I've been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, reading my favorite comics from fifteen years ago. It all started with the recent release of this trade paperback, which includes my favorite issue (from right when I started reading the book, naturally--everybody's Golden Age), and with this trip down memory lane by Greg Burgas, which accomplished exactly what it set out to do: get me hankering to re-read some Doom Patrols.
I don't think I've ever read them all in order before. Doing so gives me a newfound appreciation for what Morrison and his collaborators built over the course of the series: they started off with a bang, jettisoning all the lukewarm X-Men team-book cliches, and then they got better. Artist Richard Case grows by leaps and bounds, from those chunky, plasticine figures in the early issues to the moodier and more expressive ones at the height of the run. I hadn't realized how good he was at teasing different expressions out of Cliff Steele's unmoving face until I read the Kelley Jones fill-in issue; Jones cheats and makes it malleable and fleshy, basically a normal human face in orange paint. Case doesn't have to. He contributes some fun character designs, too (with a little help from Morrison and Brendan McCarthy), from Rebis to the Brotherhoods of Dada to the gallery of Replacement Heads.
(That's the other great thing about rereading the whole run: taxonomy. You can classify the Doom Patrol's antagonists into shadowy conspiracies and Bad Dads, as Morrison himself does, but I now prefer to think of them as Faceless and Replacement Heads.)
Rereading these issues has also given me a newfound appreciation for one of the least regarded stories--Greg calls it "perhaps Morrison's weakest of the entire run"--the big war in space that ran from issues 37 to 41. Those issues are the least regarded for good reason. The story is long (the longest single arc until the book's final one), slow-moving, light on action and heavy on exposition, much of it delivered in the annoying dialect stroke gimmick of the Geomancers. It's almost completely devoid of the wry humor that leavened the weirdness in so many Doom Patrol issues. It pulls the Doom Patrol too far out of their standard milieu--this is a milieu in which hungry paintings and transvestite streets are par for the course--and takes too much time explaining the setting instead of letting the characters run amok in it. The Patrol spends most of the first half standing around and listening to the exposition stroke infodump, and as much as Morrison is enamored with the heavy-handed religious imagery of the pheromone communion, it just isn't worth the time.
But as the Doom Patrol joins the war the story takes on renewed life. The armies of functionally indistinguishable armored warriors clashing in endless, senseless combat, and especially the figure of the Judge Rock, come across as a Morrisonized take on the eternal war of the New Gods. It's a much harsher spin than his recent foray into the Fourth World in Mister Miracle; it may also be the most intellectually rich story in Morrison's Doom Patrol.
The story is obsessed with signification and meaning. The Geomancers and the Insect Mesh battle by psychosomatic proxies and plagues of abstraction; the war ends when Rhea topples the Judge Rock, bringing about "the end of all meaning and certainty." Morrison lambasts the certainty of religious fanatics who are convinced they and they alone hold the key to scriptural interpretation, but he's also playing around with his own techniques of generating meaning. The embodied neuroses of the Insect Mesh are no different from Dorothy's powers to externalize her subconscious or the battles inside the hungry painting, all of them embodiments of some subconscious terror or abstract ideology. Morrison sees how far he can push his own tools, then takes them apart on-panel in the final issue as he reveals that the whole senseless war has been an allegory constructed by a being of limited creativity. (Which does highlight the problem of reading an allegory of limited creativity for the previous four issues.)
He'd just done this as parody in the robot-on-gorilla extravaganza of #34. (Interesting that one of the most humorless stories in the run is bracketed by two of the goofiest and most brilliant, this and the Flex Mentallo origin.) The gorilla in the Che Guevara beret may claim that he and the brain in the jar in the baby carriage are "A vivid and explicit expression of Cartesian dualism," but they make ludicrous symbols in comparison with the real mind-and-body struggle of Cliff and his malfunctioning robot body, which is itself played for laughs. Then Morrison does it again for real, using the symbolic warfare of the Geomancers and the Insect Mesh to explore the high stakes of theological certainty and the downside to his own method of symbolic externalization. Creating objects that have only one possible interpretation can be a first step towards killing for them.
It's probably sheer coincidence that Morrison would name one faction after Jan Hus and the Ultraquists, reformers who provide the historical backdrop for another story of religious fanaticism, warfare, and attempts to regain the certainty of Paradise in David B.'s The Armed Garden. And surely it's a coincidence that the image of the Judge Rock--a floating head with a city sprouting on top--looks so much like the image on the I♥NY mug that opens Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli's retelling of the Tower of Babel in City of Glass. Or that the war in space ends with both sides deciding to build a great tower to heaven. Or that Paul Auster interprets the story of Babel as a retelling of the myth of the Fall from a perfect, primal language in which a word equalled the thing it stood for. Or that Peter Stillman, Rohan the blacksmith, and the Judge Rock are all trying to reverse the Fall, with disastrous results.
So Morrison's war in space has tapped into some heavy ideas, and the story is better for the contemplation it invites. Even if it's no damn fun at all.
Next time we'll talk about what's genuinely the weakest story in Doom Patrol, but for now we'll let Cliff Steele have the last word:
"Screw symbolism and let's go home."