Wait, Did ‘New Suicide Squad’ Just Become DC’s Smartest Team Book?
When DC Comics launched its "New 52" Universe a few years back, Suicide Squad was pretty much the bottom of a barrel that wasn't really in good shape to begin with. Despite being an attempt to revive one of the best, most elegantly crafted and thought-provoking superhero books of the 1980s, the New 52 version was a noisy, soulless mess that ended up doing almost irreparable damage to characters like Harley Quinn in the name of making something more extreme, in a true late '90s Juggalo sense of the word. When the series was finally canceled and relaunched, I honestly wasn't expecting it to get any better, especially since the new lineup included the addition of one of the worst new DC characters of the past several years.
But we're two issues into what writer Sean Ryan is doing with the re-relaunched title, New Suicide Squad (which in just two issues features artwork by six pencillers and inkers: Jeremy Roberts, Tom Derenick, Scott Hanna, Mark Irwin, Norm Rapmund, Batt; and colors by Blond), and while I'm not sure, I think it might actually be the smartest team book DC's putting out.
To be fair, there's a good chance that I'm reading a little too much into it, but I don't think I am, for one simple reason. See, the trick with New Suicide Squad is that there is no trick. Ryan's script for this comic is about as subtle as a hammer to the kneecap, with characters in the comic discussing the events surrounding the Suicide Squad, the team, in a way that's impossible -- at least for me -- to see as not also applying to Suicide Squad, the comic book.
I mean, this is a book that starts off with someone talking about how great the Squad is as a concept, laying out exactly what the hook of the comic book ought to be...
...before literally ending it with "you couldn't screw this up if you tried" and then immediately showing exactly how screwed up that concept has gotten over the past three years.
The responsible party in both cases is Vic Sage, who bears little to no resemblance to his pre-52 counterpart, who was the Question before whatever supernatural nonsense happened in Trinity of Sin to give us the new version. The new Vic Sage is a cheerfully slimy Treasury man who's been given both control of the Suicide Squad alongside Amanda Waller and the single largest cup of Starbucks that I've ever seen:
When I talked about the first issue of this comic on War Rocket Ajax, a few listeners told me that they assumed Sage was from the Treasury because that's a government agency with a long history of involvement with law enfocement. They used to oversee the ATF and the Secret Service, and Eliot Ness was famously a T-man, but I don't think that's what it is. I mean, if you want to get technical about it, all that stuff was restructured back in 2003, but more than that, I think that it's an immediate link to money.
See, Sage is a money man, and he wants the Suicide Squad to be profitable. Now, in the context of the comic, that profit doesn't have to be in the form of money. His version of profit is that he wants the Squad to be feared by other governments to show them who's in charge. Either way, the connection is there: He's a guy who wants to wring every bit of profit that he can out of this can't-miss formula he's in control of... and he's going to do it by making changes so that the team becomes more extreme.
Those changes are what I was most worried about when I sat down to read the first issue, but they actually ended up being my favorite part of the book so far. And that's hard to believe, considering that those changes are the addition of Deathstroke the Terminator and the Joker's Daughter.
These are two characters I hate, but they are delightful in this comic. I've made my feelings about Deathstroke and his recent rise to all-encompassing prominence pretty clear in the past, but he's perfect for this comic. See, Sage's plan is to double down on what the Squad's been doing "right," and since the two biggest "successes" on the team so far (or at least the two most marketable characters) have been Deadshot and Harley Quinn, he's gone out and gotten himself two characters that are exactly like them, only moreso.
In other words, Deathstroke's the new Deadshot, and that's perfect. See, while Deathstroke was a character that arrived as a prefabricated badass in the pages of New Teen Titans and has been riding that self-justified wave of fame and fortune ever since, Deadshot's the also-ran. He's the character who was a one-note villain in the '50s brought back to be a one-note villain in the '70s, who only really got character development and complexity in the '80s under John Ostrander, Kim Yale and Luke McDonnell's Suicide Squad. He's the layered, interesting failure -- Deathstroke's the same deadly-assassin character hook but with all the failings removed. He's just the badass.
As for Joker's Daughter, her role on the team is hilarious. She's the new Harley Quinn, the Joker's #1 fan, but while all Harley got from the reboot was a terrible costume and some truly awful stories, JD's got all that and literally runs around wearing a severed face strapped to her head. She's hilariously awful, and this is a book that gets that. Sage even says in the first issue that she's really just on the team so that they can lure the Joker himself out of hiding, because he is a dude that thinks it is a good idea to put the Joker on their covert operations team. You know who thinks like that? People who have looked at the sales numbers of Joker stories.
All of that, the character dynamics and the metatextual commentary, are set up in the first issue. Then, in the second, it suddenly turns into a superheroic version of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Seriously, it's just horrible people being horrible to each other because they've been put in a situation by equally horrible people for about 20 pages. That might not sound like the kind of thing I'd be into -- it is, in fact, my chief complaint about the New 52 Justice League, that they're all a bunch of jerks to each other all the time -- but the important distinction is that they're villains, and they're villains who have been given motivation.
That's what the previous iteration of Suicide Squad lacked. Ostrander, Yale and McDonnell's version was built on character and interaction, on taking a bunch of villains that would be otherwise forgotten in this new universe that was suddenly teeming with masked bank robbers and bringing something worthwhile out of them. The character work in that book is amazing, and while New Suicide Squad has a long way to go before it hits those heights -- and would probably do well if it could maintain an art team for two issues without having to call in four people to finish layouts -- it's coming out of a version of this book where character was an afterthought at best, and actively detrimental at worst. Here, there's motivation in play, there's frustration and greed and jealous and hate, all those emotions that drive supervillains to begin with, being put on display in a way that's hilarious, subversive, and very well done.
I'm as surprised as you are, but I can't wait for the next issue.