Those that are About to Die – An Examination of the Suicide Squad, Part One

February 14, 2016 Author: Jon Johnson (Sir)

Suicide Squad

A lengthy re-read and discourse on the DC comic book series, Suicide Squad and all subseries.

Suicide Squad

By late 1986, after the final issues of the Legends mini-series had hit the shelves, my interest in the newly reformatted DC Universe was at an all-time high. Amazing amounts of awesome new series were being released following the conclusion of the industry changing Crisis on Infinite Earths and then Legends itself. Letter columns and magazine articles were filled with the positive and negatives of the many changes laid out in this, one of the first big ‘reboots’ to cause such a ruckus. For myself, I was intrigued more than ever and looked forward to what was planned. In one series that spun out of Crisis, the monthly Secret Origins title, focus was given to retelling the origin stories of characters from all ages of DC’s history. Initially it held one story per issue, alternating between different periods, such as the Golden Age and then a later Age. By the end of the first year of the title, it was expanded to tell more than one tale per issue, increasing the page count and in my personal view, interest in continuing to read the series. Capitalizing on the re-introduction of the Suicide Squad in Legends, issue #14 of Secret Origins held a double-sized tale of the group, from its earliest form set in the World War II period, through the 1950’s paranoia and beyond into the latter portion of the Silver Age of comics.

Secret Origins as a title was meant to do a number of things for those curious about the reset DCU. One was to introduce new readers to their plethora of characters. One was to reintroduce older readers to redesigned histories of characters and possibly their genesis. Another was to shoehorn some rather dated material into a now more organized history, with some fresh eyes and ideas. Secret Origins #14 was one of the best of these, connecting early tales of Squadron S and Rick Flag Sr. to later stories of the Secret Six (the original, clandestine and non-costumed version, for those that don’t know) and then eventually Rick Flag Jr’s group, formally called the Suicide Squad. It was a deft exploration of DC’s war titles and spy comics, connecting them all under the Task Force X umbrella heading, a name used in some of the older tales as well.

Also within the story, to really utilize the series title, readers are exposed to Amanda Waller’s ‘secret origin’, explaining the how and why she came to be the new leader of this reconstituted form of the Suicide Squad. It’s gritty and real, and it lays the groundwork for a character I’ve come to view as the best non-costumed character in superhero comics.

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Most of the team that would move on to the soon-to-be-released Suicide Squad title worked on this story, including writer John Ostrander, artist Luke McDonnell and colorist Carl Gafford. Bob Greenberger was editor of Secret Origins as well as the upcoming Squad series, and his knowledge of the DCU was likely extremely helpful to the issue itself. As a single issue introduction, it’s incredibly well done, if a little dated with the use of Ronald Reagan as President. As an exploration of the less-colorful sections of the DCU, it’s fantastic and drives readers to want to read all those old stories, many of which have yet to be reprinted in a good collection. Regardless, readers wouldn’t have to wait long for the new series, which was to be released “in two weeks” according to the blurb at the end of the comic.

Both Suicide Squad #1 and Secret Origins #14 were cover dated May, 1987 but hit the shelves in February of that year. As stated in the opening, my interest in the reformatted DCU was incredibly high, partially due to a maxi-series called Who’s Who in the DC Universe, an alphabetical listing of characters, major and minor, throughout their titles. That series likely showed writers many of the characters they’d either never known about or forgotten about and where they could introduce them into the series they were working on. Suicide Squad made good use of Who’s Who, right from the get-go, intriguing me even more.

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‘Trial by Blood’, the title of the first issue of Suicide Squad, starts off with a massive amount of action, destruction and blood. It immediately introduces the Jihad, a group of super-powered terrorists working for the fictional country of Qurac, sandwiched somewhere in between Iraq and Iran, and previously seen in one of the Superman titles. Rustam, Ravan, Manticore, Jaculi, Djinn and Chimera will all make a major impact on the Suicide Squad both as a series and on the individual members for the length of the title.

Further into the issue, we are shown the new headquarters of the Squad, a heavy-duty prison facility in Louisiana that specializes in super-powered criminals. Belle Reve becomes more than a base of operations, but a location to recruit, a home, a church and a mental health facility. They have an amazing amount of backing, with an airfield, ground crew support and apparatus that are all detailed out as the issue progresses. The issue is jammed full of information to be disseminated, from supporting characters and their position within the overall story to motivations of the both the Squad and the people they are to go up against. As a covert operations team set in the DCU, it gets more intriguing as the story plays out.

With Blockbuster, former Batman villain, dead on the team’s first outing in Legends, two new criminals are recruited: Plastique and Mindboggler, both seen before in Firestorm, at that time also written by John Ostrander. A pre-emptive strike mission against the Jihad is set up, where we learn more about why Bronze Tiger and Enchantress are part of the group, and the mental make-up of all involved, as a team of psychiatrists are on staff to ensure the health of members.

