If you’ve been paying attention to the Doom Patrol in the past two decades, you might notice a key oversight.
That is, how transgender author Rachel Pollack’s time as their writer has been largely ignored by DC’s marketing and editorial teams. Even John Arcudi’s run and John Byrne’s critically lambasted run (which even received its own omnibus) have received more acknowledgment from the creative teams who came after than Pollack’s era does. So far, the one attempt to collect Pollack’s Doom Patrol issues in trade format was cancelled. The only real mention Pollack’s era received was in John Arcudi’s run, which explained how Pollack’s unique team was destroyed when Dorothy Spinner unleashed a psychic blast in a moment of distress.
To fans of Pollack’s characters, this felt like an incredibly cheap excuse to reset the status quo. And when Geoff Johns restored the Doom Patrol’s history during Infinite Crisis, the only visible reference to Pollack’s tenure was a brief image of Niles Caulder’s time as a severed head. When Cliff starts remembering teammates from the past Doom Patrols, he doesn’t mention Kate Godwin or the Bandage People at all.
In Keith Giffen’s Doom Patrol run, there’s absolutely no mention of Pollack’s version of the team in any of the character spotlight issues. That might make some sense since Larry Trainor and Rita Farr weren’t involved with the Pollack Doom Patrol, but even Cliff Steele’s focus issue leaves that era unattended. More distressingly, Giffen’s series seemed to operate in a system of story arcs calling back to previous DP eras in the order by which they were published. Yet any glimpse of the Pollack era is skipped over to head straight into the Arcudi era.
When DC released an updated trade collection of Vertigo’s Children’s Crusade crossover, Neil Gaiman’s heavy rewrite of the entire event greatly diminished Rachel Pollack’s contribution to the story by removing almost every aspect that featured Dorothy Spinner, a character with roots in both Kupperberg and Morrison’s Doom Patrols as well as Rachel Pollack’s take on the team.
Finally, there’s no reference to anything from Pollack’s era in Gerard Way’s Doom Patrol books that I can find, even though Way claimed to have interviewed Pollack for the series.
At least some of this lack of acknowledgment comes from Pollack’s run being one of the first books published under DC’s Vertigo banner. For years there’s been debate on where those titles, such as Kid Eternity, Black Orchid, Animal Man, Shade the Changing Man, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and The Sandman, fall within DC’s continuity. However, there have been notable exceptions. Recall how Animal Man appeared in Peter David’s Aquaman looking exactly as he did in his final Vertigo issues. Geoff Johns’ JSA run made it a plot point to reference Hector and Lyta Hall’s connection to The Sandman in that their son was the new incarnation of Dream. Grant Morrison even used Dream in his JLA run.
It’s concerning to see the lack of attention and amount of disrespect Pollack’s run tends to receive. The main argument seems to be that she was only trying to copy Morrison’s brand of weirdness. Critics have also rallied against Pollack breaking up Robotman and Crazy Jane. But on closer inspection, it’s fair to say Rachel Pollack did far more with the Doom Patrol’s female members than Morrison ever did. Her run also featured a lot of sex and queer-positive narratives, and evolved from Morrison’s theme of “Normal vs Weird” to “Stagnancy vs Growth.”
Most importantly, Pollack’s era featured the creation of Kate Godwin, the hero also known as Coagula. Kate is infamously one of the earliest transgender superheroes created by a transgender writer. Unfortunately, Kate got summarily fridged in John Arcudi’s run so that Robotman would have a tragedy to angst over and DC has shown no desire or attempt to bring her back.
Rachel Pollack’s time as Doom Patrol’s writer started at issue #64, with a three-part arc called “Sliding in the Wreckage.” The title is of course a callback to Morrison’s opening arc, “Crawling from the Wreckage.” While Richard Case, the main artist to work on Morrison’s run, handled the majority of #64-66, penciling duties were then taken over by Linda Medley, Scot Eaton, Eric Shanower, Mark Wheatley, Ted McKeever, the Pander Bros., and Jamie Tolagson. Covers were supplied by Tom Taggart and Kyle Baker.
Pollack simply establishes the new status quo by immediately picking up where Morrison left off. Dorothy Spinner is living on her own on Earth, the Chief has been reduced to a severed head after being attacked by the Candlemaker, and Robotman’s new digital brain is glitching out. Rebis and Crazy Jane have both been left to retire on Danny the World. Apocalyptic circumstances lead to Cliff receiving a new human brain and the Chief being altered so he can live as simply a head. Understandably, Cliff wants nothing to do with the Chief after learning the Chief orchestrated the “accidents” responsible for the original Doom Patrol (in Grant Morrison’s seminal Doom Patrol #57). The Chief, for his part, genuinely regrets what he did. It’s Dorothy who convinces the two they need to reform the Doom Patrol, citing how none of them (herself included) were able to successfully live on their own.
The new Doom Patrol relocates to the town of Violet Valley, taking up residence in Rainbow Estates, a failed gated community. It’s shortly revealed Rainbow Estates already has some occupants, including:
- Charlie the Doll, a benevolent living doll with mysterious abilities.
- The Bandage People, a group of energy beings using bodies made of living bandages, led by the delightful George and Marion.
- The SRS, or Sexually Remaindered Spirits, ghosts of individuals who belonged to a sort of sexual fetish club (who are now appearing in season two of the Doom Patrol television series).
Dorothy quickly bonds with Charlie, while George and Marion prove valuable allies to the Doom Patrol. George and Marion are already considered local heroes in Violet Valley and, in a refreshing change of pace, are actually beloved by the community instead of shunned.
In issue #70, George and Marion make the acquaintance of Kate Godwin, a transgender woman with the ability to create energy capable of dissolving and coagulating matter. Unbeknownst to the Doom Patrol, Kate gained her powers after a sexual encounter with Rebis and the Negative Spirit. Kate quickly develops a friendship with Cliff that grows far more intimate when the two briefly merge into one being during “The Teiresias Wars” arc. Near the end of the series, the Chief co-opts Alice Wired-For-Sound, one of the SRS, so he can use her for better mobility.
While Pollack’s run was unfortunately much shorter than Morrison’s, that didn’t stop her from creating much more nuanced development in the title’s female characters than Morrison himself ever did, especially in regards to Dorothy Spinner.
Dorothy Spinner was originally created by Paul Kupperberg and Erik Larsen, but it was Morrison who included her as a main character in his Doom Patrol run. Despite Morrison giving Dorothy the ability to make her imaginary friends tangible, she wasn’t so much a member of the Doom Patrol as she was simply living with them.
Dorothy never went on missions with Robotman, Crazy Jane, and Rebis. She mostly hung out in their headquarters with Joshua Clay, watching monitors and doing errands. Morrison more often used Dorothy and her abilities as plot devices, first to end the “Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E.” arc and to set up his run’s finale by having Dorothy accidentally unleash the Candlemaker.
From the very beginning, Rachel Pollack made Dorothy the focus of the Doom Patrol’s return. Pollack picked up where Morrison left Dorothy, showing the adolescent girl trying to live on her own and being hated by her neighborhood because of her simian appearance and psychic powers. Whereas the Dorothy in Morrison’s run could barely control her powers, Pollack’s Dorothy is capable of weaponizing her imaginary friends at will.
When the world seemed to be going to hell as strange transformations and random chaos occur, Dorothy remained the only member of the Doom Patrol capable of doing anything about it. When Robotman’s new digital brain was no longer working and the Chief would rather remain in a half-dead state as penance for his sins, Dorothy was there. At one point, Dorothy awakens the Chief to force him into helping her set up Cliff’s new brain. When the dust settles, Dorothy mediates between the justifiably hostile Cliff and the Chief and convinces them they need each other.
Dorothy’s development remains consistent throughout Pollack’s run, and for once, it appears that the young woman is finally gaining the support she’s desperately needed to face her problems.
Upon moving to Rainbow Estates, Dorothy finds Charlie the Doll and quickly bonds with the strange toy. Charlie offers Dorothy comfort but also tries to gently nudge her into trying new things. George and Marion start to act like Dorothy’s parents, inviting her on day trips and offering her moral support. Kate Godwin also takes an interest in Dorothy like an older sister.
