I was saddened to read the other day that Rachel Pollack had passed away. Rachel was a fiction writer, an expert on the tarot, and a beloved teacher, but I basically knew her as the writer of Doom Patrol and as a client.
Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, just when I was beginning to curtail my consumption of most genre comics (i,.e., I wasn’t going to the comic shop every week), I still made a point of reading Pollack’s Doom Patrol (with notable art by the brilliant Richard Case and then later the equally brilliant Ted McKeever). Taking over the title from Grant Morrison, Pollack’s Doom Patrol dove headfirst into stories on the LGBTQ+ experience and religion — while remaining delightfully WEIRD in that special Doom Patrol way. During Rachel’s run, she created mainstream comics’ first transgender superhero, Coagula.
Some years later, through a mutual acquaintance, Rachel became a client of my “boutique” web design business. (One of the ways I made money as a freelancer in the period 1996–2003 was by designing simple websites for various small businesses, entrepreneurs, and artists.) At that point my own comics career was still very much a passion rather than a “going concern,” and it was exciting to be working with an actual comics professional (even if Rachel was no longer working in comics).
I designed Rachel’s first website, “The Shining Tribe,” which is where I discovered that she had all these other specialties. (Thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can go visit her old site — it all looks so quaint now!) She and her later-to-be wife Zoe Matoff were so pleasant to work with, and Rachel, I think, was charmed that she and I had a comics connection; she always made sure to ask me about my own work and offer encouragement. (At one point she even floated the idea of me illustrating a tarot deck of hers, but I didn’t think my particular style would have been a good fit for that type of job, so I turned it down.)
I stopped updating Rachel’s site around 2003, which is around when my freelance life picked up with work closer to my heart: comics and editorial illustration. I hadn’t thought much about Rachel Pollack in the years since, so when I came across her obituary in the New York Times, a lot of memories came flooding back. One of them was about the manner in which Rachel took over as writer for Doom Patrol. As she had already been already hired as the writer, but was basically unknown in the comics industry, Rachel and the editor came up with a clever ruse to announce her takeover of the title. In the guise of a fangirl, she started writing letters to the editor that were published every month in the letter column, “Doom Sayers.” She started off by announcing her intention to become the title’s writer one day — “Someone once told me that most comics writers started out writing letters…” Her letters were truly wacky and hilarious — at one point she suggested that Barbara Bush should join the Doom Patrol, and in another, she announced that she “used to have a secret identity. Well, actually I gave up the public identity and kept the secret one, which was a lot more fun.” Apparently, a number of people — myself included — thought she had been hired based on her letters!
The Times‘ obituary (written by George Gene Gustines) also taught me one fundamental thing about Rachel that I’m embarrassed to say I NEVER knew: that she was trans. I mean, given the content of her writing on Doom Patrol, I should’ve guessed, but I’m obviously pretty clueless. And, as she was quoted as saying, comparing when she transitioned (in 1976) to now, “The big thing that’s changed, an astonishing change, is that transgender people are now visible,” she said. “Society recognizes that this is something people can be. Obviously, there is a strong reactionary element fighting change, as always, but the difference is remarkable.” And the truth is that Rachel had a VERY public identity, one which touched a lot of different people in a myriad of ways.
My deep condolences to her family, friends, fans, and of course to her widow Zoe.