"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Many times we superhero fans talk about the “need” to read certain prior issues and/or storylines. Blah blah blah, every issue is someone’s first, etc.
Well, I’m here to tell you … if you’re a fan of Silver Age DC, or of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans, and especially if you’re a fan of NTT‘s Garfield Logan, you need to read the original Doom Patrol. Having just finished Showcase Presents The Doom Patrol Volume 2, which reprints the back half of the DP’s original series, I can say honestly that my eyes have been opened. I never really “got” the appeal of the Doom Patrol before I read this collection — but I get it now.
What’s more, those old stories shed new light not just on what the DP meant to its fans, but on what Wolfman and Pérez were trying to do with Titans.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for some decades-old stories …
* * *
Before we begin in earnest, I have to say one thing about Doom Patrol’s dialogue: it has not aged particularly well. It tries desperately to be hip, and it does have a certain ding-dong-daddy-o rhythm, but it could make Bob Haney’s Teen Titans sound like David Mamet. Flipping randomly through SPDPV2, I find Robotman exclaiming
Hold it, Brain-baby! I understand you were responsible for creating this ape genius — so [lifting Monsieur Mallah over his head] here’s a Father’s Day present for you! Catch!
Vernacular aside, though, I was impressed with writer Arnold Drake’s ambition. Silver Age DC superhero books mostly deserve their reputation for standalone stories which, in comparison with their Marvel contemporaries, tend to be rather bland. Issue #110 (cover-dated March 1967), from which came the aforementioned bit of dialogue, would have shared newsstands with (among others) a Gardner Fox/Sheldon Moldoff Penguin story in Batman #190, a John Broome/Carmine Infantino Green Lantern team-up in Flash #168, Leo Dorfman and Pete Costanza’s “Jimmy Olsen’s Weirdo Wedding” in Jimmy Olsen #100, and Bob Haney and Irv Novick’s “A Killer Called Honey Bun” in Teen Titans #8. Meanwhile, Marvel was offering a Stan Lee/John Romita Vulture/Kraven team-up in Amazing Spider-Man #49, Lee/Kirby introducing Blastaar in Fantastic Four #63, more Lee/Kirby with “the Growing Man” in Thor #140, and a Hercules/Sub-Mariner guest-shot in Roy Thomas and Don Heck’s Avengers #40.
And Doom Patrol looked more like a staid DC book than a swingin’ sample of House of Ideas “Pop Art” — but on the inside, it was different. While there were standalone stories and a nominal amount of two-parters, Drake connected the issues with continuing subplots, fleshed out the characters’ histories with backup features, and combined everything into a more complex narrative. For example, over the course of the series, Rita “Elasti-Girl” Farr was romanced by billionaire and part-time superhero Steve “Mento” Dayton. The two ended up not only married, but the adoptive parents of young master Logan. None of this comes particularly easily, especially Gar’s adoption, but neither is it all angst. The B-plot of Doom Patrol #120 is a lighthearted romp showing the family getting into trouble while out on the town.
Nevertheless, in hindsight DP #120 is awfully bittersweet, because issue #121 closes out the series quite dramatically. The bare bones of this issue are probably familiar to most DC fans: as editor Murray Boltinoff* and artist Bruno Premiani break the fourth wall to argue against Doom Patrol’s cancellation, the team sacrifices itself to save the tiny fishing village of Codsville, Maine. In the context of the series, though, Doom Patrol #121 caps a star-crossed love story, between Niles Caulder (the DP’s “Chief”) and the team’s arch-foe Madame Rouge.
Seems that Mme. Rouge was only evil because the Brain and Monsieur Mallah got to her first and performed brain surgery to amp up her bad side. Discovering this — and acting in no small part on their shared attraction — the Chief had secretly administered long-distance corrective treatments. Before long, she was living at Doom Patrol headquarters, but she had become her old allies’ number-one target. Indeed, issue #119’s apparently-unrelated story (involving a “guru” brainwashing the DP) turned out to be a ploy to re-evil-ize Madame Rouge. This time, though, pulling the strings was Rouge herself. In a triumphant transmission to the Doom Patrol, she declared “I am my own master now! I weel gather my own forces! Zen our march begins! And ze first target is [the Chief]!”
“But I thought she liked the Chief!” pondered Robotman.
“She loved him, dope!” explained Elasti-Girl. “Once in her whole evil life, she loved someone!”
“And now,” continued Negative Man, “she wants to kill him for uncovering her weak spot!”
It took a couple of issues, but she made good in DP #121. The issue is one high-pressure event after another, starting with Rouge’s murder of the Brain and Monsieur Mallah. When she strafes Doom Patrol headquarters with napalm-spewing helicopters, it forces the government to evacuate the team, and thereby avoid further damage to innocent bystanders. The Patrol’s departure is greeted with jeering hecklers, taunting the heroes for retreating; but the group merely relocates to a heavily-fortified Caribbean island (perhaps Oolong’s inspiration?). They’re barely off their plane, however, when Nazi frogmen (working for Rouge’s ally Captain Zahl) blow it up and storm the island. Zahl’s submarine is equipped with special weapons which immobilize our heroes, and Zahl himself broadcasts their putative humiliation to the world.
