Writing selfish heroes: the Doom Patrol (#SFWApro)

mygreatestadventure80The Silver Age Doom Patrol remains one of my favorite comics of all time. Not at the time, but after I started reading reprints here and there in the Bronze Age, I eventually collected every issue of the run. And one of the things I noticed is how well scribe Arnold Drake handled stories where the heroes act selfishly to their friends.

First, the background: Debuting in My Greatest Adventure #80 (cover by Bruno Premiani,all rights reside with current holder), the Doom Patrol were a trio of outcasts:

•Cliff Steele was a champion athlete whose brain now resided in a robot body.

•Larry Trainor’s radioactive body would kill anyone he touched. But he could generate Negative Man, an energy being, with the catch that if Neg Man stayed outside Larry’s body for one minute, they both died.

•Rita Farr had been a rising Hollywood star when a strange gas caused her to grow and shrink uncontrollably. By the time she’d mastered her powers, the tabloids had turned her into a freak show.

The trio were united by Dr. Niles Caulder, AKA the Chief, a paraplegic super-genius and crimefighter. He’d salvaged Cliff’s brain from his dying body and put in the robot, and provided the mummy wrappings that kept Larry’s radiation under control. He proposed they use their powers to help the world, and thereby prove they shouldn’t be written off as mere freaks.

By one of the weird coincidences, X-Men — freaks led by a paraplegic genius — came out a few months later. Of the two, the Patrol was the superior book (during the Silver Age, at least). Arnold Drake, as the comics blogger Commander Benson put it, was the one DC writer who seemed to excel at duplicating Marvel’s blend of characterization, melodrama, snarky dialog and epic adventure. And sometimes doing it better. Case in point, DP 95, Menace of the Turnabout Heroes (cover by Bob Brown, all rights reside with current holder).

In the opening, the Chief is experimenting to restore Rita and Larry to normalcy. Cliff, watching, begins to imagine what it’ll be like without them, just him and Caulder, alone in their headquarters … and snaps and smashes the machine the Chief is using. Now the story shows that Rita and Larry aren’t really ready to quit—but even so, I can’t imagine Cyclops stopping the X-Men from returning to normal if they’d wanted to. It’s a selfish thing to do, but it’s written as such a human reaction, it works, and Cliff doesn’t seem villainous.

doompatrol95

In a later story, Rita’s about to marry Steve Dayton, part-time super-hero (as Mento) and full-time fifth richest man on Earth. Cliff and Larry have never liked Mento horning in on the DP’s tight quasi-family unit, so they cook up a scheme to make it look like he’s marrying Rita for financial reasons. They confess at the last minute but again, that’s pretty selfish. And the team acted just as jerkish later when the Chief gets a girlfriend and pays less attention to them.

Incidents like this are a tricky line to walk. If the hero acts too selfishly, he’ll come off a complete jerk and alienate readers. Drake makes it work by stopping short of anything unforgivable (the guys may not like Dayton, but in the end they want Rita to be happy) and showing us their feelings enough to keep them likable. Plus the Doom Patrol are, of course, well-established as heroic by the time Drake wrote this stuff.

In my short story One Hand Washes The Other, I had an unsympathetic lead, who seems to be motivated by purely selfish reasons — but it turns out while shallow, he’s redeemable. Even so, one editor told me he had no interest in reading about such a jerk. But it sold to Abyss and Apex after all.

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