There’s a scene in the second issue of Suicide Squad (written by John Ostrander; pencils by Luke McDonnell, inks by Karl Kesel) where the absolutely absurd Flash nemesis called Captain Boomerang is fighting a terrorist super-villain from a fake Middle Eastern country. The encounter is on the rooftop of a colossal complex impossibly embedded into the side of a mountain, a several-hundred-foot drop to the desert below.
Captain Boomerang flings a few of his namesake weapons at Jaculi, his super-speedy opponent, who dodges them like slightly more famous super-speedsters (Flash, Kid Flash) have done before him. But, being boomerangs, they double back, alternately cracking Jaculi’s spine, bonking him on the head, then exploding against him, which cause the terrorist to lie prone against the lip of the building.
And if the fact that a Flash-fast fellow just got taken out by Captain Boomerang doesn’t clue you in to the fact that this is far from your typical comic book, the next sequence, which sees Boomerang kicking the helpless Jaculi over the side of the building, should.
“Lissen, maybe you can save yerself like Flashie used to do,” opines Boomerang as Jaculi is plummeting. “Use yer super-speed, y’know? Form spiral updrafts. Spin an’ form whirlwinds. Things like that.”
The next panel is merely a depiction of Jaculi’s final descent, with a lovely “SPLAT” sound effect.
“Tch,” says Boomer. “Guess yer weren’t in ol’ Flashie’s class, myte. Sure as hell weren’t in mine.”
This scene characterizes just some of what I love about John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad series, which DC Comics published for 66 issues starting in 1987, the first 24 of which (and a smattering of issues here and there afterward) had Luke McDonnell’s pencils and inks by Karl Kesel, then Bob Lewis. While I whole-heartedly recommend the whole series, it’s the issues with Kesel, McDonnell, and/or Lewis that hooked me. But even when the art sometimes got wonky later in the run, Ostrander’s tight stories, packed plotting, and excellent character work shine through.
The Suicide Squad is a play on The Dirty Dozen, in which super-criminals get a chance at reduced sentences for going on missions for Uncle Sam (okay, to be clear, the United States; Uncle Sam, of course, is his own character in DC Comics. Arg.). Villains on missions — whether fighting other villains, or sometimes heroes, or sometimes otherworldly threats — is an intriguing concept, but Ostrander upped the ante by featuring their U.S. government handlers. Chief among these is Rick Flag, the mission commander who had to herd a team of psychotic superhumans on each mission, and the big boss — probably my favorite DC character of all time — Amanda Waller, a.k.a., “The Wall,” whose competence, humanity, toughness, and personality quickly make you understand that this nickname, while intended as derisive, actually speaks to her strength more than her obesity. (In a stunning reversal of societal norms, I took one look at the New 52’s skinny version of the formerly obese Waller and decided I could not pursue any kind of relationship).
The team is run out of a prison housing super-powered felons, for easy access to agents on one hand and a host of problems on the other. (How do you keep the Parasite in jail, for instance? And how to you do it in a humane manner where he can get the lifeforce he needs to survive?) The jail staff and Suicide Squad support crew — a priest, a shrink, a helicopter pilot, the jail’s warden — are as compelling as Captain Boomerang and the rest. But the villains create a constant and necessary tension, as well as the slim hope to see a little redemption.
There’s this great contrast about this book, where when you see guys like Boomerang, or even the assassin Deadshot, get carted off to jail or Arkham Asylum by Flash or Batman, they don’t seem especially threatening. Even with Batman’s grimness, you know the status quo will revert so he can do it all again. But when you remove these villains from the safe haven of their usual titles, the kid gloves come off, and you see how greedy, desperate, insane, and truly dangerous they are. Especially when facing missions where failure means death, not another stint in the slammer.
And die they do. Issue 2 has the first team death on the Squad (well, technically Blockbuster died first against the alien inferno Brimstone in the pages of the Legends miniseries, where this modern incarnation of the team was introduced). Mindboggler, distracted by filling the minds of terrorist shock troops with horrifying images, doesn’t notice enemy leader Rustam about to shoot her in the back. Boomerang sees it, but does nothing, since she’d “made [him] a laffing stock in front of th’ others” in issue 1.
As the series rolls on, so do the deaths — some of which are far more poignant — and the missions get more and more interesting, often with extra oomph due to cool guest stars. Captain Cold shows he’s actually pretty badass when he’s facing someone other than The Flash in issue 18 (yet corny as ever, saying “Hate is cold! Hell is cold! And I, sucker, am Captain Cold!” as he turns a fire-based supervillain into a permanent popsicle). We see The Penguin come onboard to mastermind a mission to Soviet Russia, in which the team tries to free a political prisoner and one of their own gets taken. We see this Suicide Squad team, made up largely of thugs and miscreants, butt heads with a team from the other gem of a late 1980s comic, J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen’s Justice League. Female Furies. Shade the Changing Man. Apokolips. The psychiatrist’s office and private files.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of Oracle first appearing in these pages. Ostrander brought Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl, back from her paralysis and put her into superheroing — of sorts — in issue 23, at first as an anonymous super-hacker helping Waller and the Squad; in issue 48, she was made a member of the team officially. This book helped set up the status quo for Oracle, who endured through the beloved series Birds of Prey, and up until the New 52 saw her back as the non-wheelchair-bound Batgirl once again.
The scope and urgency of the storylines both change at a natural pace that always left me wanting more. Plenty of action, long-term plot threads that always paid off, even if things went to crap for the characters. Ostrander & co.’s Suicide Squad stands as my favorite long run of a superhero (more or less) comic book series, as well crafted and exciting as such comics can be. High art? No. But it perfectly scratches the super-action/super-intrigue itch like few series ever have, and for a much longer run.
Originally published by Under the Radar magazine’s web site, undertheradarmag.com, as “My Favorite Thing: John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad.”