Comic Review: Suicide Squad Trial By Fire

The Suicide Squad movie hits the big screens this week.  And while plenty of recent comics have portrayed the team with Joker girlfriend Harley Quinn as a prominent member, the team has been around for a while, even before Quinn had been created as a character.

The first eight issues plus a “Secret Origins” were collected in the trade subtitled Trial by Fire.  How was it?  Review after the cut.

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Suicide Squad was probably at the height of its popularity for this run.  Written by old pro John Ostrander, the Squad was made up of hardened supervillain criminals given the option of assisting on a suicide mission and, if they survive, getting a commuted sentence.  Personally, I’ve been a fan of Ostrander’s work since his fantastic run on The Spectre in the 90s, and that same sort of skill shows up here in Suicide Squad.  Though still in the early going, the story builds off itself and creates memorable personalities for a number of characters that usually don’t have any.  That’s the advantage of using characters that have been mostly pushed to the side.  It’s not like Batman was a member of the team with his generally established personality and way of doing things.  Instead, Ostrander has the chance to play around with lesser characters like Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Rick Flag.  The team does have missions for some of DC’s better-known villains in the form of Chronos and the Penguin, but the two of them last one mission each while others stick around.

That said, this is still early.  I know from past experience Ostrander is building something here, but someone unfamiliar with his work may not see it that way.  And while we see things like Flag and Deadshot butt heads, or Flag and Amanda Waller butt heads, and Captain Boomerang and everybody butt heads (seriously, no one likes the guy for really good reasons), there are bright shining examples of the man’s work.  Waller, introduced early on with a full origin story, is the sort of woman who would criticize Ronald Reagan’s social policies to his face and get away with it.  Flag, despite a horrifying yellow t-shirt he wears on missions, is getting over some heartbreak that Waller provokes with her hiring practices.  Bronze Tiger doesn’t remember his criminal past but is an otherwise good person to have around.  And the Enchantress may just be the most dangerous member of the team.  How dangerous?  A quick trip is made to secure help from noted iconic character Madame Xanadu.

But as much as I liked the writing, the artwork didn’t do much for me.  I’d seen Luke McDonnell’s work before.  Ostrander had written a mini-series called Armageddon Inferno in the early 90s as both a showcase for the character of Waverider and as a vehicle to return the Justice Society to the DCU.  Waverider needed to gather teams of heroes to travel to different parts of the time stream in order to stop a demon and his minions from taking over the universe.  Different art teams were brought in to depict action with heroes ranging from Sergeant Rock to Superman with McDonnell responsible for the framing sequences, and his stuff stuck out in a bad way.  Maybe if the other artists hadn’t included the likes of Ostrander’s at-the-time future Spectre collaborator Tom Mandrake, plus other sections done by Arthur Adams, Walt Simonson, and even Dick Giordano drawing the Justice Society, it would not have seemed as bad.  As a result, McDonnell just doesn’t rate with those guys.  His work here isn’t a whole lot better in places.

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Plus, true to the series’ name and nature, the Squad does lose members.  They even lose badly in one issue to a villain team that clearly overpowers them.  And while some parts of the book are dated badly (a Soviet mission, with a bunch of stereotypical Soviet superheroes, is a fine case in point), I know both from the series’ rep and Ostrander’s history that the series will get better.  I will do what I can to get to more of this series in the future.  Eight out of ten racist Australian criminals for me.  Plus, fans of Ostrander’s work can catch a Grimjack reference in the first issue.


Jimmy here…hijacking Tom’s post.  I also read this trade recently for the first time to gear up for the movie.  Here are my long-winded thoughts:

To many, this IS your father’s Suicide Squad.  If you are only familiar with the recent incarnations and what you’ve seen in the movie trailers, there will be a lot here that will make you go “hmmm?”  Keep in mind that this is just after Crisis on Infinite Earths and long before any New 52 style reboots.  So Rick Flag is there and Deadshot…and then very different looking Amanda Waller, Enchantress, Captain Boomerang…I think you get the picture.  No Joker.  No Harley Quinn (who didn’t exist at this point).  No Katana, Killer Croc, etc.  Basically, outside of the concept of the Suicide Squad, this incarnation has little resemblance to what you’ll see in a couple of days on the big screen.

And that’s ok (especially given the advanced reviews of the movie which have been disappointingly bad).  This is still Suicide Squad.  A bunch of mostly criminals led by Flag to perform missions for Task Force X to have their prison sentences changed to time served.  How many missions this actually takes to gain your freedom is unclear.  I guess it depends on the length of your sentence, but no one enjoys that side of the bargain in the first eight issues.  Which is probably good as you don’t want your entire cast leaving after one story arc.

Writer John Ostrander does a great job with the characterization in this book.  They are a bunch of criminals and they often behave that way.  (“We’re bad guys, it’s what we do.”)  There is betrayal and in-fighting and just all around no goodness from this motley crew.  Captain Boomerang in particular really stands out.  While some of the task force seem like they are looking for a chance at reform, and others are more vigilantes on the wrong side of the law, Boomerang is a villain through and through.  Taking advantage of the system and cutting every corner that he can until he earns his “freedom”, which you know will pretty much be an immediate return to the lifestyle that got him stuck in Task Force X in the first place.

In this day and age where most comic series seem to be written in trade paperback friendly arcs, it was a bit odd that the trade was not one continuous story.  Which is ok, just a sign of the times.  I also was surprised that no DC big wigs showed up for a guest appearance to boost the books profile.  I was especially expecting Batman.  But good on DC for letting it stand on its own.

On a completely unrelated note, I was reading an article the other day and it talked about editors notes in comics.  You know, where a character references some past event and it has a little * next to it and a little box at the bottom of the panel says something like “It happened in Amazing Spider-Man #65 – Smiling Stan”.  This article mentioned that those had gone out of style in recent years.  Which I hadn’t really noticed, but is going to be a pain for me once (if) I ever get that far in my Spider-Man Chronology.  But my point of all this, is that I found that there were a lot of things referenced in Suicide Squad that were outside the scope of the book.  It won’t hinder your reading of the story, but many times I felt like I needed to brush up on what Firestorm or Superman were up to at that period of time in the DC universe.

Well, for something I wasn’t sure I could even write much about, I’ve managed to ramble on way too long.  This first Suicide Squad trade is a recommend read (probably even by Watson).  Just make sure you put yourself in a late 80’s mindset before you do, complete with remembering that Regan was president.

I give it 8 out of 10 thank God Will Smith isn’t Deadshot.

P.S.  Madame Xanadu appearance Jenny!  Madame F-ing Xanadu!

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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