The Belle Reve Files – A Look Back at John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad: Legends & Secret Origins #14 by Jordan Edwards

Welcome back. Our journey does not begin where most would expect. This series isn’t starting with the first issue of the first volume of Suicide Squad. Instead we start with the 1987 event Legends. This was a story that ran through 6 main issues and tied into other books like Firestorm, Warlord and Action Comics. Essentially its about Darkseid trying to take revenge on Earth by ridding our little mudball of its “legends.” Legends is an interesting first appearance for the Squad. It was the first event that DC did after Crisis on Infinite Earths, so it acts as a sort of thesis statement. A lot of what is so great about post crisis DC comics is set up here. You get the beginnings of the Justice League International, the first time that Captain Marvel was put into proper continuity, and Wonder Woman exhibits more mythological stuff that comes into play in George Perez’s run. Of course, Legends also gave us the Suicide Squad which is pretty much as perfect as a concept as you can get. I mean come on, Dirty Dozen but with super villains? That could be an all time comic run even without the actual quality behind it. But it’s also really cool because it’s the perfect thing for DC after Crisis. Think about it. The Silver Age, as much as I love it was filled with really simple, goofy and straight up dumb stories. There wasn’t much of a focus on continuity, more just wacky adventures where Lois tries to trick Superman into marrying her with a kryptonite pie or something. Of course with these one and done stories came a lot of villains, who were usually very gimmicky. It’s where you get guys like Captain Boomerang. So when Crisis rolled around and DC wanted to take their stories more seriously there really wasn’t much of a need for these weird oddball characters anymore. No one was using them. Like what are you gonna do with freaking Polka Dot Man when Frank Miller just put out Batman Year One? 

Herein lies the genius of John Ostrander. This absolute madlad took all of these characters no one wanted to use and threw them into his Suicide Squad concept. Because really, who cares? No one was going to use Enchantress or Blockbuster. Comics had seemingly moved past the need for them. But Ostrander saw an opportunity to build on what came before, by taking these weird villains and making them totally expendable. It’s easily one of the greatest concepts in comics. It’s just one of those ideas that makes you stop and bask in its glory. But how is their actual first adventure in Legends? 

It’s fine? I guess it’s fine? It’s alright. They are really only one part of a larger ongoing story so they aren’t really the focus. Captain Marvel and Darkseid are the stars of this issue as well. The Darkseid stuff in particular is weird. They keep his story going with just a single panel per page and it totally ruins the flow of the story. I have to keep checking back to the last page just to remember what on Earth DeSaad was rambling about now. It’s an odd choice. So there really isn’t much emphasis on the characters or their dynamics, it’s more just setting up the concept and it doesn’t even do that particularly well. There are glimpses of character that would be fleshed out more in the future like Deadshot’s death wish but they are mostly just glossed over. It’s also just a weird start for the Squad: They go up against Brimstone which is just a really bizarre choice for a first Squad mission. The teams all about black ops missions and shady government operations. Why are they fighting Brimstone in their first appearance? Especially in such a boring location like Mount Rushmore. Part of why I love this run is all the different vistas the team visits around the globe. But here it’s just a boring grey little hill they all run up. 

Also can I just talk about Rick Flag’s outfit here? What a boring choice. Just a stripped down basic military suit. It’s just so dull and uninteresting especially up against the more colourful villains. Which I guess is the point? Still stupid though.

I do like how Blockbuster is the first Squad member to die though. Its done really quickly and I dont even think he has a line for the whole issue but I think having this massive tank be the first to die does a good job of establishing the stakes. Also Boomer getting really mad about being expendable and Flag shooting him down cause he’s the most committed and supremely patriotic soldier in the world is what I live for. Again, setting up some character dynamics and some eventual growth that would come later. 

But then it’s got this really odd segment with Darkseid where he gloats about having taken down Blockbuster in exchange for Brimstone but like..they aren’t remotely comparable. Like Brimstone is a massively powerful heavy hitter and Blockbuster is like just a generic brutish villain. Nowhere near the same level. 

