Jul 29, 2020
The Doom Patrol #19 and 20: “Crawling from the Wreckage” parts 1 and 2
Once upon a time in the ’60s, there was a comic about a group of people considered by the public to be freaks of nature. These outcasts were brought together by a genius in a wheelchair who gave them a home and a purpose, and pitted this new dysfunctional family of misfits against a rogues gallery of some of the strangest villains ever seen in comics.
This comic was not X-Men, although in a bizarre case of creative synergy, both the X-Men and the Doom Patrol arrived chronologically on newsstands close to one another, with the Doom Patrol arriving a couple months earlier. There’s never been any proof Stan Lee stole or borrowed the concept, and I would chalk it up to coincidence. In any case, there are enough differences between the characters and settings that the similarities are superficial.
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Whatever the case, the X-Men was more successful overall and the Doom Patrol never captured the sort of audience Marvel’s mutants did. They didn’t catch on during a ’70s revival, and Paul Kuppeberg’s ’80s run was, well, mediocre. I was buying it initially because of Steve Lightle’s stellar art (which I had fallen in love with during his Legion of Super-Heroes run)…
…but then Erik Larsen came in and I was still purchasing issues due more to inertia than anything else. By issue #18, I guess I was just waiting to see how it all ended.
Then Doom Patrol #19 came out and things changed. Paul Kuppeberg was gone, replaced by Grant Morrison. Morrison had been part of the “British Invasion” of DC Comics with others like Peter Milligan, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman, all writers who were pushing the creative envelope. I loved Morrison’s Animal Man and was at the very least curious to see what he would do with the Doom Patrol.
What Morrison did was pretty goddamn weird. Awesomely so. And with the release of the live action Doom Patrol series, as well as recent news of Grant Morrison working with Ezra Miller on salvaging the Flash movie (the problem is in terms of popularity, Ezra’s Flash ranks just behind the one from the ’70s Super Friends cartoon, so yeah, it’s not happening, Ezra), it seemed a good time to revisit one of the series that put Morrison on the map. The first story arc was called “Crawling from the Wreckage”.
We open up with a dream sequence of a man racing a car, followed by a horrific accident, and something crawling from the wre… Oh, I see what you did there, Grant.
Turns out it’s a nightmare: Cliff “Robotman” Steele’s nightmare, to be exact. He wakes up screaming, and we find out he’s in a hospital. For those of you who don’t know, Cliff Steele was a race car driver who experienced a crash so horrific that only his brain was salvageable. And right away I see trying to come up with any jokes about this series is going to be an uphill battle.
A nurse rushes in to see how Cliff is doing and thinks Cliff’s nightmare is due to him not taking his meds. Speaking as someone who’s been on Lexapro, I can honestly say going cold turkey is a Bad Idea. The nurse offers to load up a fresh nutrient tank for Cliff’s brain, and asks where they should put the tank. Cliff says they can shove it where the sun don’t shine. Well, that’s an interesting place for a nutrient tank slot, unless the brain ain’t in the head but somewhere else.
The nurse doesn’t appreciate Cliff being an ass, and leaves him alone in his near suicidal funk. Elsewhere, we find a woman on the phone, and judging by her lab coat and this being a hospital she’s probably a doctor. She identifies herself as “The Eleanor Poole” (from now on, I’m going to answer the phone exactly like this), and right away I like her.
Someone is calling up to check on Larry Trainor, the dude formerly known as the Negative Man; this is due to the being of “negative energy” he played host to, not for his general outlook on life. The Eleanor Poole informs the person on the other end that Larry’s doing fine. While she’s on the phone, someone who looks like a janitor seems to find something on floor, and pockets whatever it is. I’m sure it’s not important. Really.
On the following page, we discover who was on the other end of the call: Niles “The Chief” Caulder. With him is Dr. Joshua Clay, also known as Tempest.
The pair are in the Doom Patrol’s former headquarters and things are being packed up. Clay tells the Chief he doesn’t want anything to do with a new Doom Patrol, what with everybody being cured, crazy, comatose, or dead. And this was deliberate, because Paul Kuppeberg was asked to pave the way for Grant Morrison’s run, and Paul being the professional that he is, obliged. Me, I think Clay is just afraid the Chief is gonna make him wear his original costume:
Despite Clay’s feelings on the matter, the Chief says he has plans, and even Clay is part of them. Back at the mental institution, Cliff’s got a visitor: Doctor Will Magnus, creator of the Metal Men. We discover that it was Will who created Cliff’s robot body, and as far as I know this is the first time this fact is ever mentioned. If so, I think it’s a pretty cool retcon, unlike crap like bringing Jason Todd back to life or Wolverine’s bone claws. And no, I’m not letting that go. Magnus is sporting a pipe, and I wonder does anybody smoke these things any more?
