Suicide Squad vol. 1 TPB: Trial By Fire (SC edition) – John Ostrander

4 out of 5

There’s a particular era of comics – sometime in the 70s and stretching through the late 80s, so covering the initial issues of Squad, starting in ’87 – that are as fresh and vibrant as ever and, for whatever reason, can’t exactly be reproduced nowadays.  You can cast whatever historical filter makes sense for you – something something post-war; post-Watchmen – but the result was more than a handful of titles that got to swim in The Big Two streams and yet be legitimately adult comics.  They were still occasionally goofy as Hell, of course, and nothing conquers the mire of see-issue-X asterisked continuity, but it was this weird balance struck where comics were no longer for kids, but they were allowed to maintain some of those same sensibilities.  In other words – nowadays we have some smart books out there, but it’s a ‘please everyone’ game that often amounts to output that eventually causes malaise.  But for a while – accepting that profits have always been part of the equation – the ‘everyone’ to whom to appeal didn’t have the feedback loop of an internet and was thus, in a sense (whether real or perceived), a smaller group, which actually allowed for more tonal wiggle room…

John Ostrander’s take on Suicide Squad – a dirty dozen of DC super-powered criminals promised lessened sentences in exchange for serving their country on undercover ops -chewed the fat as well as any other caped title, but it also managed to be downright grisly, with an appropriate amount of group in-fighting sabotaging their own missions, a constantly shifting roster – put through some questionable exercises by taskmaster Amanda Waller – and ops that had an unspoken ‘kill if you must’ rule that applied even to the relative good guys on the team, like squad leader Rick Flag.  Best of all, while the whole villain appropriation thing requires the same suspension of disbelief as most comics, within that context, the missions Ostrander sent his group on completely made sense.  These weren’t standard runarounds that made you wonder why Superman didn’t show up: these were political machinations and character assassinations that needed a crew forcibly working in the shadows and with some built-in moral greys.

The first collection, post Secret Origins #14’s breezy but helpful review of how the Squad came to be, finds Flag, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, and various extras being shuffled through an attack of the terrorist Jihad group, a sting of a white nationalist, and a pretty epic three part prisoner rescue in Russia.  While there are heroics and bravado a’plenty, the lasting quality of this read is in its depth: Ostrander’s dialogue is amazingly crisp (although I can’t speak to the accuracy of Boomerang’s accent, and it always rankles when foreigners speak in ‘foreign speak’ – dropping articles and whatnot – even when “speaking” in their own tongue), touching briefly but bitingly on gender, or race, or class distinction.  Sure, the heft of the work, as said above, could be said to be a product of its time, but the directness and intelligence would be notable at any point in time.

Action and adventure is still the name of the game, though.  The foibles might have a grounded edge, but we’ve still got a sorceress flying around cackling and a dude with a boomerang suit and a general m.o. of what can go wrong will go wrong; there’s no shortage of fun mixed in with the subtly contemplative subtexts.  On the flipside of that, comic soap opera demands some churn through several utterances of “I can’t do this any more!” and various other heartfelt pledges.  With the majority of the comic some well balanced between crowd-pleasing and daring, the dramatics – though not too abused – can stick out like a sore thumb.

Some art hiccups round out the criticisms.  Luke McDonnell is our main penciller, and no complaints there.  His style is fairly open, but its plenty of expressive and dynamic, so no page is a bore.  And while colors in this reproductions are tough to judge (since the original look on newsprint paper will always be different), touched up or not, Carl Gafford’s work really pops with the art.  The problems come when Bob Lewis starts to think McDonnell.  The sudden lack of a sense of space in a lot of scenes and a loss of detail suggests Luke might’ve been filling those extras in with his own inks; so when the inks change hands (about halfway though), there’s a notable dip in quality, and it frankly causes some action scenes to nigh tank, they become so vague.

But overall: Color me impressed.  I’d been wanting to read this since Michel Fiffe made clear his obsession with it (beyond the obvious tribute with Copra); I’m glad the Squad movie gave DC an opportunity to put it back out there, and I’m very glad the weird old 80s aligned things just so to give us such a uniquely awesome and badass comic.

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