The Suicide Squad have been in the news a lot lately, especially since the release of the trailer for the 2016 film. As I put together my presentation for this year’s Comics and Popular Arts Conference, I’m becoming more and more entrenched in the lives of Task Force X as my presentation tries to place the Suicide Squad within the timeline of modern discipline and punishment as put forth in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. As I go through the source material, I’m also reading a lot of what people are writing online about the upcoming movie and I notice a dearth of articles written about the movie by people who have much experience with the actual comics. In an attempt to bring comic books back into the discussion of comic book movies, I thought I’d put together a few interesting tidbits about the Suicide Squad as they appeared in the comics.
1. The Suicide Squad is older than the Justice League…sort of.
When the Suicide Squad first appeared in DC Comics The Brave and The Bold #25, they weren’t a chain gang of super-villains, but rather of a state-sponsored group of everyday heroes having not-so-everyday adventures. None of them had any superpowers and none of them had criminal notoriety. In many ways, they barely resemble the Suicide Squad in the comics today or the Suicide Squad as its been portrayed in popular media (Smallville; Batman: Assault on Arkham; the upcoming Suicide Squad film). What connects the original Squad to the contemporary Squad are the memberships of Rick Flag- a character who hasn’t been on the Squad in the comics for a long time- and Karin Grace- a character that, excepts for a few issues in the first revival of the Squad, has largely been lost to comic book history. Still, that old Suicide Squad of scrappy superpowerless do-gooders appeared in the pages of The Brave and The Bold before the Justice League, which made its debut in The Brave and The Bold #28.
2. Those thugs were first assembled to defeat Darkseid.
While the Suicide Squad mostly goes on sketchy espionage missions to serve the interests of A.R.G.U.S. or Checkmate, they were first brought together to defend the planet against the terrible tourist from Apokolips, Darkseid. In his usual fashion, Darkseid has attacked the Earth on many fronts- physical, social, and psychological- which has made ordinary folks despise ‘heroes.’ Superheroes become unable to perform their basic function and villains are brought in to do the hero work. This may remind readers of how Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, and others came to perform heroic feats in the recent Forever Evil storyline when the Justice League was incapacitated by being locked up in the ever-unstable Firestorm matrix motel.
3. They are a group of predominantly white super-powered convicts being bossed around by a high-ranking government official, an out-of-shape and overweight black woman.
In the United States, we haven’t had a black female president yet. We haven’t had a female president and it’s arguable that we’ve only had half of a black president. In our most female-filled congress of all-time, only 20% of the elected officials serving in the legislative branch are women. Only half of the fifty United States have ever elected a black person to the House of Representatives. There’s only been nine black senators ever and only one of them was a woman. Still, overseeing the Suicide Squad isn’t really the responsibility of an elected official, so we can assume Amanda Waller wouldn’t have to campaign for votes. Well… no CIA director has ever been black nor female. The same is true regarding directors of the NSA, FBI, and ONI. Carolyn Payton was black and a woman, but she was just served as the Director of the US Peace Corps which seems like a job that would bore Amanda Waller. Growing up in poverty, it seems strange that Amanda Waller would also have the social connections to end up in such a position. Likewise, it’s not until Amanda Waller is skinnied up in the New 52 that she has any real military experience as part of her background. Sure, the US government is racially biased against black women in terms of promotion and Amanda Waller lacks the necessary background and physical fitness to perform her job, but we find Amanda Waller directing the affairs of the Suicide Squad, literally holding their lives in her hands- such is the unlikely magic of fiction.
Are we finished with ways that the Suicide Squad narrative does not accurately reflect the way racial tribes manifest their power through our social institutions? Worry not, because despite the fact that nearly half (1 million) of the entire US prison population (2.3 million) is black, nearly all of the members of the Suicide Squad are not black or were not black during at least part of their history- Bronze Tiger, for example, or Deadshot who has never been black until the casting of Will Smith. While short-time Squad member Black Adam has black in his name and is literally African, he’s got lighter skin than Betty White. While blacks and other ethnic minorities account for significantly less than whites in Suicide Squad membership, such disparity is not uncommon among super-teams as the superhero genre suffers famously for its lack of diversity. On the other hand, women consistently make up a larger percentage of the Suicide Squad than most super-teams (looking at you, Justice League/Avengers….), which is a little odd since men make up over 90% of the US prison population. As statistically unlikely as the Suicide Squad’s roster would be in the real world, it is essential to the dynamic of Suicide Squad because who is the Suicide Squad?
4. Amanda Waller is the Suicide Squad.
The Wall wasn’t part of the original Suicide Squad from the B&B days- there weren’t a lot of black female characters in 1950s comic books. She didn’t arrive on the scene until the Legends mini-series that introduced the world to the Suicide Squad as we understand them today and she’s been with them ever since. While the Squad certainly has its usual suspects (Captain Boomerang, Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Enchantress, Plastique, King Shark, Killer Frost, Count Vertigo- to name a few), the only constant is Amanda Waller. As a character, Amanda Waller remained pretty consistent during her tenure in the DC universe. She’s operates from some shadowy government organization (Checkmate, ARGUS), monitoring and managing the world’s ugliest secrets. She doesn’t take shit from anybody, even presidents. Her existence is kept somewhat a secret, but she’s got connections everywhere. Physically, she’s short and heavy-set. Her figure distinguishes her from the bombshells that make up most female characters in the superhero genre. Her weapons include the power of persuasion and the ability to circumvent bureaucracy.
Following in the 2011 film Green Lantern, Amanda Waller is portrayed by the lovely Angela Bassett- a casting decision that would have significant effects on the character. While the actress retained Waller’s authoritarian attitude, she did nothing to portray the character’s physical attributes and turned Amanda Waller not only into a sex symbol, but a much more physically violent character. Bassett’s portrayal heavily informed the way Amanda Waller would appear in the New 52, the company-wide overhaul that occurred in September 2011, the same year that the Green Lantern movie came out. In the New 52, Amanda Waller is a former member of Team 7 and actually joins the Suicide Squad in punching up the bad guys. The military background, weapons mastery, and martial arts expertise give Amanda Waller new strength, but at the cost of the original character. While I miss the original Amanda Waller character, I must admit I really enjoyed the New 52 Suicide Squad. The storylines related Waller’s past came across as very fresh, but I wonder if they couldn’t have created a different character- one skinny ex-military bad-ass and Amanda Waller instead of one skinny ex-military bad-ass as Amanda Waller.
5. Belle Reve is the official Suicide Squad prison.
The inductees of the Suicide Squad Hall of Fame come from the halls of Belle Reve prison in Louisiana. Amanda Waller is the on-again off-again warden. The prison first appeared in Suicide Squad #1 back in 1987. It shares the same name of Blanche Dubois’s lost estate in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and translates roughly as “beautiful dream.”