The Doom Patrol and Me

I probably first came across the Doom Patrol when I was about seven years old, which would have been 1975. Of course the original Silver Age comics had been cancelled years before (the year I was born, in fact, 1968), but I suppose I must have come across some reprints. If I remember correctly, they were reprinted along with some Challengers of the Unknown stories.

The story I remember first reading had originally been printed in Doom Patrol 87 (May 1964); in the first scene of this story the team stops an airplane from crashing. It was apparent to me from the moment of their arrival that the Doom Patrol are not like most superhero teams. For one thing, they come rolling up onto the airport tarmac in a … car. Just a regular car; they don’t have a special DP-mobile or a cool superjet. They don’t look like much either: no spectacular physical specimens here. They are a guy made out of clunky metal who is always getting banged up, a guy in bandages whose only superpower consists of collapsing while the spirit that possesses him does all the heroics, and an ordinary-looking woman whose power is to suddenly become a giant and send civilians scattering in panic. Their original uniforms are nothing special, just plain utilitarian green, like the colour that a public works labourer wears. When they first appear, no one goes “Oh thank goodness, it’s the heroes!” The control tower yells at them to get off the runway, and the crowd asks, “How can they help?” Of course they save the day anyhow, and go off without much in the way of thanks.

They were weird. They were unsettling. The general public, and other superheroes, never seemed to respect them much. They weren’t, as Grant Morrison later observed, the kind of heroes a kid ever daydreamed about being.

I loved them instantly and forever.

What is it that I loved about them? I think it’s simply that they are a team of heroes for people who can’t really imagine themselves as heroes. Morrison said that no one ever dreamed about being Cliff, Rita, or Larry (or Jane, or Niles); and he’s right. But the fact is, even as a child I had a hard time imagining myself as a hero, and as an adult I simply can’t; I’ve been battered around too much for that. The Doom Patrol was a team I understood as a scared, unsettled seven-year-old; I was feeling fairly broken in my life, a feeling that has never really left me. They were broken heroes who got up every day and did what they could to save the indifferent world anyhow, and that made a deep impression.

It was hard to find other Silver Age Doom Patrol stories in the 70s (it’s possible that I never read another one until they all got reprinted over the past couple of years), but I remained fond of them in a way that I was fond of no other superheroes. Even after I stopped reading comics altogether, they stayed there in the back of my mind. Later, when I heard that the team was back in action in the late 80s and early 90s, I eagerly bought and read the complete Morrison run; I started with issue 46 (August 1991) — I had been away from comics for a while and hadn’t known that the group was back until then — and just kept going in both directions until I’d caught up. My friends who were still into comics were — surprised, I guess you could say? — at my enthusiasm for this one weird supergroup out of all the supergroups out there. I guess you could say that it was the Doom Patrol that got me back into comics again, and I’ve been in ever since.

At this point in my career, I’m more or less refashioning myself from a medievalist (which I started out as) into a comics scholar, which, to be honest, is a field I find much more congenial. My last few forays into the medieval left me fairly unsatisfied, both with the experience and with the quality of what I ended up doing; I’m much happier working with graphic novels. But despite the sophistication of comics theory and the richness of the field in general, I’m nearly positive that I wouldn’t have found my way in if it hadn’t been for my favourite super-team. I owe Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani, the team’s original creators, a lot.