Before Grant Morrison became DC comic’s go-to guy for getting people to care about superheroes, one of the works he was best known for was his incarnation of “Doom Patrol”, in which all the usual tropes of superhero comics were inverted, parodied, and ignored. It’s a highlight of the man’s career, and in my opinion ultimately more satisfying than “The Invisibles”.
Issue 45, dated June, 1991, is a glorious patchwork of parody. In twenty-four pages we mock Frank Miller, ultraviolent superheroes, comics “critique”, comics fans, gun enthusiasts, and, uh, facial hair. See, Ernest Franklin is a typical late-80s vigilante, fighting a one-man war as The Beard Hunter.
Two things anger him: beards and people who don’t appreciate Ron McMurray, award winning writer/artist of the comic “The Glo Worm”.(He’s not crazy about his mom, who he lives with, either.)
The hand of irony takes hold of him when he’s hired by The Bearded Gentlemen’s Club of Metropolis, an organization of beard enthusiasts.
They want him to hunt and retrieve the beard of Niles Caulder, the leader of the Doom Patrol, as revenge for a time when Caulder insulted the group by calling them lunatics. There’s even a part where Morrison, in his usual psychohistorical way, predicts the comics blog with scary accuracy:
He also demonstrates the minute distance between points A and B that you have to cover if you want to simultaneously parody Frank Miller then and now:
Eventually Niles Caulder electrocutes the Beard Hunter, we find out that Franklin was physically unable to grow a beard, and when Franklin dies, angels tell him that he is in fact correct about the talents of Ron McMurray, award winning writer/artist of the comic “The Glo Worm”.
Pretty crazy stuff, right?
But let’s back up just a moment, if you don’t mind.
Ha! What a crazy idea! Only Grant Morrison could think up something…hey, wait a minute.
Let’s take a look at “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” #23, dated September, 1957. (Currently collected in volume two of “Showcase Presents: Superman Family”.) Specifically the story, “Jimmy Olsen, Bearded Boy”.
Since the Daily Planet will put any old junk on its front page, Jimmy has decided to infiltrate this exclusive club that nobody has successfully outwitted before. Because nobody, um, grew a beard. (Clark Gable had gone beardless in It Happened One Night, and hippies hadn’t been invented yet, so beards were nigh-extinct at this time.)
Someone slips Jimmy a tonic that allows him to grow a beard instantly and this gets him access to the bearded inner sanctum. He is shown the Hall of Famous Beards:
Wait a second, that’s from the Morrison comic!
What’s going on here!?
He is lured into helping the Gentlemen’s Club fulfill their hirsute agenda:
And what is their ultimate plan with this tonic that they gave Jimmy to grow a beard? Well, first they have him do all these crazy shenanigans that will supposedly popularize the beard again, but they all fail because only the Vietnam War could do that. So in the end, they have to resort to Weapon Omega:
Jimmy attempts to stop them by using the second-strongest weapon in his arsenal: being Jimmy Olsen. Since he’s such a tremendous screw-up, he can’t help but somehow ruin this plan.
Jimmy somehow turns the beard tonic into beard remover, and Superman finally shows up to destroy the tonic-making machine afterwards because honestly, who else could?
So there you have it: nutty as Grant Morrison is, he simply can’t compete with the Silver Age. Morrison cribbed his idea from Otto Binder, who presumably just thunked it up! “Beard Club! It can’t fail! Kids are crazy about beard-related plots!”
Now, one thing that super-awesome about what Morrison did, though, is that the Crisis on Infinite Earths was meant to take a lot of this crazy stuff from Superman’s past and remove it from canon. Morrison dutifully makes sure to return “Jimmy Olsen, Bearded Boy” to the canon where it belongs! We owe him that debt of honor. And I’m sure once the dust from Final Ultimate Really We Mean It This Time Crisis III settles, Morrison will write us a story where the Bearded Gentlemen’s Club opens a branch in Gotham, requiring the intervention of Batman or the latest comics sensation, Simon Dark!
Grant Morrison proves what I’ve known for some time: there’s no better comics value than mining old Silver Age stuff for awesome goodness.