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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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?