Give ‘Em Elle: Morrison’s ‘Doom Patrol’, And Groundbreaking Comics Versus the March of Time
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. This week I’ve been thinking about comics as products of the time they were published.
I was partly inspired by this tweet:
This is a topic I already kind of had on my mind, mostly due to rereading the first couple of arcs of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol for last week’s Cast Party. Doom Patrol and Animal Man were the comics that turned Grant Morrison into Grant Morrison. Along with writer Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing with Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, they also led directly to the launch of Vertigo.
I didn’t even read Morrison’s Doom Patrol, with artists Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, and others, until a decade or so after it came out --- but even then it felt like a comic from the future. The way Morrison picked apart narrative structure while blowing apart social conventions felt new and exciting even so long after it was published, and led to so much of what came after. So it was surprising to look back later and realize that some of this “comic from the future” felt pretty dated.
Take the character of Rebis. Rebis is the result of two humans, a white man and a black woman, merging with an energy being to become one person. They’re presented as neither male nor female, but both. On one level, that’s pretty progressive, having a character who lives between genders on a superteam (in 1989, no less). But the nature of Rebis is built around a very basic idea of the “alchemical marriage,” a union of opposites. Dialogue by Rebis explicitly presents both gender and race as a binary.
Even years ago, I remember thinking that it was ridiculous the way Rebis talks about race, as though black and white (in a racial sense) are fundamental opposites rather than two social categories that overlap and intersect and also exist among many other racial identifiers.
Rereading now, I realize the same thing is true of gender. Rebis is, in a sense, a genderqueer character, but their nature as a “union of opposites” doesn’t really allow for the existence of actual genderqueer people who live outside the supposed binary of male and female without the benefit of negative energy beings and bodily fusion. Intersex people are also left out of this worldview. Not to mention, Rebis is frequently referred to as a hermaphrodite, a word that's generally regarded as offensive these days.
It’s worth mentioning here that the writer who followed Morrison on Doom Patrol, Rachel Pollack, dealt with gender in much more progressive terms during her run, even introducing Coagula, the first transgender superhero. On the other hand, Coagula was a former sex worker, which is a choice that would come under a lot more scrutiny if she was a trans superhero being introduced today.
But back in Morrison’s run, another of his major new Doom Patrol characters was Crazy Jane. I hardly even need to explain that “Crazy Jane” is a problematic superhero name for a mentally ill woman. And her specific diagnosis of multiple personality disorder is one that has been drastically rethought in the last few decades. I’m not going to go deep into that, because I’m no expert and I don’t want to just talk off the cuff about something as fraught as mental illness, but I have a feeling you’d be hard-pressed to find a mental illness activist in 2016 who views Crazy Jane as a positive portrayal.
And the aspects that read differently now don’t end there. The character of Frenzy, an uneducated black man whose illiteracy is often played for laughs, is so troubling in retrospect that I can’t imagine what Morrison and his editors thought he was doing even back then. And while I’m a big fan of the reveal that Silver Age Doom Patrol villains the Brain and Monsieur Mallah are in love, there’s definitely an element of “the joke is that they’re gay” in that story, something that was all too common 25 years ago.
So okay, we’ve established that Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is very dated in the ways that it deals with social issues. There are things going on in it that probably nobody thought twice about at the time, that would likely offend some modern readers. Does that mean we should throw it in the bin, and say, “This is trash now, nobody needs to look at it?”
Not everyone will agree with me, but I don't think we should. That Doom Patrol run was groundbreaking in terms of what comics can do, and it can still be a great read, if you look past some of the clumsy elements. We just have to understand that it was written in a different time, when standards weren’t the same as they are now. This is the norm in every other artistic medium. Where would film history be if we cast aside everything from the past that’s offensive to modern eyes? The upside is I wouldn’t have had to watch Birth of Nation in film school, but the impact overall would be negative.
The other side of this, however, is that we can’t force things on people who can’t deal with them. I still enjoy Doom Patrol, but if somebody else says that the portrayal of mental illness bothers them too much to finish it, I’m obviously not going to argue with that. Similarly, I have no interest in rereading The Dark Knight Returns, because Frank Miller’s politics are so noxious to me, but I don’t go around telling people who still enjoy that book that they shouldn’t.
Society is ever-changing, and so are comics. In twenty years people will probably look back on Ms. Marvel, Lumberjanes, and Midnighter and find reason to say, “Woof, why did they make that choice?” Let’s be real, some people are already saying that about those books now. But we’re still free to take from and enjoy what we can of the past, even as we look to the future.