Creating horror in a comic book is different from creating horror in film or television — there’s a different type of suspense, no way to do jump scares at all, so the horror you get is often surreal and dreamlike, like Harrow County or Wytches or even Afterlife with Archie. At its best, it unnerves you so much as to make the mundane seem terrifying. And, for me, there is no issue that does that surreal horror better than Doom Patrol #58, “In the Wonderful Land of Clockwork,” written by Grant Morrison with art by Sean Phillips and colors by Daniel Vozzo.
Some backstory is required before reading it, however: the Doom Patrol was a superhero group made up of “freaks” like Cliff Steele (or Robotman), a former race car driver who was in a crash that basically made his body unlivable so his brain was placed in a robot body. The team actually started out being led by the wheelchair-bound Doctor Caulder, with team members Larry Trainer (Negative Man) and Rita Farr (Elasti-Girl), but in this incarnation written by Grant Morrison, the team was made of up Cliff, Rebis (the former Larry Trainer, now combined with another person), and Kay Challis or Crazy Jane, a woman with sixty-four personalities, each one with a different superpower.
And in the last issue, Cliff’s brain was disconnected from his body. And so we begin:
Right off the bat, we know something is wrong because we have a completely different artist and art style. Almost all the previous issues were done by Richard Case, an artist who had made the book into a surrealistic showcase. And yet here is Sean Phillips, with his clean cut art where everything looks pretty normal...except for the situation that is actually happening.
Cliff begins going through hallucination after hallucination, starting with Kay as his wife and then waking up to see the old Doom Patrol team.
But Cliff doesn’t remember anything, until one night when he finds a trapdoor and stumbles upon the “secret machinery that controls everything,” seeing his friends and teammates with no faces, bugs controlling their every action.
And then we realize that Cliff is merely recounting this to a psychiatrist. In this new scene, we see a scarred Cliff, a Cliff who managed to survive his original car crash, but who keeps having recurring nightmares of this Doom Patrol, of this world controlled by bugs and machinery. The psychiatrist tells him that this is all normal for someone who survived the near death experience like he did, but him seeing himself as a robot in his dreams can be an indication of schizophrenia, dissociating himself with the world. After that, Cliff thinks he sees the psychiatrist himself being controlled by bugs and then thinks that perhaps he isn’t a robot...but perhaps everyone else is.
Cliff sits in his apartment and watches a woman undress across the street, until she takes out a device which seems to pump bugs into her. What’s disturbing about all this is that these are still the clean cut images of Sean Phillips, but they are showing is a schizophrenic world, a world where everything is just a little off-kilter, where Cliff’s thoughts tell us that he’s going crazy, except we’re a part of that crazy.
Even the television sends out messages.
Cliff finally decides that he can’t take it anymore and will instead kill himself. Only, well, that’s not really an option either.
The same machinery that’s under the floorboards is inside him. It’s not drawn or colored like the rest of the issue, but is a dull grey, almost chiaroscuro photograph of machinery.
There is a reason for all of this and we learn why at the end of the issue, but these surreal, nightmarish images give us a world of one man, schizophrenic, dissociated not only with other people, but with his own body. He is a man who believes even he is controlled by cold machines.
And he’s right.
All in all, “In the Wonderful Land of Clockwork” is a terrifying glimpse into a nightmare world. I wouldn’t recommend reading it without reading all the previous issues of the story arc — which is Grant Morrison’s last story arc — but Comixology does have all of Morrison’s run in Doom Patrol for sale at the moment. I would highly recommend reading it if you like surreal stories and dreamlike images.
Especially ones that will totally give me nightmares.