Monday, February 21, 2011


Man, it's kind of difficult for me to know how to start this one, considering that after more years than I care to mention (seven, since the first time it was announced, I think?) the notion that Suicide Squad would ever get collected in any form was bordering on Big Numbers-level mythology. And so, in the ensuring two years since the last time I wrote about the Squad, I have about three preambles to this that have successfully built up over time.

And I'm gonna use all three.

The journey of Suicide Squad from minor hit and quarter-box favourite to collected edition is a minor farce, or would have been had it not been cockteased for most of a decade. Initially announced as a Showcase Presents collection (Do they still do those, or has DC once again pussied out on getting anything without a known name behind it on the shelves?) it was announced, then hushed up, then nearly forgotten.

Various reasons were given, chief among them that they were under a different royalty structure for reprints than other things (because yeah, we can't have the actual creators getting the lion's share of their money, obviously) Although, given the arc of DC's output currently, a malicious part of me wonders if it's not because most everyone at DC is plundering the period in which Suicide Squad was being published and they don't want to suffer by comparison.

Anyways, some words about Suicide Squad. It could be argued that short of the Giffen/Maguire Justice League, the best thing to come out of Legends was the new Suicide Squad. Other than that, Legends is pretty goddamn dire, and while you may consider revisiting it, my advice is not to do so under any circumstances, because the ending alone will send your blood pressure into the stratosphere.

Basically, the Squad is "The Dirty Dozen" if it took place in a superhero comics universe. Our government recruits super-villains and the odd hero-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown for covert mission wherein deniability or complete disavowal is needed.

The deal is simple--sign up, survive the mission--your sentence will be reduced or commuted outright. Disobey an order while on the mission, or just wander off too far, and your arm will get blown off. Only the worst of the worst get picked, and usually . . .only the worst of the worst survive.

It's an elegant concept, because it subverts a lot of problems with ongoing serial comics. One--anyone can die. As the Squad is typically culled from the third and fourth strings of the DCU, they are totally expendable (well, this is before Everything Is Important and Nothing Can Change, obviously) which adds actual jeopardy and uncertainty to their missions and, not unlike the Scourge of the Underworld or the very-close-in-spirit Strikeforce: Morituri over at Marvel, it allows you to clear out the deadwood that inevitably collects in superhero universes.

Two--using super villains plays with the typical expectations of what "superhero" comics are usually all about. Overlay on top of that a shadowy, deeply morally compromised government agency overseeing them (before that sentence became a redundancy) In fact, what drives the stories are how un-heroic the Squaddies are. They typically freak out, are insubordinate, ignore orders, attempt to undermine and or kill each other, try to defect and generally screw things up.

Three--it's that voice that makes Suicide Squad have its own individual voice (it is, of course, a product of it's time, a time when books were not homogenized and allowed to find mid-list success rather than having to do blockbuster numbers to justify themselves. Naturally in our more enlightened day and age, we've done away with all this) Nearly everyone on the team is deranged, the pressure without on the team various government agencies will manipulate the Squad for its own purpose is equally oppressive as the pressure within.

Now, admittedly, the advantages it has over a typical serial superhero comic could be disadvantages as well. A team full of replaceable villains killed, then replaced month in, month out (otherwise known as "every month in DC comics now") would mean little, so a core cast of Squaddies was built that shorter-term members could play off of, and you and I both know that means it's time for ROLL CALL!

RICK FLAG--Our connection to the original Silver Age squad (it gets very complicated, and this is long enough) Rick Flag is the bridge between the administrative, governmental branch. Upon the final mission of the previous Squad, Rick lost Karin Grace, his lover and teammate, and it cracked him hard. Over the course of the rest of the run, we will see him continue to crack until he finally breaks, because he has the misfortune to be a good man in an organisation with no place for good men.

CAPTAIN BOOMERANG--Boomerang, of course, is naturally at home in a place like this, as he's an amoral sociopath who lives to stir up shit. Naturally, this means that no one can stand him, but despite his being a jerk and a screw-up, he's just good enough to keep surviving his missions, and so, becomes one of the cornerstones of the team, and the straw that stirs the drink in the title because you read it to see how he's going to put one over on his masters, even if it's going to fall apart in the end because he's nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is.

BRONZE TIGER--Another of the team's cornerstones, Bronze Tiger is walking a rather fine edge himself, as he'd been brainwashed by the League of Assassins into dressing like one of the Thundercats and killing the pre-Crisis Batwoman and . . .yeah, while he's nominally one of the good guys, he's also a ticking bomb.

