Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Let's talk at far too great length about Suicide Squad #1 (2011), and what its characters look like

Have you read Suicide Squad #1, the first issue of the 2011, New 52 relaunch of the DC series about a group of villains press-ganged by the United States government's "Task Force X" into being a force for good?

It was the publisher's first attempt at a new volume of the title since the quickly-canceled 2001 attempt to revive the enormously popular, and fondly remembered, original 1987-1992 series (The concept was last resurrected during Gail Simone and J. Calafiore's run on Secret Six, which I recently read and thus wanted to check out what DC did next with those characters).

Writer Adam Glass, whose background is in television writing and production, was responsible for the script of Suicide Squad #1, while pencil artists Federico Dallocchio and Ransom Getty drew different sections of it, and Dallocchio, Getty and Scott Hanna are credited with inking the issue.

If you haven't read it, I am going to describe the entirety of the 20-page story to you.

A brown-haired man with a strange metal mask, identified in dialogue as a sniper named Deadshot, is laying on his back and screaming, while another man wearing The Scarecrow mask from Batman Begins is holding a blowtorch to a metal bin containing a pair of live rats against Deadshot's naked flesh: The bin heats up, the rats eat Deadshot's flesh.

The second and third pages are a double-page splash, in which the narrating Deadshot tells readers he's a member of Suicide Squad and we see he and six other people in various costumes being tortured, all within a few feet of one another, by men in Scarecrow masks. The Scarecrows are trying to torture the name of whoever sent the Suicide Squad, and Deadhsot is trying to resist. Deadshot flashes back to what landed him in prison, an aborted assassination attempt thwarted by Batman.

A bald, heavily tattooed man named Chato or El Diablo has salt poured on his wounds, is thrown to the floor, and kicked into unconsciousness; he flashes back to the time when he used his fire powers to burn down the house of rival gang bangers, only to find to his dismay that "The bangers had family there. Shorties. Babies."

A white skinned-woman wearing all red-and-black, identified as Harley Quinn, hangs from shackles presumably attached to the ceiling, and calls the Scarecrows out on their attire: "Scarecrow called. He wants his laundry back." Her torturer clamps jumper cables to her cheeks; she flashes back to the time Black Canary arrested her; she was in the middle of dancing with a dead lawyer, one of those involved with prosecuting The Joker.

A character stripped to his underwear laying on the floor and covered in water is referred to as "Voltiac." He only gets the one panel. No flashback origin for him.

A character who looks human save for a half-great white, half-hammerhead shark head is chained beneath a heat lamp. The torturers identify him as King Shark and, when they suspect he might be dead, they get close enough for King Shark to bite off ones arm, at which he laughs, "Ha Ha! Meat! Meat! Meat!"

A blond man wearing a hockey mask and covered in bugs as various as ants, wasps, a scorpion, a praying mantis and a butterfly finally cracks: He tells his torturers about Task Force X, AKA Suicide Squad, how they are all deadly criminals with micro bombs injected into their necks who run secret operations for their masters. Their first mission was a trap, and when they woke up, they were being tortured by these guys.

A torturer thanks Savant, and then drags him off into the dark, where he screams for help until he's cut off mid-shriek, apparently killed.

The torturees are all knocked unconscious again, and awoken with bags on their heads. With guns to their heads, they are once again asked to give up their bosses, and they all refuse to comply. At that point, they are congratulated and told that of 37 candidates, they are the only six that never broke. This has all been a test, conducted by Amanda Waller, who is shown in the second to last panel clutching one of the Scarecrow bag masks; apparently, she not only ordered the torture of 37 recruits, including the seven we watched get tortured, she was doing some of that torturing herself.

In the very last panel, the six members of Suicide Squad are dropped out of an airplane bound in chairs, and told "Your mission is to wipe out the entire stadium. Sixty thousand people. You have six hours."

That is a probably overly detailed summary. Here's another stab at a description of the contents of this issue: The title characters are brutally tortured for 18 pages, the scene interrupted only by flashbacks showing mostly horrible crimes they have committed, before a climactic reveal in which readers learn that the torturers were agents of United States government testing the mettle of their new recruits, and the team is given its first assignment: Kill 60,000 people.

This was the first issue of a new series purportedly geared toward new readers, featuring pre-existing characters rebooted, redesigned and re-characterized so that even though some of them have been around for decades, this was being treated as their very first appearances ever.

For the life of me I can't imagine who read this issue, found the premise intriguing (or, for that matter, the writing or sloppy, inconsistent, badly muddled artwork appealing) and decided they wanted to read another 20 pages of it next month (Actually, I imagine pre-existing fans of the characters and/or concept might have stuck around out of curiosity, but then, they weren't the target audience, were they?).

I made it five pages into the second issue (I was reading that first issue in Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth, borrowed from a library out of curiosity to see what happened to Deadshot and King Shark after the conclusion of Secret Six at the end of the "old" DC Universe) before I couldn't take anymore. The fact that the title of that second issue—"When The Levee Breaks"—and the setting of a stadium full of civilians awaiting a government rescue so deliberately called to mind the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina didn't help much.

I set it down to wait until I finished all these other library-borrowed trades I've been working my way through (By the way, the second issue has a third pencil artist; so DC had to employ three different pencil artists within the first 30 pages of a brand-new series; they are all varying degrees of bad, and none of them have a similar enough style to mask the hodge-podge, deadline-daring production schedule their work was produced on).

Before I go any further with the book, I wanted to stop and take note of the design aspects of it. As with most of The New 52 designs (Or should I say "all"...? Did any character get a better costume in the New 52 then the one they wore prior to the last issue of Flashpoint...?), the designs are horrible. Extremely busy, ugly, indistinct and full of changes made simply at random; this book suffers a little more than most in the rather negative things two of its redesigns have to say about women and the publisher's valuation of them.

I assume the credit/blame for these particular redesigns belongs to Jim Lee; there are four design sketches in the back of the trade—Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Black Spider and King Shark—and all of those are by Lee.

Let's look at the looks of the Suicide Squad characters one-by-one, shall we?

Deadshot, AKA Floyd Lawton, began as a minor Batman villain way back in 1950's Batman #59. He was created by Bob Kane, David Vern Reed and Lew Schwartz and, as you can see, he was originally a fairly generic gunslinger-looking character, perhaps dandier in dress than your average cowboy, with a smart mustache and a domino mask (I'll direct you to this post by Gavok on 4thletter! for more on Deadshot's first appearance; that's the post I swiped the above image from).

The character came into much greater prominence in the 1980s, when his original story is somewhat rewritten, and he is fairly completely redesigned, given a red costume, a metallic face-mask with a monocle-like red scope over where his right eye, a fate-tempting target icon on his chest and little wrist-mounted machine guns.
That's what he'd wear for most of his career, which included membership in just about every incarnation of the Suicide Squad and the version of The Secret Six that emerged in the run-up to Infinite Crisis.

While he mostly appeared in Suicide Squad and Secret Six, Deadshot earned his own miniseries on a couple of occassions. In a 2005 series, he got a new costume:
It was essentially a more stripped-down, realistic version of his most popular costume, although he would abandon it shortly after the change.

Whatever mask he wore, Deadshot always rocked a mustache beneath it.
In The New 52, Deadshot still wears a red costume with yellow and metal flourishes, and he still wears a metallic mask that covers his whole head, a red scoping-mechanism over his right eye. Like most of his New 52 designs, however, Lee's Deadshot's costume looks more like something from a Hollywood costume department than the pencil of a comics artist, bristling with unnecessary detail and too many little lines.
Whether it was Lee's intention, or just a quirk of the (too) many different artists drawing the new Deadshot costume, all of the little lines on the red bodysuit sometimes give Deadshot the look of a flayed man, the red suit suggesting the musculature of the human body (Personally, he reminds me of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers heavy Lord Zedd).

Even more striking, however, may be what Lawton looks like under his mask.
Not only is his hair now a light brown rather than black, but he doesn't have a mustache!

Lee re-desgined away the most significant visual identifier of Floyd Lawton. That would be like, I don't know, taking away Green Arrow's goatee. (Oh. Yeah.)

Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the early '90s Batman: The Animated Series television show, the character quickly evolved from a minor role as The Joker's moll into a strong and compelling character in her own right, eventually jumping into the DC Universe proper with the 1999 Batman: Harley Quinn special. From there, she even owned her own 38-issue ongoing series from 2000-2004 (Which, it's perhaps worth noting, outlived the 1975 Joker monthly series by 29 issues).

In both her comics and cartoon appearances, the character has been pretty consistent in her depiction, wearing the same red and black harlequin jester costume she wore in her first cartoon appearance (with some minor tweaks here and there).

She got an awfully dramatic redesign for this series:
She's stripped off the jester's costume and replaced it with hot-pants and a half-laced bustier in the same color scheme. Her hair is now half red and half black, worn in pigtails to suggest the jester's hat she used to wear. Rather than a domino mask, she now has eye make-up applied raccoon style.

It's much closer in style to her look in the two Batman: Arkham video games, and, paired with the Batman redesign, is probably the most evocative clue as to what audience The Jim Lee redesigns of The New 52 were focused on attracting: The folks buying and playing Batman: Arkham Asylum and ...City.
It's probably worth noting that the New 52 Harley Quinn has a much skimpier costume than either of the videogame Harleys, and even the Ame-Comi statue Harley Quinn.

I don't really care for it, particularly as it appears throughout the interiors first half-dozen issues of Suicide Squad, but it doesn't looks too bad as drawn by Ryan Benjamin, who provided the covers for the first two issues of the series (see the top of the post for #1). I suppose it's in keeping with Glass's characterization of the character in the early issues of the series: Harley Quinn, but much, much sluttier.

Created by writer/artist Karl Kesel during his run on the post-Reign of the Supermen Superboy series starring the teenaged clone of Superman, King Shark was a humanoid shark/killer who used his mouth more for biting than talking. His exact origins were mysterious, with some believing him to be the son of a mythological shark god.

He originally wore a rather old-school supervillain outfit, and looked as human as he was shark, save for the gigantic fin sticking out of his back.

He received his first major visual revamp in Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice Aquaman-less Aquaman series, 2006's Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis series, in which a new Aquaman character partnered with King Shark for a series of undersea fantasy adventures.
Guice's King Shark looked much more shark-like, from the neck up at least, and shed his spandex in favor of a seaweed hula skirt (reflective of his Hawaiian origins, I suppose) and jewelry. Rather than an almost mindless eating machine, he was now pretty eloquent, and explained the gap in intelligence by saying his ability to reason and speak was dependent on how wet he was (Sword of Atlantis was set almost entirely underwater).
When he eventually reappeared in the Gail Simone-written Secret Six series, which he'd eventually join as one of the ensemble cast, she split the difference between the two takes: Now he could talk and think, but he wasn't all that bright, and mostly talked about eating and being a shark. They played the character mostly for laughs, and he apparently left the skirt underwater and went back to spandex.

For Suicide Squad, Lee decided to change Shark's species from a fairly generic, pointy-nosed shark or gray shark or great white shark to a hammerhead. Sort of.
He looks more like a gray shark or great white with eyestalks similar to that of a hammerhead. It's a weird and random change, and one that the series' many artists seemed to struggle with nailing down, as the shape of the character's head and face and his size vary from page to page and artist to artist (Of course, the same goes for all the characters in the first few issues of this series).

In terms of his wardrobe, King Shark now wears a loincloth, native-looking gauntlets and, depending on the artist, a necklace of shark teeth, which are sometimes miscolored gray, so they look like a beard of pointy things.

This is the redesign that perplexes me the most, as it seems to consist of change for change's sake. I'm not sure why one would want to use the pre-existing King Shark character, only to render him as a completely new character. Why not just create a new character with a head like a hammerhead shark?)

The character is basically the same from Secret Six, behaving rather similarly but not for laughs, and he hasn't been given any history to define him within the first collection of the series.

By the way, this movie sucks.

Gerry Conway and Ernie Chan created The Black Spider for a 1976 Batman story in Detective Comics (Black Spider didn't wear black, but was a black guy, and thus went with the Every Black Super-Person Must Have A Codename Beginning With The Word "Black" naming convention of the time). He was essentially a twisted-mirror version of Batman, a man motivated by personal trauma to put on a costume and fight crime, although he fought it a bit more lethally (killing his opponents) and he was focused on the illegal drug trade exclusively. Adam Grant and Norm Breyfogle killed him off in a rather moving issue of Batman: The Shadow of The Bat.

He reappeared in Identity Crisis though, which you may recall was written by Brad Meltzer, who didn't bother consulting Wikipedia to see which characters were alive or dead or what was in or out of continuity when he wrote that, and the series was apparently completely un-edited. The Needham Black Spider thus reappeared here and there in minor, mostly cameo roles after IC.

As you can see from the image above, the Black Spider's original costume was sorta Spider-Mannish; sort of a Spider-Man cblended with The Tarantula's costumes.
A second Black Spider, a hitman, was created by my second favorite Batman creative team of Doug Moench and Kelley Jones during their run on Batman in the mid-nineties. This Black Spider's costume was a little closer to what one might expect a person named "Black Spider" to wear. His costume was black, with goggle-like Spider-Man eyes over a skin-tight full body suit. It basically looked like Spider-Man's black costume with all of the white highlights stripped from it. The only spider element is a big spider icon across the face. Which, isn't black, but red.

He too died, and had a villainous successor, but the costume remained the same.
For Suicide Squad, DC apparently went with a new version of the original Black Spider, a vigilante who kills his prey, and is alternately regarded as a villain or a hero, depending on who you ask.

His costume is now black and purple (Lee's sketch, included in the back of the book, has him in red, however)
His mask has lost all resemblance to that of Spider-Man's, and it now has a handful of green lenses where the eyes would be, giving it a vaguely arachnid-like look. He fights with some ninja-looking sickle-things, and is repeatedly referred to as a ninja.

Okay, there are alot of El Diablos (or Los Diablos, maybe), each of which has a pretty different design. The original was Robert Kanigher and Gray Morrow's cowboy character Lazarus Lane. He was a colorful vigilante, who was retroactively given a supernatural origin, making him akin to Marvel's Ghost Rider character (spirit of vengeance bonded to a guy who rides around on things).
Gerard Jones and Mike Parobeck created a modern version during a short-lived 1989-1990 series. He was named Rafael Sandoval and fought crime around his Western town, eventually serving with the Jones-written version of the Justice League of America that immediately preceded the Morrison/Porter/Dell JLA.
In 2008, DC introduced a third El Diablo, in a miniseries written by Jai Nitz and drawn by Phil Hester and Ande Parks. This El Diablo was Chato Santana, a Hispanic criminal who meets a comatose Lazarus Lane in a hospital he's being treated at. During that meeting, the demon of vengeance that inhabited Lane is passed to Santanna. This latest El Diablo had fire-based powers and was designed to resemble a Mexican, Day of The Dead-like skeleton.
This is the version that appears in Suicide Squad, and he's probably the least redesigned of all the characters. Primary Squad artist Dallocchio's style is so realistic in comparison to Hester's though, he seems like an entirely different character: Essentially, he's just a bald, shirtless guy with tattoos that come and go, depending on what he and fire get up to together.

Created as a villain by Gail Simone and Ed Benes for their Birds of Prey series in the early 00s, Savant was a genius-level planner and fighter who considered a career in superheroics, took a detour into blackmail and, after butting heads with Oracle and the Birds, became an ally of theirs.

His design was costume-free, and he seemingly dressed off-the-rack. Benes gave him the same body-builder physique he gives all his male characters (although Savant's habit of dressing in long coats instead of spandex meant we didn't see his muscles and veins as prominently as the spandex-wearing heroes of Benes' JLoA run), and long, blond hair.
His role in the first issue of Suicide Squad is small (Spoiler: He was just faking; he returns in issue #6 as part of the team), but he was redesigned with a costume that resembles almost exactly that of the re-designed Mad Dog, and a body-armor and mask costume that isn't too dissimilar from that of Black Spider and Deadshot.

The most dramatic change was that of Amanda "The Wall" Waller, a character who first appeared in John Ostrander, John Byrne and Len Wein's 1986 Legends miniseries before her prominent role in the original Suicide Squad. A tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners bureaucrat and administrator, she generally functions as the boss of the Squad, and her exact role or portrayal tends to slide along a scale between villain and good guy, the needle most regularly stopping as anti-hero. Or, like the rest of the Squad, a bad person fighting worse people.

