For most superheroes, fighting for truth and justice means fighting for the status quo. The typical plot: Supervillain(s) attempts to take over the world and/or steal property; superhero(es) stop them.
The journey from disjunction to order is only emphasized by the fact that the heroes are themselves often outsiders in some way. Superman is an immigrant; Batman has a traumatic childhood backstory; the X-Men are policed and persecuted mutants. Yet despite the fact that they are underdogs, the heroes nonetheless fight for the mainstream authorities. Thus superheroes are often fantasies of assimilation—a dream of outsiders being accepted by, or turning into, insiders.
At best, that fantasy offers a promise of acceptance to everyone, making for an inclusive vision of the American dream. At worst, superheroes end up as establishment lackeys, marginalized individuals currying favor with the mainstream by targeting other excluded groups on behalf of the Man.
Twenty-five years ago, though, in 1989 writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case began working on Doom Patrol, a comic that ended up telling a different kind of superhero story. Over four years and 44 issues, Morrison, Case, and a number of other fill-in artists inverted the usual connection between heroes and the law.
The Doom Patrol was initially invented in the early ‘60s, around the same time as Marvel's X-Men, which it resembled in a number of ways: It was a group of people seen by "normal" society as freaks, outcasts, and weirdos, led by a wheelchair-bound genius (the Chief, for the Doom Patrol). Morrison, a British writer just beginning his long and much-praised career in American superhero titles, took the basic concept and pushed it to places where mainstream comics had rarely ventured. The new members of the Doom Patrol who he introduced were not white guys marked, through various fantastic mechanisms, as marginal or persecuted. Rather, the members of the Doom Patrol were marginal in their world for much the same reason that they'd be marginal in ours.
Cliff Steele, Robotman, the one holdover from the old team, had always been portrayed as a freak, but Morrison went further and linked his plight directly to that of the disabled. In the first issue of Morrison's run (Doom Patrol #19) Cliff is shown as a full-body amputee; he talks about having not just phantom limbs, but phantom bowels, and at one point starts bashing his head against a wall in a futile effort to feel pain again. Another team member, Rebis, is a hermaphrodite or androgyne fusion of a white man and a black woman; s/he is both queer and biracial. Crazy Jane was abused as a child and has 64 different personalities, each with its own separate power. Dorothy, a young psychic, has Simian features that make her strikingly ugly. And Josh, or Tempest, is black, but the team is diverse enough that he gets presented as the bastion of normality and a father figure for Dorothy—not roles that African-American heroes often get to play in the still embarrassingly white world of mainstream superhero comics.
At first the team pursues basically the same goals as any superhero clan of able-bodied white men would. In the early issues, the villainous Scissor Men are trying to take over the world and the Doom Patrol beats them up on behalf of “normal” people everywhere. In fact, the Doom Patrol’s weirdness is presented as essential to its ability to preserve order. Typical superheroes, like the Justice League, just stand around looking confused when the Brotherhood of Dada traps all of Paris in a painting. But the Doom Patrol members stroll up like grizzled, swaggering, half-cracked cowboys, recite some automatic poetry, and vanish into the painting after the evildoers—with whom they ultimately team up to defeat the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. (It gets transformed into a child's rocking horse and pops out of the painting to the great surprise of a tongue-tied Superman.)
Saving the squares, though, becomes less and less the focus as the series goes on. Instead, the Doom Patrol ends up fighting Mr. Jones, a family man who lives in the suburbs where he stabs his wife in the eyes and summons demons to attack Danny the Street, a sentient teleporting transvestite thoroughfare. Danny subsequently joins the Doom Patrol and helps them against a fascistic conspiracy based in the catacombs under the Pentagon.
The bad guys are by this point clearly identified with the establishment and, specifically, with policing sexual identity and norms. Moreover, those bad-guy establishment figures are every bit as weird as the weirdos they want to police; as just one iconic example, the conspirators beneath the Pentagon dye their pubic hair green. Marginality and normality, chaos and order, are shown as arbitrary distinctions. All of which raises the question, why is the Doom Patrol fighting "bad guys" anyway?
This question occurs to the Doom Patrol as well. After beating back the Pentagon threat, the Brotherhood of Dada return—and when their leader, Mr. Nobody, runs for president while dispensing psychedelic hallucinations far and wide from a magic bus, Crazy Jane refuses to try to stop him on the grounds that she likes him and thinks he'd be as good a president as anybody else. "See what Mr. Nobody is doing is forcing people to think in new ways. We can't allow that," some faceless military jerk opines. The supervillains are the good guys, the superheroes are on their side, and both are menaced by the fascist forces of order on whose behalf superheroes are traditionally supposed to be fighting the good fight.
Morrison doesn't exactly take a doctrinaire stand against doctrinaire stands either, though. In the final arc of the series, the Chief is revealed as the ultimate supervillain, who plans to use nanorobots to create a worldwide catastrophe in an effort to get everyone to evolve to the next (presumably weirder) level. He tells Cliff that his earlier experiments led him to arrange the car crash that destroyed Cliff's body, turning him from a self-centered, misogynist blowhard into an empathetic hero. "If you'd met me before my accident, I wouldn't have given you a second glance," Cliff tells Jane; his own trauma has made him identify with the marginalized and with those who need help.
But, importantly, the Chief's actions aren't condoned. Using others in a grand plot to replace the Man just changes the iron corrupt rule of the law-giving Pentagon with the iron corrupt rule of the chaotic nanomachine. Either way, somebody else makes you suffer at their arbitrary whim. The new supervillain is the same as the old superhero, or vice versa.
Doom Patrol doesn't offer a revolutionary political program, then, nor even a straightforward critique of law-and-order superhero fascism as, arguably, Watchmen tried to do a couple of years earlier. Instead, if Doom Patrol subverts most superhero stories, it's through a deliberate, elaborate goofiness. Danny the transvestite street is the least of it; the comic teams with oddity and parody. The Beard Hunter, a Punisher-like figure wages a lonely war against facial hair; the Quiz is a supervillain that has every super power you haven't thought of; Rebis spends an entire issue having sex with hirself (which seems to be Rebis's preferred pronoun); the blue-skinned Sex Men (named Cuddle, Kiss, and Torture) show up to put a stop to outré erotics; the men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. speak entirely in acrostics; and Flex Mentallo uses his power of muscle mystery to turn the Pentagon into a circle.
This is all meant to be very meta. In one arc, the Doom Patrol is able to stop an imaginary world from taking over the real world when the team finds a black book that tells the story of a black book about an imaginary world taking over the real world. The painting that ate Paris is recursive; it's a painting of a painting of a painting, embedded, of course, in a comic book (showing the image of a painting). The final battle in the comic is against a monster called the Candlemaker, who keeps saying things like, "This world is only one of many, none of them real. I make them all." He's all-powerful in part, it seems, because he knows he's in a comic.
The Candlemaker throws Crazy Jane into an alternate world that seems to be our world: gray, boring, lacking in superheroes and supervillains both. She ends up in a mental institution, where she's given electroshock and cured of her fantasies of having been in the Doom patrol; she becomes normal. That's the traditional superhero ending, in theory; marginality resolved into normality, order restored.
But for Morrison that's not what superhero comic are about. The point isn't the resolution with the villain in jail, but rather all the loopy ideas along the way—a genius talking ape in love with a disembodied brain; a world full of talking chairs; a Satan who gets upset when you criticize his singing. Comics aren't necessarily about reinforcing the status quo or overturning the status quo, but about opening up a space to imagine somewhere else—a place where even the police get to take LSD trips and the ugly and the weird and the other don't need to be fixed. As the last line of Morrison's run says, "There is another world. There is a better world. Well, there must be."
That statement of faith is bittersweet, not least because Morrison himself mostly abandoned it in his later work. As he's gone on to write for higher profile characters—Superman, Batman, the Justice League, the X-Men—his take on superheroes has become more conventional, less marginal. Now, for the most part, he writes stories in which supervillains try to take over the world, superheroes stop them, and order is restored. It's what we expect from superhero stories, and from plenty of other stories too. Doom Patrol reminds us, though, that it's possible to have different heroes, and different dreams.