Suicide Squad Vol. 2: The Nightshade Odyssey

Written by John Ostrander

Illustrated by Luke McDonnell

Colored by Julianna Ferriter

Inked by Bob Lewis

Lettered by Todd Klein

Task Force X, or the “Suicide Squad” as it’s more popularly known, is one of the crazier concepts in comics that has found unlikely, long-running success.  Beginning as an almost throwaway name in the Silver Age, the group (or rather, the name) was resurrected in the late Eighties as a government-sponsored group of villains fighting for reduced prison sentences.

It’s a really great idea, and it served two functions: bring lesser-known characters to the forefront so they could develop personalities, have character arcs, and gain some exposure (I promise you nobody remembered who Deadshot was before this book); and have an in-universe explanation as to why villains were always running around even after they were incarcerated.

And don't tell me that you wouldn't have picked this up even out of curiosity.
And don’t tell me that you wouldn’t have picked this up even out of curiosity.

In the hands of John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell, what could have been an interesting miniseries or a disposable one-shot instead became one of the most intricate, rich narratives of its time.  Different incarnations of the team have come and gone over the years while still maintaining popularity that exists even today, and the series introduced changes to the status quo of characters like Barbara Gordon and Floyd Lawton that shaped them for years to come.

With the impending release of the Suicide Squad film next August, DC has been releasing the original run of the book in graphic novel form.  The first volume, Trial by Fire, was released this past September and while it doesn’t have any Batman related characters, it’s still well worth checking out: it contains the origins of the Squad, as well as the first few arcs they were involved in.  Some of the stories are a bit dated, but it’s still great storytelling, and “Mission to Moscow,” the final arc in the volume in which the team is sent to Russia to free a prisoner who may not actually want rescuing, is worth full price by itself.

Seriously, check it out; it’s fantastic.

Where that volume doesn’t have any connections to Batman, the second volume certainly does.  In fact, issue #10’s “Up Against the Wall” finds Batman going up against Amanda Waller in an attempt to bring the Task Force down, and it’s one of the most popular stories from the era.

We’ll get to that, though.  First up is a Millennium tie-in, because we all totally remember Millennium, right?!

Millennium, Week 4: “The Final Price”•

Right.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the event, but a quick search reveals that the story revolves around a group of humans being selected to be the next stage of evolutionary progress, and the Manhunters deciding they aren’t down with that.

Even though they’re kind of robots, but whatever.

Luckily, even though this is a tie-in that comes at the halfway point of the main crossover series, it’s easy to put together what’s going on: the Squad has been tasked with taking a bomb to the Manhunters’ base and setting it off.

Pretty simple, really, but it’s still a relatively tense issue.  There’s some resolution to a plot thread that originated in the first volume, and some pretty great fights in the Louisiana swampland.

And an answer to whether the armbands were a bluff.
And an answer to whether the armbands were a bluff.

Series mainstays Rick Flag, Jr., Deadshot, Bronze Toger, and Captain Boomerang are joined by Slipknot, Privateer, and Flag’s unrequited love Karin Grace on what amounts to a, you guessed it, suicide mission.

…oh, I just got it!

And Captain Atom and Firestorm appear for like two and a half pages before disappearing, because crossover events.
And Captain Atom and Firestorm appear for like two and a half pages before disappearing, because crossover events.

While this is a strange issue to open a collection with, it still showcases the series’ strengths: these are characters who really, really don’t like each other…

This book would be worth reading if it were just Harkness and Lawton being jerks to each other for 300 pages.
This book would be worth reading if it were just Harkness and Lawton being jerks to each other for 300 pages.

But they have their own codes of honor and just want to get the job done.

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Other than for completionist’s sake it may be unnecessary, and moving it somewhere else in the volume may have done it some good, but it’s still a good read.

•”Up Against the Wall”•

That is a cover, my friends.
That is a cover, my friends.

I wish I hadn’t been, like, two when this issue was on the stands, because man would this cover had caught my attention.  Who is that lady, and why does she have the nerve to go up against Batman?  Masterful visual storytelling right there, and the story within more than supports it.

In fact, everything about this issue is a pretty remarkable example of tension and anticipation.  There are several disparate stories at play, almost making it seem like this is going to be a filler, “day in the life” story about the mundane goings-on at Belle Reve.

Until we’re introduced to one Matches Malone and the “sealed evidence container” for Gotham’s own Jim Gordon.

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I love Matches, for the record.

Ostrander writes some really great lines, particularly Waller’s closing reassessment of Flag.  The conflict with Batman is handled really well too, resulting in an inevitable stalemate.  Frankly, when those two meet, any other outcome wouldn’t be believable; it’s an unstoppable force/immovable object situation.

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It’s McDonnell, though, who really carries the storytelling weight.  He utilizes a twelve-panel grid to ratchet up the tension, evoking a claustrophobic atmosphere and really driving home the fact that Batman has to tread lightly lest he blow his cover.

