Thursday, July 8, 2010
.....FYI: This is a critical review of a comic book published over thirty years earlier. It was the third issue of a three issue arc. This blog's internal search can be used to find reviews of the previous two issues as well as related essays on the period by typing in the codes 'DP02-01' and 'DP02-02'.
.....On June 16th, 1963 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, riding aboard Vostok-6. It turned out to be the last Vostok mission, a series that began with the first man in space to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gagarin, in April, 1961.
.....The week before Gagarin went up, Journey Into Mystery #69(06/61) and Patsy Walker #95(06/61) became the first comic books to carry the "MC" logo, signifying the first public expression of the new Marvel Comics identity that had been clawing its way out of Atlas' grave since 1957. That fall, Fantastic Four #1(11/61) used the space race as a premise for what would become Marvel's flagship title. For the next few years the leap-frogging accomplishments of the USA and USSR space programs were echoed by Marvel and DC feverishly introducing new characters to capitalize on the public's renewed interest in super-heroes. The significance of this point in comics history was not lost on Warren Ellis, who used the ripple effect of Fantastic Four on comics publishing as a premise for his Planetary series. Fans of the Doom Patrol would no doubt recognize the importance of Tereshkova's historic flight to their favorite series. Not only was it coincidently during the same month as the cover date of the DP's first appearance but provided the name of one of its later members: Lt. Col. Valentina Vostok.
.....To be honest, I've never read Paul Kupperberg (or Paul Levitz, for that matter) explaining the derivation of Val's name. One or other may have trawled their memory for reasonably Russian-sounding names and picked them for alliteration, not remembering where or in what context they heard them originally. If that's the case it's an astounding coincidence and we may have to take a strop to Occam's razor. The reason I mention it is because Val becomes the focus of issue #96 as Arani had been in #95 and Cliff had been in #94. Her defection provides the plot for this issue as both American agent Matt Cable and Soviet agent Igor Brunovich each seek to capture her for their respective governments. In fact, the story is entitled "Defection!". Bruce Patterson replaces Frank Chiarmonte on inks and Ben Oda replaces Bill Morse on lettering. Otherwise the script (Kupperberg), pencils (Staton), colors (Berube) and edits (Levitz) are the same credits as in the previous issues. That consistency can work in a feature's favor when there is a limited window in which it can create an identity for itself and also win acceptance from a substantial readership for that identity. For that reason, this issue seems like a lost opportunity. The same team that has brought us this far and put Val front and center leaves her unconscious for much of the issue and unable to reveal any substantive background about herself. We don't learn why the Negative Energy Being envelopes her body instead of projecting from it a la Larry Trainor. We don't even know if its abilities and limitations are the same as Larry's (although she was contained by lead in #94). We don't know how she acquired the NEB (or how it acquired her). We don't know what her life was like before her defection; we don't know how she came into contact with either Joshua or Arani following her defection; we don't even know the details of her motives for defection. Perhaps she longed for the freedom we Americans have to wear stretch leotards with cleavage split to the navel. (I'm reminded of Lily Tomlin, who wondered what the world be like if we all grew up to take the jobs we wanted as small children-- a national economy built on astronauts and ballerinas, firemen and nurses. Could you imagine a world where we all dressed in the costumes of our 1970's heroes? Spend a day comparing the physiques at your local shopping mall and you'd know that all those gravity-defying codpieces and bustiers would have their work cut out for them.)
