Monday, July 29, 2013

Three by Frank Miller

Ronin (Frank Miller) - This was a massive early breakthrough for Miller, a Prestige-format miniseries in which the writer/artist broke lose, experimented wildly, and pointed the way forward to the industry-changing work he'd do later in the 80s. Ronin boldly combines a number of disparate influences, taking bits and pieces from Moebius' sci-fi comics, manga (especially Lone Wolf and Cub), 2001: A Space Odyssey, samurai films, and horror. But it's more than just a sum of its influences; it's the raw work of a young artist, but an artist already starting to develop his own brash, unique voice.

There's so much raw energy here, with Miller developing a style that's at once iconic and lushly detailed; there are hints of the stark minimalism he'd eventually hone in Sin City, but here the edges are scratchier, and there's a great deal of variety in terms of artistic approaches, from the dark silhouettes of the horrific underground sequences to the Moebius-inspired fine detailing of the sequences set in a futuristic living city to the explosive staging of the many action scenes.

The story is pure pulp insanity, starting from a tale of samurais and demons and then leaping forward into a near-apocalyptic future in which high-tech inventions seem poised to either save the world or finally push it off the precipice into oblivion. The storytelling is elliptical and somewhat uneven, alternating between long, nearly silent sequences in which the mood set by Miller's art dominates and bursts of wordy exposition and explanation. The writing isn't always as precise as it might be, so it's left to the art to carry the story, a task it's more than capable of fulfilling — this is visually stunning work, and Miller's experiments with layout and panels completely dictate the flow of the story.

Hard Boiled (Frank Miller & Geof Darrow) - Ridiculous, over-the-top, ultraviolent, and simultaneously a send-up and satire of a mass culture dominated by violence. Three issues of nearly context-free extreme gore, as the protagonist (who can't quite remember which name is his real one) hurtles into one excessive rampage of violence after another. He's an insurance adjuster or a tax collector, some kind of mundane paper-pushing occupation that's totally at odds with the bizarre violence that seems to result from every one of his routine assignments, and that's because actually he's a cyborg, created for murder and mayhem but programmed to think he's an ordinary man.

Miller and Darrow revel in the details of the mayhem. Darrow's hyper-detailed art allows the reader to pore over these massive double-page spreads of inventive violence: impalings, beheadings, bullet-riddled corpses, multi-car pileups complete with bodies flying through windshields, broken bones, gaping wounds, fingers bent back, and at one point the protagonist himself, stretched across two pages in gruesome closeup, his flesh mangled, his hands deformed, barbed wire wrapped around him and digging into his skin. The total lack of meaning is the point: it's a vicious satire of the kinds of thoughtless action movies and dumb violent spectacles proliferating on screens big and small, a critique of the desensitization that results from such gory sensory gratification.

Miller and Darrow also mash up violence with its partner, sex. In one key scene, the protagonist is deluged with memories of murder while his sexy pinup wife undresses to seduce him, trying to distract him but actually just thrusting her body into the fantasies, conflating violence and release. Later, once the protagonist accepts his cyborg state, he's seduced by a female robot counterpart across multiple pages where she contorts her body into pinup postures that had obviously been programmed into her right out of centerfold spreads. It's a crazy book, oddly fun and yet with an undercurrent of critique aimed at making the reader feel guilty for enjoying this so much.

The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot (Frank Miller & Geof Darrow) - Miller's second collaboration with Darrow is an odd one indeed. It's a tribute to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, as well as the famed manga Astro Boy, with Rusty the Boy Robot being an obvious doppelganger for Astro. In the first issue, scientists unwittingly unleash a monstrous lizard who starts stomping the city with flame breath and turning ordinary people into similar, smaller monsters by spitting digestive juices at them. Nothing can stop the monster, even when the Japanese send their new prototype robot, Rusty, at the creature.

