Or – “The Batman Made Me Do It!”
Ever since we discovered the wonder of the Music Meister, my kid and I have been watching Batman: The Brave And The Bold at every opportunity. She likes to ask questions about the heroes we see (Why does Aquaman have a beard? What’s a Kamandi? Why is Booster Gold blue? Can Robin fly? Why is that Flash wearing a hubcap on his head? Is Starro a fish?) and I like to enjoy flat-out superheroic fun the likes of which you don’t get in comics so much anymore. The most recent episode for us (Helloooo, Future People!) involved a familiar story for me, and one that affected her greatly. For the benefit of those who have only seen the cartoon adaptation (or, horror of horrors, never heard of it) I bring you the story wherein the heroes who took over the comic entitled ‘My Greatest Adventure’ EARNED their superheroic group name… The Death Of The Doom Patrol!
Previously, on Doom Patrol: Professor Niles Caulder was a genius outsider, a wheelchair-bound scientist whose genius led him to intervene in cases where his mind could better the life of those who might otherwise be branded as freaks. His genius led him to build a mechanical body for one Cliff Steele, a race driver whose human form was shattered beyond recognition in a crash. He developed special medication-soaked bandages that offset the radioactivity of Larry Trainor, a pilot whose body became the home to a “negative being” of pure energy after ditching his plane in the ocean. He helped rebuild the psyche and life of Rita Farr, an actress who inhaled strange gases while shooting on location, leading her body to grow, shrink and stretch at random.
Dubbed Robotman, Elasti-Girl and Negative Man, the three heroes teamed up to become The Doom Patrol, channeling their bitterness and alienation into saving the lives of those who would mock and shun them. (If the concept of “freak heroes” led by a mysterious wheelchair-bound genius sounds familiar, remember that the Patrol debuted about three months before Lee & Kirby came out with a similar title. Stan wanted to call it “The Mutants,” but cooler heads prevailed and they named the thing “The Uncanny X-Men.” And NOW you know… The Rest Of The Story.) The Doom Patrol has fought more than a few villains in their time, but their string of victories might be about to end. The issue opens, amazingly, with the editor and the artist directly addressing us, the readers, about what may be the Patrol’s last ride! “And, you, jolly reader… Only you can save the Doom Patrol now, and I kid you NOT!”
It’s always neat to read stories like this one, things that today’s high-falutin’ comics would never do, and having Murray and Bruno break the fourth wall always brings a smile to my face. What you probably don’t know is that the story as written didn’t HAVE Murray Boltinoff in it, but writer Arnold Drake addressing the audience. As this issue was being prepared, Drake (an outspoken advocate of creators’ rights) resigned from DC over a payment dispute, but ever professional, he delivered the finished job to his friend Boltinoff. After the Bruno and Murray explained who the dramatis personae are (I kinda like that delivery of the exposition, too) we cut to the sight of Monsieur Mallah and The Brain being all evil together, as befits a group called the Brotherhood of Evil. Their own former member, Madame Rouge, attacks the Brotherhood with heavily armed gunships, blowing both monkey and organ to kingdom come! Similar attacks come on the Doom Patrol headquarters itself, causing the team to go to ground together…
The Patrol counterattacks, knocking the helicopters out of the sky, but are shocked to find a representative from Washington DC arriving with bad news: The team must leave the city (which city is never explained, but I believe it’s Midway) or else they will be deported! Given that all of them are, to my knowledge, American citizens, and Negative Man a decorated war veteran, I’m not sure how that works, but amazingly, The Chief gives in! He agrees that the Doom Patrol will leave for the greater good. The population of the city shows up to boo them for their cowardice, but Professor Caulder has his own ideas about finding the nefarious Madame Rouge, ideas that DON’T include hiding out until the danger is over…
You have to love that art, there. Brune Premiani is one of the unsung geniuses of the Silver Age, Faithful Spoilerites, and you’d do well to look up his work. While The Chief is smart, Madame Rouge is a devilishly clever little minx as well, and her time in Caulder’s confidence (during a time when she was either brainwashed, or un-brainwashed, they were somewhat of an item) has taught her enough of his tricks to figure out where the team is going, and enlisted Nazi war crimanal General Zahl and his atomic submarine for transportation. As the Doom Patrol arrives at their new island fortress, Madame Rouge’s goons attack! Negative Man is bathed in special chemicals that trap his energy form, Elasti-Girl encased in steel netting, and Robotman zapped with a mysterious frap-gun of unknown origin!
Complete humiliation may be on both Zahl and Rouge’s menus, but their definitions vary wildly, as he has set up the ultimate Catch-22 for the team: Either they agree to let him kill them, or he will destroy a nearby fishing village, killing over a dozen innocent men. Broadcasting their fate worldwide, Zahl tells the Doom Patrol that they can either give up their own lives, or reveal themselves to be the giant hypocrites he believes them to be… The team thinks about how their heroic legacies stack up against the lives of a few “ordinary” men and women, and make the only choice that true heroes could make.
The entire world watches in horror as four heroes are blown to bits. The world mourns, and the small town of Codsville changes their name to “Four Heroes” in honor of the sacrifice of the Patrol. Rita’s widowed husband, Steve “Mento” Dayton, swears to use all his power and resources to track down and punish those who killed his wife and sort-of teammates, and we close with Bruno Premiani stunned at what he’s just drawn. Editor Boltinoff again turns to the “camera,” and tells the reader that only a MIRACLE could save the team, the kind of miracle that hundreds of thousands of fans writing in unison could pull off, if they really tried!
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The Doom Patrol rested in peace for nearly a decade before being revived in an All-New All-Different fashion. In another funny X-Men parallel, they did so with a multi-national team of new hero freaks, including a Russian member and one of the original team leading the new incarnation. This issue is impressive, even decades later, at the goosebumps I get when I read the last few pages, and the real sense of wonder at the end of it all. Even knowing as I do that dozens of bad stories and revamps would follow, and that eventually all four members would return to a semblance of their previous lives, this book doesn’t lose any of it’s power. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a comic book team was irrevocably destroyed at the end of the book, rather than just fade away, and even slightly simplified for the recent B&B cartoon version, I remember this story as one of the strongest examples of TRUE heroism in comics history. Doom Patrol #121 is older than me, and likely older than you, but it’s still a damn good story in this era of Brightest Days and Chaos Wars, and earns the fullbore 5 out of 5 stars overall. If you’ve ever wondered why the team has had roughly NINE different relaunches in it’s history, you can lay the majority of the blame right here…
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Ignoring later resurrections and retcons, do you think (and be honest here) that the heroes made the right choice in giving up their lives for a few innocents?