A Break From The Usual Skullduggery: John Ostrander On ‘Suicide Squad: War Crimes’ [Interview]
Over the past few years, Suicide Squad has become a cornerstone for the DC Universe, both in comics and in other media. Really, though, that's not surprising. The run of the book that kicked off in 1987, by writer John Ostrander and artists Luke McDonnell and Karl Kesel, stands as one of the best comics of the decade. It was complex, thrilling, personal, and never shied away from the fact that it existed in a superhero universe. That run paved the way for the future of DC Comics in more ways than one.
Now, with a Suicide Squad movie in theaters and the team more prominent than ever in comics, Ostrander is returning to the Squad for War Crimes, a one-shot that pits everyone's favorite villains against a team of heroes on the wrong side of one of Amanda Waller's plans.
To find out more, ComicsAlliance spoke to Ostrander about his long history with the Squad, his return to the franchise in 2007, and that one weird character he killed off towards the end.
ComicsAlliance: Could you take me through the creation of Suicide Squad in the '80s, after Legends? I've always thought that it was a natural consequence of Crisis bringing in so much new stuff to the DC Universe, including this huge surplus of villains that a lot of creators maybe weren't interested in working on. Was that something you found back when you were building the team?
John Ostrander: Yeah. I've always been more interested in what we'd call B-, C-, or even D-list characters, because I wanted to have more control over them. Otherwise, I had to clear everything with another office --- for instance, if I used Joker, I'd have to clear everything with the Batman office. I like having some control, not only to write some stories, but also to re-examine their personalities and characters.
Deadshot's a good example. He was really little more than a suit and a few facts back then. I got a chance to examine what those facts were, and extrapolate from those facts. Also, if I wanted to kill one of them off, I didn't have to clear that with anyone. I figured some characters would not be missed, but I could certainly use them in the Squad.
CA: You mention Deadshot, and he was certainly the breakout star of the book. He first appeared back in 1950, and was then revived by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers in the '70s, but you took him to the next level. He's in virtually every arc of Suicide Squad, and you, Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell did the solo mini-series for him. Did you know from the start that you wanted to put him in the spotlight?
JO: I knew I wanted to make him interesting for me to play with. As usual, I try to play fair with continuity, so I didn't change any of the facts as given. I just sort of went beyond them. One of the things I remember from the time is that I'd seen a television interview with a convicted killer from the mob, and God, he was one of the most stone-cold people I've ever seen in my life. His eyes were very dead. I remember one thing in particular that I found very chilling. He said, "My life doesn't mean anything to me, why should your life?"
Right there, that was the kernel of Deadshot: He just didn't care. I don't know if he really had a death wish, he just didn't care if he lived or died. His life doesn't matter to him. Why should yours?
CA: There was one other big character in Suicide Squad. Obviously, you did a lot of things for a lot of characters --- Nightshade was one, and Captain Boomerang, of course --- but probably your single greatest creation in comics is Amanda Waller.
JO: Yeah. Again, when I was creating the Squad, there had to be somebody in charge. It had to be somebody who was tough, and who was willing to use these people, or cut them loose, or let them die. I was debating on who this person should be, and I decided a couple of things. I wanted this person to be female, I wanted them to be African-American, I wanted them to be a little bit older, and I wanted them to be a little bit larger, physically, because there just wasn't anyone like that in the Squad.
Also, I wanted that she had no super-powers. All she had was her toughness and her will. Part of the reason she's called the Wall is how she looks. She's stout, and she doesn't give an inch. One of my favorite covers of Squad is when she's backing Batman up, just pointing her finger into his chest and charging towards him. I thought that defined Amanda so well.
CA: Just a quick sidenote, that is literally one of my favorite comics ever printed.
JO: [Laughs] Yeah.
CA: You really dove into those characters, too. The "Personal Files" issues seem like such a modern take on things. Back in the '80s, comics were getting really introspective in a lot of ways, but a lot of that introspection was still driven by action. With "Personal Files," you'd really take a break from the missions and just focus on finding out more about them. Was there resistance to that at the time, or did everyone see the necessity of it?
