The Belle Reve Files: Suicide Squad #11 and #12 Retrospective

Jordan is back with another retrospective on John Ostranders Suicide Squad.

Welcome back to the Belle Reve Files! I’ve just finished my 3-year degree at University so I’m ready to get back into the swing of things. That means reading and writing about a whole lot of comics and today that means Suicide Squad issues 11 and 12. This is a really neat little two-parter often overlooked when discussing Ostrander’s tenure on the title. Which I think is a shame because this is a really strong showing from Ostrander, McDonnell, and the rest of the creative team. 

The story immediately establishes a different tone and style with the opening of issue 11. We start with Marie McCabe, a model just wrapping up her photoshoot. When she finishes she talks to a modeling friend as she pours out her insecurities in her job onto Marie. She feels a sense of guilt and shame from displaying her body and making a lot more money than her parents. It’s a bit of an unfortunate opening to this book that somewhat vilifies female sexuality and the work associated with that. Marie swims off to do some snorkeling as she reminisces about the past.

It is here that we learn that Marie is really the superhero Vixen. Vixen today is one of DC’s biggest and greatest female characters, but when this story was written in 1988 that wasn’t the case. In Marie’s flashback, there’s a surprising shortage of information and experience. Vixen was introduced in 1981 but went largely underutilized until the much-maligned Justice League Detroit. That was a JL team of second-stringers and C-listers, so it didn’t go down well with readers. So Vixen here is practically a retired hero, someone who wanted to make it big but couldn’t quite. Unfortunately, when Marie gets back to shore she finds her entire crew dead, which kicks of the events of the story. 

We then follow Waller as she assembles her Squad, bringing in Boomer from a botched heist as Mirror Master. Rick Flag is busy with the Doom Patrol crossover I talked about last time so she entrusts Nightshade the role of leader. To help with this particular mission she also brings in Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, and Vixen. Turns out the Maries crew were killed by a bunch of drug dealers when they were accidentally caught on camera in the background. So the Squad’s mission is to go in, kill their leader Xavier Cujo and dismantle their operation.

This briefing brings up a lot of ethical questions with a lot of uneasy answers. Nightshade doesn’t want any part of a clearly illegal operation. She’s still clearly rattled by her undercover work in the Jihad, even though this is never spelled out. Boomerang of course doesn’t really care but certainly objects to being ordered around by women (which gives us a classic moment of Waller putting him in his place). Marie just wants them dead as vengeance for the death of her friends. There are a lot of contrasting ideas at play here which Ostrander fleshes out in the story. Should the US be so ruthless with these criminals? Does the law even work with these guys? Does killing Cujo only sprout a new leader? It’s like I said earlier, this is a very different and seedier story. It’s lower in stakes but heavy in ideas and morality. 

Of course, this being the Suicide Squad, they kinda have to go anyway. Boomer, Marie and Nightshade, and Black Orchid go undercover to take out Cujo, while Roy, June Moone (Enchantress), and Nightshade hang back with Briscoe and his helicopter, Sheba. What’s fun about this splitting is the different dynamics the characters are thrown into. Boomerang is at home playing a sleazy drug dealer, selling off Marie and June as prostitutes. Boomerang has always been representative of that despicable underbelly in crime and Ostrander clearly has a lot of fun putting him back into this environment.

The other team are far nobler characters and Roy and Nightshade are two bonafide heroes. It gives Ostrander an opportunity to really dive deep into these characters. Roy is here because he’s pretty much the superhero community leading expert on drugs. Which look, maybe isn’t the best direction to take his character. The reveal that Speedy was a heroin addict was a game-changer for the industry but sadly also defined the character completely. He was beaten and chastised by his mentor and the wider superhero community. But here Ostrander is building him into something. He’s confronting his issues and trying to make the world a better place. So he’s got a bit of a dark streak here and McDonnell often shrouds him in shadow, which isn’t really something the character really had up to this point. So the Roy of today who has that darker side has its roots in this story. 

Now of course the hardcore war on drugs narrative here is a bit date and iffy but the core idea here is of characters entering into a seedy underworld and emerging stronger. To make a long story short the plan goes terribly wrong. Boomer, Vixen, and Orchid are found out and Roy, Nightshade, and Briscoe are forced to begin their attack run. Everything comes to a head with several key character-defining moments. Enchantress goes off the rails again and Nightshade is Forced to use Madame Xanadu’s ring to stop her. Marie also gets a great moment as she confronts Cujo. She is very openly out for revenge in this story so their fight feels earned and brutal. Because Marie actually kills him. Most writers I’m sure would write this story and end it with her choosing to spare him. Instead, Ostrander lets Marie brutally murder the man and then sit in her own guilt. We get to really feel her rage and regret here, all through the exceptional art. It’s an amazing moment that will define Marie’s character from here and demonstrate the true toll of death and violence. 

The Squad manages to escape and head back to Belle Reve. It ends beautifully with Waller asking Marie if she’ll join the Squad. Marie clearly blames herself and hates what has happened so she accepts, to her she’s no better than any of these criminals. Roy on the other hand angrily storms off, noting that this didn’t solve anything. The drug trade carries on. And he’s in proven right with the final page, which reveals how Cujo’s business carries on without him. 

I think what this arc really shows more than anything is that Ostrander and co were really some of the most quietly prominent architects in the DC Universe. This is a fairly unknown story, not even hailed as one of the greats among Ostrander’s wider run. But it also laid the groundwork for the future and popularity of two of DC’s great characters. Marie and Roy aren’t just guests here either, they fit beautifully into the run’s ideas and themes. Because at its core the Suicide Squad is a comic about losers and outsiders. It stars forgotten characters, obscure and silly supervillains who never got their shot or who never really found their audience. This is Vixen, a character whose greatest claim to fame was a reviled run on a classic title. This is also Speedy, a character largely abandoned after the story that revealed his drug addiction. Ostrander’s Squad is about the characters nobody wanted and in doing that he was able to build them up into something special. If you’re a fan of either Roy or Marie, you got this story to thank for that.  

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