Deck Log Entry # 107 Death in the Silver Age: the Doom Patrol, R.I.P. (Part One)

A veteran fan reading the banner “Is This the Beginning of the End of the Doom Patrol!” on the cover of The Doom Patrol # 121 (Sep.-Oct., 1968) would have probably written it off as hype, a come-on to entice him into buying the comic.


But once he opened it to the splash page, he would have known that something genuinely unprecedented was going on. Instead of the usual action-packed scene of Our Heroes struggling against that issue’s menace, he was presented with series artist Bruno Premiani in front of his drawing board and editor Murray Boltinoff seated at his typewriter.


“It’s true, Murray?” asks Premiani. “You’re gonna kill our---Doom Patrol?”


“I don’t know, Bruno! It’s not up to me!” replies Boltinoff, pointing at the reader. Unless the ‘Marines’ send help---the Doom Patrol will die after this issue! And you, jolly reader, you are the Marines! Only you can save the Doom Patrol now---and I kid you not!


Never before in the history of comicdom had a company ever been so upfront and candid about the imminent cancellation of a series.


It was a strikingly unconventional move for what had been a most unconventional series, especially for DC’s world of button-down super-heroes.




The Doom Patrol was born in the pages of My Greatest Adventure. From 1955 and throughout most of its existence as a title, My Greatest Adventure was an anthology series of adventure stories told in first-person narrative. Originally, they were thrilling tales of men whose work naturally invited danger---policemen, explorers, astronauts, and the like. When the science fiction fad took over National Periodical’s titles---a move commonly ascribed to co-publisher Irwin Donenfeld---the stories shifted into episodes of normal, everyday people thrust against space aliens, weird monsters, and fantastic inventions.


Then, with issue # 80 (Jun., 1963), the series jumped on the super-hero bandwagon, but not in the customary fashion of National Periodical (more commonly known as “DC”). A cover blurb labeled them “the World’s Strangest Heroes”, and that wasn’t far off the mark.


The line-up consisted of:


Negative Man. Larry Trainor, former test pilot, whose out-of-control ship flew into sub-orbit and was bombarded by waves of unknown radiation. As a result, Trainor’s body emitted lethal radiation that could only be contained by wrapping him head to toe, mummy-like, in specially treated bandages. In a peculiar side-effect, Trainor was able to summon from within himself a bizarre being composed of pure radio energy.


Robotman. Alternately called “Automaton” for the first few stories, he was once daredevil sportsman Cliff Steele, until his Formula-One racer failed to hold in a killer curve and exploded in a fiery crash. While Steele’s brain was uninjured, his body was beyond repair. To save his life, Steele’s brain was transplanted into a mechanical body of incredible design.


Elasti-Girl. The lovely Rita Farr had parlayed a gold-medal win for swimming at the Olympics into a successful movie career. While filming a river scene in Africa, she survived being swept over a waterfall. But when she inhaled chemical vapours from the banks of the falls, it gave her the ability to change her size, to grow to gigantic proportions or shrink to the height of an insect.

As a consequence, all three---Trainor and Steele and Rita---were no longer able to return to their old lives, or even rejoin humanity. They were outcasts, with no purpose. Until they were brought together by one man.


The Chief. Mysterious. Reclusive. A genius in many disciplines---medicine, physics, robotics, electronics, and more. Confined to a wheelchair, he remained in the shadows, operating away from the public eye. He was the scientist who invented the bandages which enabled Larry Trainor to walk again among men, and he was the surgeon who transplanted Cliff Steele’s brain into his robot body. Even his real name was kept secret.


The Chief brought the other three together to give them a new purpose---to use their newfound abilities to aid the mankind that shunned them, as the Doom Patrol.


For DC, it was a remarkably quirky approach, the notion that getting super-powers was a two-edged sword. The vast majority of DC's heroes were people who would have been remarkable even if they had never acquired super-powers or assumed costumed identities.

Ray Palmer was a tall, good-looking (he was visually patterned after actor Robert Taylor, no less), and brilliant research scientist.

Hal Jordan was a tall, good-looking and dashing test pilot.

Bruce Wayne was not only tall and good-looking, he was a millionaire, for crying out loud! Ditto, Oliver Queen.

Adam Strange was a blond, good-looking archæologist, and a noted one, before he got struck by his first zeta beam.

Becoming super-heroes only added to the benefits they already enjoyed in life. But with the Doom Patrol, we saw that the acquisition of super-powers could come at a terrible price. Larry Trainor and Rita Farr and Cliff Steele had also lived adult lives as members of the privileged class, then suddenly had all of it taken away from them by the caprice of fate. It's one thing to be ugly from birth; it's quite another to be one of the "beautiful people", then suddenly have it ruined.

That was what made the idea of the Doom Patrol unsettling. It planted the germ in the back of the young reader's mind that, no matter how great his adult life might turn out to be, it could all be taken away from him in one stroke.

Many readers had trouble understanding why the public, or Rita herself, would consider her a freak. Unlike Larry or Cliff, her accident had not disfigured her. At normal size, she was as beautiful as always; thus, no more freakish than any standard super-heroine. Enough fans wrote in, forcing editor Murray Boltinoff and writer Arnold Drake to address it.

In "Menace of the Turnabout Heroes", from The Doom Patrol # 95 (May, 1965), Drake upped the stakes for Elasti-Girl by revealing that the same mysterious vapours which had given Rita her powers had also inflicted her with a fatal disease. Presumably, that was meant to heighten her "freakish" status. However, nothing more was made of her terminal condition after this story.


(Later, in the 1970's, there was some psycho-babble over Rita considering herself a freak, because she was no longer perfect. Besides the fact that this was one more instance of a writer coming up with some outlandish psychological explanation for a plot point---and comics writers of the 1970's relied on such nonsense a great deal---it didn't fit how Rita had been depicted in the 1960's. If one reads the Doom Patrol stories throughout its original run, one sees that Rita was always the most grounded, most psychologically sound member of the team. Robotman and Negative Man and even the Chief betrayed signs of mental aberration. But never Elasti-Girl. The idea that she had some acute narcissistic obsession just didn't fit.)


As befitting “the World’s Strangest Heroes”, the Doom Patrol often faced villains that were cut from profoundly warped moulds. The first of these was General Immortus, a wizened, extremely aged man who had lived for centuries, thanks to his discovery of an elixir of life. His unending existence had turned him cruel and merciless.


But foremost among the Doom Patrol’s enemies was the Brotherhood of Evil, led by the Brain. The Brain was pure truth-in-advertising---the disembodied brain of a brilliant rogue scientist, kept floating in a flask of liquid nutrients. His number two was Monsieur Mallah, a machine-gun-toting, bandolier-wearing gorilla who, through shock treatments and radical teaching techniques, achieved an I.Q. of 175. The other members of the Brotherhood, who came and went as necessary, were only slightly less bizarre.


The series was a success, and with issue # 86 (Mar., 1964), the title of the magazine was changed from My Greatest Adventure to The Doom Patrol. Much of the group’s popularity lied in the talent that created it. Writer Arnold Drake was a top-notch plotter who could make even the most outlandish set-up come across as plausible, even prosaic. That came primarily from his skill with dialogue. Drake was one of the few DC scribes of the era to instil notable characterisation in the casts of the series he wrote.


But unlike the writers to come in the 1970’s, Drake didn’t splay it on with a paint roller. Instead, he used subtle differences in dialogue to hint at the personalities beneath the characters. This way, he was able to convincingly portray the undertones of bitterness which the DPers felt, as well as sense of belonging that they took from each other.


As for artist Bruno Premiani, he brought something new to super-hero adventures. Born in Italy, Premiani had begun his professional career as a political cartoonist, before being expelled from his homeland by Mussolini for his anti-Fascist illustrations. Relocating first to South America and then to America, he found work at DC, almost exclusively on its second-tier titles.


His early efforts on the Doom Patrol series had that typical European realism, short on conveying motion, but beautiful in layout. His lines were thin---some might say "scratchy"---but tight and full of detail. His figures were realistically proportioned, without the exaggeration common to most super-hero artists.




