Metafictional Villainy & Intertextual Adaptation – JLA/Doom Patrol: Milkwars, Part 1

by CJ Stephens

I wish every superhero comic was this much fun to read. Justice League of America/Doom Patrol #1 is my favorite comic of 2018 (and maybe 2017 too; it’s that good), for a multitude of reasons. But more than anything else, it captures the sense of childhood fun and excitement that everyone who grew up reading comics and never stopped is constantly searching for.

There will be spoilers…

Doom Patrol, DC Comics’ answer to the X-Men, has never really fit properly within the superhero genre. They’re awkward and weird, and oftentimes overpoweringly tragic. They’re good guys, and they have superpowers, but you just know they’d be the most depressing group at any superhero picnics and teambuilding retreats. I mean, most superheroes have some kind of tragedy in their past, or at the very least bad luck, but the Doom Patrol specialize in both, often on a repetitive basis. They’re tragic heroes, and for the most part, they don’t get to be happy.

Reality itself has been known to conspire against them, and while they’re no strangers to physicality and fisticuffs, they often end up throwing down with metaphysical and conceptual threats that regular four color capes just aren’t qualified to handle. Those sort of experiences tend to leave a mark; it’s hard to slip back into the real world and act normal when you know for a fact that the real world is simply one aspect of many different realities. So there’s always potential for creative tension when they bump into the Justice League of America, like a group project in high school where the goth kids have to work with the jocks, cuz everyone’s grade is counting on it.

Grant Morrison’s nineties run on Doom Patrol really solidified the group’s full embrace of that tragic weirdness. Steve Orlando and Gerard Way have seemingly built on Morrison’s oeuvre and DC continuity and managed to personalize and tweak it in an entertaining fashion. And I love it. This is an incredible comic, weird and reality-bending and tragic all at once. Orlando and Way’s writing meshes seamlessly with ACO’s art to create a crazyfun metafictional story that demonstrates some of the untapped potential of graphic narrative in the superhero genre, without ever seeming ponderous or pedantic.

It’s smart and intertextual, and just the kind of comic book I wanna curl up with and analyze for days. Panel size, shape, and position shift and morph to suit the intensity of the scene, and onomatopoeia becomes part of the visual aesthetic. It is beautiful, and it would be negligent to ignore the masterful effect of Tamra Bonvillain and Marissa Louise’s coloring, which gives everything the depth and vibrancy of a pop-up book. Have I mentioned how much fun this book is?

This issue is the first of a series of team-ups between Way’s Young Animal imprint and the regular DCU that make up the Milkwars saga, which is a ridiculous concept that takes itself so seriously that it feels mythic. Doom Patrol bad guys Retconn are selling tailored realities to the highest bidder, who in this case is Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Trumpesque Manga Khan. It’s telling that the reality he’s interested in buying is a mirror of stereotypical 50s America. But no tailored reality in the DC multiverse is complete without superheroes, and rather than create their own, Retconn is adapting most of the Justice League to their purposes.

Superman, Ur-Superhero that he is, proved too tough to adapt and so they made their own Superman. Riffing on Morrison’s All Star SupermanRetconn created Milkman Man, an Elseworlds version of Kal-El who was found and raised by a corporate dairy tycoon in danger of losing his fortune. Milkman Man delivers Maggiebell Milk to all the residents of Happy Harbor as well as his fellow League members, transforming them into innocent seeming, but ultimately sinister, retro 50s archetypes. The Doom Patrol, avatars of weirdness and tragedy, of course manage to crash this celebration of conformity, conspiracy theory, and toxic civility, and the resulting reality twisting conflict is just so much fun to watch.

If I gave grades in my reviews, the Justice League of America/Doom Patrol Special #1 would get one of those corny higher than the top of the scale ratings, like 6/5 stars. or A+++!!! I can’t help it. I heartily recommend this book; it’s a surreal and weird love note to superhero comics, and such a smooth visual and narrative experience. It’s smart and it’s fun and it’s pretty.

Justice League of America/Doom Patrol Special #1, published on 1/31/18 by DC Comics, features writing by Steve Orlando and Gerard Way, lettering by Clem Robins, and art by ACO, Hugo Petrus, Tamra Bonvillain, Marissa Louise, and Frank Quitely.

CJ Stephens

CJ Stephens wants to be a ninja or a rock star when he grows up. For now he works as an Adjunct Professor of English. He may one day actually finish his PhD, but at this point in time his part-time superhero gigs and binge TV habits tend to take up too much time. He taught himself to read at the age of 4 using a secret combination of Sesame Street, superhero comics, and the love of his mama, and once came in 4th in a High School spelling bee… when he was in 6th grade!!! Cash him outside at https://twitter.com/CJStephen1 and http://cstephensjr.tumblr.com/.