While having Murray Boltinoff and Bruno Premiani appear in the pages of The Doom Patrol # 121 came as a bit of a surprise, their announcement that the title was on the ropes probably wasn’t a shocker. At least not for the veteran fans of “the World’s Strangest Heroes”. They had sensed it coming.
Like so many DC series in 1968, The Doom Patrol had moved away from many of the elements which had characterised it in the early years. Greatest among these was the pervading sense of ostracism. Despite their super-powers, their disabilities and freakish appearances had made the members of the Doom Patrol outcasts from the very society they protected.
When the series began, there were constant reminders of this. While the DP was never subjected to outright public hatred---as their conceptual brethren, the X-Men, were for being mutants---the man on the street looked upon them as sideshow displays. The early DP tales emphasized the peculiar dichotomy: people were grateful for their heroic deeds, but repulsed by their appearances.
Illustrative of this were the names “Negative Man”, “Elasti-Girl”, and “Robotman”. They had been bestowed by a curious and callous public. Larry and Rita and Cliff never referred to themselves by those names, and in fact, resented them. Larry Trainor, in particular, despised them.
Occasionally, the Doom Patrollers would venture into the normal world for social reasons, appearing at awards ceremonies and testimonial dinners, to accept the thanks of a grateful city. But still the stares and muffled whispers leaked through the veneer of cordiality. In those scenes, Larry and Rita and Cliff never looked comfortable, and for good reason.
As a consequence, they stayed sequestered in their brownstone headquarters, where they had only each other for sympathy, friendship, and support. Of all of DC’s hero-teams, the Doom Patrol shared the greatest sense of family. This was something many adolescents could identify with---that feeling of being on the outside, looking in. Much of the popularity of the series derived from this.
But their self-contained existence was not fated to last. The first crack in the firmament appeared in The Doom Patrol # 91 (Nov., 1964), when the character of Steve Dayton was introduced. Dayton, a normal guy (at least, as normal as the fifth-richest man in the world could be), developed a romantic interest in Rita Farr, freak super-hero, and it worked marvelously. The result was a tug-of-war between Rita's affection for Dayton and her loyalty to the Doom Patrol. Rita was the only one of the DP who could pass for normal in regular society, and it was interesting to see her caught up in the temptation to live an ordinary life.
The critical mistake was turning Dayton into a super-hero himself. As Mento, he then tried to appeal to Rita by being one of the "us", not one of the "them". It didn’t work. Mento’s super-powers hadn’t come with the penalty of freakishness. No, Dayton just put on a special helmet and a fancy costume. Without those, he was still handsome, brilliant, and Bill Gates-level rich. In other words, pretty much your standard DC super-hero. Not surprisingly, Mento’s bid to join the group in The Doom Patrol # 97 (Aug., 1965) was rejected.
Even so, Dayton was persistent and he finally won the lady’s hand, marrying Rita in The Doom Patrol # 104 (Jun., 1966). Larry and Cliff, and to a degree, even the Chief, resented the fact that Rita had managed to settle down to a conventional life. Even so, Rita found it impossible to desert her family of misfits. She constantly abandoned her wifely duties to join her Doom Patrol teammates whenever danger beckoned, much to Steve Dayton’s consternation.
The real shift in the tenor of the series, though, came with the introduction of Beast Boy. Beast Boy was Gar Logan, an orphaned boy under the thumb of a cruel, miserly guardian. Logan had green skin and the ability to transform into the form of any animal.
One would think he was a natural for joining the Doom Patrol. But writer Arnold Drake didn’t play it that way. Logan was rebellious, obnoxious, and disdainful of anyone over the age of twenty. The DPers didn’t enjoy having such a brat around and shooed him off whenever possible.
Nevertheless, Beast Boy became an increasing presence in the stories and the centre of various sub-plots. In that, he became the pivot for a change in the emphasis of the series. The focus changed to the inter-dynamics of the main characters, and the concept of being outcast from normal society faded away. No longer did the DPers express a painful awareness of being freaks; instead, they practically reveled in it.
