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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Suicide Squad 20 Review: New Start, New Depths

Written by: Ales Kot
Pencils and inks by: Patrick Zircher
Colors by: Jason Keith
Letters by: Jared K Fletcher
Edited by: Wil Moss, Harvey Richards, and Brian Cunningham

Suicide Squad is a title with a long history at DC comics. First "Task Force X", a war comic, John Ostrander completely revitalized and revamped the concept in the 80s, spinning out of the "Legends" crossover. That book became a cult hit, one of the things to put John Ostrander on the map, for it's daring approach to standard superhero tropes, it's willingness to take risks, and perhaps most of all it's eerily prescient take on international politics. It remains one of the most articulate comics of its day, and it's legacy can be seen all throughout the DC and Marvel universes; books like Secret Six, Checkmate, and every iteration of the Thunderbolts post-Warren Ellis (inclusive of Warren Ellis)  owe  a huge debt of gratitude to Ostrander's pioneering work there. Along the way, Ostrander gave us incredibly nuanced takes on previously un-dimensional characters like "Deadshot", gave new life to carelessly broken characters like crippled Barbara Gordon (yes, John Ostrander and his wife Kim Yale created "Oracle"), and created cornerstones of the DCU like Amanda "The Wall" Waller, a character that seen in feature film and animation alike.

The legacy of the actual title post-Ostrander, unfortunately, hasn't been nearly as positive. An aborted, 12 issue run by Keith Giffen somewhere in the nineties, a short mini series by Ostrander himself that didn't quite capture the magic in the 2000s...Certainly Simone's "Secret Six" was a worthy spiritual successor, but Suicide Squad itself didn't seem to have the legs, despite an amazing name and high concept.

With the New 52, they relaunched the book with Adam Glass at the helm, and while I only dipped my toes into the title (after having been badly burned by Glass's mediocre work on a preface Flashpoint mini series), I found this iteration of the Suicide Squad to be exactly the opposite of what Ostrander did; violence for the sake of violence, stupidity reveling it it's stupidity. More "Commando" than "The Hunt for Red October".

But with issue 20, we have the new team of Ales Kot and Patrick Zircher, and with them a new direction and a new pedigree. I'm happy to report that they also bring with them marked improvement.

From a craft perspective regarding the writing, I think this was a good, not great start; promising more than mind blowing. It seems clear to me that Kot is still familiarizing himself with the single-issue monthly format, and I think we'll see him improve as he goes. The art of writing a 20 page comic book is not the same as writing a 90 page graphic novel is not the same as writing a television show, is not the same as writing a movie, is not the same as writing a novel, etc.

What I mean is this; a good 20/22 page comic is structured in certain defined ways. Now, obviously, there is room for experimentation and change, but those first issues - especially of a new writer with an unproven track record to the public - should ideally include something extremely attention grabbing in the first 2-3 pages ("All the men are dead --", "My name is John Horus and I've just killed the President of the United States", "The old man is beating his fists against the glass..."), should establish your characters, your world, your tone, your direction, and should end with something big.

I know that seems like a lot, but it's doable, and all the very best, and most popular, comics started out that way. Y the Last Man, Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison's Animal Man/Doom Patrol, Ellis' Planetary...really, Brian K Vaughn, who is the master of keeping audiences engaged, adheres to this formula doggedly (without repeating himself), and it's really a wonderful thing to watch him serve all these masters effortlessly in books like "Saga" and "The Private Eye", where he's finally upping his conceptual creativity.

What I'm saying (long-windedly) is this book did quite a bit, but it didn't give us the big beginning and it didn't give us much in the way of jaw-dropping moments. It was insidious, it was very deliberate in its pacing...that isn't a bad thing, but it's not quite the ideal first issue.

There was, however, a lot to like here. There was a sense of...intelligence...and the off kilter, little echoes of Morrison's "Arkham Asylum" or Gaiman's "Black Orchid" brought to the characters, applied to their habits and proclivities. There was some nice psychology -- though some of the storytelling from Kot was unclear, especially in regards to Faux-ker/Harley -- and some nice reveals (some that were quite significant and shocking, some that meant  nothing to me, because I haven't been following the series). The inclusion of a certain character from modern continuity is, in its way, a stroke of genius; it mirrors the Oracle element from Ostrander's run, and is yet actually MORE appropriate for the tone of the book.

Zircher, though, is a massive asset; one of the great storytellers in the business, his characters dripping in emotion, acting on every panel with body language and facial expressions, his worlds solid and real, his action kinetic, his finish moody and shadowed. He's JUST the man for this job, and I think Kot is just the collaborator for him; it seems to me that Kot is a great collaborator in a true sense of the word, taking into account what the artist wants and his storytelling instincts, and Zircher has a lot of great ideas in that regard on his own. There is one panel in particular, making use of the "Scrabble" game our characters are playing, that has gotten a lot of play on the internet already, for good reason.

What I'm saying is that while this one issue didn't knock me down quite yet, I think the seeds are planted for a truly special run, and I have a feeling that it's only going to get better and better as we go.

Cheers and kudos to Wil Moss and company for putting this team together, and cheers to Kot and Zircher for putting together a great issue. To a long and healthy run, and one that leads to many future opportunities.


  1. 'Brian K Vaughn, who is the master of keeping audiences engaged, adheres to this formula doggedly (without repeating himself), and it's really a wonderful thing to watch him serve all these masters effortlessly in books like "Saga" and "The Private Eye", where he's finally upping his conceptual creativity.'

    Not to take away from Vaughan's talent, which needs no defending, but you hear these sorts of comments about how he's the king of first issues all the time, yet no of them mention that Y, Ex Machina, Private Eye, and Saga all had first issues that were quite significantly longer than 20-22 pages.

    If Vaughan's the master of the first issue, maybe the real lesson to learn from that is that 22 pages isn't a decent number for a first issue and that writers should trump for more whenever they can.

  2. While the greater length no doubt played some role in the success of such comics, I'm not so much discussing the content of Vaughn's work as I am the structure, which he replicates on EVERY issue of Y, for instance. You can argue that the amount he was allowed to give us in his first issue(s) was a large part of why we wanted to come back, but I'd argue that a lot of Y's first issue could have been removed and simply introduced in the next without harming engagement.

    The "short opener with a big shocking splash" and "big cliffhanger ending"...the way he made an effort to make each page turn end on something exciting and compelling....that doesn't need 30 pages to work, and I think it is that form that largely engages the readership.

    That isn't to take away from BKV's work, of course. Every issue says something unique, and interesting. Y's success is down not to cheap tricks and manipulation; ultimately, content is king.

    But the structure with which he delivers that information is still key to keeping people engaged, and easily replicable, most importantly for first issues (I think).