The Belle Reve Files – Suicide Squad #5-7

Jordan joins us to look back at John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad!

Hi there! I’m Jordan Edwards, GateCrashers resident Task Force Xpert. This may appear confusing seeing as I am discussing issues five through seven of a run. Where are the first issues? Well dear reader you can find my work at Comfort Food Comics, a site that has effectively closed. Thankfully Dan, Ethan, and the wonderful folks at GateCrashers have allowed me to continue my series here. So if you haven’t read this series or my previous articles feel free to go see those at CFC, and read along as these articles are published.

Today we’re discussing what is at this point the biggest arc of the run, The Flight of the Firebird which goes from issue 5 to issue 7. There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s get started. 

This arc opens with a gorgeous first page by Luke Mcdonnell that wonderfully establishes the tone and style of this story. It’s an 80s action movie. One of the beefy Shwarchenegger films with guns blazing and those classic evil Russian bad guys. There is more nuance there but it very much feels like an action movie of the time. 

The story opens with Mikhail Gorbachev discussing what to do with a political prisoner. A writer named Zoya Trigorin who goes by the moniker of Firebird. This opening scene also establishes the character of Zastrow who is responsible for the Soviet Union’s superpowered characters. Ostrander in this series loves to play with ideas of enemy versions of the Squad, first seen with Jihad in the run’s first story. Suicide Squad is a comic often concerned with global conflict, international relations, and the growing tensions between nations. But of course, it’s also a superhero comic so having different countries the Squad infiltrate have their own super teams effectively carries on those ideas and concepts. Most of the Russian superpowered characters don’t show up till much later in this run but it is still effectively set up in this story.

Anyway, this scene sets up the stakes of this arc and establishes the political prisoner who the Squad is freeing. There’s some interesting discussion here about martyrdom and that killing Zoya would just give her what she wants, a statement and a following. It demonstrates a more thorough understanding of political conflict than most writers, especially at the time when most books would characterize other government leaders as evil, maniacal dictators. The Soviet Union is still presented as the baddies here, make no mistake. But there is more nuance here than a lot of other stuff.

Following this, we head back to Belle Reve for some time to establish the cast for this story. There’s a new addition for one time only with The Penguin. Ostrander up until this point has been utilizing largely obscure characters, so it’s an interesting change but one that opens some really fun avenues. He has a great dynamic throughout the story that works in an almost meta way. Cobbelopt spends most of his time whining and complaining about being dragged along for the mission. He’s got a high and mighty sensibility because of course, he’s a much more popular character, he’s above all this, he doesn’t need to get his hands dirty. It works with his characterization and it’s a fun way for Ostrander to acknowledge that this character isn’t obscure like the others. Clever stuff.

This groundwork at Belle Reve also sets up the Enchantress a bit more as Flag raises concerns surrounding June Moone being too much of a risk for future missions, which takes us to June’s session with Belle Reve’s therapist, Simon LaGrieve. I’ve said before that I love how Ostrander uses LaGrieve to get us closer to these characters and this is our first real instance of that being shown. The session doesn’t go well as June starts to freak out as she starts to become the Enchantress. McDonnell does an excellent job here of visually showing a difference in June’s physical state. The way her face twists and distorts in that second panel works so well and helps sell the torment that June is put through. It’s effective character work and will come back up later.

A little inconsequential thing that I wanna dip into quickly is a fun aside where Boomerang and Lawton are chilling at Boomers’ place that Waller has set up for him. Unlike most modern versions of the Squad, the original stories had the prisoners retain more autonomy and an actual life, rather than just brooding in their cells between missions. Lawton is visibly sick of Boomer’s crap and bails but not before one of my favorite instances of Boomer’s signature “Aussie” slang. “It’s the view myte. Have a dekko.” Just such wondrous nonsense.

The Squad heads off to Russia but this time they’re going undercover with various disguises. Penguin has the best since he’s dressed as this adorable little chef. Look at him! It’s beautiful.

The Squad head out onto a Russian train as they try to blend in. I think the build-up of this issue is really effective. All of this undercover work is given a great deal of tension which builds and builds as they get closer to their destination. It really feels like they’re wading deep into enemy territory. I think what sells this especially well is these brilliant panels with the train rolling through a starkly white backdrop. It feels cold and isolated, with no way out.

Eventually, the Squad makes it to the psychiatric hospital where Zoya is being held. Flag sends in a reluctant June and Nightshade to get her out. I think one great detail here is Flag’s total disregard for June’s mental wellbeing. It was clear that he cared earlier but that was about the possibility of things going wrong, when it comes to actually helping June he’s entirely focused on the mission.

June and Nightshade head inside only to learn that Zoya doesn’t actually want to leave. I’ll admit this is a little odd to me. Not because I don’t buy that she wouldn’t want to leave, more so that the implementation of that isn’t entirely well handled. The issue’s first scene establishes she loves her country, wants to free it from its communist government, and is willing to die for her cause. So of course she isn’t going to like being dragged to America. It makes sense that it’s surprising to the characters since they don’t have the context of that first scene. For us as readers, however, it’s not at all surprising and I think that’s just due to an issue of perspective.

Anyway as Enchantress and Nightshade are trying to make their way out, they’re discovered and the issue ends.

Issue two I think is my favorite of the three and it opens like all good comics do, with a massive explosion.

It largely deals with the fallout of the end of the last issue as the Squad tries to make good on their escape. It’s a lot more chaotic and desperate as everything goes wrong and the Squad scramble to make it out with their lives. This chaos begins fittingly with the uncontrollable Enchantress. She’s wreaking havoc on everyone and anyone and what follows is one of my favorite Deadshot moments of all time.

