The onset of the upcoming Suicide Squad movie is, believe it or not, not the inspiration for this article. I was a fan DC’s team of anti-heroes from its inception — the super villain version that is — when it first came out in 1987. At that time it was a huge splash for me, and something completely different. It also laid a blueprint for several comic book series that followed, where villains were used in a similar fashion.
What made the original series so awesome was a simple concept by the team’s creator, John Ostrander: give the readers a bunch of second tier villains and emphasize the threat of killing any of them off at any time. Of course the real concept was more in-depth than that, but that was the original hook that grabbed me. You see, back then, in the 80’s and early 90’s, if a second tier character died, that was usually it for them. The death of those characters meant that even in the resurrection-prone world of superhero comic books, they usually stayed dead.
Another great pull for the story was the raw grittiness of the whole series. These were villains, and Ostrander did an awesome job of not trying to make them anything more than what they were, bad guys. These stories dealt with people we usually rooted against, and the glue that made it all possible was the creation of one of the best characters in comic books, Amanda Waller. The Wall was something different than we had ever experienced before. She was a no nonsense, overweight, African-American woman, which at that time was unheard. In a world dominated by people with perfect abs, Waller was a breath of fresh air. Despite no superpowers, she was tough, smart and went toe-to-toe against all of the major hitters in the DC universe either directly or indirectly. You were often left not knowing whether you agreed with what she was doing, or hated her because of it.
The reason Amanda Waller worked so well, was because she served two purposes. One, she was the glue that kept all of the villains together, and not killing themselves, or trying to make a run for it. (Then there was the fact that each had an explosive device implanted or worn that would kill them if they didn’t do as they were told.) The other reason Waller was brilliant was because she gave the reader someone they could hate more than the villains.
This formula was used to great success for the majority of the run of the original series. It also showed that if you wrote a great story, you could use villains, something that had always been a hard thing to do. Sure, there had been supervillain-driven stories and books before that, but nothing like this, with a formula that gave the readers something to root for despite the fact the main characters were as bad as many of the people they were going up against.
Since then we’ve seen the Thunderbolts from Marvel, with the biggest similarity between the two books being the parallels between Marvel’s use of Baron Zemo compared to DC and Amanda Waller. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, many of the villains turned into actual heroes, changing the dynamic of the book. This was a mistake in my opinion, and while the Thunderbolts had a long run, they eventually changed out their roster, not so much because of attrition but because they turned so many of the original guys into heroes. So just like the Suicide Squad, the Thunderbolts had a regularly changing roster from the middle of their run until the end.
There have been many other villain-centric team books since then. Most recently, we have seen the return of the Suicide Squad at DC, and then the Illuminati, The Superior Foes of Spider-man, and Squadron Supreme at Marvel. Of all these, The Superior Foes of Spider-man was the most successful at capturing the magic of a series that gives us a bunch of villains without attempting to change them. The Illuminati, which is on issue three, seems promising. On the other hand, however, Squadron Supreme seems like a fluff piece, and the new Suicide Squad is little more than an excuse to team up the most popular villains in the DC universe, totally missing the point of what made the original so effective.
While I’m looking forward to the new Suicide Squad movie, it’s a far cry from the greatness of the original comic book series. It would take a special kind of commitment from a studio to be able to bring a movie like that to the silver screen, a group of people like those behind the upcoming Deadpool movie.
Do yourself a favor and find the original series at your local comic shop; treat yourself to a real revolutionary comic book series, one that holds up against anything that is being produced today. Of all of the comic titles that have focused on villains, the original Suicide Squad is still the best.