I don’t think it’s a great start to the story Ostrander is trying to tell. I do really like this event though and would highly recommend this and most of DCs books at this time, but it’s just not a very good starting point for the team itself. I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point and I understand why it isn’t included in the first trade for the run. Regardless, it’s a competent first issue for the team laying down some of the groundwork that Ostrander would run with later. 

Secret Origins #14 is next on our list and is important for how it connects the Silver Age Suicide Squad to this new iteration. Ostrander’s artistic partner here is his long time Squad co-conspirator, Luke McDonnell. But you almost wouldn’t know that just by reading this issue and then reading an issue of the main run that follows. You might expect that his art would be cruder here at the run’s start, but instead it’s this issue that is more refined and cleaner when compared to the rougher, scratchier work that would come later. Which isn’t a bad thing and it totally works for this issue. This issue acts as a throwback to all of the great WW2 comics of the silver age. So the artistic style and colouring suits this. There are several pages that look like something that Joe Kubert or Ross Andru would draw. It looks spectacular and works with the story Ostrander is telling.

This is an issue that provides the necessary backstory for Flag. Following the introduction of the original Rick Flag in his WW2 setting, the issue shifts to Rick Flag Jr and follows him from his initial training through to an attack by an actual Yeti. Through all this time Ostrander efficiently sets up a lot of threads that will be paid off later and expertly establishes Flags character as a no nonsense but deeply troubled leader. We see the founding of Flag’s first Suicide Squad, his relationship with fellow Squad member Karin Grace and what would be the root for future trauma that gets explored. While the Silver Age Squad being split apart because of a Yeti is somewhat silly, it also comes up later in some surprising ways. It’s good efficient storytelling that expertly weaves in past continuity and connects the old Squad to the new with a direct throughline, Rick Flag. It’s the kinda stuff that made early post crisis stories so exciting, the new connections and brilliant expansions on Silver Age ideas with modern twists. Also I enjoy Ronald Reagan chuckling to himself that he would be good as Flag in a movie. So funny. 

The issue also provides some backstory for Amanda Waller. This is something that I think a lot of modern portrayals of the character really miss. She can be ruthless, she can be cold and you can hate her guts but she isn’t one note. She’s not a force of nature. She’ll blow you up if you cross her for sure but Ostrander does a great job of peeling back the layers of this character throughout his run. In this issue we learn about her past life with her husband and children. This part of the issue also reveals that her son was murdered by a gang and her daughter was raped and killed. These two revelations are really shocking, particularly the implied rape. It’s not a subject that was discussed much in comics in 1987. It’s not just a gimmicky moment of shock though as these horrible events are used to demonstrate the deep wounds that Waller carries. Waller and her family feel real and the trauma that Waller suffers gives her ample reason to be as hardened as she is. Ultimately this section helps to show what made this character ‘The Wall.’ It’s a great first look at her backstory and really establishes her as one of DC’s most well written and fascinating characters. 

These different backstories may feel like they don’t connect very well but they all come together wonderfully to establish the idea that these are traumatised and damaged people. People discarded by the world, trying to do something good one suicide mission at a time. Flag and Waller have both seen the ugly side of life. They have every right to be angry and vindictive but instead they choose to fight for a better future but not in the same way that superheroes do. No instead they head off to commit numerous war crimes and conduct many unethical missions all in the name of peace. But Ostrander has spent this entire issue explaining why. Why they got where they are, why they are who they are and why they are setting out to save the world. It’s a very expository issue but it helps the reader to understand the motivations and driving forces behind Task Force X. 

Both of these issues are decent introductions to the Squad. I do recommend reading them because they set up some stories that will be important down the line but I don’t think either of them really nail what the series would be. Legends is a bit closer to the bombastic action that comes with the series but lacks the brilliant character writing employed in Secret Origins. Thankfully both of their strengths are pulled together into a spectacular first issue. Come back next time as we dive into the series proper with Suicide Squad issues 1 and 2. 

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