Suicide Squad 20

suicide squad 20

Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing Suicide Squad 20, originally released May 8th, 2013.

Shelby: You all know how much I love a good anti-hero. That character that walks the line between good guy and bad, who’s only looking out for himself and will help you out if your ideals  happen to line up with his. He’s got a moral compass, it just doesn’t point north all the time. I love the anti-hero because he is so much more complex than your strictly good/bad guy. Suicide Squad takes the idea of the anti-hero and asks, “what if they were all supervillains forced to be ‘good guys’?” The result is either an interesting look at the dynamics of good and bad or an exercise in masochism, both for the characters and the reader. Honestly, I’m not quite sure which is more accurate.

“But Shelby!” you cry out. “Didn’t you guys absolutely hate Suicide Squad and drop it faster than you can say ‘Amanda Waller should be fatter’?” Correct, but with the new creative team of Ales Kot and Patrick Zircher on pencils, we thought it was only fair to give it another shot. Let it be said the Retcon Punchers are nothing if not fair.

Kot gets things going by reintroducing us to the team, as being observed/analyzed by Waller and a mysterious, classified fellow. The current roster is Deadshot, Harley, Voltaic, The Unknown Soldier, King Shark, David Graves, and Cheetah. Unknown Soldier is described as “Amanda Waller’s Hound,” which is evident when he beats the hell out of Voltaic, claiming there will be discipline. Turns out, Waller is embarking on a “break-and-rebuild” of the team. King Shark is trying to change his stripes, eating vegan and reading The Essential Rumi, but Waller tears him down to the animal he is by sending in a sexy robot to praise him, verbally abuse him, and ultimately electrocute him when he loses it and chomps into her. For Harley, they send in a Joker look-alike, followed up by the Unknown Soldier to “rescue” her and become her new hero to depend on. As for Deadshot, Waller just tells him her plan: she will use them to death to do her dirty work, revive them as many times as needed, and maybe eventually they’ll be able to work off their sentences at Belle Reve. Oh, and the mysterious psych consultant? None other than James Gordon, Jr.  Just an FYI, though, apparently one of the side effects of her magic revival serum is “blood explosion,” so watch out for that.

blood explosion!

I just don’t know about this title. From the three issues I’ve read previously, the quality of the work is much, much better. In this one issue, Kot has given more compelling voices to these characters than I’ve seen in this title yet. They may not quite have the charm they were missing, but they are imbued with a degree of sympathy. King Shark is trying to change his stars, make something of himself besides a deranged, mutant killer. Harley is, well, maybe not trying to improve herself, but she’s existing at a fairly normal level, which is a pretty big step for her. Even Deadshot just wants to be dead and out of it. Kot has managed to make me feel something for these despicable villains, a necessity for me to be able to get anything out of this title. The James Gordon reveal is basically perfect; we all knew he wasn’t going to be actually dead, and if he’s going to show up anywhere, it’s gonna be in Belle Reve in Waller’s grubby hands. Serving as her personal aide to mentally and physically torture other psychopath killers? It’s the role he was born to play.

Zircher’s art is also a huge improvement. This is the first work of his I’ve seen, but it’s got a gritty, noir feel to it that I really like. I love beautiful gore, like the bloodsplosion above, or the panels of Unknown Soldier beating Voltaic to a pulp: it’s all silhouettes and blood splatter and dramatic lighting. But not only can Zircher depict the grossness, he’s got a great handle on the emotional side as well. Look at this extreme close-up of Harley as she is confronted by the “Joker.”

sad harley

That is pure anguish. In this one panel, you know instantly a.) the effect Joker has on Harley, b.) the fact that she knows exactly what effect he has on her, and c.) the fact that she doesn’t want it to happen, even though she knows it will. The pain she is experiencing is palpable; this panel completely took my breath away.

Even with all that, I’m still on the fence about this title. There’s no doubt it’s better than it has been, and that Kot and Zircher already seem very well suited for the grim concept of the book. The big problem I have is:

Amanda.