DEADSHOT--Speaking of ticking bombs, if ever you wanted to know how Deadshot became a major player that everyone wanted to use him, well, it started here. While we don't get the backstory yet about how Floyd Lawton came to embrace his nihilism, we get enough here to know he's genuinely messed up in the head. Deadshot, like Bronze Tiger and Captain Booomerang is one of the signature members of the Squad, and while his finest hour isn't in this collection, it comes up soon enough.

ENCHANTRESS--Because when you combine phenomenal mystic power with dissociative personality disorder, really what could go wrong? June Moone (no, seriously) transforms into the ill-defined in terms of power set but a force to be reckoned with Enchantress who constantly threatens her teammates before being shut down by someone a few times right before she fucks up a critical mission and more definite means to control her are devised. Once again, we have another ticking bomb on a team full of them. What could go wrong?

NIGHTSHADE--The one Charlton hero who doesn't even the the minimal respect that other Charlton heroes got, Nightshade is the Squad's covert member--she's not even technically on the team in the first issue, as she's a mole on another team. The deliberate amorality of the Squad's methods doesn't sit well with her at all, as we will see at the conclusion of the series' first arc. Things get even more strained from there.

NEMESIS--Super spy and master of disguise, Nemesis is another deep-cover member of the Squad, and being a nominal good guy, finds himself ill at ease on the Squad, not least of which because there is the continued suggestion that he's getting a bit past it, and of all the places to be losing steps, this team would not be the place I'd choose.

MINDBOGGLER--Our sacrificial lamb, Mindboggler gets smoked at the end of the series' first arc, not because she screws up or tries to defect, but because she embarrassed Captain Boomerang and when someone gets the drop on her Boomerang just decides to let her get gunned down, because he's that much of an asshole.

PLASTIQUE--Our other one-timer, Plastique is on loan from Firestorm (like he didn't have enough third-string villains to spare?) and Captain Atom, and in both she advanced the cause of Quebec independence by jobbing like a chump both times (one time knocking herself unconscious with her own explosives) Tries to defect, only to get caught, then is drummed out of the Squad via the use of mind-control, which causes friction among the other Squaddies, and when you cross these people's moral event horizon . . .hoo boy.

The squad is overseen by Amanda Waller, who is perhaps one of the most unique female characters ever. For one, she doesn't look like a supermodel. For another, she can actually cause Batman to back down (and how often does that happen) For another, she's given an origin that in a sense, presages her establishment of the Squad and the toll her moral compromises will take on her over the course of the series. Without Waller, Suicide Squad doesn't work. Her ruthless practicality (and her ability to ride herd on people by sheer force of personality) is what sets the tone for the book and drives its storytelling engine.

And that's what's on display in the Secret Origins issue that functions as the prelude for this collection (Back then, Secret Origins would typically function as a "pilot" for new series--whetting people's appetites for the first issue of the new series (as well as spackle in the requisite retcons). In the course of this issue we're brought up to speed on the old and new Suicide Squads, the history of Amanda Waller, and the remit of the new Squad.

From there, we launch into Issue #1 and open with the introduction of the Jihad. The Jihad are the latest in superhuman state-sponsored terror from the nonexistent but real-sounding country Quarac, who decides to tech demo the Jihad's ability to kill a shitload of people by mocking up and airport and killing a shitload of real people.

A word, if I may, about the realism of this book vis-a-vis politics. If you're looking for nuanced geopolitical thought in a comics universe wherein the citizenry is routinely menaced by a group of people following a guy who dresses like a snake, really . . .you're in the wrong place.

Anyways, the Squad has its mission--Destroy the Jihad, cripple Quarac's ability to re-create it, and catch Carmen Sandiego. The rest of the first issue is build-up as the team gets ready to move out and attack as the psych team frets over the combustible personalities and we have a few scenes with the no-it's-not-Airwolf-at-all-why-would-you-even-suggest-that helicopter.

Issue 2 has all this go to hell. No shock there--heist movies would suck if all the planning you do at the first part goes smoothly, wouldn't they? In short order, the two Squad moles on the Jihad are Plastique tries to defect, gets caught, and while the Squad doesn't 100% accomplish their mission, they do manage to cripple the Jihad (well, until they show up again a few issues later) and a number of subplots are set into motion.

