Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison triumphantly ended their run on Doom Patrol.
“To learn to play seriously is one of the great secrets of spiritual exploration.” – Rachel Pollack, The Forest of Souls
Grant Morrison stepped off of Doom Patrol at the end of 1992, just before the launch of Vertigo. Taking over the title for the new imprint was Rachel Pollack, a novelist and Tarot scholar, who recounts that she got the job when “At a party I met the editor, Tom Peyer, and after gushing about it confessed it was (then) the only monthly comic I really wished I might someday have a chance to write. Tom told me that Grant was ending his run, and if I wanted to send him a sample script he’d consider it. So I did, and it became my first issue.” This account is at least slightly improbable, given that Pollack’s first arc, cheekily titled Sliding Through the Wreckage, is heavily rooted in the status quo that Morrison left, which, much like the stati quo Drake and Kupperberg had left, basically amounted to the entire team being out of commission, with Dorothy the team’s sole representative in the real world and thus Pollack’s initial focus character, quickly pulling Cliff back from Danny the World, with a pointed lack of clarification over what happened between him and Jane. (Eventually, well into her run, Pollack establishes that they broke up, although in practice this was forced by Morrison’s request that Jane be left alone.)
Pollack’s early run suffered the fate that most follow-ups to tremendously successful and iconic runs do, namely comparison. Obviously, given that she was writing the ongoing Doom Patrol book for Vertigo, a line that was centered on the post-Moore British Invasion that Morrison was a key part of, there was good reason for her to follow in their footsteps. And Pollack’s first six issues read in many ways like a toned down and accessible Morrison, with enemies who speak in indecipherable dialogue like “Backwards glances like dead trees? Tradition valued with new sprouts” and a fetus-headed entity that steals things from the world and replaces them with pieces of paper with the names of the thing written on them. It’s not bad, and indeed to a reader who finds the excesses and occasional incoherences of Morrison’s weaker efforts particularly intolerable could even be argued to be the stronger work, although most would be forced to admit that Pollack’s version lacks the vital spark of urgent and visionary weirdness that animated Morrison’s work, instead contenting itself to rearrange the pieces of their run in a series of capable imitations.
At least, for the first six issues. But with Doom Patrol #70 the picture begins to decisively change. This is not entirely a sudden shift—as soon as Pollack got past Sliding Through the Wreckage she began shaping the team into something that was her own, first by giving them a new headquarters—a rural house haunted by a bunch of ghosts who died in sex-related accidents that Caulder insists on calling sexually remaindered spirits, cheekily shortened to SRS. But it was not until issue #70 that she introduced the character that would define her run in the way that Crazy Jane did Morrison’s: Kate Godwin. Kate, who used the superhero name Coagula, albeit sporadically, was a trans sex worker who acquired alchemically based superpowers of dissolving and coagulating objects following a night with Rebis. After failing to gain admittance to the Justice League (“I suspect they liked my powers but couldn’t handle me,” she notes with painfully understandable diplomacy” she ends up meeting the Doom Patrol after stopping the villainous Codpiece Man, a savage parody of masculine insecurity. (The issue’s title, “The Laughing Game,” further cements the wit with its invocation of transphobic classic The Crying Game.)
Kate quickly established herself as a second anchor for Pollack’s run, alongside Dorothy, who remained central. She took on many of the narrative roles held by Crazy Jane—an outsider perspective and a confidante of Cliff. But there was a marked and significant difference. Where Jane was Morrison appropriating someone else’s story, Kate is rooted firmly in Pollack’s own experiences as a trans woman. Pollack uses this both to grind some axes—there’s a polite “ahem” aimed at Neil Gaiman when some people doing lunar blood magic explicitly for women only vocally avow Kate’s right to participate—and for some delightful comedy beats, most obviously when Kate is very, very perplexed by the SRS acronym.
