The Belle Reve Files – A Look Back at John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad: Suicide Squad #1-2 by Jordan Edwards

So it begins, following the introductory issue in Secret Origins we start our first issue of Ostrander’s 66 issue run. Let’s kick off from the very beginning and talk about that cover. Man, one of my all-time favourites. Just such a classic look. The use of the different colours popping off the black backdrop totally sucks you in and you instantly understand the book’s vibe with some of the best cover text ever. “These 8 people are putting their lives on the line for our country. One of them won’t be coming home!” Simple, catchy and just plain awesome, it gives you a sense of the danger these characters are in and provides a solid hook for this first story. Looking at it now, it may be obvious that Deadshot, Bronze Tiger and Captain Boomerang won’t be dying but remember in 1987 that wasn’t a given. These were obscure and underutilised characters. Which is something we’ll get into later. 

For now, we open in an Airport where the terrorist group known as the Jihad assassinates a target and massacres civilians. It’s a shocking and brutal opening scene that does a great job of establishing the stakes and danger that will be present in the upcoming stories. These guys are powerful, efficient and completely ruthless. Luke McDonnell does a great job of giving this moment the right amount of impact and visceral violence and the best part is, it wasn’t even real. The whole thing was just a test run for Jihad, not an actual attack. It’s a creative way of showcasing their capabilities and making the enemy seem properly intimidating. 

From there we cut to Belle Reve with one of my favourite establishing panels of all time. One thing McDonnell does really well with this book is to give each location a unique feel. From this one panel, we understand how grimy and ominous this location is. The blood-red sky and large industrial architecture perfectly capture the tone of Belle Reve which is a location that takes on a life of his own. 

This first look at Belle Reve is done in an incredibly smart way. It doesn’t just start straight away by introducing all the major players. Ostrander and co decide to introduce the location through the eyes of the public. So we have a fun sequence where Warden Economos guides journalist Vicki Vale throughout the facility. It’s a clever way to give out exposition but also tells us just how covert this organization will be throughout the series. It also starts us off with the more normal and moral characters. The regular working joes who are associated with the Squad because of occupation rather than criminal activities. It’s this much needed human element that grounds the series and I think it’s something that the future iterations of the Squad have forgotten in an effort to humanize the Squad members themselves. 

It’s here where we also meet Flo Crowly and the resident Psychologists Dr LaGrieve and Ms Herrs. These are characters that are not given the credit they deserve. For example, the psychologists are a great way for Ostrander to delve deeper into the characters’ minds. Rather than have excessive thought bubbles or have these ruthless criminals confide in each other it was smart to utilize this dynamic. It leads to some really interesting character spotlights down the line. It’s a really intelligent way for characters to express themselves in a scenario that doesn’t feel forced. For now, though these characters fill very simple roles but help to make the setting feel more real and believable.

Of course, now we get to meet the Squad and what a squad it is. Let’s go through the rap sheets. Taking the lead is Colonel Rick Flag, in my eyes one of DC comics’ most underrated and underutilized characters. He’s the tough military man sure, but he also has several important roles within this run. Firstly he is one of the few of the Belle Reve crew who speaks out against Waller, something that Waller actually appreciates and respects. Flag raises ethical issues and moral dilemmas that he disagrees with and it makes for some compelling discussions. Rick is also the link back to the original silver age Squad since his father led that team. It keeps a degree of continuity but also gives Rick an interesting conflict as he tries to meet the standard by his heroic father (something we understand because of the Secret Origins issue). Of course, Flag is also the go-to field leader and that gives Ostrander some really interesting opportunities to play the righteous Colonel off against the more oddball villains. 

Deadshot is next on the list. Deadshot is one of the characters most associated with the Squad and one of DC’s most popular villains, for good reason. But I think a lot of people forget that before Ostrander there really wasn’t a Deadshot. Initially, he was just a lame silver age villain in a dumb suit who imitated Batman and turned to a life of crime. Steve Englehart brought him back in his now-iconic suit for a great single-issue story. But that was it. Before this run that is all that was around for Deadshot. So Ostrander brought him in and made him the smooth, greasy wildcard that he is. In more recent years Deadshot’s been made more of an everyman. A relatable guy who just wants to be with his daughter. I say screw that! That’s so damn boring. Give me a Deadshot who doesn’t care if he lives or dies and certainly doesn’t care if you live or die. He’s the breakout star of Suicide Squad for a damn good reason and I wish modern DC comics understood why. 

Next, we’re introduced to the Bronze Tiger. Tiger is interesting because he’s one of the Squad characters who volunteered and is not an active criminal. Instead, he fights League of Assasin brainwashing. Tiger was a character who appeared a few times in O’ Neil and Adams’ legendary Batman work. He’s the resident martial arts guy, one of the best fighters in the DCU. The man who beat Batman and killed Batwoman. Going into this he is probably the character most well established and with the greatest reputation. He’s also got one of the most satisfying arcs of these 66 issues as he struggles to break free of his conditioning and forge a path separate from his destructive origins.

Captain Boomerang has been and will continue to be my favourite Squad member. Here in New Zealand, we don’t get a whole lot of Kiwi representation. Given that I have some Aussie blood, I instead latch onto Australian characters and the best of the bunch is undoubtedly Captain Boomerang. He’s the biggest stereotype saying completely absurd Aussie slang that no one ever says like “strewth” and “bloody bike.” But that’s part of what makes him so fun. He’s just a total riot, a complete sleazeball who only looks out for himself and tries to profit whenever he can. He’s petty and gross and a complete coward. But he’s also really good at what he does. He has such a ridiculously specific skill set, but he IS good at it. He’s a character the creative team clearly had a lot of fun with and that comes through.  

