As I write this column, director-writer James Gunn’s first foray into the DCEU, The Suicide Squad, has hit the big (and little) screens. A “seboot” or “requel,” it’s a thrilling, violent, hilarious and occasionally moving covert ops movie starring a colorful crop of obscure DC villains (and Harley Quinn who couldn’t be more oversaturated - in more ways than one) that builds on the strengths and corrects many of the weaknesses of David Ayers’ muddied but sporadically engaging, “the”-less Suicide Squad from 2016. Audiences seem to be responding to another adventure of the least-likely “heroes” from the underbelly of the DCU and why not? It’s a brilliant concept: venal, duplicitous, psychotic “bad guys” who have been caught and incarcerated are coerced into joining a shadowy military unit called Task Force X and sent on highly dangerous missions. If they survive these missions, they get ten years knocked off their prison sentences. If they try to use these missions as a chance to break free, their project overseer will detonate the explosive devices they all have embedded in their bodies. That overseer is a high-ranking military intelligence boss named Amanda Waller (played to perfection by the amazing Viola Davis), a lady that even superpowered types don’t want to mess with.
Like I said, a great premise and one that echoes cinema classics like Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Kelly’s Heroes and Escape from New York. There’s something very satisfying about seeing characters who are, if not “evil” then generally unlikeable and hard-hearted being forced into situations that cast them as saviors. Some are changed by it and some…just get the job done and collect their check.
Oh, and some blow up.
But this version of DC’s Suicide Squad was a reinvention of the 1980s by the brilliant comics writer John Ostrander. What I would like to do today is take you back even farther. Yes, my child, even farther back than my own prodigious lifespan. I’d like to tell you of the original Suicide Squad. And I promise you, you will yawn.
Bam! Just like that, it’s the 1950s!
But just barely. The days of the sock hop have just about ended and Elvis has already reported for duty in the US Army. It’s 1959 and a new decade beckons! Surely the Sixties will be an era of quiet, comfortable normalcy. And surely a sign of that is the return of the superhero!
Where had they gone? Well, thanks to dropping sales, competition from that newfangled television box, and the impact of the Seduction of the Innocent/Comics Code kerfuffle, comics publishers had retired most of their underwear fighters and shifted to the popular genres of the day: westerns, crime, horror, teeny-bopper comedy, and romance. During that post-war decade, pretty much the only three superheroes that continued to sell with no break in their numbered runs were (say it with me) Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
One odd genre that originated during this era was giant monsters. Kaiju before kaiju was cool. Though King Kong got the drop on all these suckas back in 1933, the next generation had the numbers. Much has been written about how the irradiated colossi that filled the silver screen - from ants, tarantulas, Gila monsters, and rabbits to beasts from 20,000 fathoms, Venus, and even giant, atomic-fire breathing amphibians from the Sea of Japan - are most likely outward manifestations of our species-wide mistrust and fear of the nuclear power we had unleashed on the world. And if it’s possible to be simultaneously an intentional, directed cautionary symbol of existential dread AND fodder for goofy movie matinee thrills, then I’d say that’s about right. Regardless, it kept the genius that was stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen employed, so those beasties served many purposes.
They also served as a stopgap in the history of American comics. Even though DC was testing the waters of modernizing some of their old heroes (“I’m sorry,” says a 1950s version of me holding DC’s Showcase #4, “but who is this in the scarlet onesie? The Flash is a gentleman named Jay Garrick and he wears the winged helmet of Mercury!” Throws comic to ground, storms off in a huff), Marvel (or Atlas Comics at the time) was still a couple of years from the Hail Mary pass that was Fantastic Four #1. Instead, during the late ‘50s, a disheartened Stan Lee and the ever-industrious Jack Kirby (along with the freelancers who stuck around that sinking ship) were filling the pages of titles like Strange Worlds, Tales to Astonish, and Journey Into Mystery with “one and done” sci-fi stories of flying saucers, bug-eyed aliens, and, yes, giant monsters with names like Klagg, Dragoom, Sporr, and the eternally majestic Fin Fang Foom. Giant monsters (always dealt with by a scientist-type or the military) were a safe, Comics Code-approved way to put horror in your comics. There was no gore, you never saw pulped bodies stuck to the bottom of Kraa the Unhuman’s foot. The stories were just like the movies in an even more simplified form.
There was also a trend afoot of launching super teams that really weren’t that super. Just before Kirby made the fateful (and cosmically fated) decision to leave DC for Atlas, he had created a group of normal human adventurers who tackled bizarre threats to our world. Why? Because the four of them, strangers beforehand, had survived a plane crash and decided that they had cheated death for a purpose, thus they formed a team. The way you do. They each had a physical or intellectual strength and wore matching jumpsuits. They were called the Challengers of the Unknown and they were a modest success - only slightly overshadowed by a different team co-created by Kirby a few years later; a quartet that survived a crash and wore matching jumpsuits. The “Challs” were a successful template* that combined aspirational (but normal) human heroes with the various alien and giant monster menaces that crowded the spinner rack. DC figured, hey, why not try that again?
