'Doom Patrol': The Secret History of DC's "Strangest Heroes"

Ahead of their revival as the flagship of Gerard Way's new superhero line, revisit the roots of DC's weirdest, freakiest superteam.
Courtesy of Bob Brown/DC Entertainment
Ahead of their revival as the flagship of Gerard Way's new superhero line, revisit the roots of DC's weirdest, freakiest superteam.

The flagship title of DC's new Young Animal imprint will be a revival of Doom Patrol, a superhero property that has been in the publisher's catalog for more than half a century yet remains mostly unknown to the world outside of comic fandom, despite breaking new ground for superhero comics on more than one occasion.

The team first appeared in 1963's My Greatest Adventure No. 80, created by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. In one of the stranger coincidences in comic book history, it was published essentially contemporaneously with Marvel's X-Men No. 1, with both series centered on a group of misfits and outcasts led by a patriarchal figure in a wheelchair; the Doom Patrol's tagline was "The World's Strangest Heroes!" while X-Men bore the tagline "The Strangest Teens of All!" for a while.

(To continue the connection, the Doom Patrol faced the Brotherhood of Evil, while the X-Men dealt with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Notably, Doom Patrol co-creator Drake took over the writing of X-Men with the series' 47th issue.)

While the X-Men featured a group of teens struggling to find acceptance in a world that hated and feared them, however, Doom Patrol offered something darker. The team was made up of a trio of people who had suffered horrific accidents — Robotman, a race car driver whose body was destroyed to such an extent that his brain had to be placed in a robot body; Negative Man, a test pilot who had become radioactive after a crash; and Elasti-Girl, an actress who loses control of her body after being exposed to mysterious volcanic gasses — and were appropriately bitter as a result.

It was the Fantastic Four formula taken to an extreme, with a rogues' gallery to match: villains for the original incarnation of the team included Monsieur Mallah, a superintelligent gorilla, and Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, who could change parts of his body to mimic almost anything. Unfortunately, the team didn't mimic the success of Marvel's superteam, and after five years, the comic — by this point retitled Doom Patrol — was canceled … leading to the first of the concept's unlikely superhero innovations.

Whereas comic book series had ended due to low sales prior to 1968's Doom Patrol No. 121, "The Beginning of The End!???" went one step further by ending the lives of the team, as well; in the story, the heroes sacrifice themselves to save an island full of civilians from death, with an editorial note telling readers that the only thing that could reverse their deaths was "a sudden spurt in sales! So tell your friends! Tell your enemies, even … to buy, BUY this issue — or it's bye-bye Doom Patrol!"

Sadly, that "spurt" never arrived, and the team died, at least temporarily. (All would later be revealed to have survived, in one way or another.) A second attempt at the concept, teaming a rebuilt Robotman with all-new characters, flopped with readers and quickly disappeared after its 1977 debut in anthology title Showcase No. 94. The Doom Patrol, it seemed, was doomed to failure.

That certainly seemed to be the case when the concept was revived for a third go-round in 1987, with another all-new lineup joining Robotman. By this point, the original concept of a group of outsiders had been all-but-abandoned in favor of something more closely hewing to Marvel's more successful superheroes, but again, audiences didn't seem to be too excited by what was on offer. Instead of canceling the series a third time, however, editors chose to turn the series over to a newcomer on the American comic book scene: British writer Grant Morrison.

To say that Morrison redefined Doom Patrol is at once an understatement and a misunderstanding. In one sense, he took the series back to its core concept, creating a new team that featured mainstay Robotman, a revised take on Negative Man who merged both male and female secret identities into a third gender-ambiguous hero, and an all-new character with dissociative identity disorder, where every different personality had its own distinct superpowers.

But this was no backward-looking superhero comic. Morrison and artist Richard Case took the series away from traditional superheroics, bringing in such disparate influences as 19th century German psychiatry, 20th century art movements and cutting-edge scientific theories. Instead of supervillains, the team tackled paintings that "ate" real life, the dangers of automatic writing, and all manner of metaphysical questions that threatened reality almost by accident. There hadn't really been anything like it before, and certainly not from the same company that published Superman and Batman. For the first time in decades, the Doom Patrol lived up to its billing as the world's strangest superheroes.

(Tellingly, Morrison's Doom Patrol — which ran from No.19 through No. 63 of the second volume of the series — is the one cited by Gerard Way in his upcoming revival of the concept.)

It's possible that Morrison's take on the concept was so shocking that it scared off others from attempting something as bold. With the exception of Morrison's immediate successor — novelist Rachel Pollack, whose take was perhaps a little too close to Morrison's to find purchase with fans — every subsequent attempt to make Doom Patrol work has stumbled; a 2001 version brought in an all-new lineup of characters, but none was seemingly memorable enough to find a fan base.

Three separate relaunches since then (in 2004, 2009 and 2014) have rebooted the concept and team back to its original members and mission statement, to the apparent displeasure of all but the most hardcore of fans.

Details remain unknown for what Gerard Way and Nick Derington intend for the team with the upcoming September relaunch — but if history has shown one thing, it's that Doom Patrol has only ever found success with readers when things are stranger than everything else that's out there.