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.

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