Where Drake’s scripts once highlighted the bizarre as a means to underscore the Doom Patrol’s isolation from normal folks, now they got weird for the sheer sake of being weird. And the villains grew more outlandish, even by Doom Patrol standards. There were the grotesque mutants Ur, Ir, and Ar, so malformed that they made Larry and Cliff look like menswear models. Instead of ignoring the world, the mutant trio intended to destroy it outright. Naturally, the DP had something to say about that.
Another of Drake’s plots mocked a fad of the late ‘60’s, as the Patrollers fell victim to the transcendental mind control of the Yaramishi Rama Yogi. Nothing that had come before matched the pure loopiness of seeing Robotman turned into a flower-wearing, love-thy-brother peacenik.
It didn’t help matters that Bruno Premiani’s art was losing its edge. Perhaps the ordered reduction of original art, from twice up to one-and-a-half, in the summer of 1965 accounted for the loss of detail, but it didn’t explain other shortcomings. Premiani’s once-excellent feel for human proportion, especially in action scenes, was increasingly off. Arms and legs distended with surreal results. To be fair, he may have been ordered by Murray Boltinoff to insert a greater sense of motion in his work, and that was something Premiani just could not do well.
The bloom was long off the rose when The Doom Patrol # 121 hit the stands in the fall of 1968.
The magazine had shifted to bi-monthly publication at the beginning of the year, which was always a big red flag. Murray Boltinoff’s opening-page prediction of---ahem---doom for the series seemed to confirm all the indicators. If so, Arnold Drake made sure that the final Doom Patrol script would wind up with a bang, and not just in the metaphoric sense.
The last Silver-Age case of the Doom Patrol was launched by the culmination of a sub-plot which had run for several issues, one involving the Chief and Madame Rouge, a member of the Brotherhood of Evil.
Before becoming Madame Rouge, she had been Laura de Mille, a French stage actress---until an automobile accident damaged her brain, inflicting her with a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like dual personality. Realising her potential as a member of his criminal organisation, the Brain arranged for Monsieur Mallah to kidnap her. In a delicate brain operation, the good side of her personality was rendered inert and her criminal persona became dominant.
During one of the Patrol’s later forays against the Brotherhood of Evil, Madame Rouge fell under the Chief’s control. He was able to reverse the Brain’s procedure, making her as decent and honest as she had been cruel and treacherous before. Her gratitude kindled into sparks of romance between her and the Chief.
Things looked rosy until the Patrol’s encounter with the Yaramishi Rama Yogi, in issue # 119 (May-Jun., 1968). The Yogi’s mental tampering undid the Chief’s rehabilitation, truly killing Madame Rouge’s good side and leaving her more thoroughly wicked than before.
She proves it in the first pages of the story proper in issue # 121, when she drops a bomb on the Brotherhood of Evil’s Parisian hide-out, killing the Brain and Monsieur Mallah. Then, she turns her sights on the Doom Patrol.
She is able to bypass most of their brownstone-HQ’s protective devices, having learnt many of the DP’s secrets during her romance with the Chief. (Despite his genius, there were times when the Chief wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.) After a clandestine attempt to destroy the Patrol fails, Madame Rouge makes an all-out effort. She recruits Nazi war criminal Captain Zahl, who bears a grudge against the Chief stemming back to World War II, and together, they lay the DP’s home under siege.
It’s a grim time for Our Heroes, with barely time to breathe between fending off napalm and missile attacks from Zahl’s forces. “I’m afraid, Chief!” Rita frankly admits. “For the first time in the history of the Doom Patrol---I’m really scared!”
Fortunately, the Chief didn’t tell Madame Rouge all of the Patrol’s secrets, and he launches counter-weapons that, along with the aid of Negative Man, destroy the aerial platforms arrayed against them. It’s another indicator of just how high the stakes are this time that there’s none of the usual code-against-killing stuff from the good guys. In the DP's counter-attack, the pilots and crews of Zahl’s airships are variously incinerated, vapourised, or diced into pieces-parts.
