So, you just finished watching The Suicide Squad and now you feel like checking out some of the comics. Well, you’re in luck. Not only is practically every Suicide Squad comic ever written available on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE, but you’re going to find an enormous hit rate in terms of quality. Issue for issue and series for series, Suicide Squad has remained one of DC’s most consistently exciting and eclectic titles in its library. And how does the book manage to stay so fresh after all these years? It all goes back to the extremely adaptable and versatile formula that creators John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell laid out in their very first volume, Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire. Everyone who’s ever needed to write a Squad story could look to those first eight issues as their bible and come away with a new and interesting story to tell within that milieu. Whether it’s Rob Williams, Tom Taylor or James Gunn, practically every Squad writer has found gold in mining the creators’ original formula. So, let’s take a deeper look at Trial by Fire and see what rules it sets for writing any great and memorable Suicide Squad story.
Go Deep in the Roster
When you’re putting a team-up comic book together, the natural instinct is to try and grab the biggest names you can. From the very beginning, Suicide Squad defies that notion. There are over 20,000 individual characters in the DC Universe bullpen, most of which don’t have “Super” or “Bat” in their name. Why not use them?
With the very premise of Suicide Squad, Ostrander created a system where long forgotten or neglected characters could get a chance to see the sun again. It wasn’t just a chance at redemption for the characters in the story, who were working off their sentences for freedom, but redemption in the public eye as viable characters who had lost their way. Not just third string villains like the Flash’s Captain Boomerang, or Batman’s Deadshot, but also forgotten heroes and anti-heroes, like Bronze Tiger of DC’s ’70s martial arts epics. Or Enchantress, a once minor feature in DC’s Strange Adventures anthology who literally ended up on a team called the “Forgotten Villains” for a while. Or even Nightshade, a recent transplant from an entirely different comic book company in search of new footing.
Today, some of DC’s most celebrated characters can only claim their fame thanks to the rehabilitation granted by Suicide Squad. So, when you see the likes of Polka-Dot Man, Mongal and Javelin in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, that tradition of lovable no-namers is one you can trace all the way back to here.
Explore the World
Historically, DC’s top team has been called the “Justice League of America” for a reason. When the action doesn’t take them into space or another dimension, most of the stories we see in our Prime Earth are set somewhere in the United States. But there’s a whole world filled with heroes, villains and adventure to explore, and one of the best avenues for exploring that world has always been the Suicide Squad.
This first volume takes the team on missions from the fictional Qurac to the very real Moscow, often taking the story into territory where the Justice League dare not tread. The world of DC is far bigger than Gotham City, after all, and the Suicide Squad always provides an ideal opportunity to explore beyond its borders. So, when The Suicide Squad takes us to Corto Maltese, keep in mind that it’s simply the latest of the Squad’s long history of exotic, deadly field trips.
Remember, it’s a TEAM Book
What are the best kinds of allies? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical. The answer is “unlikely allies.” Disparate characters thrown together and forced to cooperate through shared misery and circumstance is always a recipe for interesting character dynamics. And with Belle Reve’s Task Force X program putting inmates together to work toward a common goal, Suicide Squad always keeps that dynamic in play with as many variations as there are possible configurations of the team.
But it’s not just the personality clash that keeps the book interesting, it’s the way Amanda Waller’s hand-picked team’s powers and abilities play off one another, creating beautiful moments of synthesis when taking on enemies like Qurac’s Jihad or the Soviet “People’s Heroes.” The infinite adaptability potential of the team provides room for combinations of tactics and action you’ll never see in any other book. At least, when they’re not clawing at each other’s throats, though that can be just as entertaining. After all, there’s a good reason that Deadshot and Captain Boomerang have been a fixture on the team for so long. Their animosity towards each other is simply too good to miss.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Political
Political intrigue is baked right into the premise of the Suicide Squad, with the team itself functioning as a black ops team for the US government. So, even as the team faces outlandish opposition from Darkseid to Starro, politics never strays far from its core. Early Suicide Squad stories, such as “Trial by Fire,” dealt directly with the tension in the waning days of the Cold War. Other stories would see a parade of US presidents interacting with the controversial Waller, each with their own relationship. Some, like President Obama in the 2016 series, kept Waller on a short leash and over thin ice. Other, more thin-skinned Presidents were favored by the Task Force X director, as she flattered their egos and wrapped them around her fingers.
Every era of the Suicide Squad is filled with political manipulation, exchanging favors and plenty of backstabbing, showing off that the political world can be just as harrowing as a fight with the Female Furies.
Keep It Dark, But Keep It Funny
Somewhere along the line, some people got the impression that to maintain the drama, superhero stories have to take themselves completely seriously, one hundred percent of the time. And true, there is a point to be made that making too much light of a premise does undercut the stakes. But by the same token, if you’re not having any fun with the story then…odds are good that the story won’t be any fun.
“Trial by Fire” shows that Ostrander understood this delicate balance. With high political tension and higher body counts, these early Suicide Squad missions’ import was never understated. But at the same time, they know how to keep it funny. In these first few issues, the frivolous spirit of the Squad in the face of death is kept alive through Captain Boomerang’s cowardliness, Waller’s surprising understated flippance, and really the entire “William Hell” incident of issue #4, which, as a story about a white supremacist vigilante, should not be funny at all, but features such a glorious comeuppance that I can’t help but laugh every time I think about it. There’s a good reason that Harley Quinn’s been such a mainstay on the team for the past decade, after all. A Task Force X without a sense of coal-black humor about themselves is hardly a team at all. Why else would they call themselves the Suicide Squad?
I’ll be honest, the entire original five-year run of Ostrander’s Suicide Squad is absolutely worth reading. The series is filled with action, heart and a keen wit you’ll rarely find in its contemporaries (and yet find quite often in its successors). But, if you’re looking for a great place to start and don’t mind reading comics from a couple generations back, you won’t find a better collection than “Trial by Fire.” It provides all who have come to it with exactly the direction that any Suicide Squad story needs to go. The parameters are clear; the possibilities are endless.
Suicide Squad: Trial by Fire by John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell, Bob Lewis, Karl Kesel and Dave Hunt is now available in an all-new collected edition with cover art featuring the cast of The Suicide Squad! The entire storyline can also be read on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE. Not yet a subscriber? Click here to sign up!
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.