Trouble with Comics, It Takes A Villain: Pain and Hate – The New 52's...
It Takes A Villain: Pain and Hate – The New 52’s Suicide Squad

So in the second half of Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth, Harley Quinn – the deliciously demented spurned spouse of the Joker – learns from an offhand and characteristically insensitive remark from the guy in comics most desperately in need of a name change – Captain Boomerang – that the Joker has been murdered (SPOILER: he’s totally fine). Task Force X – better known as the Suicide Squad – is on a mission at the time, but plans simmer in Harley’s twisted mind. Once the mission is done, Harley sparks a riot at the super prison for super people – Belle Reve – where Harley and the rest of the Squad spend their off-time, provided they survive their ops. The riot is nothing but cover for Harley’s escape; an escape with the sole purpose of returning to Gotham where the police are keeping her Puddin’s skinned face as some kind of sick trophy, so she can do whatever things psycho people do with other psycho people’s flayed remains. Naturally, government Machiavelli and all-around bureaucratic bad-ass Amanda Waller immediately sends the remaining members of Suicide Squad to hunt Harley and bring her back in chains or in a box. The Squad tracks her to a warehouse filled with cross-dressed Joker henchmen, and upon finding the warehouse, squad leader Deadshot instructs King Shark – a brutish, vicious, seemingly mindless hammer-headed monster who is the team’s resident strongman throughout the series – to bust into the warehouse. What follows is my favorite single panel in the entire New 52 volume of Suicide Squad. King Shark, as instructed, blasts through the warehouse doors with his fists, screaming what I’d say is the most direct and honest battle cry in comics.


The original Task Force X premiered in 1959 in The Brave and the Bold #25. Back then, the grunts of Suicide Squad were the anti-social and insubordinate soldiers tasked with, judging by the covers, fighting lots of giant monsters. John Ostrander resurrected the Suicide Squad in the 1987 mini-series Legends and the team had its own title shortly afterward, this time with super-villains like Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and the Enchantress working for the government in exchange for reduced prison sentences. The original volume of Suicide Squad lasted 66 issues and spawned two other series before Supernatural Writer/Producer Adam Glass jumped on board for the New 52’s version of the team.

Glass scripted the lion’s share of the New 52’s Suicide Squad; writing most of the first 19 issues of its 30 issue run. His roster is filled with assassins, psychos, monsters, mercenaries, and ninjas; all indentured servants of government spook Amanda Waller. Residents of the super-prison Belle Reve, members of Suicide Squad are super-villains volunteering their services – and often their lives – in exchange for clemency. Before deployment, all members of the Squad are injected with nano-bombs that Waller can set off should a Squad member try to escape, disobey her, reveal the existence of Suicide Squad to any other authorities, or just plain piss her off. At its best, the series was fun, merciless, bloody, gross; and peppered with intriguing mysteries about the real intentions of Amanda Waller, the true origins of King Shark, and the goals of the secret group Basilisk.

The series was its best as long as Glass was writing it. Glass built a solid team core of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and King Shark; and that core survives until the end of the series, seeing few issues without all three. Glass’s run also includes the lethal Gotham vigilante Black Spider and the redemption-seeking gangster El Diablo, though unfortunately they disappear after Glass leaves the book. Captain Boomerang leisurely waltzes in and out of the title and the ranks of the team are constantly flushed and refilled with characters like the Unknown Soldier, Cheetah, James Gordon, Jr., and a whole gaggle of villains created for no other reason than to live and die in the pages of Suicide Squad.

The first issue ends with the team deployed (deployed = bound to metal seats and dropped out the back of an airplane) to kill all 60,000 spectators in a megadome, all of whom have been infected with some crazy techno/zombie virus. By the end of the second issue, one Squad member has murdered another on Amanda Waller’s orders and the megadome is a massive slaughterhouse. That sets the tone for the rest of Glass’s run. You never know who is going to turn on who in Suicide Squad or, when they do, if they’re doing it on Waller’s say-so or if it’s just for fun. Though the villains making up the team do so on the promise of clemency and other perks, it’s clear Waller intends to make good on few, if any, of her promises. For example, in-between missions she regularly binds King Shark to the bottom of an empty swimming pool and keeps heat lamps running on him to dehydrate him and keep his memories weak; hoping he’ll never really figure out whether or not he’s already served his time. The missions themselves are contests between extreme, violent, and warring personalities. There’s Harley and King Shark who revel in the violence like none of their teammates, Black Spider who is happy killing villains but clearly wouldn’t mind turning his attention on his colleagues, poor El Diablo who keeps grasping for redemption only to be slapped down by reality, and the ruthless professional Deadshot. Few missions end with any sense of glorious victory. After the murders and dismemberments and gushing rivers of blood, most missions conclude with the Squad at gunpoint, shepherded into the belly of some armored vehicle on their way back to prison.

While the series delivers on the kind of  brutality you expect from a title about leashed super-bad-guys, it isn’t heartless. The drama of El Diablo’s search for redemption is tragic and feels genuine. Deadshot and Harley Quinn develop a relationship though it seems as undefinable as a coupling between those two killers could be. Harley Quinn’s struggles with her identity and her past with Joker – including an eventual bloody reunion with the clown prince of crime – are surprisingly engaging. In fact while I came into the series largely seeing Deadshot and (especially) Harley Quinn as overused, overdone bad-asses, I left the title with a stronger appreciation for both.

Of course, overseeing them all is Amanda Waller, who constantly seems to be tiptoeing a razor’s edge as far as what she can get out of her squad, what her superiors should or shouldn’t know, and the plain physical threat of constantly being surrounded by psychotics with the powers of gods.

It’s a good series. It isn’t great. It doesn’t rewrite the rules, but it keeps you guessing and wanting more. Ironically, while I can’t decide whether to put this in the plus or negative column, Suicide Squad thrives on precisely what makes creating a successful villain-led title for DC or Marvel so challenging.

If someone taps you tomorrow to write, I don’t know, a Doctor Doom ongoing monthly for Marvel, how do you do it? How do you get your readers to sympathize with Doom? Do you neuter him; turn him into a good guy? Do you have a government agency or maybe a super-hero blackmail him into doing good instead of bad, and if so how long can you keep something like that going? Do you just put him up against villains who are somehow more evil? Or do you just keep him an evil bastard doing evil things? And if you keep him an evil bastard doing evil things, where’s the payoff? You can’t have him murder the Fantastic Four or conquer the globe. It would affect the entire Marvel line.

I don’t know how you do it, and taking a look at the numbers doesn’t make me think many other people know either. It’s why the Joker’s monthly series in the ‘70s never reached its tenth issue. It’s why neither Marvel’s Super-Villain Team-Up nor DC’s Secret Society of Super-Villains cracked their respective twentieth. It’s why, as far as I know, not a single DC or Marvel villain comic has seen the other side of its hundredth issue in one volume unless you count Thunderbolts (and considering Marvel’s constant reboots and renumbering – not to mention how many times Thunderbolts was reinvented as something utterly different – saying the runs of Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, Warren Ellis, and Jeff Parker were all in the same volume is at least eighty percent bonkers).

Adam Glass found a way for Suicide Squad to thrive on the fact that it was a part of a shared narrative. Or, if not thrive, then at the very least his Suicide Squad wouldn’t be possible without it.

See, in Suicide Squad, no one tries to escape. At least, not for good. Harley Quinn escapes briefly but only to have her sick romance with her dead (not really) lover’s skinned face. No one tries to use the same revolving escape door every Bat-villain finds in Arkham Asylum. No matter how many times Amanda Waller proves she could not give one solid crap about the promises she’s made, no one tries to turn on her for the sake of revenge or escape. In other words, the villains of Suicide Squad just accept their situation. Belle Reve, Amanda Waller, Task Force X and the likely death that all of those things will bring; to people like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang it seems like nothing more than the price of doing business. Like super-villain summer school. Like detention.

I’m not decided about whether or not I like that about Suicide Squad. On one hand, it seems implausible. It seems like the series is really nothing more than seeing what Harley Quinn and Deadshot are up to when they’re not busy getting beaten up by Batman. Kind of a super-villain behind-the-scenes. On the other, doesn’t the fact that they’re risking their lives for clemency that is likely a fantasy render them a little bit more human? Isn’t a repetitive, futile march toward death part of the human condition? Doesn’t that even give the series potential to make an honest-to-Hulk statement about something? Maybe that could be what the “Suicide” in Suicide Squad really refers to; not the near-impossibility of their mission objectives or their chances of not coming back, but the absolutely futility of it all since even if they do come back, they only have another mission waiting for them.

