Thursday, October 8, 2009

DP05-AA Pollack Period synopsis

In the last few months of Grant Morrison's tenure on Doom Patrol the letters' pages carried increasingly strident and stalker-like letters from a fan named Rachel Pollack. Of course, it was all a joke between Grant and Rachel (and/or editor Tom Peyer-- good lord, I hope Tom was in on it...). The first letter mixes praise and kibitzing, the last (in #63) threatens to put sugar in the editor's gas tank if she isn't allowed to write the book herself. That one is immediately followed by a note announcing that she is, in fact, the new writer. In a pre-Google world it might have been forgivable if most fans of a super-hero team comic book were not aware that Rachel Pollack was already a published novelist and non-fiction writer noted for bringing an unusually high degree of interdisciplinary scholarship to the study of Tarot. If you give it a moment's thought, pulling off the prank described above would have heavily depended on most readers not being so aware. The good news is that the prank worked. The bad news...

The Pollack Period (1993-1994) was part of the Vertigo Launch in which six existing Mature Readers titles were simultaneously converted to a new imprint, to be joined each month by any two of the following: a new ongoing series; a new mini-series; a one-shot or graphic novel; a trade collecting compatible features published prior to the launch or premiere licensed merchandise (statues, watches, et al). By any objective measure, the Vertigo launch was a success. Within a year publishers big and small were launcing new imprints and trying to establish brand identities and replicate the manner in which DC was able to lead an existing audience for established titles to new titles that had a comparable mood or approach to storytelling. Fifteen years later Vertigo is still here and the others are not only gone but at least ten years cold. The reason, I think, has less to do with the fact that Vertigo published some great comics (it did) and more to do with the fact that it didn't need to establish a brand identity. DC had spent the five years since Alan Moore left Swamp Thing doing exactly that until the only thing remaining conspicuously absent was a name that distinguished these titles from the others they published. Perhaps both Green Arrow and Hellblazer were Mature Reader titles but even people who enjoyed both would never confuse them. Yet, while Green Arrow and Hawkman were a change of pace from Superman or Wonder Woman, titles like Sandman and Shade seemed like a change of medium. DC's previous attempt at an imprint targeting a decidedly adult demographic, Pirhana Press, launched in the middle of 1989. A contemporary Jenette Kahn editorial describes it as two years in the making, placing the idea roughly at the time that Alan Moore left Swamp Thing. However, Pirhana was meant for non-continuity projects. Placing titles with numerous ties to DC continuity under a separate imprint (as they would with Vertigo) raised questions among long-time readers: would the new stories be in continuity or be considered divergent?; if they are no longer in continuity, would the previous issues be 'retconned out', as were many stories published before Crisis?; if these characters are ever again used in mainstream DC titles, will the events they experience under the new imprint have a noticeable impact on their personality since their last 'pre-imprint' appearance? Vertigo, with its implied prediliction for disorientation, began with a greater emphasis on making its new name and more clearly focused identity known than with placating anxieties such as these. As a result, Rachel Pollack, a comics fan since childhood and well-versed in the particular title she became involved with, was mischaracterized in some quarters as some sort of outsider to comics in general and approaching her assignment to DP as an onus to change for change's sake. Worse than being unfair, it's inaccurate.

The elements Pollack brought to the table that Morrison didn't (or didn't consistently) were, in no particular order: the ancient historical origins of beliefs in mysticism, gender identity politics, Judaica, the need for and inevitability of generational schisms and probably more I didn't pick up on. In cases where existing characters had a stake in these topics they would come into play accordingly. Where this wasn't the case, rather than drop the topic or radically change a known character for the sake of it, she took the best possible route, which was to craft characters needed to illustrate given ideas and plot out the flow of the series so that they could be introduced in advance of their need. That way they would already have a relationship of some kind to the existing cast and the topic of the moment would show its impact by the manner in which the relationship is changed. This is the opposite of 'topical' stories that lecture you with expository dialogue and far more interesting than 24 pages of fist-fights. Pollack had done for novelists what Harlan Ellison had done for essayists for over twenty years -- proven that prose writers working in comics were not necessarily dilettantes. She plotted Doom Patrol like a novel and wrote it like a serial. And therein lies the problem. I bought every issue when it came out, although by the end it was more out of habit. I was initially carried along by the sheer funkiness of it but am forced to admit that by the end I not only didn't know what was happening but couldn't recognize the cast members. I reread the Vertigo issues largely to prepare for this blog and was shocked not only by how good it was but by how easy it was to follow when read in sequence. Much of my earlier confusion, I suspect, lies in the fact that many characters have several names or designations and that often a little judicious exposition is used to explain not what is at hand but what occurs in a different issue. That's hellish if you're reading month to month but just a matter of style if read in a few sittings.