.....The story picks up immediately after the previous issue's ending with the Doom Patrol returning to the old headquarters in Caulder's abandoned Midway City mansion. They are met by Lt. Matt Cable, who identifies himself as an agent of US intelligence but neglects to mention that he is with the covert DDI and not the CIA. When he tries to take Val into protective custody, Cliff and Josh stuff him into a closet. Val is no more willing to be interrogated by her team-mates than by Cable and she storms out. What happens in the next panel [page 5, panel 2] could be easily over looked, but for readers who would go on to try and reconstruct the chronology of this often mysterious group it became a source of many headaches. Blaming Cliff for the conflict with Val, Arani says, "Cliff Steele...my husband told me you could be stubborn at times... but he never mentioned anything about stupidity!" Insults aside for a moment, for her husband, meaning Niles Caulder/The Chief, to tell her about Cliff's personality would require him to be in contact with her after the formation of the Doom Patrol, long after their brief relationship in India. From what we learned through the 'psychoprobe' in the last issue, Caulder had the use of his legs and was unaware that Immortus was financing his experiments when he gave Arani the immortality serum prototype. The probe doesn't reveal anything else after that (at least not to the readers), but Caulder's own account of his origin from Doom Patrol #88(06/64) recently reprinted in Super-Team Family (see DP01-AR3) shows him learning Immortus' identity and faking his own death to escape him, losing the use of his legs in the process. He operated on Cliff from a wheelchair according to the Robotman origin in the DP's first appearance, so he would only come to know Cliff after having left Arani behind in India. In post-Crisis appearances, Caulder claims to have never met Arani at all, that she was delusional and obsessed with him. He could easily be lying or the scene with the psychoprobe revealing her memories may have been wiped from history by Crisis and never happened at all or happened differently. In this pre-Crisis story we are only assuming that the probe accurately displays what Arani remembers as she remembers it and that it reconstructs what her physical senses saw and heard rather than merely what she believes happened. For what it's worth, Immortus says, "After his marriage, Caulder left Arani in India, unaware that I knew of her existence..." As much as Caulder no doubt strongly desired to learn the results of using the immortality serum on Arani, it would also be possible that he avoided contacting her hoping to keep her off Immortus' radar. Not that I give much credence to anything Immortus says, but he found her, and not vice versa. How either of them knew of the existence of the other is not disclosed here or, I believe, ever. Yet they clearly both did. If, as Arani contends, Caulder informed her of the Doom Patrol and his part in it and went so far as to provide her with the alarm codes (in Showcase #94) and profiles of the team members, we have to consider a disturbing possibility that would not have even been on the table for readers back in 1977.
.....Consider the possibility that Niles Caulder himself activated Arani as an agent to flush out Immortus after the 'death' of the Doom Patrol at the end of the original series.
.....Before forming the Doom Patrol, Caulder by his own account had been defeated by General Immortus three times. During the Doom Patrol's history they gained a number of other enemies, most of whom were dispatched in some way or other, but a few who recurred as Immortus would. Principally those were Garguax and The Brain with his Brotherhood Of Evil. A little more than half-way through the Original Period the Doom Patrol teamed with the Flash against all three factions in The Brave And The Bold #65(04-05/66). After that, Immortus seemed to disappear. The others (including Monsieur Mallah and Madame Rouge) attack the DP again around the time of Steve and Rita's wedding. This cooperation among villains continued for about a year until it was interrupted on two fronts. Madame Rouge began to realize that she was in love with Caulder and Garguax betrayed the others to side with a fellow, more powerful invading alien. The Patrol and Brotherhood temporarily joined to fight the aliens together, successfully driving them back into space. Garguax does not appear again pre-Crisis. Caulder eventually gains custody of Madame Rouge after learning her origin-- she was a mentally unstable woman whom The Brain was able to make coherent and rational by focusing her mind on being purely evil. Caulder didn't consider this to be the "cure" that The Brain seemed to think it was. His attempts to restore her sanity eventually resulted in her being split physically into two people, one good and one evil. The 'evil' one died, but the 'good' one gradually went insane again. Enlisting the assistance of an aging Nazi named Captain Zahl she 'killed' both the Patrol and the Brotherhood. [Of course we saw earlier in the Showcase arc that Cliff survived. We next see The Brain and Mallah in The New Teen Titans #13(11/81)- 15(01/82), but their escape was not explained until Teen Titans Spotlight #11(06/87). After that the others emerged gradually.]
.....HYPOTHESIS: After surviving the blast that appeared to kill the Doom Patrol (presumably using either a force field or transporter built into the chair whose remains were later retrieved by Cliff and Arani in Doom Patrol #1(10/87)), The Chief offered his services to the U.S. government for a three-fold purpose:(1) to exploit the one advantage he had over his remaining enemies, that they thought he was dead, so that he could amass funds, weapons and political influence to fight them later; (2) to continue cutting-edge research without interruption; and (3) to monitor Mento's progress tracking down Madame Rouge and Captain (later General) Zahl. Brain and Mallah would not reemerge until that Zandia episode in NTT and with Garguax still in space the only player not accounted for was Immortus. With access to government data in the "mere months" before Cliff's return, The Chief would have learned about AWOL soldier Joshua Clay and defecting Soviet officer Valentina Vostock as well as Doc Magnus being in the custody of the military, just the man capable of repairing Cliff's body so that The Chief could remain hidden. What he did not have was bait that would flush out Immortus but the one thing he knew would cause Immortus to lose all caution was the prospect of obtaining an immortality formula, the same desire that brought them together in the first place. Arani would become that bait.
