Bless me DC, for I have sinned
BONUS POST: Thanks to Ed McW and his June pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon!
I only just now finished reading the original Doom Patrol series, by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. My childhood disinclination toward DC titles was well-founded based on my reading experience: flat characters, silly without funny, stuck in the 50s. I had to choose titles to follow down to the penny, literally. So I missed a number of DC titles or runs which may have been important to me personally. I never saw O’Neill’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow, for example. And I never read even a single page of the 1963-1968 Doom Patrol … I’m pretty sure that I didn’t even know it had existed until sometime in the late 1980s. At this reading, I enjoyed it at the level among the top two or three superhero titles I have ever read.
One of many things I didn’t know back then was how DC editorial stables worked at National Publications. Marvel was a little office with one “chief writer” and a couple of artists on staff, barely existing to the side of Goodman Publications’ real business, the magazine production. DC was a much bigger operation, divided into sectors of several titles each, overseen by individual editors, specifically Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, Jack Schiff, and Robert Kanigher. The stables didn’t have much connection to another, so the idea of “DC” simply didn’t track to “Marvel” at the same level – it probably makes more sense to think of Marvel as a single stable, even a semi-underground one by comparison. (Jacobs & Jones’ The Comic Book Heroes is very helpful in explaining these structural differences.) Doom Patrol emerged in the Schiff stable, specifically the part assigned to Murray Boltinoff, and had little to do with the more familiar superheroes at DC, who show up for only one scene late in the series.
Plenty of ink and bitspace has been spilled about the title’s nigh-simultaneous launch with the X-Men, their extensive similarities in premise and details, and which was ripping the other off. Regardless of the initiation, I speculate that once both were embarked, DP did several “take that” or more harshly, “no, assholes, this is how you do it” plotlines. I think it succeeded, being way more solid on the minority and disabled issues, and honest about the heroes’ interior nuances. They were sometimes proud and sometimes resentful, they’d urge pride for one another but feel ashamed inside, when offered assimilation, they’d reject it for solidarity … the super-handles are “freak names” coined by the media, which the protagonists consider insulting and dehumanizing. Best of all, they don’t whine, they outright bitch because they are pissed off. Toward the end of the run, the Patrol battles a group of “mutants” who are considerably more militant than Magneto let alone the X-Men, and weirdly, Drake wrote eight issues of X-Men after Doom Patrol’s cancellation.
It’s a joy to see such a solid single-team artistic blaze of comics – amazing, really, including the consistent cover art by Bob Brown too. Every commentary I’ve read acknowledges that it’s pretty much a “Marvel-style book at DC” in terms of characterization, ongoing plot, and political punch, but I’ll go one further and say it’s a top-quality Marvel-style book at DC. So many more details are worth enthusing about. The science literacy is incredible: spot-on chemistry, zoology, meteorology, and more, all exciting, all informative, and all exquisitely illustrated by Premiani. Also, to my eyes, there’s a not-Marvel feel to the art, a strange combination of classical naturalism, not-Kirby action, aninmation-style cartooniness, and outright horror.
I’ve been prepping a bunch of posts about women characters and related stuff, and it turns out this one serves well as the first, with one reason being how freaking early Doom Patrol comes along, which runs counter to the standard narrative of the issue.
I’m totally crushed out on Rita Farr, called Elasti-Girl in the story’s media, who I think, upon this marathon no-stopping full-series reading, is the main character. She’s the central agent in all of these ongoing storylines: the team as agents developing unity and competence against a variety of threats and reactions; the four arriving at a sense of identity regardless of individual degrees of acceptance by the larger society; the role of Mento as the privileged, extremely competent, and charismatic hero, including Rita’s romance with him and eventual marriage; the introduction of Beast Boy, who I like to think of as the “gotcher Rick Jones right here” character, and his eventual adoption by Mento and Rita.
Considering how easy and standard it would have been for her to been the “nice little teammate” who becomes the “good little woman” through marriage, what does happen in the pages stands out as an amazing defiance against exactly that.
