GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


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The Doom Patrol Archives, vol. 1 2002 (HC Collection) 224 pages

Written by Arnold Drake (with Bob Haney). Illustrated by Bruno Premiani.
Colours/letters: unbilled. Editor: Murray Blotinoff

Doom Patrol -cover by Bruno PremianiReprinting: My Greatest Adventure #80-85, The Doom Patrol (1st series) #86-89 (1963-1964)

Additional notes: intro by Arnold Drake; creator bios; covers.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

Here's a trivia question you can spring on comic book fans. What early 1960s team featured a bunch of freakish misfits who operated under the command of a recluse in a wheelchair, carrying the tag line "the world's strangest heroes" and who counted among their foes a Brotherhood of Evil? The obvious response is Marvel's the X-Men. But the answer is, of course, DC Comics' The Doom Patrol.

The original comic ran about forty issues (starting in My Greatest Adventure, and proving so successful, the mag was renamed after them). But they weren't that successful -- not unlike the original X-Men, come to think of it. But unlike the X-Men, which Marvel kept alive in reprints before giving them a major overhaul in the mid-1970s, the Doom Patrol largely disappeared (there were a few comics here and there in which reprints were squeezed into the back pages and a brief attempt to revive the title reprinting previous stories -- like the X-Men). Growing up, I had never even heard of them! After a failed attempt to create a new version of the team in the try-out Showcase comic, the new team got its own title in the late 1980s, then was taken over by writer Grant Morrison and it became even weirder, and critically acclaimed. But eventually that too faded. Subsequently, there's been various attempts to revive variations of the team (with John Byrne handling one -- yet another X-Men connection!).

But back to the original team.

Imagine my surprise when, later in life, I heard about this obscure team, about its similarity to the X-Men (which it pre-dated by a few months -- though even a few months lead isn't enough for anyone to say, definitively, that the X-Men were a rip-off). But more -- that the Doom Patrol was pretty good. At a time when Marvel was shaking up the industry with its self-knowing humour, and soap opera-y character angst, DC was generally sticking to more clean cut, arguably slightly bland, heroes -- but the Doom Patrol was DC's attempt to emulate the quirky Marvel formula.

The characters could be bitter about their lot in life, and if they didn't bicker with the same wild abandon of Marvel heroes, they could still disagree. Victims of freak accidents, the Doom Patrolers -- Rita, who could grow or shrink, Cliff, a brain in a robot body, and Larry, who kept his features wrapped in special bandages and could release a negative energy image of himself to perform super feats -- were happy to devote their lives to good deeds, but bristled at being referred to by their nicknames -- Elast-Girl, Robot Man, and Negative Man -- rather than their true names, as if they weren't human beings underneath it all. There was also humour -- as the characters indulged in snappy patter and wisecracks that Superman would never dream of uttering.

Sure, that's only a minor aspect of these early stories, with most of the comics featuring the fabulous freaks (as they came to be nicknamed) being straight-laced heroes fighting giant monsters, immortal megalomaniacs, and the like. But it was enough to give the Doom Patrol something a lot of DC's properties seemed to lack a the time...an edge. At the same time, the very fact that it didn't go as far as Marvel could also be a plus. Boasting clean art, and stories that didn't just run to extended fight scenes, it was a little of both companies, meeting in an appealing middle.

I picked up some tattered back issues a few years ago and was instantly smitten with Arnold Drake's quirky writing, the wisecracking, bickering heroes and the sort of bizarre villains that a writer could only dream up after having had one too many anchovies on his pizza before going to bed, married with the clean, deceptively simple art of undersung Bruno Premiani.

But back issues are hard to come by...and usually quite expensive. Then DC Comics offered the early issues in one of their ridiculously overpriced hardcover "Archive" editions. I hummed and hawed, I hawed and hummed. Finally, I broke down -- though the archive editions are too expensive for me to make a habit of them.

Anyway, as often happens for me with much-sought items, this collection was -- at first -- a slight disappointment. I enjoyed it, but there's a sense that writer Drake hadn't quite let himself loose. There are hints of the craziness to come, rather than the real deal. There's some character stuff, but not as much as later, as other characters would be added to the mix, like the arrogant Mento, and Beast Boy (Changeling of the New Teen Titans), complicating the relationships. And the wisecracks and put downs would become more pronounced, and the plotting more bizarre (and stretched over more than one issue). The Doom Patrol became downright...funky. All that's certainlty hinted at here, of course, with some humorous interplay, and nicely realized characters, and the bizarre conglomerate that make up the Brotherhood of Evil has rarely been rivalled for weirdness (though Marvel's the Headmen came close). And the Doom Patrol itself boasted odd powers: Larry's negative image kind of creepy, in a way (even referred to almost as though a separate entity) and when Rita grew, she didn't just evoke Marvel's Giant-Man...but could take on Godzilla-like proportions, literally stepping over buildings!