In Pollack’s “Fox and Crow” arc, Dorothy makes the acquaintance of the Wild Girls, a group of feral young women allied with the spirit called Crowdark. The Wild Girls grow to consider Dorothy their “story lady” and are extremely protective of her. Dorothy in turn gives back the support she’s received when she’s shown fighting to protect her team.
During “The Teiresias Wars,” Dorothy doesn’t hesitate to try saving Kate herself when Kate gets captured by the Builders. During the epilogue of the arc, Dorothy helps Charlie the Doll rescue a poor bystander who got trapped thanks to the Builders’ machinations.
And in #83, when the False Memory, a former ally of the Doom Patrol, starts altering everyone’s memories, it is Dorothy Spinner who fights back. Dorothy rejects the temptation of the False Memory’s alterations because, while her past was pretty traumatic, she won’t let anyone lie to her that it wasn’t. Dorothy has strength in her own certainty and helps Kate and the others reject the lies that have tampered their minds.
Morrison only spent a single issue focusing on Dorothy, Doom Patrol #25’s “Imaginary Friends,” where Dorothy is haunted by her old imaginary friends whom she “killed” and the trauma of her first period. After that, near the end of his run Morrison talked about how Dorothy was bullied as a child and the way she wished for the Candlemaker to kill one of the boys who hurt her (and also murdered her cat). Later on, Pollack delved much deeper into Dorothy’s issues around her menstrual cycle and childhood bullying.
Pollack consistently showed Dorothy’s anxiety over her menstrual cycle while offering a bigger explanation on why it was such a hang up for Dorothy and why it always affected her powers. Morrison only implied Dorothy was traumatized because no one prepared her for adolescence, sobbing in Joshua Clay’s arms that she wanted ruby slippers like Dorothy Gale but was told by her imaginary friends she could only have red shoes.
While Pollack shows Dorothy consistently dealing with her menstrual cycle, the narrative doesn’t go the route of making it seem like a gross, disgusting thing or something to laugh about. Dorothy doesn’t turn into a monster just because of her period and she doesn’t go through any comical mood swings, either. It’s a thing some women deal with and Dorothy’s simply had some issues with her cycle in the past.
Pollack revealed Dorothy was ostracized by her community in Kansas to such a degree she wasn’t allowed in school because officials thought she’d scare the other kids. As a child she once read a book on Africa because other kids kept telling her “she was a monkey and should live in a tree in Africa.” Dorothy nevertheless was entranced by the tribal outfits and masks she read about, as well as all the pictures of people dancing. One day she made up her own dance using a discarded costume she found near a local ballet studio. Unfortunately, some kids found her and start bullying her until Dorothy’s first period began. As she bled, the kids called her “a monkey on the rag” and she prayed to God to make it stop. Dorothy’s own mother called her an embarrassment and said to Dorothy’s face she should’ve been aborted.
(Oh, as a side note, John Arcudi revealed Mrs. Spinner was actually Dorothy’s foster mom.)
Throughout Pollack’s run, dancing was presented as a big deal to Dorothy. She’d constantly get upset whenever someone would ask her to dance with them. This was eventually dealt with when Dorothy’s powers seemed to get especially chaotic during her latest menstrual cycle. Dorothy receives support from Kate and Marion, as well as Cerise Martine, an older woman who runs a women’s spiritual group, and Jenny, a younger girl who might have powers similar to Dorothy. Cerise recognizes the ways Dorothy’s power got mixed up with her menstruation and the way she’s been subconsciously fixated on dancing and the images from that book. That’s also why Dorothy keeps encountering imaginary creatures that resemble orishas, African tribal spirits.
Cerise, Jenny, and the Doom Patrol create a space for Dorothy where she’s able to let go of her fear and simply dance without being shamed, granting her a sense of peace thanks to the support of the women in her life. It’s a stark contrast to how the women of Morrison’s Doom Patrol barely interacted with one another and had little to do with each other’s development. Dorothy and Crazy Jane never really shared a story together and Rhea Jones only ever said one or two words to either of them when she woke from her coma.