So damn cool. These characters are often slimy creeps and weaselly murderers but Ostrander gives them their time to shine. Although this moment of victory doesn’t last as Deadshot gives away the team’s position forcing them to retreat. I think McDonnell at this moment does an excellent job of conveying the frantic and confused nature of the firefight. This page in particular is split into smaller increments connecting us to the characters as they scramble and try to work out what is going on.

The Squad manages to escape, despite the protests of Firebird. Deadshot again gets to shine here with a great exchange with Penguin wherein he claims he missed intentionally to keep things interesting. Just such fun character work wonderfully infused into the action. Anyway, the Squad manages to escape via train but not without a wonderful and understated moment between Nightshade and Nemesis. The series had established prior that Eve/Nightshade has feelings for Flag. Nemesis acknowledges that he’s jealous but doesn’t hold anything against either of them. A lesser writer would string this along for a soap opera love triangle where Nemesis and Flag had a feud that drove a wedge in the Squad. But that’s boring and overdone. Ostrander chooses to instead give these characters the room to act like adults. It’s such a small moment but I think it goes to show the maturity and nuance this series had that little else had at the time.

An exhausted Squad manages to barely scramble their way back to the embassy. They’ve made it, they can rest and recover, crisis averted. Except Ostrander pulls the rug out from under them, telling them they’ve botched the mission so bad that they need to surrender themselves to the Russian authorities. The Squad isn’t allowed a second to breathe before they’re presented with another massive obstacle. It’s what I love about this run, they always feel way over their head.

This brings us to issue 3 which begins with 4 gloriously 80s Russians. Remember how I said this felt like a beefcake action movie? Yeah, these guys are prime examples. These are The People’s Heroes, Russia’s premiere hero team. These guys aren’t as fun as some of the other groups the Squad comes across, they’re just not incredibly interesting but they serve the story well. In this first scene with them though we get a barrage of references to other characters, namely The Outsiders, Firestorm, and the Rocket Reds. It’s a great example of why I love this post-crisis DC era so much, everything felt so connected. It felt like a living breathing world.

Anyway, we head back to the Squad as they try to figure out just what they’re going to be doing. With June/ Enchantress out of commission, the group opts to take a secret route over the frozen Black Sea. It’s a long journey but they decide to risk it. Before the Squad gets into gear there’s this nice panel where Flag tells Bronze Tiger that if he goes down to take over and not leave anyone behind. It’s why I love Flag as a character. He may not love working with these criminals but he always does his best to see the mission through with everyone’s heads still attached to their bodies. The Squad manages to obtain disguises but not without Lawton trying to pull a fast one on Flag. Nemesis manages to take him out but without promptly quitting the team as he chooses to stay behind. It’s a real rapid-fire series of events. It helps make this issue feel truly desperate, nothing is really going Flag’s way.

To alleviate this tension, however, Ostrander takes us back to ol’ Boomerbutt who like the sleaze he is tries to hit on a woman he found in New Orleans. Of course, this turns out to be Black Orchid once again in disguise and she flies him off by his ankle. It’s a nice breather from a, particularly exhausting mission.

We also get this funny little bit where Lawton, Cobblepot, and Flag disguise communism. I just find it amusing because yes that’s exactly who I want to be talking about the merits of communism, a character who uses trick umbrellas as his main weapon. This is followed by another comparison Lawton makes between himself and Flag, noting that they’re both lone wolves and don’t fit into a group. It’s an interesting comparison and I think foreshadows the journey that Flag takes over the course of this series. We’re starting to see more of the seeds of his disillusionment with Waller and the government.

The Squad makes it to the ice but unfortunately so do the People’s Heroes with an unconscious Nemesis. Fortunately, though our comedic jaunt with Boomerang and Orchid pays off as they arrive on the scene with Bronze Tiger in tow. From here it’s a big old-fashioned punch up. Ostrander manages to pepper some fun character moments throughout like Orchid tossing Hammer after he refuses to fight a woman and Boomerang saving Deadshot and playing it off. The rest of the Russian military begins to arrive but thankfully Briscoe and Sheba manage to make it in the nick of time. This page here is one of my favorites in the entire run. McDonnell gives the arrival of Sheba such weight and gravitas. It’s a real “the cavalry’s here.” After a whole arc of the Squad on the backfoot, having such a triumphant moment feels oh so satisfying.

Sadly Zoya gets caught in the crossfire and Nemesis is arrested, while the rest of the Squad make their escape. The issue closes as it opens with Gorbachev and Zastrow as they ponder the fact that her martyrdom has made the Firebird immortal.

And that’s our story. It’s easily the biggest in scope up to this point, with so many different characters and dynamics, double-crosses, and uneasy alliances. But Ostrander and McDonnell manage to give it a clear focus and drive. It’s one of my favorite Squad stories because it perfectly exemplifies what makes this teamwork. Just throw them into a meatgrinder and see them try to scramble their way out. Such a simple premise brings out the inherent drama in the characters and Ostrander plays it up wonderfully. Flag in particular gets a lot to do in this story as he has pinballs between yelling at Nemesis and yelling at Deadshot. June Moone also gets a fair bit of play as we learn more about her relationship with Enchantress and her fears around losing control. It’s all wrapped up in fun action movie visuals and iconography, with McDonnell bringing his A-game. Colorist Carl Gafford especially deserves credit for selling the isolated and cold atmosphere of the arc. It’s the Suicide Squad firing on all cylinders and I think it’s particularly evident of the quality of work that stays consistent from here till the end.

That’s been me, folks! Thanks for reading along, especially those of you who followed me from CFC. Welcome to the new readers at GateCrashers as well, I hope you enjoy the nonsense I do! I look forward to talking Squad with you guys. If they keep letting me write about it, I’ll keep being here.

So long. 

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