Fucking.

Waller.

In every book I’ve encountered her in, she seems to exist solely to be a bitch. The question I find myself asking is, despite the quality of this issue, do I really want to read a title that’s just Waller being cruel to this group of people? Her horrific treatment of the Squad just seems so…needless. She’s cruel for the sake of being cruel, like she is in every title she’s in, but since the Suicide Squad is considered “disposable,” she can be extra awful. As much as I enjoy seeing the glimmering of some depth to the members of the team, for me it’s Waller who needs some depth; if Kot can make her out to be more than a hateful, manipulative, ruthless ice queen, I will be very, very impressed. What were your thoughts on this “first” issue, Drew? Do you think James Gordon, Jr. is just the right amount of complexity to enhance Waller’s needless cruelty? Were you as uncomfortable as I was when he asked Waller if he could call her “mother?”

Drew: Well, color me impressed. I believe the question when this came up on our schedule was “why are we covering Suicide Squad?” Sure, I wanted to give the new creative team a fair shot, but I just wasn’t sure I was all that interested in the premise. I don’t even like the team books I’m reading now, so what are the chances that I’d like the one with the worst reputation? (Okay, sure, Team 7‘s cancellation might make it objectively the least popular Waller team book, but I think I can be forgiven for forgetting that title existed). That is to say, I didn’t actually go into this issue with a completely open mind, but it still won me over.

We’ve been recently impressed of the slash-and-burn approach Jeff Lemire took when he took over the similarly floundering Green Arrow, but Kot manages an entirely non-destructive clean break. I don’t know how any of the characters got into the shape they’re in at the start of the issue, but I don’t need to — Kot clearly lays out their motivations organically through Waller and Gordon’s discussion. Importantly, that exposition is paired with Zircher’s smaller character moments, effectively avoiding the “let’s just show two people talking about the characters” introduction we recently saw in Justice League of America 1. It’s a dynamic and efficient way to introduce these characters, but it also allows for some extra wrinkles. Waller talks about the squad with authority, but she’s ultimately not privy to all of their thoughts.

I always love it when a boy I like blows up a dudes head in my face.

Shelby, I totally agree with your complaints about Amanda Waller, but I don’t think she’s going to sink this series. She’s pretty obviously the villain of this title, and it seems like Kot is already preparing for the coming rebellion.

My favorite thing about this issue, though, is the clear sense that Kot gets what makes anti-heroes so fascinating. Admittedly, I didn’t read much of Adam Glass’ run, but I got the sense that his idea of moral ambiguity boiled down to “bad stuff is cool!” This issue, on the other hand, revels in moral ambiguity, making Waller look much more monstrous than even King Shark — who’s a *&^%$#@ shark — and making us sympathize with the likes of Deadshot. That ambiguity creeps into every corner of the book — even the pastoral opening shot.

Birds gotta fly, 'gators gotta eat.

It juxtaposes peace and violence, nature and humanity, freedom and imprisonment without commenting on them. Actually, turning those back on Waller makes me much more interested in her than I’ve ever been. I’ve often been perplexed at her tendency to jump to manipulation and threats, but this series takes that habit to it’s logical conclusion, forcing her to turn to a sociopath in order to maintain her machinations. Gordon’s newfound interest in her may take a while to manifest, but I have no idea how she’s going to get out in front of that one.

Honestly, I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this issue. For all our talk of Kot and Zircher pulling off a brilliant first issue, the biggest feat isn’t thematic unity, characterization, or integration of exposition — it’s that I want to keep reading Suicide Squad. Negative expectations don’t always make for the most impartial readings, but they do make for the most pleasant surprises. Seriously, it’s good.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

35 comments on “Suicide Squad 20

  1. OH MAN I LOVED THIS BOOK. As far as I’m concerned King Shark is back! I think the line about Vegan Reubens indicates how much Mr. Kot gets how these characters can be funny. I’m so thrilled with how he’s handling Harley too. In his interviews, he says he wants to focus on her agency. AWESOME.

    I can’t wait to see how he handles Waller. I’m already liking how she’s being written even if she is still being terrible! Based on his interviews (which are also great reads), I think he’s going to show us a different side to her.

    “Are my vegan reubens ready?” YEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSS!

      • Well, I think it’s safe to say that you can get used to that feeling so long as Kot is on board! I really can’t get over how excited I am about this book. There’s been a lot of takeovers recently and I think this has taken the number one spot. Even over Lemire’s GA. Now THAT’S saying something!

        • Credit where it’s due: Mik was the one who thought this issue would be worth picking up. You totally nailed it, man. I know I wouldn’t have tried it without the suggestion, but I’m glad I did. Good work keeping an eye out!

        • Thanks! I’m glad I made the suggestion. Once I started researching the guy I knew his work would be something we all needed to take a look at.

  2. I loved that they were playing scrabble, and for whatever reason, the dictionary they had to look up words in was in German. That’s so weird and specific. Plus, the scrabble tiles made for some good in-world sound effects and it looks like someone was about to play “goon” which only makes me think of Siri and our Cram Session videos.

    • I really wanted to include that “CRUNK” panel, but I ran out of space. It was such a clever little wink, but didn’t draw attention to itself, or feel out-of-style. I can’t say enough good things about Zircher’s work here.

  3. I’m going to give this a try because of your very favorable review and hope dearly that this is indeed nothing like the original run. I toughed that out until issue 15 and have had to repress the memories since because this book was ruining one of my favorite characters for me (Harley). Here’s hoping!

    • Well, if you are worried about Harley, take a look at this.

      “Nrama: OK, next, how about Harley Quinn? Can you explain Harley’s emotional and mental state now?

      Kot: She’s tired of being perceived as Joker’s ex-girlfriend. I am tired of seeing her under-utilized like that, too. She is so much more — an intelligent, empowered, empathetic and — well, OK, insane — woman who is also highly dangerous and very educated. Is she mentally stable? No. Is she emotionally stable? No. She’s a lunatic. But that is just one part of her, and the other parts have many different qualities […] So Harley might be on her way to some self-actualization.”

      The full interview can found here.

      Here’s another good interview.

      • If Kot is going to make Harley a deeper character, I couldn’t be happier of it. I love when a writer manages to exploit the unexpressed potential of a character.
        For example, I thought that Bane was not interesting and deep enough to be the main villain of a superhero movie, and then I found out that Nolan made him a lot deeper than he is in the comic books, something I thoroughly appreciated.
        Now it seems that Marvel will try to do something similar with Rhino, making him appear in The Amazing Spider-Man movie sequel. If this rumor is proved right, Marvel will have to work very hard to make Rhino work on the screen, because a villain wearing that outfit screams CAMPY.

      • Interesting interview indeed, this little gem here particularly caught my attention however: “a fairly unconventional anarchoterrorist group and their aims and…well, the first rule is that you don’t talk about them, so I should probably stay quiet now” … WHAT? That sounds an awful lot like fight club, which would be pretty damn cool, I wonder if he’s really going there.

    • It is very pointedly not the series you read 15 issues of. Kot does a really nice job of tapping what’s so upsetting about the whole Suicide Squad concept. Certainly worth a second chance.

  4. Wow. Colour me surprised. I guess I’ll pick this up and give it a shot.

    Tell me, how did they handle the James Gordon Jr. reveal? Did they address what happened in Batgirl? Or was he just…there? It seems odd to me that he would make an appearance outside of BG so soon after his “death” in that title.

    • Oh no, it’s definitely addressed. You can even see the evidence of his last battle with her. It does seem a little too soon for me too, but hey, comic book time is always weird. It makes perfect sense in the context of the story and James Jr. is just SO PERFECT in this role. Once you read the last page, all your concerns just melt away.

