Killing for Art (Book Three, Part 36: The Brotherhood of Dada, Dada)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison’s early issues of Doom Patrol showed a clear debt to avant garde art of many kinds.
“They would die for art in any case. Killing for art was far easier.” -Kieron Gillen, The Wicked + The Divine
Morrison, however, embraced strangeness for its own sake, turning to these techniques simply because in their view Doom Patrol should be weird and these were the weird things they liked. This was not quite the same thing, and would be an approach that came with perils. Equally, when it worked it was spectacular. Their second major arc, beginning in issue #26, was a tour de force that served in many ways to exemplify the appeal of their take on the book. At the heart of it was their reworking of the Brotherhood of Evil, a recurring set of Doom Patrol villains dating back to Doom Patrol #86 in 1964, the first issue after the title renamed itself from My Greatest Adventure. As with much of Arnold Drake’s run, this group had an endearing strangeness to them—its first appearance offered the rare supervillain team that had a disembodied brain in a vat, a talking gorilla, and a giant robot. The latter of these was named Rog, and was stolen by a man named Eric Morden as part of his efforts to join the group. The Brotherhood of Evil made a second attempt to destroy the Doom Patrol in the very next issue, and continued to appear throughout the original run of Doom Patrol with an ever-shifting membership (Madame Rouge, who eventually killed the Doom Patrol, was one of its original members, and General Immortus eventually joined), but Eric Morden vanished after that first appearance without further mention.
In issue #26, however, Morrison revealed that the mysterious figure who had been lurking around the edges of the previous few issues in a series of one and two page scenes was none other than Eric Morden, who explains, in a gloriously unreconstructed supervillain monologue, that he went into hiding in Paraguay after enraging the talking gorilla Monsieur Mallah and the disembodied brain The Brain. There he took up an offer from a Nazi scientist to make him a new man, a process that involved paralyzing him and leaving him in a sensory depravation tank for three days, where he went gradually insane and then, in a climactic moment, found himself reborn as “the spirit of the twenty-first century, the abstract man. The virtual man. The notional man.” Or, as he ultimately decided on. Mr. Nobody—a strange and cartoonish abstraction of a human figure shown only in two dimensional silhouette. And having recruited a new team he dubbed them not the Brotherhood of Evil but the Brotherhood of Dada.
Dada was part of the modernist rush of new and radical artistic movements—a cousin of Futurism and Cubism. But more than any of these, its approach was one that saw forward and anticipated the postmodern turn. Its best known practitioner is probably Marcel Duchamp, who rebranded his existing practice of “anti-art” to Dada after moving to New York City in the wake of World War I. Duchamp’s goal was to challenge and subvert the notions of what art meant, most famously through the presentation of his “Readymades,” in which he presented existing objects as works of art, such as his 1914 Bottle Rack and his 1915 In Advance of the Broken Arm (a snow shovel). The most famous of these was 1917’s Fountain, which took the form of a urinal (although it has been suggested that Elsa Hildegard Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven may have been the actual originator of the piece). The point of these works was not akin to the eventually common practice of having “design” sections of museums highlighting the craft and evolution of aesthetics in everyday objects. Duchamp insisted that “the choice of these ‘Readymades’ was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste … in fact a complete anaesthesia.” In other words, Duchamp was engaging not with the object per se but with the act of demarcating something as “a work of art” and putting it in a gallery, taking objects that were notable precisely for their banality and declaring that they ought be viewed as art so as to highlight the underlying strangeness of that action.
In labeling this practice as Dada, Duchamp was attaching himself to a pre-existing artistic tradition that initially centered in Zürich around the Cabaret Voltaire, an avant garde night club founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. This was the site of a series of performance nights beginning in February, 1916 and continuing until the summer. The atmosphere was a febrile cloud of frustration and anger at the war—a virtual who’s who of the avant garde all channeling their outrage at the brutal madness that was slaughtering a generation of European men and at the world that let it happen. The result was a comprehensive and righteous assault on the entire fabric of bourgeois European culture, generally in the form of radical experimentation with the basic mechanics of language and representation. Hans Arp described one night at the Cabaret: “The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos … [Tristan] Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. [Marcel] Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madam Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. [Richard] Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano pale as a chalky ghost. We were given the honorary title of Nihilists.” Somewhere in all of this, for reasons that were never entirely documented, came a name for the movement: Dada.
As the Cabaret Voltaire’s initial run began to wind down, Hugo Ball composed a Dada Manifesto, an absurdist document that made wild and outlandish claims for Dada, or rather “dada,” the very word itself, without ever bothering to define the actual movement. “How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world’s best lily-milk soap.” A heady and ridiculous mix, much like Ball’s own work—his performances of “sound poems” that rejected language entirely, or his June 23rd, 1916 Cabaret Voltaire performance in which he dressed in a cardboard priest outfit and intoned ritual gibberish until he was carried from the stage.
In 1918 the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, a regular at the Cabaret Voltaire since the opening night, took his own stab at a manifesto following a schism with Ball that led to Ball departing the movement, leaving Tzara, always one of its most vocal proponents, as the primary figure associated with European Dada. Tzara’s manifesto is a far longer and more nuanced document, less concerned with an impish performance of nonsense than with a furious confrontation with the world. He opens by rejecting the very idea of a manifesto: “In principle I am against manifestoes, as I am also against principles (half-pints to measure the moral value of every phrase too too convenient; approximation was invented by the impressionists). I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air; I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense.” To Tzara, “All pictorial or plastic work is useless: let it then be a monstrosity that frightens servile minds, and not sweetening to decorate the refectories of animals in human costume, illustrating the sad fable of mankind.”
Eventually, post-War, the bulk of the Dada movement settled in Paris, where the movement wound down, eventually suffering a schism between Tzara and André Breton, who provoked a riot at the premiere of a 1923 production of Tzara’s play The Gas Heart before storming off to found surrealism. Nevertheless, Dada’s influence was substantive, its unabashed and confrontational radicalism setting the stage for much of the avant-garde that followed and serving as a well to be tapped into by countless successor movements, a lineage reaching through surrealism, situationism, punk, and beyond. Perhaps most notably, Tzara, in 1920, wrote a short piece entitled “To Make a Dadaist Poem” in which he instructed readers to “Take a newspaper. / Take some scissors. / Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem. / Cut out the article. / Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag. / Shake gently. / Next take out each cutting one after the other. / Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. / The poem will resemble you.” This is recognizable as the cut-up technique, later to be used by Burroughs and Gysin for overtly magical purposes.
Morrison’s Brotherhood of Dada, like the Doom Patrol itself, is a motley crew of varied absurdities. Not all of the members were completely bonkers—Frenzy, who has human cyclone powers, is relatively normal all things considered, save for an outlandish outfit and the fact that he’s illiterate, which, given that he’s the only Black member of the team, is fairly cringeworthy. Others, however, like the Fog, who absorbs people into the mysterious psychedelic cloud he can turn into, but is slowly driven mad by all the voices in his head, or Sleepwalk, who has super-strength but only when she’s asleep, are far weirder. And then there is The Quiz, who has every superpower that you haven’t thought of, but who is plagued by debilitating mysophobia. She is clearly and unabashedly Morrison’s favorite of the bunch, repeatedly unveiling absurd powers that nobody had previously thought of. Her primary scene is a battle with Rebis, who frantically names powers to strip her of them: flight, super-strength, telepathy, heat vision, x-ray vision, dematerialization, invulnerability, force fields, teleporation, super breath, telescopic vision, sonic powers, super speed, and metamorphosis, but to no avail as The Quiz dryly notes that “you forgot the power to create escape-proof spirit jars.”
