Friday, October 22, 2010

What Kids Don't Know; Niles Caulder

You know, Niles Caulder wasn't always a
manipulative megalomaniacal jerk.

Once upon a time (1963 in fact), there was a very smart character named Niles Caulder. He was created by zany Bob Haney and Arnold Drake. Who were they? Zany Haney, well, let's just say he was a man who had his own perspective on the DC Universe, a view now dubbed the Haneyverse; if you're curious about that, just go here and search for Haney. Arnold Drake did many cool comic book things but all you really need to know is he wrote O.G.Whiz, which means I love him, and you do, too.

Arnold Drake wanted to create a character kind of like the ineffably cool Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter, older brother. Bob Haney liked to write, well, weird stuff about weird people. Behaving weirdly. Put them together and you got: The Doom Patrol.

The central figure they created to hold the Doom Patrol together was Niles Caulder, an inventing genius. Niles liked his work so much that wasn't quite picky enough about who he did it for, and it came back to bite him in the butt. Just like Leni Riefenstahl; but that's a different story.

Anyway, his one employer tended to confuse Quality of Life with Quantity of Life: General Immortus. Immortus wanted to live forever, possibly because it's really embarrassing to die when your name's "Immortus". He and Niles has a disagreement while Niles while working on making him an immortality serum. The disagreement was probably over the fact that Immortus had planted a bomb inside of Niles to keep him compliant. That's often a sticking point in union / management negotiations.

Niles managed to get the bomb out, but crippled himself in the process, leaving himself wheelchair-bound. But Niles was a great guy, with a great mind, so he wanted to help himself and other people like him, other great people whose greatness had been hampered by unfortunate accidents.

Daredevil race-car driver Cliff Steele, beautiful athlete and movie star Rita Farr, and hotshot test pilot Larry Trainer all become freaks after, um, freak accidents. Niles helped them cope with their conditions and find new purpose in life. They became not mere celebrities but heroes, using their new freakish conditions to help regular people and save lives.

Niles was a noble man, who not only overcame his own handicap, he helped others who might have otherwise wallowed in self-pity become saviors and inspirations to the world. And, after only five years on the comic scene, their final ending (in 1968) -- knowingly sacrificing themselves for a small group of total strangers -- was the capstone to their epic tale of rising above adversity.

UNTIL... two of most damaging blows ever dealt to the American psyche:

Watergate and Grant Morrison.

Of course, the Watergate scandal certainly wasn't solely responsibility for the American people's loss of confidence and trust in government and authority, but it surely symbolizes it. As a result of this growing cynicism, the world was ready for a less than flattering portrayal of the Doom Patrol's authority figure, Niles Caulder.

When the original Doom Patrol (more or less) were reunited in the late 1980s, Grant Morrison at liberty to write Niles Caulder cynically as a vicious, manipulative murderer. Since Morrison's re-start of the DP, we've learned that Niles orchestrated the accidents that gave the DP their powers, that he killed superhero Joshua Clay in cold blood, that he manipulates and lies to the DP and the entire superhero community. Lately he's been in cahoots with the evil President Cale of Oolong Island, the nation of villains, has commandeered a Kryptonian body and used it to attack the Doom Patrol and begin a takeover of the world.

Now, if you're a kid and never read any comics written before, oh, 1988, you might never know that this now-accepted version of Niles Caulder is just a cynical shellacking of a once great character with a modern disbelief in the idea of authority figures who truly wish to help change the world for the better while maintaining their own morality as well.

Once upon time, Niles Caulder (along with his teammates) was an inspiring model of devotion to the greater good, the human ability to overcome tragedy, and the power of avoiding self-pity through helping others. Now, he's a symbol of modern conspiracy-theory paranoia, distrust of authority, and anti-intellectualism.

The real Niles Caulder is still out there, kids; in fact, he recently guest-starred on the Batman: Brave & The Bold series. It's time you demanded to have him back as arole model, as my generation had, rather than the twisted mockery of him that your disillusioned elders have shafted you with.


LC Douglass said...

Thanks for the link back to my blog! I could not agree more with your point of view on Caulder and the big picture of why the character has been subjected to such a hatchet job. In fact, I'm planning to write a piece on the DP that talks about the revolving door of death and talking about Caulder's character will be a big part of that.

Marcos said...

It was good to see the real Chief, but wow have they had a bunch of downer episodes of B:tBatB lately. The end of the Siege of Starro, the Doom Patrol episode, Blue and Gold; the Flash episode wasn't exactly sweetness and light for all that it had a happy ending. A little heavy drama is ok once in a while, but they seem to be front-loading it this season.

SallyP said...

Oh yes, indeedy. The REAL Niles Caulder is probably hanging out with the REAL Max Lord...somewhere. Hopefully plotting their triumphal return.

Johnny Bacardi said...

I like him better now. I know this doesn't reflect back on me very well, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I damn near cried when I read this post. I miss the Chief as a wise and benevolent leader, and Rita as the most competent and sensible of the team, rather than a neurotic ball of Jell-O. I miss the Doom Patrol feeling like a well-adjusted and supportive family, rather than a horribly abusive one.

I even miss the old Mento, who was unquestionably a decent guy (for all his Reed Richards-like arrogance and lack of social skills), devoted to his wife and secretly fond of his crazy "in-laws."

Unfortunately, Grant Morrison is like unto a god these days. Specifically changing DCU history in order to erase something he wrote (unlike the more generalized reboot attempted a few years back) would probably get whoever tried it burned for heresy.

Scipio said...

Thank you, Arynne. It's because of fans like you that inspiring versions of these -- and other characters -- eventually return.

CobraMisfit said...

It's ironic that in a day and age with numerous wounded veterans, comics seem to prefer characters that drive themselves over the self-pity/self-loathing cliff instead of successfuly overcoming their disabilities. Can't we have just one character that's well-adjusted?

Gene Phillips said...

I'll play Odd Man Out here and say that the Grimmy Grittification of Niles Caulder is very nearly the only such major rewriting that I *DON'T* consider worthless, and that's because Morrison had a Thematic Point To Make in trashing the old Caulder. Fans can try if they like to find Theme in the trashing of Doctor Light or Captain Atom or whoever, but all they shall find is dross.

That doesn't mean that I don't consider Drake's Niles Caulder a superior creation, though.

I like to think that when Morrison travestied Caulder he was then still under the spell of Evil Alan Moore, and that Moore's really the one to blame. But that's me.

Scipio said...

Cobra; I agree STRONGLY with your comments with regard to the handicapped, particularly, veterans. Where is Captain Storm when we need him most?

Gene: I hear you. BUT... I'm calling you hand (bluff?). What "thematic point" did Morrison have to make by trashing Caulder? And... was it worth it?

LC Douglass said...

I don't like the demonization of Caulder and negative portrayal of Dayton much. I am hoping for a correction, especially for Dayton. But re. Caulder, one thing that is consistent is that he was always a character who was 'playing god' to some extent. He was a doctor standing right on the dotted line between life and death. So would that turn into a power trip? It would make sense to explore that, but not necessarily permanently. I would like to know if Giffen is going to go somewhere with this re. explaining how Caulder survived the original deaths of the Patrol.

Diabolu Frank said...

It made sense to turn Caulder into a treacherous manipulator to differentiate him from Charles Xavier, the Martin Luther King of mutants. However, once they made Professor X a treacherous manipulator who trampled on sentient rights and made him basically no better (if not worse than Magneto,) the world was left a poorer place. At least Caulder didn't lust after an underage Jean Grey.

Word Verification: frack

Anonymous said...

Actually, Prof. X was pretty manipulative back in the Silver Age, especially in the various back-up features that showed how the various original X-Men were recruited into the school, as more often than not, this involved mind-wiping entire towns AND the kids' parents into forgetting that the kids were mutants, so the poor parents not only didn't know that they were sending their kids off to fight Evil Mutants and Giant Purple Robots, they didn't even know WHY they were sending them to Xavier's School in the first place. That unfortunate thought balloon about lusting after Jean was also from a very early issue of the original series.


Rob Pugh said...

"...authority figures who truly wish to help change the world for the better while maintaining their own morality as well."

C'mon, now. I'll accept flying heroes in spandex before that bit of fiction :)

otoh, I think the current run of DP, while maintaining the cynical, manipulative Chief, shows the team as pretty effectively overcoming their "disabilities." Particularly Cliff. imho, of course.

Gene Phillips said...

Two months after this conversation, I've finally answered the question you put to me, here: