Every comic-book reader has it : “their” book. The one that comes along at just the right time in your life and stays with you for the rest of your days. I’ve got a few, truth be told, but one of the big ones is Doom Patrol — specifically, Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol, that began with issue number 19 of the title’s second go-’round and lasted through number 63, a unique amalgamation of the existential, the conspiratorial, the emotive, and the quite-often indescribable that surely still stands as the most unusual “team book” ever set within the confines of a pre-existing superhero “universe.” Filled to the brim and beyond with Morrison’s patented brand of “high weirdness” but underscored with a palpable strain of sheer heart throughout, it had everything I was looking for in a comic as a teenager — when my interest in the traditional, by-the-numbers superhero narrative was waning, and my exploration of the work of  “alternative” cartoonists of the period (Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, etc.) was only just starting to take hold. Doom Patrol was a comic that hit a kind of “sweet spot” right between the two, and I definitely credit it for keeping my interest in the medium alive at precisely the point where it was threatening to wane.

And now, here we are, some three fucking decades later, and what would have been absolutely unthinkable in 1989 has come to pass : Doom Patrol is now a big-budget TV series, newly-launched on the DC Universe website/streaming service.

It’s not precisely “my” Doom Patrol, mind you, nor should it be : a straight adaptation of the Morrison/Case era would reek of the “been there, done that,” but one episode in (that episode bearing the standardized, and entirely unimaginative, title of “Pilot”), it’s clear that “showrunner” Jeremy Carver is cleaving to the temperament of that now-legendary run, while mixing in plenty from the original “Silver Age” version of the book by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani (credited as the team’s creators along with Bob Haney), a dash of Rachel Pollack’s post-Morrison/Case iteration (although, at least as yet, the elements of Pollack’s run that make their way onto the screen include nothing from the brief-but-incredible period when things went really, and wonderfully, far off the rails following the arrival of Ted McKeever as artist), and plenty that’s wholly unique and original in its own right. Something old, something new and all that —

The basic set-up is a fairly logical updating of the initial premise : genius (but quite mysterious) wheelchair-bound scientist Dr. Niles Caulder (played with something very much akin to absolute perfection by Timothy Dalton) accrues into his orbit a small group of super-beings whose abilities brand them more as rejects and freaks than “heroes,” outcasts with power to save the world but little desire to do so given they’ve been shunned from it. Their ranks are composed of former test pilot Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), who is now horribly burned, completely bandaged, and sharing his body with a mysterious, and sentient, “negative” energy force; one-time Hollywood starlet Rita Farr (April Bowlby), who suffered a freak accident on a film location and is now a gelatinous, oozing mass of flesh that can only hold on to human form for brief periods of time; multiple personality disorder sufferer “Crazy” Jane (Diane Guerrero), who has 64 distinctive “selves,” each with a metahuman “gift” of its own; and long-since-believed-dead race car driver Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser), whose brain was actually saved by Caulder following a fiery collision and placed inside a robotic body. Future  episodes will apparently see the addition of stalwart DC character Cyborg, a fan-favorite from the pages of Teen Titans and Justice League, but since he has yet to hit the scene, we need not dwell on him too much — although I’m curious as to how they plan to integrate him into this far-less-traditional team and, more importantly, why they’re even bothering to do so. Guess we’ll take a “wait and see” approach there.

Based on evidence so far, though, I’m inclined to give Carver the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows what he’s doing, because his script for this first episode is essentially pitch-perfect : Cliff is out point of entry, and through him we get to know the other members of the cast, their “secret origins,” and their coping mechanisms : Larry’s into horticulture, Rita has her knitting, Jane (or a part of her at any rate) paints. Cliff, for his part, is building a miniature town, but when they all go into the nearest real one while “Chief” Caulder is away for a couple of days, the shit hits the fan and they end up needing to save the pleasant little village they’ve entered — from themselves.

Caulder warned them not to go, of course, but with the cat out of the bag, his makeshift “family” suddenly finds itself at very real risk from forces not out of their pasts, but his : specifically a mentally-and physically-fragmented being of immense power known as Mr. Morden/Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk, who doubles as this episode’s narrator), whose been looking for “The Chief” for a long time for reasons as yet unknown. Much as with the first “live-action” DC Universe series, Titans (where a slightly different version of our team made its first appearance in episode four), this  show looks to have a “road trip” as its core conceit, but first they all head back into town to undo the damage/face the music — only to find that Morden is a step ahead of them. As is a flatulent donkey. Things are about to go from strange to stranger.

Director Glen Winter does a superb job with the pacing here, balancing flashbacks with “present-day” action seamlessly, and his cast turn in uniformly strong performances that really sell viewers on the everyday banality of their absurd existences. These are people — and a robot — each in tremendous amounts of pain, and while they all seem to be able to “go through the motions” to a certain extent, that sense of anguish is ever-present just beneath the surface. This is an especially tricky thing to pull off in the cases of Larry Trainor and Cliff Steele, who are each voiced by the “big-name” actors whose names adorn the show’s credits, while their full-body costumes are inhabited by other actors (Matthew Zuk and Riley Shanahan, respectively) charged with the important task of expressing the physicality of the characters. It works — hell, it’s so seamless you could be forgiven for assuming Bomer and Fraser were on set/location and inside the suits — but never forget this kind of apparent “ease” always takes a hell of a lot of work, and the effort Winter puts in behind the camera definitely pays off in terms of delivering a unique, idiosyncratic, highly imaginative product in front of it.

Fans of standard superhero fare may find the altogether different tone, style, and even premise of Doom Patrol 180 degrees removed from where their interests lie, but they needn’t despair too much : the big and small screens offer no shortage of material in line with their populist sensibilities. For the rest of us, though, this show offers the exact same thing that Grant Morrison and Richard Case did 30 years ago, and Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani some 20 years before that : a superhero adventure series capable of rekindling our interest in the genre by doing something new and different, while simultaneously reminding us why we loved it in the first place.

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This review is brought to you by — my own damn self, specifically my Patreon page. For exclusive thrice-weekly “deep dives” into the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics, please consider joining up. Your support not only allows me to keep things going there, but to continue providing free content both here and on my fourcolorapocalypse comics blog. I’ll be posting a “companion piece” to this one on there soon looking specifically at Doom Patrol #19 and the impact it had on my younger self, and continues to have to this day. I’d be very pleased to share that, and everything else I have planned coming up, with each of you.

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Comments
  1. Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

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