Beyond the strong characterization developed for Dorothy Spinner, there was also Pollack’s work with Kate Godwin. Kate was introduced in Doom Patrol #70, “The Laughing Game,” as a lesbian transgender woman with superpowers. At one point a sex worker, Kate slept with Rebis of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, and it’s strongly implied exposure to Rebis’ Negative Spirit is how Kate got her abilities to coagulate and dissolve things. Kate mentions she even tried out for the Justice League as “Coagula,” but was rejected possibly because she made them uncomfortable in her gender identity.
Kate meets George and Marion when she has to stop (the unfortunately named) Codpiece, a maladjusted man so hung up about his penis size that he built a weaponized codpiece to start a life of crime. Sadly, the sheer ridiculousness of the Codpiece was another reason for the criticism against Pollack’s run. In any event, Kate stopped the villain and was invited to join the Doom Patrol.
While in the Doom Patrol, Kate slowly starts to bond with Robotman over his lingering issues on his loss of body. In #74, “Bootleg Steele,” Kate and Cliff discover someone’s made a video game based on Cliff’s likeness without his consent. The two track down the makers of the game and discover someone got their hands on the digital version of Cliff’s mind after it was discarded. They’ve not only made a game based on Cliff, but they’re selling copies of Cliff’s consciousness AND insist they own the rights.
Kate tries to help Cliff navigate through this (sort-of) identity crisis as Cliff wonders what exactly makes him any different from the bootleg Cliffs being manufactured. Kate levels with Cliff that no one can really prove they exist, and when they try to prove it or get others to prove it for them is when they’ve lost. She tells Cliff the only thing he can do is say “This is who I am. I’m Cliff Steele, and I’m a human being.”
Later, Kate and Cliff briefly come to blows during “The Tieresias Wars” when Cliff finally learns Kate is transgender. Having previously assumed the Chief’s comment on Kate being “surgically altered” meant she had a nose job (which she did), Cliff almost immediately misgenders Kate. She has to explain to Cliff, quite simply, that she was never a man. Then Cliff states that even if Kate “chopped off her penis,” her having one at all makes her male, as far as he’s concerned. Kate has absolutely none of this, angrily asking if Cliff himself is still a man even though HE doesn’t have a penis anymore. Is the Chief still a man since he’s only a head? What about George and Marion? Their human bodies are gone.
Kate’s words for Cliff are actually a rather fitting call back to one problematic aspect of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, which unfortunately was included in the current TV show. In issue #30, Cliff needed to help a comatose Crazy Jane by mentally journeying into Jane’s mind. The result was Cliff navigating the Underground, the system through which Jane’s alters keep track of themselves. The majority of Jane’s alters refuse to let Cliff travel deeper to help Jane. Black Annis especially doesn’t want Cliff near Jane because he’s a man. Cliff can only argue that he’s not really a man anymore because the accident which left him a brain in a jar destroyed his body, including his genitals. He has to strip off his clothes to reveal the projection of his robotic body is anatomically bare.
Remember, all this is happening within Cliff and Jane’s minds. Cliff’s mental image of himself is of Robotman. He at this point really thinks he’s not a man because he doesn’t have a body or genitals. Even though Kate has no idea she’s doing it, she’s throwing Cliff’s words back in his face and revealing him to be a hypocrite.
Thankfully, the rest of “The Tieresias Wars” shows Kate and Cliff starting to bond after the initial argument. When Cliff’s body gets destroyed again, he makes it clear he wants the final say in how his new body’s constructed since he doesn’t trust the Chief anymore. Kate and Cliff discuss the concept of “passing” and the idea that he now actually cares about what kind of body he gets. Now, Cliff gets a chance to design the body he wants, which is not something most people can experience.
Kate helps Cliff create his new body so she can watch if the Chief tries to include any features without Cliff’s consent. Their bonding goes even further when the two are required to merge into one body to journey to the world of the Tieresias and gain help. The experience has Cliff and Kate experiencing things from each other’s point of view – such as their respective traumas, Cliff’s car accident, and Kate’s gender dysphoria. Cliff gains a new understanding of Kate while Kate has a much easier time empathizing with Cliff’s problems than almost everyone else in the Doom Patrol has done.
When the two encounter the Contract, an agent of the Builders, he tries to tempt them by offering what he thinks are their ideal human bodies. Kate in particular’s shown a female body the Contract implies is somehow more genuine than her actual body. Cliff and Kate only laugh in his face, stating they aren’t pretending to be anything with the bodies they have now.