In the next issue, Big Guy arrives: unlike Rusty, he's not a robot but a man (never seen) in a mechanical suit, an American military man piloting American military hardware. As he faces off against the monster, Miller details his wholesome, all-American line of thought, a constant stream of patriotic, God-loving decency as a contrast against the monster's nihilist destructiveness and hatred of human beings. Big Guy even goes out of his way to ensure that there are no civilian casualties, taking care to subdue and pacify the transformed humans so they can be cured, rather than taking the much easier route of simply killing them. When Big Guy inevitably wins at the end of the issue, the Japanese government officials comment on his greatness by pointing out how surprisingly mild were the casualties from such a massive battle.

It's hard not to see some kind of political commentary here, though it's honestly hard to tell if Miller is celebrating or satirizing America's status as an international power that fights other countries' battles for them. In a way, it almost seems like a fantasy of how Miller thinks the USA should be viewed around the world, as an almost superhuman but benign power that helps out everyone else in the international community. At the end of the issue, Rusty — who had been totally ineffective despite his own supposed great power — is tagging along after Big Guy promising to be his "kid sidekick." An interesting, very weird comic, though regardless of what Miller is up to, Darrow's art is as exceptionally crisp and detailed as ever.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bandette, Reporter, Totems

Bandette (Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover) - Like a lot of people I'm sure, I checked this out since it was the only one of this year's Eisner-nominated ongoing series that I wasn't already reading. Obviously Eisner knew what they were doing with this one, because it's a total delight, a really fun and beautiful comic that's bursting with humor, energy, and sweetness. The concept and the overall attitude owe a lot to the Fantomas serials, focusing as it does on the titular robber girl, an outlaw who steals from other criminals and also helps out the police on occasion, doing it all with a wink and a cheery grin and a hearty, optimistic attitude. Tobin's writing is breezy and witty, making Bandette and her colorful enemies and rivals instantly likeable — the fourth issue's duel between Bandette and the villainous Matadori is sprinkled with so much witty, almost friendly repartee that it begins to seem less like bitter enemies battling than a couple of friends lightly sparring.

As fun as this spirited attitude is, it would be nothing without Coover's bright, cartoony art, which renders a larger-than-life fantasy Paris in which Bandette (who looks much like Coover when she's out of costume) can have her carefree adventures and innocent flirtations. It's all styled almost like a kids' book, though it's not without a few elements that suggest more adult themes. Mostly, though, it's just so much fun, a perfect mesh between Tobin's brisk writing and Coover's luscious, lively art — this is a husband-and-wife collaboration and it feels like their love and admiration for each other is encoded in these pages, perhaps in the gentle affection Bandette feels for her friend Daniel, or the more dangerous feelings that seem to exist between Bandette and her rival thief Monsieur. It's a great series, and I hope it's collected soon since it definitely deserves to be seen beyond its current digital-only format.

Reporter (Dylan Williams) - Dylan Williams was best known, before his passing a couple years ago, as the man behind Sparkplug Books, a small-press comics imprint that put out lots of fine, under-the-radar books over its years of operation. Williams was also a cartoonist and writer, and the Reporter series (started in the late 90s) was his most sustained work. It's a series of loosely connected tales centered around the town of Willoughby, set in 1956. Williams' influences are obvious, as he blends film noir and 60s European art films alongside a clear appreciation for old-school cartooning in the vein of Ditko or the EC stable. Much of the art is rough and shaky, though he gets better with each issue. His line is fairly thick and he favors lots of dense shadow, giving his pages a dense, raw, intense look. At times I'm reminded of British cartoonist Chris Reynolds, not a bad comparison point in general.

Coupled with Williams' bluntly philosophical dialogue and tendency towards pointed commentary in caption boxes, this aesthetic lends itself well to these tales of people trying to figure out their place in life, grappling with career and love and ambition and the workings of one's own mind. It's pretty good stuff. Issues 3-5 are interconnected in interesting ways: #3 shows the aftermath of a bloody robbery (very reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs); #4 shows the robbery itself, first in reverse and then again chronologically, all without words; and #5 is a flashback to the Korean War experiences of the robbers. The silent issue, #4, is a great concept that's executed a bit clumsily, but the rest of this interwoven tale is quite well done.