JO: I think the latter. I wanted to flesh them out more. You don't always have time when you're telling a story to get into certain individuals and their quirks, but you want the reader to know them better. The better they know them, the more they identify with them, the more they feel something about them. Also, sometimes, with the "Personal Files" issues, you think of the overall number of books that you're doing and it's just a change of pace from the usual skullduggery and action and violence that's going on. It gave the reader a nice chance to catch their breath as well, and also to set up some things that would pay off in later plot lines.
CA: Something I've written about before is that I feel like Suicide Squad changed the way DC approached comics more than just about anything else. There was a lot going on at the time, from Justice League International to the rebooted Superman titles, but Squad had such a focus on making villains interesting and making them characters you could sympathize with. Have you seen the influence from what you did as DC went forward, and how it really became the dominant aesthetic?
JO: I accept that other people see it and say it, but for me, I was just trying to write the most interesting stories with the best characters that I could at the time, to the best degree of my ability. If that has influenced other things...
I've talked to other people --- Geoff Johns, for instance, has told me that I influenced him --- and that's very nice. It's very flattering. A lot of these people are definitely good writers, people like Gail Simone, and I think they would've just stumbled on it themselves. I think DC just gave permission for that to happen.
CA: War Crimes is not the first time you've returned to Suicide Squad. You did From The Ashes almost ten years ago, and reading that as a fan, it was like you'd never left. I was wondering if that was something difficult for you to come back to, given how the original series ends.
JO: Actually, no. It helped that other people had been writing Suicide Squad since then, so we at least knew that the Squad existed. It was just a matter of my picking up some of the stuff that I do. It's one of the things I like about War Crimes.
When Andy Khouri, the editor, approached me, he told me that what DC wanted was a John Ostrander Suicide Squad story. I didn't have to change what I was doing, just go out and do it. That was very liberating. It was great to be able to do that, and I think I've done that with War Crimes. It's a very John Ostrander Suicide Squad story.
CA: I noticed that the villains, Strikeforce Europa, feel like you're going back to the same enemies that the Squad has back in your very first issue, even down to the word choice. There's a character who has those super-speed bursts, like Jaculi in the original.
JO: What's interesting is that Strikeforce Europa aren't villains, per se, they're actually the good guys. But they are the antagonists, for sure, and you just have to take a look and see what are the most interesting character traits that you can do quickly. You don't have time to create really deep characterizations, you have to sketch it in real quick so you can get on with the story.
CA: Obviously, characters like Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Amanda Waller, and Rick Flagg are signature characters in your run. Here in 2016, though, Harley Quinn is really strongly identified with the Squad, and she's not a character that I think you've ever worked on. Did that shift the dynamic for you?
JO: Any Squad dynamic is going to be influenced by exactly who's on it, and that always changes from mission to mission. In one story early on, we added the Penguin, and that changed the dynamic quite a bit.
I will say that writing Harley was an absolute blast. I had such a good time. Like in the movie, she came alive and stole the whole thing! I mean, she's a thief, but for cryin' out loud, she's stealing the story!
CA: Was it a group of characters you'd like to return to, if you get the chance?
JO: I'm always happy to return to the Squad. They're such fun to play with, and they fit into the modern world so well. I always find that I'm doing interesting work with them.
JO: [Laughs] I never talked directly to him, and I get the sense that he was maybe not that pleased! And yeah, I was being kind of a snot, a little bit of a brat. But he'd written himself into Animal Man, which meant that he was technically a DC character, so my justification was that I was freeing him!
Also, it's not Grant Morrison! It is someone called "The Writer," but it's never actually labeled as Grant Morrison, although everyone was guessing! Yeah, I was being a little bit more satirical than I sometimes did, and to be honest, if I had the chance, I probably wouldn't do it again.
Check out a preview of Suicide Squad: War Crimes #1: