Trouble with Comics
It Takes A Villain #10: Harley wouldn’t last five minutes - Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: Trial by Fire

It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role; brought to by your favorite black ops bad-ass, Mick Martin.

What exactly is the point of a work-release team of super-villains?

I’m saying you’ve got the Justice League – often multiple squads of the Justice League- and you’ve got the Teen Titans and the Outsiders and the Birds of Prey and the Justice Society and the Green Lantern Corps; along with gobs of solo heroes jumping rooftops and streaking across the sky. It’s a wonder anyone in either the Marvel or DC universes can do so much as jay-walk without some traumatized jerk in a mask ready to dropkick them for it. So, in a world with this kind of super-hero surplus, why does the United States government then say, “well, we need one more team comprised of super powered murderers, thieves, and rapists; and if they actually survive their missions, we let them out of jail for good?” Or, you know, if not for good then at least until Booster Gold or someone else kicks their ass.

The only obvious answer is that while, sure, the world already has a ton of super teams, the government doesn’t have much control over what they do. The government can’t stop the Justice League from doing something it doesn’t want them to do. And it certainly can’t deploy the Justice League on specific missions. It can ask for help and in times of crisis (actual crisis, not DC crisis), it will almost always get it. If the government needs help fighting off invading aliens or stopping an incoming asteroid or some other Michael Bay horseshit, sure, the Justice League will be there.

But sneaking into Soviet Russia, liberating a political prisoner, and getting her to the States all for the sake of global PR? Yeah, Superman and Batman probably aren’t going to make time for that.


I wasn’t going to review Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: Trial by Fire quite so soon. I ordered it around the same time I started It Takes A Villain, but since I knew my first review would be about the New 52 volume of Suicide Squad, I figured I’d want more of a break between reviewing different volumes of the same title. I thought it might even make more sense to review it sometime late September or early August; close to the release date of David Ayer’s film adaptation.

But once I broke down and read Trial by Fire, I knew I didn’t want to wait to review it.

Suicide Squad is violent. Considering the name of the comic and the premise, that shouldn’t be surprising, but the way the violence is handled is different. That, I guess, shouldn’t be surprising either. The restraints DC Comics had to deal with in 1987 helped make the violence more artful and more interesting. One of the sequences I find the most memorable is in the beginning of the sixth chapter when Deadshot kills a Soviet soldier. Deadshot raises a rifle and says, “No sweat.” We see a panel showing the faces of three Soviet soldiers searching for something, with a BLAM! above them. In the next panel we see roughly the same shot with the flanking soldiers’ heads reacting to the gunshot and a simple red explosion erupting between the eyes of the center soldier and covering most of the top half of his face. The way it’s presented, the explosion could be blood, or it could just be a mark of impact. The page’s final panel has the soldier knocked backward and his comrades reacting to his killing. Most of the panel is colored the same as the previous panels, with the exception of the killed soldier’s head which is completely lost in shadow, with telltale inky spurts exploding from his forehead. 


While I’m sure it’s the gorier, more explosive, and direct style of today that sells, this is so much more elegant and ingeniously subtle. It reveals everything while showing almost nothing. I’d take this over Harley Quinn and King Shark ripping their way through a stadium of cyborg zombies any day.

Compared to more recent shots at the franchise, Ostrander and McDonnell’s Suicide Squad was politically charged and controversial. The team’s first mission in this volume is to take down a Middle Eastern mercenary super-villain group called Jihad. The aforementioned “Mission to Moscow” storyline is the longest in the book – spanning three issues – and follows the team’s incursion into Soviet Russia to attempt to save a dissident Russian writer who, it turns out, doesn’t really want to be saved.


The story so bold I’m surprised to have not heard of it before reading this volume is from Suicide Squad #4. A crossbow-wielding vigilante calling himself William Hell is fighting crime in Central City, but the only criminals he hands over to the cops are the ones who aren’t white. White criminals he recruits into his Aryan Empire. The Squad is sent to infiltrate Hell’s organization and expose him for the racist he is.