The highlight of the whole series is #6, the final issue, a standalone story based on Antonioni's La Notte, in which a couple — one half of which is Adam, a newspaper reporter and the closest thing the series had to a main character — go to a party and have some wordy but ultimately inconclusive conversations with the guests. It's fascinating because Williams is really risking alienation here, delivering all these lengthy dialogues about philosophy and choice and politics and religion, but instead of seeming pretentious he gets across how desperate these people are to understand themselves, how behind their grandiose words is a real desire to find meaning or a common ground with other people. No matter how much they talk, the other person in the conversation never understands, never agrees, because he or she is coming from an entirely different perspective. It's a great portrait of the ways in which we're all united in a quest to understand things, and yet separated by that gulf between our individual outlooks.

Reporter was a fine series, the work of an artist loaded with raw ambition and talent. It will now forever be unfinished, though its anecdotal structure never really seemed to be leading towards a concrete ending of any kind — what's more important, and sadder, is that the promise revealed in these pages will now never be realized, never be developed further.

Totems (Tom Peyer & various artists) - A one-shot released as part of Vertigo's pre-millennium V2K series. On one level it's basically Peyer's celebration of the Vertigo aesthetic and the characters associated with it, a massive party with Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Constantine, Robotman, Shade, and Black Orchid attending. Peyer was mostly associated with DC's mainstream universe, particularly with more lighthearted characters and series, so this was his opportunity to cut loose with something totally different. It's also a surprisingly poignant tale about how desperate some people are for meaning, excitement, something of substance in life — Peyer ties that desire to all the conspiracy theories and paranoid end-of-the-world hysteria that was in the air around the turn of the millennium.

His main character is an ordinary guy who grows obsessed with aliens and government coverups and all the other weirdness that some people want to believe is hidden beneath drab ordinary reality. In desperately pursuing these secrets and mysteries, he foresakes his own ordinary life, his family, the happiness he might have had from simply enjoying what was already in front of him instead of searching fruitlessly for something more. Apparently this was widely panned when it came out, but it's pretty fun, a slightly skewed, off-kilter look at all the Vertigo mainstays and the dark world they inhabit.

Monday, July 15, 2013

American Captain, Legends of the DC Universe, Dr. Strange: The Oath

American Captain (Robyn Kenealy) - A really charming webcomic that claims to be the diary of a certain frustrated artist and man-out-of-time named Steve Rogers. Like a more emo, light version of Millar's Ultimate Captain America, this Cap is haunted by his time displacement, baffled by the modern era and grappling with the insecurity he feels when confronted with this alien modernity. Often very funny or quietly witty, the strip also takes its premise very seriously, never resorting to a cheap punchline. Steve earnestly discourses on religion, art, gender, technology, and politics, all of which have changed tremendously in his time away. And the humor is balanced by real, sometimes startling, pathos and emotion. The simple, economical drawings, with the figures and their musings positioned in white space, both fits the faux-sketchbook format and places the emphasis on the cartoony expressiveness of these characters. A quick must-read for any fans of superhero psychology.

Legends of the DC Universe #24-25 (Jamie Delano & Steve Pugh) - As recommended by Sven. Really excellent. A punk kid on Apokolips reawakens the spirit of resistance and free will through graffiti and an unwillingness to follow orders. Really moving and poetic, especially since Delano traces much of the story through the transformation of one of Darkseid's Hunger Dogs, who is so shaken by the kid's disobedience that it totally undoes a lifetime of subjugation, of cruel deeds perpetrated both on and by him. It's hard to imagine a better ode to the persistence of the human spirit, with Pugh channeling Kirby's grandeur and bombast in the art to further convey this optimistic, heartfelt message. It's a great fusion of punk ethos with the Fourth World saga's potent morality.

