There are few phrases sillier in the ever-more-shrill world of internet cultural complaints — I mean, criticism — than “So-and-so remake/reboot/update of beloved pop culture property has ruined my childhood.”
I do not use it; I do not believe it is a thing. Your childhood is just fine even if there’s a new version of “Ghostbusters.” Or, rather, if your childhood was a nightmare, it’s not Kate McKinnon’s fault.
However, I had a moment of “welp” when Warner Bros./DC announced in 2014 that a movie called “Suicide Squad,” set in a low-lit, muted palette universe, was forthcoming.
That “welp” turned to a low whistle and a perpetual head shake as more and more images from the movie appeared that made it look like a low-rent spin on everything. Then we saw Jared Leto as the Joker, covered in tattoos and sporting a grill on his teeth. Then the movie turned out to be kind of terrible.
Because “Suicide Squad” — at least the 66-issue, 1987 to 1992 version (much of which has been collected in paperback) — was one of the very first comics I thought of as MINE. I was there from issue one and hooked from the first page. Written by perpetually underrated comics scribe John Ostrander (joined, at the time, by his wife Kim Yale, who died in 1997) and drawn by top-flight storytellers such as Luke McDonnell, Geof Isherwood and Karl Kesel, “Suicide Squad” remains one of the smartest and most entertaining mainstream comics of the 1980s.
The original Suicide Squad debuted in the pages of “The Brave and the Bold” in 1959, a time when superheroes were not that popular. Created by famously gonzo DC Comics writer Robert Kanigher and artist Ross Andru, the original Squad were a fairly generic group of non-powered, World War II-era outsiders who fought giant monsters. An anthology of those early stories has just been published.
When Ostrander revived the concept in 1987 — a time when DC was all about trying out new, darker concepts in the wake of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight” — he went full “Dirty Dozen.” Here was a group of supervillains promised a measure of leniency if they undertook deniable missions for the government.
Big comic book companies never throw anything away, and “Suicide Squad” allowed Ostrander to breathe new life into B- and C-list bad guys.
Trust me, nobody, not even those of us who considered ourselves serious DC Comics nerds, was thinking too much about Bronze Tiger or Enchantress at the time. But in Ostrander’s hands, these obscurities were turned into a fascinating team, part super-powered adventure, part special-ops thriller. Sure, they fought aliens and supervillians. But their missions also reflected Reagan-era foreign policy, the morality of interventionism and the price of getting bad people to do bad things for what one is convinced is a good cause. The stories hold up.
And again, these were C-listers, which meant that Ostrander could maybe kill them off at will if he wanted to. Nobody felt untouchable.
The team’s ostensible leader, Rick Flag Jr., was a troubled, battle-scarred, black ops type, but it was the old Batman baddie Deadshot who became the team’s chaotic neutral center — was he just an amoral sociopath (yes, mostly) or did he struggle with his own code of honor? (Yes, now and then).
And then there was Amanda Waller, one of the all-time greats.
A short, squat, middle-age African-American intelligence operative and career bureaucrat, Waller could not have looked less like most comic book tough guys of 1987 (or 2016, for that matter).
But Ostrander wrote her as a ruthless puppet master, a woman who could manipulate the president and stare down Batman in one afternoon. No wonder she has been a part of the DC universe ever since.
The book came to a close in 1992, around the time that Image Comics and its all-splashy-art-no-plot style was starting to dominate the market.
Attempts at revivals have long faltered; the closest was (noted Ostrander fan) Gail Simone’s terrific mid-2000s series “Secret Six,” which had all the moral dynamics of “Squad.”
The most recent incarnation, “The New Suicide Squad,” which launched in 2014, could not look more like PG-13 torture porn. As you might imagine, the movie takes far too many of its cues from this version.
But if you are in the mood for classic 1980s adventure from a time when mainstream comics were still trying to figure out how far they could push the envelope, well, I am jealous you get to read “Suicide Squad” for the first time.