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Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: Trial By Fire

Review

Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: Trial By Fire

The supervillain team known as the Suicide Squad has been getting a lot of press lately. They’re to be featured in an upcoming star-studded movie with a Batman cameo and a controversial new take on the Joker. But while the Squad as a team isn’t yet a household name, they’ve been an integral part of the DC Comics universe since the mid-1980s. And DC is stepping up to meet the press attention with a new series of trade paperbacks collecting that original run, the first volume of which is titled SUICIDE SQUAD: Trial By Fire.

Written by John Ostrander (who is one of my favorite comic book writers of all time), Suicide Squad is a series about bad people doing bad things for not the best reasons. The core conceit is that the US government is offering supervillains a chance to reduce their sentences --- if the villains are willing to perform covert ops missions and can manage to survive them, they’ll have years knocked off their jail time. But these are deadly missions, behind enemy lines, and the odds of survival are slim.

Suicide Squad takes a lot of what you expect from a superhero comic and flips it around, and was doing it at a time when this wasn’t par for the course.”

It’s interesting to see how little the political landscape of the world has changed over the course of the past thirty years as show through the lens of these stories --- the Squad is consistently sent into situations that still feel topical today. One mission deals with Middle Eastern Islamic extremism. Another has to do with racial strife on American soil. A third sends them into the Soviet Union. (OK, so there’s no Soviet Union anymore, but it’s not like we don’t see Russia in the headlines on a weekly basis.) Ostrander didn’t pull his punches at a time when superhero comics were only really starting to become topical and viewed as anything other than children’s entertainment.

Being a team comic, the cast of Suicide Squad is large, and for some writers that can be problematic. With large teams, especially ones with members who revolve in and out, it’s easy for a writer to homogenize the characters. But Ostrander doesn’t approach the book that way. Each member of the Squad has a distinct voice. And while there are lots of different members, a few already clearly take center stage in this first volume. There’s Deadshot, a cold and calculating assassin who clearly has something going on deep in his mind; Bronze Tiger, a martial artist looking for redemption; Enchantress, whose personalities are split between the sweet June Moon and the insane and violent Enchantress; Captain Boomerang, a Flash villain whose comical exterior hides a cowardly and vindictive heart; Nightshade, a teleporting superhero who has her own secretive reasons to work with the Squad; and Rick Flagg, a holdover from the non-criminal, paramilitary Suicide Squad of DC’s 1950s war comics, who serves as the group’s field commander. Factor in members who only appear for a few missions/issues, including the Penguin and Chronos, and you have a lot of names to juggle.

But there’s one more character, probably the most important in the comic, who I want to call out specifically. Amanda Waller is a name now familiar to many fans of DC Comics or its media-related tie-ins. This series is where Waller got her start, appearing as the head of the program. The Wall (as she’s called) was unlike any other character in comics at the time: a short, stocky, razor-sharp and tough-as-nails black woman who took no guff from anyone, be they supervillain or high-ranking government agent. When the reader first meets Waller, she’s making it clear that if any of her charges try to escape, she will use extreme measures to assure that they won’t --- and the Squad has no doubt if she’s bluffing. In further volumes, Waller grows in depth of character such that she becomes one of the most fully realized characters in American comics. But those who plan to read only this volume will still get an incredible portrait of this unique character..

While readers of superhero comics are now inured to character death as a cheap tactic to get attention, this wasn’t the case when the Suicide Squad comics were first released. Death meant something then, and when a member of the Squad died at the end of the first story, it was something shocking. The Squad also doesn’t win every time. While their mission to Qurac (DC’s boilerplate knockoff Middle Eastern dictatorship) was a success, their second mission to Moscow was an unqualified disaster, with one member of the team captured and the person they were there to liberate killed. This kind of storytelling is what makes Suicide Squad such an interesting read: It takes a lot of what you expect from a superhero comic and flips it around, and was doing it at a time when this wasn’t par for the course.

SUICIDE SQUAD: Trial By Fire is a great introduction to a concept and to characters who are still important in DC Comics today, and who have become a part of the DC media landscape over recent years. It’s a hard hitting political thriller mixed with supervillains, which is a combination that leads to breakneck action and a cast you’re never sure you can trust. This is a series that should have become one of the seminal superhero series of the 1980s, and with the reprint program beginning with this volume, it will hopefully get the attention that it’s due.

Reviewed by Matt Lazorwitz on September 7, 2015

Suicide Squad, Vol. 1: Trial By Fire
by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell

  • Publication Date: September 8, 2015
  • Genres: Graphic Novel
  • : 232 pages
  • Publisher: DC Comics
  • ISBN-10: 140125831X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401258313