This collection is enjoyable in its own right. Although rooted in Silver Age simplicity, with accompanying goofiness, at other times the plotting is surprisingly thoughtful, the stories unfolding and developing in a way a lot of comics then -- at Marvel and DC -- didn't, other comics more concerned with just getting from one action scene to the next. The stories are well-paced and take the team all over, veering off into unexpected quarters. There are some nice ideas, and a reasonable diversity of foes -- while also establishing recurring adversaries like General Immortus and, of course, the Brotherhood of Evil. The series is surprisingly modern in some respects, particularly with Elasti-Girl -- no passive heroine, she was an equal to the boys, maybe even a superior. Though other aspects are dated, such as the team's leader, the Chief, casually referring to medical experiments on animals he used to perform. In this day and age of sensitivity to animals, it seems unlikely a hero would be involved in such things!

Another genuine appeal is Bruno Premiani's art. He doesn't seem so much like a superhero artist, as much as he just stepped off a Western or Romance Comic (which he did). As such, he brings a quiet, low-key realism to the work that just serves to accentuate the weirdness of the characters and their adventures. The art is reasonably simple -- this isn't Neal Adams, or even Curt Swan -- but with Premiani shadowing his characters, there's a real dimension to the figures. And Elast-Girl was one of the pettiest drawn heroines of the Silver Age. It's really nice work and contributes greatly to the whole package. Premiani may well be one of the most overlooked artists of the Silver Age (perhaps because the Doom Patrol may have been his only, regular, superhero assignment).

Ultimately, outrageous price tag notwithstanding (I got it slightly marked down), I enjoyed this volume. In fact, recently re-reading this -- I've boosted my rating a bit because, even if the series got better, and more edgy...these earliest issues are still a notch above a lot of comics from the time. Maybe I'm exaggerating the appeal of later issues, still I do think the Doom Patrol hit its stride a bit later (see my next review below).

Though these Archive volumes are exorbitantly expensive, DC has also released the complete, vintage Doom Patrol in two cheaper, black & white "Showcase presents..." TPBs.

Cover price: $82.95 CDN./ $49.95 USA 


The Doom Patrol Archives, vol. 4 2008 (HC Collection) 208 pages

Doom Patrol - cover by Bob BrownWritten by Arnold Drake. Illustrated by Bruno Premiani.
Colours/letters: unbilled. Editor: Murray Blotinoff

Reprinting: The Doom Patrol (1st series) #106-113 (1966-1967)

Additional notes: intro by Paul Kupperberg; creator bios; covers.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

Growing up, reading comics...I had never even heard of the Doom Patrol. Unsurprising given the comic had been cancelled just months before I was born and in a sufficiently permanent way as to preclude most of the characters cropping up as guest stars in later comics. Eventually a new version of the team came about, but I still knew precious little about the 1960s incarnation, until picking up an old (and relatively discounted) back issue I began to get an inkling that the original Doom Patrol wasn't simply a decent, but ill-fated series...but something definitely weird and wild and...wonderful.

Essentially, as the introduction here by Paul Kupperberg (himself the creator of a later version of the Doom Patrol) points out, Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake was one of the few writers (then) at clean cut, conservative DC who saw what was happening over at rival Marvel Comics...and, more important, "got" it. (How much Stan Lee and Marvel revolutionalized comics is clear from the fact that Kupperberg, writing this introduction for a DC published book, makes no apologies for recognizing Marvel's importance). So while most of the DC line was still occupied by clean cut, All-American good guys, the Doom Patrol adopted the slightly rawer, rougher sensibility of Marvel, with a healthy dose of wisecracks and humour, and feet of clay heroes who bickered among themselves as much as they fought bad guys -- heroes who were, superficially, as much monsters as the menaces they fought and were dubbed the "fabulous freaks".

The first Doom Patrol Archives volume was an enjoyable tome, with Bruno Permiani's clean, low-key art and Drake's script hinting at the idea of misfit heroes not fully comfortable in their own skins. But the two were clearly just getting warmed up.

In this fourth volume (of five), there's a madcap madness at work that is dizzying to imbibe at times. Drake hasn't just adopted Stan Lee's style -- soap opera-y sub-plots, tongue-in-cheek humour, and scenes driven by the personalities as much as the plots -- but tries to go him even better, with mixed results. On one hand, Drake maybe lacks the discipline that Lee and Marvel had, some of his attempts at being hip and irreverent maybe seeming too self-consciously forced, or too scattershot.

