Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth

I previously talked at far too great length about Suicide Squad #1, the fist issue of the new, New 52 version of the title, and the redesigns of the various characters starring in it. But, having read that first issue and encountered all of those redesigns within a trade paperback collection of the first seven issues of the series, I kind of wanted to review the entire book at some point as well, and not just that first, terrible issue and all of those mostly terrible costumes. (If I suffered through the reading of those next six issues after suffering through that first one, I might at least get a blog post out of the experience, after all).

The series does improve after that first issue—how could it not, with that first issue being little more than 20 pages of torture scenes of unfamiliar characters, with a "twist" ending either lifted from or in homage to a scene from V For Vendetta? (An appropriation overshadowed by the radical redesign of Amanda Waller it presented.) But it never gets what one might call "good." The art does improve for a little while near the end of the volume, where the pages got easier to read and the characters looked okay for a while, but it was all still rather unimaginative, dreary, dull and juvenile.

Beyond the problems with the skills of the various creators, and the apparently too-short lead time that meant there were far too many artists with far too different styles working on far too short deadlines—there are six artists drawing these seven issues, four of whom provide pencils, sometimes two an issue—I think there are two essential flaws in the books conception.

The first is simply a problem with "The New 52" in general, as Suicide Squad worked best when it was part of a long-lived, shared universe superhero setting, where various minor name villains could be reclaimed, repurposed and given new life. The rebooted universe didn't really allow for anything in the way of history—readers were supposed to be meeting all of these characters for the first time, and they were duly tweaked in personality and appearance to reinforce that—and whatever history the characters did have, with one another or with various heroes in the DC Universe, was known only to the DC editors and whoever was writing the characters and making that history up for the first time. Suicide Squad, at least in its most popular version, was rather dependent on pre-existing, somewhat well-known (or at least recognized) characters given a new lease on life in their universe, exploring a darker, behind-the-scenes, shadowy side of the bright and shiny superhero universe. These characters though, this concept, was, if not brand new, then meant to be read as brand new.

There was therefore an uncomfortable tension in its conception, as the book asked readers to recognize and root for Deadshot and Harley Quinn and King Shark, even while changing their looks, their personalities and their histories, while also asking readers to meet them all for the first time.

That previous version of Suicide Squad, the one that first appeared in Legends and then starred in a now-storied 1987-1992 run, came out of an intra-company crossover event, and its longest-lived, most-popular characters were Captain Boomerang, a goofy Silver Age Flash villain played as straight as hardened criminal, and minor Batman villain Deadshot, whose pre-Suicide Squad past was briefly discussed in the previous post on the New 52 Suicide Squad. A sort of Dirty Dozen of the then decades-old DCU, the book was populated with minor villains that could come and go suddenly (a trait the new book keeps in tact, even if the characters going are generally brand-new ones to all readers), and unusually devoted to playing in the DCU sandbox.

Just scan the cover gallery, and you'll see that in addition to the initial grab-bag line-up—the aforementioned Batman and Flash villains, Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter supporting character Bronze Tiger, a minor magical character from a 1960 short by Bob Haney and Howard Purcell—adventures included Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters, Batman, the "funny" Justice League of the time, Soviet state super-villains, a Middle Eastern super-terrorist cell, Steve Ditko's bizarre Shade, The Changing Man character and so on.

The new, New 52 Suicide Squad, by contrast, appeared the same month as the rest of its universe, so its characters had the same amount of history as every other character in the brand-new universe (none) and the setting was still being established. Rather than calling on a deep history, then, the closest the book could come was demonstrating ways in which the old history has been changed, some of it quite random (King Shark now looks like a different kind of shark then he looked like before, Deadshot doesn't have a mustache) and some of it more than a little problematic (Amanda Waller is young, shapely and scantily-clad instead of a middle-aged, wall-shaped woman; Harley Quinn is a scantily-clad, sexually-extroverted female Joker rather than the cartoon character with a slight edge and a Catwoman-like not-so-bad-for-a-villain morality; etc).

If the characters were reintroduced with enough in the way of character traits or even tics to be interesting in their own right, this wouldn't really be a problem, but none of them really develop beyond the sort of one-sentence character descriptions that were no doubt on writer Adam Glasses proposal: Deadshot is a stone-cold killer and natural leader, King Shark is a shark-guy who acts shark-like, El Diablo and Black Spider are trying to do the right thing and so on.

The other fundamental problem is another uncomfortable tension, between the book's apparent need to remain at least nominally all-ages and Glass' desire to write a book for adults with R-rated content, the confused result being a sort of poorly-executed, half-assed PG-13 comic, where that tension is made visible and impossible-to-ignore (The book, for what it's worth, is rated "T+" which, once again, means "Appropriate for readers age 16 and older. May contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes"; an "M" rating, which allows for nudity and "intense violence" might be better-suited, but DC only uses a mature rating for their Vertigo imprint publications).

The best example is probably the weird sex scene from the third issue, which involved a "joke" so weird that I don't get it, even after reading it in context (as opposed to reading Chris Sims discuss it on ComicsAlliance months ago; my reading is that Deadshot has at least 2-5 penises):
(Note: While I'm not the best scanner in the world, the tilting of the image above isn't me; that's how it appeared in the trade. It was a deliberate style choice of the artist's)

So in the third issue of the series, while the team is on the run and trying to hide out, they split up and adopt street clothes "disguises" (Harley Quinn naturally finds a costume that covers even less of her body, revealing more of her chemically bleached white skin). Deadshot (that's what Deadshot looks like in The New 52) is in the bathroom in his underwear, and Harley walks in and says "Didn't peg you as a tightie whitie guy," despite the fact that his underwear are clearly colored black, the opposite color of white (This is typical of the care with which the comic is made).

When she comes on to him, Deadshot says "I don't do clowns," this situation—clowns coming on to him—apparently being one that's happened to him so often he has developed a policy about it. Harley kisses him anyway, and then we get the above page, of them making out for four panels, which amounts to about thirty seconds or so of comics time (based on their dialogue, anyway).

They break their kiss in the very next panel, and see that Harley's top was open and her super-tight jean shorts are unbuttoned and partially un-zipped. Visually, it looks like they kissed for about half a minute, Deadshot pulled open her top and Harley unzipped her shorts and then the phone rang.

Later, however, the dialogue says they had sex (that, or Deadshot prematurely ejaculated in his underwear from the kissing and several seconds of dry-humping, I guess).

"Let me make something clear," Deadshot tells her after she slaps his ass and calls him "Puddin," her pet name for The Joker, "Whatever happened back there is done. Got my rocks off. That's all."

So basic failure to meet the baseline, first purpose of comics—to convey information with words and art, with the words and art giving different, contradictory information. The reason isn't just that the writer and artists aren't doing a very good job and/or aren't on the same page, however, but apparently because while Glass wants to write a sex scene, he's not allowed to show nudity, or even imply nudity (like, with long shots or shadowy figures) and no one thought that maybe they could just pan out to an exterior shot and then return to an image of the pair getting dressed in front of an unmade bed or something.

That's my general diagnosis, anyway. There are certainly lots of little problems.

While there are a half-dozen artists, Federico Dallocchio seems to do most of the drawing (I say, without counting pages to be certain). He works in a realistic, photo-referenced style that I'm not a fan of, and I don't think works particularly well for superheroes with fantastical powers, and is probably ill-suited for a comic book in which one of the main characters is a giant shark man.

Cliff Richards, an artist with an awful lot of range, works in a style similar to Dallocchio, although his images look a little more natural and less referenced.