Dr. Strange: The Oath (Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin) - A really fun and smart miniseries that explores the Sorcerer Supreme through the lens of not only magic but science and medicine, the earthly as well as the mystical. Vaughan imparts thematic richness to the story through flashbacks to Strange's youth as an arrogant surgeon, and a plot in which the medical and the magical cross over and intermingle. Magic "has no rules," someone complains early on, so Vaughan confronts Strange's magic with the laws of nature, the laws of man, and science's constant quest to test the boundaries of those laws, and to expand those boundaries. Martin's art is dazzling, with a charming cartooniness and bold, thick lines - it's Martin, as much as Vaughan, who makes this book essential. Martin also gives the book much of its charm and energy, in the rakish wit of Strange (very like William Powell here), the simmering romantic chemistry between Strange and Martin's effortlessly sexy, sophisticated Night Nurse, and the eye-popping imagination of the book's mystical realms and magic battles.

Monday, July 8, 2013


This series spun off from John Ostrander and Kim Yale's work on Suicide Squad, where they first brought in the character of Mark Shaw. Both Shaw and various incarnations of the Manhunters had been around for years, in Shaw's case in a succession of costumes and identities, both as a hero and a villain. Shaw was created by Jack Kirby (who had also co-created the Golden Age Manhunter) for 1st Issue Special #5, part of a series of single-issue tales that could have been expanded to full series, though in practice most of them, including Manhunter, were not. He appeared sporadically after this, as the Star-Tsar and the Privateer, with the latter identity being brought back by Ostrander and Yale in Suicide Squad before Shaw again resumed the Manhunter name and costume. It is that sense of a man searching for his own identity that seems to have attracted Ostrander and Yale to the character, and it's that germ around which they build their take on him.

This idea is most pronounced in the opening four issues of Shaw's ongoing series. Ostrander and Yale originally conceived of these issues as a standalone miniseries, and indeed there is a feeling of completeness and concision in this arc, which is tightly plotted and self-contained, ending with a sense of finality. Though there are sporadic interesting moments in the ongoing series that continued until issue #24 after this opening arc, there's no question that these first four issues represent Yale and Ostrander's definitive take on the character, and nothing they do subsequently on this series comes close to matching that level. This first arc opposes Shaw, as Manhunter, against an assassin called Dumas, who similarly hides behind masks and is indeed obsessed with masks, because he has no face of his own. He is a malleable master of disguise who can look like anyone, but as a result his sense of self is shattered. He is a dark mirror to Shaw, who over time had assumed multiple masks and disguises, multiple identities, both heroic and villainous, casting around for a true form in which he could be comfortable.

These issues are all about identity, about defining one's self, and the opposition between hero and villain in that respect is perfect — Shaw is a masked man who nevertheless makes no secret of his name and civilian identity, while Dumas seems to exist wholly behind masks, with no life beyond his missions. The dichotomy becomes especially potent with the introduction of Olivia Vancroft, a reclusive and beautiful woman also obsessed with masks — and who turns out herself to be living behind a mask in the most fascinating way. These issues are rich and dense with thematic and psychological material, the real conflict between Shaw and Dumas being ideological and mental rather than physical. It all stretches back to Kirby's origin story for Shaw, which opened with the unforgettable image of Shaw's unnamed predecessor as Manhunter attacking a villain who kept a collection of severed, mask-wearing heads as trophies, even speaking through them via intercom. Ostrander and Yale expand upon that image and the ideas it represents, creating a powerful study of identity, gender, and appearance.

