Why Suicide Squad #20? Am I smoking something? What the hell is wrong with me?
I've been pretty hard on the DCnU, which is still being called "The New 52!" despite the fact that it's almost two years old. I have enjoyed one (1) series enough to buy a second trade (although I'll buy another one when it comes out, but it hasn't), I bought only one (1) series in single issues for a while, and the only reason I buy Batman, Incorporated is because I don't count it as part of the DCnU, and the only reason I buy Detective Comics is because John Layman is a good writer and Mike Marts seems to leave him alone.
The crazy shuffling of creative teams means that I can't get a handle on the books, and DC's insistence on everything having the exact same tone is kind of weird. But I have to give DC a lot of credit, too, because unlike Marvel, they seem to be trying a LOT of different things, hoping that something sticks. We've gotten some well regarded horror books (I didn't love them, but they're still well regarded by many people who are probably smarter than I am), we've gotten some science fiction, we've gotten a Western, we've gotten a fantasy series, we've gotten a bizarre, almost surreal superhero story. The tone problem means we haven't really gotten any good light-hearted comics (unless I missed them), but unlike Marvel, which seems to be locked into superheroes (even if they do them better than DC), you cannot fault DC for trying a lot of different genres and concepts. And, of course, DC continues to lure independent talent to their books, just like Marvel does. The frustrating thing about DC is that, unlike Marvel, they seem to bludgeon the independence out of their creators when they reach that tier, which is odd because why on Earth would you hire them then? Why would you hire Jeff Lemire if you didn't want Jeff Lemire to do his thing, or Matt Kindt if you didn't want Matt Kindt to do his thing, or Justin Jordan if you didn't want him to do his thing? Marvel wants people to do superheroes, true, but a Hickman Marvel book isn't all that different than a Hickman independent book. He has to rein it in a bit, sure, but not as much as DC makes their creators do, it seems to me. Even Layman's work on Detective, which I've enjoyed, feels more restrained. I've spoken enough with Layman to know that it's mostly his choice, and that's cool, but I don't know if that's true for other writers at DC. It just feels like that except for a few writers (Morrison, Snyder, Johns, Azzarello) or books that DC knows aren't going to last (Dial H), DC seems to want to leech out the very things that brought writers to their attention in the first place. But that just might be my perception. Unfortunately for DC, it seems like a lot of people have that perception.
Which brings us to Suicide Squad #20, the first issue that Ales Kot is writing. Kot hasn't written enough for anyone to really know what he's like, but the two Image comics he's written show an interest and curiosity about twisting the way we perceive a text, challenging us to consider things like unreliable narrators or shifts in the "reality" of the comic itself.
Why anyone at DC who happened to read Kot's comics would think he'd be a good fit in their superhero universe is beyond me. That's not to say I don't think he'd be a good fit - we need more weird voices writing superheroes, if you ask me - but it gets back to perception, and the perception of DC is that they care only about their characters and not the people creating the books. Marvel seems to allow their creators a bit more leeway in writing and drawing - as usual, I can't imagine a DCnU book containing any prison sex jokes, much less several that are acknowledged as tasteless by the characters, as we see in this week's Deadpool (and I'm not commenting on whether the jokes are funny or not, just that DC doesn't seem to want to recognize any sort of humor in their line these days) - while DC wants the trains to run on time. So they cycle in writers and artists with a few exceptions (Snyder/Capullo, Palmiotti/Gray/Norman, Buccellato/Manapul, Azzarello/Chiang - although I guess it's far more Akins these days than Chiang) so that they can have a comic in the readers' hands every month. Marvel double-ships, so their creative teams are even less stable, but again, the perception is that even if they have to bring in a secondary artist, they have it all planned already. With DC, it feels somewhat arbitrary. But that's getting off-topic. Ales Kot seems like the perfect candidate to be a quirky independent guy who gets a shot at the big time and loses whatever "it" he had in the first place, especially because he's going to DC. I know why he did it - to pay the bills [Edit: As you can see from the comments below, Kot takes me to task for this opinion. I'm far too cynical sometimes, and I'm sorry for being so snotty, but I think it would be dishonest to just edit this out. I'll take my lumps.]. But why did DC do it? Kot's certainly not a big name, and if DC wants a writer-bot who's just going to connect the dots, they could hire anyone. The question about any writer who moves up to the Big Two - and this certainly applies to Marvel as well as DC - is whether they can retain the spirit that got them noticed in the first place inside a corporation that values commerce far more than creativity (and that's not a criticism, by the way - I'm not stupid enough to think that DC and Marvel are in this for the ART). That's why I bought Suicide Squad. I've enjoyed one of Kot's comics and hated the other, but both have shown that he can write challenging comics. The only question is - will DC ignore him enough to let him do it on Suicide Squad?