They're not the only two artists, though. The first and second issues have (at least) two artists apiece, with Ransom Getty and/or Scott Hanna (the credits in the trade don't make it clear if Hanna is inking Getty or penciling and inking his own pages in addition to those penciled and inked by the other two) helping finish the first issue and Andrei Bressan helping out on the second. In either case, both artists have more highly-illustrative, more comic book-y styles than Dallocchio or Richards, so the "realism" of the book's artwork fades in and out, increases and decreases, as if someone were adjusting it with a knob, and they were turning that knob fast and hard and suddenly.
I think the book looks best in the sixth and seventh issues, #6 by Clayton Henry (inked by himself and Hanna) and then #7 by Henry and Ig Guara (both inked by Hanna), as it finally looks like drawn-by-hand, honest-to-God comic book art for more than half an issue, and the character designs finally seemed to have settled down.

That made for one of the more frustrating aspects of the book's poor artwork, as these are, remember, brand-new (versions) of characters we're either meeting for the first time or pretending we're meeting for the first time, and their visual identities take scores of pages to settle into something semi-consistent. It's not like these guys are Superman or Batman, with their initials or symbols on their chests to make 'em easy to spot in a crowd.

Deadshot and Black Spider both wear full face-masks with little eyeball lenses on 'em. Savant and mercenary assassin Mad Dog both wear metallic hockey masks. Everyone has lots of straps and pouches. The most readily identifiable characters are Harley Quinn, who is a woman and has a striking color scheme, and King Shark, who is a shark-man. Although, it should be noted, his size and shape are in near-constant flux. Sometimes he has a hulking, comic book monster physique, sometimes he just looks like a tall shirtless man with a funny head photoshopped on. Sometimes he looks like a hammerhead, sometimes like a generic, drawn-from-memory shark with googly eye-stalks.

As I said, the Henry issues are the strongest, as by that point King Shark looks like a monstrous shark man with the head of a hammerhead shark, the action is crisp and clear and Glass gives the artists weird imagery of note to draw, like a gang of physically deformed or vastly different-looking men cross-dressed as Harley Quinn, for example.

Let's talk plot.

The first issue I've already discussed at length. A half-dozen villains—Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark, Black Spider, El Diablo and Voltiac—are tortured until they confess who they work for. When they all refuse to break, it's revealed the people they work for were the ones torturing them, as a test, and they are rewarded with the opportunity to go on insane suicide missions.

The first is a rather tasteless reference to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. It's a story entitled "When The Levee Breaks," and our heroes protagonists are tasked with assaulting a stadium full of people awaiting help from the federal government—here the disaster isn't a flood, however, but a techno-zombie virus that turns the people into cyborg zombies. There are 60,000 of them. The Squad kills all of them.

They are attacked by a guy named Mad Dog, who looks like Savant, except for a target icon on his chest, which is actually a necklace, which I only know because later the dialog refers to it as such, even though it's not drawn like a necklace.

They adopt civilian disguises and that sex scene happens.

When Amanda Waller and her troops go to retrieve their agents, they immediately give them a new assignment, and two new recruits: A new character named Yo-Yo (whose size can change from supernaturally skinny to enormously obese; she doesn't grow tiny and gigantic like Marvel's Giant-Man or anything) and Captain Boomerang, which is presented as kind of a big deal—Boomerang and Deadshot together again!—but since this is the first time they've been in the same comic book together in the New 52, it doesn't really have any impact (similar to New 52 book Justice League International, there's an implied history between the characters that is apparently somewhat similar to that of their old DCU history, but only the characters seem to know it, and readers are out of the loop).

Captain Boomerang's look hasn't been changed at all from that of his post-Blackest Night look, and, oddly enough, he even has his super-power of being able to generate black energy exploding boomerangs (although he also apparently used to use plain old boomerangs as well...?). At any rate, he's introduced and gone before the end of this single mission, which involves capturing some scientist from a Hydra/Kobra-like cult called Basilisk, where the foot soldiers dress like what guys dress like in Halo videogames, I imagine (I've just seen some box art and comic book adaptation covers though).

Then they get back to Belle Reeve, for the first time in the book, and Harley Quinn escapes, triggering a huge prison riot in the process, which means the surviving Squad members must fight a prison full of super-villains, but these are all generic, no-name supervillains, as, again, the universe is brand-new and doesn't have name villains to spare yet.

Then the team, including new recruits Savant and new characters Lime and Light (ditzy identical young women in scanty green costumes with some sort of ill-defined light powers) hunt Harley back to Gotham, where she's gone to recover The Joker's face, which was flayed off in Detective Comics #1, and which the Gotham City Police Department is keeping in a sort of glass case. It's so well-preserved that at the book's climax, Harley takes it out of the case and lays it over a tied-up Deadshot's face so she can talk to it/him as if they were The Joker. She even makes out with him through it.

Then Deadshot shoots her in the stomach. The end.

During these last two issues, which comprise the story arc "The Hunt for Harley Quinn," we get Glass' new origin for Harley, which is for the most part a cover version of her original origin story by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in the excellent Mad Love one-shot (and which was the basis for Dini and Yvel Guichett's later introduction of her to the DCU proper, in 1999's Batman: Harley Quinn).

Here she's still a psychologist with an unlikely name who works at Arkham, takes an interest in the incarcerated Joker, falls under his spell and becomes his partner in crime. Here The Joker tosses her in a vat of chemicals—the same vat that he fell into and made him The Joker—but instead of simply getting some bouncy, low-level gymnastic super-powers, she emerges with her skin bleached white like the Joker's and her hair dyed—but not green like his, but half black and half red. Not sure how the science of that vat of chemicals works exactly then (Also? No frozen grin). Oh, and when she emerges, her shirt and skirt and burned to shreds, so you can see her bra and panties better when she dives on top of The Joker to totally do him.

Those are some pretty substantial differences, really, but given the overhaul the characters, concept and universe got around it, it's not really a drastic change, and certainly not as troubling as, say, Waller's physical transformation or Harley's hyper-sexualized behavior (as compared to her DCU version, anyway). And with so many problems in the book, from the fundamental, existential tensions from DC's inability to find one or two good artists to draw the book on time and an editor capable of keeping the creative team on the same page and the colorist coloring things the right color, it's nothing approaching a problem.

The title certainly had potential. The Harley Quinn character works best as a foil or hench-person in groups, and her inclusion offered a newer, fresher hook to the Suicide Squad premise, which DC hasn't been able to keep going for long since the Ostrander version ended in 1992 (even having Ostrander come back to write the same characters never really went anywhere). Harly is, after all, a character who a generation of readers (or potential readers) would have grown up seeing in Batman cartoons and, as young adults, seen in those very popular Arkham video games.

This core line-up of characters, some less-terrible re-designs (or the old costumes), a better writer, having Clayton Henry and Ig Guara on board from the start and the old continuity (Marvel Now vs. New 52 cetainly illustrates its the creative approach to new reader-friendliness that matters, not the continuity itself)...? Suicide Squad might have been a readable, maybe even good book. This? This is not a good book.

I do like the logo, though.

There, that's one nice thing I said!


Akilles said...

This is still an ongoing.

Which begs the question: Did it get better, or is this bought by persons who understand what quality is supposed to be?

SallyP said...

I gave this book a shot. One shot, and gave up in total disgust.

You can't have Deadshot without his 'stache. It just doesn't work. Oh, and all that other unpleasant stuff.

colton said...

Some good news is that a new creative team came on last issue and the book is good now. The characters are now better characterized and drawn better now that Patrick Zircher is the new permanent artist. Also Harley Quinn wears actual pants instead of those short shorts.

d said...

Is that the same Adam Glass from "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me"?

David said...

Believe it or not, it actually gets worse before it gets better. In between the first trade and last month's new team of Ales Kot and Patrick Zircher, the art gets uglier, the plot gets stupider and the characters get even less interesting. That said, the first issue with Kot was quite good - I suggest skipping 8-18 or whatever, and starting fresh with Kot's run.