Weird. Queer. Disabled. Ugly: A Brief History of Doom Patrol

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Superhero comics are weird. That’s not meant as an insult—far from it. It’s just to say that there’s nothing prosaic about people who dress up in tights and spoil for fights with enemies who are generally even more bizarre than the heroes.

So when we talk about the Doom Patrol, understand that being known largely as the biggest weirdos in the DC stable, that’s really saying something.

Since the team’s creation in 1963 by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani, they’ve been standard-bearers for the outré. Shaped by tragedy, their line-up has featured rejects of all types: some shunned for their comic book origins, others because they fall outside of real-world expectations of what’s “normal.” The team has always provided a home and family for the disabled, the queer, the ugly. That might help explain why they’ve never been popular with the mainstream, but it definitely explains why Doom Patrol engenders so much love.

Gerard Way (of My Chemical Romance, and more recently the comics mastermind behind Umbrella Academy) recently brought the team back with artist Nick Derington as part of DC’s experimental Young Animal imprint. That, in turn, seems to have generated enough interest to launch the team’s own TV series on DC’s subscription streaming service (oddly enough, the first episode of Doom Patrol dropped the same day the first season of Umbrella Academy hit Netflix). It’s heavy exposure for a series that has always thrived on the fringes. Will success spoil the Doom Patrol?

The similarities to Marvel’s X-Men, who also first appeared in 1963, just a few months after the Doom Patrol, might be entirely coincidental. Then again, maybe not: it has been debated for decades whether or not Stan Lee and co. came across the Doom Patrol concept via a bit of corporate skullduggery. Reed Tucker’s Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC, deals some pretty good dirt on the ways in which the rivalry between the venerable DC and the plucky upstart Marvel got ugly. So Marvel might have nabbed the idea. Then again, Doom Patrol might have been a twist on Marvel’s Fantastic Four—each company spent most of the ’60s chasing the other around.

Regardless, comparing the books opens a window on the state of superhero comics of the era. These were both teams of misfits and rejects who came together into slightly dysfunctional surrogate families led by disabled, cerebral, somewhat distant father figures. One of these wheelchair-using daddies had lots of hair, and the other had no hair whatsoever, so it’s not like they were entirely similar. In spite of their innovations, both books were initially successful but eventually fizzled (X-Men’s more mainstream success came only in the wake of a nothing-to-lose post-cancellation revival). While the mutants at Marvel eventually birthed some of the most successful books on the stands, the Doom Patrolers have remained outsiders, developing a cult following in part from the spectacular (and then-unprecedented) way the creative team ended their initial run.

The original Patrol consisted of four members: Chief Niles Caulder, the genius and mastermind who brought the team together; Cliff Steele, whose brain had been transplanted into a robot body following a racing accident; Rita Farr, an athlete and actress who developed stretching powers after huffing on a volcano during a location shoot; and Larry Trainor, a test pilot exposed to weird radioactivity in the upper atmosphere.

The horror-movie implications of Robotman’s status are pretty obvious—his brain is the last remaining bit of his human existence, stuffed into a metal skull atop a mechanical body incapable of any real sensation. Trainor, who takes the name Negative Man, can’t remove the full-body bandages that keep his radioactivity from harming others; luckily, he can control a shadow-like energy being independent of his body, but only for about a minute at a time, after which his helpless physical body will die. Like Cliff, he’s isolated from any real human contact. Rita Farr seems, at first glance, like the least freaky of the team of freaks. She can pass as totally normal, and her literal movie-star good looks remain intact. But she makes the choice everyday to forego the dream of 1960s womanhood: marriage would inevitably involve settling down and surrendering to normalcy—all things that she wants, but not as much as she wants to be a hero. In a sense, her willingness to give up the the perfect ’60s life and family in favor of living in a mansion with a bossy megalomaniac, a surly robot, and the radioactive guy with a crush, makes her just as much of a freak as the boys. She chooses a career.

At the series’ outset, the Chief assembles these sullen, reclusive individuals and offers them purpose. The resulting squabbling, dysfunctional family vibe was unique at DC, hewing much closer to Marvel’s house style, and the villains were as wild as anything in the comics, then or now: Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man; a brain in a jar called “The Brain”; and uplifted gorilla Monsieur Mallah, to name just a few. It’s fun stuff, with enough angst and weirdness to make the stories distinct, especially among the DC comics of the era. What really gave the team legs, though, was the way the creative team handled the book’s eventual cancellation: the heroes didn’t just fade away or walk off into the sunset. The October 1968 issue saw the entire team sacrifice itself to save a small fishing village from the machinations of the Nazi General Zahl and the Chief’s sometimes-love interest Madame Rouge. A memorable ending can be more effective than a successful run, which is perhaps why the Doom Patrol eventually came back.

Prolific writer Paul Kupperberg spent years keeping the flame alive, first in a series of one-off stories, and then with a full revival in 1987. Cliff, we learned, survived, as did the negative energy spirit that once inhabited Larry Trainor. The Chief’s estranged wife Arani Desai takes it upon herself to put together a new team. The book that followed isn’t bad, amping up the soap opera aspects of the storylines while otherwise leaning into the more superheroic aspects of the team. (I tend to think of some of the lesser-appreciated Doom Patrol runs the same way I think of the Doom Patrol-ers themselves: plucky outsiders that don’t get enough love.) The Kupperberg era simply has the misfortune of being overshadowed by what came next. After 18 issues of declining sales, Kupperberg was replaced by a hip young Glaswegian named Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case.

If the original run of Doom Patrol in the 1960s was groundbreaking, Morrison and Case’s book was utterly subversive. Weird, goofy, and meta at a time when that wasn’t yet a default mode for superhero comics, it brought together a new team after several members of the old met a tragic end (a Doom Patrol running theme). Here, Cliff Steele isn’t just a man with a robot body; he describes himself as a total amputee, complete with phantom bowel movements. Each of newcomer Kay Challis’ 64 personalities manifests a different superpower. As a portrait of dissociative identity disorder, symptoms like Kay’s probably don’t show up in the DSM-IV. But Morrison grounds her DID in real, and genuinely heartbreaking, childhood abuse of the kind that can trigger symptoms very similar to those experienced by “Crazy Jane.” Dorothy Spinner is a pre-teen with a facial deformity. Tellingly, she’s never drawn as Hollywood ugly (with, like, glasses and a mole). She’s drawn with the face of an ape, and it’s very believable that a sweet but very damaged young girl approaching puberty would have a rough time of it. The queer and biracial Rebis is an amalgam of Larry Trainor, the Negative spirit, and an African-American doctor named Eleanor Poole. Josh Clay is the most “normal” member of the team, but that normalcy is leavened by the the relative scarcity of black superheroes.

They’re occasionally joined by Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery, and Danny the Street: a literal suburban street who also identifies as a cross-dresser and communicates in Polari, an old slang code used in Britain’s gay communities (he’s inspired by the British drag performer Danny LaRue). There are memorable adversaries (the Scissormen who cut people out of reality, the nihilistic Brotherhood of Dada, and Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. But the lines are always shifting, with classic-era arch-villain Mr. Nobody becoming a kinda/sorta ally and eventually runs for President with the Doom Patrol not standing in the way. And their final and most devastating adversary during this period isn’t a “bad guy” at all, but one of the team’s most important figures. It’s all much less about good vs. evil than it is about how damaged people engage with a world full of other damaged people who may have very different ideas.

It could all be a whole lotta weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but these are all real people with problems that aren’t just metaphors for real problems—they’re real problems. Cliff and the Chief’s disabilities, Dorothy’s lack of friends her own age, and the childhood sexual trauma that leads Kay to the mental hospital where the story begins. It’s not always easy to relate to super heroic angst, but these people’s problems and challenges bleed over into our world. Where this incarnation soars is not just in its wild story ideas and completely bonkers villains, but in its absolute commitment to the emotional reality of team members. As out there as things got during this era, they never stopped feeling like real human beings. Morrison’s run wasn’t an attempt to deconstruct superheroes so much as a triumphant effort to breathe new life into them.

