The superhero genre is such a personal one to the American identity. Outside the cliché of heroics and bombastic plotlines are questions centered on morality and how we justify action. But there’s another question at the center of the form’s telling: what is art? To this end, two books that need to be read in concert are Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. The former, while poorly titled, is a great primer for the art of seeing.
If one is so inclined to better understand the act of using image to manipulate time and emotion, this is the book.
Though the Doom Patrol book collects the first two of the smaller trades, it fits perfectly as a standalone plot against the larger DC Universe (which you don’t need to know anything about to understand what’s happening). The book follows this Vertigo tradition of abandoning almost all previous canon, typically giving their characters ‘amnesia’ or something similar. It’s also good way to become familiarized with DC’s more fringe characters.
My staff rec for Doom Patrol:
“A psychedelic super-team of deranged misfits, dealing with problems too strange for even the Justice League. Fun, hilarious, and heady in the Morrison tradition. A must for any interested in the heroic outer limits.”
The characters in Doom Patrol are:
Dorothy Spinner: A young girl with the face of a gorilla (roll with me, here) who can make inanimate objects sentient
Crazy Jane: has 64 alternate personalities, each with their own respective power.
Chief: sort of crazed spin on Professor X. Leader of the group.
Robotman: A robot with a man’s brain (and conscious)
Negative Man (?): An immortal hermaphrodite wrapped in bandage, the amalgamation of a black women, a white man, and immortal entity called the Negative Spirit.
The unifying point for this roster is a loose sense of identity, which traditionally defines the Super-Hero genre. Identity, strict deontology, and being confident enough to rock underwear over your pants. The Doom Patrol challenges these tropes by mashing them with doubt and personal crisis. All of the team members are victims of circumstance in much the same way as the X-Men, which Morrison also wrote for a time. But if the X-Men can be viewed as a metaphor for racial and class discrimination, then the Doom Patrol is that for mental illness.
Each member suffers from some level of mental detachment which they often use to empathize with whoever they’re facing.
In this way, Doom Patrol and their adversaries can all be viewed as misunderstood post-modern philosophers. The self-awareness and abstract nature of their agenda makes the conflict more than a just conversation of ethics. If most super-hero work is an allegory of moral discourse, then the Doom Patrol is typically that of the metaphysical, tackling these issues head on, wrestling to navigate the gulf between normalcy and mania, reality and the outer limits. It’s easy to appreciate how comic books are the best form for this conversation, especially in a world as fantastical as that of the DC Universe.
Morrison understands how to bend the form to not only provide commentary on the genre, but also comics as an art form by utilizing pop-art colors, themes of nostalgia, and repetition to create a sort of Lichtenstein that moves. This style runs throughout his early Vertigo work.
His Animal Man runs into the same gamut of existential and moral doubt. That book – it’s so good – covers the spectrum of such questions, hitting Peter-Singer-like commentary on animal rights, to the hero’s discovery that he is – in actuality – a comic-book character who eventually becomes angry and vindictive towards the reader for taking pleasure in his own misfortune.
But what makes Doom Patrol really shine is the humor. It never takes itself too seriously and has some hilarious villains. The final issue of Book One has probably the only moment in comics that had me literally laughing out loud. It’s just such a breath of fresh air in a market so over-saturated by cookie-cutter super-hero flicks. So if anyone is trying to see what else the genre has to offer without getting too deep, Grant Morrison’s ‘Doom Patrol’ is as good as it gets.