After this remarkable opening story, issue #5 takes a break with a story written by Yale alone and drawn by Mary Mitchell, a distinctive penciller who seems to have gotten far too little work in comics. Yale and Mitchell approach this standalone issue as a romance comic, focusing on the perspective of a police sergeant, Sylvia Kandrey, who gets wrapped up in Manhunter's adventures after some flirting at the precinct. It's an interesting, feminist take on romance comics and the often secondary role of women in comics as girlfriends and love interests to the heroes. Sylvia is a typical dreamer, and when her flirtation with Shaw leads to a date, her head is almost immediately filled with thoughts of their romantic future. Instead, Shaw, though he does seem to be attracted to her, mainly wants a source of information in the police station so he can track down the child-molesting computer hacker Interface. Yale fumbles the actual crime plot a bit — the stuff with Interface is very jumbled and confusing — but that's beside the point of this issue, which concerns the shattering of Sylvia's unrealistic, romantic dreams, and her realization that she's unnecessarily making herself secondary to a man. The issue ends with her distancing herself from Shaw and committing herself to her career anew. Mitchell's lithe, lovely linework is perfectly suited to the issue's romance comic aesthetic, even if the issue's message serves to undercut those stereotypical depictions of male/female interactions and relationships.

The Yale/Mitchell team returned to Sylvia in a backup story that takes up half of issue #11, depicting the fallout of her involvement with Manhunter, and dealing with the implied patriarchal attitude the men in her profession feel towards her. Unfortunately, in subsequent appearances Sylvia would fall more and more into the role of the conventional love interest, and the feminist undercurrent of these two stories would largely get submerged. It's a shame, because one imagines a truly subversive comic that might focus equally on Manhunter's typical superhero adventures as well as Sylvia's assertion of her own life and her own professional pride independent of the man she's involved with. Obviously, that's too much to hope for from a DC superhero book that was probably fated to be pretty low-selling no matter what, and couldn't have been helped by the presence of Yale's feminist romance comics.

Indeed, after the opening five issues, Manhunter goes severely downhill. Starting with #13, the book essentially became Yale's alone; Ostrander usually continued to be credited with plotting or other writing assistance, but after this point the scripts were mostly written by Yale alone. She'd already proved herself a capable writer in her solo appearances on the title — including an interesting "fairy tale" story in #12, updating the Sleeping Beauty tale into an anti-drug parable about parents' fears for their children — but it's also obvious that she's not particularly interested in writing a typical superhero book, and that disinterest shows through in the second half of the run. Because there's no question that Manhunter is, disappointingly, mostly just a generic superhero book at this point. In issues #8-9, the title had crossed over with The Flash and the Invasion! event, with mostly lame results, and this was followed by an arc that started out promising the kind of everyone-converging espionage plot that Ostrander and Yale excelled at in Suicide Squad, but instead became merely a big brawl between robots and armored men.

Nothing much improved once Yale took over as sole writer, unfortunately. The problem was that, beyond the mask/identity theme that had been explored so potently in the opening arc, there's not much to Mark Shaw; he worked fine in the context of Suicide Squad or in a thematically focused story with a distinctive opposing villain, but on his own he has little personality, and attempts to develop his family here mostly fall flat. So Yale falls back on action, and it's a style she seems to have little affinity for, because when she's on her own, her action and fight scenes read like mere assemblies of clichés, without any trace of the intelligence and engagement she evinced when writing about Sylvia's workplace struggles. There are still a few interesting moments along the way. At one point, Yale brings back Interface and briefly hints that Shaw is going to make an Amanda Waller-style deal with the child molester, a moment calculated to shock, calling attention to the moral dividing lines that are expected to remain sacrosanct even in comics where every other question of morality is shaded in gray. In another scene in the book's final arc, Shaw, escaping from a new version of Dumas, crashes through a window into an office, the kind of scene that's virtually routine in action movies and comics — except that here, an innocent woman in the office is peppered with broken glass and badly injured, possibly dying as a result of the supposed hero's attempt to save his own life.