I guess somebody is, if they’re making this way-cool thing.
It looks like something a snooty professor with an experiment run amok would have on The Orville. Judging by the episode where Commander Grayson synthesized a pot brownie, I can imagine what that prof would be smokin’.
However, Cliff is less than happy to see Will, saying that if he could, he’d “spew” in the guy’s face. What, is “spit” on some sort of no-no list for comics or something? Or is “spew” Scots for “spit”, Grant? Back at the hospital (the physical one, not the mental one), The Eleanor Poole has given Larry Trainor, former Negative Man, a clean bill of health and she tells him he’s going home soon. She also tells him the bell is only for emergencies. I wonder how many times Larry’s used it for a hook-up if he’s gotta be warned now. Larry settles in with a book, and my eyesight’s so bad now I had to scan the page to read the cover:
(Attempted) joking aside, I’m actually tempted to track this book down to see if it’s any good. But Larry isn’t able to enjoy the book long before he gets a familiar visitor knocking at his window.
Back with Cliff and Magnus, Steele explains the hell he’s going through, because the robot body he’s stuck in has primitive senses compared to a human’s. He compares the sensation to an amputee feeling a phantom limb, saying that he’s “haunted by the ghost of my entire body!” That’s a powerful image. Then Grant goes lowbrow by saying how sometimes Cliff wants to take a crap and forgets he doesn’t have bowels. Then Morrison rounds things out with Cliff saying sometimes he looks at a woman and… well, the writer thankfully leaves that sad conclusion to your own imagination. Cliff punctuates his feelings in the most graphic manner possible.
Meanwhile, Larry finds himself letting the negative being in. It turns out said being is able to control Trainor, and all this time it’s been sort of sleepwalking. But now it’s awake and has a purpose. It forces Trainor to ring the bell because it “needs the woman”, and I don’t think it’s meaning to take Dr. Poole out for drinks. Sure enough, Poole comes running and the negative being takes hold of both.
Back with Cliff, Magnus won’t give up on him. While they’re talking, a mental patient is harming himself, talking about “scissormen”. I’m sure that won’t be relevant later. I’m positive. Will points out that there are people worse off than Cliff, and Steele says “Show me one”.
And here we have the debut of Kay Challis, Crazy Jane, who’s painting in the rain. Jane was “badly abused” by her father when she was a child, which caused her to develop 64 different personalities. After the detonation of the “Gene Bomb” (there had been a big event called “Invasion” where aliens tried to destroy super humans with a Gene Bomb, which instead triggered the abilities of even more people), each personality now has their own set of powers.
I can’t help but notice how, over the years, rape has been used as a plot device so often in superhero stories, either as a motive for a woman to become a superhero, or for it to be committed on a superhero’s female supporting character. The word “rape” isn’t used here, but Will Magnus’ stressing the word “badly” does strongly imply that this is what had happened to Kay. I just find it disturbingly prevalent in comics. In this case, the incident has scarred Kay deeply, and she stands in the rain and wonders what normal people have in their lives. Cliff that replies she’s asking the wrong person. Kay goes on to ask what one does when they can’t be strong any more. There are two broken people standing in the rain, and Cliff realizes that being a man, and being just a decent human being is not about whether or not he has his old body. It’s just being able to reach out to a fellow damaged person in need.
We cut to a city street where there’s been a horrific accident. A person narrates how someone stepped out of the flaming wreckage of a car carrying an indestructible book containing black pages. He whispered “scissormen” before dying. The two detectives listening to the cop on the scene realize they need to kick this upstairs and call “The Company”, and “The Company” will call the President. And the President will call Niles Caulder. End part one.
Issue #20 and part two opens with a priest, Father McGarry, who’s lost faith in God and every Saturday travels to the local dump, “looking for God among the debris”. Seems a weird place to go looking for God, but okay. Suddenly, it begins to rain fish.
I would find out later that this isn’t the weirdest thing to happen in a Grant Morrison comic. The fish rain down, and it’s a wide variety of species, but there is no cod. Look, that was Grant Morrison’s fish pun, not mine! But before the priest realizes it’s not a fluke and he still has sole and can get back in the halibut of believing in a higher powan, he’s crushed by a giant refrigerator.
Because sure, why not? Right away, you can see the jarring tonal shift between these two issues. In the first, we get despair and horror, and now we’re dropped into batshit insanity. Hang on, because we’re just getting started. Elsewhere, the Chief is called to Alamance Memorial Hospital, where Larry Trainor and The Eleanor Poole have been combined into one by the negative being.
Now covered in chemically treated bandages not unlike others who have played host to the being before, this new persona is both male and female. Caulder asks the being, who he thinks is Larry, if they know him. The being says their race and sex are mixed, they are mud and flame. The Chief says, “I see.” Sure you do, man. Sure you do. You just keep stroking your beard and pretending you have a clue what you’re dealing with.
Now we’re in Greenock, which I discovered is in Scotland. If this is the typical weather there, I can see what inspired the invention of the waterproof Mackintosh. We find a boy named Stuart pondering his next confessional as he considers the “dirty books” he’s looked at. What were they, young man? Were they issues of Grimjack? Miracleman? Badger? You’ll go blind reading those independent comics, kid! Stuart hears something moving in the wardrobe. If it’s James McAvoy running around with goat legs and wearing just a scarf then run, kid! Later, the boy’s father knocks on the door, and when Stuart doesn’t respond, Dad knocks the door down.
Okay, that’s cool. I mean, yeah, it’s horrific, but in a cool way.
Back at the hospital, the Chief tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Larry. The being calls itself “Rebis” and wants to be left alone. Outside, the Chief answers Joshua Clay’s question regarding the meaning of the name: it was used by medieval alchemists to identify the result of a “chymical wedding”. Caulder suggests Joshua should “read more”. Interesting how highbrow often comes with low class, Caulder. Maybe Josh is a Louis L’Amour kind of guy. Niles goes back into Rebis’ room and offers it (is “it” the proper pronoun? I’m going with it. By “it”, I mean I’m going with the pronoun “it”. Get it? Good) a spot on the team, because sure, why not? It wouldn’t be a Doom Patrol without somebody covered in bandages. If it hadn’t been Rebis, Niles probably would have tracked down the Unknown Soldier.
At the mental hospital, Dr. Will “The Pipe” Magnus is chillin’ with Cliff Steele in the cafeteria. Is this really the best place to be having a conversation with a guy who probably wishes he could smell your cup of coffee and it struggling to remember what a Danish tastes like? Dick move, Will. Magnus says he’s not trying to take credit for Cliff’s recovery, but you can tell he kinda is. All the same, with someone in even worse shape to help out, Cliff is on the mend. Will says he has to go, but promises Cliff he’s going to build him another body. Will it be stronger, faster, better?
Jane shows up, and one of her personalities known as Driver Eight is in control. Turns out D8 runs the “train of thought” through the “underground” where Jane’s personalities reside. She’s come to tell Cliff some of the personalities like him; for example, Black Anis says Cliff is the first man she hasn’t wanted to castrate. Call me crazy, but letting Kay out of the nut house when one of her personalities is essentially a super-powered Lorena Bobbitt seems like the ultimate Bad Idea. Cliff and D8’s talk is interrupted as somebody drops in.
Elsewhere, the janitor who had picked something up off the floor at the hospital is on the subway and staring at the widget . Whatever it is, it’s weird. Like, Doom Patrol weird. He loses track of where he is and then finds himself in a strange place.
Yeah, I don’t think that stop is Coney Island.
Back at the nut house, Cliff is chilling in his room, writing at his desk. Joking aside, I do wonder what he’s writing. Maybe notes to help him keep track of Crazy Jane’s personalities? I know I would; I’d pay very close attention to which ones want to perform instant gender reassignment surgery on me. He hears something outside and it’s Jane ranting while covered in blood. I think this is a new personality and she just has a really useless super power. Hey, Grant’s gotta come up with 64 of ‘em; they’re not all gonna be cool. The new personality—let’s call her Ubergoth—tells Cliff she warned him. Warned him about what?
Aw yeah, here we go, it’s the Scissormen! Just check out that dialogue: “Thirdly be grimmer as fond brevities.” “Elder with alders.” “And erethism safer.” Yeah, you go ahead and try to translate it; that way lies madness. Cliff ain’t dumb, he knows it’s time to get outta dodge and take Ubergoth with him.
They go bursting through a door where they find a doctor suspended in midair, missing his limbs, and screaming that there’s pieces of him here and there. He screams, “They’re cutting off my thumbs!” The Scissormen come exploding through the wall: “His tradition becomes awaiting still.” “Effete Paling.” “Humaner for decimation.” Hey, I almost understood that last sentence. I don’t know if that means I’m getting smarter, or going insane. Cliff and Jane find themselves suddenly outside, where she explains her name is “Flit” and she teleported them here. Hey, okay, a useful super power. But then Cliff is staring at something.
We close out chapter two with scenes of madness and chaos worldwide, of phenomena no one can explain: In Reyjavik, three shadows come to life and murder their owners. In London, the wax figure of John Lennon in Madame Tussaud’s begins to bleed. Things are going to get even weirder in part 3.
I can hardly wait.