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.