The Doom Patrol and I go way back. The original run of their adventures was one of the earliest comics I can recall reading. My exposure to them, along with some of the other characters from the weird outskirts of DC Comics, had a lasting impression on me. Now there is, of all things, a TV version of “The World’s Strangest Heroes.” This first post will be rather long as I discuss the characters and basic premise of the show, from my own experiences with the comics they are drawn from.
It is still disconcerting that this show, in the form that it has, ever was approved and produced. The Doom Patrol could be presented as a quirky but otherwise conventional superhero team. For a lot of its history as a comic book that is what it has been. Superheroes are the biggest thing in popular culture now so there’s an endless hunger for new super-content. But executives want an existing “IP” — characters that already exist with lore, potential plot lines, and art work that quickly establishes what they are all about. Marvel has shown that even obscure characters such as Guardians of the Galaxy can, in the right hands, be made into hits. Even Iron Man, the core of Marvel’s movie Universe, was at best a “B” or even “C” level character before Robert Downey Jr. brought him to life. So why not Doom Patrol?
“Why” is that Doom Patrol, as a comic property, has occasionally veered off into outlandish, controversial, and literally surreal directions — and the producers of the current seasons are drawing upon those eras of the comic. In particular issues created by author Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case from 1989 – 1992. What I am going to look at is how the TV show reinterprets the Morrison/Case reinterpretation of the original comic. The Doom Patrol has always been a different take on the idea of a superhero team, and each group of creators have tried to find and explore that “difference” in their own way.
I will start looking at the show’s cast of characters. First we are introduced to not one of the team, but its nemesis, Mr. Nobody. This as yet unseen figure actually narrates the pilot episode, and scornfully establishes that our main characters are far from traditional heroes. They are losers and fools. Despite having a prejudiced point of view, he’s not wrong here. We are going to see a very deprecating, even mean-spirited interpretation of the Doom Patrol. Mr. Nobody not only is telling us their story, but is quite aware that he is a narrator of a TV show. Mr. Nobody is (for the most part) an original creation of the Morrison/Case comics, though his fourth-wall breaking, meta-narrative nature is a new element. His “origin” as an Nazi experiment is also presented as a successful treatment to expand humanities potential, rather than as something that went terribly, terribly wrong, as in the comics.
Most of the rest of the episode introduces us to the characters that made up the original Doom Patrol team in comics, from 1963-1968. We begin with the updated origins of Cliff Steele, aka “Robotman.” Setting a trend of how Doom Patrol characters will be portrayed throughout, this version of Cliff is not, as he was in comics, a careless, thrilling seeking race car driver, but a crude, philandering NASCAR star, whose success and fame is not saving him from a crumbling family life. A terrible car accident destroys his body, leaving only a brain, which genius scientist Nigel Caulder houses in a robot body. The show now brings in the first major story element from Morrison/Case. In the original Doom Patrol comic, Cliff was not pleased to have a mechanical body, but he at least came to terms with it. More often it’s an advantage that he can be damaged and repaired much easier than flesh. Being melted, stretched, flattened, or tied in knots was a typical predicament. Doom Patrol Vol 2, issue #19 — the first Morrison/Case issue — begins with Cliff waking up screaming in a mental asylum. Life in a metal body (along with the recent deaths of several of his teammates) have driven him into severe depression. His robot body is described as having limited vision and hearing and no sense of pain or touch at all. It is this version of “Robotman” which the TV series gives us, even using the details of Richard Case’s character design.
Comic book Cliff, for all his troubles, was in essence a hero, and the heart of the Doom Patrol, the only character to be a member of every version of the team throughout the decades. TV Cliff is, to say it mildly, a foul-mouthed jerk (the video-on-demand format of the show allows them to take an “R” rated approach, with sex, nudity, and language beyond even what the direct-market comics of the 90’s permitted). His regret at not having been there for his daughter is one of his few redeeming features. He is degraded even further when it is revealed that his racing accident was a delusion. He was actually injured due to his own careless driving, which also lead to the death of his wife, just as they were on the verge of a reconciliation. After years of physical therapy, Cliff learns to control his robot body and Caulder offers his mansion as a refuge. He joins several other individuals who have also suffered bizarre traumas that isolate them from the world.
One of these is former Hollywood movie star, Rita Farr. While filming on location, she was exposed to a strange gas that allowed her to shrink to mouse-sized or grow into a multi-story high giant. She could not control these changes at first, ending her movie career. With Caulder’s help she mastered this power, and joined his Doom Patrol. As we might expect after how Cliff has been presented, the TV show makes Rita not a nice person. We flash back to her “origin” and see that as a movie star, she was a vain, rude, and demanding. Her accident may well have been staged by her movie crew as payback, and nobody exactly rushes to save her when she falls into a river to be exposed to the substance that transforms her.
Even as a child Rita’s backstory seemed odd to me. While the other members of the team could be considered odd or freakish, Rita was a beautiful woman with superpowers. One wonders why she didn’t join the Justice League or, you know, just not use her powers? The TV shows brings in an idea inspired by something that only appeared much later in the comics. When she’s stressed, Rita’s body begins to melt, eventually dissolving in a shapeless blob of flesh. This Rita is a monster like the others now, and you can understand why she hides in Caulder’s mansion. So far there was been no sign that she possesses size changing abilities, but that may yet be introduced.
Rita is the one character who was not redefined by the Morrison/Case comics. That is because Rita was dead during that period. The original run of Doom Patrol comics ended with the, at the time, shocking conclusion of the characters all appearing to die in an explosion. They remained dead for nine years before anyone tried to write stories about them again. Gradually the characters were revealed to have only been “comic book dead” and actually survived in one way or another. It wasn’t until 2004 that Rita was restored to life.
Next of the original team to be introduced is Larry Trainor, aka “Negative-Man.” Like the others, the tragic events of his past are close to his comics origin. Larry is a test pilot who, during a flight, encountered a strange “negative-spirit” that caused him to crash, and took up residence in his body. This possession, in comics, allowed him to release and control this energy being to attack foes and otherwise do his bidding. Unfortunately it also caused his body to emit radiation that could only be contained by special bandages. As a person with superhuman powers, but unable to living a normal life, he was just the sort of “hero” that the Doom Patrol represented.
TV Larry in his earlier life comes close to being a comic book hero. He was a brave air force test pilot with an archetypal suburban family. That façade crumbles quickly. Larry is a closeted gay man, having a secret affair with one of his crewmen. The comics were vague on of Larry was like under his bandages, but the show graphically depicts him as hideously burned by the accident. Further, the negative-spirit within him is sentient, following its own will. In fact Larry falls unconscious when it leaves him. There are in constant conflict with each other, without a means of even communicating directly.
The Morrison/Grant series changed Negative-Man more than any of the other original characters. There was a new, and very Grant Morrison take on the concept: the Larry Trainor/Negative-Spirit entity was incomplete. They were merged with a third aspect, a female one, becoming hermaphroditic embodiment of medieval alchemical philosophy, which called itself Rebis. The only elements, so far, the TV show has taken from Rebis are that the Negative-Sprit is a sentient entity independent of Larry, and that issues of sexual identify are involved in his/their story. In Morrison/Case Rebis was actually the most “together” character, largely content and whole in their united state. The show again takes a damaged character and messes him up even further, introducing major personal issues that extend back before their respective accidents. I have to wonder if having a more balanced, stable character would help contrast these other damaged up people in the show, the way Rebis did in the comic.
I have already mentioned Nigel Caulder. In comics “The Chief” is a genius scientist who brings by people with unique abilities, helps them realize their potential, and enlists them to help save the world from extraordinary threats, even though that world views them as freaks and monsters. It’s a noble and heroic goal. The TV version has a related, but drastically different approach. Aside from helping them deal with their unique traumas, he offers them a sanctuary. But he isn’t encouraging them to save the world, but hide from it. The triggering event that sets up the action of the series is the characters deciding to ignore the Chief’s advice and interact with the outside world. Readers of the Morison/Case comic would know to have a deep distrust of Caulder and what his real motivations are. We’ve already seen The Chief lie to Cliff, concealing that his daughter survived the car accident, for “his own good.” The Chief is the most mysterious character of the group and we don’t have much of a clue to what he is up to.
The last member introduced is Crazy Jane, an original creation of Morrison and Case. Named after a series of poems by Y.B. Yeats, Jane suffers from is now called dissociative identity disorder, though “multiple personalities” is used in the comic (though Jane would insist that they are persons, not personalities). Jane is an example of Morrison and Case’s deconstruction of the comic book superhero. Superheroes typically have a “superpower,” or a set of related powers. They have a build-in weapon or trick and that was it. The writer then had to somehow come up with situations where the power would be relevant or useful. Each of Jane’s 64 personas have their own power, so practically Jane could do anything the story required, just with the limitation that that these personalities might have their own goals, motivations, and personal issues.
As a Morrison/Case character, Jane is starting out a very troubled person, so the TV show doesn’t have to do much to have her fit in with what they’ve set up. That her mental disorder stems from severe childhood abuse fits in perfectly with the show’s approach of giving all the characters past or suppressed trauma. It’s worth noting that “Crazy Jane” is not the core identity of this person. She’s a young woman named Kay. Jane is the persona who is most often on the surface, interacting with the world, and the rest of her teammates. In the comic she’s fairly stable and mild tempered, though with limits to how much crap she’ll take. Jane in the show is not these things. It’s hard to distinguish when Jane or the aggressive and foul mouthed Hammerhead appears to be in charge. There is again an issue of contrast. Every scene with her is about her being angry at the world – unless we are with a creepy personality such as Baby Doll.
One of the stranger, as yet unexplained aspects of the show it how it handles time. It is clearly established that the show takes place in 2019. Cliff’s accident happen in 1988. Larry was a test-pilot in the 60’s. Rita was an actress in the 1950’s. Jane is referred to as visiting off and on for decades. One could come up with rationales for why these people, all of whom have experienced some physical metamorphosis, don’t age, but it still seems off to think that when the series starts that Cliff has lived in The Chief’s mansion for 31 years, Larry has been Negative-Man for 50 years, and Rita is even older. Is something strange with Time going on — is it that the show has decided that there are enough other weird things that we just shouldn’t worry about something this trivial..?
That it takes this long to introduce these characters and their history in comics shows how much is going on when trying to grasp what this show is. I haven’t even brought up the half-dozen or so other versions of the Doom Patrol that have appeared in comics as creators and publishers struggle with what to do with them. In later posts I’ll try to focus on specific episodes. I’ll limit Spoilers to the specific episode being discussed, though I will talk freely about the comics. I haven’t see all the series myself yet, so I’m sure I have a lot of discoveries ahead as well.