The Belle Reve Files – Suicide Squad/Doom Patrol Special

Jordan is back with his retrospective on John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad!

Welcome back convicts! Today we’re taking yet another detour. This time to a crossover with the Doom Patrol. Now a bit of context here. Doom Patrol and Suicide Squad are my two favourite teams in DC Comics. My favourite era for both teams by Ostrander and Grant Morrison respectively are my two favourite comic runs of all time.

Unfortunately this isn’t a crossover between those two creators and their iterations of the teams. Morrison’s Doom Patrol wouldn’t start for another year or so. Instead, the Suicide Squad cross paths with Paul Kupperberg’s Doom Patrol, a run of which I am not a fan of. It’s really not all that great and Kupperberg didn’t really have a good handle on what the team should be. They’re more traditional superheroes rather than oddballs on the fringes of the DC universe. Regardless Kuperberg and Ostrander were frequent collaborators in this period with Kupperberg penning another branch of Task Force X 2 months after this issue. So this issue is a direct collaboration between John Ostrander and Kupperberg with pencils by a young, up and coming Erik Larsen. So how is the actual issue? 

Well it opens with some military guys flying into Nicaragua with some mysterious cloaked figure. The plane is attacked and the figure falls out of the sky. Turns out it’s Hank Hall, the superhero known as Hawk. This was during a period where his partner, Dove was killed during Crisis of Infinite Earths. So he’s flying solo with the US government doing all sorts of shady things. Anyway Hawk is captured and since Nicaragua is a place of national interest for both the US and Soviet Union it becomes a hot spot for super powered individuals. 

We get a brief scene with Ronald Reagan as he sends out the Squad to bring back Hawk. What was Hawk doing? Well he was supplying weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. Hawk,  a superhero, was doing the government’s dirty work. Which I honestly think is a good angle. Hawk and Dove have always kinda represented superheroic centrism. Hawk is the rageful conservative and Dove is the passive liberal. So when Dove dies all that’s left is a really conservative superhero, so of course he’d be working with Reagan.

I think Hawk and Dove are really stupid charcters and I’m not a fan of them at all but this is a decent enough take on the character, just a disgusting alt righter storming into foreign countries guns blazing. This also plays into more of Ostrander openly mocking Reagan in his comics which he does a lot. Anyone who complains about comics being political today clearly hasn’t read any of this stuff. This story is Ostrander and Kupperberg openly criticising the actions of the US government in foreign affairs. 

Essentially Reagan just wants to cover up his dirty work and either rescue or kill Hawk so that he doesn’t look bad. Waller gets her assignment and leaves to build her team. But we don’t follow her to that, instead, we stick with two government dudes named Jack and Matt. As far as I can tell this is their only appearance and I have no idea who they are. They’re distinctive enough that I feel like they’re a reference to something that just hasn’t stayed in the culture. Regardless they have the idea of taking away some of the glory from Amanda Waller. Again Ostrander is playing with the idea of the government being a big pissing contest, with different organizations competing with each other. These two don’t have their own team though so they decide to contact the Doom Patrol.

Then we cut to two contrasting perspectives with Waller telling Flag to assemble a Squad and Moscow decides to send in the Rocket Red Brigade. The Rocket Reds if you don’t know are a bunch of Russian military guys in some awesome retro armor. They were all over early post Crisis DC books and they totally rule. But along with them Zastrow who we’ve seen a few times now decides to derail the mission of the Rocket Reds and sends in his own guy. So that’s the conceit of this issue, contrasting global powers and interests coming together to either rescue or kill Hawk. 

We cut to the Doom Patrol wandering through Nicaragua incognito despite one of them being a robot person and another being wrapped head to toe in bandages. This roster includes the team’s constant, Robotman but also residents of Kupperberg’s run. He brings along Negative Woman, Tempest (not the Aqualad kind. The Joshua Clay kind), and Celsius. They head to Nicaragua following the tip in order to find and rescue Hawk. I think an issue with this crossover is just this set of characters, they just aren’t particularly interesting and when they eventually meet the Squad there aren’t really any interesting character dynamics. But hey at least we get Cliff in a big sombrero.

I think one thing Kupperberg and Ostrander do really well here is have the characters reflect on America’s place in this country. They walk by starving children and lament that they’re doing the work of the government. There’s a great panel where they walk past a sick woman and Arani asks where all the money the US is sending is going. Cliff replies “That ain’t for food Rani. It’s for guns.” This whole issue takes a very anti-interventionist stance. It’s incredibly critical of the role that America plays in foreign affairs and that’s incredibly political, especially back in 1988 when this wasn’t exactly common in comic books. 