Zahl offers the Doom Patrol a choice: save themselves and he’ll destroy Codsville, Maine; or sacrifice themselves for Codsville’s fourteen fishermen. Zahl and Rouge (who really doesn’t want Caulder dead) are counting on the average person’s innate selfishness to make the choice for the Patrollers — but of course, the Doom Patrol would rather sacrifice themselves than be responsible for the deaths of innocents. The rest is tragic superhero history: Caulder’s island is destroyed and the Doom Patrol with it. The final pages of DP #121 feature Steve Dayton vowing to hunt down Rouge, Zahl, and anyone who helped kill his wife and her friends; and the issue closes with Boltinoff challenging Doom Patrol’s readers to work a “miracle.”
Now, I knew going into these Doom Patrol reprints that the original series would not end well. Naturally, that knowledge was itself mitigated by the team’s various revivals. Regardless, I was still moved by the grim inevitability of DP #121’s ending. Throughout the series, Drake and Premiani put the Doom Patrol through the wringer on a regular basis. Much of DP #121 was no different. This time, though, I knew the Doom Patrol wasn’t getting out alive; and I appreciated how its original fans must have reacted to the series’ end.
I was also pleasantly surprised at how directly New Teen Titans picked up from the end of DP #121. With Gar Logan a main cast member, Steve Dayton and (the rebuilt) Robotman made occasional appearances, and Wolfman and Pérez had revealed that Dayton and Robotman hadn’t stopped looking for the Doom Patrol’s murderers. The Titans pick up the search (on behalf of a wounded Gar) in November 1981’s issue #13, with Robin, Cyborg, and Kid Flash having followed Robotman’s trail to Zahl’s base in Africa. Since it includes two sidekicks who knew the Doom Patrol personally, as well as a “robotman” who has become one of Gar’s best friends, this group of Titans is especially significant. When Kid Flash finds (as Wolfman describes him) a “torn and mangled” Robotman, strung up unconscious with a “Trespassers Will Be Executed!” sign around his neck, it shakes the speedster to his core.
More shaken, though, is Gar himself. Having just been brought back from pretty-much-dead by Paradise Island’s finest science, and being confronted with the thought of bringing his friends’ (and stepmother’s) killers to justice, Gar turns deadly serious, eventually teaming up with the also-not-dead Brain, Monsieur Mallah, and a new Brotherhood of Evil, all of whom want to kill Rouge and Zahl. I used to think Gar’s rage was somewhat forced, like Wolfman and Pérez felt they needed to do something a little different with the character. Now that I’ve seen him as a Doom Patroller, though, Gar’s anger is more understandable, as the product of years of repression under a brash façade. The Doom Patrol’s demise not only deprived Gar of friends and family (again), it alienated his stepfather from him.
Still, New Teen Titans #13-15 stands on its own. It’s a neat, compact arc with epic aspirations, involving two sets of super-foes, a rogue state, a flying city, a (rather far-fetched) “de-evolution chamber” — which, actually, wouldn’t have been out of place in Drake and Premiani’s Doom Patrol — and, as usual, some nifty George Pérez artwork. The fact that it seeks to enlighten readers about one of DC’s cult classics might seem at first like nostalgia for its own sake.
However, in retrospect, I can see a lot of Drake’s Doom Patrol in Wolfman’s Titans. For one thing, with regard to Gar’s constant wisecracking, I never realized how close Wolfman came to Drake’s dialogue.** (I might have had a problem with it, but it was best-suited to Gar.) More to the point, though, it’s no accident that Wolfman made Gar best friends with the Titans’ “robotman” (not least because Gar made the connection himself more than once). I used to think that Wolfman’s work on Fantastic Four, and specifically the Ben/Johnny relationship, informed Vic and Gar’s relationship; but now I wonder how much Wolfman’s affection for Doom Patrol’s “freaks” influenced how he wrote the sometimes-outcast FF. I daresay there’s as much Arnold Drake as there is Ben Grimm in Victor Stone’s early adventures.
In “death,” of course, Doom Patrol became a touchstone for DC’s superhero line. The current Legacies miniseries uses the DP’s sacrifice to divide the lighthearted Silver Age of the ‘60s from the darker days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Certainly the Doom Patrol’s demise sent a clear signal to DC’s readers that “dead means dead,” because it took almost ten years to create a new team (and revive Robotman and Negative Man’s energy being in the process). Today, death is a cliché, DC’s attempts to the contrary notwithstanding — but (at the risk of invoking another cliché) what made the Doom Patrol’s deaths meaningful was the way they lived their lives. At the end of New Teen Titans #15, Rouge and Zahl are dead, and the Titans’ temporary alliance with the Brotherhood of Evil is over. The Brain gloats to Gar that his enemies’ end was “glorious … so glorious.”
Gar replies, at the start of one of Wolfman’s typically James T. Kirk-esque speeches, “Glorious? Y’know, Brain, I guess that’s what separates the good guys from the bad guys. You actually believe killing accomplishes something positive.” Later, tearfully reunited with Dayton, Gar continues, “… I once thought when this ended, it would end all my memories of the Doom Patrol. But it doesn’t, you know. I think without the hate clouding my mind — that they’re brighter in my heart than ever.”
I’m glad at last that I can appreciate Gar’s (and Marv Wolfman’s) memories more fully.
* * *
* [According to this Amazing Heroes article, “Drake had included himself in the script, but, according to Drake, DC Publisher Irwin Donenfeld ordered him removed from the story because Drake had left to work for Marvel after a dispute over his page rate with Donenfeld.”]
** [Wolfman also used a lot of Gar’s Doom Patrol backstory, including his evil guardian Galtry and his high-school sweetheart Jillian, in the Tales of the New Teen Titans issue which expanded on Gar’s origins.]