Yet in other ways, it could be argued Drake really does succeed in one upping Lee. If Drake maybe goes too far with the silliness and wisecracks at times, in other ways there can be an astonishing complexity and sophistication to the relationships.

By this point the core team of Niles Caulder (the Chief), Rita Farr (Elasti-Girl), Cliff Steele (Robotman) and Larry Trainor (Negative-Man) has long since been augmented by hangers on, multi-millionaire Steve Dayton (Mento) and teenager Garfield Logan (Beast Boy -- later called Changeling when he became part of the New Teen Titans). Even that is a weird idea, as if Drake was envisioning his team as existing in their own universe removed from the rest of the DC heroes, the fact that there are other heroes not -- technically -- part of the team. And the fact that, unlike most super heroes, the team were defined more by their "real" names, rather than their super hero names, seems intended to make sure we think of them as people first, costumes, second. (In one of the series' quirky twists, Gar Logan is green-skinned...but wears a purple mask as Beast Boy so no one will realize the two are the same).

By this point, Mento and Elasti-Girl have married, and Robotman and Negative-Man don't like him, nor he them. And the point is: Mento is a kind of abrasive character...but Rita really does love him, and he her, so this isn't simply about good guys/bad guys, but people with nuances to them. And Beast Boy, younger than his later Teen Titans stint, is also amusingly obnoxious, but also a bitterer soul than he would be in those later stories.

And it all makes for a very messy, very funny, very human "family" dynamic, as Rita takes a maternal interest in Beast Boy, much to Mento's chagrin. At one point, suspicious of Rita's kindness, Beast Boy remarks: "What's the catch? Who do I have to kill?" And Mento responds sarcastically, "What a loveable lad!"

Drake embraces the unconventional eccentricity of his cast -- yeah, milking it for rapid fire quips and wisecracks as if Laugh-In was playing in the background while he wrote the scripts. But also seeming sincere in his depiction of "freakish" heroes and the message that being different isn't a bad thing. As Rita remarks: "Why do kids have to be stamped out of a machine like so many sausages?"

And it's also worth noting that you can forget Wonder Woman or Black Canary or anyone else -- Elasti-Girl was by far the most liberated, "feminist"-type super heroine of the 1960s.

And despite the zaniness, there are still effective moments of human drama, whether just in the bickering reflecting real people feeling real exasperation, or in a surprisingly effectively written scene when Gar thinks the DPers are dead and chews out the Chief.

And moreso than other DC Comics of the time (that I've seen), Drake also borrows the Marvel style of on going sub-plots and multi-issue stories. The paramount subplot here (carried over from the earlier volume) is that Gar's guardian is embezzling his wealth, and Rita (and with greater reluctance, her teammates) wish to help the boy. Again, Drake almost one ups Lee, because even though this plot thread connects to the super heroes (the evil guardian makes a deal with some super foes) nonetheless it builds to a climax that is nothing more fantastical...than a courtroom scene as arguments are made for custody of Garfield.

Whereas Archive vol. 1 was mainly made up of self-contained one issue stories, here the overlapping of plots, "to be continued" cliff hangers, and sub-plots like the one involving Gar mean this has more of a feel of an epic graphic novel at times. And though a sub-plot is introduced and left dangling for the next (and final) Doom Patrol Archive volume, nonetheless the Gar plot is resolved, as are the multi-part storylines, meaning this is perfectly enjoyable read just on its own.

Admittedly, Drake's emphasis on comedy and rapid-fire pacing maybe means that few issues stand out as carefully plotted dramas, it more flowing like a serial of cliff hangers and stream-of-consciousness plot twists. At the same time, that gives it a tone, a narrative style that can seem different from most comics -- Marvel or DC -- at the time. The plots aren't that predictable, and it can further mean the focus feels like it's on the characters, rather than simply the fights.

And there are a lot of clever and interesting ideas and plots, as the Doom Patrol takes on their primary nemeses for a few issues -- the Brotherhood of Evil -- then end up joining forces with them against an even greater threat for another story arc.

Also in a number of these issues, back up stories were run, elaborating on the origins of the various characters, giving you even more material for your buck, as well as more variety. Because just as the main Doom Patrol stories are chock full of wisecracks and hijinks, the Negative-Man back up stories are more sober, and better articulate the series' underlining theme of these outcast heroes.