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He understands the efficiency and skill of Bruce, too, illustrating some incredibly fluid fight scenes and one sequence with Deadshot that is absolutely brilliant in its execution and use of perspective.

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And I know we’ve all seen it, but in its context, the shot of an angry, prowling Batman as picked up on a video camera is one of the most frightening illustrations of the character ever put to paper.

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Props to Ferriter and Lewis for their contributions, too, as it’s just as much about the shading and colors as the pose that makes that shot so effective.

This isn’t the first time Batman will show up in this volume, but even if it was, the brilliant break-in plot and creative visuals would more than justify a full review.  The fact that it’s just as good a story about the series regulars as it is a good story about Batman just goes to show how great this book was.

•DC Special: The Doom Patrol and Suicide Squad #1: “Red Pawn”•

Now this… yeesh.  It takes place over five days, and that’s seriously how long it took me to read it.  This story just… it’s not very good.  It involves the Doom Patrol and the Suicide Squad accidentally teaming up to rescue Hawk Dove whichever the red one is from a Nicaraguan prison, and… well, here’s all you need to know about this story:

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Yeah.  Pretty nice pencils from Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen, but… yeah.

It’s overly long and incredibly boring, without a single character anyone cares about.  The Squad consists of Flag, Psi, Mr. 104, Weasel, and Thinker, and I had to look up almost every single one of those guys.  With the Doom Patrol, they take on a battalion of Rocket Reds (yay, someone I’ve heard of), and while the fight is staged well, it’s too little too late.

I know the Squad is expendable, but this is the first time they felt disposable, and that’s a shame.

President Reagan sure does have some fabulous hair, though.

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•”Blood & Snow”•

The two-parter “Blood & Snow” is much better than the Doom Patrol crossover, though it does have its own problems.

After model Mari McCabe, alias Vixen, returns from snorkeling to discover the entire crew and team of models on her photoshoot have been killed, she reports to the Suicide Squad for assistance.  One of the cameramen had accidentally snapped a picture of a drug deal out at sea, so the drug-runners came to shore and killed everyone.

The Squad’s mission: a three-pronged attack against drug lord Xavier Cujo.  On team attacks his fortress, another razes his stock of cocaine, and the final group assassinates Cujo himself.  Speedy is on hand to provide some needed intel and lead one of the stroke teams, and while it’s nice to see him, he’s ultimately wasted with little to do. Vixen had a more prominent role, though, which is a welcome counterpoint to the regular cast of characters.

The story itself is told well, though the anti-drug sentiment seems a bit heavy-handed today, and it also explains why Flag was the only Squad regular in the previous story.

Luke McDonnell is back on penciling duties, and while he doesn’t quite seem to understand how knives work:

That guy is clearly faking it.
That guy is clearly faking it.

…his style is still perfect for this series, balancing tense action and genuinely funny bits of humor.

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If Jai Courtney doesn’t do that in the movie, I’m demanding a refund.

•”Collision Course”/”Battle Lines”•

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I absolutely love how these two covers are laid out and act as different perspectives in the same scene.

This story has Mister Miracle and Guy Gardner.  Automatic four stars.

During the events of “Mission to Moscow,” the Squad was forced to leave one of their own behind.  Now, Flag has decided to defy orders and go back for Nemesis, despite Waller’s warning that it’s a trap set by the Soviet Government.

With her team insubordinate and risking an international crisis, Waller goes to the President who calls on the Justice League International to head to Russia and hopefully act as peacekeepers when the Squad arrives.

It’s an intriguing premise, and frankly, the way it plays out is just as fun as it sounds.  It helps that the two-parter ran through the two separate titles, allowing each creative team to imbue their own casts with personality and making it difficult to root against either side in the conflict.

Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League International #13 kicks off the story, and it’s full of the trademark humor that the series was known for.

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You know the famous “one punch” knockout of Guy Gardner?  Same dudes.

There’s also quite a bit of tension between Batman and J’onn J’onzz, the latter being the leader of the Justice League who took the role on after Batman’s own recommendation.

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Frankly, as much as I love Batman, it’s kind of great seeing another character call him out when his tactics and attitude obviously aren’t working.

Amazingly enough, things get even crazier in the second half when Ostrander takes over writing duties.  It’s pretty much non-stop fighting between the Justice League and the Suicide Squad, most of which is played for laughs.

Captain Atom and Nightshade are totally going steady or whatever. I'm serious.
Captain Atom and Nightshade are totally going steady or whatever. I’m serious.

My personal favorite fight?  Javelin and Booster Gold, whose costumes look the exact same.

Pictured: Javelin (left, I think) and Booster Gold (right, probably)
Pictured: Javelin (left, I think) and Booster Gold (right, probably)

It’s not all goofing around, though, as Rick Flag and Batman engage in an incredibly brutal fight that leaves Flag hospitalized, and there’s a really touching scene between Vixen and J’onn.

And whatever's going on with Guy here.
And whatever’s going on with Guy here.

This story is genuinely great, and combined with the earlier appearance of Batman it makes this volume worth picking up.  It’s funny, tense, and exciting, with some great international intrigue and genuine suspense.  It even makes me want to go back and read that Giffen/DeMatteis run just to see more of these characters and put everything in context.

Even if Batman is being a bit of a bozo.

•Secret Origins: “A Princess Story”•

Nightshade gets the spotlight as we enter the home stretch, with her origin recounted by Robert Greenberger with pencils by Rob Liefeld hey wait, where are you going?  Come back.

His work here really isn’t that bad.  Everything is relatively on-model, and he’s even capable of drawing feet.  Feet!

There's a typo, though, so it's a wash.
There’s a typo, though, so it’s a wash.

Narratively speaking, the writing is uneven.  Father Richard Craemer, the chaplain of Belle Reve who first appeared back in issue #10, has a nice speech on faith that’s surprisingly even-handed, and once the pieces come together to lead up to the titular odyssey, things start getting pretty exciting.

Unfortunately, Eve Eden’s recounting of her origin is really clumsy and clunky.  It’s heavy on exposition, and even for a backstory involving magical kingdoms and gigantic mushrooms it’s pretty corny.

That doesn’t matter, though, as the epic quest that closes out this volume is brought into context, with several other dangling threads and character appearances finally making sense (side note: I totally thought Father Richard was going to end up being Batman’s disguise to access the prison, so I was pleasantly surprised to see him again since he seemed like nothing but a red herring.)

By itself it’s fine, not phenomenal or remarkably memorable, but as a small part of a larger whole it gets the job done, especially in the much stronger second half.

And don’t worry, there’s a Liefeldism or two in there too.

Oh, Rob, you cad.
Oh, Rob, you cad.

“The Nightshade Odyssey: ‘Slipping Into Darkness/Devil to Pay/Deathzone'”•

As recounted in the Secret Origins installment, the heroine Nightshade is actually Eve Eden, the daughter of the queen of the Nightshade realm.  When her mother takes Eve and her brother Larry to her kingdom to demonstrate their powers, it is discovered that the evil Incubus who drove her away in the first place is still there.  His servants kidnap Larry and severely wound Eve’s mother, who tells her to run and return once she’s more adept with her power.

Over the years, Eve trains and makes a few sojourns to the realm, only to be driven out shortly thereafter.  One of those excursions leads to a confrontation with the Incubus that she survives, but her power is greatly diminished.  After years of work with the CBI, Eve joins the Suicide Squad on the condition that she can use the team for her own personal mission when the time comes.

And here we are.

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For a story that goes so many weird places, it’s the smaller moments that really stand out.  Waller has an ongoing internal struggle with her own anger and what her superiors are asking of her, and the above scene with Lawton and his psychiatrist may be one of the best of the whole book.

The team’s journey into the Nightshade Kingdom carries the most promise, and for a while at least it delivers.  Some of the landscapes are just crazy, bringing a welcome element of the unreal to a book that mostly tries to stay grounded.

This isn't the fifth weirdest thing going on in this issue.
This isn’t the fifth weirdest thing going on in this issue.

Upon arrival at the Incubus’ castle, Eve makes the tragic discovery that Larry is no longer himself, but the new vessel for the monstrous presence.  What follows is a truly weird and kind of gross tale of the Incubus taking over hosts, trying to reunite with its sister the Succubus (which also turns out to be the source of June Moone’s Enchantress powers), and its desire to… keep things in the family.

Its unsettling, but effective, elevating the conflict to a pseudo-Greek tragedy, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t explored in more depth.

Also tragic and also a shame: that hair.
Also tragic and also a shame: that hair.

My main issue with this story is that it has a third act turn so drastic that it effectively becomes a completely different story.  After such great build-up over the past few issues, it’s a disappointment to see the villain dispatched so early and for the primary protagonist to be out of commission before the arc is over.  It’s anticlimactic for sure, and made worse by the third issue becoming a Shade, the Changing Man story halfway through.

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Listen, I’m all about reading stories about a guy in a terrible costume from an alternate dimension who has a crazy magic vest whose powers aren’t fully known, but come on, have it make sense.  His story is introduced and rushed through so quickly I thought for sure that it was going to lead into a new arc, but… no.  It just ends.

And frankly, given how generally strong this volume is, that’s disappointing.

Oh, NOW I get it!
Oh, NOW I get it! (I’m not afraid to recycle jokes)

Bonus Features: Nada.

Value: $12.99 isn’t a bad price to pay for some genuinely great comics, and at close to 300 pages it’s a steal.

Overall: There are some lows that are pretty low, but the highs more than make up for the narrative shortcomings.  The Batman story from the tenth issue is worth it alone and may be one of the best individual issues of the era, the Justice League crossover isn’t that far behind it in terms of quality, and the two-parter with Speedy and Vixen showed both how the Squad could be used to tackle real world issues and the dysfunctional team dynamics that make the book work so well.  Read the first volume, read this one, then read more as they’re released to get a true taste of Task Force X in action.

SCORE: 8/10