By Jason Tippitt with art by Kurt Belcher
Five Years of Treachery, Death, and Redemption?"
In some ways, I feel the book never got the props it deserved. It wasn't printed on the fancy paper necessary, I suppose. But consider this: The Killing Joke was a brilliant look at the madness of a villain, yes. But it was only one issue. Watchmen was an insightful glimpse at the types of neurotic individuals who would put on those tights. But it was a self-contained story. And for a no-hold's-barred look at brave warriors defending our country, we had an indie called Reagan's Raiders -- um, scratch that. My point is, John Ostrander and company kept the Suicide Squad on their missions for five and a half years, rarely missing a note. (It happened, yes, but in my opinion, well within the acceptable limit.)
I was an English major in college. I was sorta trained to look for themes and such in anything I read. Looking back at five and a half years of the Squad's missions, I see one note resounding through the whole thing: an unlikely note of redemption. Or, more realistically (and how I'm sure the characters, Father Craemer and Nightshade the exceptions, would prefer to phrase it), a case of learning from someone else's mistakes. In fact, three pairs of characters seem to fit this mold, and I'll be talking about them: Rick Flag and Nemesis, support members Marnie Herrs and Flo Crawley, and Amanda Waller and Nightshade (and later on, Oracle).
Following the "ten years" rule, the Squad would have formed in the early days of the Clinton administration, although the book's debut was very much a child of the Reagan years. In an early interview, either John Ostrander or his editor made the comment that the idea of the U.S. government using felons to perform military assignments didn't really cause anyone at DC to bat an eye after hearing about Iran-Contra.
A few of DC's across-the-line crossovers were touched upon in the book. The team's debut was in the Legends crossover, which also set up some of the book's themes: such as Captain Boomerang being an incorrigible jackass. Millennium had lasting effects, as Silver Age Squad member Karin Grace (Flag's lover) was revealed to be a Manhunter agent, and was killed in an explosion. Invasion! was the opportunity for some nice moments, such as meeting the modern-day Easy Company and Nemesis finding out that real Australians were embarrassed by Boomerbutt and liked to think that maybe he was an American pretending to be Australian. Much later, the book participated in a fairly forgettable War of the Gods tie-in (although fans of Grant Morrison's Animal Man were probably shocked to see Grant, "The Writer," die in this issue).
Barbara Gordon made her debut as Oracle in this book, creating a role for the character that she continues in to this day. And the Atom had a pretty nice subplot of his own, sort of a last hurrah before his de-aging in Zero Hour.
Rick Flag and Nemesis
Rick Flag, the Squad's leader at the start of the book, found a pretty good foil in Tom Tresser, the master of disguise known as Nemesis. Rick was an heir to the job -- his father, Rick Sr., had led the WWII Suicide Squad with great distinction and an impressive track record. He was a man's man, a soldier by birthright.
Tom Tresser, on the other hand, was a spy. He and his twin brother were both intelligence operatives: when he learned his twin was a traitor, they fought, both appearing to die. Tom survived, taking on the name Nemesis and the mission of "balancing the scales of justice" that people like his brother had helped set off-balance.
Ostrander did a pretty good job of setting up a love triangle with Nightshade (former Charlton heroine: Eve Eden, daughter of a U.S. senator and an extradimensional princess) caught in the middle. Eve was drawn to Flag, but he was so caught up in his perceived duty (and messed up over Karin Grace's betrayal and death) that he didn't really notice her. Tom was frustrated by this, at one point thinking that "whatever hold you have over her, I wish you'd release it."
Flag spun out of control in issue #21. The squad's liason, Derik Tolliver, had blackmailed head honcho Amanda Waller, who had sent Checkmate to gather information on the guy. Tolliver was in cahoots with a U.S. Senator in the deal, threatening to reveal the Squad's existence as a revolving door for criminals. Flag, not knowing that "the Wall" had it taken care of, shot and killed Tolliver.
About this same time, Deadshot had been off on a "private mission" -- looking to rescue his son from kidnappers (in the four-issue Deadshot mini-series). He didn't succeed, although he did kill the boy's kidnappers (one of them a child molester) and take his revenge on their boss -- his own mother. When Deadshot came back in #22, assigned to stop Flag from killing the senator who'd been blackmailing Waller, he wasn't in the best of mental states. He did stop Flag from shooting Senator Cray -- shooting the senator for him. ("I didn't mean by killing him yourself," Waller later told him.)
Issue #22 blew the Squad's cover, as their existence was splashed across newspaper headlines. Fortunately for the Squad, the alien invasion by the Dominators and their allies helped win the team some brownie points with the public. The Tolliver/Cray storyline also sent Flag heading toward his final fate.
Issue #26 was Flag's swan song. The narration for "Stone Cold Dead" is a letter from Flag, mailed to Eve Eden. The action of the issue shows him breaking into Jottunheim, the mountain headquarters of the Squad's enemies, the Quraci terrorist group called the Jihad. His father's Suicide Squadron had left an atomic bomb there during a WWII mission. Flag detonates it and is still inside the compound when it goes off. His final words to Nightshade: "Get out of the Squad before it poisons you. Be happy. For God's sake, be happy, if you can. That was something I never learned to do."
He might as well have been speaking to Nemesis, as well. Both Nemesis and Nightshade quit the Squad for a time, although both came back at some point. But with Nemesis it seemed to be on his own terms -- and when he died, in an unfortunate issue of Catwoman, he didn't die with the Suicide Squad. He died his own man. (The fact his character was portrayed as such a novice leads me to hope he may return some day, having faked his death there.)