Following Morrison’s groundbreaking run, Rachel Pollack took over, partnering first with Richard Case and then with the more abstract Ted McKeever. Those runs are not currently in print, though a reprint collection was recently announced and then quickly cancelled. Dorothy sets up housekeeping with Cliff and the Chief as her surrogate fathers, though the house they’ve chosen just happens to be a spiritual refuge for people who died there during sex accidents and a creepy doll named Charlie, so they’re never really alone. The two men are working through their own dramas while Dorothy’s just trying to get through puberty. Pollack leans into Morrison’s weirdness while adding layers distinctly her own: the challenges of Dorothy as a maturing young woman ostracized from society solely because of her appearance; the Kabbalah; and the introduction of Kate Godwin, a superhero who also happened to be a trans-woman and a bisexual former sex worker. It’s a vastly underrated run, building on the better-known stories that preceded it without merely aping what came before.

After Pollack’s run, the Doom Patrol lay fallow for several years. Three new series followed: one continuation and two reboots. Each has its virtues, none really caught fire… until late 2016, which brings us back to the beginning and the Gerard Way/Nick Derington series for Young Animal. Gleefully remixing elements from the team’s long history, this run introduces a point-of-view character named Casey Brinke, who serves as a guide to the Doom Patrol’s weird world. Of course, she’s not strictly normal herself: we quickly learn that she’s a creation of Danny the Street, enlisted to help save him from an intergalactic fast food consortium that wants Danny to use his life-giving powers to make their meat.

Like the best of Doom Patrol, Way and Derington’s issues are explicitly psychedelic while harboring more personal themes just below the surface. Coupled with the TV show, which more than deserves a second season, it feels like the next big boom in the team’s history, and it’s not a bad place to hop on board.

What’s your favorite run of Doom Patrol?

The post Weird. Queer. Disabled. Ugly: A Brief History of Doom Patrol appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

A New Green Lantern Series by N.K. Jemisin Will Help Relaunch DC’s Young Animal Imprint


After introducing some of the wildest stories into the DC Comics canon, the Young Animal imprint came to an end last fall, and the fates of many of the characters who made frequent appearances in books like Doom Patrol were cast into question. Now, though, Young Animal’s roaring back to life with a trio of new series…

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The Umbrella Academy Makes a Perfectly Improbable Leap from Page to Screen

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The Umbrella Academy unfurled on Netflix earlier this month, spreading itself out on our screens with bombast. Based on the quirky graphic novel series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, the show explores what it might truly mean to grow up with super powers, mixing slick ultra-violence, childhood drama, and absurdist humor with impeccable style. It is a breath of fresh air in a time when television is choked with more superhero shows than it seems possible for any one person to follow (case in point: on the same day The Umbrella Academy dropped, the new streaming service from publisher DC debuted another revisionist comic adaptation, Doom Patrol).

I’ve been a fan of Gerard Way for a long time. My fandom began with his band, My Chemical Romance, my devotion to which meant I’d follow him to the ends of the earth. Certainly, I didn’t hesitate when I heard he was putting out a comic. In the mid-2000s, Way—who was raised on the medium and allowed its influence on him to bleed through into his music—concocted an incredible idea for a subversive hero comic following seven super-powered siblings (each with their own code name and numerical identifier) who grow up to be maladjusted adults, only to be suddenly tasked with saving the world.

Published between 2007 and 2013 as two mini-series, plus a few standalone stories, the comic picked up an Eisner Award for Best Limited Series in 2008, thanks in no small part to Gabriel Bá’s instantly iconic art, which made Way’s writing soar and gave the series its own unique flair—which, impossibly seems to have translated quite well to the screen. With a rich color palette, careful framing, and an offbeat sense of absurd humor—not to mention a healthy smattering of voice-over narration—developed by Steve Blackman (Fargo) and Jeremy Slater (the live-action Death Note film), Netflix’s take on The Umbrella Academy resembles nothing so much as a superhero story by way of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. 

The adaptation combines the first two graphic novel volumes, The Apocalypse Suite and Dallas, into one cohesive plot stretching across 10 episodes. It deftly mixes characters and set pieces from each into a narrative that is engaging, suspenseful, and largely free of the bloat that has plagued many a streaming series in the past. As a devoted fan of the books, I at first quibbled at some of the liberties being taken with the plot and characterization, but it gets the important stuff entirely right.

