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Word Balloons: Suicide Squad embraces morally gray territory

The first issue of "Suicide Squad" from 1987. [DC Comics image]

The first issue of "Suicide Squad" from 1987. [DC Comics image]

Warner Bros' “Suicide Squad” hits theaters Friday. The team is a group of convicts tasked with taking on high-difficulty missions in exchange for a pardon or reduction of sentence. 

The concept originated in the pages of DC Comics, following the shake-up of the DC Comics universe in “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” DC was realigning its continuity and style to be more in line with the 1980s — which meant characters like “Captain Boomerang,” introduced in 1960 to battle the Flash, might not be in tune with this new, darker way of telling comic book stories. 

Gimmicky villains, the mainstay of comics for much of the Silver and Bronze ages of comics in the 1960s and 1970s, were being reinterpreted, at best, and forgotten at worst. What writer John Ostrander did in “Suicide Squad” was to take those characters, put them in a “Dirty Dozen”-like situation, and develop them beyond their gimmick.

“The book is everything you could ever want in superhero comics,” said blogger and podcaster Dean Compton, of www.the

“You want action? Check. Intrigue? Check. Complex relationship? Check. Do you want a reason to care immensely about really bad people? Check.”

Ostrander, later joined as co-writer by his wife, Kim Yale, pried some inspiration from the original "Suicide Squad" featured in a 1950s DC Comic, but even the recycled concepts were very much updated for "Suicide Squad."

"Ostrander, who for my money is the most underrated writer in comic book history, effortlessly weaves the stories of a varied assortment of personalities into a pattern that never looks the same upon repeated viewing, but still never fails to utterly captivate," Compton said. "The Phoenix Gambit, The Janus Directive and the Suicide Squad's showdown in Russia against Justice League International shine to this day as exemplary superhero tales." 

The original issues by Ostrander and artist Luke McDonnell have recently been rereleased in the collection "Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire." Four volumes of the series are available now. The Ostrander and Yale run went through 66 issues, ending in 1992. Yale died in 1997.

Shades of character

Comics through much of their history had dealt in absolutes, painting villains as entirely black and heroes as entirely white. Comics in the 1980s had shaken up some of that, and Ostrander wrote in a recent column at that the Suicide Squad — in story, called Task Force X — was designed to embrace the shades of gray. 

"With the Squad, the bad guys are forced to 'do good,' with that 'good' defined by Amanda Waller who herself is morally very gray," Ostrander wrote. "Even the 'heroes' who went along to keep the Squad in line were themselves compromised morally, often just by being associated with the Squad. They had their own problems. No one was 100 percent good — or 100 percent bad either."

Compton notes that Waller, the government official who ruled over the Squad, was a strong black female character in a medium that hasn't always had a surplus of them. 

"Amanda Waller might be the best black female character in comic book history," Compton said. "I dare someone to read even 5 pages of Waller and deny her captivating presence." 

Waller is played by Viola Davis in the film. 

Tie-ins planned

DC plans several "Suicide Squad" releases to tie into the film. 

"Suicide Squad Most Wanted" is a six-issue miniseries beginning Wednesday. The first issue features a lead story starring El Diablo, written by Jai Nitz. DC's new "Suicide Squad" ongoing went on sale Wednesday, with a "Rebirth" Special to be released Aug. 17. Rob Williams will write, and artists include Jim Lee, Philip Tan, Scott Williams and Jonathan Glapion.

Ostrander will return to the adventures of Task Force X in a one-shot hitting shelves Aug. 31, called "Suicide Squad: War Crimes." 

A notable addition to the Suicide Squad for the film is the Joker's frequent paramour, Harley Quinn. 

Quinn was originally developed for "Batman: The Animated Series," first appearing in the 1992 episode "Joker's Favor." She made her way to the mainstream continuity comics in 1999, and her title is currently one of DC's best-selling.


John Ostrander column on Suicide Squad:


Matthew Price

Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s... Read more ›