One of the unique facets that the fans glommed onto was the idea that the Doom Patrol was an insular group---there was “us”, and everybody else was “them”. This was a feeling that adolescents, in particular, understood. For the first several issues, the fact that the Chief was the leader of the DP was kept secret from the public. The Patrollers lived in their brownstone headquarters in Midway City and only emerged in public to tackle the latest threat. After which, they retreated back to the brownstone, away from the gawking of normal people.


By the middle of the decade though, that sense of cloistering fell away as the group became more and more a public spectacle. It was then that the Doom Patrol began to lose much of the cachet that had given it its edginess in the beginning.


Part two will bring you the details. In both a real and a fictional sense, this was the beginning of the end for the Doom Patrol.



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Comment by Figserello on August 15, 2010 at 5:18pm
That was what made the idea of the Doom Patrol unsettling. It planted the germ in the back of the young reader's mind that, no matter how great his adult life might turn out to be, it could all be taken away from him in one stroke.

That's an excellent insight.

The 2nd and final Silver Age Doom Patrol Showcase collection comes out this week, so I'll hold off reading the second installment of this topic until I've read that. Looking forward to it though.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on August 11, 2010 at 9:25am
Original in the sense that they weren't starring characters from existing features, as the members of the JSA and JLA were. (By the end of the JSA's run in All Star Comics the only member who still had her own feature was Wonder Woman, but the members all had a regular slot when they joined.)

Apparently Drake claimed he didn't base Robotman on the Golden Age Robotman, but I think his design, at least, was obviously based on the earlier character's. (Drake may not have heard of Robotman, but I would think it's unlikely Murray Boltinoff hadn't.) A story called "The Negative Man" appeared in House of Mystery #84. It's been reprinted in a Showcase, but I've only seen a page from it. Rita actually debuted before Ant-Man became Giant-Man, but I agree she wasn't original in the sense of having powers no character had had before. (In fact, Centaur's Mighty Man, from Amazing Man Comics, started as a giant, but could later shrink and grow.)
Comment by Philip Portelli on August 11, 2010 at 7:57am
I agree about June's Bronze Age status since those Super-Team Family issues are fondly remembered. They elevated from being their only supporting cast to part of the team, though most Challengers guest shots afterwards don't usually include her.

The Fantasic Four and the Doom Patrol were original? Okay the Thing was an unique concept but stretching, invisibilty and flame powers have been around since the Golden Age. And the Human Torch can never be called a Lee/Kirby creation, by any definition.

Robotman was another updated Golden Age concept like the Flash and Green Lantern, Negative Man was visually inspired by the Human Torch and Elasti-Girl's growing and shrinking was predated by in the Silver Age by Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Colossal Boy, Shrinking Violet and the Atom.

Of course while the powers weren't original, the situations and dramatic stylings were!
Comment by Luke Blanchard on August 11, 2010 at 5:32am
Come to think of it, the LSH were original characters, even if they did first appear in Superboy's feature. I don't think they weaken my case, though: they're evidence that the superhero team idea can be developed in quite different ways.
Comment by Commander Benson on August 11, 2010 at 5:28am
"All things being equal, a very good, very strong argument could be made for considering June Robbins as a very important part of the team, if not an actual member of the team. She took place in a great many of their adventures, she frequently came up with the solutions to their problems . . . ."

I stipulate to the above, Randy. You're correct about June Robbins' contributions to the Challs---as far as it goes.

But what I said was that modern writers (and by "modern", I meant post-Silver Age) gave June a far larger rôle with the team than she had during the Silver Age, and I stand by that.

The character of June Robbins debuted, and became an honorary Challenger, in Showcase # 7 (Mar.-Apr., 1957). That was her only appearance in the four Showcase issues to feature the Challengers.

You were correct that June appeared more frequently once the Challs got their own title, and often her participation was crucial to the plot. But she was a far cry from being a member of the group, either de facto or de jure.

From Challengers of the Unknown # 1 (Apr.-May, 1958) through # 30 (Feb.-Mar., 1963), June appeared in every issue, but one. But all of those issues (as through the rest of the Silver Age), contained two stories, and June would almost always appear in only one story in each issue.

But after Challs # 30, it's a far different story. From then on, June appeared in only three stories---in issues # 33, 35, and 46. After that, she was never seen again, even though the run of the original Challs title ran through issue # 75 (Aug.-Sep., 1970). (The remaining three issues were all reprints.)

In other words, June Robbins was absent for the entire back half of the thirteen-year run of the title.

Furthermore, even when she made regular appearances, June never wore a Challengers uniform. She did not respond to requests for the Challengers' help. (Her involvement with the team was either by happenstance or when the team got involved with something at her request.) She did not hang out with the guys at their mountain headquarters. In fact, the only time I recall her even being in their HQ was in her last appearance, in issue # 46 (Oct.-Nov., 1965).

However, when the series was revived, in Super-Team Family # 8 (Dec., 1976-Jan., 1977), suddenly, June was wearing a Challenger uniform, answered official requests for help along with the rest of the team, went on missions with the guys as a regular member of the team, and habituated their HQ as a regular member of the team. In other words, she did all the things she did not do before.

And she continued in this upgraded status throughout the Challs' next two Super-Team Family appearances and the resurrected Challs title, which ran for a year between the summers of 1977 and '78. The text stated that she was still an honorary Challenger, but she was treated as if she was a full-fledged member. (No doubt because the modern writers felt "there should be a woman in the group" and they used June's early Silver-Age involvement as an excuse to give her a uniform and put her right there on the team with the fellows.)

In other words, the modern writers elevated June to a status that she never held with the Challengers, and that goes to my statement that modern writers gave her a larger rôle with the team than she had during the Silver Age.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on August 11, 2010 at 5:05am
I think we sometimes underestimate how un-obvious certain formulas are. For example, the Silver Age Flash often fought costumed crooks (mostly with themed weapons rather than super-powers), but the Golden Age Flash didn’t. Silver Age Superman stories had extensive imaginative SF content, but early Superman stories were more down to Earth.

In Fantastic Four #1 the FF appear to understand their mission as one of tackling the unknown and challenging menaces. I don’t know the title stuck with the idea: the Lee/Kirby FF never became centrally crime-fighters, but comparatively few of their adventures grew out of their becoming aware of some mystery or menace and going off to challenge it. (Quite often the villains went after them. Sometimes they responded to requests for help. Sometimes the adventures grew out of their personal lives or Reed’s projects.) But that’s by the by with regard to the question of whether they were modelled after the Challs.

The FF's use of a (fairly plain) team costume design, rather than individual costumes, strongly recalls the Challs, but they didn’t start wearing costumes until #3. Like the Challs the FF lived together, but I can't say when the Challs started doing this. Both teams had four members, but the make-up of the FF wasn't exactly the same as that of the Challs.

The Challs were the first of DC’s Silver Age adventurer teams, so it could be held that Rip Hunter’s crew, the Sea Devils etc. all owe a debt to the Challs. However, while Rip Hunter’s crew and the Sea Devils often encountered the fantastic, I don't think they sought it out the way the Challs did, and as the FF did in Fantastic Four #1.

Trying to think of an earlier feature that could be regarded as an adventurer team feature, I came up with Blackhawk. (The post-war Boy Commandos might also fit this description.) I’ve not read the Showcases, but it might be fair to say DC’s Blackhawks were more crook-catching oriented than the Challengers were, although the latter were sometimes depicted as tracking down criminals

Be that as it may, the make-up of the Challs doesn’t resemble that of the Blackhawks particularly. In the case of Rip Hunter’s crew and the Sea Devil’s I think we’re obviously looking at re-use of a formula. The FF's roster employs the same formula (I owe this point to Toonopedia), down to the kid being the woman's brother: probably Lee was either influenced by DC's use of this formula, or it has an anterior source. On the other hand, there are points of difference in that Rip Hunter and Dane Dorrence were always rugged, while Reed wasn’t initially and didn’t have the same leading man role as Rip.

If I might reiterate a point: the FF were the first super-team composed of original characters. The DP, debuting a year and a half later, were DC's first original super-team, likewise lived together, often squabbled, joked in their dialogue, and were very close. Contrast the Silver Age JLA. Another point of resemblance between the DP and the FF was their use of a shared uniform.

I do think Drake and Premiani gave their feature its own flavour. On the other hand, early Marvel comics were more like DC's comics in approach. The DP's debut issue had the same cover-date as Fantastic Four #15.
Comment by Randy Jackson on August 10, 2010 at 8:13pm
Commander, I've read my fair share of Silver Age Challengers stories, and unfortunately a good number of Blackhawks stories (and I would really like those hours back). All things being equal, a very good, very strong argument could be made for considering June Robbins as a very important part of the team, if not an actual member of the team. She took place in a great many of their adventures, she frequently came up with the solutions to their problems, and most importantly, she wasn't romantically entangled with any of the others, which I think really made those stories stand out. Definitely a far cry from the portrayal of Lois Lane.
Comment by Philip Portelli on August 10, 2010 at 5:41pm
I think later interpretations had Rita's lifespan shortened by the gases or sometimes losing control of her powers, distorting her appearance. If she wasn't so loyal to (and needed by) the Doom Patrol, she would have made a fine Justice Leaguer!

Also The Chief was made out to be just as manipulative and insensitive as his bald Marvel counterpart!
Comment by Commander Benson on August 10, 2010 at 2:20pm
" . . . there are some who unfavorably compare the Doom Patrol to the X-Men . . . ."

" I always thought that the DP was DC's answer to the Fantastic Four."

"I've long thought the DP was DC's answer to the Fantastic Four too."


And then there are those who claim that the Fantastic Four was derived from the Challengers of the Unknown. It goes on and on.

I've been giving this some thought, and it was that very round-robin nature of what-team-begat-what-team that led me to at least one notion.

I'm not in a position to definitively established that the Challs begat the Fantastic Four, or that the Doom Patrol was a copy of the FF, or that the idea for the X-Men was swiped from the DP. Most of the people who would know any of those things for sure are gone now; and for those that are still with us, their memories are probably malcluded by time and age.

Unfortunately, the thing that occurs to me only muddies the waters. And that is, if one is a writer and he is assigned to come up with a team of heroes, be they adventurers, explorers, cops, soldiers, or whatever, then that writer, if he has any kind of skill at it, is going to compose the membership of the team to give it certain assets and to promote some sort of internal distinction. And again, if this writer is worth his salt, to meet those goals, certain archetypes come to mind:

The Leader. Generally, he has some of the ability that each of the other archetypes possess, but his main skills are superior stratigising and out-of-the-box thinking.

The Brain. The smart guy, the guy with the scientific knowledge to figure out the nuts-and-bolts.

The Muscle. The big fellow handy for moving boulders that are blocking cave entrances and clobbering lots of foes at once. His intellect might be inversely proportionate to his might or not, but he's gruff and grizzled.

The Acrobat. Maybe not in a literal sense, but then again, maybe a true acrobat. But it is someone who is quick, agile, relies more on superior speed and reflexes than brute force.

The Tyro. The new guy, the rookie, the inexperienced one. It might be reflected in terms of relative experience or in terms of age. He's the impulsive one, the one who often acts without thinking first.

The Female. Necessary for intra- and extra-team romantic conflict. She may or may not be an active member of the group, but if she is, her skills are usually passive or defensive in nature.

To me, it would be difficult to conceptualise any new team of adventurers without using all, or at least, most of these archetypes in some fashion. What I am getting at is this: while I am not saying that the Doom Patrol wasn't derived from the Fantastic Four or that the X-Men didn't copy the DP, it's also entirely possible that the similarities exist because the respective writers were relying on the same archetypes.

The difference come from how the individual writers "mix and match" those archetypes, e.g., sometimes the leader is "the Brain" and sometimes he isn't. And certainly some new notions get added into the pot---there is some original thinking. But if one takes a look at the comic teams supposedly created out of whole cloth (as opposed to preëxisting characters comprising their ranks), one can see how the archetypes abound:

Challengers of the Unknown: Ace (the Leader), Rocky (the Muscle), Prof (the Brain), Red (the Acrobat)

the Sea Devils: Dane (the Leader, the Brain), Biff (the Muscle), Nicky (the Tyro), Judy (the Female)

Rip Hunter's Crew: Rip (the Leader, the Brain), Jeff (the Muscle), Corky (the Tyro), Bonnie (the Female)

Cave Carson's Crew: Cave (the Leader, the Brain), Bulldozer (the Muscle), Johnny (the Tyro), Christie (the Female)

the Suicide Squad: Rick (the Leader), Jess (the Muscle), Doc (the Brain), Karen (the Female)

the Doom Patrol: the Chief (the Leader, the Brain), Cliff (the Muscle), Larry (the Acrobat), Rita (the Female, occasionally also the Muscle)

the Fantastic Four: Reed (the Leader, the Brain), Ben (the Muscle), Johnny (the Tyro, with some of the Acrobat), Sue (the Female)

the Guardians of the Galaxy: Astro (the Leader), Charlie-27 (the Muscle), Martinex (the Brain), Yondu (the Acrobat)

The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad: Guy (the Leader), Dynamite (the Muscle), Egghead (the Brain), Weed (the Acrobat), Kitten (the Female)

If a team is going to have more than four or five members, then obviously, other kinds of traits are going to be required, but even so, most or all of the five archetypes will be present:

The Blackhawks. Blackhawk (the Leader), Stan (the Muscle), Olaf (the Acrobat), Chop-Chop (also the Acrobat with a touch of the Tyro)

The Secret Six: Mike (the Muscle), Durant (the Brain), Carlo (the Acrobat), Crimson and Lili (the Females)

Curiously enough, the original X-Men seem to avoid fitting the archetypes exactly. You have Xavier (the Leader, the Brain) and Marvel Girl (the Female); but the others all blend traits of the remaining templates.

The thing is, so many teams are composed of the basic archetypes, it's difficult to say which ones were derivative of others, and which were the result of relying on basic character templates.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on August 10, 2010 at 12:12pm
I've long thought the DP was DC's answer to the Fantastic Four too. Each team had four members, including one woman and one particularly powerful member who could fly. Both teams were led by a super-genius. Cliff's, Larry's and Rita's negative feelings about their freak status recalls the Thing's hatred of his Thing form: Robotman, in his dislike of his robot body, gruffer attitude, and super-strength, particularly recalls the Thing. Both teams' memberships had a family-like bonding.

What really clinches it is, the FF were the first original-character super-team in US comics. The DP was DC's first team of this kind, and it's very plausible that it was created in response to the success of this innovative idea of Marvel's. Marvel's comics were distributed through DC, so DC's bigwigs presumably knew what Marvel's comics were selling.

Were the DP depicted as "hated by the world they save" in the early days, Fogey? I think the X-Men most resembled the DP in having a wheelchair-bound leader, in their branding as "strange" heroes (the Doom Patrol were "the world's strangest heroes", the X-Men "the strangest super-heroes of all"), and in their view of themselves as freaks.

Drake eventually came to think that Lee might have had sources of information about what he was doing as some writers and artists worked for both companies. Wikipedia's page on the DP has a quote from Drake to this effect. However, some of the resemblances between the titles weren't there from the beginning. I don't know, for example, that the X-Men were "reluctant" heroes (as Drake puts it) in their first issue. I can imagine someone coming up with Xavier's inability to walk as a twist on his being a powerful telepath, so I don't think it's impossible Xavier wasn't inspired by the Chief.

I'm wondering if the X-Men's branding as "strange" heroes could've been added to the cover of their first issue at a late stage, i.e. in reaction to the Doom Patrol's branding. But one could argue the notion of strange/freak heroes is there in the character conceptions, and so must go back to an early stage of the feature's creation.

Might the Chief have been inspired by Dr. Kildare's mentor Dr Gillespie? I don't know if he was always portrayed as wheelchair-bound.

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