Below is a paper I presented on Monday September 7, 2015 at the Comics and Popular Arts Conference as part of Dragon Con 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. I presented the paper as part of the DC Comics and Cultural Studies panel. I was joined by Matt Brown, the moderator, and Jessica Dambruch who presented a paper titled “Rev Up Your Harley: Cultural Constructions of Gender In The Batman Universe.” My paper is titled “Discipline & Punish: Michel Foucault and the Suicide Squad.” The paper covers the Suicide Squad’s entire presence up to this point and was largely inspired by Ales Kot’s amazing run on the series. Depending on when you are reading this, please remember that the paper was presented almost a year before the Suicide Squad movie would be released.


Today we’re going to talk about criminals. You can’t have criminals without crime and you can’t have crime without laws, so we’re also going to talk a bit about crime and law as well. Criminals are easier to understand if you also understand their crime and the law it breaks. The specific criminals we’re going to discuss are the DC Comics characters collectively known as Task Force X or the Suicide Squad. None of us have access to the legal documents that govern the DC Universe, much less law degrees, but we have a functioning understanding of how the law operates within that universe that we base largely on the laws of our own communities and that we modify with the context provided by the text.


Perhaps the laws of the Marvel Universe are more accessible- they have good lawyers like Jennifer Walters and Matt Murdock to explain the law…


…while DC fans are stuck with Harvey Dent in the comics and Keith Partridge’s daughter on television.


We function as readers in any fictional universe with only a working knowledge of how crime and punishment manifest themselves, making assumptions based on context and granting a suspension of our disbelief. We accept the narrative provided by the creators. As citizens, we may consider our own perspectives on crime in our society to be quite sophisticated, but it is more likely that we function in a fog that is not much clearer than when we are readers. We accept the mechanics of our institutions as necessary, efficient, fair, and perhaps even natural. We may consider ourselves very detached from the worlds of crime and punishment. Such a worldview is naïve at best.


Before we meet the colorful personalities that make up the Suicide Squad, I’d like to introduce Michel Foucault’s history of the modern penal system Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. First published in its original French in 1975 with an English translation arriving in 1977, the book traces the origins of our modern prison system back to practices conducted during feudal times and shows how the ideas of the European Enlightenment started Western thinking down a new path in regards to crime and punishment. The book explores the various roles played in the act of punishment by governments, criminals, and the public and how power is periodically redistributed among those parties.


The Suicide Squad is a unique team in the DC Universe. When the Suicide Squad first appeared in 1959 in the pages of The Brave and the Bold #25, they were a scrappy gang of military folks that traveled around the world and beyond it to fight giant creatures and sometimes shrink down to fight normal sized creatures as if they were giant creatures. Really, this Suicide Squad just warmed up Brave and the Bold readers for the more popular team that would debut in B&B #28, the Justice League of America.


While the Suicide Squad that debuted in the 1986 Legends mini-series referenced the previous Squad peripherally and featured two original members Rick Flag and Karin Grace, the new Suicide Squad as conceived by John Ostrander and other DC Comics creators at this time hardly recognized the self-sacrificing adventurers of the old stories. The new Suicide Squad consisted entirely of mostly superhuman convicts picked by shadowy government operative Amanda Waller to deal with threats that the superhero community was unable, unwilling, or undesired to handle.


In exchange for performing these dangerous tasks, the convicts are rewarded by having their sentences reduced. Waller controls the members of the squad through a variety of methods. Her trademark methods of control include…


Playing the team against itself


Surveillance through informants within the Squad and/or non-convict members


Surveillance through biological means


And most famously, a nano-bomb inserted into their body, usually the neck though originally a bracelet, that she controls remotely.


While no public records indicate that a Task Force X like the Suicide Squad exists, the nature of this punishment is not that far-fetched and parallels the narrative presented by Foucault.


In writing his genealogy of Western punishment practices, Foucault explores very targeted questions:

-Why are criminals punished?

-How are criminals punished?

-Who punishes criminals?

-Who wants criminals punished?

-What is the goal of punishing criminals?

-What are the effects of punishing criminals? Are these effects desired?


By placing the Suicide Squad within the context of Foucault’s timeline, we can more readily empathize with the characters of the DC Universe and will see even heroes and civilians from a different perspective. Foucault breaks his narrative into four parts: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, Prison


Torture: In pre-Enlightenment France, criminals were generally subjected to public torture under direction of the king and his government. By being public, the torture provided a spectacle that justified the torture. In the spectacle of public torture, the citizens could appreciate the effectiveness of torture in eliciting information, possibly a confession, or alternately suggesting innocence. The citizens could witness the violence of the crime returned upon the body of the criminal- a revenge model.


While we may perceive public torture as a way of deterring its witnesses from committing crimes themselves, Foucault finds it more revealing to define such a phenomenon as the sovereign demonstrating its power, legitimizing its power, and ultimately increasing its power by making a public display of its most brutal will.


We can see this legal model at play on Apokolips, New Genesis, and many of the planets visited by the Green Lantern Corps. We can even see elements of this in Kahndaq under Black Adam’s rule, but this is very different than the secrecy that is elemental to the Suicide Squad. The use of torture as a method of eliciting information, exacting revenge, and controlling the convict’s body, however, certainly occurs. While the torture is not a public spectacle, a spectacle is created for other members of the Suicide Squad, a lesson imparted, insubordination deferred.


As Enlightenment ideas started to gain traction, the king was surprised to find that people sympathized with the tortured criminal and began to see them as a victim of the state’s barbarity. Punishment in this fashion was seen as subjective, unscientific, and monopolized by the king. In the democratic revolutions that embraced Enlightenment ideals, the power to punish was assumed by the new governments that represented the will of the people rather than the will of the absolute sovereign, a major redistribution of power. Enthusiasm for science informed their approach to punishment.


Punishment: Foucault reports a move from public torture to public punishment as democratic governments are formed. The public desires that the criminal ‘pay their debt to society’ rather than experience the state’s vengeance. The spectacle remains opens to the public, but rather than subjecting the criminal to torture, the state subjects the criminal through forced labor. The punishment inflicted upon the body can be quantified, measured, and eventually monetized.


This is best epitomized by the chain gang, convicts out in the public eye doing public works. While the Suicide Squad also fulfills their sentence by working in the interest of their oppressor, the work of the Suicide Squad must again be kept secret.


Discipline: Having inflicted the punishment upon the body through torture and having extorted value from the body through punishment, the next progression Foucault reports is the status quo changing the body through discipline. The power to punish still lies in the hands of a democratic government, that role and responsibility is still assumed by the people.


The will of the people wants criminals to not only pay for their crime, but to also become more like non-criminals, to become rehabilitated, to become normal. Where the enforcer had previously oversaw or controlled the convict’s time being tortured or being punished, the enforcer now controlled all aspects of the convict’s time through strictly regimented schedules that included mandatory activities that did not resemble punishment such as exercise and education.


Discipline is the imposing of one’s perception of time onto another person. While the members of the Suicide Squad are not subjected to a daily routine, they are subjected to the timetable of their enforcer quite literally as the bombs in their neck require maintenance at timed intervals to keep from exploding. The convict is always aware of how much time remains and this awareness keeps the convict docile, increasing the convict’s tolerance for obedience, making the submission of their individuality a routine behavior.


Prison: All of these trends for dealing with the criminal element of society ultimately lead us to the physical structures that both implement and illustrate the current way of thinking. Whether torture device, shackles, uniform, or clock, the devices used to punish criminals have served as symbols of order- symbols of power, symbols of control- that reflect the ideology behind the punishment. Where the guillotine had epitomized the Jacobins’ scientific approach to execution, the prison is a blueprint not only for the building itself but also for the mechanics of power within the building.


The DC Universe has its fair share of correctional facilities. Some of the more rudimentary facilities include Blackgate Penitentiary in Gotham City, Iron Heights in Keystone City, and Stryker’s Island in Metropolis. More specialized houses of detention include the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Gotham City where Batman sends his craziest and the Phantom Zone where Superman sends his craziest.


Shortly after the modern Suicide Squad debuted in the Legends mini-series, DC Comics introduced a new prison located in the Louisiana swamps called Belle Reve. The ‘in universe’ explanation for its creation is to house metahuman convicts, but specifically it was created as the recruiting field for Task Force X in the first issue of Suicide Squad in 1987.


For Belle Reve and the modern prisons described by Foucault, surveillance is an essential tool for controlling the prisoners. Surveillance here does not simply mean watching someone; another element is at play- controlling the convict’s awareness of the surveillance.


Foucault uses an architectural concept developed by the economist and social theorist Jeremy Bentham called the Panopticon. Simply put, a panopticon is a round building with a tower placed in the middle that allows full view of the building from the tower. While the tower can see everything in the building, there is no way for the people below to know whether or not someone is watching them from the tower and must therefore assume that someone is always watching them.


Foucault and Bentham both saw the panopticon as a method of control not limited to prisons. The method has been applied to control factories, typing pools, and call centers. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to see how technological developments have led to new applications of the theory- this is why you can’t access Facebook or look at pornography on your work computer.


In the DC Universe, technology has advanced a little faster than in our world and this certainly applies to the Suicide Squad. In a very low tech way, members of the Suicide Squad are given different directives so they never know which members they can trust and they must assume that the other members could be collecting information for Director Amanda Waller.


More technologically advanced and physically invasive applications include implanted geo-trackers and live streaming video from cameras implanted in their eyes. Achieving this method of surveillance by altering the convict’s physical person invokes the physical infliction of torture upon the body. The information obtained via this surveillance is another way of extorting value from the body- the body becomes a physical surveillance device, a tool to be used to serve the interests of the government. Because the surveillance is constant, or at least capable of constant observation, the Suicide Squad member is being conditioned to behave a certain way and this applies for any person subjected to surveillance that functions like a panopticon.


