Warner Bros. latest blockbuster superhero film, “Suicide Squad,” is mainly based on the last two DC Comics series starring the government-enlisted team of villains. Which is why our first list focused on the greatest “Suicide Squad” stories from the New 52.
However, the concept of having a team consisting of super-villains working for the government under the direction of Amanda Waller was an idea that began with John Ostrander’s 1987 series.
Ostrander’s “Suicide Squad” was a stunning mixture of action, intrigue and character development that stood out among superhero comics of the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was never a particularly big hit sales-wise, but it lasted for a total of 66 regular issues, one annual and a over-sized crossover one-shot (plus some crossover issues with “Justice League International”, “Checkmate” and “Captain Atom”). When you talk about the greatest “Suicide Squad” comic book stories of all-time, you’re essentially talking about John Ostrander’s work. Here are his ten best.
11. HONORABLE MENTION: “Deadshot”
This was not technically a “Suicide Squad” story, but it is about as close as you can come without officially being one, The four-issue miniseries was written by John Ostrander and his wife, Kim Yale (the late, great Yale was an unofficial co-writer with Ostrander for the entire “Suicide Squad” series before finally being named as an official co-writer with Issue #27) and drawn by then-regular “Suicide Squad” artist Luke McDonnell. The series involved Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton being forced to look back upon childhood traumas as a new generation of Lawtons was being tormented. Lawton was marked by his death wish, but that was partially based on him having no “reason” to live. In this series, he discovered that he had a son that he did not know about, so now he had something to live for — and that just meant that he had more to be taken from him. It’s a bleak, haunting series with great artwork. If you filed this as a “Suicide Squad” story, it’d be top three on the list, easily.
10. “The Phoenix Gambit”
This storyline, which ran from “Suicide Squad” #40-43 (by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Geoff Isherwood and Mark Badger), was an attempt to revamp the Squad to better fit into the 1990s. After being disbanded for a year (a year Amanda Waller spent in prison), a situation arose that led to the United States government (working, oddly enough, with Batman) to give Waller a pardon. The Squad would now be a private organization, hired by whoever needed their help. Less oversight, but more deniability.
This incarnation of the Squad no longer wore costumes, they just did their business like a black-ops team. However, in the case of a number of the members, especially the Bronze Tiger, their year away did not leave them in the best mental condition, so there was an extra edge to all of the characters. This initial story with the new Squad status quo was a complex one, filled with espionage, intrigue and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Getting Batman to guest star to kick off the new Squad was a major coup, as he always had great interactions with Waller as you’ll see later on in this list.
9. “The Final Mission”
The final “Suicide Squad” storyline ran from “Suicide Squad” #63-66 (by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Geoff Isherwood and Robert Campanella), and it did an impressive job in wrapping up the entire series with a genuine sense of closure, while still leaving the characters and concept for future stories. The Squad discovered that there was an island nation, Diabloverde, that was led by a dictator who gained superpowers and was tormenting his country with his own group of supervillains — a team that called themselves the Suicide Squad. So Waller and the Squad took one final mission to free the country and clear their “good” name.
The dictator had powerful telepathic abilities, and he used them to protect himself by sending out a sort of telepathic force field that would torment people with their worst fears; Waller, for example, was haunted by all those that died during the history of the Squad. In a striking sequence, as we see what torments everyone, Deadshot just quietly moves forward without a pause. This story also resolved Count Vertigo’s death wish, which he had enlisted Deadshot’s help in dealing with.
8. “The Dragon’s Hoard”
The ostensible plot of this story that ran from “Suicide Squad” #53-57 (by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Geoff Isherwood and Robert Campanella) was that the Japanese government hired the Squad to locate a horde of weapons left by the Russian government in Cambodia during the Vietnam War — weapons the Yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicate, wanted for themselves. However, the story is best remembered for the moments that took place within the scope of the mission, including Amanda Waller being shot and almost killed in an assassination attempt by the Yakuza.
Oracle (the former Batgirl, Barbara Gordon) had to step up and take over as the temporary leader of the Squad. Meanwhile, the popular villain from the “Phoenix Gambit” arc, Ivan Illyich Gort (also known as Stalnoivolk, the Steel Wolf) was now a member of the Squad; he was so powerful that the only way they could keep him in line was to have Deadshot constantly accompany him, armed with a special laser that could bore a hole even in Gort’s super-tough skull. This led to one of the most iconic sequences in the series, when Gort tried to escape by jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Deadshot followed with his laser and an extra parachute, forcing Gort to either put on the parachute and continue with the mission, or have a hole shot in his head, killing them both.
7. “The Fall of the Squad”
After the events of an epic mission on Apokolips, the Squad returned to Earth in “Suicide Squad” #37-39 (by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Robert Greenberger, Geoff Isherwood, John K. Snyder and Luke McDonnell) to find themselves in the most precarious of positions. Many of Amanda Waller’s recent decisions now looked foolish, and the long-simmering threat of the Loa crime family (who were developing drugs that would turn people into zombies) was boiling to the surface at the worst possible time.
Sarge Steel spent an issue breaking Bronze Tiger down over all the League of Assassins programming that he had dealt with that had led to him murdering Kathy Kane years earlier. (Steel’s theory was that it was better to have Tiger snap in a controlled environment than for it happen while he was in the field). Oh, and the Loa used their influence to publicly expose the Suicide Squad. With the Squad no longer a secret, the government was forced to shut it down. Waller wasn’t going to take this lying down, though, so she released one last Squad group with a mission to murder all the members of the Loa and take whatever consequences went her way after that. It was a bold change in the direction of the Squad.
6. “Battle Lines”
This crossover between the Justice League and the Suicide Squad did a great job of pointing out the different approaches of both teams, while highlighting how Batman sort of skirted between both of them. In an earlier mission, Suicide Squad member Tom Tresser, the master of disguise known as Nemesis, heroically stayed behind on a mission in Russia. Now captured by the Russian government, Batman tried to convince his fellow Justice League teammates (in “Justice League International” #13 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Al Gordon) to help him free his old ally. The League was sent to the prison where Nemesis was being held and tortured, but to prevent the Suicide Squad from rescuing him!
You see, Colonel Rick Flag had gone rogue to rescue the teammate they left behind, and the Soviet Union had called in the League (which then worked for the United Nations) to stop them. The Soviets’ armored super-group, the Rocket Reds (one of which was a member of the League), were sent in, as well.
In “Suicide Squad” #13 (by John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell and Bob Lewis), all hell breaks loose, but the most interesting fight was between Batman and Rick Flag. They were both there for the same reason, but Batman was so disgusted by the existence of the Squad that he wouldn’t work with Flag. This destroys Flag, of course, because he viewed himself as a hero; the idea that heroes he respected, like Batman, judged him based on his association with the Squad, was more than he could take. There are lots of great character moments like that throughout the issue (Vixen and Martian Manhunter reuniting, Captain Atom and Nightshade having a tickle fight, Batman dismissing Deadshot as a threat, etc).
5. “In Control/Out of Control”
Beyond of the introduction of Amanda Waller and the solidification of Deadshot as one of the more popular DC villains, the greatest legacy of the “Suicide Squad” was the way Ostrander and Yale, in effect, “saved” Barbara Gordon after the events of “The Killing Joke.” The pair introduced the idea of Barbara becoming a computer expert and hacker known as Oracle. Oracle first showed up as just a mysterious hacker, until finally it was revealed that Oracle was Barbara — a secret readers learned, but Waller and the rest of the Squad did not. Finally, after a year or so of being in the title, Oracle was given an impressive spotlight in “Suicide Squad” #48-49 (by Ostrander, Yale and Geoff Isherwood). As Oracle fought against the computerized mind of the sadistic new Thinker, she was also fighting the demons in her own mind due to her traumatic experiences during “The Killing Joke.” Waller and Barbara became much closer following this arc, with Barbara even becoming the leader of the Squad when Waller was incapacitated in a later story.
4. “The Janus Directive”
This epic storyline (written and drawn primarily by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Paul Kupperberg, Cary Bates and Greg Weisman, John K. Snyder III, Rick Hoberg, Rafael Kayanan, Tom Mandrake and Pat Broderick, with the story taking place in “Suicide Squad” #27-30, “Checkmate” #16-18, “Captain Atom” #30 and “Firestorm” #86) found all the major government operations involving superheroes (Suicide Squad, Checkmate, the Central Bureau of Intelligence, Project Atom, the Peacemaker Project and the Force of July) at odds with each other over Amanda Waller seemingly going rogue with her Squad.