I do, you know, think that’s a little bit deeper than Glass and co. intended. Still, I also think it brings the characters closer to us, and more relatable, whether we consciously recognize it or not. Reach for your cheeseburger or your beer or your cigarette and tell me you can’t relate to someone who repeatedly refuses to break out of a cycle that he knows will only lead to his destruction.

One thing this summer school aspect of Suicide Squad contributes to that I definitely don’t like is a great deal of confusion about the history of the team. This series was a part of the New 52, which was supposed to be a reboot. Sort of. Mostly. I guess. Yet there is constant confusion about whether this Suicide Squad is a new team or if it’s been going on for years. The mission in the megadome is supposed to be their very first mission, yet as early as the following issue, characters are saying things that imply they’ve been doing this a while. Harley says to Deadshot, “Y’know, you’ve been acting weird since that last mission,’ as if there had been a few. In the eighth issue, one character actually refers to the megadome mission as their first, and on the same page Deadshot makes a comment implying he’s an old Suicide Squad veteran. I got the impression that Glass may have simply been occasionally forgetting that this was a book in a rebooted continuity and no one called him on it.

There’s a constant series of major deaths and resurrections during Glass’s run that get annoying. His run on the book is collected in Suicide Squad’s first three trades, and the third trade is aptly subtitled Death is for Suckers. Glass wants to cultivate the idea that no one is safe in Suicide Squad but, yeah, clearly plenty of people are safe. When a villain or hero shows up who’s never been in any other comic, or maybe in just one, yeah you know their number’s up. Probably a good time to borrow money from them. But everyone else is going to be just fine. A major character dies at the end of the first volume only to come back in the beginning of the second. A different major character dies at the end of the second volume only to come back in the beginning of the third, die again at the end of the third, and come back in the beginning of the fourth. Oh, and the villain the character who dies at the end of the second takes with him? He comes back too. In fact, the Squad member murdered by his own teammate in the second issue returns in Death is for Suckers, but as little more than a mindless zombie. We’re all used to death and resurrection in comics, but Glass really pushes it to its limits, then pushes 50 miles past the line.

Still, there was a lot to like about Glass’s run and, unfortunately a lot of that gets forgotten when Ales Kot takes over in Volume 4, Discipline and Punish. The morally struggling El Diablo, the crippled villain Iceberg, the clandestine organization Basilisk and all of its unrevealed machinations just get dropped. He puts the Squad in some kind of weird adventure in Las Vegas that has something to do with billboards and a giant zombie made of corpses and a Project Mayhem clone that really makes no coherent sense. King Shark turns into a wise guy and Deadshot sounds more like a hero from a Joss Whedon TV project than the cold assassin we’re used to. The one interesting thing Kot adds to the mix is serial killer James Gordon, Jr. who acts as a kind of consultant to Waller, though he doesn’t really seem to do much. He just, kind of, sits with Waller and acts creepy.

The fifth volume, Walled In, is a lot more engaging. And though El Diablo, Iceberg, and Basilisk are still MIA, writer Matt Kindt does his best to finish the mysterious subplot regarding King Shark’s origins. Unfortunately, the feel of the book is completely derailed by the events of DC’s company-wide event “Forever Evil.” Though freed from prison; Deadshot, Harley, and Captain Boomerang return to Belle Reve in order to help Waller fight off the Crime Syndicate’s forces. The final issue brings Aquaman villain Black Manta into the fold and sets the stage for Sean Ryan’s New Suicide Squad.

Throughout the series, there is a real lack of consistency in the art. There are so many fill-ins, I’m not even sure if the series ever had a regular penciler. As early as the second issue, the penciler changes mid-story and the styles are so different that it can’t help but take you out of the story a little bit. Still, none of the art is particularly bad, so I could call that a minor complaint. Maybe.

The New 52’s Suicide Squad wasn’t perfect, but despite its faults it’s pretty damn good. It keeps its villains villainous and waters down nothing, nor does it turn into sadistic, childish, Wanted-flavored kill-porn. It’s made me a fan of the franchise, and it’s certainly one of the best New 52 titles I’ve read so far. I’ve read a little of New Suicide Squad and liked it, and I’m excited to dip into Ostrander’s first series from the eighties.

  1. troublewithcomics posted this
blog comments powered by Disqus