With just a couple of issues before the axe falls on this title, a spotlight on Robotman may sound like an unnecessary indulgence. But Cliff Steele is such an intriguing character that I’m happy to see his past and character illuminated. And what a character. On the surface, he seems like DC’s Ben Grimm, a man turned monster, tough-talking, streetwise and the backbone of his team. Yet, as this story emphasises, it’s taken him a lot longer than Marvel’s Thing to come to terms with his fate. For whether fleshy or rocky, Ben could always be his own man, make his own decisions. Not Cliff.
If Robotman is always at the forefront of the action, that’s because distraction denies pain, the pain of knowing you’re just a set of brainwaves, ready to be dumped in the next robot body by whichever supposed genius wants to play God that day.
Niles Caulder was the first, the Doom Patrol’s Chief, stealing racing driver Cliff’s body from the cheerily named St Jude’s Hospital after an explosion mangles it beyond repair and transplanting the brain into a hideous metal frame. (And would anyone bet against the manipulative Caulder having caused the blast in the first place, to secure an experimental subject?) Then there’s Metal Men creator Will Magnus who, years after that, ‘rescued’ Robotman’s brain following the Doom Patrol’s demise at the hands of General Immortus. We readers had always assumed this was an entirely benevolent act, but here writer Keith Giffen reveals that Magnus was less concerned with preserving Cliff’s mind than the link he represented to the DC Universe’s first metal hero, the Golden Age Robotman.
Man, robot, science experiment, hero … Cliff’s been them all, but concentrating on the heroism has allowed him to avoid dealing emotionally with the fact that he’s more machine than man. But this issue he’s in unusually contemplative mode after Immortus returns and asks the Doom Patrol to help him recapture Oolong Island – the team’s recent base of operations – from the sinister Mr Somebody. Our journey through Cliff’s past takes in every version of the Doom Patrol, from the new team headed by the Chief’s secret wife, Celsius, through the surreal years, the pesky kids, the somehow-imaginary version and the reborn team of today that includes originals Elasti-Woman and Negative Man, along with Bumblebee and Ambush Bug.
All the time we’re getting more information, such as Cliff’s shocking, yet understandable, role in the calling of the first team, and the depth of his friendship with recently re-emerged Sixties humour character Super-Hip. It’s a typically bravura performance from Giffen, showing us that while he may look the robot, Cliff has never lost his humanity, and never will. And I’m delighted to see Cliff definitively tied to the first Robotman, as it always frustrated me that both characters were on the same DC Earth without anyone ever mentioning it. Sure, it makes Cliff a Legacy hero, but a superdoer this interesting will remain unique.
The issue is excellently pencilled by Matthew Clark and Ron Randall, inked by Art Thibert and coloured by Guy Major. There are appropriate splashes aplenty – one for each era – and standout single panels, such as the moment we see what Cliff looked like the first time he awoke after the crash. Clarke’s cover is also a beauty, referencing DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man – I especially like Cliff’s tattoos. And while I’m naming names, kudos too to letterer Pat Brosseau, for the usual sterling efforts.
All in all, this is a thoughtful, entertaining examination of what the Doom Patrol means to Cliff, setting the scene for the series’ last issue in fine style, and setting Cliff up for wherever his hero’s journey takes him next.