As a result of their merging, it’s easy to see Cliff and Kate developed a sort of romantic, albeit platonic, relationship. For her part, Kate makes it clear she’s still attracted to women, and also robots. In many ways, Kate and Cliff’s relationship seems more of pairing of equals than Cliff’s relationship with Crazy Jane had been. Whereas Cliff more often felt he had to protect Jane, Kate can handle herself just fine. The two have a much easier time being honest with one another and don’t fall into the kind of prince/princess dynamic that existed between Cliff and Jane.
Sadly, despite Kate’s strong personality and characterization, she promptly vanished from DC after Doom Patrol was cancelled. Kate wouldn’t reappear again until John Arcudi’s run about a decade later. Her one and only appearance in over ten years amounted to Kate being atomized thanks to Dorothy Spinner’s nervous breakdown.
Regardless of her death, Kate’s role as a transgender woman — alongside the inclusion of the genderfluid being called Eliot — is an improvement over Morrison’s handling of queer topics. Morrison gave us Rebis and Danny the Street, but while both characters are certainly iconic today, their roles in Morrison’s era haven’t aged well.
Rebis was a combination of the original Negative Man Larry Trainor and his doctor Eleanor Poole. Combined into one body by the Negative Spirit, this resulted in a being who Morrison referred to as a radioactive hermaphrodite. Despite Rebis being an intersex or nonbinary individual, they were almost always referred to with male pronouns thanks to Robotman thinking Rebis was still simply Larry Trainor. Larry’s presence is primary in Rebis while Eleanor Poole barely contributed anything to the character beyond Rebis’s obsession with Russian nesting dolls. Not helping is how Morrison decides to focus on Rebis’s skin color, describing it like “coffee with cream” as if to fetishize Rebis being biracial.
Danny the Street was introduced as a living street that happened to be queer and “a transvestite,” so in a sense a drag queen. Danny’s safe for Morrison to make gay because the character’s not human, Danny’s a thing with less expected agency. Later creators have better handled their appearances, thanks to Danny now being referred to as genderqueer.
Even at this day and age, it’s important to remember DC Comics still has barely a handful of transgender characters which are still alive, and almost all of them are supporting characters and not actual heroes or villains. As Kate was practically the first and only transgender hero DC had, Pollack worked to make Kate strong, capable, and likable. Kate had some issues, but they didn’t hamper the person she was. She had a community of friends who proudly supported the woman she was, and she was unashamed of being physically attracted to women. Kate was patient and considerate, but she was no pushover and rarely put up with the Chief’s smug antagonism OR Cliff’s patronizing.
It’s a sharp contrast to Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, who predates Kate by a few years. Wanda was a transgender woman who had not yet fully transitioned due to her fear of surgery. Unfortunately, Wanda was only ever prominent in the storyline “A Game of You,” where she spends most of the story getting misgendered before she’s killed off. The last we see of Wanda is her spirit alongside Death of the Endless, biding goodbye to protagonist Barbie. Barbie notes Wanda appears absolutely gorgeous, with a body that looks completely feminine to provide the final confirmation Wanda was a woman in starkly binary terms.
I know a number of people who are fans of Wanda for her personality and depth, even if they’re rightfully critical of how Gaiman treated her. Gaiman himself stated he knows Wanda’s role in The Sandman was fair for its day but has aged poorly and would do things differently with her now if given the chance.
For starters, Wanda’s merely the best friend to cisgender protagonist Barbie, and even Barbie commits a microaggression when she states “Alvin? That’s your real name?” Wanda’s only real function is to stand guard by a comatose Barbie while the other characters travel into the Dreaming to find her and stop the villainous Cuckoo. It’s because of this Wanda’s ultimately killed when the violent storm raging outside the apartment building destroys everything and Wanda’s crushed to death.
