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The Belle Reve Files – Suicide Squad/Doom Patrol Special

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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Comics

The Road to Knowhere: All-New Guardians of the Galaxy #5

The year is 2014, and I am 13 years old. I’m seated in a cinema watching Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, based on a comic I was totally in love with. On the screen, a lone figure walks through a deserted planet; it’s dark and isolated. He takes off his mask to reveal Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, the protagonist of the film. “Cool,” I thought, “so he’s like an Indiana Jones-type scavenging rogue.” And then I was totally thrown for a loop. Quill picks up some Walkman headphones and puts them over his ears as his Walkman clicks into gear. He starts to move, and suddenly, Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” plays. I started grinning like an idiot, and I didn’t stop until the movie ended. 

I’m well aware that many people don’t like the direction that James Gunn took the Guardians of the Galaxy in, be it issues with the tone or the way the characters were portrayed. It’s not an opinion I share, but I understand where those people are coming from. But one thing I don’t see disagreement on is the music. The use of 70s music in the Guardians films was a genius idea. It gave it fun throwback energy that worked wonders with the space opera style, and it gave them a unique groove. However, the key thing is that, like all good needle drops, the music connected us to the characters and put us in tune with their emotions; it works perfectly as an extension of Peter Quill, a character who has always acted as more of a fish out of water. Peter is our entry point, and through him, we get to experience this crazy cosmic world for ourselves. So by using music, there is always a tangible link to Earth that we can latch onto and relate to; it’s something that Peter clings to the same as the audience.  

Of course, the movie was incredibly popular, which meant the comics followed suit, being made by creators like Brian Michael Bendis. However, Quill’s music from the film wasn’t as much an element of these stories at the time. That would come later. This brings us to what we’re looking at today: All-New Guardians of the Galaxy #5 by Gerry Duggan, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson, and Cory Petit. All-New Guardians was a great series that was gone far too soon, I think. It leaned into the film iteration of the characters, and, unlike some previous work, it brought in elements of the broader comics continuity. It felt like a merger of the two different versions of the Guardians. That’s evident in Quill’s new suit, which retains the mask from the film but has a suit that harkens back to Annihilation Conquest and his original pre-Marvel Universe days.  

Duggan also made sure to include the music, and with this issue, he put it at the forefront. This series had an interesting release schedule since it was twice monthly. So issues would alternate between the main story with art by Aaron Kuder and standalone issues with rotating artists. I think that this issue right here was the highlight of those. In large part because of the great Chris Samnee on pencils. Samnee is, of course, a beloved artist due to his work on titles like Daredevil and Thor: The Mighty Avenger. He gives expressive cartoony life to whatever story he’s drawing. That vibrancy was a perfect fit for the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially this issue he did here. 

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #5, written by Gerry Duggan, art by Chris Samnee / Source: Marvel Comics

The issue opens with Quill escaping from Agent Adsit; a character used and ‘created’ (I use that term loosely since he’s literally just a Marvel version of actor/comedian Scott Adsit) by Duggan in his work on Deadpool. Adsit is now working for a Nova Corps struggling to rebuild its ranks and become a galactic superpower again. As part of his recruitment drive, he aims to recruit our very own Star-Lord. Peter objects, of course, and makes his getaway with some gear he needs. It turns out this gear is to repair one of his Walkman cassettes.

Honestly, it makes sense that cassettes would get damaged while adventuring around in space. So Peter takes his box and takes to the stars. To repair the broken cassette, he needs to tape those songs onto a new one. So Peter is looking to find and record the songs he wants through radio waves from Earth. Those radio waves he can only access at the right spot as they are sent out into the universe. That’s it. That’s the conflict of this issue. Peter Quill wants his music. It’s just a story about a man trying to find some music. There’s no conflict in this story outside of that chase at the start and a brief comedic abduction in the middle. It’s simple, low key and character-focused. So why do I like it so much? 

Well, a large part of that is just what the whole thing is about; it speaks to why Peter loves his music and, by extension, why we all love music. Being out in space with loads of alien tech, there’s the obvious question to ask. Why does he even bother with the cassettes? Why not just download everything from some vast futuristic database. This issue answers that as Quill talks about why he goes to such extreme lengths for his music. He prefers the analog, something real, something tangible. That makes sense for a character whose link to a planet far away is through this music. You would want something real, something to hold onto; in this way, the music is a way for Peter to remember his past. That’s shown in Samnee’s art, which is hyper-detailed in a way that feels scrappy and barely held together. There are smudges on the tape player, bits of tangled wire around the ship. Samnee makes everything feel real and tactile, highlighting the fallibility of Quill and his music.

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #5, written by Gerry Duggan, art by Chris Samnee / Source: Marvel Comics

One of my favourite things about this issue is just the attention to detail in every panel. We see this best illustrated in a fantastic double-page spread. Here we see Peter’s entire mixtape collection. Each one labelled connecting it to a different memory. You have cassettes labelled ‘Dolly, Willie, Johnny’ and ‘Space Jams’ and cassettes for specific Guardians like ‘Rockets favorites.’ They’re each a piece and an era in Peter’s life, representative of his nostalgic attachments. There are also some really fun easter eggs in here. A few of the cassettes are turned over, with Samnee drawing little snippets of different eras of Star Lord’s character. There’s his original look alongside Nova, a look at the Bendis era and one from the DnA days that is even labelled DNA.

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #5, written by Gerry Duggan, art by Chris Samnee / Source: Marvel Comics

Similarly, we get an INCREDIBLE page by Samnee of Peter moving back in time, riding across the soundwaves. Samnee manages to showcase the change in music across time beautifully here. Colours change as Peter’s ship streaks through the cosmos, moving from vibrant blues to muted greys. We get glimpses of Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain, all artists whose music endures across the stars. These songs are old, but they still have audiences even on the other side of the galaxy. It’s a great way to show the timelessness and immortality of music.

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #5, written by Gerry Duggan, art by Chris Samnee / Source: Marvel Comics

The final moments of the issue are where it all comes together for me and solidifies itself as a favourite. As Peter gets closer to his music, each page is broken up into smaller close-up panels. We get little glimpses of Peter’s ship as he gets ready. Peter charts a map with different historical events he hears on the radio, like Reagan’s inauguration and the death of John Lennon. It’s the death of Lennon that slows us down. The ship stops, Peter disables the gravity, and a mug starts to float. The very last page is Peter Quill, floating upside down with the beauty of space behind him, listening to The Beatles’ “Across The Universe”. It’s such a gorgeous melancholy panel. I love the buildup to this moment; the book builds and builds until Peter finally gets his music.

It’s a perfect final moment. It’s a long, tedious process for Peter to get his music like this, but it’s worth it for moments like these. Samnee kills it with this final page. It’s a perfect literal image of what it feels like to listen to great music. That wonderful transcendent feeling of being lifted off your feet, where gravity seems like an illusion and the world fades away. It’s what comics are great for; they take these relatable things and blow them up to larger, more operatic levels. No one ever raced across the galaxy for a song, but that feeling of chasing the music, chasing the memory, is relatable. That nostalgia is represented really well here since this final page mirrors the first page. The first page of the book is a young Quill floating in a lake listening to music. It bookends the issue, connecting Quill’s past and present through his music. It’s great stuff and a perfect capstone to an incredible issue. (Sidenote: I wasn’t much of a Beatles kid growing up, so this was my first exposure to this song. It’s one of my favourite songs because of it). 

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #5, written by Gerry Duggan, art by Chris Samnee / Source: Marvel Comics

Gerry Duggan, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson and Cory Petit do exceptional work with this issue. This is an all-timer right here, one of those comfort food comics that I come back to repeatedly. It’s a gorgeous little comic that I can recommend to anyone. It’s a great story that’s more than just a fun space romp, it’s saying something, and it sticks the landing with an ending full of heart and passion. So if you haven’t read it already, give it a shot. You won’t be disappointed. That’s all from me. So long, I’ll see you a little further along down the Road to Knowhere.

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Is Aquaman: The Becoming #1 New Reader Friendly?

This year marks the 80th anniversary of DC’s king of the seas, Aquaman. That’s eight decades of nearly continuous publication with many different stories and creators passing by. In that time Aquaman’s contemporaries have been replaced and then returned to the role. Batman has been more than Bruce Wayne and Flash has been more than Barry Allen. Aquaman however has largely stayed in the same position. Now however, Arthur Curry is focused on raising his baby daughter with his wife Mera. So the world needs a new Aquaman and that’s where this issue comes in. So who is the next Aquaman?

Writer Brandon Thomas, penciller Diego Olortegui and the wider creative team are aiming to answer that question with this issue. Aquaman: The Becoming is a miniseries following Aqualad, Jackson Hyde. Jackson has been a member of the Teen Titans, is the son of the villainous Black Manta, and is Aquaman’s protege. The kid’s got a lot on his plate so this issue is largely focused on establishing his status quo and journey. Arthur is training Jackson to become the new Aquaman as he focuses on spending time with his family. The issue starts with Jackson’s training and then follows his arrival at Amnesty Bay, the surface home of the Aqua family.  

It’s here where we spend most of the issue as Jackson helps the locals, has lunch with his mother, and takes down a ‘supervillain.’ Pretty much everything you need to know about the character is set up wonderfully here. His relationships, the joy he gets from his abilities, and his compassionate affability. If you don’t know anything about the character this will be an easy read. It builds off of Jackson’s past stories in a very loving way, extending his character’s ongoing story and widening his scope. So it’s approachable for anybody new to Aquaman comics and an exciting leap forward for those who already loved the character.

It helps that the actual story being set up here is really interesting as well. We get to see him training with Arthur and we see him floundering when talking to a cute boy. It feels personal with a very human core. It’s great to get more of a spotlight on Jackson and his day-to-day. Thomas clearly has a real passion for the character and his world. The same can be said of Olortegui and the art team who give the book a vibrancy and hyper expressive energy. It looks exactly how an Aquaman comic should look. 

Overall this is an excellent first issue that establishes an exciting new journey for Jackson as he fights to take the title of Aquaman. It’s approachable for new readers and a bold new direction that Aquafans should be reading, everything a first issue should be. Highest recommendation. 

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The Belle Reve Files – Suicide Squad #10

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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The Road To Knowhere

I’m a big fan of comic books, and have been for a good while now. They’re pretty cool. Fun stories with fun characters in a unique medium. Good stuff. But you know what’s the best stuff? Marvel Cosmic; to me, the cosmic corner of Marvel represents the very best of what comic books have to offer. So I wanted to celebrate that with a new column. 

For those not in the know, Marvel Cosmic refers to Marvel comics that take place in an outer space setting. These are stories set in the far corners of the galaxy with strange alien races and crazy new planets, stories that follow characters like Quasar or Moondragon. Marvel Cosmic initially blossomed out of the wonderful mind of Jack Kirby; in the Silver Age, he and Stan Lee established a lot of the foundations of that world. Together they were responsible for so many imaginative ideas that future creators could play with; we got Galactus, the Skrulls, the Negative Zone, Silver Surfer, Ego the Living Planet, and the Kree. All of these are essentially the building blocks of Marvel’s Cosmic universe and, at the time, all of them were fresh and exciting ideas with fresh and interesting characters from across the stars, and all of them were just waiting to be explored further.

From there writers and artists continued to build on those foundations. Writers like Steve Englehart and Roy Thomas added to the mythology in books like The Avengers. We got stories with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four like the Kree-Skrull War and the Celestial Madonna storyline. For a time, the cosmic universe was more in the background, a backdrop for Marvel’s earthbound characters to visit occasionally. But when Jim Starlin came along these space characters really took off; Starlin created Thanos, Gamora, and Drax, and made Adam Warlock into what he is today. If Kirby laid the foundations, Starlin built the walls, creating a whole new world on the fringes of the Marvel universe. 

However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that Marvel cosmic became solidified with Keith Giffen’s Annihilation, a cosmic event that united all of the characters and concepts of Marvel cosmic into one massive story. From there, passed the torch to Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning who would create the modern Guardians of the Galaxy, spearheading a series of interlocking books all under one cosmic umbrella. This was the final step in making Marvel cosmic a cohesive entity, this is where the roof came over the heads of the cosmic characters. They had a place to stay, a house all of their own where creators could tell stories with them in the spotlight. Marvel cosmic has largely built off of that work and now with writers like Al Ewing, it is expanding once again. 

So why do I love Marvel cosmic so much? Well, it’s because I think it’s representative of everything I love about comic books; comics are silly and bizarre with hundreds of completely insane characters, worlds, and concepts. A lot of superhero comics tend to suppress that wackiness, to try to push it down. Marvel cosmic is the opposite of that approach, it’s all about embracing the craziness. Characters like Pip the Troll and Rocket Raccoon have been around for a while. They’re goofy characters in design and in concept, yet they work because they’re fully fleshed out characters who can, thanks to the time and care taken in writing them, coexist alongside grandiose philosophical gods like Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock. That’s why I adore Marvel cosmic. It’s a whole universe. A rich tapestry of stories and ideas. It can be a more grounded space opera in a book like Guardians of the Galaxy. It can also be an operatic epic like the Eternals. It’s a universe that feels like it can do anything and go anywhere, but more than that it fits together and it feels cohesive.  

The nature of these stories as well means it brings out the very best in its creators. Largely separate from Marvel’s earthbound characters, writers can weave whatever tale they want. There’s not much of a need to explain that Iron Man is evil now or a need to tie into the latest massive event. They can stand on their own because really we don’t even need to bother with boring old Earth. This Gives the stories an element of unpredictability. We know Captain America ain’t gonna be dead long but what if Mantis bites it? Cosmic stories give writers the room to do what they want and push the boundaries more. That boundary-pushing is especially true of the artists. Cosmic stories often take you to such visually stunning places and introduce us to spectacular creatures and beings of extraordinary power. It gives artists the ability to totally cut loose and let their imagination run wild. It’s a space where the likes of Jack Kirby, Ron Lim, and Mike Allred can experiment and put out some of their best work. 

That’s ultimately why I love Marvel cosmic. It’s a playground full of anything and everything but it’s also oddly cohesive with effective world-building and its own mythology, it’s a universe that lives on with or without us reading it. So that’s why I’m doing this series, to share my love of this side of Marvel comics with you. In each article, I’ll discuss a different cosmic story. Some you might have read and some you probably haven’t. It’s going to be a long journey, I mean we have a whole universe to explore. So let’s waste no time and get started. Join me on my adventure throughout the cosmos as we travel on The Road to Knowhere.  

Categories
Comics

Aquaman’s 80th Anniversary is Celebrated with a Mix of Greatness and Baffling Decisions

Aquaman has been my favourite DC superhero since I was a little kid. Growing up watching shows like Justice League and especially Batman: The Brave and the Bold made me fall totally in love with the character. The aesthetic of the whole world is what sucked me in, but what kept me around was Arthur himself. An adventurer, a family man, and a king under the sea respected by his peers. So it was weird to me to enter into reading comics where I learned people didn’t seem to think he was cool, because to me he always was.

Well now everyone seems to be more or less on the same page as we celebrate 80 years of the character. DC this week released the 80th-anniversary special with a great deal of amazing creators on board. It’s heralded as a celebration of the character and his long legacy. So let’s dive in and see if it stacks up to that goal and if it’s worth a buy. 

I’m not going to go in depth into every story, but I’ll go through the good, the bad and the ugly of this special. Or in this case, the stellar, the average and the baffling!

The Stellar

The special started off really strong with a story called ‘Foxtail’  by two of my top creators, Jeff Parker and Doc Shaner. The story concerns Aquaman saving a great creature of the deep from a naval submarine. Parker wrote one of my favourite runs on the character back in the New 52, so it was a joy to see him back on the character. He gives Arthur such a warmth and humanity which is just so perfect for him. Shaner perfectly matches that warmth with his adventurous and friendly Arthur. It’s a depiction of the character that I feel like would give really good hugs but could also call on the wrath of the seven seas. Shaner should be drawing this character forever. Overall this was an incredible little story that nailed why I love Arthur Curry. His empathy and compassion is on full display here, essential aspects of  the character. 

Marguerite Bennett wrote a gorgeous story with Trung Le Nygen on art titled ‘The Rhine Maidens.’ This story really stood out, thanks in no small part to the great Jordie Bellaire on colours. This story follows the Bombshell versions of both Arthur and Mera as they evade some sirens. I’m not at all familiar with DC’s Bombshells continuity but this gorgeous little story really gets to the heart of Arthur and Mera’s relationship. 

Dan Watters did a really interesting story with Miguel Mendonça on pencils. It focused on Arthur’s relationship with his brother Orm, the villainous Ocean Master. Arthur plans to meet with his brother and talk peacefully before he is swept up in a clashing storm, driving the two brothers into battle. It’s an interesting way to visualise the two characters’ conflict and asks if they can ever truly resolve their differences. 

The issue ends with two vignettes setting up the upcoming miniseries’ following Black Manta and Aqualad respectively. The first by Chuck Brown and Valentine de Landro feels a bit more like setup. It establishes Manta’s conflict and mission, as well as his relationship with a supporting character. It looks gorgeous and I am very excited to read this book but this doesn’t stand on its own as a story.

The story by Brandon Thomas and Diego Olortegui however does feel like its own adventure. Aqualad must protect little baby Andy (Arthur and Mera’s daughter) from the Scavengers. It’s a really fun little adventure with great characterization and a charming tone. Thomas has a great voice for these characters and Olortegui has a really expressive style that suits it perfectly. These are two wonderful preludes to bigger and hopefully even better things 

Similar to the Thomas story, we get another fun tale of the Aquafamily hanging out on a beach. This story by Shawn Aldridge and Tom Derenick is a great little throwback to the old Silver Age Aquaman. An era of simple stories and conflicts.  It even brings back a classic Nick Cardy character, Aquabeast. Being a huge Aquafan I really appreciated it, but it may not be to everyone’s tastes. It harkens back to the simpler days of Aquaman when Arthur would just hang with his fam and trouble would eventually disrupt the peace. Nice and wholesome. 

Those are the stories that I loved and wholeheartedly recommend. I would recommend reading the special just to get a look at any one of these stories. The art by the likes of Shaner and Nygen especially is worth checking out. 

The Average

The following are the stories that I thought were decent or okay. Ones that have strong ideas or concepts but left me wanting in execution. Which is a shame because there are some incredible creators here. Sadly sometimes things just don’t pan out and these stories just didn’t work for me. 

For example, Michael Moreci and Pop Mhan did a story featuring Garth and Arthur. Instead of examining the relationship between the two and how it’s changed, it follows Arthur fighting the Lady of the Lake and rejecting Excalibur. It feels unfocused and fairly flat. It’s a standard beat the villain light show, lacking any nuance or heart. Out of everything in this special, this felt the most like an afterthought sadly. 

We also got to take a trip back in time to the 80s with Stephanie Phillips and Hendry Prasetya’s ‘Multitudes.’ This story functions as a throwback to the Aquaman miniseries by Neil Pozner and Craig Hamilton from the 80s. That’s a great little mini that leaned more into the mysticism of Atlantis and it’s the story that suited Arthur up in his blue camouflage gear. This tries to go for that as well with Arthur in that blue suit again and teaming up with Arion, an ancient king of Atlantis. It tries to alleviate Arthur’s stress about being King but it feels a bit rushed. Its message doesn’t really land. It functions well enough as a team-up between Arthur and Arion but with a special like this, I was wanting a little more. 

Unfortunately, Geoff Johns returned for this special. Of course, Johns is an influential creator in Aquaman’s history but with the allegations against him, it feels incredibly tone-deaf to bring him back. It wasn’t even worth it, considering this is my least favourite of the collection. The story here follows Aqualad as he battles his father, Black Manta which they apparently do every year. It feels rushed and the characters don’t speak like real people. It just feels forced and stilted and sadly not even the art team can save it. Paul Pelletier who I usually love puts in some decent enough work but feels less defined and more rushed than his usual high standard. 

The Baffling

These last two stories just confused me more than anything. Again they aren’t awful, they just left me a bit baffled. The first is ‘Between Two Shores’ by Cavan Scott and Scott Eaton. This follows Arthur and Mera as they protect a Trench creature that has been raised by an Atlantean. Just a bizarre concept for a story with odd stereotypical characters. I get what they were trying to accomplish here with Arthur sticking up for those caught between two worlds. But this could have worked better with say a character from the Ninth Tride introduced in Abnett’s run. I can see this working better with more time but the lack of pages available left this feeling incomplete. 

Another odd addition was a story by Dan Jurgens and Steve Epting. These two are a returning creative team from a small run in the late 90s. This takes place around the time of that run. If you’re asking yourself if Jurgens really did a run in the 90s you would be forgiven. DC has never reprinted it and it’s almost never talked about. I can appreciate an overlooked run being given the spotlight but this was a bizarre inclusion. Especially since this is so beholden to characters and concepts that most won’t even be familiar with. It doesn’t help that the story also isn’t all that compelling. I can’t see this wanting to draw in new readers to that old material, especially since the same concepts have been executed far better in other work. 

Conclusion

I think the feeling of confusion really sums up my thoughts on this special. I just have so many questions. For something that claims to celebrate 80 years of Aquaman it sure does very little to show it. Most of these stories had Arthur in his shirtless look from the run by Kelly Sue Deconnick, with a few exceptions. I love that run but he didn’t even keep that look by the end of the run? It feels more like it’s cashing in on Momoa’s Aquaman with the tattoos, rather than paying homage to the character. 

I liked how some stories focused on specific eras of the character, like the work of Nick Cardy but why wasn’t there more of that? Why is nothing done to reflect on the work in the 70s by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo? The work that Ramona Fradon did seems to be completely ignored, same with the stories in the 2000s like Sub Diego and Sword of Atlantis. Harpoon-hand Aquaman from the 90s is controversial but that look is incredibly iconic. That was Aquaman for the better part of a decade, why isn’t that here at all?

Where are characters like Dolphin, Tula, and Vulko? Even fish characters like Topo the Octopus and Storm the seahorse would have been great to see. Where are creators like Dan Abnett, Stjepan Šejić, Brad Walker, or Ivan Reis? Artists who have defined the look of modern Aquaman. Oddly I think the great selection of variant covers honours the legacy of the character better than the actual issue did. There are covers that acknowledge important touchstones of the character’s history, with odes to the golden age, 70s, and 90s. 

The best stories inside all reveal different aspects of the character. Parker and Shaner focus on his relationship with his finny friends and Bennett and Ngyeun focus on his relationship with Mera. Why wasn’t there more of that? Another one of my favourite characters got that in spades earlier this year, Green Arrow. That issue brought in characters and creative teams from across the character’s history in a way that truly celebrated that character, how he’s changed and what he means. If you were a fan of Green Arrow you got a wonderful celebration of his history and evolution. But it was also an issue that was approachable and easily recommendable. If you were new you could instantly understand why people loved that character.

I don’t know if you would get that from this, despite some very strong stories. I can’t say I’m all that surprised. So much of the older Aquaman comics are out of print and unavailable. Ramona Fradon worked on the character longer than any other creator. Can you find her work anywhere? No, not in trade and not on Comixology or DC Universe Infinite. A few issues are there but nothing close to the extensive catalogue of work she did. 

When I put down this issue I struggled to think that I could really give this to someone and say “THIS IS AQUAMAN.” I think that’s what these issues should do, celebrate the character and what makes them so special. Outside of a few stories I didn’t really get that. Instead, this felt quite rushed and scattered, with creative teams chosen supposedly at random. Each story taken on its own, there is more here that I would say is good than bad. But something celebrating 8 decades of a character should be better than that. It’s not all bad though. I’m very excited for the future, what Thomas and Brown are doing is really exciting. It seems the future is in safe hands, it would just be great if the past could be appreciated as well. 

GIVE ME MY RAMONA FRADON AND NICK CARDY OMNIBUSES DC DAMMIT!

Categories
Television

Accepting Our Illnesses With Rita Farr

When I was 13, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. If you’re not in the know: it’s an offshoot of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). It’s messy and gross, and I’m not going to get into all the nitty-gritty symptoms right now, but what I will get into is how this illness has affected me and of course, how that relates to Doom Patrol.

As of right now, I’m 20 and haven’t shaken the symptoms at all. I still have constant stomach pain in some form or another and feel sick and nauseous frequently. I’ve had surgery twice, more blood tests and MRI scans than I could count, and have tried a bunch of different diets and medicines. I’ve had infusions for medication every 2 months for a few years now that thankfully put my Crohn’s in remission. However, I still retain the symptoms. It’s been years, and we don’t really know why or how to fix it. So yeah, it can be tough. It’s certainly manageable, and I’ve learned to live with it. There are obviously much worse illnesses, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t suck. But what often makes it tougher is the way this illness is depicted in media, how people like me are represented in art. Look, I’m a straight white dude. I’m as represented as they come, but the real lack of stories and characters going through the same struggles I go through is rare.

Often characters with chronic illnesses like me are cause for mockery. I love the Metal Gear games, but there’s a character in that called Johnny. He’s been in most of the games in some form and always as a punchline. See, Johnny has IBS, very similar to IBD. It means he shares pretty much the exact same symptoms as I do. But he’s not really a character in pain. He’s a joke and a loser. His constant need to find a bathroom, growling stomach, and toiletry issues are comedic. You aren’t meant to sympathize with him. You’re meant to think he’s funny and pathetic. I love Kojima, but every time he uses that character, it feels like he’s just laughing at me and anyone with IBD and IBS.

I can’t exactly blame him. IBS and IBD are often just seen as diseases that just make you poo a lot. But that’s ignoring the very real pain and struggle that comes with it. I wish I could say there are other characters I can turn to and see my struggles in, but I can’t. At least not until Doom Patrol and Rita Farr.

See, I’ve been a Doom Patrol fan since I was a little kid. They’re my favorite superhero team. They helped me embrace my weird side, and they are incredibly important to me. So I was crazy excited for their own TV show. When it finally premiered I LOVED it. Just adored it. As of right now, it’s my favourite live-action adaptation of a comic book. It was everything I wanted out of a Doom Patrol show but surprisingly it had even more than that. Because what I was really blown away by was Rita. Rita was like me.

I never found comic Rita that relatable, what with her being a former glamorous movie star and all. But this Rita was like me. She doesn’t have Crohn’s, or IBD, or any specific chronic illness. But she goes through the same struggles I do. There’s a degree of powerlessness she has, and that made me connect with her in a really powerful way.

If you weren’t aware, Rita Farr is Elasti-Woman. A former movie star who inhales some toxic gas and gains extraordinary powers. Except they aren’t extraordinary in the way you would think. She can stretch and change her body’s shape and form, but not usually at will. Her powers leave her droopy in almost Cronenbergian way. Because of that people consider her monstrous and disgusting. Rita struggles to collect herself every day; she struggles to form the massive blob she is into something manageable, something presentable. Any moment she fears she could lose her composure and become that blob again. That’s obviously not what I go through, but it sometimes feels like it. Every day I have to push through the pain and get it done. Every day I feel like sinking back into myself but force some composure and normalcy.

But it doesn’t stop there. Rita works through it. She works to be better, learning to push through the pain and use her illness for good. She uses it to help people, to be a hero. It’s genuinely inspiring to see a character take the pain they struggle with daily and turn it into a force for good.

Rita may be melted down and reduced to a blubbering mess, but she picks herself back up. In the episode ”Therapy Patrol”, Rita is reduced to that blob once again. As she pulls herself back together, she recites the words over and over “the person who is breathing is me.” That’s what it’s like for me. Sometimes I just have to focus and slow myself to push through the pain. But moments after this is something that makes me emotional every time I watch it. As Rita almost loses faith and begins to get frustrated, she tries again. She forces her way up the stairs into the light. She strives to be the best ball of slime she can be. She perseveres and comes out victorious and all the stronger for it.

What’s also great is how the other members of the Doom Patrol don’t bemoan Rita for her struggles. They accept and love her. Rita’s pain is never a joke. There are no jokes at the expense of someone suffering from an illness here, just a genuine, supportive family. It’s so refreshing to have a character like this, a family like this. She’s not disgusting or laughable. She’s a valued friend and a powerful ally. They love her and support her. They lift her up when she asks for it and leaves her to herself when she needs space. When Larry Trainor (Negative Man) first meets Rita, he is, at first, disturbed by her symptoms, but he later apologizes. He says that Rita shouldn’t have to get used to reactions like that and that this is her home and she should feel comfortable. Rita says she’s a lost cause, but Larry disagrees and supports her. It’s another moment that gets me really emotional every single time I watch it. Rita’s illness doesn’t define her, just like how it doesn’t define me or anyone like me.

It is an excellent representation of chronic illness and points to what superheroes are made for. They’re great allegorical figures. Rita doesn’t have Crohn’s, but what she does have is something universal. Her symptoms are so crazy and wacky yet so focused and pointed that people with many different illnesses can relate. We can identify with their struggles, and they can show us how to overcome them. Rita means a lot to me, and I just want to say thank you to the writers and directors, the crew and VFX artists who help bring her to life. Thanks especially to April Bowlby for portraying a character who makes do with what she can and shows us that we aren’t broken. Rita Farr shows us our pains can be triumphs, and our illness can be our superpower.

“Lost causes aren’t lost if you have someone to fight for them” – Rita Farr.

Categories
Comics

The Belle Reve Files – Suicide Squad #9

Welcome back! It’s Jordan, GateCrashers Task Force Xpert here. Last time we took a detour into John Ostrander’s Firestorm and that series crossover with the Squad. Today we’re talking about another crossover but albeit a very different one. This is Millenium, a 1987 weekly crossover event. The story of the event continued through weekly issues over DC’s entire lineup. There was an 8 issue event in the main book by Steve Englehart. Each week one of those issues would be released and all of the tie-ins would bounce off of it, leaving the rest up to the individual creators.

The story concerned the Manhunters as they were revealed to be secretly hiding in plain sight, disguised as supporting characters. It’s a sort of proto Secret Invasion, but decades before. It’s decent, but it’s hardly the greatest of DC’s crossovers. It’s an all-encompassing story that consumed all of DC’s books over 8 weeks, as the events of an issue of the main book would spring out into the tie-in issues. John Ostrander built off of the events of Millenium #4, with Suicide Squad #9. The Squad appears in that issue of Millennium, but Ostrander didn’t write it, so I won’t be talking about it here. If you want the bigger picture, feel free to read that event, but this story functions well enough on its own merits. Mostly.

So our story starts right in the middle of the action. The Squad is gathered outside a Manhunter temple In Louisiana, which they have orders to destroy with the help of a nifty explosive go-kart. The set-up is simple, go in and destroy the Manhunters and all their stuff. This issue’s Squad consists of the regulars you’d expect. It’s got Boomerang, Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, and Rick Flag. But also tagging along for this mission is Slipknot, who joined in the aforementioned Firestorm crossover, The Privateer introduced in the last issue of Suicide Squad, as well as Karin Grace, a member of the original Suicide Squad along with Flag. It’s odd that this issue just kicks off with Karin in the field with no real explanation as to why. She hasn’t been doing fieldwork with the Squad at all by this point. But hey, whatever, I can roll with it. This issue is also our first with Bronze Tiger as a leader since Flag’s been deemed psychologically unfit to lead at this point. However, I love how Ostrander sprinkles in these moments of Tiger confiding in Flag. He’s coming to grips with this new position, and Flag gives him some insight and encourages him. Most books would just have a new leader leap into the role quickly, but Ben has to take his time, and Flag, in a way, is still very much in charge.

Anyway, Captain Atom shows up. Yeah, he just comes in out of nowhere, with the same orders as the Squad to blow up the Manhunters. I love the detail that he’s here because the different government departments want to be the ones to take the Manhunters down. It’s a great bit of mockery for the government over the top machismo. Atom talks with Flag and learns that the Squad’s vehicle is holding an experimental explosive called Xyzedium. Essentially Flag is leading the Squad into a mission he’s not expecting them to leave. Flag chooses to withhold that information from the Squad, however. I think this is particularly cold for an earlier Flag, who would stop at nothing to get his team out alive. He seems incredibly casual about the fact that his entire time is being sent to die. Part of it may be the stakes of an event like this, or part of it may be his own mental health and stress at the time. Either way, I think it’s a touch out of character.

While this is happening, we get a great little exchange between Slipknot and Boomerang. If you saw the 2016 movie, you’ll be familiar with this moment. Slipknot asks if the explosive bracelets are legit, and Boomerang seizes the opportunity. See, up to this point we haven’t seen them used at all, so Boomerang wants to test them out. He tells Slipknot they’re fake, and Slipknot decides to escape moments later when the Squad gets into a fight with Manhunters. His arm gets blown off, and Boomerang has his answer. It’s such a great moment and a defining one for this book and for Boomerang. I should also note that there’s a great bit where Slipknot throws his rope around a Manhunters’s neck to choke it out, only to realize that he’s totally useless against a robot. This book is funny, people. People often talk like this was deadly serious, but it was often quite goofy. Ostrander has a twisted sense of humour, and I love it. Slipknot is a useless fool, but I love him for it.

During all this action, Firestorm appears for two panels, and Captain Atom goes off and fights him, setting up the next issue of Captain Atom. Yeah, there’s a lot of this in this issue. I interviewed Ostrander last week, and he said that this crossover, in particular, was difficult. Writers didn’t have a solid grasp on what the event was about or what was happening, so characters just kinda enter and then leave without any rhyme or reason. It leaves the issue feeling very cluttered and distracted. Unfortunately, this leaks into the core conflict of this issue.

The battle with the manhunters leaves Ben injured, Boomer and Lawton split from the group, Slipknot left for dead, and Karin kidnapped. This leaves just Flag and the Privateer to continue with the mission. They run into Karin, who’s just hanging on the side of a ledge, asking for help. Flag senses something is up but helps anyway, only for Karin to pull a gun on him. Turns out that Karin fell in love with Mark Shaw, the Privateer. I guess that explains their dynamic in the last issue, but it’s a really abrupt turn in this issue’s story.

Turns out that Shaw brought Karin over to the side of the Manhunters. But wait? Wasn’t Shaw against the manhunters now? Yeah, well, Privateer is just as confused as you since he claims to not even remember what she’s talking about. So they get interrupted by a manhunter who comes outta nowhere claiming to be the real Shaw and that the other one was just an android.

This manhunter takes out both Flag and Privateer and instructs Karin to kill them both. Karin can’t follow through with it as she remembers her happy memories with Flag on the old Squad. Anyway, all the Manhunters start to fall to pieces and break apart, including this supposed Manhunter version of Shaw. Karin tells Shaw to get Flag out as she charges the explosive vehicle into the heart of the Manhunters base. The base explodes, Karin dies, and the Squad makes it out alive.

Yeah…

That’s a lot. So much happens in this issue that it’s insane. Ostrander has been really great so far at pacing out information and plot revelations at a really efficient and enjoyable rate. Here, however, there are about three different twists within a few pages. It’s so fast, and none of it manages to have any impact. Karin betrays Flag, but then she dies a heroic death a few pages later. None of it really matters. The sad thing is that this could have been a great story. Other than Flag, Karin is the last (presumed, at this point) surviving member of the original Squad. So having her go out could have been prime for a great story. It could have been a great way to pass the torch to this new Squad and play up the tragedy of the old Squad. A Squad destined to die, left behind in favour of these villains. I don’t blame Ostrander, Yale, McDonnell, Greenberger, or really anyone for this. It just carries the symptoms of all big event comics. You may be wondering why I didn’t address how the Manhunters all started to fall apart. Well, that’s because this issue never tells you how or why. It just tells you to read the next issue of The Spectre to find out. This really isn’t how event tie-ins should work. A tie-in, I think, is best when it tells a story related to the event but not tied into everything else. They should give some extra context, but tell a story on its own merits. Here it feels like Ostrander is being forced to shove a story into about three other different stories. It’s a fun enough issue, but nothing sticks or feels focused and directed.

McDonnell does great work, as always, with dynamic poses and panel layouts, but it’s far from his best work on the series. The best stuff comes from Boomerang and Deadshot. They have a few great moments accusing each other of being gimmicky. It’s really fun and a nice breather from the rest of this very hectic issue. It’s also in this story where we get our introduction to The Duchess. She’s a character that will soon join the Squad, and she appears in front of Slipknot as he pleads for his life. It’s such a brief, inconsequential moment, which is odd considering how important her character will become.

Regardless this is a story that works better in retrospect but not on its own. The death of Karin will come to affect Flag in some really key ways. It’s just a shame that the story of her death couldn’t be given the room it needed. It is an Ostrander Squad book, so it does have some great little character moments, but it’s definitely one of the weaker issues of this run. But don’t worry. Next week Belle Reve is getting a rather interesting visitor, a certain someone from Gotham City. Until next time.

Categories
Comics Interviews

John Ostrander: An Interview with the Man Behind the Suicide Squad

So if you’ve been following me here for a while you’ll be aware of my love for John Ostrander. I started this writing gig with his Suicide Squad and I continue to write about it, which you can check out here. So it was an absolute joy and honour to be able to interview the man himself. Ostrander is one of my favourite creatives in any medium so being able to talk to him was a surreal dream come true. The following is all the questions I asked Ostrander over our session, I hope you enjoy it.

So it’s something of a tradition here at GateCrashers to ask our guests first of all, what is your go-to sandwich? 

Tuna salad sometimes, otherwise roast beef and I’m afraid I’m a white boy so it’s on white bread with mayo. If a hamburger is also considered a sandwich then absolutely.

We’re now amidst the release of The Suicide Squad. So what are your thoughts on the film? Did you like it? 

Oh yeah very much, it’s not just because I’m in it, and I get thanks at the end. I felt that they captured what I did in the Squad without directly using any of the plots. They used elements that I would use and especially the big one for me was that they made sure that we cared about the characters before they killed them. If there’s no involvement with them then what’s the point? 

Do you see it as a continuation of your run? Because I know James Gunn has said as such. 

I don’t know if it’s a continuation of my run or the previous movie, it’s its own entity. I sorta saw it as what if the Squad was being invented for today rather than 20-40 years ago. I know the gore and violence bothered people but I always felt that was implicit in what we were doing, we just didn’t show it and he does and I think that is appropriate to today. 

Do you think it’s as gory as you would have liked your work to be? I assume when you were writing the Squad you had certain guidelines or were you able to go nuts but chose to reign it in? 

No, there were limits certainly. There wasn’t a comics code at that point but there were certainly editorial limits. It was just understood, there were certain things you just didn’t do. It was only after the Squad began that they started doing mature comics so we sorta predated that. So we’re not going to use that same level of graphic violence that is now being used. 

What was the process like for your cameo? Was it cool going onto the set and seeing Belle Reve and this massive production. 

Oh yeah. Tremendously cool! First of all, they paid my entire way down and took care of me down there. I went and got fitted in my costume I was going to wear that day, that was all nice. Then we went over to the studio itself. As I entered the soundstage, James and his crew were there and as I was walking up to them they started going, “we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.” I said “stop, stop, stop” *laughs*. That was very generous. I got to watch some of the filming being done that day and they fed me and I gotta tell you I ate very well. The chow there was first-rate. I had my own trailer while I was waiting so that was kinda cool you know?  Then I came out onto the set and did my thing and James tossed me a couple of lines. While we were shooting he suggested some lines for me to say because originally I didn’t have any. He kept one line for the film and typical with his eye he chose the best one so I was pleased with that. Then eventually it was over and I went to the airport and went home. But it was a massive massive undertaking. I didn’t get out to see the beach set but from what everyone was telling me it felt huge. 

Yeah, I think it’s definitely a film that benefits from that scope. I saw it on an IMAX screen, it’s great at that size. 

Yeah, yeah I really wanna do that. 

Do you remember any of the other lines you had to choose from? 

Uhhh, one was I was bringing the needle up, I said “this is gonna hurt a little bit.” I seemed to be pleased by that or at least I chose to be. 

I guess you were in a way the real looming threat over the Squad putting those bombs in their necks. 

Yeah! I mean it did strike me that the doctor’s oath, in general, is first do no harm. Well, he was doing harm so he must have been okay with that. 

The Squad obviously undergoes a lot of change, the movie was a testament to that. What are the elements that you think need to stay constant for it to be a Suicide Squad story?

Well, you’re always dealing with a team that is essentially not a team they don’t really like each other very much. There also has to be an element that anyone of them could die. I also like the Mission: Impossible-type plots. Not necessarily the save the world plots, but more of an espionage-based sorta thing, I kinda like that. You also have to get to know the characters a little bit before you kill them off, so you have some sort of connection with them. Oh, and something has to go spectacularly wrong. I call it going sideways. In the Squad almost always something goes sideways. Sometimes that’s because one of the team members, often Captain Boomerang is pulling something. You see that with the first team at the start of the film where someone pulls a double-cross. I think it’s almost necessary. They aren’t nice people, their motivations are not what’s best for the world but what is best for them you know? What works for them? If they get in the way of the mission so be it!

Of course, your run is popular because of its ability to connect us with characters only for us to watch them die. But were there any characters that you were going to kill but came to love too much? I know you’ve mentioned Deadshot was supposed to die but were there others? 

The trinity if you will, the characters I always threatened to kill but never quite were always Deadshot, Boomerang, and Amanda Waller. There might have been situations where I might have killed any one of them and often I would shoot some of them or they would get harmed so you would think that I would. What took care of that fact really was that during the run I killed Rick Flag, who was supposedly the leader of the Squad. Once I did that the readers went okay he’s serious. So that was a very useful death. That I think is a necessary element for the book. It creates that sense of tension automatically into anything that the Squad is doing. You don’t know who’s going to come out of it or even if the mission would be successful. That helped keep the tension and the interest in the book alive. The very fact that we kept on switching up the membership of the Squad, partially because some would leave and some would die. We kept on changing the makeup of the Squad and that kept it fresh I think as well. 

Did you ever get any heated fan mail about the deaths of certain characters? I imagine Flag could have caused an uproar.

I don’t remember any but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t. We all know the word fan is short for fanatic. If you do something to somebody’s favourite then yeah you are liable to hear about it. I know I would’ve if I was reading a book where somebody killed one of my favorite characters. In fact, you could say that’s where Oracle came from. I like Barbara Gordon and I didn’t like how she wound up at the end of Killing Joke. So my late wife, Kim Yale, and I took her and left her paralyzed, and created a new character out of her. 

I think one thing that your Squad does really well, it’s characters evolving and changing. Characters like Bronze Tiger are very different at the beginning and end of your run. 

Yeah, Count Vertigo is a great example, we showed him as having a tendency to commit suicide himself. The last page of the last issue that I wrote had us resolving that with him choosing to commit suicide or basically have someone kill him who was willing to do it. Basically death by Deadshot. By resolving it that way it was an ongoing question in there. One of my favorite storylines, or bits. It’s not even a storyline it was a bit, the pie in the face gag. We kept that running for what, a year, a year and a half or so?

Yeah something like that, quite a long time. 

Yeah, yeah. I basically wanted to see how far I could stretch it out, Kim was in on it too. 

Where did you get the idea for that pie subplot? 

When you have a book called Suicide Squad you look for places where you can have non-lethal humor. What I liked about was who we selected for the one throwing the pies was Captain Boomerang. What I really liked about it was that it’s the second person who gets hit in the face with a pie was Captain Boomerang. We explained that he made the pie kinda into a boomerang so he tossed it just before he entered the room, acted like he had heard something outside, and then took the pie in the face for himself. That way hopefully everyone would think, “well it can’t be him.” Even the fans, it diverted a lot of people. We had an odd sense of whimsy, humor, and goofiness in something that calls itself Suicide Squad. In a book that was largely pretty serious. We had lots of pretty goofy and silly moments. Two characters I loved playing with, Punch and Jewelee were sheer wacky. We managed to stir that in. 

When you were writing Suicide Squad, how did you go about selecting characters? You mentioned Punch and Jewelee and they were very obscure. I know Boomerang was suggested to you, but were other characters suggested to you, or did you largely select them yourself? 

Captain Boomerang was suggested by Robert Greenberger. At first, I thought, “Captain Boomerang. What a silly-looking person.” But when I got in and realized what his character type was like, the fact that..this is a slight segway to make sure to reel me back in. There was a series of books about a character called Flashman, the author was George MacDonald Frasier. Flashman was originally a guy who was originally in this book way back, ‘Tom Brown School Days’ about an English school. Flashman was a rotter in the book, written by a different author in a different era and the character was eventually tossed out of the book. Frasier picked him up from where he’s tossed out of that book and continues in a series of historical adventures and Flashman never changes. He is a coward, he’s a Letcher, a conman and he succeeds!

It was the first Flashman book I read, halfway through I threw it against the wall because he pissed me off so bad. But then I went back and finished reading and I was a big fan of it. Well okay, Boomerang will be my Flashman. No matter how low he could go there was always another level below that he could sink. He knew what he was and he was happy. He was the best-adjusted person of everyone in Belle Reve. Mainly because he liked who he was, he was happy with it. He just does the other stuff so he can stay out of jail as much as possible. 

In terms of choosing some of the other characters, well yeah I deliberately chose more obscure characters because one of my rules was, if someone is joining the Squad I get to keep them. I get to do whatever I want with them. I can extend their character. I can kill them. For me that was important. That I had to have control over characters. Boomerang was a member of Flash’s Rogue’s Gallery but at that time they were remaking Flash and they weren’t using the Rogues Gallery, so he was handed to me and I said “okay but I get to keep him then” and they said yeah at the time. I would go through Who’s Who and look for those who are silly. Well, not necessarily silly but those who were less known.

There is one in particular who was used in the film that even I never considered using and that’s Polka Dot Man. They did a BRILLIANT job with him, Polka Dot Man was very much in the mode of how I would have chosen to use him. Who’s Who was a good place for me to go in terms of searching out characters. I figured the least known characters were the ones they would let me play with. 

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always loved about the Squad, it fleshes out smaller characters. 

Deadshot’s a good example. He originally had a half-page in the Who’s Who and I used him when Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart were finished with him in Detective Comics I think, it was one of the Batman titles. They redesigned the costume and I thought the costume was really cool and the Who’s Who only had a paragraph on his background so I could extend it further. The main thing I had with Deadshot was Lawton was two things. I had seen a special with a hitman who had been incarcerated, he had the coldest eyes I had ever seen. His whole attitude was “I don’t care if I die so why should I care if you die?” It’s not that Lawton was suicidal it was just that he just didn’t care whether he lived or die. As a result, if his life didn’t mean anything to him, yours didn’t mean anything to him either. 

You’ve hit on something there as well. You started out as an actor and your work has quite a strong focus on character psychology. Do you think your background as an actor fed into your writing? 

Oh yeah absolutely, absolutely. My time in theatre I was an actor, I was a playwright, I was a director, I was a teacher. I’ve done most of the jobs you could think of in theatre, I’ve done tech stuff as well. So I knew theatre very well and knew it to be a very collaborative medium, which is what I brought to the book as well. The idea that it was a collaboration. I told the others, I told Luke, I told Karl Kessel, I told anyone who was working on it, including Bob Greenberger, that if they had an idea I wanted to hear it. I might not use it but if they had an idea for the Squad I was open to listening to it.  We were a band and everyone in the band brings something different to it. All of that definitely came from theatre.

My whole sense of dramatic structure came from actively working in dramatic structure. One of the biggest things I had from my college days at University where I did theatre was a guest teacher who came in for one semester. A brit named Harold Lang. He had been in some films, basically small supporting films but he was also a brilliant teacher, just the best I had in anything, and the fact that he was in theatre was great. One of the things I remember him telling us was “you have a right to fail.” You have a right to try something and have it not work, don’t be afraid of failing just learn from what you do. That and also working with Del Close as a writer taught me to take more risks. It taught me that if it goes wrong it goes wrong. 

You’ve said that you initially wanted to be a priest although I believe you’ve also said you aren’t catholic now. But your work includes a lot of catholic themes and undertones with Father Craemer in Suicide Squad and especially with Spectre. Why is it that you draw on this religious aspect?

Okay, let me explain that real quickly. I went to seminary for my freshman year in high school that came from an overdose of watching Going My Way and not the movie, the television series around at the time. It starred Gene Kelly and Leo G Caroll. I was raised a catholic boy and raised in a catholic school. You may entertain thoughts of being a priest, so I thought I had a vocation. I went off to seminary in freshman year. I discovered girls and that I didn’t have a vocation and left. Going to seminary was an indication that I had an interest in those kinds of questions but it didn’t really inform much of what I did. The interest in those sorts of things was not even because I was catholic but just because of who I am. I had an interest in that to begin with and having done that, that continued to be a part of me. It continues to be a part of me today. I call myself an RC which is Reformed Catholic instead of Roman Catholic. I’m an agnostic in general and an atheist in specific but the questions still interest me so that will be a part of my work I think always. 

I did it in a book I recently did for Kickstarter as well with Tom Mandrake, KROS: Hallowed Grounds where we combined vampires and the Civil War. 

I only learned this recently, that your Suicide Squad used the Marvel method. What was that like creatively? Do you prefer that style of writing? 

It could be a switch. We switched methods along the way. Marvel method is also called plot first and what is called DC method is script first, but both Marvel and DC have used them. Plot first means you just plot it out and hand it to the penciller and they pace it basically and it comes back to you for dialoguing. What I like about that is that it allows me to work off of the art better, the expressions, and what’s going on, it allows things to end better. On the other hand, script first is just what it sounds like. I do the whole script, breakdowns, panels, pages, sound effects, captions, sound effects the whole thing is there on the page for the artist. Some artists prefer that and some don’t. I’ve done both on Squad, about halfway through my run I think DC wanted us to do more full script. 

Were there any moments an artist threw in that surprised you or you thought were particularly good? 

Luke was and is a wonderful storyteller. When I work with an artist I work to what I perceive their strengths and things that they like to do. Luke’s is, particularly as a storyteller. One that stands out to me is Flag goes off the rails and decides to assassinate an American senator who is blackmailing the Squad. Waller has already taken care of it unbeknownst to Flag. She sends the entire Squad out to stop him, by whatever means necessary which is what she says. Deadshot is the one who solves the situation in his own inimitable manner. The way Luke did that was simply stunning. I’ll also say when we did the Deadshot mini-series Luke inked himself and that is where I think we see the definitive Luke McDonnell art. He’s had other inkers who are very very good, no question about it. But there’s something about what Luke inks himself. You ask something sometimes from artists and what they give you is twice what you ask for. 

Your Squad work had a lot of crossovers. Did you find it frustrating to constantly tie into different events or did you enjoy playing the Squad off of other futures in the DC Universe?

I enjoyed some more than others. There was one, I think it was Millenium. It was coming out weekly. There was one week where virtually every book I was then writing was then tied into this one moment. I think it was Engelhart that was writing the center book, he had a vacation and he went off to it. So we had like two sentences telling us what that week was about. So I ended up having to plot the thing over and above that. So that got a little tough. Sometimes some of the tie-ins were more difficult than others. The sheer amount of them was tough. But then we did it to ourselves as well. We did sort of a mini crossover with all of the covert action groups with Checkmate, Peacemaker. We did our own crossover between the books. That I brought on myself. So I have no complaints about it. 

I recently did an article on every death in the Suicide Squad’s history and there are a lot of Firestorm villains in there. Was that just because you were writing Firestorm at the time and you had free reign or did you have some sort of vendetta against his Rogue’s Gallery? 

I was writing Firestorm, it was less complicated using some of those villains. Especially if I wasn’t going to use them again. So I could kill them off with impunity and no one would complain cause I was the writer on Firestorm. You gotta be careful with writing Squad some time though. It’s not about killing the characters, it’s a story in which characters die. But we had to treat it as though there were real deaths. There was only one character I brought back from death and that was Rick Flag. But that was planned, I had the backdoor prepared when I wrote his death. I think now I wouldn’t bring him back, I would just leave him dead. 

Oh interesting. Why do you think that is? 

I think it was more effective when we killed him off. Bringing him back sorta undercut that so now I think “eh shouldn’t have done it.”

Of course, your stories aren’t all about villains. They also feature a cast of regular human characters as well. Not just Waller but Flo, LaGrieve, Briscoe, and John Economos. What made you want to flesh out this supporting cast as much as you did? Do you think they’re important to the dynamic of the book?  

Yeah! One of the things I wanted to do when I did Squad was that I wanted to have a large support team. Any group that’s together like Justice League like Avengers would have to have a support staff, secretaries doing office work, mechanics working on their plane. I mean how does Batman find the time to keep all his gear in working order? Again that’s one of the things that led to the creation of Oracle. We figured at the time that if we did her right she would be very handy within the DC Universe, and other writers would want to use her. Because she helps solve a problem many times. You have a story where the main character has to learn something, the question comes if they do that how do they know to do that? Well instead of spending time in their own story with it, they just put a quick call to Oracle and she digs in her computer, finds it out, and gives it back to ‘em. Boom and you’re off and running, back into the fight scene which you’re ready to do. I think that’s a useful thing to have within a comic book universe. 

Your Squad run is quite political in a lot of ways. Do you think the politics of those stories still hold up? 

Some of it is gonna be dated, it’s the politics of the time so it’s gonna be dated but unfortunately, some of it is still very apt to today. The story we would do, say, with Soviet Russia. Interesting reading. I was just watching part of Hunt for Red October again last night and that’s dated in the sense that you don’t have the Soviet government anymore but it’s still a compelling story and it’s really easy to get sucked into it. Some of the politics on it are still bang-up. In the Squad, we did a story with a character called Willaim Hell, who was using the trappings of being a superhero to basically foment strife between the races. Yeah, I’m sorry to say that’s very apt for today. The very start of the Squad had a sequence that I don’t think I would be allowed to do today. It’s this superpowered terrorist group attacking an airport, right on the first pages. They wreck Air Force One, looks like they kill the president, they kill lots of people in the terminal. I’m not sure that DC would let me do that today.

Soon after your Squad work, you wrote another lengthy run with Spectre. Of course, that’s a character that is a far way away from the grounded black ops missions of the Squad. What was it like shifting from a more grounded series to one about an all-powerful figure? Was that difficult for you? 

Oh not terrifically. The way you can do a lot of different books a month is by making sure each one is different. We have different sides to our personalities. An analogy I heard once that I thought was good was that you hold a diamond up to the light and turn the facet, you see something slightly different in each facet. I think that’s true of our personalities. So the Spectre brought out one side of me, Suicide Squad brought out another. Each book I was doing enabled me to bring out something different in myself and keep me interested.

Spectre was something that I had long wanted to do. There was something about the visuals of that character. Someone kept on telling us that well you can’t keep the Spectre interesting very long. You either have to reduce his powers or you repeat yourself and you’ll be done in a year. Tom Mandrake and I, we talked about and we knew exactly what to do. You have to keep the visuals because that’s what draws people to the book in the first place, the iconography as I call it. 

We said the problem is not in the Spectre. It’s in Corrigan. We had a couple of rules. First of all: different people have brought Corrigan back to life and said he was a host for the Spectre who was an entirely different entity.  We said mmmm no. Corrigan is dead he was killed in the 30s, he’s still dead, he’d been dead all that time. He was a hardboiled plainclothes detective back in the 30s. To know what that is you go back and read early Dick Tracy, you read some of the novels and newspapers at the time of what these guys were like. That’s what we modeled Corrigan on. He was still that. He was still that hard-boiled personality but he had a story arc as a result.

Usually, you gotta change before you die, but in Corrigan’s case, it’s the afterlife that ended up changing him and enabling him to come where he is at the end of the series. Tom and I had that figured out from early on in the run so we knew what we wanted to do and we got a chance to do it. DC said, “the numbers are slipping, so we’re probably gonna end the book in about a year.” We said great. We’ll use that year to wrap things up, which is what we did and they let us do what we wanted at the very end for the character. It made the entire series into one big story, and we’re very pleased with that. 

One thing I like about your work is that you bring in characters from each of your runs. So Tolliver and Zastrow appear in Firestorm and move to Suicide Squad. Father Craemer appears in Suicide Squad and moves to Spectre. Why is it that you shuffle around these smaller supporting characters? 

Because it’s one universe. I respect continuity and I use it quite a bit but I’m not a slave to it. There are those who every period and every comma has to be adhered to. Well not if it gets in the way of a good story. That’s why I would bring characters in, it was one universe and I tried to reinforce that when I can, so much again that it doesn’t get in the way of a good story.

Of course you also wrote the delightful Martian Manhunter series again alongside Tom Mandrake. But after your run, the character hasn’t enjoyed such a lengthy series. Why do you think that is? Do you think he lacks something that other heroes like Flash or Batman have to stand alone? 

Maybe it’s because he’s an alien and he looks alien. This is also the approach when we started work on it. It’s that he started as a green Superman. His powers are very similar. Instead of Kryptonite, he’s afraid of fire. It’s essentially the same thing. So we wanted to explore how he was different and there were a few key ways. The telepathy, being able to phase through things and a few more stuff but also fire had to be a psychological question rather than a physical question.  We wanted to find out how he’s different. Also, another major difference is that Superman was born on Krypton but came to Earth as a baby and was raised as a human. So his values are human, his culture is humanity.  Yes, he has access to Kryptonian culture through the Fortress of Solitude but his values are those of Kansas, the Midwest. That’s how he was raised and that forms him as much as his powers, maybe more.

J’onn Jonzz on the other hand comes to earth as a full adult. He is completely shaped by Maritan society and its way of handling things, we explored some of that. You know if you have a planet of telepaths, what are the rules? How does that form society? You’re not allowed into another person’s mind, except in Crisis unless you were invited. The fact that you can phase through things means that he didn’t have stairways, he would float up and down. He wouldn’t need a door he would phase into the place. We just wanted to think, what are the logical extensions of what we know? A friend of mine, Jim Murdock over in Ireland. Hello Jim! He’s told me he really likes Spectre but he likes Martian Manhunter even more. It’s not so much a fantasy thing, it’s science fiction as Spectre was. 

While you are probably most well known for your work at DC you have also done numerous creator-owned projects like Grimjack. Now Grimjack is being adapted by the Russo Brothers? What about Grimjack do you think makes it prime for film and what are you excited for audiences to see.

Well with Grimjack it goes right back to the beginning, back when I submitted it to First Comics. There was really nothing like it on the market. When it was being evaluated I was told they liked the idea, they liked the concept but it was an older character, could the reader relate? He was grim, he was gritty, that wasn’t the norm at the time. In fact, they told me at first, “well we’re gonna start him off in the back of another book, Starslayer” which was another book I was writing. “In two years maybe three, if there’s enough support we’ll spin him out into his own book.” Well, Grimjack went into his own book 8 months after he first appeared.

Yes, there is a level of violence and brutality again of the anti-hero. I had people who had problems with what they did and Grimjack said “well that wasn’t very heroic.” I said, “I never told you he was a role model.” I considered him to be a compelling character and he was in the hardboiled mode. I like hardboiled fiction a lot, I wanted to combine that again with science fiction, with sword and sorcery in a way. I came up with a hardboiled barbarian. It’s what I call narrative alloys, you take one thing from one genre and something from another genre and patch them together and I think that can be really interesting. One of the Star Wars books I did was at Dark Horse, I melded James Bond with Star Wars, which I think worked out rather well. 

That was another question I had! You’re pretty well known for your extensive catalog of Star Wars work. A lot of it deals with concepts and characters very different from Star Wars as we know it. Did Dark Horse give you a lot of freedom for this or did you have to conform to certain ideas about what Star Wars was? 

With anything that we did and that includes me and Jan and everybody at every stage, it had to be approved by Lucas licensing. So it not only had to go through our editor but also through Lucas licensing and then come back to us with any notes that they had. The thing is, first of all, I had a lot of reference books on Star Wars, I knew Star Wars pretty well. I was a fan before the first movie came out because I had read the first novelization and said “oh this is kinda cool, I’ll have a look at the movie.” And I was floored when I saw it and became a fan. Jan knows Star Wars even better than me. We would put our stuff together, Jan would put the plot together with me because it worked out better that way. Sometimes we would get notes back from Lucas licensing and they said well we would like to change this because of this, this, and this.

We said, “yes we can, we could do that and we can do that if you really want us to but something like this happened in this movie, in this book, in this comic.”  So this we saw as just an extension of what had already been done. Lucas would almost always go and look back and go “you’re right go ahead.” Eventually, it got to the point where they really did trust us to know and love and know what to do for a real Star Wars story. For all, we did we were really running and gunning for the real Star Wars feel to the stories that we were doing. So they ended up trusting us a great deal. 

You’re the creator of Amanda Waller. She’s appeared in so many comics, cartoons, and movies. What do you think the legacy of the character is? 

