Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Doom Patrol volume one

Arnold Drake, Bruno Premiani & Bob Brown
The Doom Patrol volume one (1966)
I was a huge fan of the late 1980s revival of DC's Doom Patrol, both the wonderfully peculiar Grant Morrison run and those earlier, more mainstream issues written by Paul Kupperberg. At the time, I wasn't really sure who the Doom Patrol were supposed to be, had never heard of the original 1960s comic book written by Arnold Drake, and had only encountered the characters in some random issue of Marv Wolfman's New Teen Titans.

When I found a copy of Murray R. Ward's Official Doom Patrol Index - reprinting the covers and summarising all those 1960s issues - my eyes were opened; although it's probably worth keeping in mind that I'm talking about comic books here, so as revelations go this probably wasn't on the scale of when Einstein invented television or whatever. Arnold Drake's Doom Patrol were freakish misfit superheroes guided by a wheelchair bound genius three months before the first Stan Lee X-Men comic hit the stands, although to be fair, there's an argument that Drake had in turn borrowed a lot from previous Marvel titles, and conversely, if Stan Lee ripped him off, he arguably ended up doing it better. I've always thought Marvels' greatest invention was the mutant superhero which in one swoop did away with the increasingly ludicrous requirement of costumed superhumans forever being born from laboratory experiments gone wrong. There's only so many times you can pull that trick before it begins to seem a bit unlikely even by the standards of the genre.

As the legend has it, 1960s Doom Patrol was indeed weird, but more so in conception than execution, which becomes apparent once you sit down and try to read the thing. As outcast heroes, Cliff Steele, Rita Farr, and Larry Trainor endure the odd remark along the lines of check out the guy with the bandages, but it's hardly on the level of torch wielding mobs picketing Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men; and whilst Garguax, the Brotherhood of Evil, and General Immortus may be engagingly odd as foes, every other issue seems either to be someone robbing a bank or stealing a rare diamond, or making a bid for world domination starting off by either robbing a bank or stealing a rare diamond in order to finance the operation. Essentially it's the usual super-powered crooks, plans explained to anyone who will listen, and low-quality gags delivered whilst fighting; and actually it's not even half so weird as some of those earlier issues of Spiderman.

That said, Bruno Premiani's artwork is lovely - clean, confident lines with just the right level of detail and the sort of figure work associated with an era of comics drawn by those who learned their craft through means other than just reading comics. If he'd been working in England at the height of Eagle, or drawing something that wasn't printed on recycled toilet paper, he might perhaps have flourished and been remembered as another Frank Hampson. Even though he succumbs to shorthand in later issues, it's the artwork that kept me going during passages where the dialogue and narrative became just a little too repetitive to be bothered with, seeing as how I'm not seven years old and this isn't 1963.

Maybe I needed to read the colour editions, or maybe twenty-two consecutive issues of one slightly repetitive comic was too much in just a couple of sittings. Doom Patrol isn't terrible, but I'm afraid I found it kind of dull in places. There's no mistaking its potential as the weird seed of what would come in decades to follow, but I'm afraid it was a bit of a plodder for me.

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