Issue 3 picks up a plot thread from Legends, as Darkseid sends the Female Furies after Glorious Godfrey, who's currently incarcerated at the prison/Squad base after he lobotomised himself putting on Dr. Fate's helmet. Naturally, with a name like "Female Furies," what then ensues is a talky, intellectual issue, wherein the Furies make their case for Godfrey.

Just kidding--it's a big fight, and the Squad acquits itself fairly well, even if the Furies ultimately take Godfrey back. In the "B" plot of this issue, Plastique is being brainwashed to forget her attempt to defect and sell out the Squad, and everyone's quite upset about it.

Issue 4 is a done-in-one wherein the Squad has to discredit William Hell, a man posturing as a superhero to disguise his attempt to instigate a race war. This is an interesting little tale, as it's our first look at Deadshot in any great sense and also puts the Squad in a different kind of conflict. After all, as Waller points out, killing Hell would just make him a martyr to his cause. And so a rather elaborate plan is hatched to discredit him.

Issues 5-7 constitute out first major story arc, wherein the Squad are engaged to help a defector escape the Soviet Union. It's a good story, and a good deal more nuanced than the Jihad conflict was. I don't want to say too much about it, because there's quite a few good twists in it and the whole thing turns on an intriguing twist at the end of the first part.

Issue 8 wraps it all up with a "pause and take stock" issue wherein our various subplots are touched on, tensions ratcheted up, and a new Z-lister joins the Squad--The Privateer, just in time for Millennium (for those of you who thought that Legends wasn't bad enough) which will be picked up in the next collection (if there is one) hopefully.

It's a good collection, I think, and well worth the money. While Luke McDonnell's art has lost some of the "smoothness" his Iron Man run had, it's gritty angular-ness fits the mood of the book perfectly. While the art my not be to all tastes, the real star is, of course, Ostrander's writing, which had a real tough-mindedness to it that really set the tone for the book (no mean feat, as he stayed on the book for the entirety of its run) and he makes the "black ops/superheroes" nexus work in ways that subsequent imitations (and haven't there been a lot?) mostly never did.

In short, this is a good collection and I highly recommend it.


C. Elam said...

I am entirely too lazy to check on this, but I think the Suicide Squad Showcase book was solicited in either 2006 or 2007. It was one of several that got scheduled because some people did sloppy research. It just feels like a decade, due to the endless waffling about it.

DC does still do Showcase books, but they are much more sporadic than they used to be. This is probably wise, since the avalanche effect of two-per-month dampened enthusiasm. But hey, they are putting out a DOC SAVAGE collecting the old Marvel magazines and THE WITCHING HOUR, so points to 'em (and also a new JLA due today).

I never got into Suicide Squad, for whatever reason, but it's an interesting book that still resonates. Credit does squarely fall on the shoulders of John Ostrander, who was just some indy comic guy at the time. I mean, he made a largely forgotten and generally considered worthless old Batman villain into a major star. That's saying something.

Oh, and as for Millennium...I cannot defend that crossover in any way, despite the fact that I thought it COULD have been really good. But what it did for the Privateer almost makes up for it. Almost.

Kazekage said...

Man, that was a clusterfuck, wasn't it? I had that goddamn book on my Amazon list for what felt like decades and even Amazon finally just shrugged its shoulders and was all like "dude, no idea." I was heartily sick of the waffling about it and I was goddamn stunned when it actually arrived at my house last week.

Yeah, I can imagine that the punishing schedule of two-a-month probably killed it (does Marvel even do Essentials once a month, now?) but still . . .I'd love to have a nice big slab of early New Teen Titans in that format. :)

It resonates, though sadly I think like Watchmen people took the wrong lessons from it. Shame that. But that said, it made Deadshot into a higher-tier character, made Captain Boomerang far more interesting than you ever imagined he could be, and gave us Amanda Waller, so its legacy makes up for the sins that have been done in their name.

I have been to Steve Englehart's website, read every article about the books he worked on (I had good memories of that early 300s Fantastic Four team, actually) and he still could not explain adequately exactly what the fuck went wrong with Millenium.

That said, it did lead to a new favourite phrase of mine, thank to Roy Thomas having Harlequin delacre "The Manhunters are cooler than Tastee-Freeze!" :)

I need to review that issue of Infinity Inc., because it is so very very fucked up. And also, now that you mention it, I should drop in some love for Manhunter as well. :)