I. A note on the title
Many of you are probably familiar with the idea spearheaded by Gail Simone of “women in refrigerators” in the comics industry. Simone and several others noticed that it really seemed like all the female characters in comics were coming to violent and often degrading ends. The name comes from Alex DeWitt, girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, who is murdered and stuffed into his refrigerator by a crime syndicate. The main purpose her death serves is as a catalyst to motivate Kyle to take his responsibilities as a superhero more seriously.
Obviously, the way women are written in comics needs to improve. But I wanted to focus on some of the amazing women that HAVE appeared in comics, women with their own arcs whose character development isn’t just in order to move some dude’s character development along.
II. Which brings us to: Coagula.
It’s a good time to bring up Coagula (from Doom Patrol vol. 2). With the semi-recent news that Alysia Yeoh, a character from the ongoing Batgirl series, is out as trans, DC is getting a lot of buzz. Many people are referring to Yeoh as the first trans character in mainstream comics, and while the “mainstream” qualifier may make it true, she’s definitely not the first trans character in comics (not even the first one from DC!). Not only does Kate Godwin, aka Coagula predate her by about twenty years, but Rachel Pollack, the writer who dreamed her up, is the only openly trans writer DC has ever had (please, please tell me if I’m wrong!).
I fell in love with Coagula/Kate right away. She’s a lesbian-identified former sex worker and computer programmer who is surrounded by supportive, feminist friends.
It would be lovely to have generous and thoughtful representation of sex workers throughout all media, but comics in particular has a nasty habit of making sexy, “damaged” prostitutes who are frequently rescued by men. Kate, of course, is different. She speaks of her sex work as a freelance job in the same breath as freelance programming jobs, and the only experience she recounts is a positive one (with another trans* member of the Doom Patrol, as a matter of fact). Pollack doesn’t go out of her way to emphasize to you that This Is A Trans Character, although sharp readers may pick it up from the pin on Kate’s jacket (“PUT A TRANSEXUAL LESBIAN ON THE SUPREME COURT”—I notice that this still hasn’t come to pass, AMERICA). She gives a brief display of her powers—she can coagulate liquids and dissolve solids, which doesn’t sound like much, but she’s pretty scrappy in a fight.
III. Coagula vs. Codpiece
In Coagula’s first issue she makes short work of defeating Codpiece, a real piece of work. We get a brief flashback of his “origin story”—a series of romantic rejections that he immediately chalks up to the size of penis (and also, you know, bitches be shallow). He toils over a groiny contraption (hence the name Codpiece) that shoots out lasers, ultrasound blasts, some kind of drill thing, and even a large fist that boings out of his crotch and punches people.
Codpiece goes on his first criminal outing in the real world, Kate sees what’s happening, throws on the first disguise she can find, and almost immediately dissolves his crotch-cannon and saves the day. It’s a short fight, and it is the last we hear of Codpiece. The issue isn’t really about the confrontation at all, but it’s a great introduction to Coagula. I like to think that Codpiece stands in for all the sexist jerks in comics, both in the industry and in the greater reading community. This was the early nineties—it wasn’t a very feminist time for the mainstream comics industry, let alone a queer-friendly one. And Kate marches in there, taking a massive swing at this woman-hater whose insecurity has driven him to create an over-the-top fantasy of male power.
Kate spends the next handful of issues being introduced to the rest of the Doom Patrol, which is basically DC/Vertigo’s version of the X-Men, only a little weirder and more grown up. This particular imagining of the Doom Patrol consists of a severed head on a tray of ice, a young ape-faced girl whose powers get stronger when she’s menstruating, and a man whose body was mangled in a car accident and whose consciousness was subsequently transplanted into a robot. Their operation runs out of a house haunted by the ghosts of people who died in sexual accidents (far cry from a beautiful Westchester estate, eh Dr. Xavier?). Coagula is a perfect choice, not just for a team member, but also as a moral leader for the team. Niles, the ostensible team leader, lost everyone’s trust a few storylines ago when it was revealed that he engineered a series of traumatic accidents in order to trigger everyone’s powers. Dorothy is still a child. And Cliff, the Robotman, needs Kate the most. She becomes a foil for him in terms of his physical transition. He feels like a stranger in his own body. He feels completely distanced from his manhood and sexuality without a functioning penis. He is able to form an intense bond with Kate, who has already been through all of that and come out happily on the other side, in the body she was meant to have. It’s very telling that, when Cliff requests a new body from Niles, he asks Kate to be in the ‘operating room’ with him to make sure his wishes are respected.