As it turned out, the villainous Kobra was attempting to destabilize the government by replacing Waller with a doppelganger (hence the title’s “Janus” reference to the two-faced Roman god). However, Waller managed to defeat her double and took its place in an attempt to stop Kobra from within. Of course, she did not share this plan with anyone else, so that’s why when the dust settled, President George H.W. Bush reorganized the various agencies under the auspices of Sarge Steel and placed Waller on probation.
3. “Up Against the Wall”
Batman played a major role in the Suicide Squad over the years, with his first appearance in the title being his most famous and iconic. In “Suicide Squad” #10 (by John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell and Bob Lewis), Batman used his Matches Malone identity to get transferred to Belle Reve Penitentiary. Once there, he escaped from his cell and found evidence that, as he suspected, the prison was home to the secret government group known as the Suicide Squad, with the prisoners there being enlisted into black-ops under the direction of Amanda Waller.
The Squad tried to stop him from escaping and eventually cornered the Justice Leaguer. Waller told him that the place was sealed tighter than a steel drum, to which Batman retorted that she might want to know how many sealed steel drums he had escaped from over the years. In the end, though, Waller noted that Batman did not have gloves on while in his cell and thus they had a clean set of fingerprints from him. If he exposed the Squad, they would discover and then expose his secret identity. It was a brilliant stalemate that Batman had to agree to — for the time being. There were other strong character bits mixed in, as well, like the revelation that Deadshot had always been pulling his shots when fighting Batman.
2. “Final Round”
In “Suicide Squad” #21-22’s brilliant two-part storyline (by John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell and Karl Kesel), Rick Flag discovered that Amanda Waller was being blackmailed by the Suicide Squad’s NSC liaison, as well as a United States Senator. Either she helps get the Senator re-elected, or they reveal the existence of the Suicide Squad to the world. What Flag did not know is that Waller had secretly gone around them and found blackmail material of her own that would counter theirs.
Waller was not one for sharing information, and in this instance, it cost her dearly, as Flag determined that the only way to save the Squad was to kill both the liaison and the senator. Waller had to then send the Squad after their own leader with orders to stop Flag from killing the Senator “by any means necessary.” Flag’s friends on the team were not interested in hunting down their friend, but when faced with the option agreeing to Waller’s terms or remaining behind, they reluctantly agreed to participate.
Ultimately, the team was too late to stop him from killing the liaison, but Deadshot managed to find Flag before he could kill the Senator. Deadshot, who was still reeling from the traumatic events of the “Deadshot” miniseries, took Waller’s instructions literally, if creatively, in one of the most famous scenes in the history of the series.
1. “Apokolips Now!”
What truly separated “Suicide Squad” from other comic book titles of the era was the sheer humanity of the title. The people in the book felt real. This was helped by the many spotlight issues where Ostrander focused on the support staff who helped the Squad, as well as Amanda Waller herself. Any one of those spotlight issues could have made this list, to be honest — there were so many great “Suicide Squad” Stories that a top 20 wouldn’t even be enough!
That said, the “Suicide Squad” story that stood out the most as a result of this approach was the four-part storyline where the very human members of the Squad end up fighting with gods on the streets of Apokolips!
In “Suicide Squad” #33-36 (by John Ostrander, Kim Yale, John K. Snyder and Geoff Isherwood), Ostrander and Yale paid off a few different long-running subplots, including Lashina of the Female Furies regaining her identity (she had been working with the Squad as “Duchess”) and returning to Apokolips along with some female “offerings” to the head of the Female Furies, Granny Goodness; Amanda Waller’s niece, Flo, finally getting to be involved in an operation instead of working behind a desk; Shade the Changing Man betraying his friends for a chance to return home; and Doctor Light embracing his inner hero.
As expected, with this being the Suicide Squad, most of those plots ended in tragedy — in Doctor Light’s case, hilarious tragedy, but still. The remaining members of the Squad figure out a way to get to Apokolips themselves, resulting in one of the most epic battles in the history of the series, as the outmatched Squad somehow manage to hold their own against the gods of Apokolips. A true comic book treat, complete with humor, pathos and lots and lots of tragedy!
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