More than thirty years ago, Richard Case, an artist currently based in Hillsborough, drew an exceedingly strange series for DC Comics that now serves as the basis for a new TV show. Doom Patrol, which premieres Friday, February 15, on the DC Universe streaming channel, promises to bring that strangeness to life.
Case’s comic was a revival of a 1960s title that took a typical superhero premise—people given freakish powers by an accident defend a world that hates and fears them—and added an oddball edge, with characters including Robotman, a human brain in a robot body; Negative Man, radioactive and wrapped in bandages; and M. Mallah, the French gorilla sidekick of a disembodied brain. (Yeah, a lot of loose brains.)
The Doom Patrol run by Case and soon-to-be-famous Scottish surrealist Grant Morrison skewed deeper and darker, drawing on everything from philosophy and mythology to mental illness, pitting genuinely troubled heroes against genuinely weird threats. New members included the likes of Crazy Jane—an abused woman with sixty-four personalities, each with their own superpower—and a being made of sentient architecture called Danny the Street. New foes included a fictional city come to life, The Painting that Ate Paris, and the Brotherhood of Dada. But at the book’s heart was the touching family the team members formed. Morrison’s first and last issues were bookended with the empathetic line, “Come in out of the rain.”
The series carried on after Morrison and Case departed and had several more revivals, but they left an indelible impression on the characters. The most recent revival was written by My Chemical Romance front man Gerard Way, who cited Case and Morrison’s run as a formative work for him. (Way’s Doom Patrol-influenced comic, The Umbrella Academy, also has a live-action adaptation premiering this Friday, on Netflix.) But this cult favorite is poised to make its biggest impression on the mainstream yet with the new series, which features Brendan Fraser voicing Robotman and draws heavily from Case and Morrison’s run, from the inclusion of Crazy Jane to Robotman’s large-shouldered leather jacket. Speaking with Case about his time on Doom Patrol and his thoughts on the new series, we also learned the unexpected ways in which the Triangle found its way into the comic.
INDY: How do you feel about the new Doom Patrol television series? Have you had a chance to see any of it?
RICHARD CASE: I’m quite excited, but also cautiously optimistic. I’ve only seen a brief trailer, so it’s tough to judge how the characters will really deliver the lines and which storylines they’ll pursue. Crazy Jane, for instance, is a character that is very dear to me, and I’d imagine it’ll be a very difficult role for anyone to play well, given that she has sixty-four separate personalities. Is Diane Guerrero capable of pulling it off? Will the transitions of her switching personalities be directed smartly or will it come off as cheesy? Won’t be able to say until we see it. But I’m hopeful!
Tell us a bit about how you came on board the comic in the eighties.
I was working on Dr. Strange for Marvel at the time, in 1988, and my wife and I had recently decided to move away from New Jersey to North Carolina, since I now had regular freelance work and we were looking for a bit of a change. Before doing that, though, I thought it best to meet as many editors as possible at both Marvel and DC to continue building relationships with both of the major comics companies at the time, both of which were located in New York. Shortly after we moved to the Triangle, I received a letter from Bob Greenberger from DC. He’d seen some of the samples I’d left with another editor and thought I might be a good fit for a book that they were taking in a new direction. The book turned out to be Doom Patrol.
While I liked the original, the recent direction of the book had left me kind of flat. But then, he mentioned that a new writer by the name of Grant Morrison, who was only just making his break in American comics, would be taking over, and he had a radical new approach to the characters. I was intrigued, and Bob sent me Grant’s original pitch treatment and synopsis outlining the first year. It was roughly sixty pages, and it blew me away. It was pretty much a manifesto, defining how he meant to return the Doom Patrol to its roots of being truly strange characters, uncomfortably strange characters, and making them be reluctant heroes. When kids dream of being a superhero, it’s usually Spider-Man or Batman or Wonder Woman—athletic, good-looking, almost supermodel physiques. But these characters were not heroes that you would want to be, or even want to be in the same room with, in some cases. They were freaks and weirdos.
How did you try to convey this visually?
Because these were not typical superheroes, we definitely didn’t want to give them traditional superhero tights as costumes. Grant suggested Robotman wearing clothing, particularly the leather jacket with pads—it was the late eighties, all jackets had shoulder padding—and torn jeans and big boots, to make him feel more human. I was keen on bringing angular geometric shapes into some of the uniforms, as evidenced by Crazy Jane’s original costume.
Then I stumbled onto the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier’s work. He was later known as the designer of all of the costumes on The Fifth Element, but even in the late eighties, he was designing postmodern clothes that had a futuristic feel, using big shapes and contrasting materials. His designs definitely influenced some of the shapes in the costumes. A number of the characters wore big, baggy clothes, just to offset the skintight norm of superheroes at the time.
It’s thirty years later, and your Doom Patrol stories are still in print. There’s the TV show; there’ve been things like Gerard Way’s revival that draw very explicitly from your run. It’s proven to be a lasting work and a big part of your career. How would you describe the book’s impact on your life, and what are some of the things you feel have made it particularly enduring?
Thirty years! Yeah, more than half a lifetime ago for me. Certainly, it seems that it was the comic that I’m most remembered for, and as it was early in my career, it definitely opened many other opportunities for me down the road. And in many ways, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a book. I genuinely love the characters, and I always awaited the day a new script would show up just to see what we were going to be putting them through this month—once I wrestled it away from my wife, who often would read them before I did. Knowing that Gerard and Nick built from our stories and took them in new directions, it has been fun for me to follow along. Some of the other creators that have taken the Doom Patrol in new directions just didn’t work for me, and some even felt like they were ignoring the work we did on the book. With those, I just felt like, well, that’s a different thing, and I’ve moved on. But the current book, and hopefully, the TV show, carries a lot of the spirit we were pursuing.
Tell us about your work today.
I’ve been here in the Triangle for over thirty years now, moving here just before I got the Doom Patrol gig. I even managed to put hints of my new North Carolina home in the book. As early as the first issue, the hospital Larry Trainor is recovering in is named after Alamance County. Danny the Street is at least partially modeled after Hillsborough, where I lived and where my studio was at the time, and the main street in Graham. These days, I don’t do a whole lot of comics work, making my living as a concept artist for Red Storm Entertainment in Cary, helping create games like Tom Clancy’s The Division 2. That said, I did just finish illustrating an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, written by Peter Milligan for Ahoy Comics, that will be out in late February.