The 2016 Suicide Squad movie might not have been everything the viewers wanted, but it certainly demonstrated just how good the basic idea behind the Squad really is. Who doesn’t want to see villains doing good against their will, as motivated by a grumpy woman who stuck bombs in their heads?
The strength of that idea might explain the longevity of the Suicide Squad in comics. Created in 1987 as part of the Legends crossover before debuting in their own series, the team has waxed and waned in the decades since but never strayed too far from the comics consciousness, with relaunches occurring periodically ever since. As audiences get excited about the team’s return to movies with James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, here’s a guide to some of the best of those comics and just where new readers can get started to catch up on where we’re at now.
The Doom Patrol and Suicide Squad Special (1988)
By John Ostrander, Paul Kupperberg & Erik Larsen
A crossover special teaming the Suicide Squad and a forgotten 1980s incarnation of the Doom Patrol might not seem like the most obvious place to find an archetypal Squad story, but it’s part of the concept’s DNA to do the unexpected. Given the opportunity to tell a throwaway story promoting the Squad’s then-new series and a cast of characters that few people really cared about, Ostrander and Kupperberg proceed to tell one of the darker stories of the Squad’s earliest days, killing off members at great speed and telling a particularly cynical, political story along the way.
As if the opportunity to see villains like Mr. 104 and Psi bite the dust wasn’t enough, this storyline also offers the chance to revisit such 1980s DC staples as Hawk (of “and Dove” fame) as a rightwing ideologue, the Russian super soldier program known as the Rocket Red Brigade, and the obsession from the era with gunrunning as a political hot button issue. All this, plus early art from Savage Dragon creator Larsen!
If you like it: Read Checkmate, the quasi-espionage series that Kupperberg was writing for DC around the same time. There’s something to be said for how willing DC was to insert politics into its superhero titles at the time, even if those politics seem somewhat archaic viewed from today’s perspective.
Apokolips Now (1989)
By John Ostrander, Kim Yale, John K. Snyder Iii & Luke Mcdonnell
After almost three years of letting Amanda Waller and a rotating team of ne’er-do-wells loose on the various political power structures of the DCU’s Earth, it was clearly time that the stakes were upped considerably — like seeing the team, including Waller, kidnapped and let loose on Apokolips to take on the forces of Darkseid, without anything resembling a plan.
Although it may seem like an unexpected conflict, it was practically a reunion of sorts, with the Squad having initially debuted in 1986’s Legends, a crossover event with Darkseid as the big bad behind the scenes. Of course, that wasn’t what was foremost in most fans’ minds at the time the story was published; instead, everyone wanted to know who would win in a straight-up standoff between Waller and Apokoliptian fearnanny Granny Goodness. Suffice to say, that question was answered by the time the story ended, and it was glorious.
If you like it: Read the recent Female Furies series from Cecil Castellucci and Adriana Melo. Not only does it feature Granny Goodness and her entourage in starring roles, but there’s no small level of crossover in terms of both stories’ interest in how women are treated in Apokolips’ dystopian hellscape. Who’d’ve thought?
The Phoenix Gambit (1990)
By John Ostrander, Kim Yale & Geof Isherwood
Midway through the run of the original Suicide Squad series, the creative team decided to shake things up by setting Waller free and turning her Squad freelance. No longer government agents, the team was able to travel the world with new abandon, and creators allowed to let the stories go wherever their whims took them.
It all started with “The Phoenix Gambit,” which guest-starred Batman — it was the year after the first Tim Burton movie, so why not — and demonstrated just how a Squad that operated without costumes, but with their particular brand of cynicism and dark humor, would exist in the brave new world of the 1990s. If anything, they still seemed ahead of their time.
If you like it: Read the couple of years that followed in Suicide Squad, especially issues #48 and #49, which saw the reveal that the mysterious online entity that had been helping Amanda Waller for some time was, in fact, Barbara Gordon; it’s the sequel to The Killing Joke that was far better than the original book deserved.
By Sean Ryan & Phillipe Briones
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to revive the Squad in the early 2000s, the New 52 brought back the Squad with a series that never quite managed to come together. The subsequent series, New Suicide Squad, might have had a more awkward name, but it proved to be a more successful attempt at updating the classic formula, especially in the “Monsters” storyline.
With a team mixing regulars Deadshot and Harley Quinn with guest stars Black Manta and Reverse Flash, and a plot involving a cult of assassins that proves to be a little too attractive to certain members of the team, it’s a story that mixes a grim sense of humor with a particularly potent pessimism that feels like the first time since the 1980s original that someone fully got what the Suicide Squad could be — and was willing to do what it took to get there.
If you like it: Read the “Discipline and Punish” storyline from the previous 2011 Suicide Squad series — an abandoned attempt to relaunch the property from writer Ales Kot that ended all too quickly, perhaps because it was just too perverse to live.
The Black Vault (2016)
By Rob Williams & Jim Lee
When Judge Dredd writer Williams took over the Squad for the 2016 DC Universe Rebirth relaunch, he brought what might have been a missing part of the concept’s DNA all along: a manic energy that was allowed the ridiculous, the wonderfully dumb, the sincere, and the deviously intelligent to co-exist seemingly naturally, bringing the title to new heights.
It all started with an opening storyline that touched on an unexpected piece of DC mythology, while also living up to the deadly promise of the series’ name — and, hilariously, suggesting that death wasn’t necessarily all it was cracked up to be, at the same time. Fun and unstoppable, the mission statement of the new series was clear by the time this story ended: All of the old rules are out the window.
If you like it: Read Williams’ recent Judge Dredd work, especially “Trifecta” (written with Si Spurrier and Al Ewing, with art by Henry Flint, D’israeli, and Carl Critchlow) and “The Small House,” illustrated by Flint. Not only is he flexing muscles here that he showed off in Suicide Squad, but you’ll also meet a character called Dirty Frank who really should have made it into the Squad at some point...
Burning Down The House (2017)
By Rob Williams & John Romita Jr.
Given that a core part of the Squad concept is that Amanda Waller keeps bombs in the heads of her team, it’s more than surprising that it took this long for someone to come up with a story that asked the obvious question: Why doesn’t someone just kill Amanda Waller?
Of course, it’s such an obvious question that there had to be more to it than that, and sure enough, there really is — including a whodunnit over just who did the deed, and what it might mean to the Squad as a whole that their handler has just been shot dead. Williams turns a murder mystery into something far stranger, while Romita’s artwork proves to be enjoyably evocative of the various grimy atmospheres expected of him in this twisty tale where nothing is what it seems.
If you like it: Read the rest of Williams’ run — especially his climactic storylines, where there’s even more emphasis on the idea that no-one gets to run with the Squad for too long without having blood on their hands and a price to pay. (That they’re called “Drain the Swamp” and “Shock and Awe” might give away that Williams wasn’t being entirely un-political with his intent here…)
Bad Blood (2020)
By Tom Taylor & Bruno Redondo
Having made Injustice into a must-read, maybe it should have been expected that Taylor and Redondo would easily be able to handle Suicide Squad, but their approach — which included dropping almost all of the traditional characters in favor of an all-new (and diverse) cast, and giving them a mission that extended far beyond “get the bad guys” — nonetheless was a welcome surprise.
It’s not just that the new characters were almost immediately recognizable and enjoyable, or that Taylor and Redondo had fun with remaining characters Deadshot and Harley Quinn (although, spoilers; one of them doesn’t make it out alive); it’s not even that the ultimate bad guy of the series came as a surprise to a lot of people. What made “Bad Blood” work was that it found an unexpected joy in the new purpose of the series, and stuck around just long enough to bring things to a close before anything got stale.
If you like it: Read Injustice: Gods Among Us and Injustice 2, if you haven’t already. Yes, I know they’re based on a video game with an evil Superman and where superheroes fight each other, but it’s also, somehow, one of the most uplifting and exciting DC superhero series in recent memory. (And the recent Injustice: Year Zero, even more so.) Taylor’s DCeased, with Trevor Hairsine, is another recommendation for those who haven’t gone there yet. Even for people sick of zombie stories!