Following this scene with the Doom Patrol we are introduced to our Squad for this issue who are already in Nicaragua. The only carryover is Rick Flag who’s kind of a goof in this issue. He’s leading various obscure and forgotten villains. Chief among these is the Squad’s first-ever iteration of the Thinker. The Thinker is a character with a long history in the Squad with three different versions of the character being on the team and this is the start of that legacy. This is Clifford Devoe, the version of Thinker that was a Flash rogue.

We also get one of the Squad’s resident red shirts, a Firestorm villain with Weasel. This Weasel is very different from the one you may know from James Gunn’s Suicide Squad. Here he’s just a man in a suit and not an actual weasel creature. We also get Psi, a Supergirl villain with psychic powers and finally we have Mr 104, a Doom Patrol villain who can manipulate matter. Because you gotta have at least one Doom Patrol villain in this crossover.

I mentioned that Flag is a bit of a goof and that’s cause the Squad free themselves of the explosive bracelets immediately and Flag is kinda dumbfounded. He acts confused and aloof for most of this issue, it’s a bit strange. Thankfully Thinker stops his teammates from harming Flag and threatens to kill them anyway. He wants his freedom after this mission and he’s going to see it through to the end to get it. I’ve said it before but this is something I love about Ostrander’s Squad. Unlike a lot of runs with this team that has followed each member has their own goals and motivations and those often clash in really fun ways.  

The two teams eventually run into each other as they infiltrate a militarised castle to break out Hawk. The two teams come to blows pretty much instantly as Mr 104 leaps at the chance to kill Robotman. Thinker tries to rein in the team but in the confusion, Weasel manages to cut his throat and joins the fight. Pretty much from here till the end of the issue, it’s just the two teams in various scuffles. But the issue is that they just aren’t that interesting playing off of each other. There are only two pairs of characters who have any history. Negative Woman knows Flag and Mr 104 and Robotman are old foes. But everyone else is unknown to each other and probably unknown to most people who read this.

So there are no real interesting pair ups or showdowns, it’s just a lot of noise rather than an entertaining showdown between characters you care about. It’s a good-looking noise at least, as Larsen demonstrates his mastery of the craft with dynamic action and incredible destruction. The characters’ blows feel powerful and dangerous and that comes entirely from Larsen’s art. In all of this chaos though Flag manages to find and put on Thinkers helmet. He tries to reign in both teams before they’re promptly interrupted by the Rocket Reds. It’s the classic team-up after a fight scenario. But I don’t think it fully lands here. Those usually work well when it’s two characters with actual beef who have to put aside their differences. These are just two teams fighting because a few people recognized each other and punched a bit and then robots show up and they decide to punch them instead.

The Squad and Doom Patrol split up to escape the Rocket Reds and the rest of the issue is just fairly random interactions and conflicts. There isn’t a real clear direction or specific goal, it’s all a little haphazard. This is intercut with Stalnoivolk making the most of the situation breaking in and breaking out Hawk. This character is Zastrow’s representative from Russia and he showed up in Firestorm previously. He would eventually be a major player in this Squad run but not for a couple dozen issues at this point. However, at this point, he’s merely here to ruin the mission of the Rocket Reds. He releases Hawk but doesn’t take him with him, he’s only there to screw with Zastrow’s competitor. Which is another great way to play into the idea that these governments and organizations are all competing over a small country they have no place in.

There are also at least two interesting things happening through all the mindless actions. Rick, wearing Thinkers helmet, becomes more erratic and cruel before eventually killing Weasel. It seems Thinker transported his final wish into his helmet causing whoever wore it to avenge his death. It’s a fun enough concept. We also get pretty much the only fulfillment of the team-up  I think with Mr 104 and Tempest teaming up. They bicker and fight but decide to work together to pull through and fight the Rocket Reds. Of course one of them is a member of the Suicide Squad and one of them isn’t. So Mr 104 is promptly disintegrated by a Rocket Red. It’s a brief but compelling team-up that plays off the contentious personalities of the two characters. Psi is also killed by a Rocket Red and dies in the arms of Negative Woman. That leaves Flag the only surviving Squad member. 

The two teams finally manage to escape and Hawk just kinda shows up and the two teams escape together. The issue ends with two great character moments that play directly into the Squad side of this story. Waller confronts Flag and says she wouldn’t have sent him on the mission had she known how it would have gone. Flag laments that it doesn’t matter and that he’s committed to the job regardless. This issue might feel very standalone and separate from Ostrander’s main run but in a lot of ways but this is a direct tie-in. Building off the last issue this is a Flag out of touch with his emotions, throwing himself into blind service. We also get a scene with Zastrow as he confronts his humiliated rival who he murders. This scene ends with a great final line that totally sums up the political message of this story. “I am the far better politician of the two of us.”

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