Ask Chris #241: The Suicide Squad, Then And Now
Q: Your recent On the Cheap column got me thinking: What is it that made the Ostrander/Yale Suicide Squad work and others not? -- @AmyZiegfeld
A: You know, the easy answer for this one is right there in your question: John Ostrander and Kim Yale, along with Luke McDonnell, Geof Isherwood, Karl Kesel and other artists. They were creators who were absolutely at the top of their game over the course of Squad's 66-issue run, and you can't really get away from the fact that when Ostrander came back for stuff like Raise the Flag and the Blackest Night one-shot, those books were immediately right back in step with some of the best stories of the run. They were, hands down, one of the best creative teams in the history of superhero comics.
But at the same time, I don't think that's the whole story.
When you get right down to it, Suicide Squad wasn't just a product of its time, it was the kind of comic that could only really happen in 1987.
The core premise of Suicide Squad is all about ideas that have become disposable for some reason, and that idea alone is one of the things that makes it one of my favorite comics.
As a reader, I've always been attracted to those little bits and pieces of continuity that fall by the wayside over the years. It's a natural consequence of superhero comics being built as these long-form sequential narratives that are passed around from one creative team to another over the course of decades. People try different things, and not everything sticks around --- and Suicide Squad is the ultimate example of someone looking at a whole pile of weird, forgotten concepts and thinking, "Hey, isn't anybody else going to use this stuff?" Even the name "Suicide Squad" (and the proper name for the team, Task Force X) was a throwback to a Silver Age concept that only really appeared in six issues of Brave and the Bold.
But it wasn't just that Ostrander and McDonnell were digging through back issue bins looking for third-string villains to kill off. It was that they were doing it at a time when they could. More than anything else, Suicide Squad was a book based on opportunity.
Listen. I can assure you that I'm as tired as everybody else of DC going on and on about Crisis on Infinite Earths thirty years after it happened, but it really is arguably the most important story that company ever published that didn't first appear in Action Comics #1. And it's important not just for what it did, but how it did it.
Obviously, I was not working at DC Comics in 1987 --- I doubt they would've hired a five year-old, no matter how many great ideas he had about Batman --- but I have to imagine that it was a pretty weird time in terms of figuring out what exactly was on the table to write about. In retrospect, I think we all look back on Crisis as this hard dividing line between two different eras, but it wasn't quite the clean break that it would later become. I mean, it definitely was for certain characters --- Supergirl being the obvious example, and Wonder Woman too, to a slightly lesser extent --- but a lot of the books that DC was publishing at the time just sort of continued on like nothing ever happened.
Yes, we got new origins for Superman and Batman, and we even got a new Superman #1 out of the deal, but we also got Action Comics #584, you know? There was an understanding that this was a new beginning that still allowed for 50 years of stuff that had come before to still "count" in some form or fashion.
Take the Flash, for example: After Crisis, Wally West is the Flash, but it's still understood that he's Barry Allen's successor, and that Barry existed and fought crime and died in some huge world-shattering Crisis --- and, on top of that, that Wally was in the Teen Titans alongside other heroes, meaning that the history that he's working with extends into a much larger universe.
The end result of all this is that it wasn't really a clean break. Instead, there were fifty years of comics stories that either happened until someone said they didn't, or didn't happen until someone said they did, depending on who you asked, and that left a lot of stuff on out there to be picked up.
But even that is only half of the situation. Crisis (and Suicide Squad) come out of a time when superhero comics were going through this rapid period of change in direction. A lot of people referred to it at the time as superhero comics growing up --- usually with various combinations of "BIFF!" and "POW!" in their headlines --- but that wasn't really accurate. The mid '80s were more like an adolescence, an era that had this seemingly boundless creativity that was also mixed with a desire to get away from the "childish" past and try something that would feel more adult.
It was happening on both sides of the street --- and in the independent Black & White Boom, which is a topic for another time --- but at DC, there were specific stories that were shaping how the company would look for the next couple of decades.
The short and reductive version is that people read Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and basically decided that they wanted more of that, and less robberies of hat museums and crossword puzzle factories. Going back to the Flash, I think it's one of the reasons that it took so long for the traditional Rogues to show up as prominent villains again --- not only were they Barry's villains rather than Wally's, but they were artifacts of the Silver Age. Nobody wanted to read about a dude named Captain Boomerang robbing banks anymore, they wanted stories about drugs. I mean, yes, the stories about drugs in Flash also involved an immortal caveman fighting a dude who could run faster than an airplane, but nobody ever said readers had to be consistent in what they wanted.
