Sunday, September 09, 2007

FanBoyWonder Flashback—Suicide Squad

Anybody who thinks that the villain can’t be protagonist of a comic book story hasn’t read John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad—but they should.

It was exactly 20 years ago that DC Comics launched Suicide Squad following their introduction the previous year in the mini-series Legends.

Suicide Squad #1, dated May 1987, began a 5 ½ year, 66 issue—not counting two annuals and a spin-off Deadshot 4-issue mini-series—run that would become one of the smartest, most compelling, if under-read, series of the late 1980s to early 1990s.

FanBoyWonder recently spent some quality time in our hobby room (or our “man-cave” as Mrs. FBW teasingly refers to our inner sanctum) not too long ago re-reading the entire Suicide Squad run. We were prompted to do so by news that Mr. Ostrander was penning a Squad reunion mini-series.

Suicide Squad: Raise The Flag—an eight-issue mini-series—goes on sale next week (September 12).

Ostrander’s Suicide Squad of 20 years ago was in many ways ahead of its time. Pound for pound, it’s easily on par with or even surpasses anything in the DC catalogue today—including Greg Rucka’s Checkmate.

As luck would have it, it was in the pages of Checkmate last year that a version of the Squad reformed to rescue the previously believed dead Col. Rick Flag, laying the groundwork for the upcoming reunion series.

The premise of the Suicide Squad was deceptively simple—The Squad, also know as Task Force X, was a government agency tasked with performing certain high priority, high risk, covert operations.

The Squad consisted of incarcerated super-villain volunteers (and sometimes volunteered) who received a full pardon to go and sin some more if they survived the mission—the operative word being “if”.

Because they were villains, their actions could always be officially disavowed if they were captured, killed or their mission otherwise exposed. Think Dirty Dozen meets Mission Impossible with some West Wing-like (though decidedly darker) politics thrown in.

Here’s the best part—Task Force X operated out of a prison (irony anyone?)—Belle Reve outside of New Orleans—a prison strictly for meta-humans.

In his farewell to readers in the letter column the Squad’s final issue (#66) in 1992, Ostrander explained that the Suicide Squad at its core was about the uses and abuses of power—both by government and by individuals.

When I first proposed the Squad, I felt we were being very dangerous, since the premise of the series was that the U.S. government would use people of dubious moral character on missions that were largely to further or protect what it felt to be its vital interests. Then came ‘Irangate’,” explained Ostrander. “Reality has a way of making us look like pikers. The Squad over its run went from fairly cutting-edge notion to almost, ‘Oh, THAT old stuff again?’ History caught up with us.”

Bad Guys, Good Characters

There was nothing dubious about the morals of many of the Squad’s characters. Former Flash (Barry Allen) Rogue Captain Boomerang was a charter member of the Squad—not by choice. He was a favorite of ours through the entire series because he was quite simply, an unrepentant scumbag who would game the system every which way he could.

Batman villain Poison Ivy—introduced into the Squad mid-way through its run—would be the female counterpart to “Boomerbutt.” Completely A-moral, Ivy has never been written as well before and definitely not since.

Another Batman villain, Deadshot, a crack marksman who never seemed to be able to hit the Dark Knight, was given a personality by Ostrander and a fatal flaw— a death wish coupled with an indifference toward murder—he’d shoot anyone friend or foe yet he seemed to live by some kind of code that only he himself understood, maybe.

Count Vertigo had his own death wish due to severe manic depression. Tired of his mental illness, he asked Deadshot to end his life should Vertigo decide to end it all. Deadshot readily, if apathetically, agrees. The final panel of the series shows Deadshot, gun at the ready and Vertigo making his choice—“No.” End of story and series.

Duchess” was the Female Fury known as Lashina who joined the team after faking amnesia and thinly veiling her identity after a failed raid by the Furies resulted in her being trapped on Earth. After going on numerous missions, including performing some heroic acts, the reader almost thinks she may reform until she finds a way back to Apokolips and brings the entire Squad with her as a “present” for Granny Goodness and Darkseid.

The villains of the Squad were complicated characters with feelings and history…but they were still very, very bad—when the team (and readers) forgot that, it usually resulted in lives being lost.

“One of our desired objectives in this book [was] to show that the villains in the DC Universe left to their own devices, were capable and real threats,” explained Ostrander. “If they aren’t if they’re just a bunch of putzes in costumes, then either the heroes are also putzes or they’re just bullies, beating up on the poor hapless schmoes.”

Overseeing this Scum of the Earth strike force was the aforementioned Col. Rick Flag, the squad’s leader in the field. Other non-villain members included the Bronze Tiger, as deputy field leader who would take over for Flag after he was “killed” at the end of the second year, as well as cover-operative Nemesis and former Charlton Comics heroine Nightshade. Vixen was later added to the team and it was here, rather than during Detroit Justice League days that she really shined.

A word for the supporting characters—Dr. Simon LaGrieve, the prison and team shrink—tough as nails and a jaded idealist. He was one of the few who could stand up to Amanda Waller (we’re getting to her) and survive. He served as her moral compass and conscience until he quit…and then bad things happened.

Father Richard Creamer—the prison priest brought in as LaGrieve quit—never quite filled the same role as Simon but his was a calming presence, especially for the troubled Nighshade. After the Squad, Ostrander would use Creamer as a central supporting character in the Spectre. If there had been a priest like Father Richard in our parish as a kid, maybe FBW wouldn’t have let our Catholic membership lapse.

The Wall & The Oracle

During its run, Suicide Squad would create or re-create two of the most influential characters to come down the pike in the last 30 years—Amanda “The Wall” Waller and Oracle, Barbara Gordon the former Batgirl.

As leader of Task Force X, Amanda Waller represented the heart and twisted soul of the Suicide Squad—she was its personification. Doing very bad things for a good (or at least well intentioned) purpose.

“Perhaps the most compelling character has been The Wall. There was no one really like her before in comics; I don’t think there’s been anyone to match her since. She’s a woman, she’s black, she has no super-powers and she is as tough and indomitable as they come. She is also flawed herself,” said Ostrander. “We never claimed she was a hero or a role model or without flaws. Compelling—that she is.”

As we noted, Ostrander penned those words in 1992 but he’s still right. Anyone else who has used The Wall as a character has never quite gotten it right—not the way Ostrander and his wife, the late Kim Yale, created her. Everyone else, including Rucka in Checkmate, seems to miss her sense of honor and vulnerability—Waller is a person who dare not stop being angry or the sadness and losses of her life will overwhelm her.

The best portrayal we’ve seen of the Wall since Ostrander has been in the Justice League Unlimited series on Cartoon Network. While a bit subdued, the animated Wall hit all of the right notes.

Meanwhile, Ostrander and Yale did the DC Universe a great service by taking a huge lemon and making much sweeter lemonade when they created Oracle and saved Barbara Gordon from editorial limbo.

The former Batgirl had been unceremoniously thrown away following her being shot, crippled and (very creepily) sexually assaulted by the Joker who “just wanted to prove a point” in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

A wheelchair bound former Batgirl was reinvented to become Oracle, a mistress of the computer and finder of information. Mind you, these were still the days when cell phones were as big as toasters and the Internet was in its embryonic stage.

From a mysterious information broker, Oracle became more involved with the team until at one point she took over for a wounded Waller and ran the mission during the Dragon Horde storyline—much like she does today in Birds of Prey.

Barbara as Oracle became much more influential in the DC Universe and a much better character than she ever was as Batgirl—you can thank Ostrander and Yale for that.

A quick word about the art. Throughout the 66 issue run, visuals were handled by three main artists—Luke McDonnell, John K. Snyder and Geoff Isherwood. While never flashy, their art was always solid and it provided the reader visual consistency as the storylines demanded much mental concentration and emotional investment by the reader.

We’re getting kind of long here but we wanted to note a few of our favorite Suicide Squad moments:

--Issue #10—The Wall makes The Batman—not too pleased that the Squad is pardoning the crooks he puts in jail—back down by threatening to use the full force of the federal government to expose his identity. The Dark Knight Blinks!

--Issue #26--An over the edge Rick Flag suicide-bombs a nuke at Jihad headquarters in Quarac—killing off the team leader really did mean that ANYONE could get it, so much so that we really thought at the end of the book’s run that The Wall would die. Flag’s death was so good that we were almost disappointed to find him alive again last year in Checkmate.

--Issue #38—Oracle learns from Waller via computer chat that Flo, the Squad’s computer tech (and The Wall’s niece) died during the Apokolips mission. The silent shot of Barbara at her computer, slumped in her wheelchair in inconsolable grief still moves us 17 years later.

Flo and Oracle never met—they were just disembodied electrons to each other. But their “cyber friendship” was real and deep. Just another example of how this book was ahead of its time.

--Issue #58—In a War of the Gods tie in, Black Adam leads the Squad on an assault against Circe. Among the villains and assorted “metas” gathered for the strike force was “The Writer.” In the most clever inside joke in comics’ history, Ostrander took the “character” of Grant Morrison from when he wrote himself into Animal Man.

“….But you see, my problem was this—once I actually wrote myself into the story, technically I became part of the continuity and now someone else is controlling me…as I used to control my characters. It’s horrible.”….the writer explained to Firehawk and Silver Swan.

Alas, The Writer did not survive the Squad’s suicide mission. How did he die? Writer’s block…naturally.

Raise the Flag

There is so much we left out about this landmark series but the bottom line is that in the Ostrander/Yale Suicide Squad, character was king and the only constant of the book was change.

DC recently announced it has canceled its plans to reprint old Squad issues in a Showcase edition. That’s too bad. Even in black and white, it’s a good read. But next time you are at a comic book show, it’s worth your while to dig into the boxes and collect as much of the series as you can.

For the next best thing, buy Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag at a comic book store near you this week.


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