My favorite character, the clairvoyant Klaus, fares very well: he’s a sarcastic, drugged out, goth-y mess of a human, played with charm and a hidden, haunted sadness by Robert Sheehan. Number Five, the lost brother of the family, who misjudged his time jumping ability and spent decades living alone in a post-apocalyptic future, only to come back to the present day in his original body, is one of the comics’ most sympathetic characters. Aidan Gallagher captures him perfectly, bouncing from cold-hearted killer to young kid at a blink. Ellen Page—certainly the most recognizable member of the cast—deserves particular notice for her portrayal of Vanya, the “ordinary” seventh member of the family. She plays her with kindness and a quiet, lingering sadness that anchors the madness whirling around her.

In some areas, the show builds upon the ideas in the source material to create something new. On the page, Klaus visits Vietnam with two of his siblings, and their trip is played largely for comedy. In the show he goes alone, and what he experiences there—including his relationship with a man named Dave, who becomes something of a love interest—hits like a punch to the gut, changing his character arc in interesting ways.  I’m usually a grump about it when an an adaptation veers from the source material, but again and again, The Umbrella Academy succeeds by doing just that.

Another way the show stands apart is through its use of music—not exactly a factor on the printed page. (It’s almost like Gerard Way is a musician or something.) The utterly inspired use of Tiffany’s ’80s’s pop anthem “I Think We’re Alone Now” to underscore an impromptu house dance party in the trailer sets the tone for the whole show. Other notable music moments: The Bay City Rollers cheesy stomper “Saturday Night,” pairs perfectly with a gunfight in a bowling alley; They Might Be Giant’s iconic “Istanbul” blares as Number Five faces down a platoon of masked goons in a donut shop. Way even gets into the act, reuniting with My Chemical Romance’s original guitarist, Ray Toro, to record two cover songs.

Even at this late date in the comics-to-screen era, the translation from four-color page to screen is still a tricky one. So many of the cartoony elements and over-the-top action beats inherent to the medium just don’t work the same way in live action. Netflix’s take on The Umbrella Academy does a good job of leaning into the realism while preserving some of the zanier moments. Only in the anything-goes television landscape of 2019 would an adaptation retain a character like Pogo, the monkey butler and helper to the heroes of the UA. On the page, he’s one more weird letter in a bowl of alphabet soup in an alien language. Making him work onscreen, both as a character and a special effect, must’ve been incredibly tricky. The show deploys him in just the right way.

Other wacky elements didn’t make the cut, sadly. Early in the comics, the heroes face down a band of floating robotic death machines. In the show, they’re merely masked assassins. Vanya—whose UA alias is the White Violin—undergoes a much less dramatic transformation than she does in the graphic novel: she still turns white, but she doesn’t become a living violin. (Yes, it’s that kind of comic.) In these cases, the tradeoffs make logical sense, even when you sometimes wish the show had gone for the weirder choice. But that’s why we have comics—where the show strives for (and attains) a fantastic balance between realism and the absurd, the comic can go as far over-the-top as it wants (and it goes pretty far).

By sticking close to its source material, The Umbrella Academy delivers everything you could ask for from a superhero show. It doesn’t lean on tired tropes, and its heroes—and their powers—are interesting, unusual, and, most critically, unique. But its even better when paired with the comics themselves—not only to hold off your ennui at having to wait for a second season, but to allow you to get ahead of the game. You’l want to be ready when the third volume, Hotel Oblivion—collecting on the first new UA stories in five years—arrives this summer.

Begin reading The Umbrella Academy now.

The post The Umbrella Academy Makes a Perfectly Improbable Leap from Page to Screen appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

There’s One Big Thing Holding The Umbrella Academy Back


Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s The Umbrella Academy is a curious blend. It mixes the original comic’s genuine oddness, which felt refreshing back in 2007 when Dark Horse first began publishing the series, and the kind of formulaic TV storytelling that’s come to define most of the…

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Netflix’s Umbrella Academy Lacks the Batshit Whimsy of Its Source Material


While you could always see flashes of the X-Men and other comics that inspired writer Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá in their Eisner award-winning limited series The Umbrella Academy, the book always felt like its own unique animal. It drew on classic cape tropes to tell a fresh story about the struggles that’d come…

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The Latest Umbrella Academy Trailer Is an Exhausting Family Reunion


Despite what people like Charles Xavier might tell you, being recruited as a child to become a globe-trotting superhero who fights epic, life-changing wars is a surefire way to ensure that you’re stuck in therapy for the bulk of your adult life, should you survive your upbringing. This is something the heroes of

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