Of Pipelines Past…
I originally reviewed “Suicide Squad” on March 9, 2001 at CBR. It went a little something like this:
The Suicide Squad
It is the stuff of USENET mythos. It’s a series so highly proclaimed and so highly thought of that but a single typo of its title led to the naming of USENET’s annual awards, The Squiddies. (CBR is a proud winner of more than one Squiddy.) Back when this column first began as a post on USENET, I began attempting to assemble a run of the title to give it a shot. Hitting the fifty-cent boxes at conventions and select back issues bins of various comic shops, I’ve finally done it. All 66 issues are now in a long box in my collection. I’m having a blast reading through them. In just a few months, DC will be reintroducing the Suicide Squad into the universe and with a title of their own again, this time headed up by Keith Giffen.
So what better time to look at the successful 1987 series?
The Suicide Squad is a government-sponsored team out of the Belle Reve Federal Prison in Louisiana. Headed up by the stout, obese, and prone-to-fits-of-anger Amanda Waller (“The Wall”), the team is composed of broken individuals, mostly with criminal pasts. They’re super-powered but potentially bothersome. They’re all considered expendable. A rotating series of villains feature prominently in the team alongside a more regular cast of characters, agreeing to take on missions in exchange for a pardon for their crimes. The pardon is good so long as they survive and are successful in the mission, and agree to keep their mouths shut to preserve the secrecy of the Squad.
The series is a cross between G.I. JOE and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Pick the members of the team who will help you with the current mission, get a mission briefing, and then go out there to get the job done. They’re rarely clean, they never come off as planned, and their very existence can be denied. The stories are kept to matters of political and international intrigue, maintaining their strengths away from super-powered do-gooding and sticking with more down-to-earth matters, such as a combating a terrorist squad, a Russian political prisoner’s escape, and a drug cartel in Columbia.
Remember – not all of these characters are good guys. Some of them won’t flinch at killing the bad guys, or blowing off their leader’s orders, or just plain being nasty for little to no reason. The conflict is held high in this book. It isn’t a matter of team bickering. This runs much deeper. These characters truly don’t like one another very much. They stick around for purposes of a federal pardon, or in exchange for something else the Squad may offer them. This isn’t going to grind on your nerves. It isn’t a bother to read. It propels the series. It doesn’t hinder it.
One other nice thing about the book is the “ground crew.” This is the support staff at the penitentiary, which includes everything from pilots and mechanics to doctors and psychiatrists. They play a supporting role in the book and each get their turns in the spotlight. It makes the book seem just that much larger without making it more complicated. While the ground crew are usually invisible during missions, they provide for valuable sounding boards before and after, letting us learn more about the characters as well as the crew.
The book isn’t without its faults, although they are tolerable. The first problem is that most of the characters that are members of the Squad, if even for just a single issue, come with their own continuity and back-story and origins. Often, those back stories connected in with other recent DC books, such as FIRESTORM, which John Ostrander was also writing at the time. It never overwhelmed the issue and things were always explained at the top, but it did leave you with the strange feeling sometimes that you were missing out on something.
But it’s more than just that. I’m not at all familiar with most of the characters used in this series. Heck, I’d imagine not many people who haven’t been reading comics for longer than ten years would be today. Here are some of the regular characters. See how many of their origins or powers you can recount off the top of your head: Colonel Flag. The Enchantress. Deadshot. The Bronze Tiger. Nightshade. Mindboggler?!? If you can answer those questions, I’d like to thank you for reading my column, Mark Waid.
The only one I knew going in was Captain Boomerang (referred to frequently in this series as “Boomerbutt”), and only because he managed to show up in the Flash books afterwards semi-regularly. It helps a little bit to read SECRET ORIGINS #14 before the series. It explains some of the set-up of the team and its leader, Amanda Waller, and Colonel Flag, particularly.
It’s also amazing how many crossovers the series had. The worst was when the MILLENIUM crossover occurred and major plot points in the book relied on your having read three other titles to know what was going on.
Lots of stuff came out of this book. There was a CHECKMATE series, the MANHUNTER series, a DEADSHOT mini-series, and more. The book has great similarities to JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL. Both spun out of the “Legends” crossover in the same month. Both had rotating teams. Both had books and mini-series and specials spun out of them. And the two crossed over in a memorable 13th issue for both books. (More on that later.)
The book’s strength was in keeping to more down-to-earth adventures. The original concept behind the DOOM PATROL crossover one-shot, as a matter of fact, was to put both teams on Apokolips. That was nixed because the Suicide Squad liked to keep its feet on terra firma. Yet in the second year, three issues were devoted to a trip into something akin to purgatory in the “Nightshade Odyssey.” I can do without demons and hellfire, thanks, particularly in this book. The addition of Shade the Changing Man to the title in the storyline did very little for me, too.
John Ostrander created the series and wrote all 66 issues, sometimes in collaboration with his wife, Kim Yale. One thing you have to say for Ostrander – he sticks with his series. He wrote SPECTRE for DC for just about as long, and has MARTIAN MANHUNTER up to issue 30 already. (That series ended at issue #36. -ADB) His style is fairly dense, but moves along nicely. He’s not prone to using splash pages or large panels. The story is the thing and he packs in as much as he can in the 22 pages allotted to him. It’s something of a must when you have a team book as diverse as this, I suppose.
That being said, the book isn’t a lot to wade through. You’re not going to get hung up in pages of endless dialogue or expository verbiage. Things move along at a pretty fast clip. Even the mission briefings, which often consist of Waller standing in front of a projector screen and yammering on for a full page, move nicely. I have to think that Ostrander’s background on the stage helped him with his dialogue. The characters are well defined, and their dialogue is often part of it. Captain Boomerang is perhaps the most obvious example of that. His Australian accent is easy to pick out in the crowd.
The stories also stick to being three issues or less. Even the “Nightshade Odyssey” at the beginning of the second year is only three issues. That’s not bad for an “odyssey.” (I know there’s at least one five-parter later on in the series, but I’m still a good twenty issues away from reading that.)
Luke McDonnell handled all the art for the series that I’ve read so far, to varying degrees of success. (Geoff Isherwood would replace him later on.) His characters never looked all that action-oriented, or excited. He could draw the important variety of characters and “common” folk. Military generals and politicos came easily to him, but there were some fights that just looked painfully stiff. His art style evolved over the course of the issues that I read (nearly the first two full years), abetted by the inks of Bob Lewis. It’s actually amazing how wildly the art could vary from issue to issue. Karl Kesel originally inked the book, but backed out after the first three issues to devote his full attention to John Byrne’s SUPERMAN revamp. McDonnell tried inking himself in one issue, but I don’t think that was a successful experiment, either. It was good enough for the editors to let him ink his own work on the DEADSHOT mini-series, though, which turned out pretty well. He spotted his blacks nicely there. Karl Kesel came back to the book by the end of the second year, and was a welcomed sight.
Todd Klein lettered the book, but I think he needs no introduction. He didn’t use many fonts in the book. It’s all just straightforward dialogue and caption work here, and it works well.
Carl Gafford’s coloring is a bit more uneven, and oftentimes seems to be error-prone, but it’s tough to tell how much of that was his fault and how much is the fault of the color production techniques of the day. Some color separations seem to have been missed. One or two characters showed up with blue faces for no good reason, aside from a missed color code, I imagine.
Bob Greenberger edited the series from the beginning, and I can’t say enough about his work on the book. Greenberger, who just recently now has joined up at Marvel, knew how to run a letters column and a text page. For starters, he had two full pages to work with each month, and published letters from the likes of Mark Lucas and T.M. Maple. The letters were honest appraisals and were answered with equal honesty. When a letters column wasn’t available – such as in the first couple of issues or in the DOOM PATROL crossover one-shot – he’d fill up both pages with behind the scenes stories of the creation of the book and the creators working on it. It made for fascinating reading for those of us interesting in that kind of stuff, and was certainly far superior to the kind of vapid, thin, and all-too-positive and short letters columns you find today.
Special notice should be paid to DEADSHOT, a four-issue mini-series that spun off from SQUAD midway through its second year. Written by Kim Yale and John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell penciled and inked the series himself. (All the while, he kept up on his deadlines for SQUAD, without a fill-in. That’s not bad by any measure of the past twenty years.) The mini-series comes highly recommended. It’s a masterpiece, truly. It’s got one great mystery arc tying it all together, while tying into SQUAD in an obvious but not obtrusive way. The story highlights a series of flawed characters and has its hero doing some decidedly un-heroic things. Yet, in the readers mind, his actions can be understood and maybe even justified. This is a great anti-hero, and one with a great costume, too, I think. If you can find these four issues at a convention sometime, pick them up. They read well on their own. All the necessary flashbacks are in place to catch you up.
SUICIDE SQUAD #10 had Matches Malone enter Belle Reve. Could Batman be far behind? Yup, he’s not fond of secret governmental hit squads. The story reads really well until you get to the ending. Then you shake your head. Waller is great, but Batman doesn’t act very Bat-like. Robert Greenberger tried to cover for it in a later letters column, but even he sounded dumbfounded by it.
SUICIDE SQUAD #13 crosses over with JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL #13. Ostrander gets to write a little extra silliness, and Giffen gets to write some extra action and political intrigue. The characters don’t get lost and don’t seem to be taken too seriously or too silly. It’s a great crossover, taking full advantage of the characters. The action rises pretty quickly, and the cliffhanger at the end of the first part (in JLI) is terrific.
If you’re familiar with the continuity of the series, SUICIDE SQUAD #21 is a special treat. It’s a real soap opera, and events of the past year’s worth of stories really start coming together. As the cover indicates, Nightshade gets shot. Colonel Flag makes an unscheduled mission. Waller’s political issues with the fed’s may be over – or may not. It’s a real flashpoint for the series, I think.
THE DOOM PATROL AND SUICIDE SQUAD! Special (1998) was a one-shot originally intended as two fill-in issues, should either of the books have fallen behind. They didn’t so the two-parter got merged into one double-sized no-ads special. The story itself feels stretched out, in all honesty, and isn’t nearly as exciting as the regular series for either of the books at the time. The reason I highlight it here is that Erik Larsen drew the book, inked by Bob Lewis. Amongst other highlights, Larsen draws President Reagan with an unbelievable upsweeping hairdo. Kinda funny. If you’re a Larsen completist, make sure you check this one out.
I was amazed at how quickly I started to read through this series. In the span of the past five days I’ve read 21 issues of the regular series, plus the DEADSHOT mini-series, the SECRET ORIGINS lead-in, and the Doom Patrol one shot. That wouldn’t happen if the book were tedious or boring. This book is suspenseful, exciting, and a joy to read. In fact, as soon as I put this column to bed, I’m picking up the 22nd issue to read to find out the conclusion of the Tolliver storyline. Will Deadshot be in time to stop Flag? Can’t wait to find out.
This book is very much worth the hunt. You might even be able to pick up a complete set on eBay someday, if you look carefully enough. Otherwise, a judicious perusal of the cheap bins at local and large cons should prove useful. Ostrander, Yale, McDonnell, Isherwood, Kesel, Greenberger, et. al. crafted a magnificent bit of super-hero action/adventure here. It “feels” completely different from any other comic currently being published, and stays fresh and exciting lo these many years later. (Well, it does as long as you don’t let the Cold War references overwhelm you. 😉
That’s how the first review went back in 2001. A few weeks later, I had a more to say:
Lots of you have fond memories of SUICIDE SQUAD, judging by the reaction that column got. And we only have a relatively short period of time before the new Squad is assembled and Keith Giffen and Paco Medina (whose drawing just about every other book DC is publishing this month) give us the new on-going series.
In the meantime, the editor of the original series, Bob Greenberger, wrote in with his two cents on a couple of matters regarding the creation of the series:
“…Karl Kesel was more than the inker. Initially, Karl was so full of enthusiasm for the book that he would handwrite these long notes to me and John: Kesel Epistles he called them. They were filled with character and story possibilities. It was Karl who had us use the Female Furies in #3, which set up the sub-plot for Lashina and Apokolips. We all had our favorites and by indulging one another, it kept the book lively.
“Because John, Karl and I had lots of ideas, it allowed us to map things out long-term, moreso than any other series I worked on. As a result, we could lay the groundwork a year in advance and slowly build up to the climax. Our best may have been the Captain Boomerang masquerading as Mirror Master so he could still commit crimes. And John and I had a great deal of fun with issue #23, the next in your reading stack, which unleashed Oracle on the DCU.”
And I did read the next few issues. Oracle makes her first appearance in the DC Universe, and this is years before BIRDS OF PREY made a star out of her. The climactic finale between Colonel Flag and Deadshot at the Lincoln Memorial is one of the tensest comics I’ve ever read. You’ll never look at our national monuments the same way after reading that issue. Having just been in Washington D.C. last September, though, I could point out a couple of errors artist Luke McDonnell committed in drawing the architecture and layout of the area. But it’s not a big deal, and still a great issue.
In a way, it seems like such a futile waste. The SUICIDE SQUAD was a good comic. It has a cult following. People have been trying to bring it back for years now. It originally had a limited run of just over five years.
There is no way to read the series, however, except in hunting down the back issues, either through conventions or one of the on-line auction sites. The work John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Luke McDonnell, Karl Kesel, etc, etc, did on the title seems almost fleeting. If you wanted to recommend the book to a friend, you can’t have him go to his local shop and pick up a few copies. It would be difficult to find, or expensive at a local comics outlet.
Wouldn’t it be great to see this series available in three thick volumes?
15 Years Later…
We’re back in 2016 again!
That trip to Washington D.C. I referenced at the end there was for the Small Press Expo. I attended twice, then passed on the show in September of 2001. Given the events a few days before the September 14th start date and with all airlines grounded, they canceled the show.
Keith Giffen’s “Suicide Squad” series lasted exactly 12 issues and then was gone, though I loved Medina’s art in it. DC has been bringing the Squad back repeatedly since then in various forms, including an animated version in one of the DCU series. I remember Giffen’s Squad being problematic, though not without its moments. I should reread those someday.
It is a different economy for comics today than in 2001. Today, we reprint everything. And with the “Suicide Squad” movie on the way, DC started to make trades out of the original Ostrander series. Four volumes are out now, with a fifth due out later this year. If you’re interested in them, I have my Amazon links here for them. (You know the drill: I get a few pennies per dollar without you having to spend any more than you otherwise would. Those pennies keep this server up and running.)
And now, there’s a major motion picture debuting this weekend. Reviews are all over the place, but with the marketing juggernaut behind it, the movie will no doubt open huge. I’d even guess this one could be critic-proof. I think people want to like this movie too much.
(Update: To be fair, the film did pull in around $750 million dollars at the box office. It wasn’t a very good movie, but it still brought in lots of people.)