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Monday, April 21, 2014 

The Atlantic gushes over Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol

The Atlantic gushed about Morrison's run on The Doom Patrol, which featured some of the most ghastly creature-feature-worthy ideas around:
Cliff Steele, Robotman, the one holdover from the old team, had always been portrayed as a freak, but Morrison went further and linked his plight directly to that of the disabled. In the first issue of Morrison's run (Doom Patrol #19) Cliff is shown as a full-body amputee; he talks about having not just phantom limbs, but phantom bowels, and at one point starts bashing his head against a wall in a futile effort to feel pain again. Another team member, Rebis, is a hermaphrodite or androgyne fusion of a white man and a black woman; s/he is both queer and biracial. Crazy Jane was abused as a child and has 64 different personalities, each with its own separate power. Dorothy, a young psychic, has Simian features that make her strikingly ugly. And Josh, or Tempest, is black, but the team is diverse enough that he gets presented as the bastion of normality and a father figure for Dorothy—not roles that African-American heroes often get to play in the still embarrassingly white world of mainstream superhero comics.
If Josh was depicted more normally than most of the other cast, he'd be the lucky character in the whole quagmire. Some of these ideas are enough to run screaming from the room.
Saving the squares, though, becomes less and less the focus as the series goes on. Instead, the Doom Patrol ends up fighting Mr. Jones, a family man who lives in the suburbs where he stabs his wife in the eyes and summons demons to attack Danny the Street, a sentient teleporting transvestite thoroughfare. Danny subsequently joins the Doom Patrol and helps them against a fascistic conspiracy based in the catacombs under the Pentagon.

The bad guys are by this point clearly identified with the establishment and, specifically, with policing sexual identity and norms. Moreover, those bad-guy establishment figures are every bit as weird as the weirdos they want to police; as just one iconic example, the conspirators beneath the Pentagon dye their pubic hair green. Marginality and normality, chaos and order, are shown as arbitrary distinctions. All of which raises the question, why is the Doom Patrol fighting "bad guys" anyway?
A better question would be: why was this revulsion greenlighted for publication anyway?
[...] In the final arc of the series, the Chief is revealed as the ultimate supervillain, who plans to use nanorobots to create a worldwide catastrophe in an effort to get everyone to evolve to the next (presumably weirder) level. He tells Cliff that his earlier experiments led him to arrange the car crash that destroyed Cliff's body, turning him from a self-centered, misogynist blowhard into an empathetic hero. "If you'd met me before my accident, I wouldn't have given you a second glance," Cliff tells Jane; his own trauma has made him identify with the marginalized and with those who need help.

But, importantly, the Chief's actions aren't condoned. Using others in a grand plot to replace the Man just changes the iron corrupt rule of the law-giving Pentagon with the iron corrupt rule of the chaotic nanomachine. Either way, somebody else makes you suffer at their arbitrary whim. The new supervillain is the same as the old superhero, or vice versa.
Whether the Chief's actions were condoned is not the point. It's why a once decent fellow was turned into a supervillain for the sake of it that is. This is one of the earliest examples I can find of its kind where goodies are turned into baddies all for the sake of it, retroactively humiliating their earlier appearances, in violation of Mark Gruenwald's argument against it. Towards the end, they say:
...Comics aren't necessarily about reinforcing the status quo or overturning the status quo, but about opening up a space to imagine somewhere else—a place where even the police get to take LSD trips and the ugly and the weird and the other don't need to be fixed. As the last line of Morrison's run says, "There is another world. There is a better world. Well, there must be."
Yeah, and not in this overrated book. This was obviously one of the early US comics where he injected metaphors for drugs. There may be a market out there for weirdness, but it doesn't have to be the kind Morrison concocted. And I'm not impressed with his retcon of Niles Caulder (Chief) either.

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Dr. Caulder, aka "the Chief," was originally a father figure and a mentor. Now he's a conniving mastermind with a hidden agenda. And Hal Jordan became the villain Parallax, Adam Strange is an interplanetary breeding stud, Tony Stark is an alcoholic, Bruce Banner was abused as a child, and Billy Batson is a potty-mouthed street punk. Evidently, today's "creators" are so unhinged themselves that they don't know how to depict characters who are not whacked out.

And don't even let me get started on the cliche' of an evil right-wing conspiracy in the Pentagon.

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