The bulk of Wanda’s misgendering comes from George, one of the arc’s antagonists, and supporting character Thessaly the Witch. Both refer to Wanda as a man, simply because Wanda doesn’t menstruate and because, as far as the gods are concerned, they think Wanda can’t change who she really is. Wanda is denied what Thessaly, Hazel and Foxglove are allowed: journeying into the Dreaming to help Barbie. While Thessaly states someone needs to watch Barbie’s physical body, she also adds “This isn’t your route, it can’t be.” Note that the pathway Thessaly’s using involved summoning the Moon itself with a ritual including menstrual blood. Thessaly is indirectly stating that Wanda can’t journey this way because, once again, she doesn’t menstruate, nor has she ever. Wanda refuses to give any satisfaction to George or Thessaly, but imagine how transgender and nonbinary readers must feel to see this type of thing repeatedly thrown in Wanda’s face for almost the entire story?
Even the way in which Wanda receives the final confirmation of her gender comes off as incredibly backhanded. There’s nothing about her appearance that seems masculine like her living body. Her cheekbones, chin, hair, even her hands have been altered. Barbie’s narration states there’s “nothing camp or artificial about [Wanda].” So for us to accept Wanda as a woman, it’s required for her to look more like a “typical woman” does. The narration has us believe the transition Wanda already accomplished while she was alive just isn’t good enough, because she still retains masculine features.
Compare all of Wanda’s development and handling to Kate’s role as a protagonist in Doom Patrol. She’s not delegated to being someone’s best friend and Kate was never a token transgender character. Kate Godwin was smart and proactive, and the narrative she existed in applauded her for being a transgender woman.
Whereas Wanda was always doubted because it didn’t seem like she transitioned “enough,” Kate was perfectly content with her body and laughed at the idea she could be offered something more “real.”
Wanda was considered less of a woman because she lacked the biological ability to menstruate. Kate, however, is never shamed for this nor is she excluded from functions about women.
While aiding in Cerise Martine’s ritual to help Dorothy, Cerise reveals she knows Kate is transgender. More importantly, Cerise says she honors Kate’s presence and believes by being here Kate brings a very ancient power that will prove crucial to helping Dorothy. Essentially, Kate being transgender makes her powerful and represents something ancient and possibly as old as the gods who thought Wanda could never change who she was. Pollack’s narrative spits in the face of everything Gaiman did wrong with his.
However, the analysis of Kate’s connection with Cliff requires us to once again go back to Morrison’s run and discuss a key aspect of Cliff’s story Pollack undid. One of the biggest complaints about Pollack’s run, especially from hardcore Morrison fans, was that she broke up Cliff and Crazy Jane’s relationship. Morrison’s run ended with Cliff and Jane being together on Danny the World, and it wouldn’t be until near the end of Pollack’s run that their breakup was finally explained. Cliff and Jane’s relationship ended because the two were always getting into arguments and Cliff couldn’t handle it. Years later, when Crazy Jane was reintroduced in Keith Giffen’s Doom Patrol, going into Gerard Way’s run, Cliff and Jane remained friends but never became a couple again.
Cliff and Jane’s relationship served as a key touchstone for Morrison’s run and it’s carried over into other runs, as well as the current TV show. But it simply wasn’t that for Pollack’s run. The author simply had other, possibly more critical work to do.
Even as a fan of Morrison’s run, in recent years I’ve come to appreciate that Pollack broke up Cliff and Jane. It ultimately showed that Cliff and Jane’s relationship was unhealthy because of Cliff’s driving need to shelter Jane. When Jane reappears after coming to terms with her father’s abuse, Cliff can’t really handle this and starts shutting Jane out because she doesn’t need his protection. And Morrison unfortunately validates Cliff acting as Jane’s knight with that last issue, where he prioritizes Cliff saving Jane as Jane’s definitive happy ending over Jane saving herself much earlier.
Pollack’s takes on trauma and recovery overall act as something of a foil to Morrison’s takes, in much the same way her Doom Patrol as a whole was a foil to Morrison’s. For most of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, its individual members are miserable and have a hard time dealing with their problems. Cliff, Jane, and Rebis have an easier time facing their issues when they’re alone than they ever did with each other. Yet while most of Morrison’s run focuses on them being unhappy, it spends little time showing them making actual progress or finding peace.
With Pollack’s Doom Patrol, we see the members being able to face their problems because they had help from one another, instead of being ultimately hindered by each other. Cliff deals with his body issues and issues regarding Crazy Jane thanks to Kate’s empathy and the support of the team. Dorothy starts to come out of her shell and finds the strength to dance like she’s always wanted because of Charlie and everyone else.
The biggest examples of Pollack’s different approach to trauma and abuse portrayals came from Kate and the Bandage People. We get the sense Kate has suffered in the past from people who couldn’t understand her being transgender. We get glimpses of Kate being bullied when she was a kid and still called “Clark.” George and Marion have also greatly suffered after the two had their bodies taken from them by the Builders and reduced to energy.
However, Pollack shows us through these characters that trauma and unhappiness are not how our worlds end.
Kate moved past her bullying, she changed her body to match who she was inside, and she met people who supported her. George and Marion are perfectly content with who they are and their love for one another. “The Laughing Game” has them explain this to a woman named Alice, stating they go out into the world every day because they decided to be happy and enjoy themselves. Pollack shows our characters dealing with their trauma as well as those who’ve already dealt with their trauma and have gained happiness for themselves, signifying how it’s something all of us can do.
The concepts of trauma are further explored in issue #83 when Pollack brings back the False Memory, a one-time Doom Patrol ally who can rewrite peoples’ memories. The False Memory inserts herself into the Doom Patrol by changing their memories at her whim, keeping George and Marion high on past barbecues with George Bush and Marilyn Monroe while feeding Cliff adventures with Crazy Jane that never happened. Kate is taken out of the picture when the False Memory makes her believe she’d been raped as a teenager by Kate’s non-existent husband. For most of the issue Kate’s left struggling to figure out WHEN she was raped even as the memories explain “everything” about the way she is.
Ultimately, Dorothy is the one to bring the team to their senses and when the False Memory’s exposed, Kate is understandably outraged at the idea she needed to think she was raped for her life to make sense.
This is INCREDIBLY important to acknowledge in light of mainstream comics’ depiction of rape and sexual abuse within the last couple of decades after Pollack’s Doom Patrol was published. The two biggest examples in my mind are Kevin Smith’s decision to retcon Black Cat into being raped while she was in college (Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do), and Brad Meltzer retconning Dr. Light into raping Sue Dibny as part of his convoluted explanation on why Light turned into a joke villain while setting him up as a suspect in Sue’s murder (Identity Crisis). Both of these women had sexual abuse retroactively put into their lives to justify either their motivations or the motivations of other characters, leaving them with very little agency on the matter.
Meanwhile, you have Kate as a woman who finds out someone tried to retroactively put sexual abuse into her life and becoming enraged at the idea of violation giving her depth.
Ultimately, there’s no grander scheme regarding the abuse we suffer from. There’s no point to it and there’s no such thing as “meaningful” abuse. The False Memory thinks she’s helping people both by giving them wonderful memories to feel good about and traumatic ones to answer the things they don’t understand. But they’re meaningless, because abuse — even fake memories of abuse — don’t help people. It’s understandable to attempt to make sense of the abuse we go through, but trying to say there was a reason for it only validates our abusers and can make us fixate, while we proceed to stagnate as individuals.
Stagnation also ties in the last aspect of Pollack’s Doom Patrol and how it works as a foil to Morrison’s.
The overarching theme of Morrison’s Doom Patrol was the idea of “Normalcy vs Weirdness.” There were antagonists such as the Scissormen of Orqwith and the Brotherhood of Dada, who at large represented destructive weirdness unchecked. Then there were Darren Jones and the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., who represented overbearing normalcy even though they themselves were incredibly weird. The Doom Patrol often found themselves stuck in the middle of these conflicts, being the ones to keep overt weirdness AND overt normalcy from going out of control lest they destroy the world.
Pollack’s Doom Patrol went deeper than that and instead focused on the idea of change over imagination, thus giving us “Stagnation vs Growth.” Both are aspects of change, but while growth represents change for the better, stagnation is change for the worse. In both ways, a person can become more of what they are.
When a person grows, they learn more about who they are and the world around them. They can let go of old ideas or things that do them harm and change the world for the better. When a person stagnates, it’s simply their worse aspects becoming more prominent at the cost of their maturity. By stagnating we fixate on bad memories or bad habits, we become more abusive to ourselves or each other. We don’t live so much as we simply take up space.
Pollack featured villains such as the Master Cleaner, who decided to start “cleaning” everything and strip the world down to nothing as he harvests people to keep control. Then there were the Fox and Crow, two ancient spirits who’ve been stuck festering in a mindless feud for thousands of years. Finally we had the Builders who explicitly wanted to stop the world from changing because it gives them better control over it. We’re shown the Builders trying to destroy dreams, forcing people to adhere to the gender binary, creating a rigid environment where everything’s planned down to the last second.
The Builders were the first real villains Pollack set up in her run, appearing as early as “Sliding in the Wreckage” as the secondary antagonists, and ultimately the more villainous ones, against the beings from the Mother Time. This organization is by all appearances a continuation of the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. due to their desire for control. In fact, the leader of the Builders brushes off the remains of N.O.W.H.E.R.E. within the Pentagon as the “failure of a previous administration.” They’re the perfect representation of Pollack distilling her themes out of whatever Morrison worked on, making them more understandable within the context of an ever changing and uncertain world.
The basis of “The Tieresias Wars” arc focused on an ancient shapeshifting race known as the Tieresae, based off the blind seer Tieresias of Greek mythology that changed their sex by striking two copulating snakes. The Tieresae were genderfluid, ever changing beings which existed in a world without structures or permanent forms. All that changed when one Tieresias did an experiment and ended up creating the gender binary. From there came the creation of grammar and words until systems and structures holding things down were made, too. Then came the Builders — as in the builders of the Tower of Babel — using language to dominate the world and keep it from changing.
While the Builders want to keep imposing their rigid control over the world, the Doom Patrol is left to protect everything from both the Builders AND the rest of the Tieresae. Aided by a helpful Tieresias named Eliot (after T.S. Eliot, who featured Tieresias in “The Wasteland”), the Doom Patrol has to plead with the Tieresae that they can’t destroy the world. The Tieresae believe the world as it is only exists due to the Builders, being rooted in the foundation of the Tower of Babel and thus is incapable of change. Kate’s the one who does the most pleading that this isn’t true. She points out despite how rigid the world looks, it’s changing every day. Look at Kate. She was born with a body that didn’t match who she was inside, so she changed it. George and Marion changed when they were turned to energy. Cliff and the Chief changed when they lost their bodies. Then you’ve got Dorothy who’s always creating new imaginary friends.
Despite how rigid the world appears, it IS changing.
The arguments about growth and stagnancy are relevant both within the context of the comic book industry and the world we live in today. For comic book readers, we’ve repeatedly seen comic companies such as DC and Marvel change things about their characters and this often causes arguments about whether or not said changes are good. The deeper problem is we never seem to look at these changes within the lenses of growth and stagnation. Comic editors often act like fans can’t handle change, when the truth is: most fans just aren’t happy with stagnancy.
Characters like Wally West becoming the Flash and Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle represent growth. Wally spent more years as the Flash than Barry ever did and Barbara appeared far more as Oracle than she ever did as Batgirl. Carol Danvers becoming Captain Marvel permanently gave us the opportunity for a new Ms. Marvel in Kamala Kahn. Even further back, we have examples like Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum taking over the X-Men titles and introducing characters like Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler.
Meanwhile, stories like Rise of Arsenal stripped its title character of everything that made him meaningful and left him as a drug addled, angry person. House of M and Decimation were the starting point of the various X-Men titles festering for nearly 15 years when the majority of its mutant characters were left depowered, while Marvel tried to use the Inhumans as a replacement.
And that’s not even talking about the state of American society and how for over four years we’ve stagnated thanks to Donald Trump’s administration. America changed when Trump was elected president, but it didn’t change for that better.
In so many ways, Rachel Pollack’s time as Doom Patrol author granted us so much deeper, meaningful characterization and representation in her 25-issue run then Morrison did in his 40+ run. Her themes on identity, gender, sexuality, and healing have aged far better than Morrison’s and her accomplishments need to be acknowledged. Considering DC still has barely any transgender representation among its protagonists OR its creators, now more than ever it’s time to shine a light on and to acknowledge Rachel Pollack and her Doom Patrol.