“I don’t know what I should have done. I never had to save the world before.” ~ Rita Farr
Somewhere in west central Ohio, Black drag diva Maura Lee Karupt (Alan Mingo, Jr.) confronts a man, maybe the Man. He is there to enforce normalcy. He considers anyone different from him abominable, deviant, disgusting. He’s a white man, a straight man, a cisgendered man, an empowered agent with a badge and a patch, representative of the state’s worst proclivities—the desire to contain, weaponize or eliminate anyone different. He has a gun, a badge and a unit patch. He has men who obey him. He feels strong, but he is unprepared in his own heart for the unapologetic acceptance of self that Maura represents. “Fabulosity incarnate stands before you, Darren.” Maura tells him, “Show some goddamn respect.”
When he attacks, Maura fights back to defend herself and her street until she stops him, then tells Darren to go home. Killing or beating—exorcising rage–on another person isn’t the point. The point is, as it was at the Stonewall Inn when another Black Trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson stood up against similar men policing normalcy, to be oneself—to have the freedom to be oneself—without fear anymore.
I am full of respect for Maura, the sentient genderqueer street she lives on and all of Doom Patrol. Its fabulosity is undeniable. It feels me with joy, horror, fierceness and maybe even my own small sense of power and fearlessness. Or at least, doing something even when I am rightfully afraid. So prepare your hearts for strange horrors, absurd eschatons and fabulosity incarnate, though it is possible that there is no preparation that you can make. Prepare yourselves for the wonder that is Doom Patrol in its live-action, streaming incarnation. A donkey is a harbinger of the end for a small town. A cockroach evangelizes. A British chaos magician reminds me why, if Jane Austen taught me anything it’s not to trust men named, “Willoughby.” Muscles are filled with mystery. Nazi marionettes promise an anatomical revolution. A drag queen and a genderqueer street show us the way forward. Control is a weapon for fascists and Nazis should definitely fuck off. And Doom Patrol is beautiful and punk and queer as fuck.
I’ve long loved Doom Patrol as a comic series, but I also have been ambivalent about seeing it adapted. Now this show is my favorite iteration of Doom Patrol. It is beautifully structured, well-written and carefully characterized. Created in 1963 by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani, the comic had many iterations. I think the best runs were done by Drake with Premiani, Grant Morrison with Richard Case, and Rachel Pollack with Linda Medley*. The show is faithful to the spirit, if not the letter of the comic books. And that’s okay by me because Doom Patrol is about that spirit. I could easily believe that the show appeared as a vision to Grant Morrison to inspire his own influential run. This adaptation streamlines so much of the comic’s history and embraces comics as a visual medium. They change some things and I like them better. I like Animal Vegetable Mineral Man’s secondary head. I like a more layered Niles and hope it sticks. I like how the characters don’t really form a team of superheroes and also hope that sticks. And the series has a better treatment of Detroit than Morrison’s run of comics did. Though I have to say, I see you standing in for Detroit, Atlanta. Your streets are not nearly wide enough for the D.
In the show, despite their fear, their uncertain recoveries from trauma, four people–or five or maybe sixty-nine depending on how you want to count it–try to save themselves; each other; Cloverton, Ohio; and the whole goddamn world. Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser as voice and non-robot Cliff; Riley Shanahan as robot Cliff), Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer as voice and unbandaged Larry; Matthew Zuk as bandaged Larry), Rita Farr (April Bowlby), and Jane (Diane Guerrero) live in a mansion provided for them as a home and place to heal by Niles Evelyn Caulder (Timothy Dalton). After Niles is yoinked out of our reality by his old enemy and the series’ unreliable narrator, Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk), Vic Stone (Jovian Wade), aka, Cyborg, aka, on-track-to-join-the-Justice-League Cyborg, shows up to help them, but might also be drawn to them because he has his own issues. Larry, Rita and Jane don’t want to be heroes, though Larry has a whole other person inside him who is a hero, the Negative Spirit. Altogether they aren’t so much a team as a support group for people trying to recover from the catastrophes of their lives, the terrible things that have happened to them and the suffering they have caused others.
Cliff is a former NASCAR driver. Niles recovered his brain from a terrible accident and put it in a big, clumsy robot body in 1995. While Niles helped Larry, Rita and Jane, I am not sure Niles has done Cliff any favors by salvaging his brain. But Cliff is remarkably resilient and makes the best of his new situation.** A bad husband and friend when he was a celebrity, Cliff’s trying to be a better person. He wants to do the right thing even as he is incredibly hamfisted with both his robot fingers and the emotional and verbal equivalent of his “robot fingers.” Cliff has no idea of his own strength, because, until recently, he hasn’t had any cause to find out what happens when he gets in a fight. Not everyone decides that their prosthetic body makes them a superhero. Some people spend some time with, “I ruined my life, lost my family and now I have no physical sensations.” But Cliff reminds me of Superman in a way—he takes physical, verbal and emotional damage because he can. He cares for Jane and Jane and her superpowered personalities can lash out, but Cliff can take it. He gives Vic’s dad guff about being a bad father and feels a rivalry with Vic because Cliff kind of wants to be a hero and a leader.
Vic Stone is very definitely a hero and, at first, is fairly certain he doesn’t belong with “Niles’ strays” aka, Niles’ “circus freaks.” But Vic discovers he has more in common with them than he thought. He is haunted by his mother’s death. He is worried that parts of his mind might not be his own. He tries to hold the cray at bay with his superhero training–having briefings; trying to form them all into a team; saying things like, “This photograph puts our donkey friend in Paraguay.”
If sublimation, the transformation of trauma and grief into heroics, works for Batman, Vic and his aloof and rational father Silas think it can work for Cyborg, too.
Air Force pilot Larry Trainor’s X-15 test flight crashed in 1961 when he encountered an alien being. The Negative Spirit hitched a ride and kept Larry alive, but now Larry is so radioactive he’s lethal to other people. And well before that Larry hurt people he loved because he couldn’t choose between his wife and children and the man he loves, Staff Sergeant John Bowers. Larry has been tormenting himself and the alien within him for decades. Larry doesn’t want to be a hero because he has seen what people who are called “heroes” have done. He thinks his being in the world outside Niles’ house causes destruction, but the Negative Spirit doesn’t agree.
Jane has a collective of 64 super-powered personalities within her that do not always agree. Jane is their face to the world, most of the time. Struggling with living with the Negative Spirit, Larry asks her how she controls all the people in her. Jane replies, “They’re not my people. I don’t control them. I respect them. Maybe if you weren’t such an OCD alpha douchewaffle the Negative Spirit wouldn’t treat you like one.”
And as she reminds us, after an encounter with a Nazi war criminal, “Control is a weapon for fascists.”
Mr. Nobody compares Golden Globe winner Rita Farr to a “poor man’s Deborah Kerr” or a “rich man’s Yvette Vickers” but, despite Rita’s filmography, she seems like a perfect fusion of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Rita is careful and brittle. She can be cruelly honest. But she is trying to be a good person. Rita was a star in the 1950s until an accident led to her losing control of her bodily integrity and turning into a blob under stress. While that is enough to keep her from the outside world for seventy years, Rita has something else in her past that Mr. Nobody is tormenting her with and I am so pleased that it is more complex than the usual superhero story rigamarole–especially the usual story for women in superhero stories. I’d like to talk about it more, but I will leave it for now. Rita and Niles have benefited this most from this adaptation. She’s been fleshed out in a way I wish she had been long before now.
In the comics, Niles is colder and more focused on scientific research and his Doom Patrol project than he is on the people on his team. He ranges from coldly analytic to straight up, manipulative sociopath. On Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, Caulder brought in Dr. William Magnus, a fellow pipe-smoking scientist and creator of the Metal Men, to relate emotionally to his team. In the show, Caulder cares. He is likable. I have never expected to like Niles Caulder, but I do. And he has a jacket straight out of Vampire Prosecutor.
It’s interesting to have a Niles who still, as everyone on the show says, “has his secrets,” but whose good intentions might be responsible for awful things. If he even metaphorically pulls off a rubber mask to reveal he was cold, sociopathic Niles the whole time, I will be annoyed. I hope they continue to resist being a team or calling themselves heroes. I hope that becoming a superhero team is not the narrative arc. It is more interesting and character-driven this way. But 13 episodes in, I have faith in the writers doing something more interesting. And while Mr. Nobody seems to want to unmask Niles and force the group into a superhero team and away from character-driven stories, I think the writers might give him something Mr. Nobody doesn’t expect.
