“The ones who return are the ones who suffer. Live as if you’ve never lived before.” – Niles Caulder receiving a message from his subconscious. Doom Patrol #73. “The Dream Patrol: Return of the Windowmen,” written by Rachel Pollack.
In his introduction to The Vertigo Tarot, Sandman creator Neil Gaiman mentions the surreal experience of accompanying author Rachel Pollack on a visit to an esoteric shop in Camden to pick up a Tarot deck. This resulted in Gaiman, “feeling like I’d just gone into a record show with someone who, to my surprise, turned out to be one of the Beatles, as Rachel modestly admitted her identity to the lady behind the counter, and signed autographs.”
Last month, Gaiman wrote again about Pollack, but this time under heavier circumstances. “I am writing this at the request of her wife Zoe,” he wrote on his Mastodon account, “to let her friends know that the end is soon, and to let the obituarists know too.”
As befitting a woman who broke ground wherever she went, the sad news sent shockwaves in various circles. Pollack’s biggest claim to fame came as a foremost authority on the Tarot, as her books inspired several generations of practitioners. She was also a pioneering LGBTQIA+ activist, coming out as a trans lesbian in the early 1970s at roughly the same time she discovered the Tarot. Gradually, Pollack also found success as an acclaimed science-fiction author. She won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her debut Unquenchable Fire in 1989 and, in 1997, her Godmother Night won the World Fantasy Award. She also spent a decade teaching creative writing at Goddard College.
Yet one of her most enduring legacies came with an unlikely third career she picked up in the 1990s when she took over the DC superhero franchise Doom Patrol, boldly embracing the thankless task of following Grant Morrison’s franchise-defining run. While she was only on the book for two years before it was canceled due to declining sales, the 24 issues she wrote (plus an annual and a short story for the Vertigo Jam special) eventually developed a cult following and gained delayed recognition for introducing the first trans superhero in mainstream comic book history.
As befitting her work—which often took place in worlds unmoored from the limiting confines of so-called rationality—Pollack landed the gig thanks to a fortuitous coincidence. Knowing that Morrison was about to depart, editor Tom Peyer was struggling to come up with a candidate that could follow up one of the most radical reboots in DC Comics history. “I had no one at all in mind, and was nervous about it,” Peyer explained in an email interview, “until one night my friend and fellow editor Stuart Moore brought me to a Science Fiction Writers of America cocktail party and introduced me to Rachel. By the time we finished our first conversation, I was pretty sure I’d met the one. A miracle.”
While Pollack’s run only lasted two years, it’s hard to imagine any other writer doing more with a title in the time they were given. Most daringly, in the Finnegans Wake-inspired “Dream Patrol: Return of the Windowmen,” Pollack used dense symbolism to condense the Doom Patrol’s entire convoluted history into a metafictional meditation on the cycle of death and rebirth in comic book stories, all within 24 pages. It was truly heady stuff—in fact the entire story is the dream of a character reduced to the state of a disembodied head—that stood out in an era defined by the muscles-and-guns excesses of the Image Comics crowd.
Let’s not pretend that this was all serious stuff, however; Pollack’s Doom Patrol run was also flat-out hilarious. Just a few issues after taking over the title, she moved the team to a new mansion that was haunted by Sexually Remaindered Spirits (S.R.S. for short, a sly joke that certainly slipped past many readers), the ghosts of victims of surreal autoerotic accidents. Maybe her most famous single issue, “The Laughing Game,” is a parody of the then-popular Image Comics cliché of uber-macho caricatures who prove their virility by lugging around comically huge weapons. It tells the story of The Codpiece, a proto-incel who decides to overcompensate for his imagined shortcomings by attaching a rocket launcher to his groin area and going on a destructive crime spree.
The hero of “The Laughing Game” is Kate Godwin whose debut appearance ends with her dissolving The Codpiece’s deadly faux-phallus. Godwin, a trans lesbian who takes on the name Coagula after gaining superpowers, had tried out for the Justice League of America, who rejected her partly because they are uncomfortable. “I suspect they liked my powers but couldn’t handle me,” Kate says and the story never gives you a reason to believe she’s mistaken.
30 years later, Peyer pointed out that the world is still attempting to catch up with Kate: “You want a trans superhero? Well, here’s one from 30 years ago. She was so far ahead, and it’s sad to think that in 2023 we’re lagging further behind.”
Indeed, the world was not ready for Pollack’s Doom Patrol. Readers were able to adjust to Morrison’s incorporation of the androgynous composite spirit Rebis and the genderfluid sentient Danny the Street into the team but Pollack, in Peyer’s words, “took it further.” She explicitly wrote about sex and gender to a level that made some readers uncomfortable. These elements were easier to understand when Morrison deployed them as surreal metaphors, but readers of the time were less comfortable dealing with, for instance, Kate explicitly defending her womanhood against Cliff Steele’s more old-fashioned beliefs about gender. (To Cliff’s credit, he’s a quick learner.)
“People talk a lot about the subtext of what superheroes are, but one of the things they definitely are is queer,” Pollack told The Comics Journal in an interview last year. “Because they have all these powers that don’t come out until they change their clothes and dare to go out in these wild costumes. And not hide. This gives queer kids the fantasy of being able to be who you truly are and be powerful.”