  5. My opinion lies a little closer to Shelby’s here. I enjoyed it mostly, I know its a huge improvement oveer the previous team (understatement of the year), but I was little turned off by all the unnecessary roughness. Still, at least it serves a purpose. Amanda waller is being set up for a fall, and it does raise interesting questions: Does Amanda have the right to treat anyone this way, even hardened, unrepentant criminals?; did she ever have any control over this team, and if so, is she totally losing it now?; are we the screwed up ones for feeling sorry for a bunch of criminals and murderers? Its interesting stuff, I just don’t know if I can read past the upsetting moments to get to it. Its much, much preferable to Adam Glass’s exploitave sadism, but still, I have a little trouble stomaching it.

    • Right? It’s strange, I recognize the quality of the work, I’m just not moved by it like the rest of the crew was. In fact, it’s good enough that I feel a little guilty for not being more on board.

      • I don’t want to come off like a jerk here, but I think I’d like a little more perspective on this “recognizing it’s good; not totally liking it anyway” thing. Is it just that the subject matter is too rough? I don’t think it’s a matter of expectations lining up with what we got… And I can see where Spencer might not be excited about this series, because he tends not to favor horror stuff (or even the horror-y superhero comics) but Shelby loves that kind of thing.

        I 100% don’t want to put anyone in a position where they have to justify their tastes, but I was really surprised by how vital and scary and funny this issue was. Maybe I just need to get used to the idea that people can say “that’s good, it’s just not for me” and get over it.

        • I guess I’m still not convinced there is enough justification for Amanda Waller’s behavior? Maybe I’m just not seeing her as “villain” enough for her needless psychopathic actions to make sense. Her government authority and the fact that she’s in charge of one of the Justice Leagues still puts her kind of in a good guy position, despite the fact that it’s no where near that clear cut. Or maybe I’m not feeling enough sympathy for these villains yet to really be invested in the concept of a team of villains forced to do good.

          It’s a good issue, I’ll applaud it, I’m just not moved to a standing ovation.

        • “recognizing it’s good; not totally liking it anyway” is a hard emotion to explain; you kinda have to experience it yourself. Unfortunately, a lot of it does just boil down to taste, and I did find this issue a little rough to sit through, but like I said at first, I did enjoy much of this issue.

          I am kind of squeamish, and this edged towards my squeamish a little bit, but the actual depictions of violence and blood weren’t that bad; it was mostly the motives behind it. The suddenness, savageness, and senselessness of Unknown Soldier beating the electric guy (forgot his name) nearly to death was a rough moment to sit through.

          I think a lot of my issues with this book does come down to Amanda Waller. I actually really like your and Drew’s interpretation of Waller as the villain, and I think it’s an interesting direction to take, but I wouldn’t call Waller the villain; I’d call her the “antagonist”, here to keep the “protagonists” from reaching their goals, even if those goals are villainous. The thing is, Amanda’s actions have shot her straight past antagonist, straight past villain, straight up to “super-villain.” This version of Amanda could give Joker a run for his money.

          Amanda’s always been tough to deal with, she’s always been a hardass, and she’s always been capable of doing terrible things, but when she does terrible things, it’s always for the greater good. I don’t see this in Amanda anymore. She’s becoming sadistic. Who was that random Joker cosplayer she had murdered in cold blood to keep Harley in line? What gives her the right to defy life and death with Deadshot? And also, technically, if Deadshot died, then his sentence is served, right?

          And it’s not just that, but her supervillain machinations are so destined for failure that they’re hard to watch, and not just here, but in JLA too. Does she really think keeping Stargirl and the others under perpetual blackmail isn’t going to backfire on her? It’s not a sustainable plan! Does she really think breaking the Squad down like this isn’t going to cause them to push back? Villains don’t take this sort of thing lying down! And allying herself with James Jr.?! She didn’t recruit James into her little squad, she’s flat out working with him in an office, taking his advice and giving him power over the Squad. In what universe is that a good idea?!

