Dec 16, 2019
The Doom Patrol #21 and 22: “Crawling from the Wreckage” (parts 3 and 4)
If you haven’t already done so, you can check out part one of this article here, where I recap issues #19 and 20 of Gran Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Reading that first will help you understand what goes down here. I said “help”, not “guarantee”. Because where the Doom Patrol is concerned, weird is the norm.
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We’re in Kansas City, and I had forgotten that this is where the Doom Patrol had been headquartered during Kuppeberg’s run. One thing DC had going for it over Marvel was their superheroes were spread out across the United States, and even the world. Yeah, sure, most of the cities were fictional or stand-ins for real ones (e.g., Metropolis and Gotham are both pretty much different takes on New York City, although judging by statistics, Gotham is probably more like Baltimore these days), but it was nice how writers could enjoy the increased flexibility of playing in their own sandboxes; collaboration was what team books were for.
Cliff and Kay wander through the streets, which have grown increasingly insane, like if H. R. Geiger had become an architect rather than an artist. I’m half expecting a subway train to burst out from the middle of the street. Cliff narrates to an unseen someone, talking about his trip with his new friend through the city as they try to get to the Doom Patrol’s headquarters, coming across more of those white cut-out people, and avoiding scissormen along the way. They find the headquarters empty, and Cliff laments that he didn’t know what he was expecting. But luckily, Kay finds a note pinned to a cork message board. Cliff reads it: “Rhode Island?”
A scissorman bursts in with loony-toons dialogue: “Dote over Gantries!” Cliff shows the scissorman what he thinks of his bizarre speech impediment by knocking over a pillar and literally bringing down the roof on top of him. He and Kay run down a flight of stairs to a hangar where they find a jet that didn’t get packed up. As Cliff tugs off the tarp, a scissorman shows up. Cliff tells Kay to give him a second, and I’m thinking his plan is to toss the tarp over the scissorman, but Kay ain’t waiting. Or at least, one of her sixty four personalities ain’t.
I can imagine Grant Morrison describing what Black Annis should look like to artist Richard Case: “I want a cross between Wolverine and every Iron Maiden album cover.” I think this is what X-23 would have looked like had she been created in the ’90s, only maybe also wearing a thong.
Annis goes to town on the scissorman and cuts him to shreds, which I think is a classic case of an ironic death. Once the deed is done and she… it… finds out there’s no blood or naughty bits to hack off, Black Annis leaves, leaving Kay—or Jane, as Cliff is calling her—in the lurch. At this point, I’m honestly not sure if Jane is a fully realized identity, or if Cliff has just defaulted to calling her by a superhero code name. It could be Jane is the go-to personality and Kay is so far gone due to trauma she doesn’t appear. But for the sake of making things less confusing (and trust me, where this story is concerned, you’ll appreciate it), I’ll call her Jane from here on out. Cliff hustles Jane onto the jet as more scissormen show up. Cliff gets the jet going and lets the Scissormen eat his exhaust.
Cliff flies the plane down a tunnel but the doors aren’t working. Thankfully, they open just in time and the jet tears off into the sky. First, Grant borrows a page from Alien with the exhaust scene above, now The Search for Spock. Hmm, I wonder what other films might have inspired Grant when he wrote this story. There is one movie, having a hard time recalling it…
Eh, it’ll come to me.
We cut to Rhode Island, where we find out Cliff’s been narrating to the Chief in the Justice League’s original headquarters, inside a cave. The US government had planned on using this place to store nuclear waste, but Caulder talked somebody into giving it to him. Niles seems to be pretty good at talking people into doing pretty much anything he wants, which makes me wonder if he really is just a hairy Professor Xavier and regularly uses mind control.
Niles explains what’s been happening on his end: the men in black have given him a black book, and the last word the charred owner said was “scissormen”, so it looks like it’s all connected. Cliff says they need Superman, and Niles says they don’t, and it does make me wonder what’s happening in places like Gotham and Metropolis at this point. I’m not saying this story needed to be some sort of a mega-crossover event, but seeing how people like Batman and Superman were dealing with the craziness would have been nice. In the pages of Swamp Thing a few years earlier, when he was going up against Jason Woodrue for control of the Green, it was pretty cool seeing the Justice League up in their satellite looking down on Earth in the midst of that titanic struggle and having no clue how to intervene without making things worse. So yeah, maybe getting a glimpse how the rest of the DC Universe was coping with this batshit insanity would have been nice.
But back to this story. Jane says she’s translated the book, or at least “Mama Pentacost” has.
And here’s a problem I have with the Crazy Jane character: she’s really, really powerful. Between her sixty four personas, she’s got a super power for every occasion, and that kind of dampens down any potential tension. Need to teleport to wherever? Flit. Need somebody torn to shreds? Black Annis. Need a mysterious black book written in a braille-like language translated? Mama Pentacost.
So the book is based on “the Feigenbaum sequence of imaginary numbers”. Speaking as somebody who barely passed high school algebra, I’ve just discovered something that sounds more horrifying than men with scissors for hands. We enter heavy exposition territory as Jane explains the book is “metafiction” and tells the story of a group of philosophers who will radically alter human thought and propose to fill the book with “parasite ideas” that will transform human consciousness. So, sort of like the way an Ariana Grande song gets in your head and wraps around your brain like a tapeworm?