Well first of all there was no like Amanda before and I don’t think there’s really been anyone like her since. We’re talking about the grey areas, Amanda has vast areas of grey *laughs* things. But also to head the Squad I wanted a woman, I wanted her to be black and I wanted her to be rough to middle age. Because again there is no one like that and there were very few characters of color at the time in comics. She also had to have no powers. Her power had to be her mind and her will, which proved to be more than enough. I think she’s stuck around because there’s not really been anyone like her since then. She has all the ruthlessness of Lex Luthor but she does have a certain moral sense as well. She’s perfectly willing to use these bad guys and send them to their dooms if need be. But she won’t do it gratuitously. Only if she felt it was really necessary.

If she finds some political hack is trying to use the Squad, as does happen, then she gets furious because these are her people. As bad as they are, these are her people and she’s not going to waste them. She’s a complex character because a lot of people thought she was the worst villain in the whole lot. You can love her, you can hate her and you can do both at the same time and that makes her compelling because we know people like that in our real lives.  There are very few people who are just terrific all the time, everybody has their shadows. Letting you both love and hate Amanda lets you explore that within yourself.   

You of course tend to write very flawed characters be it Rick Flag, Spectre, or Grimjack. What is it that draws you to such morally grey figures?

I think it’s truer to life. Everyone I know is a mixture there is no one who is all good and all evil. It’s certainly aspects of myself. I think even if you are writing fantasy you want at least one foot firmly planted in reality so people can identify with it. Again so people can use the dark aspects of it.The reader may go “yeah sure I felt that.” In doing that they can be more open to the character even if the character is pretty fantastic. I mean take a look at Grimjack, he’s working out of a multidimensional city, he has a pet lizard named Bob who drinks and Grimjack works out of a bar. I want people to identify not only in terms of their ideals but in how they live and who they are, by touching up our grey areas. Well, we all have our grey areas. 

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Comics

The Belle Reve Files – Firestorm Crossover

Heya! Welcome back to the Belle Reve Files, the series where I dissect John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad issue by issue. Although you may have figured from the title that today we’re taking a detour. Today we are looking at Firestorm Vol. 2 #64 and Annual #5. Ostrander worked on these two stories alongside artist Joe Brozowski, Inker Sam De La Rosa, colourist Nansi Hoolahan, letterer Duncan Andrews and editor Denny O’Neil.

Ostrander was writing Firestorm alongside Suicide Squad so it was only a matter of time for the two titles to collide. But one is a high flying nuclear superhero and the other is a secretive black-ops group of supervillains. Those are very different concepts, so how did he do it? Well, let’s have a look.

Our issue starts in a pretty interesting space, the home of Ronnie Raymond’s family. In case you didn’t know Ronnie is one half of Firestorm. Firestorm is a unique character in that he is two people fused into one being. His other half being nuclear physicist Doctor Martin Stein. Anway the two of them as Firestorm recently caused a major upset in the previous issues. Ronnie got sick of this planet’s stupid nuclear weapons and decided it would be better to dispose of all of them. Yeah, it’s pretty much the conceit of Supermans goal in Superman IV The Quest For Peace. You’ll be relieved to know that this story fares a lot better than that one. 

Unlike that movie, the world isn’t particularly happy with Ronnie’s threat. So Firestorm at the start of this issue is a rogue fugitive, on the run from pretty much everybody. This causes him to make his way home where his identity is reluctantly revealed to his father, who just so happens to hate Firestorm. We also learn here that Professor Stein is suffering from a brain tumor that comes into play later. Following this, we get a scene with Major Zastrow, who you may remember from the Squad’s mission in Russia. Ostrander tends to crossover characters through his different books and Zastrow is a great example. He first appeared a few issues before this in Firestorm and then becomes more prominent in Suicide Squad.

This sequence we get with him here is a great display of his cold and calculating demeanour. He’s totally unbothered in the face of danger as a Rocket Red blows a wall out behind him. Joe Brozowski’s pencils here do a really good job at displaying this in his character. Though I will be honest, the art is not a standout to me. It’s expressive and Brozowki does well in close-ups with character’s faces but I think his action could be a lot more dynamic. 

Eventually, we get to finally see the Suicide Squad. Flag has just received orders to go and apprehend Firestorm because a crossover needs to happen. For this mission, he’s assembled a Squad just for the task. We got the familiars with Deadshot and Boomerang but everyone else is a new addition and a Firestorm villain. We have Slipknot, the man who can climb anything, and the first Suicide Squad film’s great punching bag. We have Killer Frost who would become associated with the Squad, even more, this is her first outing with the team and her only time with Ostrander at the helm.

Then we have Multiplex who can make copies of himself, and finally, we have Parasite. Yes, Parasite is a Firestorm villain. In the Silver Age, he was a Superman villain but for this new post Crisis universe, this new Parasite was introduced as a foe of ol’ flame head. Anyway, the Squad is headed this time by Derek Tolliver who we talked about last time. This is his first appearance and he’s another character created for Firestorm that will eventually move to Suicide Squad. He opts to release Parasite into the field but Flag shows his rank as field leader and tells him that he’s too dangerous, and should only be used as a last resort. 

Firestorm heads to Times Square to talk to the press about his goals and the Squad decides that’s the perfect time to jump him. I think it’s just a really odd setup. The Squad is a black ops group, unknown to the rest of the world. They operate entirely in secret, so seeing them in such a massively populated area is strange. Ostrander explains it away in a really fun way by having all the characters assume that all of these villains are just here to bring him in since he’s a wanted man. It’s also why it makes for these Firestorm villains to be here since they just want to get revenge. We get panels where Deadshot is just firing wildly into a pretty massive crowd, Firestorm pleads for them to stop which makes sense. But it’s odd to me that Flag is seemingly fine with this. We’ve been shown he’s the moral center of the group so him standing by feels a bit out of character. 

Regardless the fight rages on with Firehawk helping out Firestorm. There are these not-so-subtle moments between Killer Frost and Firehawk, where Frost remarks on her body heat. It’s so explicitly sexual but of course, it’s the 80s so DC isn’t gonna have 2 women kissing in a comic book. Tolliver, being the total tool he is, decides to let Parasite loose just as the Justice League International arrives. This ends #64, the story picks up in Annual #5.

I greatly enjoy all the character interactions in this battle. JLI and Suicide Squad were some of the great books of DC’s stellar 80s lineup. They play off each other again later but this is the first time. We get some really fun fight pairings here. Of particular note are Boomerang and Batman. I say this a lot but Ostrander is one of the best Batman writers of all time. Despite not writing a long run with him, he’s done so many exceptional stories with him that he is more than worthy of the title. He has such a great voice for the character and he just knows how to play him off every single character he writes him alongside.

We also get Slipknot taking on Mister Miracle, which is just not a matchup that works in his favor. I don’t think I have ever seen a fight where it has been in his favor, to be honest. But he’s fun to point and laugh at as Scott also discovers. 

Parasite breaks out and Flag goes after him, but not before Parasite sucks the life out of Multiplex. Yep, that’s another Firestorm villain biting the dust. Ostrander just really did not like these guys huh?

He begins siphoning off of the powers of the League becoming more and more powerful. So of course, Flag decides it would be a good idea to send in Slipknot. Slipknot smartly realizes he would be totally useless and tries to take out Flag only for Batman to clock him.

We get this great interaction between Flag and Batman which really sells this entire crossover for me. Batman knows of Flag because of his time with the Forgotten Heroes (a team of obscure and unused characters in the early 80s). Batman assumes that Flag is working to apprehend the villains the same as him. So we get this great bit where the two of them team up to take out Deadshot. It’s such a fun setup, and perfectly uses the secretive nature of the Squad and Flag’s previous publication history.

Of course, it seems that Batman may very well be playing along, keeping his suspicions to himself. The parasite takes off with Firestorm in toe, so Batman, Blue Beetle, and Flag chase after them. They’re eventually forced to pull back however as Firestorm takes out Parasite and flies off. The rest of the issue deals with Zastrow and that Rocket Red from earlier, but the Squad drops out of the story as Firestorm flies away. Our last moment with Flag has him noting his respect for Batman and how he wishes he worked for heroes like him. He also hopes he never comes to blows with the Caped Crusader, which is a bit of foreshadowing for later.

So that’s our story. It’s one where the Squad is very much not the focus. It is Firestorm’s story after all and he gets the spotlight. But there are still fun moments for the Squad in here, particularly Flag who gets great interplay with Batman as he tries to keep his cover. That’s a really fun conceit for a Suicide Squad crossover and it is easily the greatest part of these two issues. But the bulk of this story isn’t about that. What we get here is more just classic fun crossover matchups. The only downside really is that most of these matchups aren’t Squad related. Killer Frost and Multiplex aren’t on Ostrander’s Squad again.

So really the Squad is here in part to justify matchups between the JLI and Firestorms rogues gallery. It’s a fun story and Ostrander and co do a good job creating a fun action comic. Just don’t expect the same level of quality as the other Squad stories.