Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: The Doom Patrol Archives, Vol. 1

Review Doom Patrol Archives Volume One Arnold Drake Bob Haney Bruno Premiani Elasti-Girl Negative Man Robotman Chief My Greatest Adventure Archive Editions DC Comics Cover hardcover hc comic bookWriters: Arnold Drake and Bob Haney
Artist: Bruno Premiani
Collects: My Greatest Adventure #80-85 and The Doom Patrol #86-89 (1963-64)
Published: DC, 2002; $49.95

The Doom Patrol is a team of superheroes perhaps best known, sadly, for supposedly being ripped off by Stan Lee when he created the X-Men. However, that idea does an incredible disservice to both Marvel and DC, who both deserve more credit. Furthermore, it simply isn’t true. Yes, both teams star a group of super-powered social outcasts led by a man in a wheelchair, and their mortal enemies have similar names: the Doom Patrol fights the Brotherhood of Evil, while the X-Men fight the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. But that’s where the similarities end, quite frankly, and with X-Men #1 hitting the stands only three months after the Doom Patrol’s first appearance, there is literally no way that Lee could have known about the Doom Patrol’s existence before writing his new, mutant-based comic book series.

Still, it’s a myth that’s been perpetuated for well over forty years, to the point that it’s almost completely overshadowed the Doom Patrol’s original five-year run (from 1963 to 1968), which was handled from start to finish by writer Arnold Drake and artist Bruno Premiani. (Bob Haney also receives co-writing credit on the first two issues, although his influence was actually pretty minimal.) Even the people who put this particular collection together belabor the “rip-off” argument on the inside of the book’s cover jacket, which I think is kind of petty on DC’s part. Luckily, Drake doesn’t bring it up in his introduction, which details how the book came about creatively and editorially.

Removed from the controversy and taken purely on its own terms, Doom Patrol is an incredibly unique comic book, one that I find much more interesting than other team books DC was publishing around the same time. Unlike Justice League of America, for example, which featured characters who all starred in comics of their own, the characters that make up the Doom Patrol are unique to this book and actually have some room to develop. That potential isn’t utilized to its fullest in this first Archive edition, but the stories do start to mature considerably about halfway through the book, when the title of the series officially switches from My Greatest Adventure to The Doom Patrol.

So who exactly are the Doom Patrol? The first issue introduces us to all four of the book’s main characters: Elasti-Girl, who has the ability to stretch her body and to expand and reduce her size; Negative Man, a heavily bandaged individual (think of the Invisible Man) who can release a being of pure radio-energy from his body, but only for 60 seconds at a time; Robotman, a former stunt daredevil whose brain now resides in the metal body of a robot; and the Chief, the ingenious but mysterious wheelchair-bound man who has brought the team together.

The Chief is by far the most interesting member of the Doom Patrol, with Drake constantly teasing at the nature of the character’s secret past and true identity. In one story, the Chief even propagates multiple versions of his own “origin” (much like the Joker does in The Dark Knight) in order to confuse the other members of the team and to weed out which one of them has been leaking information to the press. And perhaps it’s that I’m projecting something onto the story that simply isn’t there, but I couldn’t help but question the Chief’s motives at various points throughout the book – why did he assemble this team? How does he know so much about the other members, and why won’t he even reveal so much as his own name?

Even when the Chief’s backstory is partially revealed in one of the last issues of this collection, I’m not sure I entirely buy it. I still think there’s something he’s hiding – but again, maybe that’s just me. (For the record, though, it’s my understanding that Grant Morrison felt basically the same way, giving the Chief some more explicitly villainous qualities in his 1980s run on the title.) Either way, it makes me anxious to read the other four Archives in the series, if only to see how the mystery of the character plays out.

The other team members aren’t quite as interesting, but they’re still strangely compelling. Labeled as “freaks” by society at large, all three are extremely angry – not a quality you tend to see dominating an entire team in superhero comics from this time. “Edgy” is perhaps a cliché word to use when describing angry comic book characters, but it fits here, and at times it’s actually pretty difficult to tell why the team stays together at all. Interestingly, they don’t even begin to wear the costumes pictured on the cover until the last issue of this collection; prior to that, Elasti-Girl fights crime in a skirt and high-heeled boots, and Negative Man wears what appears to be a dark green sweatsuit. (Needless to say, the costumes are a welcome change!) Robotman and Negative Man are by far the angriest members of the team, and they take out their frustrations on one another by hurling insults over the fury of battle.

And what battles they fight! Almost every story involves humorous pseudo-scientific twists (humorous from today’s standpoint, anyway) and clever new uses for the Doom Patrol’s powers. The team faces a number of fantastically weird villains, including a brain in a jar, the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man (guess what three things he can turn into?), and a talking, French gorilla. The stories are surprisingly varied too, going beyond the simple superhero vs. supervillain formula – in one of the final stories, for instance, Elasti-Girl goes to Korea to solve the mystery of a missing-in-action American G.I.

All of these things work together to set the Doom Patrol significantly apart from the majority of other super-teams that populated the 1960s. My only complaint with the first Archive edition is that the art reconstruction goes too far in some cases, and there are more than a few panels where it’s clear that there were more lines in the original pencil art. The colors too, especially in the shading of Negative Man’s bandages, are a bit anachronistic in their sophistication. Such is the case with all of the color reprints that Marvel and DC put out, though, and the restoration in this case isn’t any better or worse than what they typically offer.

Overall, The Doom Patrol Archives, Vol. 1 certainly has my recommendation, and with the entire series being done by the same creative team, I’m confident that it will only improve with subsequent volumes. Its cult status today is unsurprising given its more unique aspects, and I would encourage anyone looking for a strong dose of Silver Age weirdness to give it a look.

Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. Awesome review. I'm so thankful that you took a look a this one. I've got the showcase version on my upcoming look at list (and will probably review it eventually myself) but I've been wondering a lot about the Doom Patrol's origins, since I've read and reread the now vertigo released trades of Morrison's run.

    Some of the villains introduced here are among my favorites and most memorable from this period. The Brain? Awesome.

    I wonder how I'll feel about reading this in black and white linework instead of (possibly out of place) redone color.

  2. I haven't read Morrison's Doom Patrol, but I will -- I decided I wanted to read the Silver Age stuff first since there's really not all that much of it, unlike with most of the prominent teams and characters from that time. Plus I find that I get more out of Morrison's work if I read the same material that influenced him beforehand. I'll probably be reading the Golden Age Seven Soldiers of Victory Archives at some point for just that reason.

    I loved the Brain too. I had never read anything with him before, but he became an instant favorite when I saw him in this book. The fact that the Brain and Monsieur Mallah (the talking gorilla) are written completely straight, despite being so far out there conceptually, makes them really entertaining for me.

    The color scheme for Doom Patrol is actually very different from most Silver Age DC titles that I've read. There are quite a lot of earth tones: browns, oranges, yellows, etc. Oftentimes a color will be used in multiple ways on the same page, like the color of Robotman may be used for a background color in a panel where he doesn't appear, and for a tank in another panel. It gives the art a weird muted effect, which I think reflects the book's unique tone really well. Of course, whether that was the creators' original intention is anyone's guess.

  3. Great review Marc, I've heard the X-Men/Doom Patrol rumors many times but I didn't know X-Men debuted so quickly afterwards. There's like no time to see that idea, rip it off, get it signed off on and write the stories and characters that quickly.

    You've also got me wondering about the Chief and his motives. I can see him being hard to trust and although I haven't read a lot of Doom Patrol (maybe three issues at most) Even I barely trusted him when I read those issues. And lastly, if I recall aren't that brain and the talking Gorilla in a relationship or something?

  4. Yeah, I believe it was Morrison who established that the Brain and Monsieur Mallah are in love with one another. In their first few appearances their relationship doesn't extend beyond Mallah simply being devoted to the Brain's plans to destroy the Doom Patrol, although I'll keep an eye out for any romantic undertones between them when I read the next few Archives.

  5. I don't know if it's ever explicitly stated, but they are together a lot. haha

    Eventually, given the nature of my project, I'll probably have this in archive and showcase - will be interesting to see how much that color seems to change the mood of the work. When I flipped through the black an white volume before, I wasn't imagining that kind of color scheme at all!

  6. Marc, this was a really great review. I have a few issues of the new DP series, but I really had no idea as to the quality of their silver age adaventures. Comics used to take a lot more chances at being fun/absurd, didn't they?

    Last night I read an issue of The Brave and the Bold (#8 from 2008) featuring the Flash and Doom Patrol, so it was kind of fitting that you posted this. I'm not sure if you've ever read the issue, but it has some funny moments.

    I don't think I've ever mentioned it, but I really like the title of your blog. Knowing your affinity for Spider-Man makes it come together that much more.

  7. Thanks, Kello! The Silver Age is actually my favorite period in comics history because, like you said, they took so many more chances then. I think part of it is that there wasn't so much emphasis on making cohesive comic book universes as there was on simply having fun with the characters.

    I have read a few issues of the new Brave and the Bold series (I loved the Flash/Blackhawks issue), but I haven't read the Doom Patrol one yet. I've been planning to pick up that series in trade, and now I'm looking forward to it even more.

    And as for the blog's title, I knew when I set out to start a comics blog there was only one thing I could call it. Glad you like it!

  8. It's interesting - they took a lot more chances with plot, set up, and character ability, but not nearly as much with character development, different ways of telling a story, or bad guy motivation.

  9. As far as most mainstream DC superhero books go, that's pretty much true. Still, it's always interesting to see what wild ideas they came up with.

    I'd argue that Marvel was more progressive in terms of character development though, beginning with Fantastic Four in 1961. You can actually see the characters grow as a team and a family in the early issues of that book. And I think you can see Spider-Man mature significantly over the course of his first three or four years, going from a shy bookworm to a much more confident and outgoing young ladies' man.

    That isn't to say that one is better than the other -- I'm not out to start any kind of DC vs. Marvel debate, because both approaches have their own merits. But I think most would agree that it was the way Stan Lee handled the superhero genre that pushed DC and other companies to step up their game and start adopting some more "modern" storytelling sensibilities. In Doom Patrol, I would argue that you can see the beginnings of Marvel's influence, and that's one of the things that makes it so interesting to read.

  10. Great review as always Marc! You took a team that I had literally ZERO interest in and made them seem... well, interesting! That's the true mark of a great writer. Anyway, I had no idea that Grant had a run with these characters, and I'm kind of intrigued as to how he would have approached them. Do you have any issue #'s you could toss my way, because a team like the Doom Patrol seems like they could mesh really well with Grant's unique style of writing.

  11. Thanks, X-Man! It's good to see you back from your blogging vacation, my friend.

    Morrison wrote issues 19-63 of the second ongoing Doom Patrol series, which began in 1987. His entire run was also collected into six trade paperbacks. It was some of the first mainstream comics work he did in the US, coming less than a year after he started writing Animal Man. Like I said, I haven't read that stuff yet but I'm very much looking forward to it after I finish with the original series.

  12. Well, thanks Marc, it's good to be back!

    Wow, that's a pretty lengthy run. I'll have to look around to see if I can scope out those trades anywhere. They'll probably end up on my long-term "To Buy" list. Thanks for the info!

  13. Marc - you're totally right. And my immersion in the DCU at this time clouded my judgement a bit on that one. Marvel was really ahead of the curve there and totally shaped things to come.