The same way Iron Man is at the center of the Avengers, Robotman is the mechanical heart of the Doom Patrol. But while they might both have shiny metal exteriors and human brains, they could hardly be more different.
Cliff Steele didn’t get any choice in his metallic form. His initial form, which first appeared back in My Greatest Adventures #80 back in 1963, had Dr. Niles Caulder putting Cliff’s surviving brain into a metal body, much the same was we see in the new Doom Patrol series on DC Universe. Since then, he’s gone through a few different permutations – some of them genuinely interesting – while always remaining as the heart of the Doom Patrol. Despite not having a heart.
Back in ’63, Robotman was called Automaton. Co-creator Bob Haney said that the name was “pretty stupid,” and that he and his team settled on Robotman within a couple issues. Is it just me, or are both of those names equally silly? Back then, Steele found himself as an Indy 500 racecar driver. The Doom Patrol series updates that to the Days of Thunder stock-car racing era and tweaks the nature of his accident a little, but otherwise keeps that origin intact.
Cliff’s body has changed forms quite a few times throughout the years. At one point he had a fully mechanical brain, making him literally a robot, but he got his brain back later. In the New 52, Cliff volunteered to be injected with nanomachines that would heal his injuries, and a fatal injury caused those nanomachines to build him a mechanical body. His powers have changed, too, including things like super strength and speed right from the start, but the body full of steel and wires means that different writers have given him various Inspector Gadget-like powers, such as heating coils in his hands, electromagnetic feet, and an oxygen tank for his meatbrain.
Through Cliff’s various adventures with the Doom Patrol, though, different writers have used him to explore some interesting ideas.
Cliff is in a fairly unique place: he has his mind and his memories, but not his body. None of it. No touch, taste, or eyes. He can move, speak, and interact with the world, but he can’t feel any of it. There aren’t many characters in that particular position anywhere in pop culture.
One interesting way they’ve played with this is with regard to his senses. In some versions, Cliff’s sight and hearing are amplified by technology. In others, he complains that technological limitations mean that he’s essentially seeing and hearing in standard definition.
The other way has been through his relationships. Most all of Doom Patrol’s characters have experienced some kind of body trauma or another, but Cliff’s is particularly extreme, and brings up a question that’s becoming increasingly interesting these days: what is a body? What is the “self?” Cliff has his memories, his consciousness, and his sense of identity. For him, body is irrelevant. If Caulder could put his mind into one robotic body, he could just as well put him in another. This manifests in his relationships.
After a glitch in Cliff’s body sends him on a rampage, he’s put in charge of Crazy Jane, with whom he bonds and becomes a protector and eventually lover.
Jane’s special ability is that, inside her one body, she has 64 personalities that each have their own ability. Jane and 63 other people have to share the same set of limbs, senses, and sensations. For her, a body is a shared experience, something she doesn’t ever have private access to the same way someone with only one personality might.
The other fascinating relationship Cliff has is with Kate Godwin, also known as Coagula. Kate isn’t a household name, but it turns out she’s one of the very first – and very few – transgender superhero characters. For Kate, the body she was born in isn’t the one she felt at home in. Cliff had his body taken away from him, and Kate had to change hers. Both characters are people dealing with the question of the relation between our bodies and our identities, and the very strange issue of feeling at home in your own body, whatever that body is. A character who chose a new body seems like a perfect foil for Cliff – someone who can help him learn to get used to being in a new shell, and someone he can sympathize with about that change. And for Cliff to fall in love with someone who has separated their conscious self from their initial body identity seems like exactly the sort of evolution we’d see for a character who has learned that his identity and his body are not intrinsically linked.
The Doom Patrol has been strange right from the beginning, and so many of Robotman’s adventures have been strange – especially when Grant Morrison took the series over for a while. In that time, he parodied stuff like X-Force and had the Patrol fighting stuff like Scissormen, who could cut people out of reality. Rachel Pollack explored the identity side of the team during her run, right down to having a character called Identity Addict involved with the team. Things took the wrong kind of weird turn during John Byrne’s run when Robotman confessed his love to Elasti-Girl when they were sent back in time and she was trapped in her 12-year-old body, and the page depicted Robotman kissing her.
Throughout all this, Robotman – Cliff Steele – has never had his own book, though he’s always figured prominently in the Doom Patrol series. With Brendan Fraser voicing him in the new Doom Patrol TV series to lend him some extra gravitas, and with these unique qualities, I’d love to see the Patrol’s own man of steel get some time in the solo spotlight.