Doop is the 21st century’s most important superhero comics creation

Doop is the 21st century’s most important superhero comics creation

“There’s a green… potato-looking… thing that lives with the X-Men. He is… Doop.” —All-New Doop #1

Doop has no place in superhero comics. With a bizarre inhuman appearance and no specific origin or power set, he’s a mystery that has never been solved and likely never will be, a collection of questions in a genre that isn’t known for being particularly enigmatic. Superhero titles can certainly be puzzling for new readers who aren’t familiar with years of continuity—and that’s not even considering the confusion caused by reboots—but the stories themselves tend to be straightforward, rarely venturing into the abstract territory Doop represents.

There’s no place for him, but he’s a significant character because his creators made a place for him. In the pages of X-Force (later X-Statix), writer Peter Milligan and artist Mike Allred ignored tradition and continuity, giving birth to a piece of superhero pop art that has become a regular fixture in X-Men comics thanks to his unique relationship with the reader. In an interview with Marvel.com discussing this week’s All-New Doop #1 (the start of a five-issue miniseries written by Milligan with art from David Lafuente and colors by Laura Allred), Milligan explains why Doop has become a fan favorite:

“The very idea that such a bizarre being could still be going strong in the Marvel Universe is, I suppose, a kind of testament to his strange power. Maybe his staying power can be put down to the fact that he’s so hard to pin down or fully understand: the fact that we can never know what he truly is means he can be anything we wish him to be. This is evidenced in Doop’s weird speech, which allows us to interpret it as we wish.”

Abstraction invites personal interpretation, and the lack of concrete explanations for Doop’s appearance, history, abilities, and language forces readers to create explanations using their own imaginations. The only aspect of Doop that is easy to understand is the “X” on his belly, a visual signifier that connects him to a ubiquitous superhero comic franchise. That X elevates Doop from a weird comic book character to a piece of pop art, taking a commercial product (the X-Men) and twisting it, forcing viewers to reconsider the original idea. The X on Doop’s stomach is like his Campbell’s soup logo, a piece of mass-produced advertising that means different things to different people. Just as Warhol’s soup cans have nostalgic value for people who grew up eating Campbell’s, Doop’s X holds nostalgic value for X-Men comic readers, but instead of being attached to something familiar, it’s attached to something unlike anything else in the X-Men universe.

Doop’s X challenges established ideas about what it means to be a mutant, not just because of the character’s appearance, but also because of how the world treats him. In the pages of Milligan and Allred’s X-Force, a pop culture satire disguised as a superhero comic, mutants aren’t feared and hated; they’re celebrities loved by fans and trailed by paparazzi, and Doop is the most popular of them all. He’s the team’s mascot, and his face is all over X-Force merchandise, from T-shirts to stuffed animals. He’s the Slimer to the rest of the team’s Ghostbusters, the weird sidekick that satisfies the public’s need for something strange but not threatening. Of course the team’s fans would be obsessed with the character whose only discernible definition comes from that marking on his stomach, because that’s all that really matters. And for the members of X-Force, the X on their costume is the most important part of their identity. To show how meaningless these heroes are, Milligan kills off most of the book’s cast in his first issue.

The first Marvel comic to run without the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval since 1971’s The Amazing Spider-Man #98, the 2001 X-Force #116, featuring Doop’s first appearance, is one of the most influential superhero comics of the 21st century. The Comics Code Authority was governed by an archaic set of rules created during a time of paranoia against comic books in the ’50s, and putting out the hyper-violent, sexually suggestive X-Force #116 without the CCA’s approval was the death knell for the Code at Marvel Comics, where it was abandoned in favor of an in-house rating system. This gave creators at Marvel more freedom than ever before, resulting in landmark runs like Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil and Alias, Garth Ennis’ Punisher, and Grant Morrison’s New X-Men.