Enter Task Force X.
Before it became the legendary Batman team-up book of the Bronze Age, The Brave and the Bold was DC’s classic adventure serial title with recurring features like the Silent Knight and Viking Prince. But a couple of years into its run, the editors decided to turn it into a concept try-out book, like Showcase, and in 1959’s #25 we were introduced to the excitingly named Suicide Squad! And then we read it.
Created by comics writer Robert Kanigher and artist Ross Andru (the same team that was shepherding Wonder Woman through the ‘50s), the Suicide Squad was a free-floating US military unit of specialists (denoted Task Force X) comprised of hotshot Air Force pilot Rick Flag Jr, “space medicine nurse” Karin Grace, physicist Jess Bright, and astronomer Dr. Hugh Evans. They have formed the Suicide Squad not because they are trying to trim down their prison sentences - no, these are noble folk who join together because each experienced a tragedy in which they survived while someone else didn’t, therefor they feel obligated to take on crazy-ass missions against giant monsters or some shit? I don’t know because it never gets fleshed out much in their sporadic 1959-1966 run of adventures across The Brave and the Bold and Star-Spangled War Stories. Anyone who feels the urge to track down and read these tales of the original Suicide Squad (which DC made easy to do with the trade paperback collection Suicide Squad The Silver Age), let me save you some time, money, and energy. Every - single - story - is - the - same.
A weird weather or geological event happens and the Suicide Squad rush out to investigate in their “flying laboratory” (which is just a converted bomber with desks and scientific equipment in the back). Rick flies the plane, Karin sort-of co-pilots, while the other two nerds stay in the lab like the kids playing their Switches in the backseat on a long car ride. Soon enough they discover that the weird event is tied to a giant-ass monster (be grateful for that hyphen, true believers) - whether an irradiated Earth creature or an alien menace. They fight it with their weapons, science, and guts and at some point one of the four will be feared dead. They won’t be and the Suicide Squad will win the day. Oh, and somewhere in there will be some variation on this conversation:
KARIN: Oh, Rick, why can’t we express our love for each other?
RICK: How can we, Karin, when both Jess and Dr. Evans are also in love with you? It would tear the team apart!
While I can appreciate the audacity of inserting a love rectangle into a kids’ comic, it gets a little tiresome when this scene plays out in every Suicide Squad tale. Just bone already and let the backseat geniuses deal with it like grownups.
Now, I try not to editorialize too much in these columns and maybe I’m being a mite harsh on these stories. They’re certainly not without their Silver Age charm and Andru’s crisp art is a plus and if read as they were published - in month-to-month, 8 to 12 page doses in those anthology titles - I’m sure they would delight. But when you read them back to back,
you’ll wish you had a nano-explosive in your own brain you can clearly see the “rinse and repeat” formula in practice. (The same could be said of virtually every Superman story of the period, although those writers sure bent over backwards finding new ways for Lois to try and prove Clark is Superman and/or trick him into marriage.)
But obviously the formula worked because the Suicide Squad and its heroic leader (who apparently did finally “express his love” for Karin as they are revealed to have a son together) were resurrected and retooled by writer John Ostrander and artist Luke McDonnell in the Post-Crisis DC of the 1980s. Backdoored into the 1987 Legends miniseries (as was George Perez’s new take on Wonder Woman), we at last meet a semblance of the team you kids of today (who insist on crossing my lawn without my consent) will recognize. Amanda Waller puts Rick Flag Jr. in charge of a new Task Force X comprised of DC villains including at least three that have made it to the silver screen: Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and the Enchantress. But, as you would imagine, the roster does change from time to time as the less-than-heroic heroes try to bail or simply become victims of the “impossible” missions they’re given. Finally, thanks to Ostrander, we had a concept and a comic worthy of the title Suicide Squad.
Which just goes to show how, sometimes, reimaginings can be a positive thing that doesn’t necessarily have to erase or dishonor what’s come before. Rick, Karin, Jess, and Dr. Evans still did their (repetitive) thing, still saved us all from proto-kaiju (good band name) before Amanda Waller showed up with her bold idea for a new Task Force X. And that proves, again, how malleable our comics universes are. No idea is too frickin’ goofy or unsalvageable. Maybe any concept can be reworked into gold by someone as brilliant as a John Ostrander. Maybe all it would take to reinvigorate, say, the Challengers of the Unknown is James Gunn and the shoehorning in of one Harley Quinn.
Hey, that’s pretty brilliant…. Call me, DC!
* By issue #8 of their title, Kirby was gone and the Challengers limped along without him with artist Bob Brown taking the visual reins - for twelve more years!