She has no superpowers or no costume, but even more unusually for a character in a superhero comic, she was short and full-figured, usually drawn somewhere between zaftig and obese, depending on the artist.

So of course, her first appearance in the New 52 turned some heads, arched some eyebrows and raised some blood pressure:
(Late, great ComicsAlliance, can you share your reaction again?)

If there's a defense for DC, and I don't really think there is (Like demoting Barbara "Oracle" Gordon to Batgirl in the New 52 lost the publisher it's only prominent hero in a wheelchair, this move lost the publisher one of their most prominent full-figured characters), the idea may have been to make the New 52 Waller more closely resemble Angela Bassett and Pam Grier, the actresses who played the character in the 2010 Green Lantern film and the Smallville TV show, respectively.

That doesn't explain why Waller's drawn so sexily in her panel (That panel, by the way, is the best-drawn panel in the entire first issue, maybe the only panel that looks like the artist took the time to draw it with care and passion, with her ample cleavage on display and the shape of her nipple visible through her blouse. The focus of that panel is, as drawn, Waller's breasts, but probably should be the thing in her hand, which visually demonstrated that Waller was behind the torture of the Squad, and was conducting that torture personally.

In the next few issues, Waller buttons up and puts on a blazer, wearing the sort of blouse and suit coat she most usually wears, but she doesn't get any shorter, wider or age ten to twenty years.

I'll return to the trade for a review-review later in the week, but it's not very good comics.


Yonatan said...

dude...that was 20 issues ago. And there is a new writer. Are you going to be constantly 2 yeats behind on your DC hate at all times?

Aki Alaraatikka said...

Wow...what a fantastic comic...

LurkerWithout said...

@Yonatan: He's stated repeatedly that he's reviewing library copies of collected trades. So probably. Luckily its a big internet so you won't have to read and be bothered by his "DC hate" and can just come back when he's reviewing Smurfs collections or something...

Anonymous said...


What may look like mere sniping to you is, at least in part, Caleb being thorough in detailing the decline of DC; specifically, any evidence of interest in broadening its fanbase-- or even maintaining its tenuous hold on a pre-existing one.

I'm guessing Caleb & I are roughly the same age? I was a DC baby back in the day, all through to late 90s, then it turned into a Time-Warner intellectual property mine and since then all bets have been off the for the race to the bottom of the barrel. They're producing Product these days instead of content, and their failure to think through market-driven revamps has cheapened the company's image significantly. Perilously even, if Caleb's ongoing analysis of cancellations & shakeups indicates anything.

DC used to be a beacon of the industry and a champion of creator's rights, with some of the best and brightest writers; was, in fact, the home of the British Invasion that gave us some of the foundation stones of the current graphic novel. What do you see that they've managed to do in the last five to ten years that indicates the present incarnation of the publisher is thinking beyond the next five minutes? They have no long view, no plan, no editorial coherence.

This isn't hate, son, this is a thoughtful reader telling an adrift company that they're taking on water and the bilge is broken.

You don't care about any of that, you've got a whole browser there in front of you.

Greg said...

Deadshot was returned to prominence, really, in 1977 by Englehart and Rogers, who dragged him out of mothballs. It was Rogers who designed the fancy red-and-yellow outfit with the silver mask/helmet. I rarely know stuff like this, so I apologize for being so pedantic!

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Caleb: I'm amazed that SUICIDE SQUAD and RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS (as another example of a strange way of teaming characters) are still being published.

And the Deadshot with the monocle was created by late Marshall Rogers in the great run on Detective Comics in the mid-70s, with Steve Englehart writing. It has been collected in trade and is a perfect example of how DC handled characters AND artwork. The title escape me, but I'm sure your library could order it for you.

SallyP said...

Yeah, I tried reading the first issue as well...mainly because I enjoyed Ostrander's and Simone's different versions of Suicide Squad so very very much.

This...not so much. As in...not at all.

Seriously having Floyd without the 'stache? That's just WRONG!