Let me describe to you a superhero comic published since the ’60s, and you tell me if it sounds familiar. It centers on a group of super-powered freaks, shunned by society, and even by other superheroes. But when a wheelchair-bound genius gathers this unusual group of misfits together in his mysterious mansion, he forges them into a fighting unit. A true family of heroes fighting for a world that hates and fears them.
If you’re a comic book fan, you probably assume I am writing about the X-Men. And while everything above rings true for Marvel’s merry mutants, it also applies to the DC Comics’ team known as the Doom Patrol.
DC’s heroes debuted a full three months prior to X-Men #1 in 1963. So, did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby rip off DC’s strange heroes with the X-Men? No one knows for sure, but probably not. Given the lead time it takes to make comics—back then, about three months—it would have been an extremely rushed production time. Not impossible, but still very unlikely. Despite one team being called “the world’s strangest heroes” and the other “the strangest super-heroes of all,” the two comics’ similarities probably really are just a big coincidence.
DC Comics / Marvel Comics
Nevertheless, the two comics shared a parallel history for a long time. Even their biggest adversaries had nearly identical names. The Patrol fought the Brotherhood of Evil, while the X-Men’s arch enemies were the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Their uniform designs were even similar. But while the X-Men eventually became a global phenomenon, Doom Patrol continued to look like a copycat to those who didn’t know better.
It was only when DC Comics totally broke with the X-Men style that the concept of the Doom Patrol really started to flourish again, and became a true fan-favorite all its own. It was this version, initially written by superstar writer Grant Morrison, that the current DC Universe/HBO Max series is primarily based on. But it took decades for the Patrol to get out of the X-Men’s shadow.
The Early Years
My Greatest Adventure was a DC anthology title, which debuted the group in issue #80, covered dated June 1963. That first appearance introduced the whole concept of the team, who were created by Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani. Brilliant scientist Niles Caulder, a.k.a. “the Chief,” gathered three freakish and deformed super-powered individuals to his mansion. The main team consisted of Cliff Steele (Robotman), Larry Trainor (Negative Man), and Rita Farr (Elasti-Girl). Having saved their lives from the threat of their own powers, the Chief trained them to be a superhero team that helped the same “normal” humans who shunned them.
This one issue was popular enough that My Greatest Adventure was renamed Doom Patrol in just a few months’ time. The series ran for about five years, but never really caught on in the way other DC titles like Justice League of America did. The series was canceled with issue #121 in 1968, with the entire team sacrificing themselves to save a small village. A turn of events that was pretty dark for a superhero comic in the ’60s. About a year later, Marvel’s X-Men suffered the same fate, for similar low sales reasons, although in this case the team wasn’t killed off. Both titles were assumed to become mere footnotes in both publisher’s histories.
The First Revivals
DC Comics / Marvel Comics
Of course, the X-Men famously got a revival in 1975, and eventually became a sensation. DC obviously took notice of this, and decided to revive the Doom Patrol in 1977 for a similar reboot under the auspices of writer Paul Kupperberg. Much like Marvel did, DC kept one signature character from the old team—in this instance Robotman—and replaced the rest with a group of new, international heroes. The new DP ran in Showcase for several issues, but apparently sales weren’t strong enough for them to get their own series. In another coincidence, the revival issues of Uncanny X-Men and Showcase featuring the Doom Patrol were both issue #94.
But as the 1980s rolled around, the X-Men family of titles got even more successful at Marvel. They were soon the biggest selling title in comics, period. DC had a lot of success with a very similar X-Men revival formula with the Teen Titans, but they still had a concept that even closer to the X-Men in the Doom Patrol. But they just didn’t seem to know what to do with them.
In 1987, the Doom Patrol finally got their own title again, with several members both old and new. However, most of their similarities to the X-Men remained. This isn’t a knock on series writer Paul Kupperberg, who came back to write the team. After all, the Doom Patrol did come first, so it’s not like they were ripping off the X-Men. But by this time, the X-Men were so insanely popular that a Doom Patrol series that stuck too close to the original concept was bound to be seen by the uninitiated as a dollar store version of the X-Men.
Marvel Comics / DC Comics
Going From Strange to Surreal
DC editorial then did the smartest thing they could do. With Doom Patrol #19 in 1989, they did a complete 180 on the whole concept of the team. Grant Morrison, fresh off of stellar runs on books like Animal Man and Arkham Asylum, decided to lean into the weird and surreal aspects of the team, and away from usual supeheroics and fights in tights. While the X-Men would continue to fight the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Doom Patrol would now fight the surrealist Brotherhood of Dada. By the early ’90s, the Doom Patrol was now as different a beast from the X-Men as one could get.
Morrison created new characters like Crazy Jane, an otherwise ordinary looking woman with 64 different personalities (and powers). He fused Negative Man with a woman, creating an intersex hero called Rebis. Robotman was still around, but now he was like the “normal guy” in a group of aggressively stranger and stranger heroes. And while the Chief remained as leader, Morrison eventually made him far less altruistic than his counterpart Professor X. It was in Morrison’s seminal run that he revealed that the Chief actually caused all the accidents that deformed the Patrol in the first place.
Doom Patrol was also one of the inaugural titles in DC’s adult-leaning Vertigo line, and by the time Morrison’s run had ended, he had changed the team forever. Although other creators tried to steer the concept back to standard superheroics, it just never clicked after Morrison. But when writers like Gerard Way took their shot at the the book, he echoed the surrealism of the Morrison run. And it’s no surprise that this version was also a critical hit. It’s also no surprise that Way’s Umbrella Academy also bears a lot of similarities to Morrison’s Doom Patrol.
The Doom Patrol may never be the world famous brand that X-Men is, with blockbuster movies, toys, and animated shows. But by embracing its stranger side, it’s carved its own lasting legacy. A legacy that now informs one of the coolest comic book-based shows currently out there. Over 55 years since both teams made their debuts, it’s comforting to know that there is room for two very different versions of “the world’s strangest heroes.”
Featured Image: DC Comics / Marvel Comics