.....If we were to believe that the psychoprobe used in the previous issue revealed actual events being remembered, then Arani had developed super powers through training by a secretive order and was given an immortality serum prototype by Caulder, who left and formed the Doom Patrol. After the DP 'died' at the end of the original series, Caulder found her, still young, transferred his property into her name and provided her with the information and means necessary to collect Josh and Val and to leave a trail that Immortus could follow. Her perpetual 'search' for The Chief was actually meant to dissuade anyone else from conducting a search of their own that might actually find him-- anyone truly inclined to find him would join her instead and she would lead them into some unrelated mission far from him, which she would then decry as an "interruption" of her search. She could not reveal The Chief's whereabouts or the fact that he was still alive until Immortus was captured or killed, either due to an oath or by psychological blocks imposed by The Chief. In fact, the very next adventure involving Immortus was the one near the end of the Kupperberg period in which The Chief revealed himself to be still alive. Shortly after that, Arani gave up her life fighting aliens in Invasion! before any satisfactory explanation could be wrested from either of them.
.....If we were to believe that the psychoprobe was merely revealing an implanted memory, however, it could be possible that Arani was found by Caulder after his apparent death with the team. She may have always been mentally ill and Caulder applied a modified version of the 'cure' he used on Madame Rouge, once again resulting in a physical dichotomy but instead of splitting the subject in two it caused some latent metahuman ability to manifest extremes of hot and cold. To hide Caulder's part in this should she be subjected to interrogation, he would have implanted a memory of this taking place years earlier when he had working legs and replacing his own treatments in the sequence of events with the training of a fictional religious sect. Later, when Immortus captured her and witnessed this fabricated memory through the probe, he claimed to have been searching for Arani for years in order to maintain a facade of omniscience rather than admit that he had been kept unaware of her for years. He is, after all, an egomaniac. This explanation of events would answer several other questions: Why did the psychoprobe not reveal the years of Arani's life while Caulder was with the Doom Patrol? Because there weren't any. If Immortus really had known of Arani's existence, as he claimed, why not invade the religious sect that trained her? Because he was lying and/or they didn't exist anyway. Why did The Chief have a romantic relationship with the reformed Madame Rouge near the end of the original series if he was married to Arani, who was in hiding? Because they weren't married.
.....Of course, both of the above speculations would answer some questions the same way. How did Arani know enough to locate Val when she had only recently defected, let alone (as we would learn in flashbacks published later) only recently bonded with the Negative Energy Being? Because Caulder contacted Arani after surviving the disaster that released the Negative Energy Being and when the new Negative Woman was first sighted, he could explain to Arani what that meant. Why would anyone trying to hide from Immortus in order to surprise him do so in the headquarters of his bitterest enemies? Because she was actually trying to lure him.
.....And the proof of these hypotheses? Well,... none. Absolutely none. But if gleaning back issues for some vague hint that corroborated either of the above proposed scenarios were difficult, finding any scrap of evidence that might disprove them isn't any easier. During this arc the four characters we are given are the old pro, the mysterious heiress, the fugitive and the angry young man. The pro (Cliff) we already know, but even if we didn't, he's a bit of an open book anyway. The heiress (Arani) we gradually learn not to trust, mostly because she doesn't trust anyone else. Of the other two we know nothing. The fugitive is an unconscious hostage when our attention is on her and the young man doesn't get any solo exposure at all.
.....The highlight that would most likely be included in encapsulated descriptions of this issue, such as in price guides or online comics data bases, would be the introduction (and dispatch) of this issue's villain. Accompanying Brunovitch on his mission to retrieve Val is the massive, period-costumed COSSACK. In the age of Sky-Lab, an antiquated Soviet stereotype might have seemed quaint, but the Cossack is not quite that. Actual cossacks were not one thing, but several things. Different versions appeared in different regions. They were often a home-grown (and largely self-appointed) force for law and order at the local level dating back centuries prior to the communist revolutions. Their various relationships to the czars would fluctuate over decades, alternately fighting on their behalf or rebelling against them. Many, if not most, were not Russian. Poring over this issue (the character's only appearance) I grasped at any straw I could to give him some kind of context. There, on page 9, panel 3, is the only instance of him speaking something other than English. After evading the team and with Val in tow he shouts, "Na zdrowie, fools!" "Na zdrowie" is a Polish toast, comparable to "To your health" in English. The Russian counterpart would be the similar "Za zdorovye". If an actual Russian cossack were taunting opponents with a sarcastic drinking toast, he might use the Ukranian "Budem", but probably not Polish.
