what Morrison had done with the characters (much as Marvel did after his New X-Men run) and re-incorporated the Doom Patrol into the DC Universe proper, I became irritated and disinterested. The two re-launches that followed in 2001 and 2004 were not particularly inspired or true to the spirit of the original concept.
But this newest series seems to walk the tightrope between sanity and madness that made both the 60s and 90s series successful. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Giffen about Doom Patrol when I was researching a different project, and his approach to the characters and the concept confirmed much of what I was hoping for. Giffen seems to understand the difficulties of a book with as contorted and ignominious a legacy as Doom Patrol: “I’ve been asking for this book since before John Byrne’s run. And I understand that Doom Patrol is being put out with the stink of failure on it. This is a challenge: Let’s just hunch our shoulders, tell the best stories we can, and hope that we get a grassroots kind of a thing going.”
One of the biggest problems with Doom Patrol is finding a way to make a readership care about characters who don’t care much about themselves. All three principal Doom Patrol members—Cliff Steele, Rita Farr, and Larry Trainor—have death-wishes. They enter battles knowing that they could die and they don’t really care very much about that possibility. Giffen addresses this dilemma in the first issue by having a psychologist try to interview each of the characters after a failed mission. And in issue #2, a potential antagonist muses, “Hm…Doom. Noun. Inevitable destruction or ruin. Patrol. Noun. A unit sent out on a reconnaissance or combat mission. Oxymoron. Noun. A rhetorical figure in which contradictory terms are combined. Fascinating.” This sort of metatextual self-awareness is an enormous strength in a book that occasionally needs to remind readers why it matters. Ultimately, I care about characters who are broken and tormented more than I care about characters whose self-assurance and invincibility suggest that they can take care of themselves just fine.
The writing overall in Doom Patrol is well-focused and consistent. The dialogue is occasionally discordant, with characters talking over each other and constantly bickering. But in a book about reluctant and hesitant misfits, this makes sense. The characters’ antagonism leads to tight, rhythmic exchanges that are also darkly funny. Most of the book’s narrative guidance is provided by word captions, which are presented in the form of e-mails, psychological profiles, and journal entries. Letterer Pat Brosseau is probably the hardest-working member of Doom Patrol’s creative team. The captions seem pretty wordy at first, but they’re cleverly written and provide important context and back-matter for the rest of the book. “All those footnotes and sidebars and stuff—they’re going to be a constant presence in the book,” Giffen says. “I realized that, through these things, I can keep the book accessible. People can’t go ‘Aww, I read the first issue of Doom Patrol and I didn’t understand it.’ Well, did you read the text boxes? ‘Uh, not yet.’ Well read them, fucker. That’ll tell you everything you need to know. I’m approaching Doom Patrol as a blank slate.”
Thus far, the blank-slate approach is working. While the tone and characters are probably familiar to readers who remember Doom Patrol’s best stories, new readers don’t need to know those stories to understand the book’s dynamics. The first issue ends with a sentient black hole that contacts the team’s headquarters asking to speak to the Chief, and that’s enough to pique the curiosity of any reader. Still, Giffen is trying to find the right balance of accessibility and expectation: “Some of the reviews of the first issue were like ‘I thought it would be weirder.’ And I thought to myself, I ended the issue with a black hole that wants to negotiate. I’m not ignoring what Morrison did, or his lunacy. But I think to start right off the bat with that kind of lunacy would lose half the readers. First issues are usually the worst or weakest of any comic book run, because there’s so much to set up. Once it’s set up and you have your characters there, then you can just focus and tell the story.”
This is a story that the creative team has wanted to tell for quite a while. Giffen has generally avoided high-profile teams and characters, preferring instead to write and illustrate properties that inhabit the margins of the DC Universe (Legion of Super-Heroes, Ambush Bug, Lobo). Even when he was working on the Justice League with J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire in the late 1980s, that was a team comprised of B- and C-list misfits. But the smaller assignments lead to bigger creative investments, because so much more depth is required to make them work. “I care about the book when I’m on the book,” Giffen says. “I really cared about Justice League when I was on that book. When I left Justice League, it wasn’t like this rending, heart-tugging ‘Oh, I’ve got to go back.’ I go off the book, I look and say, ‘I’ve said all I have to say. There are other stories that can be told with these characters, but there are no more stories that I want to tell.’ But with Doom Patrol, if this one goes under, this one’s going to hurt. I’ve wanted this book for years. It turns out that [penciller] Matt Clark has wanted it for years. The letterer chose Doom Patrol out of the three books offered to him. And as you can tell, he’s doing a bit more than he’d normally do.”
The Metal Men back-up features have also been entertaining each issue. These ten-page features (told in one-and-done segments) reunite the team from the “bwa-ha-ha” era of the Justice League: Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire. They aren’t weighty or deep, but they’re not throwaway fluff either. Like the team that creates them, these stories are a funny, awkward, and a little twisted. “The Metal Men feature is like getting the band back together,” Giffen says. “Each one of those ten-page stories is that kind of odd, self-contained story. I don’t want to turn the back-ups into ‘to be continueds.’ It’s like this: set up the circumstance, put the Metal Men into the middle of it, hammer it home, and get out the door as fast as you can.”
While Doom Patrol has been successful on the whole, the Blackest Night tie-in issues were unfortunate so soon into a new series. They were good, but they didn’t necessarily advance the story that Giffen had begun in the first issue. A beneficial side-effect of the crossover, though, is that it might pull in new readers. This could be important in the long run because ultimately, Doom Patrol is not a book that’s designed to do well in the current marketplace. It’s not safe or normal. Doom Patrol is the kind of unique, character-driven book that should stand out and survive when so many other books look and act like one another. There’s nothing like this book on the shelves right now, and I hope the creative team gets a chance to finish the stories they’ve started to tell: “The only thing I can say is that there’s not a single person on this book that doesn’t care enough about this book to want it to be as perfect as it can be,” Giffen says. “Matt Clark took the two Blackest Night issues off to work on the next four or five issues after that. We’ve got it all lined up. I even have an inventory Metal Men story out there, just in case something happens to Kevin. There is no way on Earth this book is not coming out every fucking, goddamned month. Period.” At a time when delays have become the norm, the abnormality of punctuality alone merits respect and recognition. It’s just weird. And that’s pretty much how the Doom Patrol likes it.