More than anything, what impresses me about this volume of Suicide Squad and makes me desperately hope DC keeps reprinting the original series, is that Waller’s Task Force X doesn’t handle things the way they do now.

More recent incarnations of Suicide Squad aren’t much different from straight super-hero teams. Yes, they’re more violent, but super-heroes in general are more violent than they used to be so that doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Books like today’s New Suicide Squad are really just super-hero titles with a little gimmick twist.

Not so with the original Suicide Squad. They were different. They were exactly what they were supposed to be: a super-villain answer to The Dirty Dozen. The Suicide Squad is an elite secret task force that does not accomplish all or most of its missions with big, loud, stupid super-fights. Sure, they have their fisticuffs, but most of the time they’re doing everything they can to operate under the radar. When the team exposes William Hell in Suicide Squad #4, no one has any idea they’re involved. Captain Boomerang is the only team member Hell ever sees in costume. Deadshot, Nightshade, Rick Flag, and Bronze Tiger are all disguised. Chronos – the squad member arguably most instrumental in Hell’s downfall – is never actually physically near the action. And Hell’s defeat has nothing to do with a fight with the Squad. They just trick the stupid, racist sonofabitch. Certain members like Nightshade and Black Orchid operate almost completely from the shadows, never or rarely taking part in any violence. In the “Mission to Moscow” story, squad members like Penguin and Deadshot don’t appear in costume for so much as a single panel in a three-issue long storyline. Because why would they appear in costume? They’re trying to get in and out of the Soviet Union in secret. They don’t want to spread bloody carnage all over the place just for the fun of evil wicked evilness. They want to finish their mission and go home. Compare that to New Suicide Squad which opened in Russia with a huge, explosive, city-rocking battle between the Suicide Squad and Russia’s Rocket Reds.

Ironically, it seems like over the years super-hero titles got more like Suicide Squad while Suicide Squad got more like everybody else. Books like Ultimates and Secret Avengers worked hard to get that military black ops feels that Suicide Squad had. Super hero team books overall have a stronger military feel these days, using military lingo and tactics. In the opening salvos of Avengers Vs. X-Men, the assembled team of Avengers about to invade the beaches of Utopia listened to the military strategy/pep-talk of Red Hulk, even though the lousy derivative bastard had tried to bring down the US government a few months before.

It seems unlikely that Suicide Squad will ever get back to its less fight-y, black ops feel; at least judging by the look of the film and the fact that Harley Quinn has become as much a fixture on the team as Deadshot and Captain Boomerang. I like Harley Quinn. I adore her solo comic. But she wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the old team. How do you get through a secret mission in Soviet Russia with someone like Harley Quinn? How do you incorporate the Joker face and giant cartoon mallet with a stolen Soviet soldier uniform?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the New 52 Suicide Squad. I’m a bit more on the fence with New Suicide Squad. I’ll certainly be checking out the post-Rebirth series and I’m precipitously guessing the film may be the best super-hero flick of the year (or at least close to it). But this original volume is something a bit more different. Something tougher to find in other books, and it’s regrettable that aspect of the franchise is gone. I’m just happy that for now DC looks set to reprint the rest of the original series, and if it’s new to me, it’s new to me.

Suicide Squad, Vol. 1:Trial by Fire is good. Read it.

It Takes A Villain #9: Good but not Great - My Name Is Holocaust

It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role; brought to you by your favorite emotionally disturbed crime lord, Mick Martin.

