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The Doom Patrol at 60

It was sixty years ago today, April 18, 1963, that DC Comics' introduced The Doom Patrol, the strangest superteam in the company's history in the pages of the eightieth issue of the Murray Boltinoff edited anthology My Greatest Adventure (June 1963). Written by Arnold Drake and Bob Haney, with art by Bruno Premiani, the Doom Patrol were outcasts and freaks who banded together under the leadership of Professor Niles Caulder, their wheelchair bound Chief.

In 2019, DC Comics followed up the (original) Doom Patrol Silver Age Omnibus with the release of the Doom Patrol Bronze Age Omnibus, a 1,000+ page collection of predominantly my Doom Patrol stories from 1977's Showcase and my run on the 1987 title, along with the rest of the handful of the team's Bronze Age appearances. (Between 2002 and 2008, DC had reprinted the Silver Age My Greatest Adventure/Doom Patrol run in five volumes of The Doom Patrol Archive Edition, for which I wrote the foreword to Volume Four.)

Introduction to The Doom Patrol Silver Age Omnibus

By the time I discovered the Doom Patrol, they had just died.

In a most spectacularly heroic, and historic, way.

The short of it was this: Captain Zahl, a World War II Nazi U-boat commander with a grudge against the Chief for helping the U.S. win the war and crippling him in the process, and Madame Rouge, a split personality with elastic abilities and a history with the aforementioned Chief, had the Doom Patrol stranded and helpless, their powers neutralized, on an isolated Caribbean island.

Zahl swore to Rouge that he wouldn’t kill the Doom Patrol, that he just wanted to make them grovel for their lives and be humiliated in the eyes of the world. To achieve this, the villain offered a choice: “A small, crumbling town in New England--Codsville, Maine! 14 useless fishermen! They die in TWO minutes--or YOU do! I hold in my hand two plungers! One vill blast Codsville from der map! OR der other vill sink this island--und ALL of you!”

Whatever his oath to Madame Rouge (“Vot do I care for your childish love affair!”), Zahl is driven over the edge by the Doom Patrol’s last selfish and heroic taunt of “FIRE AWAY!” and he does.

And in a blazing, and one assumes deafening, “KAHWHOOOOOOOM” the world’s strangest heroes were gone, blasted into comics history. Readers must have been stunned. They couldn’t have seen it coming and there was no Twitter to warn them. Writer Arnold Drake was certainly surprised; he later recalled that he’d been given two weeks to devise and write that final issue, The Doom Patrol #121 (September-October 1968), wrapping up his five-year run with the Chief, Robotman, Elasti-Girl, and Negative Man.

It should be noted that the DP did not go gently into that good night; the last panel of the story featured artist Bruno Premiani and editor Murray Boltinoff challenging readers to save the heroes: “It would take a miracle to change that ending…a tougher job than even the D.P. ever faced! And only you out there--the reader--could do it! You always wanted to be a super-hero, didn’t you? Okay, CHARLIE, let’s see you try!”

It took me almost ten years, but I eventually took Murray up on his challenge.

When I read that story sometime in the summer of 1968, I was thirteen years old, and it blew me away as a reader and a fan, mostly of DC Comics. I read Marvel, but my favorite heroes lived in the DC Universe. I just wished more of DC’s adventures were a little less goofy (“Jimmy Olsen as…the Giant Turtle Man!”) and a little more grounded in the real world, like Marvel’s characters.

Veteran writer Arnold Drake got it, though. Looking back at their cover-dated June 1963 debut in My Greatest Adventure #80, it seems obvious now that Arnold had created the Doom Patrol in response to what was happening at Marvel. The group was so accurate a take on the Marvel hero that Lee and Jack Kirby were almost simultaneously (and, most comics historians agree, coincidentally) working on their own group of outsiders under the command of a wheelchair-bound leader which debuted four months later called the X-Men.

The forty-one-issue story arc of the original Doom Patrol was both fascinating and strange, and their deaths touching and unprecedented for comics of the 1960s. Fifty-plus years later, these stories remain worth reading.

In 1975, I started writing comic books, and nine years after my discovery of the World’s Strangest Heroes, Paul Levitz, a childhood friend, now an editor at DC Comics and well acquainted with my many comic book infatuations, offered me an assignment he knew I wouldn’t refuse:

Resurrect the Doom Patrol. In the pages of another resurrected favorite title of mine, Showcase.

From March of 1956 to December 1970, Showcase did exactly what its name implied, showcasing new features to test their viability for their own titles. The book introduced its fair share of turkeys (Fireman Farrell, Frogmen, Windy & Willy), but also helped create the Silver Age with The Flash, Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, Green Lantern, The Teen Titans, and many more. I hoped to add The New Doom Patrol to that roster.

It would be stretching the truth to say I achieved my goal. Between Showcase #96 and The Doom Patrol #1, almost eleven years had passed. But however long it took to get there, it all started with Showcase.

The New Doom Patrol was the first series I got to build from scratch, as opposed to picking up the threads on an existing strip. I wasn’t exactly creating a team, but I was recreating one, literally from the ashes of the old, for which I still had a deep, childhood reverence.

Originally, I considered leaving all the original characters dead, replacing them with the Chief’s previously unknown daughter who gathers an entirely new team to avenge her father’s death. In the end, though, it was my love of Cliff Steele’s Robotman that saved him from the scrap heap. Not only was it plausible that Cliff could survive the explosion—he was a human brain in what one would assume was a heavily shielded container—but the DC Universe even had a ready-made robotics expert standing by to rebuild his shattered body, Dr. Will Magnus, creator of The Metal Men.