          It’s all generically, stupidly evil, just there for the purpose of Waller getting taken down a peg and to make the Squaders look good by comparison. It’s not a bad idea, I like Waller being the antagonist, but there has to be a more subtle, natural, and in-character way to do it.

          Anyway, I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I actually still liked a lot of this issue. I read it in the first place because the interview with the author sounded intriguing and because the preview pages were really well-written. And I figure I’m going to keep checking it out, if only to see what happens to Waller. But I walked away from this issue feeling uncomfortable and a little upset. I think that’s a perfectly valid reaction to get from a book, and it’s probably even intentional on the author’s part, but it does take a little of the joy out of reading the book even if I can really appreciate it on an intellectual level. I can walk away from this book with some observations and questions and with a lot to discuss, but I’ll probably never walk away from it with the pure unbridled joy of reading comics that I get from, say, “The Flash.”

          And there’s certainly room in comics for both kinds of books. So again, despite that whole diatribe, I guess it all boils down to taste.

          Did that help any? I hope it makes sense.

        • I also have a hard time swallowing the fact that she can get away with it. Certainly there are people in positions of power who are more bad than good, but she downright sadistic, and has been since her introduction to the New 52. It’s less about the fact that she’s so terrible and more about the fact that no one has done anything about it. Is everyone else really that dense, or does she actually have that much dirt on everyone else in the DCU that they don’t want to move against her?

        • I get the feeling that not everyone is aware of everything that Waller gets up to at Belle Reve. Officials, and folks like Steve Trevor, obviously know about the Squad, but maybe they don’t know about things like the Samsara Serum and the level of abuse that’s occurring?

        • That helps a lot, actually. My LCS guy is a big Marvel buff, but generally finds DC “too dark.” He can absolutely appreciate the things I like about those books, but they’re just not the kind of stories he wants to read. You obviously don’t mind some darkness, but I could see how this issue could cross a line. It doesn’t bother me, so I’m mostly left with seeing the good stuff.

        • Thank you both for those explanations. One thing that you both touch on is Waller’s motivation – like how on Earth could she possibly value human (shark) life so little? She does straight up cross the line between villainy and supervillainy when she has unknown pop off that faux-Joker for what amount to almost no reason. There is something stomach-churning about the way she treats these characters – not just as expendable, but deserving of her ire and mistreatment. As that’s a hard perspective to motivate convincingly. I wonder if any of it has to do with Waller’s extremely shitty interactions with superheroes all her life? Every time she tries to make something work with those fuckers, it backfires on her. It’s like the David Graves justification, only on a much slower, more frustrating scale.

          I can see where it’s kind of a bummer to see THIS character fill that role. Her hardass-ness meant something before, and it made her a strong character – but it if simplified to a kind of sociopathic mania, the character isn’t as strong. There’s a lot to think about here.

    • Well, I think it says a lot that she’s allied herself with James Jr. to manipulate these people. Drew suggests that she’s the villain of this series, which I feel like is exactly how she needs to be treated. That gives me a reason to cheer for all the poor bad guys that find themselves in a situation that’s WAY unfair. Trying to paint Waller as something more sympathetic muddies the waters of this series. Reading it now, I know what I want: I want Harley and Shark and Deadshot and rest to break free. Reading it before, it was just a nest of bad people being bad.

      • Patrick, I think you’ve hit on something very important. I couldn’t put it into words before, but reading this issue felt a lot like reading Simone’s Secret Six and it’s because in Six, I was rooting for the “bad guys” to the point that when the series ended, and there was a big superhero confrontation, I actually wanted the good guys to lose! Now, it’s just like you said, we want the Squad to break free and the “bad guys” to win!