Issue #20 is a pretty good start. It's not great, but it's intriguing, and that's all I'm looking for in a superhero comic these days, because plots don't matter. Patrick Zircher supplies the artwork, which is both interesting and a bit disappointing. Don't get me wrong, Zircher has become a pretty good artist, and because this is a DC comic, there's some terrifically gory scenes that he depicts most excellently, including a really gory one toward the end.
Zircher is actually pretty good at horror, which is why his finest achievement is still probably the Terror, Inc. mini-series from back in the day, so the fact that he gets to draw some gory stuff works pretty well. What's interesting about Zircher on this book is that it's been a while since he worked for DC (at least, if I recall correctly), and I wonder why he decided to go work for them (money, obviously, but he's been a Marvel and recently a nuValiant guy, so I assume he's able to make money there). Maybe he just wanted to draw something different? What's disappointing is that Zircher is, for lack of a better word, conventional. He'll make your book look perfectly fine but it will also be fairly standard. I know this is completely subjective and others might think the art on Suicide Squad #20 is phenomenal, but I'm not really talking about the pencil-and-ink work, at least not exclusively. Like so many other superhero artists, Zircher is fine with the legibility of a comic but lacks flare. There's one panel in this book that looks different from your standard superhero panel, and it's when the Unknown Soldier bashes Voltaic as the latter is playing Scrabble. Zircher tilts the panel slightly and provides a very clever sound effect, and it's an exciting moment. But if we consider the faux Joker that shows up later, the "realism" of Zircher's pencils make the scene a lot less creepy than it could have been. Zircher draws someone like King Shark well enough, and he's perfectly fine with Amanda and her Mystery Date™, but some dude wearing Joker makeup comes off as just that, and there's something lacking in that entire scene. Plus, no one can make "Sexy Amanda" look good. It's just really weird. Zircher does make Harley's outfit look pretty good, though - have other artists toned it down since the first issue?
While Zircher does a yeomanlike job on the art, Kot turns in a script that hints at some bizarre stuff and has the potential to make this a far more interesting comic. It's not necessarily because of the plot, which is somewhat ... well, not quite non-existent, but certainly not a key component of the book.
Kot is giving us a tour of Belle Reve and setting up a new character, whose identity is revealed at the end of the issue (and which I'm not going to spoil, although I'm not all that enthusiastic about it). But he does it in an odd way, as Waller decides to push her team into situations that will make them snap. So she has Deadshot strapped to a table, where she tells him that he has actually died twice recently, but they keep reviving him due to the "Samsara serum," which I know nothing about but I'll just assume is one of those wonderful comicbookey drugs. She has a sexy woman begin to seduce King Shark before she slaps him and calls him a freak. And she has a man in Joker makeup and clothes talk to Harley and use the same phrases the Joker originally used with her when they first met. All of this seems to be for a reason, but Waller and the Shadowy Mr. Evans don't really explain what it is. At one point, Shadowman says, "You asked me to make personality assessments about your team," but no one says why. So the plot, such as it is, doesn't really matter (for the record, this is "Part One of Two," so presumably next issue will shed a bit more light on the subject).
But is Kot's comics personality able to come through and make this something more than a paint-by-numbers superhero comic? That's really the question. Well, it's definitely toned down, but Kot does some interesting things with the dialogue and the characters. David Graves isn't Kot's character, of course, but the idea of a villainous writer seems like something that Kot could really do wonders with, and I'm curious to see if he actually uses Graves. Making King Shark tack against every stereotype fans have of him is curious but not all that clever, even if it does provide us with some cute visuals. Kot gives the faux Joker some nice personality for the few pages he's in the book, and it's always nice to see Deadshot. But where Kot does a nice job is with Waller and the new recruit, because he sets up a pretty cool dynamic between them over the course of the book, leading to a pretty cool ending. The biggest problem with the ending is that it would work a billion times better with Olde-Timey Waller rather than Nu-Skool Waller, but it's still a pretty neat little twist that nevertheless feels perfectly in character.
Kot, like a lot of good writers, thinks about how the characters' back stories and how they will react to certain situations instead of just forcing his characters into a plot without thought, so his observations about King Shark and Harley are fascinating. This is why the book comes tantalizingly close to being a must-read, even though it's not quite there. From what we know about his writing so far, Kot seems like he wants to examine the possibilities of propaganda and manipulation in his comics, so the game between his two main characters should be interesting to watch, as well as the psychotic interactions between the team itself.
There's a lot to like in Suicide Squad #20, even if it's not a great comic. It's the kind of book that hints at better things, but we've seen that before in both DC and Marvel books. The key for Kot is whether DC lets him loose or not. They certainly don't have anything to lose, but that hasn't necessarily helped in the past. Right now, issue #20 offers a glimpse at a psychological horror comic, which Kot could probably do very well. It would be nice if we could see that kind of thing to fruition as his run gets going.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
(I should point out that in addition to Kot and Zircher, the book was colored by Jason Keith, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, assistant edited by Harvey Richards, edited by Wil Moss, and senior edited by Brian Cunningham. It's - sigh - 20 pages long, and costs $2.99.)