The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
DC Comics, Byrne should never have resurrected 'Doom Patrol'

July 8, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Writer/artist John Byrne is known for tearing down and rebuilding superheroes. In the 1980s, he revamped Superman. Today, DC Comics is trying to put Superman back the way he was.

John Byrne's ''Doom Patrol''Having learned nothing, DC has now hired Byrne to reboot the Doom Patrol. The first issue appeared last week, but it's clear already that Byrne's "Doom Patrol" is contending to be the year's worst new superhero comic.

The Doom Patrol was the first team of superheroic outcasts, first appearing in the June 1963 issue of "My Greatest Adventure," nearly six months before the publication of "X-Men" No. 1. The team included Rita Farr, an actress who could grow to towering heights or shrink to the size of a doll; Larry Trainor, a test pilot with the power to project an energy creature from his body and control its every move; Cliff Steele, a racecar driver whose brain was housed in a robotic body; and Niles Caulder, a genius scientist confined to a wheelchair. Together, they were Elasti-Girl, Negative Man, Robotman and the Chief — the Doom Patrol.

In 1968, DC Comics killed the Doom Patrol. Heroes to the end, the team gave their lives to save the inhabitants of a small island.

But superheroes tend not to stay dead. Over the years, DC Comics tried several times to revive the Doom Patrol, eventually resurrecting all except Elasti-Girl and adding new teammates. The second "Doom Patrol" series, written in part by Grant Morrison, still has its fans. A third series began in 2001 and ran 22 issues.

The current series, written and penciled by Byrne, is the fourth outing for DC's oddball heroes. This time, however, the team has a clean slate. Byrne, along with DC editors Dan DiDio and Mike Carlin, erased the Doom Patrol's past. As far as DC is concerned, nothing before the current series happened.

In an afterward to "Doom Patrol" No. 1, Byrne tries to justify his approach. He writes that each new version of the Doom Patrol made the team's backstory more and more complex: "Like the chains dragging behind Marley's Ghost, the Doom Patrol was, each time out, bringing with it a lot of stuff that could be quite daunting for a new reader."

Byrne has a point. So, why did he make his "Doom Patrol" No. 1 so utterly incomprehensible? The story picks up from recent issues of "JLA," none of which I've read, and involves vampires and a young street tough who can create interdimensional portals.

The teleporting punk and his vampire friends take over an abandoned prison that is also the Doom Patrol's headquarters. This sets up a fight that goes on for several pages, giving everyone a chance to state the obvious and recount backstory. (Whenever I find myself in a life-and-death struggle, I like to discuss backstory with my opponent.)

But before we can get to the fight, Byrne gives us three pages of the villain expounding yet more backstory. After "Austin Powers," I wonder how anyone can write a scene like this with a straight face.

Byrne occasionally breaks from the inaction to visit with Batman, the Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern, who, like everyone else, do nothing but talk backstory. By now I'm wondering if Byrne's editors ever thought this might not be a good way to start a series.

Yet, after all of the backstory, I'm still confused. And if I'm confused, I can only imagine what those new readers whom Byrne is trying to reach might think. They probably think "Doom Patrol" No. 1 is a waste of trees.

On the plus side — and it's a small plus — Byrne's art looks better than it has in years, mostly because inker Doug Hazlewood smoothes over the rough edges of Byrne's pencils.

But the art cannot save this convoluted story, and "Doom Patrol" lives up to its title. It's doomed.

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