The foundational part of it is how she avoids becoming The Chick in the DP, not simply because the writers avoid it, but because she recognizes and deals with it as a genuine personal danger. Early in the series, the Chief excludes her from a mission to protect her, and she not only finds out about it and joins up, but threatens him most sincerely never to do it again – and although that closes on a hearty group chuckle, he never does. Also early on, Cliff (Robotman) and Larry (Negative Man) compete for her affections, with a lot of attendant male wangst, and she firmly and decently establishes both her respect for them and her boundaries as a fellow disher-out of violence and justice rather than their life-line to manhood. In terms of plain action, she’s always right in there with the others, dustin’ it up and initiating cunning tactics (the team’s trademark given their freaky powers and limitations), as well as taking her lumps along with them when that happens too.
The other part of it is her complex role in being the one team member who might or could live a normal life, but who finds more value in the “freak” life – yes, for the benefit of others, but just as important, in terms of her own fulfillment and relationships. Ahhh, nuts to them for sure! The ins and outs of the romance with Mento would make a dandy diagram, mapping her way to preserve her agency and identity through it, and not to be overwhelmed by his literally global-scale normality. The lines on it would dodge about a great deal, with some of her relationship/domesticity moments working out for her, and some of them not, and with the romance becoming a window of vulnerability to the villains, and then becoming an asset. It’s a tough process, but ultimately, the marriage isn’t about her rejoining normal life, but Mento finally accepting the DP as a whole and if you squint, being accepted into it, and every male character has to grow up about it, because Rita isn’t going to be pushed around.
My favorite moment for that comes when Beast Boy actually manages to connect with a fellow high-schooler and they go to the hop which turns into a brawl. Rita and Mento end up there through some coincidence or other … and decide they’re going to finish this brawl in support of their adopted son. The scene ends with the four of them (including the date) victorious, arm-in-arm, with bruised faces, grinning like loons. It’s the single most subversive “we’re a family!” feel-good moment I think I’ve seen, as raw defiance against ordinary social abuse and discrimination.
Not “fair for its day,” not “well I guess they tried,” and not “oh golly that dreadful skirt what were they thinking.” No. This is superior, top-drawer writing and depiction of a woman super-hero, the gold standard. Rita displays agency, competence, judgment, depth, and growth throughout the series.
What am I always going on about, what makes heroes good, what makes superhero comics worth reading, what was that again? Oh yeah, villains! In this case, the long-running Madame Rouge story.
So, after a while, the primary villain group turns out to be the Brotherhood of Evil, basically a mirror to the Doom Patrol in a number of ways. In retrospect it’s pretty obvious that Steve Gerber totally swiped them for his villain group in the Defenders a decade later. The most complex is Madame Rouge, explicitly Rita’s wicked counterpart, who even gains stretchy powers along the way. Her story arc concerns her infatuation with the Chief and his with her, the revelation of her bipolar mental struggles, and her failure (or being forced) to define herself by her own desires rather than what men make of her. This is grim in a lot of ways, but especially when the Brain and the Chief each use high-tech brainwashing to attempt to clean away her “wrong” side simultaneously, meaning of course different “wrong” sides, with terrifying results:
You get this, right? She defines herself, or is forced to define herself, by what men make of her. I don’t have to explain (please)?
You do not get a strong female protagonist or antagonist by avoiding the issues that real-live women face and deal with, or by having them deal with every one of them perfectly and cleanly. The Chick and Hostage-Teammate are bogus, absolutely, but Man With Boobs and Mary Sue Heroine are twice as bogus.
Rita Farr is my choice for the single mostest awesomest woman superhero ever ever. I’d sure like to see more stepping up to that today.
Links: Strong Female Protagonist – a great comic
Next: Do the two-step
Posted on June 16, 2015, in Heroics, The great ultravillains and tagged Arnold Drake, Beastboy, Bob Brown, Bruno Premiani, DC Comics, Doom Patrol, Elasti-Girl, Gerard Jones, Jack Schiff, Madame Rouge, Murray Boltinoff, Negative Man, Robotman, stables, The Comic Book Heroes, Will Jacobs, women. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.