Besides, having one of them survive to mourn and, eventually, avenge his friends was a better story than their all surviving out of some last-minute contrivance that’s revealed only after the fact: “Whew! Lucky for us your wheelchair was outfitted with that teleportation device activated by General Zahl’s explosion, Chief!”

It also hit us that if Cliff’s brain could survive, so could the Negative Being living inside Larry Trainor’s irradiated body. But without Larry’s body, the Neg Being couldn’t survive long, so it would need a replacement body, that of defecting Soviet cosmonaut, Lt. Colonel Valentina Vostok.

From Showcase #94 (Aug-Sept 1997), art by Joe Staton, lettered by Bill Morse.

I went back to the idea of the Chief’s offspring but turned her instead into a women from India who claimed to be Niles Caulder’s wife, Arani Desai. Under the codename Celsius, she had elemental control over fire and ice and mysterious plans for hunting down her husband’s killers. Or something else. I’m not sure even I knew where I intended to take that storyline, including whether or not she had really been married to Caulder.

Tempest, aka Joshua Clay, was an African-American kid from the Brooklyn projects, who was serving as a medic in Vietnam when he witnessed the attempted massacre of a village of noncombatants. The pending atrocity triggered a previously unknown mutant power and he blasted, and apparently killed, the sergeant directing the action. Horrified by what he’d done, Joshua ran, deserting the Army and living on the run for almost a decade before Arani found him and gave him a safe haven with the Doom Patrol. (By the way, the sergeant, Ben Krullen, survived and, like all good comic book heavies, later returned as a super-villain, Reactron.)

It was the Seventies. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum had set the new bar for teams with their 1975 revival of Marvel’s X-Men. Superhero groups became international, integrated, and diverse. Considering the DP’s small size, I thought I’d done fairly well the diversity front: fifty/fifty male/female, fifty/fifty ethnic/Caucasian, and twenty-five percent robot. We brought in some bits and pieces from the DC Universe, like government investigator Matt Cable, who had time off from the Swamp Thing continuity, to hunt for Russian defector Valentina Vostok, and we were off.

Of course, it took the art of Joe Staton to bring Robotman, Celsius, Negative Woman, and Tempest to life on the page. Joe had preceded me into comics by a couple of years, and I was already a fan of his work, especially his humorous superhero strip (with writer Nicola Cuti), E-Man for Charlton Comics, and his more recent turn on the Justice Society of America strip with writer, and Doom Patrol editor, Paul Levitz. Joe, I was to learn, could draw anything, even things he hated drawing. Like horses.

In spite of our best intentions, The New Doom Patrol didn’t catch on with readers and our trial balloon floated off into night, gone, but never really forgotten. At least not by me, Gerry Conway, and Marv Wolfman. Over the next few years, I would slip the group into an issue of DC Comics Presents here or a couple of issues of Supergirl there (who’d met the DP previously in Conway penned stories in Superman Family), while Marv had recruited Gar Logan, aka Beast Boy, aka Changling for The Teen Titans, where the hunt for the Doom Patrol’s killers was finally played out in 1981.

In 1985, DC exploded the multiverse in the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths, essentially resetting the DCU to zero, and clearing the way for a slew of new concepts built on old ideas. The Doom Patrol didn’t require much fiddling with its continuity, except to swap out Supergirl for Power Girl, who had replaced the former in the new DC timeline. When it was decided to bring back the DP, we had the opportunity to review and revise their story in the thirty-page John Byrne-drawn “Secret Origins of the Doom Patrol” in the 1987 Secret Origins Annual #1. We were also able to get a little of the wildly popular Teen Titans magic for ourselves with a Changling story for Teen Titans Spotlight #9 (April 1987) guest-starring Cliff Steele (and classic DP villain Mr. 104), teasing the upcoming Doom Patrol #1.

1983 Doom Patrol fan art by Steve Lightle.

The Doom Patrol launched with a lot of fanfare and a double-sized issue with a wraparound cover. The art was by Steve Lightle, a Kansas City native and the reason we settled the new team in Kansas. Steve is a talented and meticulous artist whose ability to bring out the emotion and tension of those early stories was inspiring to work with. When issues beyond his control forced Steve to give up the title, he was replaced by a young artist named Erik Larsen, who penciled #6-#15 before moving on to well-deserved fame for his run on Spider-Man and, later, creating Savage Dragon as a founding member of Image Comics. Graham Nolan stepped in to draw my last three issues, which included their part in the 1988 Invasion crossover event into the DC Universe…and the deaths, at the request of my successor, of some of my creations. And at some time during my run, I wrote the Rick Stasi-penciled fill-in issue seeing print here for the first time, intended to be kept in the drawer and used in case of a deadline emergency.

What happened to the Doom Patrol? My version was in a sales slump and editorial thought that called for a change. They were right. The Doom Patrol went on for another seventy issues or so, first under Grant Morrison, whose version serves as the inspiration for the most excellent DC Universe Doom Patrol television series, then Rachel Pollack. And at least a half dozen series, most as different from each other as Grant’s version was from mine, have been published in the decades since.

If nothing else, the continued effort to revive the Doom Patrol, not to mention the line of creators through the decades driven to keep trying to make them work, proves the durability of these characters. I understand the appeal. I mean, who among us hasn’t felt like a freak or an outsider at some time in our lives?

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1 Comment

sam witowich
sam witowich
May 31, 2023

Much of comic book history is not talked about. I really enjoy hearing the process behind the panel. I found it really cool that you read dp as a teen and you eventually ended up writing them. That’s pretty cool.

thanks for sharing.

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