Cliff is completely lost, and I realize now he’s the “point of view” character, the dude you’re supposed to identify with. POV characters are important literary tools, who are usually around to have things explained to them for the convenience of the reader. Harry Potter is one example, at least early on. Caulder explains to Cliff that Jane is talking about “memetic memory” and yeah, that makes it all crystal clear. I get the feeling there should be a list of reference books in the back of the comic.
But wait, there’s more! Jane goes on to explain these philosophers created a world called Orqwith that exists on a plane that intersects with our own, which is where all the crazy architecture is coming from. So an imaginary city/world is invading the real world, because a bunch of intellectuals with nothing better to do decided they didn’t want to be the next C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, and wanted their imaginary world to be, I dunno, cooler I guess. The scissormen are a religious group who worship the god at the crossroads, and they’re inspired by some German fairy tale that wasn’t as hip or trendy as Red Riding Hood. Cliff wonders if they’re real, and Niles tells him to come see for himself.
Cliff is surprised to see Larry (He’s going to be even more surprised to find out it ain’t Larry, exactly) and asks what the scissorman is saying. Jane snaps back then apologizes, saying “Hammerhead’s always like that.” Yeah, sure, Hammerhead. I guess having multiple personalities means you always have an excuse when you’re an asshole. “Oh, that wasn’t me, it was Hammerhead. Again. Assface! See? You can never tell when Hammerhead’s going to come out.”
Niles tells the gang to sit tight while he tracks down the philosophers, so Cliff and Joshua are on guard duty. Josh says that he hates this life, but points out Cliff thrives on it. But while the pair are lamenting the woes of superhero-dom, their prisoner escapes. But don’t worry, guys, he just stepped out for a sec and came right back.
Aaaaaannnd it looks like he brought a few friends. Joshua shows that while he might not like being a superhero, he hasn’t missed a beat. He lights ups and blasts the scissormen while Cliff goes old-school and punches another. The scissorman deflates like a balloon. Josh blasts one who was sneaking up behind Cliff, but this leaves him open to an ambush.
Josh is turned into a cutout like all the other victims of the scissormen. Jane, Caulder, and Rebis show up, and the latter senses there are legions of scissormen outside. Cliff decides he’s going to get Josh back no matter what, and despite Caulder’s cautioning them that they don’t know enough about them, Steele leads Rebis and Jane out to face the hoard.
And then… they disappear.
Issue #22 finds us in Orqwith, the City of Bone, that has “no suburb of boundary”. It’s vast, mysterious, and in its heart is the Quadrivium, and in the center of that is the Ossuary, the Great Cathedral of Orqwith.
I have to wonder if Grant Morrison runs Dungeons & Dragons games, because his ability to lay down heavy descriptive text is epic. If I was at his table, I’d be in awe. For about two minutes. Then I’d be asking where the monster is and when I can roll for initiative because I usually play “meat shields” and I just want to hack something. But for people who are into this sort of thing, as in, those freaks who are into it for the role playing and problem solving? Yeah, they’d eat up Morrison’s narration like a bowl of pretzels and drink it down like liters of Mountain Dew.
There’s a devout silence, with the very air “worn thin by continuous prayer”. God, what a wordsmith! In the center of the cathedral sits two priests: one is a liar, the other an honest man. Outside the cathedral are what appear to be half-people. “Here the skull of a consumptive child becomes part of a great machine for calculating the motion of the stars”. “Here, a yellow bird frets within the ribcage of an unjust man”. And there’s more: a weeping clock, a water garden, hymning birds, and mechanical orchards.
And here are our heroes, ready to tear this wondrous sick madhouse down. How they got here, we don’t know, and Morrison ain’t saying. For all we know this is due to one of Jane’s personalities or one of Rebis’ powers. Cliff says he can’t think of anything remotely funny to say. That implies you were ever funny to begin with, Cliff. But then he sums up the situation, saying they’re trapped in an unreal world that’s slowly eating its way into the real one. Then he makes a boneheaded mistake any gamer would avoid, and says “How much worse can it…”
It can always get worse, Cliff. Always. He spots the hollowed-out people and finds Joshua, but Joshua’s mind is as empty as his body. Scissormen attack, but the Negative Being runs interference and Flit kicks in and teleports the three to safety. Cliff asks Larry if he’s okay, and he explains that with the Negative Being gone, it’s drained “us” of power, and by the way, he’s not Larry. Steele begins to realize maybe they made a mistake coming here without, you know, a plan.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Niles finds one of the authors of the black book-
He explains his government contacts tracked the man down via the poor burned bastard from issue #19, and I’m grateful for that little bit of exposition. Niles says he wants to talk to the man about Orqwith, but the man says he’s not afraid of a cripple.
Who needs mental powers when you’ve got a wheelchair loaded with ordnance and are packin’ a pistol? Niles wants answers, and there’s plenty of bullets in the clip. What’s that old saying? God created Man, and Sam Colt made them equal.
Back in Orqwith, the Negative Being is buzzing around with impunity, or so it thinks.
The being is shot from the sky by the scissormen, who scream out “Virtuous! Virtuous! Virtuous deadfall” Hmmm, not the best scissormen dialogue, but it makes me wonder if all of it does really mean something and isn’t just random words. Now I’m really tempted to get a thesaurus and try to translate it all. Blown to pieces, the Negative Being’s shards fall to earth… I mean, fall to Orqwith, and Rebis rushes to reabsorb them. Reunited with the Being, Rebis says he has information torn right from the head of a scissorman. And then Mama Pentacost gets called up to hear what Rebis has to say.
Remember what I said before about trying to translate scissormen speak? Yeah, screw that. But whatever it is Mama Pentacost thinks, they’ve got what it takes to bring ‘em down. Back with Niles, the philosopher says the whole thing was just a game. Personally, when I want to play games with friends I break out Get Lucky, King of Tokyo, or if we’ve got eight hours to kill, Twilight Imperium.
The man admits that despite it being just a game, they put a logical inconsistency into the book: if Orqwith is confronted by its own unreality, then it will go away. Simple, right?
Back in Orqwith, the gang reaches the cathedral in the center of the city. According to Mama Pentacost, all they have to do is get in and have a chat with the two priests inside. Problem is, all the scissormen are outside waiting for them. But Rebis has a plan for that.
The Negative Being gives Rebis enough juice for five minutes as well as a bit of flying, which means the Being can stay outside to help Cliff and Jane run interference. Rebis makes a dash and the gang takes the fight to the scissormen, where Jane…
Remember my earlier complaint? Yeah, this only emphasizes the point. The trio continue to fight off the scissormen while inside, Rebis is able to fly past the inner guards to reach the priests. One is the liar, and the other an honest man. Both say that they don’t know why there is something instead of nothing. Question is, which one to ask the final question? Rebis chooses the liar (but wait, if he’s the liar, wouldn’t he have claimed he was an honest man, too?) and asks, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” The liar answers, “There is something instead of nothing.” Which, if he’s the liar, would mean then there really is noth…
You know what? This was handled so much better in that Doctor Who episode “Pyramids of Mars”.
Suddenly, Orqwith goes pop, and the gang is back on Earth, including Joshua.
Later, back at the Rhode Island base, Jane tries to explain to the Chief what went down, and how the liar’s answer of “There is something instead of nothing” was a lie, and what he was really saying was the opposite. It feels like one of those obscure logic puzzles that appeal to people who spent four years at a college pursuing a philosophy degree and have to justify it with obscure logic puzzles that only make sense to the people who took the same classes. Joshua says he barely remembers anything that happened, and he’s glad it’s over, while the Chief says they were pretty damn lucky this time out. He points out that everybody here has known “madness and delirium”, and are no longer afraid, and this gives them an undeniable edge over other heroes and organizations in dealing with crazy stuff like this. He makes an appeal to Cliff:
And Cliff decides to get back on that horse. The Doom Patrol lives again! The comic wraps up with two epilogues hinting at future stories, the first being with former Doom Patrol member Rhea Jones, who had fallen victim to the Invasion! mega-event’s Gene Bomb. Rhea was a pretty generic super hero with magnetic powers…
…who then received a bit of a Morrison-esque makeover later on:
Yeah, if you thought this story was weird… Anyway, someone sneaks into her hospital room and gets all creepy, reaching out to touch Rhea, and calling her his “sleeping beauty”. Eww, I’m having Kill Bill Vol. 1 flashbacks here. The second epilogue takes us to Paraguay and a remote estate, where a guard finds numerous dead guards laying about, and a man named Dr. Bruckner is wounded, and possibly dying. Bruckner exclaims that “he” got out. Who is “he”? Herr Niemand.
“Crawling from the Wreckage” is a stellar story. Grant Morrison is a talented and creative writer, and one of the best DC ever hired. I realize that when it comes to the visual medium of comics that it’s better to show rather than tell, but somehow by reading about these wonders and wondrous horrors, it allows the reader to craft in their own mind images that no artist, no matter how talented would be able to match. The dynamic between Cliff and Jane is terrific, and while I do have my misgivings regarding the breadth and scope of her powers, she’s likeable and flawed enough that it doesn’t really hamper my ability to enjoy the story.
These days, in this age of Event comics and decompressed storytelling, I think there would have been a serious temptation to draw the story out to six issues or more, but four is just right. We had our introduction to the characters, the escalation of the crisis, the uniting of the team, the explanation of what they were facing, and then the culmination of the tale. The story is tightly told with nary a panel wasted, showing great discipline on behalf of both the writer and editor.
As for the art, speaking as someone who came on board the series due to a love of Steve Lightle’s work and who almost quit due to Erik Larsen’s, penciller Richard Case and inkers Carlos Garzon and Scott Hanna deliver a striking style that’s less traditional than Lightle and less cartoonish than Larsen, delivering a stylized look that fits well with the nontraditional superhero story. If you get an opportunity, I highly recommend you check out Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol.