Remembering Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake

Today would have been the 90th birthday of writer Arnold Drake, who was born on March 1, 1924.  Drake,  with co-writer Leslie Waller and artist Matt Baker, created It Rhymes With Lust, a noir “picture novel” released in 1950 by St. John Publications.  Some historians consider it to be the first American graphic novel.  Long out of print, It Rhymes With Lust was finally republished by Dark Horse in 2007.

Drake was a prolific writer in the comic book field, penning numerous scripts at DC Comics from the mid-1950s through the late-1960s.  Probably the most significant of Drake’s contributions to the DC universe was co-creating the bizarre, offbeat cult classic the Doom Patrol with Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani.  The Doom Patrol made their debut in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963), a sci-fi anthology series.  Drake and Haney co-wrote the DP’s first two stories, after which Drake took over as the sole writer, paired with artist Premiani.  The characters became quite popular, and My Greatest Adventure was officially re-titled The Doom Patrol with issue #86.  The series lasted until issue #121, published in 1968.

My Greatest Adventure Doom Patrol 82 pg 1

Drake deliberately set out to make the members of the Doom Patrol the antithesis of the clean-cut, conventional superheroes DC was publishing.  Drake witnessed the early success that Marvel was already experiencing through the formula of “heroes with problems.”  With Haney and Premiani, he conceived a group of characters who were regarded by so-called normal society as “freaks.”

Cliff Steele, aka Robotman, had his human body completely destroyed in a race car accident, and his still living brain was transplanted into a clunky metal form.  Larry Trainor, aka Negative Man, had his form co-habited by a bizarre energy being which he could control, but which also resulted in him becoming highly radioactive, necessitating he be wrapped up in specially-treated bandages, looking much like a mummy.  Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Girl, was exposed to strange volcanic gasses, which enabled her to dramatically grow or shrink in size.  Although Rita remained an attractive woman, her new abilities also attracted considerable attention & publicity, and she was not happy with her notoriety.  Bringing the group together was Niles Calder, aka The Chief, a wheelchair-bound scientific genius.

(Keep in mind that The Doom Patrol predates X-Men by a few months, and to this day a hotly debated question is whether this was an amazing piece of synchronicity, or if Marvel “borrowed” the concept of Drake’s series.)

The Italian-born Premiani had an understandably European style to his artwork, which was definitely of a very high quality.  I think that this helped to further distinguish The Doom Patrol from much of DC’s other output at the time.  As Drake himself would comment to Premiani, “You draw with an Italian pen.”  Certainly Premiani did a wonderful job rendering the beautiful Elasti-Girl, giving her a look Drake described “as quite European-Mediterranean.”

Drake and Premiani also created a bizarre rogues gallery for the DP.  The centuries old General Immortus sought to maintain his longevity, regain his youth, and conquer the world.  The Brotherhood of Evil was made up of the disembodied Brain, the French-speaking machine gun wielding gorilla Monsieur Mallah, and the shape shifting Madame Rouge.  Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, as his name implies, could transform into weird, gigantic combinations of animals, plants, and rocks.

Doom Patrol 99 pg 4

Later on, in The Doom Patrol #99 (November 1965), the hotheaded green shape-changing teenager Beast Boy was introduced by Drake and artist Bob Brown.  Years later Beast Boy (sometimes also known as Changeling) would become a member of Wolfman & Perez’s ultra-popular New Teen Titans.  I actually acquired a rather beat-up copy of DP #99 at a comic show in Westchester back in the mid-1990s for a whopping nine bucks.  That was a cool find.  I still have that one floating around somewhere.

Also at DC, Drake co-created supernatural hero Deadman with artist Carmine Infantino, and the horror comedy feature Stanley and His Monster with Winslow Mortiner.

After a dispute with DC over better pay rates & benefits in 1968, Drake left that company and headed over to Marvel Comics.  During his brief time there, he worked on several series, including (ironically enough) X-Men, where he introduced Cyclops’ brother Alex Summers, who was shortly after turned into the superhero Havok by Roy Thomas & Neal Adams.  Drake, paired with artist Gene Colan, created the original Guardians of the Galaxy, who made their debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (January 1969).

Marvel Super-Heroes 18 cover

Drake penned numerous stories while at Gold Key in the 1970s.  He was a regular contributor to mystery / horror titles such as Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery, The Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows.  Having previously penned numerous humor comic books at DC, the versatile Drake also had a lengthy run writing Little Lulu for Gold Key.

One of Drake’s last comic book stories for many years was “G.I. Samurai,” which was published by DC in G.I. Combat #276 (April 1985).  I actually have vivid memories of reading this story when I was nine years old.  Drake told the story of Mike Mabuchi, a Japanese-American soldier struggling to find acceptance among his comrades while fighting in World War II on the European Front.  It was a very thoughtful piece of writing by Drake about the bigotry which was sometimes present on the American side of the conflict.

GI Samurai pg 1

After an 18 year absence from the biz, Drake collaborated with Argentine artist Luis Dominguez on “Tripping Out,” a 13 page story that appeared in the January 2003 edition of Heavy Metal.  Dominguez had previously created a number of beautiful cover paintings at Gold Key in the 1970s (I’m not sure if Drake and Dominguez worked together during this time, since Gold Key sometimes wasn’t good at supplying detailed credits).  Dominguez also painted a recreation of the cover artwork for My Greatest Adventure #80.  This fantastic piece was featured as the cover of Alter Ego #17, published by TwoMorrows in September 2002, which featured an in-depth interview with Drake conducted by Marc Svensson.

Arnold Drake passed away on March 12, 2007, at the age of 83.  I was very fortunate to have met him on a couple of occasions prior to this, at NYC conventions in the early 2000s.  He autographed my copies of The Doom Patrol Archives Volume 1 and Alter Ego #17.  The second time I met Drake, I was able to have a very pleasant chat with him that must have lasted at least 15 minutes.  He immediately impressed me as a sharp, intelligent, insightful man.

Alter Ego 17 cover signed

Drake really was one of those creators who saw the vast potentials of comic books, who wanted to see stories of a diverse selection of genres published in a variety of formats, such as graphic novels.  I definitely regard him as being ahead of his time.  He was involved in the creation of several wonderful, unusual series & concepts, and he helped to lay the groundwork for succeeding writers who sought to push the boundaries of the medium.

Strange Comic Books: Unknown Soldier #268

Those with good memories may recall that last year I wrote about the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier trade paperback.  I tremendously enjoyed the stories collected in that book, and that in turn led me to purchase a bunch of the later issues of the series on Ebay.  One of those comics was the final issue, Unknown Soldier #268, which was published in 1982.  This is a memorable yet also quite strange issue, one which sees the Soldier embark on his final mission, which brings him face to face with his most hated enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Unknown Soldier 268 cover

Like most issues of Star Spangled War Stories and Unknown Soldier, #268 is topped off by a superb cover drawn by the legendary Joe Kubert.  This macabre image shows the corpses of Hitler and his bride Eva Braun sprawled across the floor of the Fuhrer’s bunker.  Hovering before them is a ghostly image of the Unknown Soldier.

Inside is “A Farewell to War,” written by Bob Haney, with pencil layouts by Dick Ayers and finishes by Gerry Talaoc.  Haney was one of the writers of the character’s early adventures in Star Spangled War Stories, and he returned to chronicle the Soldier’s adventures after the series was re-named after the character.  Ayers, among his numerous credits, worked on Marvel Comics’ war titles in the 1960s.  In the mid-1970s he moved over to DC, and Unknown Soldier became one of his regular assignments.  As I’ve mentioned, I used to live about ten minutes from Dick, and I visited him a couple of times.  Finally, Talaoc is one of the very talented Filipino artists who broke onto the American comic book scene in the 1970s.  As a kid, I first saw his work when he was inking Sal Buscema and Mike Mignola on Incredible Hulk.  It was a pleasure to re-discover his art through his lengthy stint drawing Unknown Soldier, a series where he did amazing work.  Nowadays Talaoc lives in Alaska, but he was kind enough to autograph a few books that I mailed to him.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 1

Unknown Soldier #268 opens with a splash page, a combination of Ayers & Talaoc’s artwork and a photo montage, which harks back to the pieces Kubert would use to open his stories a decade before.  It is May 2, 1945, and the Soviet army has discovered the corpse of Hitler.  The story then flashes back four days, to April 28.  The war in Europe is nearing its end, and Berlin is undergoing intense bombing by the Allied forces.  The Unknown Soldier is parachuting into the besieged city, hoping to make contact with the German Resistance, which is in possession of a dangerous secret.  The Soldier slips into disguise, but is unable to do anything as, one by one, his confidants are killed by a fanatical Nazi officer named Kessler.  All the Soldier is able to learn is one word: Nosferatu.

