Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire (2015)
Reprints Secret Origins #14, Suicide Squad v1 #1-8
Suicide Squad: The Nightshade Odyssey (2015)
Reprints Suicide Squad v1 #9-16, Doom Patrol/Suicide Squad Special, Justice League International #13, Secret Origins #28
Written by John Ostrander (with Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Kupperberg, and Robert Greenberger)
Art by Luke McDonnell, Bob Lewis, Erik Larsen, Keith Giffen, Al Gordon, and Rob Liefeld
In the wake of Crisis on the Infinite Earths, the DC Universe was changed. New doors were open, and the kinds of stories the company wanted to tell weren’t like what had come before. The 1987 mini-series Legends served as a sort of table setting, spotlighting the characters who would be central to the next two decades. Writer John Ostrander, new to DC Comics, plotted Legends and used it to introduce the Suicide Squad. This team was an old name repurposed into a new, exciting concept. Previously, the Suicide Squad were special agents sent on dangerous missions in a short-lived The Brave & The Bold run from the 1960s. Ostrander retroactively introduces a World War II-era group in the pages of Secret Origins to set the stage for the modern team’s grand debut.
The Suicide Squad is derived from The Dirty Dozen and Mission: Impossible. It is the nickname for operations done out of Belle Reve Prison, a facility for super-criminals. Amanda Waller runs the program, which straps remote explosive devices to super-criminals in government custody and sends them on dangerous missions against the foes of the era: Middle Eastern terrorists and Communist superpowers. Col. Rick Flag, the son of the previous Squad’s leader, led the team on the ground. Unfortunately, he’s got the weight of legacy and his own mistakes from the past on his shoulders. Flag also has to babysit the likes of Deadshot, a Batman villain & skilled assassin, Captain Boomerang, a Flash rogue from Down Under, and The Enchantress, a woman with dual personalities created through magic. He’s not alone, though; amnesiac former assassin Bronze Tiger stays with the team, hoping they can bring him some answers.
One of the wonderful conceits of the series is that a large chunk of the cast could rotate in and out or be killed off during an arc. In the first storyline, Mindboggler and Plastique, both from the pages of Firestorm, were included in short-term roles. Mindboggler would be killed on that mission but brought back years later in a fantastic story that showed how these seemingly short inconsequential missions could have painful long-term fallout. Ostrander has expressed how fun it was to give spotlights to B and C tier villains that otherwise might have been forgotten.
Boomerang, in particular, was one the writer had a lot of fun with. Due to the new direction of The Flash creative team, the classic Rogues Gallery was going unused. Ostrander saw Boomerang as an idiotic character in the new, more modern world of the DC Universe. So he decided to elaborate on Digger Harkness and turned him into a disgusting, misogynistic, racist homophobe that it becomes entertaining to see get his comeuppance. Ostrander wanted to clarify that someone like Boomerang will never be reformed; he’s too comfortable in his scumminess and doesn’t do anything that doesn’t serve himself first.
Ostrander found many of his characters by paging through Who’s Who, a series of sourcebooks put out by DC around this time. He came across forgotten Batman baddie Deadshot and liked the look of his costume. Much like Boomerang, there hadn’t been much character development done on Deadshot. Through Suicide Squad, the socialite turned killer Floyd Lawton experienced a level of storytelling no one could have imagined. He even got his own mini-series during the 1980s that went deep into his past, introducing an estranged son. This is the real magic of Suicide Squad that, while other books spotlighted marquee characters like Superman, Batman, etc., this book illuminated those who were tossed off pre-Crisis.
The most surprising element of Suicide Squad was the boss lady, Amanda Waller. If you haven’t read many comics from this era, it cannot be emphasized enough what an anomaly it was to have a Black woman put in such a prominent, influential leadership role in a mainstream comic book. Additionally, she was not a sex object but a very heavyset woman who didn’t take shit from anybody. Ostrander based her on Black women he knew in his own life and believed she was a more interesting character than just another generic white guy in control of Suicide Squad. This doesn’t mean she’s a saint whose actions are not consistently virtuous. Waller is as cunning & nasty as any other operator in the sphere of the U.S. military. She makes many decisions about her team that do not consider their lives. Everyone is expendable to Waller, and over time we would get to peek into her personal life just a little to get a better picture of who she was.
While many books from this mid-to-late 1980s era haven’t aged too well (see my reviews of Wolfman’s New Teen Titans and Byrne’s Superman), Suicide Squad feels more relevant than ever. It is, in a way, a perfect overview of geopolitics in the United States during the twilight of the Cold War. In the first collection, the team goes up against The Jihad, a group of super-powered people defending Qurac (a stand-in for Middle Eastern antagonists Iraq and Iran). They attempt to save a persecuted Russian writer during a mission in the Soviet Union which goes completely FUBAR and leaves the master of disguise Nemesis behind enemy lines. Because the Squad members are not coming together out of a shared sense of virtue, it makes their interactions and conflicts all the more enjoyable. On reflection, these stories make most Justice League issues published currently seem toothless and bland.
Thankfully the stories here are not drawn out. The first collection’s main story about The Jihad is only about two or three issues, and we get a lot of other short double-issue arcs and one-offs. The second book’s titular “Nightshade Odyssey” is only at the very end, and we get more fantastic character work. These missions have dire consequences, and you can’t really miss an issue, but I don’t think you’d want to. At one point, Boomerang takes on the identity of his late comrade, Mirror Master, so he can commit crimes during his off-time without Waller becoming wise to it. The team recruits obscure Steve Ditko-creation Shade the Changing Man during a brief stop-off in a parallel universe. There are constant references to developments in other books like Firestorm, Checkmate, and Manhunter, but these never feel like you’re forced to find those books to understand what is happening.
This is just our first dip into the world of the Suicide Squad. I’ll be reading through the entire series via the most recent reprint collections. This is some of the most substantial character writing at DC Comics at the time, and if you haven’t read these, I highly recommend them. This comes from a guy who, as a kid, felt the books were boring; they are stories that adults will appreciate much more.