JLA/ Doom Patrol Special #1 review

So yeah, Doom Patrol.  That book is bonkers.  How bonkers is it?  Grant Morrison used to write it, that’s how bonkers.

It’s a team with members like a robot man named Robotman (or Cliff), a being named Danny that was once a street and then a world and then a brick and is now an ambulance that can travel through dimensions and has its own pocket Universe called Danny Land in the back that’s populated with people with names like “Flex Mentallo,” and a girl with a cat named Lotion.

Like I said: bonkers.

While I’ve been familiar with the team for years, I’ve never really read many of their comics.  Most of my experience with the Patrol has been via guest spots, tangential research, and those two episodes of Teen Titans.  As such, the Young Animal series from Gerard Way is the first series featuring the team that I’ve really dug into, and I enjoy it quite a bit.  I have no idea what’s going on half the time, but it’s still enjoyable in its weirdness.

To drive that point home, take a look at the Disappointment, evil mastermind of some sort or another and bearer of my current favorite character design in comics:

I laughed so hard when I first saw “Withheld Due To Copyright” just stamped on that dude’s torso.

In addition to the Disappointment, the Doom Patrol have to contend with the Brotherhood of Nada, arch-villain Mister Nobody’s new super-team.  Among their ranks are a scientist who has been turned into a bunch of cement blocks, a kid with an alien metal detector, and my personal favorite, 50% Chad.

I don’t think I need to explain the name.  Consequently, 50% Chad there is my second favorite character design in comics right now.  I love that guy.

But what has drawn the Doom Patrol and the Justice League of America together?  That would be the nefarious works of Retconn, a high-level corporation/organization that wants to change the history of superheroes to be as homogeneous and “normal” as possible.  To do so, they have a secret weapon at their disposal: Milkman Man.

By forcing the JLA to drink his specialized milk, Milkman Man and Retconn turn the normally eclectic and frequently combative members into idyllic Fifties stereotypes: the women are in plain, unassuming dresses, the men in suits and bow ties.  Heck, Lobo goes by Carl, wears a sweater vest, and and calls people “folks.”  It’s all boring, mundane, and pretty much everything superhero comics shouldn’t be.

And that’s exactly what Retconn wants.

This issue is constantly weird and often confusing, and for the first two-thirds or so I had a hard time getting invested.  A lot of the scenes feel like they should fit together, but there was just something off that didn’t make it flow quite right.  I don’t know if it’s the different writing styles of Gerard Way and Steve Orlando, but it takes an awful long time for things to click.  There’s the Doom Patrol, interacting with the “homogenized” Justice League but seeming like they’re in a different comic, and the scenes in “Final Heaven” where Retconn pitch their services to a Lord Manga Khan (who is a delight).

The writing and plotting are never really bad, mind you, though they do often border on abstract to the point of being impenetrable.

Once the third act kicks in, though, it’s just as weird but much more involving.  This is definitely a book that benefits a re-read, because once the mission statement of the plot is laid bare and the pieces come into place it’s much easier to determine what’s going on.  It may still be slightly confusing and a little too bonkers, but seeing a hologram of Cave Carson call for aid only to have Vixen respond “…is that an eyeball from space?” is exactly what I want out of a book like this.

Where the writing doesn’t quite coalesce until the end of the issue, the art is constantly fantastic.  ACO, with a single page assist from Hugo Petrus, utilizes some ingenious breakdowns and panel layouts for an incredibly striking look, along with some trippy visuals that echo the scripts craziness while still being clear and pleasing to the eye.  I love that page above where, early in the issue, Milkman Man visits different houses to force Retconn’s will on the inhabitants.  The use of a milk bottle shape rather than a typical geometric outline for the panels is distinct and very creative, evoking a nostalgia that belies the more sinister actions of the book’s antagonists.

Colorists Tamra Bonvillain and Marissa Louise make each image pop off the page, from the bright, clear coloring of the fantastical superhero costumes to the sepia tones that overlay Milkman Man’s early scenes.  Clem Robins’ letters are just as imaginative, with plenty of out-of-the-ordinary sound effects that remind you that even though we’re dealing with comic book heroes, this is still a story that’s slightly adjacent to a typical narrative.  It’s off the beaten path both in the writing and the artwork, and that helps sell its craziness.

There are two scenes that are so stunning that they alone make this issue worth picking up.  One is a four splash page sequence that looks primed for a foldout gatefold-style spread.  Just from a visual standpoint it’s absolutely gorgeous, from the figure work to the coloring to the lettering.  It’s a perfect example of controlled chaos, an apt metaphor for the two very different teams meeting up.

The other is another double splash page sequence that’s similar in execution to the Hypertime visualization from “Super Sons of Tomorrow,” but with a very different result.

I mean, I could just be a sucker for seeing old comic book covers referenced, but I thought this was a very creative way to get the JLA members to remember their true histories.  Bonus points for using their actual first appearances and not just recent history, too.

This issue got better as it went along, and reading it again made me appreciate it more.  I went from confused and fairly frustrated to intrigued and even excited for what comes next, so I’d say that, in the end, it was a success.

Like most Young Animal books, there’s a two page backup story at the end of the issue.  Titled “The Birth of the Formless Girl” and credited to George Sumner, it’s a pretty spot-on tribute/parody of crazy Fifties sci-fi comics.  The stylistic touches alone are great, like the yellowed look of the pages, and in two pages it still manages to emulate the overly-hyperbolic narration and bombastic storytelling of the Silver Age.  It’s difficult to tell what connection it has to the main story, if any at all, but it’s an entertaining way to end the issue.

Recommended if:

  • You like your comics weird.
  • You’ve long wished to see Lobo in a dapper sweater.

Overall: Super weird, and not immediately to its benefit.  This issue takes its time getting anywhere, but when it finally does it approaches greatness.  Part of that comes from Way and Orlando’s writing styles taking a while to gel together, as the incredibly disparate worlds their respective teams inhabit aren’t immediately compatible.  Once it clicks, though, this becomes one of the strangest mainstream stories I’ve read in some time, and that’s in the best possible way.  If further installments can keep the same visual excellence and eventual narrative intrigue that this issue achieved, “Milk Wars” may be a (non)event for the ages. 

SCORE: 7/10