Mostly, however, Pollack uses it for probing and powerful explorations of gender, identity, and trauma. In her run’s zenith, the five-part The Teiresias Wars, which saw the debut of Ted McKeever, whose expressionistic and abstracted style honed Pollack’s run into something with a clear aesthetic vision, Cliff awkwardly realizes his friend is trans, sputtering himself into a cliche transphobic rant about how “you had a penis, right? Maybe you chopped it off, but you had one, right? In my book that makes you a man,” to which Kate icily notes, “What about you, Cliff? Do you have a penis? What are you?” Eventually they reconcile, in a phenomenal scene in which Cliff expresses the old themes of Morrison’s run—the desire for normality and Kate relates them to trans concerns, replying to Cliff’s stated desire to “at least look normal, so people wouldn’t stare and point all the time” by introducing him to the concept of passing, and subsequently validating his realization that “I like being different” with her own unrepentant embrace of her queer identity. The arc climaxes when Kate and Cliff have to merge into a single entity, which is accomplished through copulation that recognizes both superhero robot and trans woman as different forms of queer bodies. (Cliff frets that he can’t engage in sex because doesn’t “have the equipment,” but Kate, naked and embracing him as she runs her tongue across his chest, assures him that “orgasm takes place in the brain.”)
Subsequent arcs revised Morrison’s approach to Dorothy and menstruation into something more nuanced and explored notions of trauma and identity when a character called the False Memory implants the idea that Kate was raped multiple times in her life, a revelation the False Memory defends by saying that “they gave your life more meaning, didn’t they? Didn’t they explain everything that needed explaining?”, a claim that Kate understandably and furiously rejects, and that serves as a barbed commentary on the way in which Morrison treated Jane’s assault as a “solution” to the puzzle of her. It’s incendiary, brilliant stuff. In many ways, in fact, it’s better than Morrison’s run. It is perhaps less revelatory—where Morrison’s take was, in 1989, a decisive break from the mainstream of comics, Pollack’s take four years later was necessarily less of a rupture with the by then established genre of weirdo comics that Vertigo was created to sell. But Morrison’s Doom Patrol often had little to say beyond the basic fact of that rupture—its weirdness was an end in itself. Pollack’s run, on the other hand, has a point of view—a clear set of investments and things it wants to say. At their best, Morrison could do this too, but even there you can put the “come in out of the rain” scene side by side with Cliff and Kate talking about embracing their queerness among the greats. Pollack could, at the end of the day, do every trick that Morrison could and then move on to her own.
In the end, however, the great reconciliation between menstruation-focused lunar paganism and trans identities, the nature of queer embodiment, and the lack of a need for traumagenic origins for one’s idiosyncrasies, while undoubtedly worthy themes, proved to be a bridge too far for your average superhero-adjacent American comics reader. Sales dwindled, and the book was cancelled with issue #87, almost exactly two years after Pollack took it over. Its legacy is tortured to say the least—the Internet is dotted with essays lauding it as a criminally underappreciated run, but DC Comics remains stubbornly unmoved, pointedly declining to revive any aspect of it or make any sort of acknowledgment of the DC Universe’s first openly transgender character, and remaining locked in a seemingly endless cycle of announcing and cancelling a collected edition of the run. (A $100 hardcover is currently scheduled for July 2022.)
In the years since, the characters saw a sporadic series of attempts to revive them. In 2001 John Arcudi and Tan Eng Huat launched a Doom Patrol series back under the DC banner. This series nominally picked up on the end of Pollack’s run by revealing a bit of the way in that Dorothy Spinner killed the Pollack team during a breakdown, offering the only post-Pollack appearance of Kate as she gets a few pages of flashback appearance before being incinerated. The run ended with with Cliff pulling the plug on Dorothy’s life suport, pointedly removing the last shred of the Vertigo era. An even more cynical rejection came three years later when John Byrne did a Doom Patrol relaunch that actively wiped the entire Kupperberg/Morrison/Pollack run out of continuity, returning to the original Elasti-Girl, Roboman, and Negative Man triumverate. Like most Byrne series, it featured creepy pedophilia undertones. A few years later Keith Giffen tried again, with the most Morrison-acknowledging effort yet, including the return of Crazy Jane, before Morrison protege Gerard Way used the title to headline his Young Animal imprint. By and large these titles mostly served to bolster the argument that the success of Morrison’s run on the book was a flash in the pan—a marriage of writer, subject, and time that could not be replicated.
In 2019, however, Warner Bros., looking for content for their fledgling DC Universe streaming service, decided to make a Doom Patrol series. Initially this was a spinoff of their existent Titans show, but was eventually reworked to feature the actors cast for the team’s appearance on Titans in a separate continuity. The lineup was an odd sort of bastard hybrid of various takes on the team. The core is the original Elasti-Girl/Negative Man/Roboman trio, working under Niles Caulder, augmented by Crazy Jane and, in a bid at populism, Teen Titans mainstay Cyborg. Plots, however, drew primarily from the Morrison era, with the first season’s metaplot involving Mr. Nobody and the second involving the introduction of Dorothy Spinner and the threat of the Candlemaker, although both Kupperberg-era and Way-era plots also make appearances. (As with the comics, however, the Pollack run is aggressively ignored—much like the Justice League, it turns out superhero television can’t handle Kate Godwin.)
The resulting show is an odd thing, which sounds promising given the comics it’s adopting. In practice, however, the show finds itself constantly torn between the “play the hits” mandate of comic book adaptations and a fundamental discomfort with the fact that the hits are all batshit weird comics by Grant Morrison. The problems with this approach become clear almost at the outset, as the show does its version of the “come in out of the rain” scene. Except that despite having an entire hour of space to fill, the scene is rendered as a vapid and contextless nothing, even as it’s subsequently treated as a moment of extreme dramatic weight. In the show, the scene constitutes the second meeting between Cliff and Jane, coming immediately after a first in which one of her alters, Hammerhead, threateningly gropes him. The scene takes place in two parts—a brief one in which Jane is shown painting, in daylight. In this they apologize, with Cliff admitting he’s a little on edge. A couple of seconds of narration from Mr. Nobody follow in which it starts to rain, and the second part plays out. They talk briefly about “remembering what it’s like to be normal,” and then the final bits of dialogue from Morrison’s original scene play out. “My painting’s ruined. Everything’s gone wrong.” “Come in out of the rain.”
What’s absent here is first and foremost context for Cliff. There’s a vague sense of Cliff replacing his seemingly dead daughter with Jane, but the half hour of episode prior to this scene has mostly just been exposition in which his waking up in a robot body is used as the lens to introduce the Doom Patrol. He’s not institutionalized following a major emotional trauma and looking for a sense of purpose. Indeed, immediately before Jane’s introduction there’s a time lapse montage in which twenty-five years pass and Cliff settles into a sense of stability, making his reaching out to Jane something that doesn’t meaningfully come as a major emotional shift on his part. The changes to Jane’s dialogue, meanwhile, are large and unsatisfying. The focus on remembering normality instead of a confused lack of understanding of the basic idea of it is emptier and less interesting. When Cliff expresses the occasional hope that he might return to normality, Jane sighs “I don’t even know what to hope for,” a far cry from the pain of “what happens when you just can’t be strong anymore? What happens if you’re weak?” The beat is there, but muted, hollow, stripped of the things that could be described as “what it has to say.”
This is, unfortunately, the show’s basic approach to Morrison’s material. Danny the Street is flattened into a generic pride narrative, all the queerness of the idea sanded down to the proven mass market potential of a drag show, complete with a singalong number so cringingly bland it wouldn’t have been out of place a decade earlier on Glee. The adaptation of “Going Underground,” meanwhile, takes a story that was already dangerously simplified and strips it down even further, cutting away the interesting framework of the underground in favor of structuring the entire story as a mystery whose answer is abuse.
None of this is surprising, especially in the post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world of comic adaptations. The only strange thing is seeing it happen to Morrison, and more to the point to Morrison at their weirdest and most gonzo. Reading Morrison’s Doom Patrol it is easy to assume that it offers something singular and incorruptible, so full of avant garde strangeness that it was fundamentally unsuitable to being bulldozed into mass market congeniality. In the face of its glorious and thrilled enthusiasm it is easy to imagine that Morrison’s utopianism is an unequivocal path forward—an emphatic demonstration of the way that superheroes should be. And it’s true, the Doom Patrol series takes nothing away from Morrison’s comics, which are as mad and charning as ever. All the same, there is something disquieting about the blandness of the show—the way in which Morrison’s plot points are traipsed around as shells of themselves, with all the interesting bits that made them worthwhile stripped away, left to be interesting only as nostalgia or, at best, because the landscape of superhero media is so homogenized that even bastardized Morrison stands out as interesting. It’s a sobering reminder that for all one might accomplish in American superhero comics, in the end only two options exist: the militant amnesia with which Rachel Pollack’s work is treated, or being chewed up and spat out by the meat grinder of corporate content production. In the end, Morrison would firmly choose the latter. [continued]