While the members of the Suicide Squad experience discipline and punishment in accordance with Foucault’s observations, we must also consider the institutions that conduct this peculiar form of punishment and who controls those institutions. Amanda Waller immediately comes to mind as she directly oversees Task Force X. In the various imaginings of the Suicide Squad, Amanda Waller holds different positions for different government agencies. While she works for different agencies, her job is pretty much always the same.


In the 2011 reboot The New 52, Amanda Waller gained a military backstory while shedding her signature body type.


Waller worked for Checkmate, a UN organization, but also for agencies in the US government including ARGUS. While she worked for different branches of different governments, she always had a boss and her boss had a boss and ultimately the government was supposed to implement the will of the people.


Ask yourself: if punishment is conducted covertly, is it the will of the people? By placing their trust in a government that they know conducts covert operations, the people consent to whatever is done in their name even without them knowing.


In a world with a Suicide Squad and in our own society, the spectacle of punishment has been placed so far from civil discourse that the burden is barely felt by the democratic masses.


Is it Jimmy Olsen’s will that Plastique become a government puppet? Is Patty Spivot responsible for the physical invasion of Captain Boomerang’s body? Does Vicki Vale draw power from the attempted disciplining of Harley Quinn? Are you responsible for overcrowded prisons? Is your social status legitimized by families being torn apart by the effects of the War on Drugs? What is my role in the institutionalized racism that dominates our legal system? Is police brutality my fault? What happened to the will of the people or is this will of the people?


We live in an information age and in an information country. We can’t plead ignorance with much sincerity, but we can certainly admit to feeling powerless in the face of powerful institutions. In 2003, when photos of torture at Abu Gharib entered the public discourse, the torture was a public spectacle, but it functioned in a different age than when the town would gather around the pillory to watch a criminal humiliated and abused. The public collectively condemned the actions of the enforcers while expressing sympathy towards the accused. Despite this sympathy, the public did not use its full political force to demand reform. The same came be said of the public spectacle that arose from the video recording of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King in 1991 and the cell phone footage of Eric Garner’s death in 2014.


In the DC Universe, Batman, Superman, Green Arrow, and lots of other superheroes know about the Suicide Squad, but they do not propose to stop it. They may believe in its rehabilitation properties. They may consider the Suicide Suqad none of their business. They may not have the power to stop it, but they certainly have the power to challenge it and that power goes beyond the power of the public. Ace reporter Lois Lane and Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White may have the power of the press, but they will never have the influence of a Superman or a Wonder Woman.


Remember Wonder Woman chose to play the executioner in Infinite Crisis and let’s be honest, all vigilantes are assuming a supplemental role in the enforcement of crime and punishment.


What is the connection between Batman’s fist and popular government? Is the additional responsibility that superheroes assume something natural or is it affront to the principles of democratic society? Does great power come with great responsibility or is it seized through acts of violence that legitimize a social role by supplementing civil power with physical power?


The final moments of this essay have been riddled with unanswered questions that all sort of point to the same phenomenon, but I’ll try to answer with the same blunt ambiguity that Foucault might. We can’t fully know the role we play in relation to the systemic flaws in our criminal justice system, but we know those flaws are there and they’ve been there for a long time.


It has taken the effort of many individuals to maintain our criminal justice system. People give orders. People follow orders. People watch people give and follow orders. On some level, we must consider that these systemic flaws are not flaws, but conscious choices informed by the knowledge available. The distribution of power has favored the will of certain individuals more than others, but the concentration of that power in the hands of the few has not removed it entirely from the many.


We may not be a society that wants our judicial system to convict innocent people or fail to convict the guilty, but we tolerate a certain amount of failure. We may not want police officers using excessive force and sometimes even killing innocent people, but we tolerate a certain amount.


We may consider the living conditions of convicts and the opportunities for former convicts to be desperately below what they should be, but we have other priorities. That prioritization is not natural, but rather a choice or the consequence of a series of choices.


Whether this tolerance says the privatization of the penal system is a necessary evil or a welcome innovation doesn’t matter, some prisons are privatized.


Our contribution to society depends largely on the ratio of our will and our power.


The evidence largely suggests that we have contributed to the modern penal system. We have defined it, but not nearly as much as it has defined us. Our sadist perversions are our masochistic perversions.


Jimmy Olsen wants a Superman watch, not a nano-bomb in his neck. He wants to call Superman and have the hero exert physical violence on his problems, not because that’s what friends are for, but because the role of enforcer has been delegated to Superman.


Is Superman a symbol that the system has failed or is he part of the system? Does his voice have more influence than Amanda Waller or the institutions she represents?


By our contemporary definition, the Suicide Squad is a human rights violation and we’d be wise to remember that violating human rights is the ultimate destination of law and order.