Not only does the arc feature one of the best supporting casts of Morrison’s run (and indeed of the 1980s), but it features an engagingly madcap plot. Mr. Nobody’s big scheme is to steal a “hungry” painting that eats people and to then use it to consume Paris. Unlike Crawling From the Wreckage, where Morrison freely pilfered plot elements from Borges, here they slow down and ground this notion in a history—one that freely references historical figures like Coleridge, De Quincey, Piranesi, Wilde, and Austin Spare. The result, especially when combined with the references to Dada (Morrison namechecks Duchamp, Tzara, breton, and Arthur Cravan) provides any reader interested in making the trip an enticing list of questions to bug their local librarian with, especially when they hit the couple of fictional names like Max Bordenghast (allegedly an Icelandic shamanic artist) and Comte D’Aguille (an “enigmatic and sadistic” art collector) Morrison slips into the litany. It’s more than enough to send a bookish teenager down a path towards aggressively weird counterculture.
Mr. Nobody unveils his scheme with delicious and campy panache, gathering a crowd in front in front of the Eiffel Tower, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Children and Microbes and all listening gods,” he announces. “Dada is a state of mind. Dada applies itself to everything and yet it is anothing. It is the pointa t which yes and no and all opposites meet. Dada is useless, like everything else in life. And Dada has no pretentions, just as life should have none.” When he is inevitably challenged by a cop, he dramatically throws a dead chicken on the ground and proclaims, “There! We have now taken over the world. What are you going to do about that?” When the cop further protests, Mr. Nobody apologizes. “I’m afraid I can’t understand a word you’re saying. I don’t speak fascist.” And then The Quiz turns him into a toilet full of flowers. As for the painting, Mr. Nobody activates it with a work of automatic poetry called “The Persian Red Railway,” causing it to glow radiantly and consume the entire city. “It works!” shouts Mr. Nobody as the comic pulls back to show a painting of Mr. Nobody shouting “It Works!” while standing in front of a copy of the painting in which he’s standing, a canvas with another identical painting at its center.
The arc continues with a similarly boffo torrent of concepts and ideas. The Doom Patrol follow the Brotherhood into the painting, where they discover the world within each layer of the painting is, outside of the depicted room, an entirely different artistic tradition, allowing Morrison to offer accounts about various artistic movements. (“It looks real enough… but it has no heart… we’re inside a photorealistic painting. What else can we expect?”) And then in the arc’s final issue it’s revealed that the gnostic idea of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse was always latent in the painting, and it’s been gaining power, drawing on new aspects with each layer of the painting that the Doom Patrol and the Brotherhood moved through. Ultimately Crazy Jane rides the horse out of the painting, which transforms it into a toy rocking horse by finally stripping it of all meaning and reducing it to pure absurdity (while also making a sly reference to one of the supposed origins for the name Dada).
This was like nothing else on the stands—an almost completely sui generis approach to superhero comics. Where Animal Man saw Morrison starting from many of the techniques and styles that Moore had pioneered and building their own structure on top of it, this was like nothing Moore had done or would do. Sure, Moore would eventually come around to a similarly allusive structure, using his comics as accessible primers for his obsessions, but Morrison never tips into the sort of elaborate lectures that Moore would use. They reference Duchamp and Spare and De Quincey, yes, but they rarely explain them in any depth because that’s not the point. At the end of the day Doom Patrol is offering a big and goofy adventure romp where heroes and villains fight, then reluctantly unite against a larger threat. But this frame of a plot exists to serve as a platform for a giddy deluge of ideas. Morrison’s goal is not to explicate art history, but rather to offer a flood of concepts the value of which is precisely its pure and unadulterated excess. More is more, and only too much can possibly be enough. It’s a heady and thrilling approach, and one well-suited to the burgeoning notion of “geek culture” within which superhero comics were rapidly being subsumed. Comics fandom, after all, was increasingly based on an almost pathological completism, as the vast sprawl of the Invasion! crossover demonstrated. Morrison’s intuitive leap from that to “so therefore readers will love all these art history references” may not have been the most obvious one available, but it paid off handsomely, taking Doom Patrol from the brink of cancellation to a comfortable midlist position nestled between Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. [continued]