The issue ends with a nice cliffhanger, the team headed off to deal with this enemy Jihad and a lengthy editorial by Bob Greenberger, detailing the long process in the series creation. As a single issue, it’s a dense read with an extreme amount of information, a blessedly wonderful thing to sit down, read and enjoy. Even nearly 30 years after publication, this issue just makes you want to read more. As the story wasn’t yet finished, I did.

‘Trial by Fire’ is the title of Suicide Squad issue #2, the conclusion of the opening introduction to the new series. Getting right to the meat of the story, Chimera, seen to be a member of the Jihad, is actually a cover agent of the Suicide Squad. Namely, Eve Eden, aka Nightshade. Nightshade was one of the purchases made just prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, where the Charlton Action Heroes were brought into the DCU. This would make her first full-on, “in continuity” appearance, Crisis notwithstanding. Her teleportational abilities make her an invaluable asset, immediately referenced in this concluding chapter.

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Once the team is set on their individual goals for the mission, the story breaks into excellent briefs, following each and every member as they strike out, with the very essence of what the Squad is to become cementing itself within the pages. Flag is consummate professional, an embittered leader with nothing left to lose but love for his country. Ben Turner, the Bronze Tiger, is a calculating martial fighter with something to gain. Floyd Lawton, Deadshot, is more than just a gun for hire, he’s a head case on top of it all. “Digger” Harkness, Captain Boomerang, is a total fool, but a deadly one, regardless of how he’s seen by all around him. Nightshade needs assistance from the Squad, though her moral code immediately puts her at odds with Flag. Of the newbies, only Plastique is given a good portion of the story, as she attempts a betrayal, which not only is part of her personality, but a foreshadowing of Squad tales to come.

With Plastique’s attempted switching of sides, another undercover agent is discovered. Tom Tresser, the Nemesis, is revealed to be an asset also within the Jihad. Nemesis, once a feature in Brave and the Bold, had been left for dead in a story there and never concluded to any degree. This, another great feature of the Squad was to resurrect interesting, borderline costumed characters and bring them back to prominence in a way that caused subsequent appearances throughout DC titles. An admirable process that should be examined more closely by the current regime, in this writer’s opinion.

“Trial by Fire” concludes with a successful mission and another death, as promised on the cover of issue #1. Mindboggler doesn’t make it out of Qurac, along with a few of the Jihad. Deadly is the name of the game, and the stakes are high. Two issues in, the Squad had not only hooked me as a reader, but as a fan of the entire team. John Ostrander had already impressed me with the ideas in Legends, but Suicide Squad was where I cut my teeth on his work. I was aware of GrimJack and his work at First Comics, but didn’t get into it until after his DC stories. His detail to every single character in small snippets endeared me to his style, particularly with such a large cast. I recall how little action I thought was in the first issue (even though the first few pages are almost all action), which the second issue more than made up for. As a writer-first reader like me, it was everything I could ask for. As such, I remember not really being keen on the addition of Luke McDonnell on pencils. His work on the then-ended Justice League of America title didn’t impress me, but I was young. I thought the pairing of McDonnell with Karl Kesel was superb, executing a dynamism that made me a Kesel fan for life. I now recognize McDonnell as an excellent draftsman with abilities many artists today lack. For a better look at the art, note the difference between the Squad issues and the Secret Origins story. Dave Hunt’s inks are distinctly dissimilar to that of Kesel’s, and not in a bad way. Todd Klein was known to me as a journeyman letterer, yet hadn’t become the award-winning calligraphy magician of later years. Having him as part of the Squad pleases me to know end. Editorially, Bob Greenberger spun excitement with every report, every letter column and every footnote. I can’t say enough good things about this guy. But the unsung hero of the entire series has to be Carl Gafford, who was an obvious master of the four-color process. Having to maintain the look of very distinct skin tones, fanciful costumes and new effects – look at those transport holes that Nightshade uses – couldn’t have been easy. So Carl, if you’re out there, a hearty “thank you” from me, far, far too late.

Suicide Squad as a title was incredibly ahead of its time. Considering today, where companies and titles are taking grief for not being racially or ethnically diverse, the very first issue is filled with everything that would break those complaints. Amanda Waller, a black woman, leads this group with an iron hand. More so, she’s overweight and has no superpowers. Ben Turner, the Bronze Tiger, the cool martial arts master, is also black. The enemy Jihad, whether they be Middle-eastern or otherwise, are all interesting and far-flung. Ravan in particular is exceptionally interesting… more on him in future columns (ooo, feel that?). Plastique is French, Boomerang is Australian – the international aspect of the Squad is just as strong as the multi-racial, a benefit to the stories and to the reader.

Can you tell I’m a fan? Next up, I delve deeper into the series, exploring more of the world with the Squad.

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