DC’s rebirthed Suicide Squad from writer Rob Williams and tag-team artists Philip Tan and Jim Lee is expertly crafted to appeal to fans of the critically maligned but commercially successful film—the team line-ups are nearly identical, comic characters have been redesigned to better match their film counterparts and at least one popular trailer sequence appears “verbatim” in the first issue—which makes this latest volume, however well executed, utterly antithetical to the Suicide Squad concept, and perhaps the least “Suicide Squad-y” Suicide Squad of the last fifteen years.
While director David Ayers’ film owes the bulk of its inspiration to the New 52 iteration of the Squad that launched with heretofore-unrelated character Harley Quinn front and center, the no-return mission that created the property came from writer John Ostrander and artist Luke McDonnell way back in 1987. Ostrander’s 68-issue run, much of it co-written with Kim Yale, elevated c-listers like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang to leading-man status, while examining the motivations and personal lives of career criminals in the DCU. It was also unafraid to clean house, regularly offing backlist baddies and even prominent team members like Rick Flag, Jr., creating an ever-present no-one’s-safe tension.
The modern Suicide Squad, rebooted for the New 52 in 2011 and soft-relaunched again in 2014 as New Suicide Squad, suffered from a popularity problem. Its cast, rather than being comprised of expendable nobodies, was front-loaded with popular villains with ties to major franchises. The old Squad had no problem mowing down Firestorm villains, but how many Batman rogues is DC really willing to part with?
The result was a severe case of the Redshirt trope, where the killable members of the team were apparent upon introduction. There’s little shock to be had when Lime, Voltaic or Yo-Yo meet grisly ends, and plenty of (rightful) disbelief when Harley, Deadshot or conscripted heroes like Steel and Power Girl are “presumed dead.” New Suicide Squad fared even worse: after two years, major-league villains Black Manta, Parasite and Cheetah emerged unscathed while the Hunky Punk—the Hunky Punk —ate a bullet.
This latest volume will face the same challenge: how do you sell readers on the promise of a high-risk, expendable team when most of the cast isn’t really expendable? What we have instead is an emphasis on the “Squad” and a shuffling aside of the “Suicide.” Rather than an unpredictable clearing-house for surplus villains, the modern Suicide Squad is a team-up book for popular baddies, most of whom won’t be killed, or at least won’t stay dead for long.
While the Suicide Squad comic may be moving farther and farther from its deadly roots, 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of the closest spiritual successor that the Ostrander/Yale/McDonnell Suicide Squad run has ever received (aside from Michel Fiffe’s stellar, self-aware homage, COPRA). Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force, later re-titled to X-Statix, launched in July 2001 as part of the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely-led X-revolution, ejecting the existing X-Force squad of paramilitary former New Mutants in exchange for reality-TV mutant heroes with no qualms about killing—and a tendency to get killed.
In an era before ubiquitous Internet spoilers, Milligan and Allred were able to conceal that the announced roster—the characters on every promo material and featured in an extensive Wizard Magazine profile—don’t make it out of the first issue with their entrails intact. Only U-Go Girl, the tragic blue-skinned teleporter; Anarchist, who likens being a black mutant to being “black with a little black added”; and Doop, the fan-favorite whatever-he-is, survive our bullet-ridden introduction to the team, and the next round of replacement heroes don’t fare much better.
If Ostrander’s Suicide Squad had an undercurrent of political consciousness, Milligan’s take on X-Statix was pure pop art, often bordering on parody. Despite tongue-in-cheek appearances by the preceding X-Force squad and a handsomely hirsute Wolverine, no existing mutants were grandfathered onto Milligan and Allred’s team, meaning every character was conceivably expendable—a threat upon which the creative team had no problem delivering. And in the place of Suicide Squad’s government overseer Amanda Waller, X-Statix boasted a Zuckerbergian young billionaire with a loose grasp on morals.
Much like Suicide Squad killed off Rick Flag, Jr. to prove that even the supposedly core cast members weren’t safe, Milligan and Allred delivered the gut-punch death of U-Go Girl, until then the book’s emotional center, when the series relaunched as X-Statix. Which isn’t to say that Milligan never got attached to his cast; Vivisector and Phat long outlived Bloke and Saint Anna, alongside whom they were introduced, and the book’s second phase as X-Statix seemed on-the-whole less interested in constantly murdering the team, focusing instead on stunts like nearly introducing a revived Princess Diana, before media outrage forced them to fictionalize her as “Henrietta Hunter.”
Rendered in Mike Allred’s clean-lined, boldly colored (by his wife, Laura Allred) style, X-Statix’ constant violence is more satirical than salacious. Limbs are lost, bodies are melted and impalements abound, but the book somehow never reads as gratuitous. This is not the madcap, entertaining violence of Deadpool or the Harley era of Suicide Squad, but more of a car-crash sensibility: don’t look away, but don’t forget that it’s a little wrong to look in the first place.
Milligan and Allred’s send-up of superhero death and violence didn’t go out quietly, either. Facing down cancellation due to low sales, Milligan took the team back to its roots: dying en masse. Unlike the first time, though, no one makes it out alive. (Milligan would later bring the popular, code-speaking Doop back in the pages of X-Men, and revisit the deceased cast through the convenient use of heroine Dead Girl.) This blaze of glory was afforded to Milligan and Allred because the characters, despite their cult following and critical acclaim, were ultimately unwanted. Marvel had (and has) no shortage of mutants, and unlike Mister Sensitive, Anarchist and Venus Dee Milo, the company’s other X-gene carriers weren’t inexorably tied to a singular creative vision.
That same expendability simply doesn’t apply to characters who grace billboards, inspire Hot Topic clothing lines?? and attract talent like Margot Robbie and Will Smith. While X-Statix never abandoned its unpredictably murderous concept, today’s Suicide Squad exists as an empty promise: Williams, Lee and Tan have all of the skills necessary to deliver an entertaining, compelling take on the characters who make up the Suicide Squad, but Harley & co.’s value as intellectual property effectively safeguards them against the very tension that helped establish Suicide Squad in the first place. For a more modern take on what made the Ostrander/Yale/McDonnell run so legendary, you still can’t do better than the self-published COPRA or a 15-year-old Marvel series about reality-TV mutant super-stars.