Milk Wars, a crossover between the Justice League of America and the Doom Patrol, is almost impossible to explain, and when you do, it sounds like a parody of superhero comics.
And yet, here I am, saying to a general audience: You should try Milk Wars, starting with Justice League of America/Doom Patrol #1. If you’re going to be confused by an intricate superhero universe no matter which one you dive into, you may as well get confused by one that’s deliberately strange — and one that will get you to be so invested in its story.
But first, don’t confuse the Justice League of America with the Justice League — the JLA is the second stringers, the misfits and greenhorns and reformed criminals, thrown together by Batman and then abandoned when he got too busy (With Dark Nights: Metal, but thats another story).
The Doom Patrol get mixed up in it all after an extra-physical corporation called Retconn starts conditioning Earth-Prime (the setting of the main DC Universe) to give it broader audience appeal before selling it to its client. Retconn is in the business of “reality estate,” and is smoothing out Earth-Prime’s “idiosyncrasies” — its oddly-dressed, weird-talking heroes and subcultures — by creating its own 1950s-style versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to spread the company’s brand of milk. You see, it’s homogenizing milk.
It’s up to the Doom Patrol to free the Justice League of America from the milk’s mind control. Except the JLA is calling themselves the Community League of Rhode Island now, and are united against pessimism, creative hair colors and using strong language before the kids have gone to bed. Retconn is messing with the fundamental concept of justice in the DC unvierse, and it’s got to be stopped.
A note on the Doom Patrol
Doom Patrol began as a concept not dissimilar to the X-Men, and became infamous as a DC Comics title when writer Grant Morrison came on to the book. His 1989 run embraced surreality, broke the fourth wall and collected characters who struggled with legitimate mental health issues. Supervillains can often be read as metaphors for conceptual ideas — the Doom Patrol would cut out the middleman and fight the concepts themselves.
And it’s that 1989 run that has so inspired Gerard Way’s (yes, that Gerard Way) current version of the book, with its cosmic gyros and cults of multiple personality. For example, one of the main concepts of Gerard’s run is Danny, a sentient piece of geography who looks like an ambulance. At least, on the outside. On the inside, Danny is his own small world, a community reminiscent of the Main Street, U.S.A. attractions at Disney parks, populated by various people Danny has created and some independently existing people who have nowhere else to go.
In Dannyland, as Flex Metallo puts it, “Everyone’s like no one, and sometimes that’s a great place to be.”
Inside Danny, there’s a comic book store called Danny Comics, which sells a lot of copies of a superhero comic featuring the hero Space Case, who Danny eventually manifested into a real person, Casey Brinke, to see how she would fare in the wider world. Casey is the lead character of Way’s Doom Patrol run.
When she’s introduced, she can’t remember anything about her life before the present day (because it didn’t exist), but she still knows one thing: She drives an ambulance, she’s really good at it and she wants to help people. It’s impossible not to like her.
All of this might seem like a strange crossover bedfellow for main universe DC books like Justice League of America, Batman and Wonder Woman, but Justice League of America/Doom Patrol only needs two pages to show why the Doom Patrol and the JLA absolutely belong together.
Weirdos looking out for other weirdos
Two pages, divided in 16 panels, cover every bright point of Doom Patrol. Here are some samples, just from those two.
On one level, this second panel is just Negative Man explaining how his superpowers work — but I did a little Googling and it turns out that he’s describing the life of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the entrepreneur who founded National Allied Publications, which grew into DC Comics.
That third panel? That’s clearly supposed to be a pre-teen Gerard Way.
It shouldn’t take too much thinking to figure out the significance of the Tom of Finland-style Flex Metallo welcoming the gay superhero the Ray to a world where uniqueness is welcome. (And given that Steve Orlando is bisexual and has written some of DC’s best comics featuring queer heroes, and that Gerard Way has been open about his own struggle to understand his masculinity, this is almost certainly intentional.)
Crazy Jane has a head full of alternate personalities, each with their own weird and conceptual superpower, while Caitlin Snow is a reformed supervillain known as Killer Frost. Her arc in Orlando’s JLA has been about struggling to come to terms with the fact that she’ll always have cravings for the heat of other living beings — she’ll always be one lapse of self-control away from killing someone.
Just in these panels, we have deep references that still resonate if you don’t understand them, a fierce and kind commitment to being unashamed of not fitting in anywhere except a place where no one fits in and an unexpected and relatable parallel between very different characters whose experiences are anything but average.
Doom Patrol stories are dense and strange, but Way’s Doom Patrol consistently rewards the reader for sticking through to the meat of the story, with fabulous visuals and improbably relatable characters. That’s the best thing about superhero comics, after all — that the weirdest ideas can resonate with the broadest audience, and often nowhere more strongly than with weirdos themselves.
Milk Wars begins in JLA/Doom Patrol Special #1, out this week; continues in Mother Panic/Batman Special #1 a week later, Shade, The Changing Girl/Wonder Woman Special #1 a week after that, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye/Swamp Thing Special #1 (you get the idea); and concludes with Doom Patrol/JLA Special #1, on Feb. 28.