Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Brooks on Books: Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire

What a treat it was to see this DC Comics trade paperback at my local liberry. At a recent visit to a certain major chain bookseller (OK, Barnes and Noble), there was an ample table devoted to tie-ins with the current "Suicide Squad" film. However, it was a whole lot of merch, a ton of Harley Quinn, and "New 52" trades. There was nothing about any pre-Harley Quinn version (Yes, such a thing exists!), let alone the Silver Age incarnation--this despite a big, shiny new book collecting the earliest stories in a suitably expensive format.

So I was glad to snag "Trial by Fire," which is one of those non-fancy affordable collected editions, a softcover compiling the John Ostrander revival of the team beginning in 1987. It's a fun reminder of why I loved comic books back in the day, and it's a particular delight for me because I never read THAT comic (this collection contains Suicide Squad #1-#8, which establishes Ostrander's vision of the team, plus an issue of Secret Origins detailing the backstory of the group). I give it a strong recommendation, but I also give the caveat that I have no idea how/whether/if this is at all relevant to the movie.

The Suicide Squad is a group of villains recruited by Amanda Waller and led by Rick Flag with the purpose of performing covert ops for the government. They are considered expendable and thus prime candidates for dangerous missions. This set-up lets Ostrander introduce some political ideas, some meditations on morality, and, yes, some of that sweet, sweet SOCIAL RELEVANCE we all love in our old comics.

This book wins me over from the get-go with the "Secret Origins" issue setting up the modern (well, in the 1980s) version of the Squad. As Amanda Waller makes her case to the unnamed President (who is clearly Ronald Reagan, and that's hilarious enough right there; I love seeing real people in comics), she recounts the case files of the older team.

My favorite line is when Waller, relating her own up-from-bootstraps story, tells Ronnie, "Of course back then we had some social programs to fall back on. You DO remember social programs, don't you, Mr. President?" What did I tell ya? SOCIAL RELEVANCE, baby! Reagan's gentle response is hilarious: "Now, now, Miss Waller..."   Incidentally, Reagan is not portrayed as a buffoon, though he does lament the fact that since the Squad was covert, it couldn't have been a movie, and, oh, there might have been a great part in there...

After you get into the actual run of "Suicide Squad," the thing that jumps out is the non-decompressed storytelling. Everything moves! It's almost to a fault--when one moral dilemma causes friction with Waller, it's eventually resolved when she basically gives a quick "My bad," and apologizes at the end of an issue. It's refreshing in a sense, but it's a bit rushed; nevertheless, I'll take this fast-paced stories even if some things go by quickly.

It's not like Ostrander sacrifices character for plot, either. The villains get their little bits of business, and there is a romantic back story with Flag and a former colleague who shows up in a surprising capacity. Perhaps the most distinctive is Captain Boomerang, who shares a bit of Australian slang in every panel, once admiring the "norks" on a female teammate.

During one action sequence, Boomerang has a chance to save a teammate and figures, "Eh, why should I?" It's a startling moment that adds some realism to this concept. It's not like everyone magically becomes a Good Samaritan because the government offers commutation of their sentences. It's also a good example of the moral ambiguity that Ostrander packs into these stories. Particularly for the era, it's some provocative stuff on right/wrong, the role of government, etc. It's a solid mix of politics and action that never gets preachy. Sure, there were groundbreaking comics exploring politics and social issues, but this is a mainstream DC comic book. It holds up very well today.

Most of the art is by Luke McDonnell, and it totally looks like late 1980s comic book art, not that I am complaining. I'm not sure how much he and Karl Kesel contribute to the storytelling, and maybe I am giving Ostrander too much of the credit, but the whole package is highly entertaining and addictive. I'd love to get my hands on more of this run, which lasted 60-some issues.

No comments: