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The Belle Reve Files – Suicide Squad #10

The Belle Reve Files is back as Jordan continues his retrospective of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad.

Welcome back convicts. Today we’re discussing a landmark issue of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, #10. You might’ve encountered this cover before. It’s incredibly iconic and might be the single most recognisable image associated with this run. Obviously, that’s because of a certain vigilante taking up much of the page. Batman sells books and bumps those numbers up.

But outside of Batman, it’s an incredible cover. It’s a powerful statement and in my mind, the greatest image of Amanda Waller ever drawn. Here we see Batman with his back to the wall, a much shorter and obviously less physically powerful character barking at him. It boldly throws Waller into the wider universe and having freaking BATMAN as the one she’s backing into a corner sends a powerful message. It’s one of those covers that says a lot with a little and leaps off the stands. So what about the story behind the cover? Well let’s dive in, shall we? 

The issue starts with the introduction of Father Craemer, a priest who is setting up shop in Belle Reve. Craemer is one of my favourite supporting characters in this run, it’s clear that Ostrander loves him since he’s used later in his Spectre run. Craemer has decided to move here to help these criminals and minister to them. The good word and all that jazz. He’s a great character that has a really unique and interesting relationship with the Squad. We have psychologists to get into their heads, but Craemer gets to their hearts. He’s someone who actively tries to empathise with the Squad and that’s something Ostrander uses to great effect later.

Craemer is introduced alongside another member of the Bell Reve staff, Murph. Murph is a prison guard, who helps to fill out the Bell Reve supporting cast. I particularly like his conversation with Craemer in this opening scene. We get to understand why he’s working here and that he doesn’t like it all that much. It helps to ground the series and shows that these are real people, not background extras. This conversation is only on the third page and we already know everything we need to know about these characters. We understand who they are, what their role is, and what their perspective is on working here. 

The two of them then encounter Duchess, who we met in the last issue. She seems to have linked up with Belle Reve between issues after hauling in Slipknot. We get this really great panel of her with this massive sci-fi gun like something out of Aliens. It’s apt since Duchess is basically a female version of Dutch from Predator. A muscle-bound commando with a bandana firing massive machine guns from the hip. Ostrander, McDonnell, and the team then move from her introduction into a scene with Flo, Waller, and John Economos.

I love the way that the scene changes here as Waller sees the Duchess on a TV screen from the last panel. There are a lot of characters in this series and it could feel all over the place shifting between them all. Thankfully Ostrander manages to tie it all together seamlessly. When you read these issues you’ll notice that he only shifts perspective through action and reaction. We start with Cramer and Murph but switch to an introduction of Duchess when Murph gets a call about her. That then moves us to Waller as she watches her on a screen. It’s just really damn good writing and it feels totally seamless. Everything just flows really well and the momentum is never slowed for a second.

Now comics are often spoken of as condensed storytelling. Comics are a medium that has to do a lot in a small number of pages, especially back in the day when long-running stories weren’t as common. I want to point to this specific page as an example of Ostrander doing this condensed storytelling perfectly. It’s a conversation between Flo, Waller, and Economos and it tells you vital information about the characters while setting up plot points for future stories. In a single page, we learn that Flo has a crush on Bronze Tiger and that Waller knows about it. We know that Waller feels she’s saddled with Flag and believes he’s inevitably going to crack and we understand that Flo yearns to be in the field but that Waller cares too much about her.

That’s a lot for a single page but it never feels exhausting or forced. Flo never outright says she has a crush on Tiger but Waller joking about it tells us all we need to. Waller telling Flo that she’s not expendable tells us all we need to know about their relationship. Nothing is explicitly said but the implication is enough for us to immediately understand. It’s all done so efficiently and smoothly. If someone is wanting to make comics they should look at this page and study why and how it works. 

Following this, we get a brief but important scene with Rick Flag and Mark Shaw. Shaw announces that he’s leaving to do his own thing as Manhunter and invites Flag to come with him. Flag just ignores him, locked in his grief for Karin. It’s a brief moment that mostly acts to set up Manhunter’s own series which was also written by Ostrander and his wife Kim Yale. But it also helps to establish just how grief-stricken and disillusioned Flag is. It also goes back to my point about transitions. Waller spoke about Flag going off the deep end and in the next scene, he barely talks. 

Shaw heads out and the issue cuts to midnight. A lone figure sits in their cell, shrouded by shadow. The figure blocks the security camera and escapes his cell. The guards note that the man is Matches Malone, thrown in Belle Reve as a favour from Commissioner Gordon. We get these great pages by McDonell with lots of small panels showing glimpses of this figure breaking out and heading to storage revealing a package from Gordon. Inside of course is Batman’s costume, revealing that this figure is our very own Caped Crusader. Batman breaks into the office of John Economos and does some snooping around as Batman tends to do. He is eventually found out by Waller and she calls in Flag, Duchess, and Deadshot. Only Waller is interrupted by something on the monitor, Batman.

Here we finally get the reveal. This whole breakout sequence is so incredibly well done. See what needs to be understood is that here, Batman’s a horror movie monster. He’s like Jaws or the Xenomorph. He’s revealed in brief glimpses only to come out in this amazing big panel, as a dark vengeful creature of the night. It makes perfect sense as well given that this is a Squad book, not a Batman book, so we get to see him in a new light and from a different perspective. I’m also just always gonna love anytime Matches Malone is used, such a fun part of the Batman mythos. 

Of course, the Squad aren’t just gonna let Batman collect his things and leave. We get to see Duchess in action first, McDonnell draws her as a massive imposing figure that towers over Batman. It’s here where we get a lot of our understanding of the character. She’s someone who revels in a good fight and yearns for a worthy opponent. Introducing a character by essentially having her hold her own against Batman is a smart way for the creative team to set up how powerful she is. Of course, being Batman, Duchess is taken out as he moves on to Deadshot. There’s a great little page of Batman ducking under Lawton’s line of sight and knocking him out.

Batman seems to be home free before Flag comes in and tackles him. We get a great action sequence of these two stern heroes coming to blows. It’s depicted in another one of those full-action pages that McDonnell does a lot in this run. We don’t really get to see who wins though as Waller interrupts with the entire staff of Belle Reve. 

Here we get just some of the coolest stuff ever in a comic as Batman negotiates with Waller. Millennium as an event wasn’t amazing but it’s important for how it thrust the Suicide Squad into the wider universe. The Squad is supposed to be a secret so what happens when they take part in a line-wide crossover event? This is the fallout of that event as Batman notes that he had heard rumours of the Squad and became curious during the crossover.

This issue really functions as a way for Ostrander to address how the Squad can even function in a world of superheroes. So Ostrander throws in a character to effectively tackle this head-on, and what better character for it than the world’s greatest detective. Only Batman doesn’t get out with the evidence, Waller threatens to find out who he is and blow his cover if Batman blows theirs.

The whole issue effectively ends in a stalemate which is hardly the most dramatic end for a crossover comic book. But it’s important to remember just who these characters were at this point. Batman had just broken into and out of a prison and torn through the Squad with little effort. He went through all of this and in the end, was only stopped by Waller. It’s the defining moment for this character. She’s tough as nails, will do anything to get what she wants, and won’t let anyone jeopardize the Squad, no matter who it is. Not many characters can say that they blackmailed Batman. It’s such an important moment because it solidifies her place within the wider DC Universe. She’s not just someone who commands a Squad of criminals, she’s someone who made Batman think twice. 

Also as a side note, we get one single panel of Deadshot talking to Batman that just reveals so much about Lawton. Deadshot remarks how he’d take out Batman just for fun. Only Batman points out that if Deadshot could’ve he would’ve, instead, he was holding back. It completely shatters everything we know about the two characters’ rivalry. It’s not explained or elaborated on and it doesn’t need to be. The implication is interesting enough and forces us to think more deeply about the characters.

This whole issue is just damn good writing with a killer premise and fun action but it’s all in service of character. Like how Batman’s presence causes Flag to yell at the Squad and complain that he deserves better than to be working with this scum. It’s here where Waller reinstates Flag as leader since he’s just proven himself. Despite the story ending in a stalemate so much happens in this issue. New characters are introduced, old characters are given new motivations and interesting new elements of characters are revealed. This was all done in a brief 22 pages. 

It’s also just a stellar Batman story. Ostrander is one of my favourite writers to work on the character despite not having a proper long run with him. He just gets Batman and the unique presence he brings to a story. This entire issue is an absolute masterclass of comic book storytelling, it might just be the greatest single issue of the entire story. Just really highlights how good this medium can be when everyone is working at the top of their game. 

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