The series uses techniques I find increasingly tiresome, but they work well here. I find a lot of metafiction unnecessary now, but I am not annoyed by Mr. Nobody trying to showrun his victory over Niles and the “Doom Patrol.” Melodrama has become integral to superhero stories on tv. And I can find the melodramatic reliance on music to represent, heighten or highlight emotions off-putting when it is done poorly. But music is so thoughtfully used in Doom Patrol. The show even successfully uses David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” one of the songs Bowie used to transform his own death into art. It felt appropriate rather than appropriational. And I am interested in the ways that Doom Patrol uses and gently subverts other melodramatic conventions—good vs. evil, the suffering of the innocent and the virtuous, a final confrontation in which good triumphs—so central in superhero stories, much to Mr. Nobody’s aggravation. As much as Mr. Nobody keeps telling them that they should stay away from him, how can he get himself a dramatic final confrontation if Cliff, Rita, Larry and Jane resist being a team, resist the idea of being heroes, question exactly how much good they can do and what it means to do the right thing? He is, after all, an unreliable narrator and a good one.
I didn’t expect to find Doom Patrol as emotionally affecting as I do. It’s not that I don’t have all the feelings that superhero stories set me up to have. I do. We live in a time of quality melodrama, especially in genre, and I appreciate all the heartbreaking sacrifices, terrible losses, fights against impossible odds, tragic personal histories and impossible loves. And, frankly, I have gotten something in my eye on occasion. But Doom Patrol feels much less emotionally safe than other superhero shows—and even less emotionally safe than most hour-long dramas. Doom Patrol gets me much deeper inside. It is mature and not just because of swearing and gore. There are a lot of very adult feelings involving regret, elder care, being a failure as a parent, being a failure as a partner, being a failure as a decent person, using other people. And there is a lot of adult feelings about just keeping going after terrible experiences, terrible losses or terrible realizations about oneself.
As the series begins, the housemates are slowly moving out of the safe world of Niles’ mansion. They are beginning to help other people, whether those people are townsfolk who hate them, living books or that genderqueer street. People who other people might not help. They try to do the right thing. But as Rita asks Cliff, after they have done something which appeared to be obviously the right thing, and disaster followed, “And what does that look like now, Cliff?” While Superman seems to have an unerring sense of what the right thing is, most of the rest of us don’t. So they do the best they can. Sometimes they think they best they can do is stay out of the world. Rita and Larry frequently do. And, maybe, sometimes, Rita and Larry are right. They tried to save Cloverton, Ohio and they might have made everything worse.
How do we know what the right thing is? And how do we know it will actually solve the problem completely? How do we know it will save the world? Maybe it’s time for stories where the donkey is set off or the book that will destroy the world is read before we can prevent it. Maybe we need to think about not just what the end of the world means, but what stopping the end of the world means. Maybe it’s time for stories about how to save the world when the end of the world is more like erosion than a singular, sudden event. In this season of Doom Patrol, when the end of the world happens, we lose everything one person, one car, one house, one thing at a time as it is blinked out of existence. And that is annoying. It’s easier if there is one thing to do, one thing to stop. And it might feel easier if failure is straight up failure—because then we don’t have to try anymore. I have seen people, especially activists, burn themselves out because it seemed the only way they could take a rest.*** Maybe it’s time to keep on trying because it turns out that the end of the world and saving it aren’t a single thing you stop or you do.
The world is always ending in one way or another. Things are always blinking out of existence. All we can do is the best we can, but with such a slow eschaton, we have more than one chance to stop it. This is the kind of end of the world we live in and with. It’s in slow-motion and we have a chance to stop it all the time without being or waiting for heroes. We can do it our messy, beautiful selves. And then, when we get the chance, everybody sings Kelly Clarkson’s “People Like Us” or the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”
*The very same Linda Medley from Castle Waiting, a comic about another sanctuary that took in people who needed a safe place. I wrote about it here.
**Resilience might be the true superpower in Doom Patrol.
***And now I think about the documentary Darkon–about a LARPing group experiencing a kind of civil war. But the man who wants to oppose the forces trying to conquer their LARP world only dreams of a heroic sacrifice in which he gets gloriously fake killed and and his allies routed. And what is that really in the end? I can only imagine what Rita would think.
Carol Borden is a perfectly normal human living on a perfectly normal street.