I would suggest that this run be reprinted as three paperbacks: (I)"The Fox And The Crow"; (II) "The Teiresias Wars"; and (III) "Imagine Ari's Friends". The contents would be...

  1. (I) "The Fox And The Crow" - The first issues of Pollack's run are Doom Patrol #64(3/93)- 66(5/93), aka "Sliding From The Wreckage". This brief arc is an epilogue to the Morrison Period. Dorothy Spinner is trying to simulate a normal life in an apartment in town, but her only friends are her imaginary creations, including a half-human version of Cliff. Will Magnus builds a body for Niles Caulder's head in the hopes of using Caulder's Think Tank. Caulder tells Magnus the device is still dead (...?) and tears his own head off the new body, forcing Magnus to return him to cryogenic storage where he communes with the Book Of Ice... [I'm going to hold off on details until I review the individual issues because an awful lot of continuity is tied up in these three issues and further continuity has its start; the most important development is that African archetypes that haunt Dorothy deliver an organic brain to her to be used for Cliff (it is likely taken from Josh; he was shot in the chest but in future dream sequences he is depicted with a bullet hole in his forehead).The digital format is then rewritten over the new brain in a reversal of the method that saved him.] The new direction really starts in Doom Patrol #67(6/93)- 69(8/93) where Cliff, Dorothy and Caulder's head (in a tray of ice) relocate to suburban Rainbow Estates in Violet Valley. The mansion Caulder bought was still occupied by George and Marion (known locally as the Bandage People), The Inner Child (whom Dorothy renamed Charlie) and numerous Sexually Remaindered Spirits (or SRS, the ghosts of autoerotic deaths). The readers also get their first glimpse of Foxfur and Crowdark. A side trip into Vertigo Jam (one-shot) (8/93) has an 8-pager in which George and Marion take Dorothy into town to retrieve two errant SRS's: Feathered Jonathon and Alice-Wired-For-Sound. Finally, in Doom Patrol #70(9/93)- 72(11/93) the team meets Foxfur and Crowdark, who turn out to be cartoonish incarnations of native American creation mythology. Here's where the problems begin. There was a big build-up for these characters (four issues in the background then a two issue story). Backtrack further and one of those 'crazy fan' prank letters threatened to burn Morrison's collection of The Fox And The Crow comics, an old DC humor comic that obviously lifted its motif from Aesop, but like most of these titles going back to the 1940's played out like Spy Vs. Spy. Readers who had followed from before the Vertigo launch and had spent four months seeing hints of the anthropomorphic pair were probably preparing for a revisitation of the old series, especially in light of Flex Mentallo, the two Ken Steacy stories in #53 and the Doom Force Special, and one more thing that was entirely out of Pollack's control. During the four months prior to this arc and concurrent to the earliest Vertigo comics there was a Stanley And His Monster limited series. Although not designated Vertigo it contained many supporting characters familiar to those titles (the angels Remiel and Duma, the Phantom Stranger and Ambrose Bierce, whom everyone mistakes for John Constantine) and a plot with close ties to Sandman and Hellblazer. Compounding matters the original The Fox And The Crow series changed its title after issue #108(2-3/68) to Stanley And His Monster for #109(4-5/68)- #112(10-11/68), when it was cancelled one month after... Doom Patrol. As good as Pollack's story was, there was perhaps an expectation at the time of its publication for some kind of pastiche or a parallel to Aesop instead of the wholly original story they got. In the meantime, the introduction of Kate Godwin/Coagula was overlooked.

  2. (II) "The Teiresias Wars" - Every year since Crisis ('85-'86) (except 1990?) DC coordinated multi-title crossovers among their in-continuity monthlies, often anchored to a mini-series. From 1991-1993 they added separate crossovers among their annuals. That came to a halt after the "Bloodlines" annual crossover, a bloated 25-title, 6-month morass that was often poorly drawn, rarely continued from one title to the next and promised a new character be introduced in every chapter (except the two-part conclusion). Three years later those 23 new characters were thin on the ground. Vertigo's first and last multi-title crossover began as "Bloodlines" ended. "The Children's Crusade" was a trim 7-title, 2-month coherent story coordinated with the parent titles. It included Doom Patrol Annual #2([1]/94), drawn by Mark Wheatley (at this time the monthly was being drawn by pre-"Castle Waiting" Linda Medley) . Because Dorothy's participation was limited to this issue and a few panels in the other chapters I'll reserve the details of the crossover to an individual entry. While she was occupied there, Doom Patrol #73(12/93)- #74(1/94) took place without her. In #73, Caulder has a revealing dream and in #74, Cliff and Kate investigate the piracy of Cliff's abandoned digital download which has been mass-reproduced as a video game. At about this time, Wheatley was also art director for a promotional comic entitled, The Vertigo Encyclopaedia [sic], contributing a two-page spread that describes the cast and plugs issue #76. "The Teiresias Wars" storyline itself is in Doom Patrol #75(2/94)- 79(6/94). Ted McKeever takes over the art and the monthly schedule doesn't seem to agree with him. The minimalism that worked so brilliantly in Eddy Current and Metropol seems clumsy after Medley's detail. In later issues he's getting back into the swing of it (just in time for cancellation) but here it looks like the art is rendered in mosaic tiles. Even so, this story provides an origin for George and Marion and explanations for many of the questions raised by "Sliding In The Wreckage". Reading the Vertigo issues up to this point often seems like a chaotic storm of plot elements; rereading them up to this point feels like watching "The Great Escape", a brilliant hundred-faceted plan coming together. Without the fence.

  3. (III) "Imagine Ari's Friends" - Much simpler; no anthologies, no promotions, no annuals; all covers by Kyle Baker (he started with #76); interiors by McKeever (except #80 and #83). The common thread in the last eight issues is that we see a continuation of the team members being able to trust each other with themselves, the opposite of the first nine issues in which questions piled up before the previous ones could be answered. In "The Teiresias Wars" George and Marion opened up to the team and Cliff and Kate opened up to each other. In Doom Patrol #80(7/94) Charlie finally offers a fragment of explanation of his true nature to Dorothy. In #81(8/94)- #82(9/94) she finally understands the African motif archetypes that had been pursuing her since #64 and exorcises them, while Caulder binds himself to the SRS Alice-Wired-For-Sound. In #83(10/94) The False Memory, last seen in #69, paralyzes the group with fantasies they prefer to reality. Only Dorothy seems immune to it, possibly due to her exposure to Charlie or else due to the trauma of the sort of seduction she experienced with the Candlemaker. After being freed from its influence Cliff finally admits that he left Jane because he had become afraid of her. The one panel flashback is the last we see of Crazy Jane (as Black Annis, apparently retaining her split personalities and their powers despite the events of 1992) and Danny the World (as far as we know... I mean, he doesn't have face...) for about a decade. Issue #83 is also the last to carry a subscription ad for Vertigo titles including Doom Patrol. The axe came down on the letters' page for #84. "And this isn't exactly an axe," said assistant editor Julie Rottenberg, since a final story arc, "Imagine Ari's Friends" would appear in #84(11/94)- #87(2/95). After two years we finally learn that Charlie is the misplaced 'light' of Rabbi Isaac Luria who must prevent a misguided kabalist, Joseph Della Reina, from assembling Hashem's seven cups, one of which, the Violet Cup of Dreams, is within Caulder and responsible for his genius. Charlie leads the team into Della Reina's dream and instructs each to receive from one of the seven cups a specific gift of light. Caulder (while bound to Alice-W-F-S) regains his genius, but the other six gifts (going to Cliff, Kate, Dorothy, George, Marion and the Rabbi Chaim) are not described. The empty vessels are then combined to form a cup to receive the light from the Tree of Hashem. It was Della Reina's intention that the light 'heal' (read 'reboot') the world. Luria prevented this, but it meant he no longer had a purpose in this world and left for good. Caulder and Alice-W-F-S enter the Tree before it disappears. According to Chaim, the cup has hidden itself. Della Reina has corroded. The series ends after seven and a half years with Chaim and the five surviving Doom Patrol members in an open field.

The story of how The Doom Patrol reintegrated into DC continuity is a heated and contentious one with much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, pointing of fingers, calling of names, etc. and so I will examine The Wilderness Years in an entry coded DP05-AB. I will instead end the Pollack Period on a lighter note. The Vertigo Trading Cards Set (SkyBox) was scheduled for release December 7, 1994, the same month as the last issue (#87). The DP appears on the following four cards:

  1. (37) The cover of #67(b/w description of Original Period)
  2. (38) The cover of #75(b/w description of Morrison Period)
  3. (39) The cover of #73(b/w description of Pollack Period)
  4. (57) A Tom Taggart sculpture of the cast (including Kate) that may have been intended as a poster since it's longer than it is tall (unlike Taggart's many covers). The back has a description of the cast, but oddly includes the Simon Bisley cover from #33(6/90), which has Cliff in his black body, Rebis and Crazy Jane.
  5. (Dorothy isn't mentioned on the Children's Crusade card, #76)

And that's the synopsis of the the little period that could. I'm going to lie down for a few days before I attempt the Wilderness.