I like titles. Especially when it comes to comics, I will give something a try just because I like the title. I think it’s because, particularly with the still-super-hero-dominated medium, I’m used to very specific kinds of titles. Just a name. Batman. Or an adjective and a name. Amazing Spider-Man. When you get something that’s even just a little off-kilter, I get excited. I Killed Adolf Hitler was my first Jason graphic novel likely because of title. It’s not likely but a goddamn fact that the only reason I bothered to buy the first issue of Vengeance of the Moon Knight was the title. I was actually a little intrigued by all the long titles that sprung up in DC’s line after Infinite Crisis like Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters

That, I suspect, is one of the reasons why I’ve been chomping at the bit to check out the 5 issue mini-series My Name Is Holocaust ever since I started this column. I knew nothing about it. I had taken a break from comics in the mid-nineties so, other than a few stray issues of Icon and Hardware, I hadn’t read any Milestone comics. I’d never read, or heard of, Blood Syndicate and so didn’t know My Name Is Holocaust was a spin-off of that series. I was browsing through a comics merchant website, saw the title My Name Is Holocaust, correctly assumed a lead with the name Holocaust wasn’t a good guy, and was instantly giddy at the chance to review a super-villain comic with a slightly nonstandard title because that’s the kind of embarrassing shit that makes me giddy.


Leonard Smalls, aka Holocaust, boasts super strength and explosive fire powers; and he wants to be the king of crime in Dakota City. For that to happen, he needs a seat the the Coalition’s table. With help from his super-powered underlings Tarmak and the cyborg Bad Betty, Holocaust takes out Coalition members one-by-one. He plans to either force them into giving him his rightful place at the table, or burning their crooked organization to the ground and owning crime in Dakota all by himself.

 My Name Is Holocaust is good, but not great. But the seeds are there and the main thing that stops it from reaching its full potential is its connection to the Milestone continuity.

Some years ago I reviewed the trade reprint of Mark Waid’s Empire for Comic Book Galaxy. It was the series that got me thinking about super-villain comics because it occurred to me Empire was the first comic I’d read in which a super-villain was the protagonist and yet the writer didn’t pull any tricks to gain reader sympathy. He didn’t gut the villain by turning him into a good guy. He didn’t have the villain forced into heroics like Suicide Squad, Loki: Agent of Asgard or Brian K. Vaughan’s Mystique. Nor did he keep the villain a bad guy, but pit him against someone who was somehow more evil like Mark Millar’s Wanted. Waid kept his protagonist, Golgoth, a sonofabitch from cover-to-cover. And we rooted for him every step of the way.

Published five years earlier, My Name Is Holocaust is not that different from Empire. Like Golgoth, Holocaust is remorseless. We are given glimpses of his humanity as he’s wracked with visions of his abused past, but there’s never any hint that this guy plans on joining the side of the angels. Holocaust charges into everything like a bull and has none of Golgoth’s intellect, but his will is no less indomitable. He won’t stop until he gets everything he wants. Like Golgoth, Holocaust eventually does get everything he wants and just as was the case in Empire, once Holocaust finally achieves his goals, it’s clear he knows it will never be enough for him. And just as Empire ends with one of Golgoth’s lieutenants escaping his grasp and joining the resistance against him, My Name Is Holocaust ends with the cyborg Bad Betty planning on eventually murdering Holocaust for the Shadow Cabinet.

Two of My Name Is Holocaust’s biggest weaknesses lie in its differences with Empire.

First, you don’t like Holocaust and you don’t sympathize with him. He’s abusive, murderous, insecure, and doesn’t seem particularly bright. You don’t ever really want him to win; not when he’s fighting the cops, not even when he’s fighting other criminals. When the captive Juniper holds a shard of broken glass over the unconscious Holocaust but doesn’t kill him with it, you can’t help but hate her a little for it.

Holocaust’s crazy-as-shit determination is his only redeeming quality and the only thing that even comes close to making him sympathetic. When he rallies from almost utter defeat at the has-been hero Tower’s hands in the fourth issue, you have to admire him for it a little.