The fact that Mindboggler and Plastique don’t get introductions is pretty telling. It doesn’t stick out so much the first time through but on re-read its painfully obvious that these two aren’t gonna be our main players. They aren’t given as defined personalities and lack the backstories that Waller provides the others. So it’s really clear that they aren’t going to be the stars going forward. It’s one blemish on an otherwise pretty perfect first issue. 

One other thing this initial issue does really well is showcase one of the things that makes this book so much fun, hostile characters. Ostrander reminds us that these are criminals and not people who will willingly and happily work for the government. Many of these criminals won’t want to follow orders and listen to Waller, but it’s still a team book so there needs to be some amount of cohesion. So there needs to be a delicate balance between  making these criminals volatile and uncooperative but also efficient team players who do what is required for the story to progress. This issue sets up the main ways that this balance is reinforced. Firstly the explosive bracelets. Yes the bracelets seem a little quaint compared to the bombs in their heads you get now but they carry the same function. It emphasizes how vulnerable these characters are but also acts as a tool to ensure that they do what they are told to. 

The second way this is enforced is through characters like Rick Flag and Bronze Tiger. Characters who while on the Squad are not criminals and can help to reign in the looser units. This is best demonstrated in this great moment where Tiger catches one of Diggers Boomerangs out of the air. It’s a moment that does what a lot of introductory issues should do. It’s a fun little bit on its own but it also tells you a lot about the characters and how they function within the group. (Sidenote: Again I think this balancing act is key to why a lot of modern renditions of the Squad don’t work. They’re criminals. They shouldn’t really get along.) 

The second issue of this story is really a payoff for all the build up of the first issue. Ostrander spent a whole issue taking his time setting up the stakes and characters to make this mission a great read. The issue starts with Nightshade rendezvousing with the team before they breach Jotunheim. Nightshade is an old Charlton character who like the others, wasn’t really used a whole lot before this. Ostrander’s Squad uses a lot of unused Charlton and Ditko characters and Nightshade is easily utilized the best. Her introduction does a great job of establishing her main conflict throughout the run. She feels betrayed because she has had to be undercover with the Jihad and be made an accessory in the attack from issue one. It’s a great introduction to her character and shows that she is more than willing to speak out against orders given to her. You also get Boomer being an absolute sleaze and that’s always fun.

From here the action really begins as Flag outlines the Squad plan of attack before Nightshade teleports everyone in. This bit is just so great. Ostrander does an expert job of outlining exactly how the plan is going to work so any little hiccups come as genuine surprises. It’s set up like a heist movie with each member using their specific skills to fulfil a specific purpose. There’s also a good variety of fights here as well. Deadshot’s showdown with Manticore in the elevator shaft is very different to Flag taking on Rustam. It keeps an almost entirely action focused issue from becoming stale. One of the aforementioned hiccups in the plan is Plastique attempting to betray the team only for another undercover member, Nemesis, to reveal himself and thwart her plans. It’s such a fun little moment that feels like it’s right out of a Mission Impossible movie, masks and all. 

I think what really makes this  issue though are the character moments interspersed throughout the action. You get Deadshot’s devil may care attitude as he toys with Manticore and you see Flags stoic exterior fall aside briefly with Nightshade. These small moments of character are conveyed through only a few lines of dialogue and some well structured panels. Its a real testament to the skills of this creative team. The action sequences are fun and engaging but Ostrander and McDonnell don’t forget that they’re a way to better understand the characters and to push them forward.

These moments are also used to highlight the personalities of the villains of the story. Tiger’s confrontation is used to highlight Ravan. It establishes his obsession with death, value of honour and sets up his rivalry with Tiger throughout the rest of the series. It’s a great fight but it’s also two skilled martial artists displaying their opposing views when Tiger walks away from Ravan without killing him, distancing himself from his past with the League of Assassins. See what I’m saying about great revealing character moments?! Such great stuff. 

We also get what might be my favourite Captain Boomerang moment ever. Boomerang who has been ridiculed and underestimated the entire story takes down a discount speedster with ease in such a fun way. Again this highlights why I love this character. He’s total scum and an absolute idiot but he’s also found a way to make his silly gimmick into something truly deadly. This is a guy who’s fought the Flash more than almost anyone else, of course he’s gonna be able to take out this loser. 

As everything goes awry the Squad make their way to the hangar to escape but not before Mindboggler is killed by Rustam. What’s great about this is that Boomerang could’ve stopped it but chose not to because he’s total slime. Also love how no one buys his story for a second. The Squad meet up and make their escape leaving the Jihad to rebuild and continue the fight another day, and that’s our first story arc. 

It’s a great little first story. It’s got a simple infiltration set piece with compelling villains and a fun setting. It works as a one and done standalone team story, but its also frankly staggering in how it plays into the run as a whole. Seriously there is so much stuff set up in these two issues. Ostrander was operating on a level similar to Hickman’s Marvel work decades before he was a blip on anyone’s radar. This story begins some of the series main themes around death, loyalty and raises significant ethical questions that will plague these characters until the series conclusion. It sets up so many plot threads that will be left dangling for dozens of issues. The death of Mindboggler, Ravan’s defeat, Rustam’s rivalry with Flag and the character of Djinn all come back in significant ways down the road. It’s the best kind of long form plotting, where small details become much larger in ways that you didn’t expect and if you want to see how these details come to the forefront I guess you’ll have to keep reading. See you next time.

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