Such moments hint at the complexity and unpredictability that Yale and Ostrander always brought to Suicide Squad, but unfortunately here such scenes remain rare. The final arc in particular is just abysmal, climaxing with Shaw getting tutored by an alien yeti and then engaging in an issue-length fight scene with Dumas, without any of the delicate shading and thematic overlays that characterized their earlier conflict. Manhunter is ultimately memorable for its great first arc, with only sporadic issues and moments thereafter reaching that level again.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Suicide Squad

John Ostrander's creation of a new Suicide Squad (in the pages of the Legends crossover) resulted in one of the great series of the '80s. There had been an earlier Suicide Squad that appeared in a few installments of The Brave and the Bold in the late '50s and early '60s, but though Ostrander carried over some material and characters from that concept, his own Suicide Squad was a fresh idea. The premise — a government-sponsored team which recruits imprisoned criminals for dangerous missions — allowed for characters from all over the DC Universe to be mashed together and set against one another, and also allowed for a multitude of tones and types of stories. Suicide Squad was primarily an espionage/action book, but along the way there was also plenty of traditional capes-and-cowls superhero action, broad humor, dense political sagas, wild interdimensional sci-fi, and crossovers with everyone from Batman to the Doom Patrol. Its material was catholic, both in terms of the types of stories covered and the types of characters who might show up in its pages, but what was consistent was the sharpness of its storytelling and the depth of character that was explored in virtually every villain or anti-hero who joined the Squad, however briefly.

Ostrander was joined, starting with issue #23, by his wife and fellow comic writer Kim Yale, who was rarely absent as co-writer once she joined the book. Whether written by Ostrander solo or in collaboration with Yale, though, Suicide Squad was almost always an engaging and utterly unique book. From the beginning, it was an outlet for a jaundiced, realpolitik view of world affairs and the ways in which governments function, or don't function. The Suicide Squad is representative of all the shadowy, morally questionable things committed in the name of patriotism or democracy or security, and nobody represented that idea as well as Amanda Waller, the head of the Squad and one of Ostrander's most enduring creations. The Wall was a fierce brick of a woman, without powers but nevertheless able to cow and corral her unruly superpowered subordinates. In one of the series' goofiest and craziest stretches, the team travels to Apokolips and Waller actually goes toe to toe with Granny Goodness, the only logical choice for her counterpart among Darkseid's minions. For the most part, though, she's a far more grounded character, a realistic avatar of government intrigue and hard-nosed common-sense, a woman who takes no shit from anyone. In one memorable scene, she even tells off President Reagan, sarcastically asking him if he remembers the days when the US actually had social programs to help people.

Indeed, the presence of Reagan (and later Bush I) in these pages grounds the book in the real politics of the late '80s and early '90s. Beyond Waller's sardonic put-down of Reaganomics, there was very little overt political commentary in Suicide Squad. Ostrander and Yale were never the least bit preachy or didactic, preferring to implicitly critique the whole system through their stories about political corruption, back-door deals, fiercely duelling intelligence agencies, and the moral vacuum that engulfs the corridors of power. Genuine heroes are rare here, and when they do appear — as in the character of Nemesis — their morally driven choices often drive them right out of the book's orbit. Waller herself isn't always a sympathetic figure, and she's as morally compromised as anyone else in the book; she's an anti-hero, though at times Ostrander even toys with making her into an outright villain. The group's missions aren't as clearcut as the typical superhero fight, either, in that it's often not clear if the Squad is even on the right side, or if there is a "right" side in these complex conflicts.

That's why the book was at its weakest whenever it bowed to conventional superhero ideas of good vs. bad. The epic, 11-part "Janus Directive" storyline was a crossover with several other books, primarily Paul Kupperberg's Checkmate! and Ostrander's own parallel books, Manhunter and Firestorm. The story starts out promisingly, with shadowy assassinations and obscure plots, but soon becomes mired in endless fight scenes and unfortunately delivers a far more conventional threat than Ostrander usually turned to in his own series. In the end, it seems like a poorly conceived crossover attempt, especially when the final part, in Captain Atom, turns out to have almost nothing to do with the whole preceding story.