IV. “A New Teiresias”
This series has a lot of radical things to say about gender, but there’s nothing quite like Pollack’s five-part arc, “The Teiresias Wars.” Teiresias was a Greek (male) prophet who spent seven years in the body of a woman (and, in some versions of the story, a courtesan).
Pollack blends this Greek mythology with her twisted retelling of the Tower of Babel, turning the story into a meditation on flexibility vs. rigidity in both the ancient and modern world. A sinister group of people called Builders are attempting to recreate the Tower of Babel, which has all kinds of messy consequences on Earth. The Doom Patrol is forced to reach out to the Teiresiae, folks who’ve been around for a long time–created by the world itself as agents of the “world’s own knowledge, rivers of consciousness.” This was back when the world was fluid–“nothing kept a fixed shape. Nothing held itself rigid and apart from anything else.”
In order to reach them, though, the Doom Patrol need to send an envoy–“A man and a woman must go together. Merged as one. A New Teiresias.” Kate and Cliff are selected, and have to meld consciousness and body for their pilgrimage to the Teiresiae. This is done by finally consummating the sexual tension that’s been building between them for a while, and includes one of my favorite moments of their relationship. Cliff, frustrated, reminds Kate that he doesn’t have the necessary equipment to “truly” join with her, and Kate brushes him off, reminding him that orgasm is “all in the brain.” It’s one of the places in the text where Pollack most effectively shows us how similar Kate and Cliff are.
While inhabiting each other, they become closer than ever, seeing each other’s painful memories and supporting each other through a series of tests. First they must reject the Builder’s gift of “real” bodies, rejecting the idea that they aren’t already who they “really” are.
They then must spend an indeterminate amount of time just waiting patiently to “burn away their pain.” Finally, after almost crumbling into dust, they are deemed worthy of the Teiresiae.
Pollack gives Coagula the spotlight in the final conflict of the Teiresias Wars. You’ll recall that the Builders want to impose rigid structure and definition on the world, and the Teiresiae were created as completely fluid beings. And after Kate and Cliff fetch the Teiresiae to Earth, getting the help they need to defeat the Builders, the Teiresiae aren’t sure they like what they see. They see a world where people can no longer change their physical form as they please, where everything seems locked into whatever shape it was at birth. And they start gearing up to recreate the world, destroying everything on it in order to make it a blank slate. Kate is ultimately the only one who can convince them not to. She explains to the Teiresiae that physical bodies are not as important as what’s inside, and that she’s evidence of the continuing flexibility and ability to change and grow that’s inherent in all humans.
The entire storyline is about fluidity, and Kate is its figurehead, for more reasons than just her gender identity. Her sexual identity is also fluid—she’s lesbian-identified but dating a male-identified robot, and she doesn’t really think twice about it. As a superhero, she walks the line between human and more-than-human, and as a member of the Doom Patrol, she’s not always exactly a good guy. And most obviously, there’s her superpower—the ability to change solids to liquids and back again. Coagula is not just as an example of how important it is to recognize the existence of fluidity, but also the immense power that can be derived from it.
V. Some suggestions for reading
Doom Patrol isn’t for everybody, and Pollack didn’t have an easy time building a readership. She took over the series from Grant Morrison, who has a pretty extensive cult following, and in the eyes of Doom Patrol fans, she had large shoes to fill. Looking at the letters pages on her earlier issues, you can see that it took a while before she was welcomed into the fold, although I attribute some of this to the slavish devotion of Grant Morrison fans. She was alternately considered too different from Morrison and trying too hard to imitate him, but as she eased into the series a little more, it starts really improving (there’s a marked improvement right around the introduction of Coagula, as a matter of fact).
She won over a lot of people, including some fans who believed she managed to improve on Morrison’s series. I count myself among that number, though to be fair I don’t typically care for Morrison’s writing. He frequently sacrifices character development and emotional punches in favor of oddness and obscurity. Coagula marked a real transition for the series–she’s fully capable of participating in the weirdness and layered, cerebral storylines, but Pollack also lets her be a real human being. Here’s one of my favorite moments from the series, when a discussion about gender identity disrupts a vital superhero operation.
I think there are two ways to read Doom Patrol. My first time, I focused more on the characters and their relationships. I would mostly let the complexities of the storylines and esoteric imagery become more like background noise, contributing more to the setting than the actual plot of the comics as I read them. I’ve pulled myself through dozens of issues that way, without really being able to explain what the central good-guys-vs-bad-guys conflict was in too much detail. That way it’s a story about a found family who deals with stuff together, which I enjoy.
The other way to read it is the hard way. Read every single word and think about what it means. If you get confused, reread it. The letters pages are particularly good for this series, probably because the group of people who are passionate about Doom Patrol is pretty self-selecting–not to mention how much more potential for analysis there is here than in the average comic. My typical reading experience was to read the letters page, realize someone was talking about something I’d completely missed, go back and reread the issue, and notice a bunch of new details. (This is the part of the essay where I stop myself from grumbling about how letters pages aren’t what they used to be–it’s never more apparent than in this series!) The letters page is also good for some examples of how important Coagula was to readers who had never seen a character like her before:
So should you give it a shot? Like I said, it can be a tough series to get through. You probably shouldn’t read it if you get mad when you think people are being weird on purpose, or if you’re looking for a relaxing, fun comic to leaf through. It takes a while to introduce a woman of color into the series, and she really didn’t get enough time to develop before the series ended, so for the majority of the series, things are pretty white. You should read it if: you like Phillip K. Dick’s explorations about identity, but wish he would read some Judith Butler. You’re interested in tarot cards, eroticism, and Bible stories all blended together. You want to read comics but find them generic and simplistic.
Pollack struggled with building a readership, and was put on a long hiatus after she had written 24 issues. She never returned to the series, focusing more on prose, spiritual writing, and tarot (including illustrating her own deck–in fact, if her website is actually current, she’ll still occasionally offer private tarot readings).
Coagula made a brief return in the next iteration of the series, but like most of the other characters, was killed off in order to make room for a new Doom Patrol (disappointing for Coagula fans, but in keeping with the spirit of the series as a whole). Pollack’s run has yet to be collected into a trade paperback or released digitally, meaning it’s a little more complicated getting your hands on the series. The upside here is that it’s pretty cheap to collect the old issues, since it unfortunately seems that collector interest is pretty low. With the clearance sale right now, you can get #70–Coagula vs. Codpiece–for less than a buck through Midtown Comics. This is how I completed my run of it, although if you found some PDFs that fell off a truck somewhere, I don’t suppose anyone could blame you.
If you’re interested in reading, I have some suggestions:
THE ENTIRE RUN: If you’re feeling enthusiastic and supportive of Rachel Pollack, why not check out all 24 issues? It starts out a little choppy, especially if you don’t have any familiarity with the series, but it gets better and it’ll give you some good context by the time Coagula shows up.
ALL THE COAGULA ISSUES: She shows up in #70 and sticks around til the bitter end, in #87. Coincidentally or not, #70 is when things start getting really good, in my opinion–all you’d want to do is go online for a recap of #64-69.
THE BEST COAGULA ISSUES:
#70–Coagula vs. Codpiece. A done-in-one story that works pretty well on its own.
#74–Another issue-long story that I really like. This deals a lot with the theme of consciousness and identity (Stanislaw Lem fans, or Phillip K. Dick fans who wish he were less sexist may particularly enjoy). You also get to see more of her geeky, computer programmer side, which I really like. It’s a great encapsulation of the bond she shares with Cliff, as well.
#75-79–The Teiresias Wars. I wrote about this story arc at great length above–seriously, read it. If you’re interested in the Bible or Greek mythology or gender identity or robot sex, there is something here for you.
This series is very important to me, Kate/Coagula even more so. But there’s nothing I can say that makes as much as this letter from the editor, published in Pollack’s last issue:
“When we read comics as children, we did so because they gave us a world of marvels. While DOOM PATROL never tried to be weird just for its own sake, we too believe that the strange and unusual can open passages to beauty and joy. If some of those passages will close now, we’ve at least had the chance to travel through them.”
Madeleine Lloyd-Davies works in the comics industry and has a file on her desktop dedicated to notes about V.C. Andrews.