All of this resulted in an era where you had fifty years of villains that were designed to be gimmicky bank robbers, and an audience (and creators) that were largely uninterested in doing stories about gimmicky bank robberies, which left you with a lot of characters just floating around with nothing to do --- and saying "a lot" is kind of understating things. It's a fact so obvious that nobody ever really talks about it, but the sequential nature of superhero comics means that villains outnumber heroes by the dozens. Batman might have a pretty extended family of sidekicks and heroes, but just think about how many bad guys there are that they've fought over the years. Just naming the major ones, you've got, what, twenty? Thirty? You could probably rattle off fifty and never even get down to Crazy Quilt.
Put all that together, and you've got fifty years worth of villains that don't fit in with the current direction of a company that would be perfectly happy to get rid of them. In other words, dozens --- maybe even hundreds --- of characters that are completely disposable, all floating around with nothing to do. And that's where you get the Suicide Squad.
The actual premise of the book isn't a wholly original concept. The idea of criminals being sent on suicide missions in exchange for pardons is really just riffing on The Dirty Dozen, and if I had to guess, I'd say that even the book's original gimmick of killing someone off in every single story arc might be a nod to the fact that the first thing that happens in the Dirty Dozen's mission is Jiminez just casually dying off-camera in an accident. But the way that they went about putting it all together in a superhero comic that made it unique.
The death is a big part of it, obviously, but that's also something that marks it as unique to its era. 1987 was this perfect time where death in comics wasn't exactly new --- Gwen Stacy had been swik/snapped a full fifteen years before, after all --- but it wasn't quite as commonplace as it is now. We live in an era where somebody's going to get killed at least every summer like clockwork, but back then it was a rarity. And considering how much effort Ostrander, Yale, and McDonnell put into developing the Squad as characters, that gave the book a sense of danger that I don't think anything else has really matched.
Again, it's a function of the time. In 1988, DC had just "permanently" killed off Supergirl and the Flash. They might not kill Superman or Batman, but is there any way that Captain Boomerang and Count Vertigo weren't potentially on the chopping block? Even Deadshot, unquestionably the breakout star of the comic, had a grand total of two major appearances between 1950 and 1987 and was being written as a man with a death wish. That made for a book where anything could go away at any time, and there hadn't been so many resurrections that coming back was a given, either.
And while we're on the subject of character work, it can never be understated how much that made Suicide Squad work. Even though superhero comics are inherently reactive --- the villain commits a crime or puts a scheme into action and then the hero has to go and solve it --- we end up spending more time with the good guys than we ever get with the crooks. That's just the nature of fiction, really; protagonists get more time in the spotlight, and while the Joker might be an interesting and compelling villain in this story, Batman's the one who's still going to be here next month having an ongoing narrative.
With Squad, they could take these characters who already had interesting visuals and hooks and spend time fleshing them out by making them into protagonists. Like I said, Deadshot was in two stories, and while that Englehart/Rogers issue where he finally comes back after 20 years is great, it only goes into his character in a very small way. 66 issues of Suicide Squad (and a four-issue miniseries) would've done more for his character just by sheer volume, even if he hadn't been the focus.
Same goes for Captain Boomerang, who got more character development out of Squad than he ever did out of Flash.
And on top of them --- and Nemesis, and Plastique, and Nightshade and all the other obscure characters who got a second wind from being featured here --- you had the new characters that were holding it all together. It's no understatement to say that Amanda Waller is one of the top ten DC characters of all time. Her character comes through better in these 66 issues than anyone else I can think of, and it all comes through naturally without ever feeling forced. A lot of characters can be written as hard, ruthless or uncompromising, but there are few that ever get the chance to just straight spend a year in prison just to prove a point.
All of which points to the other big reason that Suicide Squad was a product of its time that really couldn't have happened at any other point in the history of superheroes. It was a book that reads like it was designed to answer the question that the comics industry as a whole in the late '80s: Can we do stories that deal with more relevant, real-world issues while still using the stuff that comes from the more fantastic world of superhero comics, and if so, are they still going to read like "superhero comics," whatever that means?
That's the question that you get in Watchmen and all of its grumpy descendants, and it's certainly the question that you get in Dark Knight Returns, where you get Frank Miller cramming the 1966 Batman show into the '80s of Ronald Reagan and urban decay.
And in Suicide Squad more than anywhere else, that answer was yes. You would never mistake it for anything other than a DC Superhero Comic Book --- I mean, they go to Apokolips and fight Darkseid, people fight each other with flaming swords and teleport to shadow dimensions, it's got the friggin' Penguin in it --- but it's also a book that deals with international politics, with criminal psychology and questions about morality. It's a book where the very premise is based on the idea that even in a world with Superman, there are some situations where morality is gray, situations where people are going to die, and where there are people that have done things bad enough that maybe they should be the ones that have to risk their lives.
And while the book is very much character driven and frequently very funny, it answers that question with a brutality that didn't feel like anything else mainstream superheroes had done before.
All of that --- the premise, the opportunity, the changing direction of comics, the questions that were being asked and answered in superhero stories --- made Suicide Squad a product of its time in a very definite and defining way. It's a book that only could've happened in that environment, that is tied almost inextricably to that five-year stretch between 1987 and 1992. That doesn't mean that it doesn't hold up --- it does, especially because you can see its influence in so many books that have come after --- but it does mean that if you're trying to recapture what made that book special today, then you're not going to have the same results.
Instead, you're going to have a book that's reacting to the world that Suicide Squad helped to create.
I've talked before about how there's a whole category of Great Comics That Ruined Everything, and as much as Squad is one of my all-time favorite comics, period, there's definitely a case to be made that it belongs at the top of that list. The emphasis on dealing with moral gray areas, the focus on villains as protagonists, the constant use of death as a plot device, the emphasis on protagonists who kill to get the job done --- those are all things that are great in Suicide Squad, but that can go very, very wrong with creators who aren't as meticulous and talented as Ostrander, Yale, McDonnell and Isherwood. Especially if you've got a superhero genre that Suicide Squad influenced by doing all that stuff and making it work so beautifully.
It's one of the reasons that my initial reaction to the idea of a Suicide Squad movie set in the same universe as Man of Steel was just wondering how they were going to try to make it work. Suicide Squad as a comic worked largely because it stood in contrast to the rest of the universe. When you're working in a universe where even Superman will kill when he has to, then what's going to make the villains stand apart? And just where the heck are all these villains coming from? Without that history, you lose something, I think. Then again, keep in mind that I am a person who has seen exactly two (2) pictures from the production of that movie, so who knows, maybe they'll figure it out.
The point is, Suicide Squad as a concept is very much tied to the era and environment that it's standing in contrast to, answering questions that were prevalent in that era. We're asking different questions now and we're far removed from the time when that book was the one doing the best job of providing the answers. That's why it doesn't really work today.
Except that it actually does.
With all due respect to their creative teams, books that have actually been called Suicide Squad after the Ostrander/Yale/McDonnell/Isherwood era have been a bit of a mixed bag. Part of that, I think, is that as much as that Dirty Dozen premise seems like it should be universal, they're always going to be laboring in the shadow of a creative team that defined a book for its entire run, particularly Ostrander. That's always going to be an unenviable task, even before you get to the part where Suicide Squad itself was so good and influential that it almost made itself obsolete. But if you look beyond just the books that share its title, you'll see that the approach that Suicide Squad took to storytelling in a superhero universe is very much alive and well, and sits at the core of some really great comics.
Checkmate and Secret Six are probably the most prominent examples at DC in recent years --- assuming that the past decade can be considered "recent." They were both pretty blatant spiritual successors to Suicide Squad, with Checkmate taking the name of another related Ostrander project, the focus on espionage and international intrigue, and Amanda Waller, and Six picking up the focus on supervillains forming a team for survival, suicide missions from an authority figure, and Deadshot.
Both of those books had a focus on picking up forgotten or neglected pieces of continuity that had emerged over the previous decades --- Checkmate has some really great stuff with Fire (of Justice League International fame) and a modern version of Mademoiselle Marie that was incredible --- and using it in a way that no one else was. Rather than just duplicating the premise of Suicide Squad, they took its approach, figuring out how to react to the landscape of the universe around them. That's actually one of the things that I liked about the launch of New Suicide Squad a few months back, that it was a take on the concept that was reacting very specifically to its universe in an interesting way.
And they're not alone, either. Marvel's done pretty much the same thing with the Thunderbolts concept over the years. You could even argue that that initial setup of villains masquerading as heroes and then eventually deciding to become heroes was spurred by the same kind of big shakeup as Suicide Squad was, although let's be real here: Heroes Reborn was not exactly the world-changer that Crisis was. But still, the best versions of that concept, regardless of publisher, are the ones that take advantage of the opportunities that come with a shared universe.
Of course, on the other side of the coin entirely, you've got Copra, which somehow manages to work as a tribute to Suicide Squad exactly as it was without being part of a shared universe at all. It does, however, draw upon a common language that we have as comics readers and blends things together to form something that feels like it comes from a shared universe, but beyond that, it's just unbelievably well-made. Trust me, if I could figure out how that thing works as beautifully as it does, I would tell you. Suffice to say that Michel Fiffe is on a whole other level.
To make a long story short (too late), what made Suicide Squad great went far beyond just the Dirty Dozen premise of putting crooks in the spotlight and killing them off as the story warranted. It was an incredible product of a very specific time, and while that can't ever be duplicated, it's definitely something we can learn from and have a heck of a good time reading.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.