In its early days, even beyond this crossover, Suicide Squad was occasionally hampered by being overly connected to other DC books. Ostrander was writing both Firestorm and Manhunter during the same era, and he introduced the Squad in the Legends miniseries, so the early issues especially are constantly dotted with those little editorial caption boxes pointing to issues of these other comics, as well as singling out backstories for various characters in still other comics. It makes it feel at times that Suicide Squad isn't standing on its own or telling its own story; thankfully this tendency soon fell away. In the aftermath of the uneven "Janus Directive," especially, with Yale now onboard, the book became increasingly consistent, its pacing assured, leaping from one action-packed, multi-part arc to the next without ever sacrificing the book's emphasis on character. After "Janus," there wouldn't be another crossover or tie-in until #58's installment in George Perez's "War of the Gods," which Ostrander and Yale mostly use for various character beats before unleashing the inevitable big battle in the issue's second half. (Ostrander and Yale also, hilariously, took this opportunity to kill Grant Morrison, as in the character of "the writer" who had written himself into DC continuity in Animal Man.)

Other than this, Ostrander and Yale kept Suicide Squad pretty self-contained, with its own coherent cast and concerns. Starting around the time of the "Phoenix Gambit" storyline in issues #40-43, Suicide Squad really came into its own as a globe-trotting espionage book, the characters mostly not in costume anymore, undertaking spy missions around the world. The book takes on a brilliant late Cold War tone, depicting the conservative and reactionary forces still struggling to maintain the old orders in various ways, even as Gorbachev's glasnost pushes the US and the USSR towards peace. This approach reaches its frenzied peak in issues #53-57, an extended arc dealing with multiple international forces competing over a cache of Soviet weapons stolen in Afghanistan to be sold to the yakuza. The Suicide Squad finds themselves entangled in a massive struggle that involves terrorists, gangsters, rebels, and spies representing multiple governments, all in a gray zone where crime, war, and government interests overlap in interesting ways.

At the same time, Suicide Squad was also always a character-driven book, with a host of strong personalities: troubled heroes, ambiguous anti-heroes, and villains in various states of reform, whether permanent or transitory. It was Yale, annoyed by the treatment of Barbara Gordon in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, who came up with the idea of giving the wheelchair-bound Barbara a new role and a potential new place in the DC Universe as a disabled character, unable to reassume the Batgirl role. Yale and Ostrander's distaste for The Killing Joke was certainly not unique to them — many criticized Barbara's diminishment to a victim, a prop, a plot device, crippled for the effect it would have on other characters — but they were the only ones with the vision to actually see storytelling possibilities for the character beyond her crippling. After Killing Joke, Barbara almost never appeared in any DC comics, and it seemed her fate was to fade away into obscurity, and maybe eventually be cured by some writer who wanted to bring back Batgirl (as finally happened anyway in the New 52). Instead, Yale and Ostrander imagined new possibilities for Barbara, creating the Oracle persona and gradually weaving her into the Squad.

In her first few appearances, she's just a voice emanating from a computer, though Yale and Ostrander quickly started planting clues before revealing her identity as Barbara Gordon. She then took on a more active role with the Squad starting with issues #48-49, which put the spotlight on Oracle and provided Barbara, at long last, with an opportunity to vent her own feelings about her fate at the hands of the Joker — something which, astonishingly, no one had really bothered to do before this, two years after The Killing Joke. In #59, Barbara comes face to face with Batman for the first time as Oracle, a poignant and sharply written encounter that was their most substantial meeting in years. The fact that no one in the actual Batman books was telling these stories more or less proves how little anyone at DC thought of Barbara, how little they thought of her crippling as something that actually happened to her as a character — she was a plot device, no more, forgotten as soon as the violence committed against her had provided its shocks. Yale and Ostrander alone refused to forget her, and their revitalization of the character paved the way for Barbara's important role in future Batman stories as well as a central part in the much-loved Birds of Prey.

That Oracle had her start in the pages of Suicide Squad is indicative of the strong character work that epitomizes this series. Ostrander and Yale frequently delved into the psychologies and pasts of these characters; for a book founded on the principle of throwing expendable, washed-up villains into action, it's extraordinarily sympathetic towards these characters and much attention is paid to motivation and history. This is evident as well in the Deadshot miniseries that was spun off from Suicide Squad, featuring some exceptional art from regular Squad artist Luke McDonnell, here inking himself and really playing up the angular, angry quality of his linework, so well-suited to these dark tales. This brutal, unflinchingly grim four-issue detour took a sometimes-impenetrable enigma and opened him up tremendously without erasing his essential characterization as a remorseless assassin. Ostrander and Yale dare to exploit a familiar genre cliché — the hero, or anti-hero, tearing through ranks of bad guys to save a loved one — and subtly turn it upside-down by having Deadshot perpetrate all this vengeful violence essentially out of obligation to the convention, rather than a real attachment to his son, who's been kidnapped and threatened with death. Deadshot does what he's supposed to, he kills anyone who gets in his way, and he exacts his brutal vengeance, but he seems to care little about the boy he's doing all this for, and he doesn't so much as pause to shed a tear or reveal a shred of humanity when the series reaches its grim climax. This mini also elaborated on Deadshot's sordid family history, and all this spills over again into the main series a few issues later, as the assassin becomes even more unhinged than usual at a crucial moment. Still later, Deadshot goes through some fascinating psychological back-and-forth relating to his identity, his costume, and his name.

Even a character like Dr. Light, who is generally treated as a joke, has some poignancy in the hands of Ostrander and Yale — they too see him as pathetic, a shell of a villain plagued by anguish over his continual defeats at the hands of child superheroes, but his torment is dealt with seriously even in the context of stories that mock him. It's a delicate line; he's a subject of humor but his very status as a joke provides some degree of empathy in these same stories. This approach reaches its apex in the bonkers issue #52, which is an all-out slapstick farce (with appropriate cartoony, Looney Tunes-esque art by Jim Fern) dealing with the character's death and resurrection (and death and life and...). Captain Boomerang is another continual source of comedic relief throughout this series, acknowledging that he could basically never be anything but a joke, but also infusing him with real personality and attitude, treating him as a real character, an irrepressible rogue, rather than a disposable caricature. Ostrander and Yale extended this approach to almost everyone they dealt with; there are no wasted characters here, no cardboard cutouts, even if a particular character doesn't wind up sticking around for very long.

That's what makes Ostrander and Yale's Suicide Squad so special. The premise seems to promise mayhem and death above all, a meat-grinder for second-tier characters. Instead, this husband-and-wife team created an inventive, constantly changing title where forgotten and discarded characters were treated with respect and empathy, fleshed out and given some depth even if it they were fated to die a few panels later. And the long-running characters who defined the book — The Wall, Rick Flag, Eve Eden, Bronze Tiger, Vixen, Boomerang, Deadshot, Count Vertigo, Oracle, as well as a rich supporting cast of non-combatants — were treated to lengthy, nuanced character studies, in some cases lasting for the entire 66-issue run. Indeed, when the series was cancelled due to low sales, Ostrander and Yale dedicated much of the final issue to brief sequences exploring (and in some cases resolving) the characters' long-running psychodramas, and the last page of this last issue is memorably given over to a tense and incredibly powerful sequence at last resolving a long-gestating subplot involving Count Vertigo's contemplation of suicide.

This serial characterization was woven together with political intrigue and commentary, undeniably thrilling action, pies to the face, ghosts, devils, and bursts of horrifying violence. Who, after reading these issues, can forget Duchess killing the Manticore by ripping off his tail and beating him with it? And who could forget Barbara's silent, tearful reaction to the death of a friend? Or "Boomerbutt" stranded on an unpopulated island? Or the tense moment when a sweating, shaking Bronze Tiger must face the truth about his own history of violence and rage? Suicide Squad was a book big enough, and smart enough, to encompass all these extremes of humor, violence and emotion, and that is what made it so great.