Second, Empire enjoyed a freedom from any pre-established fictional continuity, whereas My Name Is Holocaust assumes all of its readers are thoroughly versed in Milestone’s narrative tapestry. If you read nothing of Milestone but this mini-series you will learn nothing about Holocaust’s connection with Blood Syndicate. You won’t learn how he got his powers, or how Tarmak or Bad Betty got theirs. You won’t even know the organization that Bad Betty is secretly working for (I only know because of Wikipedia). You will, in fact, be confused in the fourth issue when Holocaust is able to hurt the seemingly invulnerable Tower with his fists because up until that point the only super-power Holocaust  displays is his unpredictable fire power.

A lot of the drama falls short if you aren’t already invested. Holocaust and Juniper – the daughter of the first crime lord Holocaust murders – have a strange, complex relationship. Juniper constantly refers to herself as being just as bad as Holocaust, but if all you know about her is in this mini-series, all she’s ever done is watch her father get murdered and then get kidnapped. If she’s got a lot of “red” in her “ledger,” I sure don’t know about it and don’t even get hints about what it could be.

Perhaps the worst thing is that the series ends with such a weak sigh. I had to keep checking the other side of the last page – only to find reader letters – because I was convinced that last panel couldn’t be the end; that maybe the copy I bought was missing a page. It feels like writer Ivan Velez, Jr. just kind of figured the story would continue in other comics, so why bother giving a satisfying ending?

Still, My Name Is Holocaust wasn’t without promise. Given a few more issues and maybe paying more attention to the Milestone-uninitiated; Velez, penciller Tommy Lee Edwards, and the rest of the creative team could’ve – and likely would’ve – told a much more riveting story. As it is, the mini was impressive enough to spark my interest in other Milestone titles; opening up an entirely new world of super guy continuity for me, my fat ass, and my thinning wallet.

It Takes A Villain #8: On Breathtaker and Why These Villain Comics Are Important

It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role; brought to you by the lusty temptress of sinful delight, Mick Martin.

It’s likely I never would’ve heard of Breathtaker if I hadn’t started writing It Takes A Villain. When I first conceived the column, I wanted to make sure I knew about as many villain-led titles as possible. I compiled a list by going through an online comic shop and scanning every single title. Breathtaker’s title probably wouldn’t have grabbed my attention if it wasn’t a DC comic. Since it was DC, right away, I knew it had to be either a villain comic or a Vertigo title. Once I read the description of the series – a woman who kills men with sex is pursued by a super-hero named The Man – I felt lucky to have stumbled upon such an intriguing sounding villain-led title, though I was also a little hesitant. The description said the comic was released in 1990. If the story was really as interesting as it sounded and it came out that long ago, why the hell hadn’t I heard of it? Still, precisely because I knew nothing about the series beside its title put it high on the list of comics I was excited to read for It Takes A Villain. A quick search on Amazon revealed that DC was planning to release a trade collection of the comic in late 2015. Unfortunately, those plans were scrapped. But I was curious enough to do something I hadn’t done in a very long time: I doled out the money for the single back-issues, and I don’t regret a penny lost.

I still can’t answer the question of why I had never heard of it. Maybe because the protagonist was female, maybe because without the Vertigo imprint comics like this fell through the cracks. I don’t know. Regardless, Breathtaker is wonderful and deserves to be talked about and written about more. After reading it, though, I actually questioned whether or not it really belonged in It Takes A Villain. This is a column that’s not just about comics in which villains are the protagonists, but super-villains from the super-hero genre. That’s why you won’t be seeing any reviews of Lucifer or Darth Vader here. But for some very specific reasons, Breathtaker not only fits, but shines a light on something I’m seeing more and more in super-villain comics.

Not to mention, I paid for the damn comics and they’re good, so whatever. I’m writing about them.


Written by Mark Wheatley and beautifully rendered by Marc Hempel and Kathryn Mayer, Breathtaker tells us the story of Chase Darrow: a woman whose love is fatal. The deaths aren’t intentional. Chase doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but her victims’ love is just as much a drug to her as her magnetism is irresistible to them. Her love doesn’t kill instantly, but in increments, and the story opens on the final moments of Chase’s relationship with the rich Paul. Though only in his mid-fifties, Paul looks as wrinkled and spent as a man in his nineties, and all it takes is one kiss from Chase to kill him. Moments after his death, Paul’s grown son Charlie finds Chase. She tells him what happened, and because he is just as spellbound by Chase as everyone else, his only concern is the trauma she’s been through.

Chase goes on the run and soon the violent super-hero The Man is after her. Under fire for thoughtlessly killing innocent civilians while chasing criminals, government agent The Man is desperate for some good PR. Chase’s growing trail of bodies is music to The Man’s ears. He eventually captures Chase, but falls victim to the same yearning as all of Chase’s men. Eventually a group of men related to Chase’s former lovers – men who now all want to be her lovers – find Paul’s son Charlie and hunt for Chase to save her from the authorities.

Everywhere Chase goes, she tries to avoid being the flame that draws in doomed moths, but she can’t help it. Even animals are drawn to her. When Chase helps an elk in the woods whose antlers are caught in a tree’s branches, the elk wants to be with Chase as much as any human man. Chase cannot stop men from wanting her or stop herself from needing them.

When I first read the series description, I was expecting Chase to  be much more deliberate. I kept thinking of the earthbound goddess in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods who literally devours men with her vagina during sex. But while men can’t resist Chase, she’s no temptress. She doesn’t kill men for money, for power, or for kicks. She needs sex to survive. Without it, she quickly ages and, presumably, dies. But she tries to control it. In fact, she doesn’t kill all of her victims. If she only has sex with a man once or a couple of times, they survive, but younger men suddenly find themselves with heads of white hair or even bald. Yet most of those who survive wouldn’t call themselves victims.

This is why I considered not reviewing Breathtaker for this column. Could I really call Chase a super-villain? Sure, she has powers. Sure, she’s got a bonafide super-hero on her tail, but a super-villain? Chase is as much a victim of her situation as any of her men. She’s riddled with guilt and at one point tries to commit suicide because of it. You could even argue Chase is more of a victim than the men. At least she tries to fight her urges and avoid hurting anyone, while the men throw themselves at her without giving a single damn about the consequences. The trucker Lou that Chase meets at the end of the first issue gladly hands over the keys to his truck when he learns the law is after her. Even though he’s got two kids to look after, moments after Chase drives away Lou whips out a revolver and is ready to fire on a pursuing police car; holstering only when sees it’s actually an ambulance.

But I include Breathtaker because, among other reasons, it brings to a head something that seems to be a recurring theme in these super-villain comics I’m reading: addiction.

Chase is addicted to contact with men just as the men become addicted to contact with her. They know she’s killing them and don’t care, just as an addict will knowingly race towards the edge of the cliff. In the very beginning of Breathtaker, Chase sounds like an addict fooling herself about who’s in control. “I can control my need,” she says. “I can pace my need.” And then two pages later her lover is dead.

There is a recurring theme of devouring and overeating in Breathtaker. The Man berates his handler for interrupting him during breakfast. The dedicated but sympathetic Detective Cob who pursues Chase is constantly eating though he’s as thin as a board. At a crime scene, Cob is devouring a burger and asking for seconds. When he meets with the mob of wanna-be-Chase-lovers he inhales a pizza. When Chase stops at the diner where she meets Lou the trucker, there’s a veritable kitchen worth of spent plates, bowls, saucers, and glasses at Chase’s table.

Sounds kind of familiar? Maybe like a guy floating through space and devouring entire planets because, you know, he just has to? To survive?

When I wrote about Superior Spider-Man, I mentioned addiction, and the more I read these villain-led comics and think about the implications of who these characters are and what they do, the more the word “addiction” springs up. It could be projection, I’ll admit that. I have my own addictions. I wrote about that a bit in my Superior Spider-Man column. Addiction is on my mind a lot so it could very well be that I’m just looking at these comics through that lens and naturally see exactly what I want or need or just plain expect to see.

But I don’t think it’s that. Or, if I am projecting, then at most I’m turning up the volume on something that really is there, but maybe doesn’t deserve as much attention as I give it (but it does).

I can’t say I’ve become some kind of expert on super-villain comics. There’s still so much to read and I’m having a ball reading it and writing about it. But if there is any general comment I can make at this point about super-villain comics, it’s that it seems like the central struggle of the super-villain-led comic is the struggle of men and women doing shit that just doesn’t make any goddamn sense.

I’m not saying it’s not believable, mind you. I’m not saying it’s bad writing, no. I’m saying these characters, super-villains, are mostly smart people who make stupid choices, who act against common sense and their own self-interest. You can call it addiction or you can call it obsession. You could just call it insanity. Regardless, it all boils down to men and women who go to unbelievable lengths for stupid and mostly unattainable goals, and for the most part both the efforts toward those goals and even the unlikely realization of those goals will only make their lives suck more.

Just looking at some the titles I’ve written about so far, there’s the Suicide Squad who risk their lives for a woman known for manipulation and lies – who they know from experience will likely never give them the clemency she promises – instead of using their super powers and amazing talents to break the hell out of prison (which every other super-villain seems to be able to do pretty frequently). There’s Astro City’s Steeljack who keeps being drawn back to his criminal roots through plain old habit. There’s the Doctor Octopus of Superior Spider-Man who has finally defeated Spider-Man in every conceivable manner, but actually imprisons himself in Parker’s body and life, and can never be happy with his victory. There’s the Maestro of Future Imperfect who risks all and loses it in attempt to unseat a god. There’s the Penguin protected by wealth and power, almost in the arms of a good woman who impossibly loves him, who throws it all away just to get back at the memory of children who bullied a lonely, ugly child.

No, there’s nothing unbelievable about these people beyond their silly titles and their outfits and their powers. That they rush towards defeat and ruin with eyes wide open is not difficult to believe. We have no Penguins and no Doctor Dooms but we eat ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death, drug ourselves to death, and fuck ourselves to death. We are crushed in stampedes for Black Friday deals. We fly through windshields so we can check Facebook on the highway.

This is why these super-villain comics are so important to me. I love super-heroes, but they don’t happen. They make more sense, but they don’t happen. But what super-villains experience is what we experience in our culture. Futile struggles for worthless treasures. I can’t relate to some caped asshole who spends all his day thinking about what’s the more righter thing to do golly gosh darn it. Sure, I’ve had my moral conflicts, we all have, but if I’m honest then I know that more often than I ask myself whether or not what I’m doing is right, I’m asking myself whether or not what I’m doing makes any damn sense. And the answer usually, of course, is “No, Mick. No it does not.” When my apartment is filthy and my clothes are all dirty and my cats’ litter box looks like a rock garden and my phone’s voice mail seems to only exist for the sake of bill collectors; and because of all this I plan a productive evening tackling my issues; and I stop at a grocery store on the way home from work and buy a bowling ball-sized bag of peanut butter M and Ms and spend the entire night prone on my couch, shoving sugar in my face and binge-watching Parks & Recreation; I’m not worried about whether or not I did the morally right thing. I’m worried about the fact that I know I have a respectable IQ yet everything I do is so goddamn stupid that I should be checking my knuckles for drag marks.

The men of Breathtaker throw themselves at Chase even though for most of them it will only mean their deaths. They fall in love with her in seconds. Detective Cob stands uselessly in the way of The Man to protect Chase, one of his many snacks still clutched in his hands. The Man is shot and almost killed pursuing Chase, but he keeps going, even when one of his legs looks like nothing but chewed up bone.  

I’m going to keep reading these super-villain comics because they have something to teach me. About why you and me act against our own good. About why I have to go to meetings full of strangers to stop myself from doing things that hurt me. About why I do things that make no goddamn sense.

I’m writing this at 2:30 in the morning. For free.