The brief respite brings the team more bad news. Innocent bystanders were hurt in the attack, and the federal government orders the Doom Patrol out of the city before more people suffer in the wake of Madame Rouge’s vendetta. The Chief agrees. Unfortunately, to the citizens of Midway City, it looks like the DP has turned coward, running out when they are needed most.
However, being a wily old cuss, the Chief wasn’t caught flat-footed. He directs Larry to fly them to a remote Caribbean island, where they discover a new base of operations that the Chief had prepared some time ago for just such a situation.
The DPers barely have time to find out where the bathrooms are and check out what’s in the fridge when, inexplicably, they are found out by Madame Rouge---evidently, the existence of this “impenetrable island fortress” was one of the secrets the Chief did tell her about. Via submarine, she and Captain Zahl pierce the island’s defences and launch a full-scale assault on the Doom Patrol.
The villains’ shock troops swarm the island, but they are little threat to Cliff and Larry and Rita, who deal with them handily. But they serve their purpose---to distract the Doom Patrol while Captain Zahl unleashes weapons specially designed to incapacitate the heroes.
Larry is coated with chemically impregnated sand, trapping Negative Man inside his body. A steel net enmeshes Rita before she can grow large enough to gain the strength to break free of it. Robotman is hit with a magnetic charge that disrupts the internal motors of his mechanical body.
With the wheelchair-bound Chief helpless to do anything, the Patrol can only listen to the ravings of Rouge and Zahl. Their goal was the total humiliation of the Doom Patrol, starting with the public accusations of cowardice, back in Midway City, to their current helplessness before their sworn enemies. And the villains are not done, yet.
The world will see that the DPers are no braver, no nobler, than anyone else---that they will put their own lives first. Over a global broadcast, Captain Zahl explains that two explosive charges have been set: one under the very island upon which the Patrol stands, the other beneath the small fishing village of Codsville, Maine, populated by fourteen ordinary, unimportant people. Either charge will bring total destruction to its target.
The heroes have two minutes, says Zahl, to decide which of the two bombs he will detonate. Will they sacrifice themselves for fourteen simple fishermen?
The Chief turns to the team that he founded. “You heard him! Fourteen ordinary men---strangers to us!” he says. “Well, my comrades? You must decide!”
Larry and Rita and Cliff respond without hesitation.
As time counts down, Madame Rouge reminds Zahl of their agreement, that the Doom Patrol shall not die. Zahl is confident that they will choose to save their own skins.
One hundred and twenty seconds later, the Doom Patrol delivers to the villains, and the watching world, their unanimous answer.
In a fit of pique, Captain Zahl defies Madame Rouge and presses the island’s detonator! A tremendous explosion erupts from the ocean floor, obliterating the island, along with everything---and everyone---on it.
The shocking deaths of the Doom Patrollers are compounded by the complete escape of Madame Rouge and Captain Zahl, though a grieving Steve Dayton swears to spend every last cent of his fortune to hunt them down.
In a last-panel coda, Murray Boltinoff once again speaks directly to the readers, insisting that the Doom Patrol did not escape the blast. It was not saved by some last-minute miracle. It would be up to the fans to determine if the Doom Patrol lived, again.
With that, the Silver-Age shroud was pulled over Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Girl, and the Chief.
With the advent of the Bronze Age, a new generation of writers saw fit to resurrect the slain heroes. First, Cliff, then Larry, then the Chief, over the course of a decade, until the only corpse remaining on the ocean bottom was that of Rita Farr Dayton. The post-Crisis era brought more re-jiggerings of the Doom Patrol concept.
These developments had their enthusiasts, of course, but for the Silver-Age DP fan, the revivals served only to dilute the pathos and poignancy of four heroes who willingly made the supreme sacrifice to save the lives of fourteen “nobodies”.
The Doom Patrol, Requiescat in Pace.