Doom Patrol #96 © 1965 DC Comics. COVER ART BY BOB BROWN.
It's asking a lot of a comic to star
the world's strangest heroes, but the Doom Patrol has delivered on that promise not once but twice. The veteran creative duo of writer Arnold Drake and artist Bruno Premiani introduced the team in the pages of DC Comics' My Greatest Adventure #80 (in mid-1963). Their first story relates how the wheelchair-bound genius Niles Caulder (also called
the Chief) summons
three victims of a cruel and fantastic fate to his brownstone to offer them the chance of adventure—and superhero status. The three are: actress Rita Farr, who, after being affected by volcanic gas, is able to assume a large or small size (Elasti-Girl); Larry Trainor, a test pilot who is doused in cosmic rays, gaining an
energy double made of negative energy—though this can only survive outside his body for sixty seconds (Negative Man); and Cliff Steele, a daredevil racecar driver whose brain is transplanted by the Chief into a robot body following a cataclysmic crash (Robotman—no relation to the Golden Age [1938–1954] character of the same name).
Drake conceived the team as a response to such emerging Marvel Comics superheroes as the Fantastic Four, which emphasized characterization over the convoluted plots that were then DC's stock-in-trade. In fact, the Marvel superhero team and comic that the Doom Patrol most closely resembled was the X-Men, which shared its lineup of bitter outsiders under a wheelchair-confined leader, a secret hi-tech hideout, and arch-villains with similar names (the Brotherhood of Evil for Doom Patrol, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants for the X-Men). Indeed, to compound the similarities, Drake would later move to Marvel to write—you guessed it—the X-Men comic. Significantly, however, it was the Doom Patrol that came first (by three months), though, while both strips developed a committed readership, it was the X-Men, of course, which proved the more enduring of the two.
Back in 1963, however, the Doom Patrol comic soon proved popular and, with its 86th issue, My Greatest Adventure was retitled The Doom Patrol, and ran under that name until issue #121 five years later. The strip had an air of sophistication about it, thanks to Drake's well-rounded characterizations and Premiani's accomplished, European-flavored draftsmanship, which set it apart from its rivals. The lineup was augmented by bizarre figures such as Mento, the wealthy Steve Dayton, who built himself his own (ludicrous-looking) mind-reading hairnet; and the green-skinned Beast Boy, who could change into any animal (and who later joined the Teen Titans). Villains, too, were included in abundance, including the immortal (and very wrinkly) General Immortus; Videx (a giant with see-through skin); an enormous walking jukebox; and assorted monsters and mutants. The aforementioned Brotherhood of Evil was a motley crew consisting of the Brain (who was just that—a brain), the shape-changing Madame Rouge, and Monsieur Mallah, who was a sentient gorilla.
In time, Mento and Elasti-Girl married, and then adopted Beast Boy, while Madame Rouge fell in love with the Chief, but the comic was perhaps too strange for some readers and cancellation became inevitable. The last issue ended with the group sacrificing themselves to save a village, and they stayed dead for a decade but, when DC's Showcase comic was revived in 1977, so too was the Doom Patrol. It seemed that Robotman had somehow survived the explosion that killed his teammates, and he joined up with a new group of young outsiders: Tempest, Negative Woman (no relation), and Celsius, who turned out to have been married to the Chief (not that anyone knew). This new team starred in a mere three issues of Showcase and had to wait another ten years before being heard of again, when a new Doom Patrol comic premiered in 1987.
This second run reintroduced the original Negative Man, Larry Trainor, and in due course the Chief reappeared, so that only the unfortunate Elasti-Girl seems to have perished back in the 1960s. A couple of years into their new comic, the Doom Patrol acquired a young British writer, Grant Morrison, and became stranger than ever, picking up a more mature, cult audience in the process. Morrison introduced Crazy Jane, a schizophrenic with sixty-four different personalities, while Trainor fused with his energy being and an unfortunate nurse to become the radioactive Rebis. The cast of villains now included the Brotherhood of Dada, the Beard Hunter, and Danny the Street, who was—yes!—a sentient street. For almost four years, Morrison dreamed up some of the strangest and most imaginative comics ever seen, which managed the seemingly impossible task of combining traditional superheroes with surreal plots and serious topics, such as child abuse. After Morrison's departure, the comic carried on in much the same vein but without his spark of inspiration, and it was canceled with its eighty-seventh issue—nevertheless an impressive run for such a left-field title.