Permiani's art isn't as clean and elegant as it was in the earliest issues, perhaps trying to match Drake's more wild and woolly scripts, and he experiments with wilder angles or forcing perspective, not always effectively (drawing enormous hands as a character swings at something in the foreground). But it's still distinctively his art and the fact that he and Drake stuck with the series for its entire run -- and Permiani worked on few, if any, other super hero mags -- gives the series part of its own unique identity.

Obviously, the nature of these Archive volumes is that they are just collections of consecutive issues, not promising anything by way of story arcs or conclusions. But as noted this volume does stand well enough on its own, even with plot threads carried over from earlier, and others left dangling. And as a sample of the self-called "world's strangest heroes", it does the trick.

Cover price: $60.99 CDN./$49.99 USA.


DP7
is reviewed here


The Dreamwalker 1989 (SC GN) 62 pages

cover by MorrowWritten by Miguel Ferrer, Bill Mumy. Illustrated and coloured by Gray Morrow. Letters: Rick Parker. Editor: Howard Mackie.

Additional notes: Marvel Graphic Novel #45; tabloid dimensions

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings:

Published by Marvel Comics

Reviewed: Dec 2015

The Dreamwalker mixes elements of masked hero adventure with those '70s/'80s style pulp adventure novels like The Destroyer. It's about a top tier, hard-boiled CIA agent who quits the spy game in a huff, just around the time his father gets murdered. While investigating that crime, he discovers his father had once been a 1940s costumed hero called The Dreamwalker. Donning his father's old costume, he sets out to avenge his death, a path that leads him up against a local mobster -- while his ex-CIA boss isn't quite prepared to let him go so easily.

The Dreamwalker was an original creation. This isn't some recurring Marvel hero finally landing a solo book. And the creative team is interesting in that it was co-created and co-written by Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer -- Hollywood actors-turned-writer/creators who collaborated on a few projects both in TV and, I believe, comics. And the art is by well-regarded old pro, Gray Morrow.

Unfortunately, the result is...bland. One suspects Mumy and Ferrer were hoping more would come from this project -- whether other comics or maybe even a TV/movie incarnation (although this may have been slightly before the trend of using comics to cheaply test drive a film/TV concept). Certainly there are structural oddities to the narrative, including having the climactic showdown with the mobster a few pages before the end, leaving the final act more to simply further establish the background and the premise as though laying the groundwork for subsequent tales. But as far as I know nothing more came of it.

It isn't that there's anything wrong with what the writers or Morrow are doing -- it's just there's nothing especially original or interesting. The main character is fairly stock (of the gruff, hard-boiled type of hero), The Dreamwalker identity is rather bland (he's a deliberate throwback to 1940s heroes who were just one step removed from a private eye -- he wears a mask and fancy evening wear, but otherwise has no gimmicks or unique aptitudes) and the case he's investigating is pretty generic, with obvious villains pursuing obvious motives (not that motives are especially relevant). The chief twist (a turncoat character) is likewise pretty predictable. Even the hero's background as a CIA agent (presumably partly to explain why he can fight so well) is nothing unusual.

The story clips along briskly enough, but never seems to do more than check off the most obvious boxes as it goes. And, as mentioned, there's a kind of odd narrative structure, basically climaxing early, then wrapping up with a lot of talking head exposition -- basically giving background to the case after it would be relevant. (And clearly setting things up for later adventures that never occurred).

Funnily enough, that background includes flashing back to the career of his dead dad, as the original Dreamwalker -- movie actor by day, crimefighter by night, during the glamour days of mid-20th Century Hollywood. And you can't help thinking Mumy and Ferrer would've been better to have made that the focus of their graphic novel: a 1940s crimefighter in Golden Age Hollywood (particularly as both writers literally grew up in the Hollywood milieu). Instead it's simply the backstory for the generic modern day story.

Morrow's art is a lot like the script -- perfectly professional, but a bit bland. Don't get me wrong: I like Morrow in general, and his realist, straight forward art. And it's nice seeing it given the painted treatment in this graphic novel. But there's nothing exceptional about his composition, how he lays out a scene, or even how figures (or faces) are posed in a panel. It's straightforward, unimaginative visuals in a straightforward, unimaginative story. In a more lively, twisty script it would be fine -- or, conversely, more stylish, atmospheric visuals might jazz up the writing.

Though one quirk is that Morrow -- thanks to his realist style -- I think indulges in a few celebrity nods. The hero's CIA boss looks a little like actor Jose Ferrer (co-writer Miguel Ferrer's dad) and the original Dreamwalker is maybe supposed to resemble Jimmy Stewart.

Ultimately what's frustrating about this is it's not really that there's a lack of talent on display either by the writers or the artist. It's just under-served by a lack of imagination.

Cover price: $__.


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