Creative freedom meant more than blood, gore, sex, and drugs for Milligan and Allred. It gave the creators the opportunity to distance themselves from the X-Men status quo and offer a wholly original look at mutant life, telling provocative stories and critiquing a celebrity-obsessed modern culture with a retro art aesthetic—a drastic departure from the Marvel house style at the start of the millennium. There was very little editorial interference during the development of X-Force, and letting the two creators follow their instincts made the title stand on its own in a sea of mutant-related titles. In an email to The A.V. Club detailing the process behind Doop’s initial design, Allred writes:

“It was pure stream of consciousness. I was on the phone with [editor] Axel Alonso talking about characters for our X-Force revamp and doodled out most of the characters in the first issue in that single phone call… On the sheet appeared what we first described as a ‘floating potato’ with ‘Doop’ in his word balloon. Axel later told me a copy of the doodles was pinned up at Marvel and folks were running around spurting out, ‘Doop!’ He was officially on the team soon after that and Peter Milligan established his powers and history.”

Reprinted in a few X-Force and X-Statix collections, Allred’s first doodle sheet from that phone call is a fascinating look into the mind of one of the medium’s modern visionaries, showcasing his willingness to create superhero designs that defy convention. Many of those initial drawings ended up making their way onto the page, but Doop is the strangest of all those initial sketches, and a sterling example that there’s no way to guess what will strike a chord with readers. Sometimes the weirdest ideas are the ones that really take off, and if Marvel hadn’t loosened the editorial reins and let Milligan and Allred think outside the box, it’s unlikely that Doop would exist.

Doop is the only member of X-Statix that has stuck around since that series’ conclusion, but that’s because he was folded into larger X-Men continuity early in his existence. In X-Force #120, he was given a connection to Wolverine in a blatant attempt to boost sales by having a Wolverine guest appearance in the title, and the two characters later starred in a two-part Wolverine/Doop miniseries that delved into their relationship. After appearing in a few one-off short stories, Doop became a regular X-Men character when Wolverine opened his own mutant school, and Doop is currently an adjunct staff member at the Jean Grey School as its receptionist, substitute teacher, and cafeteria worker. Doop being retrofitted into the X-world made it easier to keep him around, and while comic fans often get annoyed when continuity is toyed with like that, Doop makes the case that continuity is best when it’s flexible.

As a symbol of creative freedom and a piece of pop art that invites readers’ individual interpretations to play a part in the character, Doop shows there is still plenty of untapped potential in superhero comics, but his exclusivity to the medium makes him the most important superhero creation of the new millennium. In an industry that has become increasingly focused on serving the interests of other media like film and television, Doop is a comic book character that is impossible to translate for the screen without losing his effect.

Doop’s dynamic with the reader is only possible in comics, relying on the relationship between images and text in order to succeed. He speaks in a made-up language with a custom alphabet that is never translated on the page, meaning readers have to go online and find a Doop translator if they want to figure out what the character is saying. There’s an element of constant interactivity between Doop and his audience; even if people don’t want to go to the extra effort for a translation, they’re still interacting with the character by using visual context clues to glean meaning from the alien text.

While it would be amazing to see Doop appear in the next X-Men movie, it’s unlikely to happen, and even if it did, he wouldn’t be the same character. While the pop art elements of his visual could potentially withstand the transition to the screen, there’s no way to recreate his language so that it would have the exact same effect it does on the page. The character would need to be subtitled in Doopspeak so that the viewer has something to translate, which would alienate a good chunk of the audience, and if Doop is making a sound, there’s already a restriction being placed on viewers’ interpretations that isn’t there in a comic.

In All-New Doop #1, Doop’s relationship with the comic book medium is emphasized more heavily than ever, using his status as a “marginal” character to give him the ability to travel through the margins of panels and impact major events without being seen. (One of the perks of having a character with no defined power set is that he can do anything the story demands.) In the case of the miniseries’ first issue, the major event is 2013’s lackluster “Battle Of The Atom” X-Men crossover, and Milligan applies the critical eye he brought to X-Force and X-Statix to show that the nonsensical events of that narrative are just as ridiculous as the floating green potato thing he helped create 13 years ago.

All-New Doop #1 is a debut that exemplifies all the things that make Doop important, toying with continuity and playing with the medium to put a fresh spin on something readers thought they knew. Superhero comics have been telling variations on the same stories for decades, but Doop makes a strong argument for embracing the new, no matter how strange it may appear on the surface.

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