.....Still, even knowing all of this isn't enough to make sense of the character, especially when it is revealed that the Cossack is a robot. There were some signs, such as his speed despite his size and the fact that his horse sprouted wings to fly away when necessary. Also, when Val discovers him in the mansion he is one man on horseback, standing in front of a similar sized hole in the wall of an upper floor with rubble strewn about but no obvious blast marks. The physical damage could be attributed to a mechanical horse alone, true, but he did manage to survive riding through the wall on the horse. The revelation that he is also mechanical is not so much of a shock, then. But it is confusing. While the team was on the moon (in Showcase #95), Cable spotted Brunovich casing the mansion, also looking for Val. It's implied that Brunovich is a capable operative, meant to smuggle the defecting officer back to the Soviets using stealth. Why then is Plan 'B' to employ a large robot in a century-old costume with a flying horse? If you can't get the stealth you want, if you are forced to deal in public, then why not a robot who might blend in until you need him? Hell, they had enough sense to make the horse's wings retractable, although not enough to understand that a horse might seem out of place in Midway City after hours. And why choose the motif of a cossack, of all things? The cossacks died out under the Soviets. And why does the Cossack repeatedly threaten to kill Val if this essentially a 'catch-and-retrieve' mission? We get "The defector shall not live to see another day!", "Valentina Vostok will die!", (to Val:)"...you may call me... your executioner!" and "My orders are to kill you... and the Cossack does not fail!" That's all within three consecutive pages (pp4-6). Despite that, when his sword impales Val while she is in Negative Woman form it merely renders her unconscious. While she is unconscious, he does nothing to harm her.
.....At best, the behavior of the Cossack adds up to a robot that is so sophisticated that it uses intimidation tactics, is programmed to use interjections in a language other than the one in which it's been conversing, can adapt to new threats and yet dresses in 19th century clothing. In the long tradition of suspending disbelief in comic book stories, that's far from the worst case scenario. What is harder to swallow than the fact of the robot is the fact that since he is a robot, the profile I've just presented is the result of someone else's (probably a Soviet committee's) deliberate, conscious design. And bear in mind that while this story ran at DC, readers of Marvel comics were familiar with Red Guardian (Defenders), Colossus (X-Men) and Darkstar (Champions), all of whom were active in 1977, as well as numerous Soviet villains left over from the 1960's. That is, working models exist for comparisons. But knowing that the Cossack character would never be reoccurring is not a reason to allow his appearance to become incoherent. Being a robot, the Cossack himself may no longer be a concern for the Doom Patrol after this story but the still unseen interests who built and sent him should certainly be and many of the operating parameters they gave him should be cause for confusion for the team.
.....The basic plot of the story is much sturdier than the details. At its core, we see a fractious element within the team exposed, then one team member is threatened and the others cooperate to come to their aid, strengthening their bond in the process. Although that basic plot plays out in its entirety in this issue, there are clear indications that future installments and possibly an ongoing series were presumed to follow. After Cable is locked in the closet, Val storms out and is ambushed on an upper floor by the Cossack. When the other DP members chase after the Cossack and the unconscious Val, Joshua's dialogue repeatedly reinforces the subplot that he is in love with Val. This would be a point of interest for ongoing readers because an intragroup romance can change team dynamics, but that can only be evident if there are ongoing adventures. It can't be a plot in itself, it can only be a plot element of a series. While the DP chase the Cossack, Cable escapes from the closet then finds and subdues Brunovich, taking him into custody. We could tell ourselves that bringing Brunovich to the proper authorities would take Cable out of the DP's lives for the moment, if not for the caption at the bottom of page11: "In the light of dawn, Matt Cable drags his prisoner back to Doom Patrol headquarters to wait once again for its occupants..." We never see that second confrontation. This issue ends with the Cossack in pieces and the four new teammates leaving the scene together. The fate of the robot horse is unclear. Overall the story suffers from an over-dependence on there being future issues. It is written with the presumption that (a) anything written further on will have to be foreshadowed here in the present and that this foreshadowing is so important that it is given precedence over providing backstory for the readers here and now and (b) that the readers here and now will bother following the series into future installments when so much is kept so cryptic.
.....Perhaps you should give your eyes a rest while I hose off my brain and gear up for a following installment in which I try to piece together a hypothetical proposal for an ongoing series that could have followed this Showcase arc. (Obviously, I can't give a critical review of something that didn't happen, so this would only deal with plotting rather than style or execution. It should be much shorter.) This post has under gone several rewrites, some of them weeks apart from one another, so if something doesn't seem quite coherent it could be that I wiped a sentence I hadn't intended to. Feel free to point out any shaky syntax in the comments section, as well as any points you feel I may have missed.
[Final draft posted October 25th, 2010]