Friday, April 24, 2009

ANTI-HERO WEEK #5--SUICIDE SQUAD

Back in the mid-80's, when the big companies wanted to get rid of the scrub villains and failed heroes that inevitably clutter up long-running comic publishing concerns, the Big Two started up two distinct schemes.

Marvel's was the Scourge of the Underworld, or as one wag put it "Marvel's Immune System." Basically, the Scourge was an empty suit, almost literally--whenever there were a load of useless one-off villains around (if a villain had appeared in Marvel Team-Up or Marvel Two-In-One, they were pretty much dead meat) here came the Scourge to kill the hell out of them. He wasn't a particularly interesting character, but then, he wasn't meant to be. He was a walking plot function, and when he'd finished the job (we'll always remember you, Turner D. Century) he was promptly snuffed out.

It was one way to do it, for sure, but it wasn't particularly interesting apart from providing the usually fairly staid Mark Gruenwald run of Captain America a body could almost at Miracleman levels.

Over at DC, what deadwood hadn't been tossed in the bin after Crisis on Infinite Earths presented another problem--even if every DC book every month ran with the idea of killing an ineffectual bad guy, the amount of crummy Firestorm villains alone would have kept them doing it until the turn of the century. Surely there was another way to deal with this junk in an interesting way. Even better, it might rehabilitate some of these guys and show some heretofore unrealized potential in them.

Most of all, the hope was that it might get people to read the otherwise dreadful Legends crossover, a crossover now remembered (if at all) for launching the Giffen-era Justice League and our subject for today: The Suicide Squad.

Suicide Squad, like Blake's 7, used the tried-and-true Dirty Dozen model for its storytelling engine. Unlike the ragtag band of revolutionaries comprising the Seven, the Squad had a much more pragmatic remit--criminals (and fallen heroes, occasionally) received a commuted sentence if they survived the mission they were selected for. Try to escape or double-cross the people in charge, and you got your arm blown off (if you were lucky)

As storytelling engines go, it's pretty durable. Using supervillains means you can tell stories in a meaner milieu with a group of ruthless characters. Moreover, as the characters are disposable at will pretty much, it can foster a sense that anything can happen. Put all this together and you have a book full of characters that can die at any time, and aren't the most pleasant people besides, and well, you have a book that's rather dark indeed.

But if that was all it was, I would probably roll my eyes and label it as a blueprint for the sorry state DC comics is in currently--naturally adding some bonus points for disposing of as many Firestorm villains as they did.

But Suicide Squad achieved far more. For one thing, despite being a book where the unspoken expectation was that everyone would die, they managed to create a core of intriguing characters, one of whom was Amanda Waller. She's been bent in several plot-convenient directions since then but in her element in the title, her complicated relationship with the Squad (occasionally a tool of power and often, in some ways, a lifeline) In addition to creating an enduring character, the book also rehabilitated two characters who'd been drifting around the d-list for awhile.

Bronze Tiger was a little known character--famous for little more than killing the original Batwoman and being one of the few black characters created in the 70's who didn't have "Black" somewhere in their codename. Constantly riding the line between "hero" and "villain," Bronze Tiger personified the line between the heroes, the nominal heroes, and the villains within the Squad.

If Bronze Tiger personified the borderline between hero and villain, Captain Boomerang stakes out the "villain" side of the equation. Completely venal and always out for himself, yet competent in his own way, Boomerang was the straw that stirred the drink, and incidentally always kept the team on this side of self-destructing.

Somewhere in the middle, staking it out his own bizarre stretch of territory, was Deadshot. While Deadshot's done the best out of all the Suicide Squad alumni in terms of visibility (still appearing in the vastly overrated Secret Six to this day) and continuous popularity despite being dragged into some really dodgy storylines over the years. Deadshot's character an be summed up thus: having nothing left to live for, he wants to die, preferably as audaciously as possible. Of the characters I mentioned, it's particularly telling that Deadshot was the one that got his own mini-series back in the day.

Unusually for its time, Suicide Squad had a fairly good run for a determinedly mid-list book, left to its own devices for the most part until it was finally dragged down by yet another lame DC crossover (War of the Gods, a storyline so terrible I'm not even going to look up a Wiki link for you) but, like the other anti-heroes I've cited this week, it made an impression at the time, and certainly informed my own approach when the time came for me to develop my own anti-hero.

Next Time: Kazekage talks about himself and his writing and is apologising in advance for it.

17 comments:

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

If I recall correctly, DC also tried to revamp some of the lower-tier villains in the '90s by having them sell their souls to Satan in exchange for considerable upgrades. Not sure how that worked out for them...

Suicide Squad sounds like an interesting read, although I'm curious as to whether the promise of "anyone can die" was ever really put into practice - one of the reasons I've followed "Exiles" for as long as I have is precisely because it's so rare in mainstream comics to have a high turnover of legitimately interesting characters...

Kazekage said...

Underworld Unleashed! I remember it! It was neon-puke green and not desperately good. It was no Bloodlines, mind you, but . . .yeah. Pretty bad.

It was, beleive me--they lost two members right out of the box, and several of the administrative team over the course of the issues . . .Suicice Squad definitely didn't skimp on that kinda thing.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You realize, of course, that I now must ask what colors you associate with other DC crossovers. :)

How long was the run? Who wrote it? I'll see if I can track it down...

Kazekage said...

I associate "Infinite Crisis" with lavender. No reason. :)

John Ostrander and Kim Yale wrote the whole run and I wanna say it ran about . . .sixty-three issues?

It's well worth tracking down (I lament that the Showcase apparently never happened) if for no other reason than to see Grant Morrison get killed by his own metatextuality.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Ah, lavender. The color of incomprehensibility. A fine choice. ;)

Are they holding back the Showcase because of legal rights? Or is it just in the works?

Kazekage said...

It's got a lovely bouquet as well. :)

I think it was yet another of those reprints that got caught up in that post-1976 DC payment plan deal, but since Booster Gold's had a Showcase printed (and for the love of God, WHY?!?) either Ostrander hasn't agreed on the terms, or DC just gave up.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Booster Gold? Seriously? Never understood the appeal of that guy...

Kazekage said...

Me either. Unless he's the butt of the joke he's not terribly interesting, and even then, it's just the one joke, innit?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And not even an especially funny joke, at that.

Kazekage said...

Yeah. And yet . . .he gets a Showcase Presents, featuring Dan Jurgens at his most unexciting. There is either no justice in the world, or justice is drunk off its ass.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

"Both" is probably the correct answer: Justice can't take your call right now, as it's currently bent over a toilet retching its alcohol-saturated guts out.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Followed by thirty issues of Justice going through a thinly-disguised metaphor for rehab, perhaps with Green Arrow on the cover shrieking "Justice is a DRUNK!!!" :)

Kazekage said...

With some thinly personified manque of Justice leering at the viewer from the cover. 32 pages of leaden proselytizing from Denny O'Neil hisself. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Denny O'Neil: For those times when Judd Winick's Issue Stick is a bit too contemporary for you. :)

Kazekage said...

Issue Stick, hell--Denny wields an Aluminum Bat of Leaden Moralizing, at times. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Inflicts +10 Social Awareness and +20 Splintering Headache to any reader, I'm sure. :)

Kazekage said...

Most assuredly. One wouldn't imagine anyone would have an alignment of Chaotic Good, but apparently so, yeah?