Before Grant Morrison was a huge name in mainstream comic books — the writer of series like “New X-Men,” “All-Star Superman” and the forthcoming “Multiversity” — he was the brilliant weirdo who wrote “Doom Patrol.” Morrison and artist Richard Case took over that fourth-tier superhero series at the beginning of 1989 and spent the next four years driving it through zones of surreal madness that comics had scarcely visited before (and mostly haven’t revisited).
Their “Doom Patrol” run, close to 1,300 pages in all, is collected in this massive hardcover book; considered as a single work, its master plan is much more clearly evident.
The Doom Patrol had been kicking around in one form or another since 1963, a team of superpowered weirdos and outcasts led by a genius in a wheelchair (and yes, that premise has a lot in common with the X-Men, apparently by coincidence). The first great idea in Morrison’s incarnation of the series was playing up the idea that “superheroes” could mean “people who have something terribly wrong with their bodies.” The group’s mainstay is Cliff “Robotman” Steele, a former race-car driver whose brain powers a robot body; as he puts it in Morrison’s first episode, he’s a “total amputee.”
Morrison’s second great idea was to take inspiration from the early Surrealists — not just for the sake of weirdness but for the sake of a direct path to the unconscious — and from the films of Jan Švankmajer. The Doom Patrol’s old adversaries the Brotherhood of Evil are replaced by the Brotherhood of Dada; their bandage-swathed ally Negative Man is integrated into a hermaphroditic alchemical spirit called Rebis. One episode’s cliffhanger is a villain called the Shadowy Mr. Evans declaring “Rrrrreverth my buttockth, thergeant major!” beneath a giant hovering pyramid with three eyes. (Case, along with the many guest artists who worked on the series, cleverly integrates Surrealist images into the visual grammar of superhero stories.)
Surrealism can be hilarious when it shades into absurdity, and “The Doom Patrol Omnibus” is a very funny book when Morrison plays with the overexcited tropes of the era when the Doom Patrol first appeared. “Hated enemy! At last we are face-to-face in open combat!” declares one brain in a jar to another. One caption reads “Meanwhile, at that very moment, and then a few days later, but now…" A character named Flex Mentallo is a parody of old Charles Atlas ads: a halo reading “Hero of the Beach” follows him everywhere.
If all this seems a bit camp, it is, but in this context camp is specifically an expression of sexuality: the Doom Patrol are outcasts from the straight world too. The team’s headquarters is a sentient, mobile street that is also a transvestite with its gun shops and hardware stores decked out in frilly curtains. And the love story at the center of Morrison’s “Doom Patrol” is an impossible, unconsummated one, between the bodiless Robotman and Kay “Crazy Jane” Challis, a character inspired by Truddi Chase’s memoir of dissociative identity disorder, “When Rabbit Howls.” A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Crazy Jane has 64 discrete personalities, each of which has its own superpowers.
When it initially appeared in 1992, Morrison’s final issue of “Doom Patrol” was a surprise — readers had been led to understand that the one before it, which ends on a triumphant note, was his last. The actual coda is much darker and spells out the reasons why all the villains the Doom Patrol have fought over the course of the book are either “faceless forces of … an authority that’s incomprehensible and inhuman” or variations on “the omnipresent bad father.” It also underscores the questions that Morrison asks, in one form or another, throughout his run on the series: Might the absurd, treacherous world of the unconscious be preferable to our own crushingly sad corporeal existence?
The prevailing fashion in mainstream American comics at the time Morrison’s “Doom Patrol” began was grim post-"Dark Knight Returns” realism; by the time his run ended, the biggest superhero comics were incoherent muscles-and-pouches spectacles. This rigorously eccentric series was scarcely noticed at the time, but it’s held up better than nearly any of its contemporaries. It’s an eloquent call for a stranger, kinder world.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
The Doom Patrol Omnibus
Vertigo/DC: 1,288 pp., $150