In making the queer subtext of Morrison’s run the body of the text, Pollack almost certainly limited the potential wide appeal of her Doom Patrol. It also didn’t help that a running gag in the letter column led many to assume she got the highly coveted gig by badgering the editor until he relented. “For decades afterward, there were readers who believed that was what happened,” Peyer notes. “And they weren’t too happy about it.”
Given the popularity of her predecessor, her work was always going to be a tough sell. It took Pollack a few issues to find her voice as a comic book writer and early critics wrongly dismissed her first few stories—which were overt homages to Morrison—as attempts to “out-weird Grant.”
Future collaborator Joe Corallo dismisses such criticism. “I think there were people in the past that looked at it as being absurd for the sake of absurdity,” wrote to me in an email interview, “but it’s really not. Rachel could tell you where everything was derived or inspired from, including myths and folklore from all over the world, trans activists she had been friends with, Kabbalah, and some of her favorite comic characters from her childhood like The Fox and The Crow.”
When Ted McKeever hopped aboard in issue #75 to replace Linda Medley as the book’s primary artist, his increasingly abstract cartooning style ushered in a change in the series’ tone. If Pollack’s first year of Doom Patrol felt like a self-conscious attempt to honor the picaresque plotting of the Morrison era, her second year found her more seriously incorporating spiritual and mystical elements into the book. Medley’s work emphasized the (occasionally grotesque) solidness of the characters and their surroundings, while McKeever’s minimalism marked an increased emphasis on the world of ideas.
In “The Teiresias Wars” arc, she had the Doom Patrol join forces with a mythical nonbinary entity named after T.S. Eliot to bring down The Tower of Babel. Yes, the one from the Bible. Also, Bill Clinton is a supporting character in this arc. In her final arc, “Imagine Ari’s Friends,” Pollack incorporated elements from the history of Kabbalism in the same ways that other comic book writers would incorporate Greek and Norse mythology.
The conclusion of “Imagine Ari’s Friends” was published in Doom Patrol #87 in February 1995, after which the title was canceled and then mostly ignored. When John Arcudi revived the title, he killed off the character Kate Godwin in a flashback and put Dorothy Spinner, the arguable protagonist of Pollack’s run, into an irreversible coma. While Morrison’s run was collected and celebrated, the final two years of the comic as written by Pollack went uncollected. For more than two decades afterward, your best bet in being able to read her run involved combing comic book bins for unwanted back issues.
For a while, the industry forgot her, which was a minor tragedy. While Pollack’s time working for DC Comics was relatively brief, she was quite prolific at her peak. For Vertigo, she re-imagined Brother Power, the Geek and Tomahawk. For the short-lived Helix imprint, she wrote Time Breakers, featuring the early work of artist Chris Weston. She even got to follow in the footsteps of the unrivaled Jack Kirby by spearheading a short-lived New Gods revival.
Unsurprisingly, Pollack’s most widely publicized work for DC combined her love for comics with her primary focus in life. Conceived during a time when The Sandman was essentially keeping the entire Vertigo imprint afloat, Gaiman quickly realized the only person who could help create and write the accompanying text for the Dave McKean-designed cards was Pollack. The Vertigo Tarot, containing an explanatory text by Pollack, went through several printings and ended up being the first deck for a whole generation of goths, comic book geeks and angsty drama students.
When the Vertigo wave crested, Pollack returned to her primary role as a world-renowned Tarot teacher. While those of us who mostly knew Pollack for her comics work thought she had disappeared, she continued to write, teach and even create her own jewelry.
Although her creative output slowed in later years due to recurring bouts with cancer, Pollack eventually returned to the comics world. For Comixology, she collaborated with Joe Corallo for the miniseries The Never-Ending Party which will be scheduled to be released as a TPB by Dark Horse Comics this summer. The story, about a group of partiers in the 1990s who strike a disastrous deal with Dionysus to keep a rave going well past its scheduled end, was partly inspired by Pollack’s own experiences.
“This was absolutely an idea meant to be a celebration of Rachel’s return to comics after so many years,” Corallo says. “Obviously, Tarot is a big part of Rachel’s life, which appears prominently throughout this comic. We also tackle some of the changes in attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ people in those 25 years since Rachel had been active in mainstream comics.”
While that world wasn’t quite ready for her comic book work, especially Doom Patrol, it slowly developed a cult following. It didn’t hurt when DC Universe (and then eventually HBO Max) began airing a live-action Doom Patrol series that eventually began incorporating elements of Pollack’s run, including sex ghosts modeled on the S.R.S. and an appearance by The Codpiece himself. Eventually, DC Comics released an omnibus collecting all of her Doom Patrol-related stories last October, belatedly recognizing the importance of her work.
In her introduction to the newly collected omnibus, Pollack talks about how she encounters comic fans that feel guilty about knowing about her thanks to a few dozen comic books she wrote in the mid-90s and not her award-winning science fiction novels, her rockstar status in the tarot world, or her life as a political activist. In response, she mentions receiving a letter from a young trans girl who wrote to the comic that discovering Kate Godwin helped dissuade her from committing suicide. It helped just knowing there were others like her out there.
“This letter is what comes to mind when someone assumes it was some sort of lesser project,” Pollack writes. “Some years ago, at a transgender literary festival, I made an amazing discovery. Those stories, and Kate, were an inspiration to a whole generation of transgender cartoonists. A long time had passed and I’d had no idea that the work was even remembered. This is the real superpower of Doom Patrol, to help people believe in themselves.”