  6. Well, having now read it, I see where you’re all coming from. I actually enjoyed the issue quite a bit, I wouldn’t call myself convinced that this series is going to be great from now on but I’ll be picking up a few months’ worth to find out. The thing with this issue is that character work has obviously gotten MUCH better, but we don’t get much plot. That’s not a knock on the author, he needed to do this character work and it was well done, but it remains to be seen if the plot will also get better, or if we’ll get more “SS breaks up some bullshit organization, they bicker, they’re reminded of the bombs in their necks, and come back next month because someone will DIE!!!!!!”

    The only thing I didn’t get about this issue is the point of killing Harley’s faux Joker. Obviously reminding her of Joker and all that was very effective in making her vulnerable, but then a) the guy is obviously not gonna kill her and b) she could probably kick his ass six ways from Sunday anyhow, even considering he has a knife, and by the look on Harley’s face and the knife behind her back, it seems making Unknown Soldier Harley’s new go-to guy didn’t really work, I don’t know if this is intentional on the author’s part but James Jr.’s assessment here seems wrong.

    Anyhow, the fact that we’ve all written so much about a SS issue with no one spewing 3 paragraphs of how awful it was and how it’s ruining every involved character (except maybe Waller, but I didn’t know her pre-52 so she’s a blank slate to me) shows that this is a step in the right direction; let’s hope it keeps going that way.

    • I think James Jr. must be misreading Harley, and that’s deliberate on Kot’s part. He calls Harley’s visible reaction (“My hero”) predictable, but there’s no narration on the knife panel, which says to me he doesn’t “see” it and understands Harley less than he thinks he does.

      • Yup, that’s totally my read on it too. I’ve been saying that James Jr. is a good candidate for Joker 2.0 — if we are to believe that Mr. J. plummeted to his death at the end of Death of the Family. It would be an interesting additional parallel if he finds Harley Quinn to be this elusive, sexy mystery that he can’t untangle.

        But I also think that Harley’s the single most compelling character in this line-up so she’s got to be the one person that our uber-manipulative assholes can’t control.

        • Nothing constructive to add, just wanted to +1 your sentiment about Harley. She was the only reason I’d picked up this series originally and the potential to see her done well is what’s brought me back now. They better not fuck up again though!

  7. I read this review. I thought to myself, “Suicide Squad is good? Can they ALL be wrong?” I knew nothing about SS except paging through issue one way back at the start of the New 52 (I don’t remember it except I was more interested in JL titles at the time) and a tie in at the store (I thought it sucked on the level Catwoman sucked).

    Then, this week my comic guy seemed slightly alarmed when I only bought six comics (how will he feed his family?) and said, “Greg, you know, you might like the new Suicide Squad.” Pete rarely steers me wrong, you guys at least have well thought out opinions (even though our tastes are very, very different), so I bought it.

    I’ll buy #21, too. I was surprised by this comic, which doesn’t happen all the time. Actually, I was surprised multiple times. Why is the Unknown Solider over the top violent? He literally killed the Joker stand-in and maybe killed Voltaic. Once he just reacted badly (although Voltaic was kind of a dick) and once he actually disobeyed orders. I only knew him through backups in the ill-fated GI Combat book but I didn’t expect this level of barbarism.

    I also have not liked any appearance of Waller in the New 52 (as someone who had never heard of her before). Reading your comments, is she supposed to be a good guy? She’s more of a psychopath than Gordon (who I just read about in The Black Mirror and holy cow is that good) or Harley (who I also don’t know at all other than as a booby Joker). Actually, having read the first two issues of Uber, she would fit right in over there.

    I liked King Shark. Another character I don’t know but felt sorry for.

    It’s a bit gratuitous towards the violence for my taste (I don’t need to see 4 panels of a man being bludgeoned to death during a scrabble game), but I am interested in the characters and what happens next, and if nothing else, Ales Kot does a good interview, so I’m on board. DC cancels a couple of my favorites (Demon Knights and Dial H), so I reward them by picking up what has been a dismal book. So much for cutting the pull list and focusing on independents.

    Your blog has influence! Your words are causing more people to buy more comics! Way to go!

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