Marnie Herrs and Flo Crawley
Marnie Herrs was an assistant to Dr. Simon Lagrieve of Belle Reve Prison, the Squad's original headquarters. The young psychologist treated some of the Suicide Squad members, including Floyd Lawton, Deadshot. Flo Crawley was a fellow member of the support crew, a young woman attracted to Ben Turner, the martial artist known as the Bronze Tiger. (The Bronze Tiger started off as a brainwashed member of the League of Assassins in the 70s' Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter series. By the time of his appearances in Suicide Squad, he had been deprogrammed. After Flag's death, he became the Squad's field commander.)
Dr. Herrs grew attracted to her patient, Mr. Lawton, even though she knew he was a killer. She had hopes that, well, maybe he would change if he fell in love. The Deadshot mini-series was as much a story about human relationships as it was about gunfire. When Lawton went looking for his son, she tagged along, discovering his "origin." Floyd's parents hated one another, and his mother paid her sons to kill their father. The story went that Floyd's brother (the popular one) had stopped him from killing the old man, leaving him in a wheelchair; it turned out to be the other way around, Floyd stopping his brother from making a fatal shot. (After all, Floyd never misses.)
What Dr. Herrs saw turned her away from Lawton. It was too much for her to bear, and she had compromised her professionalism by getting too close to a patient. She quit her job at Belle Reve shortly thereafter. If Flo Crawley's fate is any indication, this probably saved Marnie Herrs' life.
Flo Crawley was like a daughter to Amanda Waller; I assumed she came from the same working-poor neighborhood as the Wall, maybe had been friends with her children. Her attraction to the Bronze Tiger was the death of her.
In an early issue of the series, the Suicide Squad fought the Female Furies of Apokolips. One of them, Lashina, was stranded on earth and joined the Squad under the name "Duchess." When Lashina decided it was time to go home, she recruited and/or kidnapped Squad members to help her fight her way back into Darkseid's favor. Flo Crawley went willingly to Apokolips, hoping to catch the Tiger's eye with her heroism. Unfortunately, all she accomplished was getting killed by a swarm of parademons after being given to Granny Goodness as a "gift."
(This story was noteworthy for several things: the haunting death of helicopter pilot Briscoe, the Bronze Tiger springing Deadshot out of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Light's laudable yet incompetent attempt to become a superhero and a cover showing Amanda Waller going toe-to-toe with Granny Goodness.)
Waller and Nightshade/Waller and Oracle
Throughout the book's run, Amanda Waller found herself butting heads with characters just as stubborn as herself. And it seemed she planned things this way, consciously or not -- to surround herself with questioning individuals of integrity to help act as her conscience in times when she was too blinded by "the mission" to see the ethics involved.
Part of the time, Rick Flag fit the bill, but eventually his own drives consumed him. The Bronze Tiger filled the role for a while, but a run-in with Sarge Steel demoralized him to a great extent. (It also left open the implication that maybe, just maybe, Steel had problems with having two African-Americans in the leadership of the Squad.) And Nemesis was not around enough to work in this capacity.
However, Nightshade and later Oracle did provide some balance to Waller's ruthless streak -- Oracle was even groomed to be Waller's successor as Suicide Squad leader if anything should happen to her, although I assume that plot's gone by the wayside for good now.
One last character worth mentioning in this theme: Count Vertigo, the manic-depressive European nobleman who fought the original Green Arrow. I'd never read a story with the character until Suicide Squad, although his Who's Who entry had prompted a "cool costume" response from me.
The Count was manic-depressive, a trait he blamed on the inbreeding of royalty. During a time the Squad was disbanded, he was taken captive (probably as a sex toy) by Poison Ivy, who managed to cure his bipolar disorder through some sort of medicinal-plant magic. However, Vertigo didn't feel confident the illness was gone -- he was deathly afraid it might return at any time. And so he asked Deadshot a question: "If I asked you to, would you kill me?" Deadshot says he would, so Vertigo had better be sure that's what he wants before he asks.
In the final issue of the book, #66, Vertigo asks Deadshot whether he believes in God, in heaven and hell. Deadshot says no, he doesn't. The count says that he does, and he's afraid that if he has Lawton kill him, his suffering would just be prolonged. So he chooses to live.
In the letter column for that issue, John Ostrander said that he had thought of having the ending go the other way, but decided it might be irresponsible. Plus, he wanted to end the book on a life-affirming note. Although it might have been more "fitting" to have Vertigo dead by his own request, I think the ending worked perfectly as it was: after all, for a book with so much death, the Suicide Squad's stories were very much about life, as fragile and ugly as it can sometimes be.
Okay, so this is the villains issue. Yet I've talked mostly about heroes here -- Waller, Flag, Nemesis -- and only really touched on folks like Deadshot and Count Boomerang. What's up with that?
Looking back on the book, I see parallel lines running through it. Some of the characters are improving, getting smarter or more ethical. Count Vertigo became a better person. Waller's association with Oracle and others helped keep her somewhat balanced. Shrike, a villainess from the Cadre storyline in JLA v.1, died as a convert to Christianity.
But some were corrupted. It was bound to happen with heroic people working hand-in-hand with criminals. Rick Flag went rogue. Dr. Light went from harmless buffoon to child-killer. Sarge Steel made himself look quite racist, even if it wasn't his intent. And Nightshade was literally possessed -- the Enchantress' personality was revealed to be a demon that entered into her body on a trip into Eve's mother's homeland.
So all in all, I can't say the book was overly optimistic -- with a
title like Suicide Squad, how could it be? But there were spots of hope
and humor even in the darkest situations. And so in that sense, despite
the gaudy costumes and loud explosions, the book offered what I think
was one of the most realistic portrayals of humanity -- the good, the
bad, and how the two interact and swap out.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Jason Tippitt.
Artwork is © 1999 by Kurt Belcher.
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