Finally, the Soldier himself is unmasked by Kessler, who pursues him into the city’s subway system.  Furious at having seen those close to him, his adopted family, brutally murdered, the Soldier attacks Kessler in a darkened tunnel.  After a furious fight, the Soldier knocks Kessler against the third rail, electrocuting him.  The master of disguise assumes the identity of his fallen foe and slips out across the city, heading to the Reich Chancellery, hoping to learn what the dreaded secret is that his friends died trying to uncover.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 15

Still disguised as Kessler, the Soldier is admitted to Hitler’s bunker, coming face-to-face with the infamous ruler of the Third Reich.  There, he learns the horrific, not to mention utterly bizarre, meaning of Nosferatu.  It is Hitler’s doomsday plan.  In the event of Germany’s impending defeat, the Nazis will unleash a swarm of genetically engineered bio-weapons, flying octopi mutated with vampire blood that will swarm all across Europe, decimating the Allies.  Yes, really!

Before Hitler can give the order to release the Nosferatu, the Soldier attacks him.  Grappling with the madman, he calls up the memories of his fallen comrades and summons the strength to shoot the dictator in the face, killing him.  Quickly altering his disguise, the Soldier takes on the identity of Hitler himself.  He issues the order for the Nosferatu to be destroyed.  Then, once again donning his Kessler mask, the Soldier slips out of the bunker, having staged the bodies of Hitler and his wife so that they appear to have committed suicide.

Back in his usual outfit of trench coat and bandaged face, the victorious Unknown Soldier attempts to make his way out of Berlin alive.  However, he spots a child about to be killed by a falling bomb.  Quickly throwing her to safety, the Soldier is caught in the blast, seemingly perishing.  But before Bob Haney closes the story, he includes a hint in the final panel that maybe, just maybe, the Soldier might possibly have survived.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 23

Whew!  What an exciting, jam-packed, strange comic book!  Bob Haney really brings the saga of the Unknown Soldier to a cataclysmic conclusion, doesn’t he?  I classified this as a Strange Comic Book because not only does the Soldier kill Hitler, but because of the whole Nosferatu subplot.  It what is a very gritty, hard-edged story of war and sacrifice, the inclusion of such a far-out science fiction concept is just plain weird.  Perhaps this is a misstep by Haney.  He might have been better off having the Nazis planning to release some sort of super-virus.

Also, from a dramatic standpoint, it would have been more exciting if, during the struggle with Hitler, the Soldier’s mask would have been torn off.  It seemed a bit odd having Hitler think he was fighting a traitor, when instead he really ought to have found out that his opponent was the Allies’ greatest covert operative.

But aside from these two points, “A Farewell to War” is quite well written.  It brings definite closure to the Soldier’s story.  For a figure who had dedicated himself to the destruction of war, it is appropriate that he meet his (seeming) demise at the end of the conflict that spawned him.  Somehow, it just would have not had the same impact if he’d retired or, worse yet, lived to become some sort of post-WWII superhero who fought costumed criminals alongside the Justice Society.  No, Haney made the right decision to close out the final issue the way he did.

The artwork on issue #268 is stunning.  Dick Ayers does solid work with his layouts and storytelling.  There’s a great deal of drama to his work.  And the finishes by Gerry Talaoc are exemplary.  He gives the story a real, tangible sense of atmosphere and gloom.  Talaoc’s inking brings to vivid life the chaos and destruction of a crumbling, ruined city under siege and its tragic, desperate inhabitants.  It really communicates the horrors of war.

Ihe likelihood of DC publishing any additional Showcase Presents volumes of Unknown Soldier seems rather small, unfortunately.  So I do not know if this issue will ever be reprinted.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to find rather inexpensive back issues of this series for sale online.  These comics are definitely worth tracking down.  Joe Kubert’s magnificent covers and Gerry Talaoc’s lushly illustrated interiors are among the best artwork I’ve ever seen.