The Oral History Of DC's SUICIDE SQUAD, Part One: The Origins, The Recruiting, The Bloodshed

"Suicide Squad" art
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Warner Bros.

Nearly 30 years ago in the DC Comics miniseries Legends, readers were introduced to a government official named Amanda Waller, a.k.a. “The Wall.” The Wall had a plan to deal with problems that needed to stay out of the public eye and that regular superheroes wouldn’t touch: Send supervillains in to do the dirty work, in exchange for time off their sentences.

Outfitted with explosive collars to prevent betrayal and guided by such equally-damaged government employees as Rick Flag, this motley crew became the headliners of Suicide Squad, a book unlike anything regular readers of the DC Universe were used to seeing at the time.

Missions were tinged with real-world countries and politics - and rarely ended with a clean-cut victory. Previously-minor characters, ranging from Deadshot to Bronze Tiger and even Captain Boomerang, were fleshed out with complex personalities and a self-destructive edge. The Squad lived up to the expendable quality of its name - characters died frequently, and they were often the ones who seemed the most heroic and/or competent. And the moral and ethical quandaries the Squad’s mere existence posed hovered over the proceedings, with everyone from the government to other heroes doing everything from trying to manipulate the Squad’s missions to getting them shut down for good.

On August 5, the Squad comes to theaters in one of this summer’s most-anticipated films, with an all-star cast including Will Smith, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, and Margot Robbie (among many, many others). In celebration of the new film, Newsarama assembled our own Squad-of-sorts in the form of the creators responsible for the versions of the characters you’ll see on screen for a special oral history of the Suicide Squad.

In this two-part look back, the creators reminisce about  how the book came about, the origins of the characters, and much, much more...including some never-before-seen behind-the-scenes materials from the making of the original book.

Sit back and prepare to take a trip down Suicide Lane with the people behind the most dangerous team ever.

Credit: DC Comics

 

SECRET ORIGINS

Mike Gold (editor, Legends): This series started as a discussion between John Ostrander and Bob Greenberger, although John wasn’t writing for DC as of yet. I think it might have been Bob who suggested reviving the name “Suicide Squad.”

Robert Greenberger (editor, main Suicide Squad series): John Ostrander and I had met as con road warriors and I was already a fan of his First Comics work so it was natural we’d want to work together. He first pitched Challenges of the Unknown, but Dick Giordano, our Executive Editor, said it was already promised.

Around that time, Legal would circulate a list of titles that needed to be used or DC might lose the trademark, and “Suicide Squad” was on the list.

Gold:  That title — like several other 1950s launches (Danger Trail, The Brave and the Bold)  – “Suicide Squad” originally was used as the title for a pulp magazine series.

Greenberger: While not a big fan of the Kanigher-Andru-Esposito stories from The Brave and the Bold, I found something catchy about the name. I pitched it to John; he wasn’t biting at first but the more he thought about it, the warmer he grew.

John Ostrander (writer/creator, Suicide Squad series): At first, I thought the premise was over-the-top. Then Irangate came about, and suddenly the concept of the Squad seemed much less far-fetched.

Gold: When I left First Comics to come over as DC's senior editor - later group editor and director of editorial development - it was with the understanding that I could bring over many of the folks I enjoyed working with at First. John was my initial choice, and when Dick Giordano asked me to develop the sequel event to Crisis on Infinite Earths (while I was still in Chicago and isolated from the NYC staff; this was Dick’s idea). John was my choice for plotter.

Bob Greenberger was assigned as my assistant editor, which was great as he was a friend whose professional work I respected. John told me about his discussions with Bob and, since my main purpose for the Legends mini-series was to use it as the launching pad for a number of new projects (such as the Wally West Flash and the Justice League) I thought Suicide Squad was a great idea to add.

John developed the story as well as the character of Amanda Waller in Legends, obviously, to great effect.

Ostrander: I still get some residuals for creating Amanda Waller. Many of the other characters already existed.

Credit: DC Comics

Greenberger: John was in Chicago, and this was the mid-1980s, so email was a ways off. So we spent a lot of time on the phone. We talked themes and story concepts. I poured through Who’s Who in an effort to find characters we could use, especially cannon fodder, but also recognizable ones no one wanted to use at the time.

Credit: DC Comics

Ostrander: The Flash had just been rebooted in Legends, and they weren’t interested in using his rogues gallery, but we didn’t really kill any of them off, though we used Captain Boomerang and later Captain Cold. I was writing Firestorm’s book, so yeah, I had free rein on killing off Firestorm villains.

Greenberger:  I immediately latched on to John’s idea for a full supporting cast working at Belle Reve, which gave us characters we could own and work with long-term.

Ostrander: Belle Reve was a concept I was very proud of, because at that point there was no specific prison in the DC Universe for holding metahumans.

Luke McDonnell (artist, Suicide Squad main series and Deadshot limited series): Designing Belle Reve was a lot of fun. I got to create a prison!

Greenberger: Later on, once Luke McDonnell and Karl Kesel were brought on board, we arranged conference calls and meetings at cons where practical.

Karl Kesel (inker, main Suicide Squad series): I’d been inking the Legends mini-series, which introduced the Suicide Squad. Remember, this is back when the lettering was actually on the art, so I got to read the comic book as I inked it.

As pages came in and I realized what John Ostrander was doing - the Dirty Dozen with super-villains - right away I thought “This is genius!” Very soon after that, I started to lobby editor Bob Greenberger to let me ink the Squad’s monthly title. Luke was already onboard as penciler. I finally wore Bob down and he gave me the gig - probably just to get me out of his hair!

Greenberger: Luke was more laconic, eager to draw new settings and characters.

Ostrander: With Luke, I wrote the book Marvel-style because he was so good at breaking down scenes into little moments – giving them this cinematic quality. I wanted to write around that.

McDonnell: John’s scripts were done Marvel-style – there’d be this very, very detailed plot, and I’d break it down into pages and panels, and then he’d go back and dialogue it. It made for a very close collaboration.

[Newsarama Note: McDonnell generously provided us with Ostrander’s plot to Suicide Squad #4, “William Hell’s Overture,”along with his first four pencil pages for Suicide Squad #6, seen with this article]

 

Credit: John Ostrander
Credit: John Ostrander

 

Credit: Luke McDonnell

 

Geof Isherwood (artist, second half of main Suicide Squad series): John - and Kim Yale, I must include - wrote very tight, very well-constructed scripts. Drawing at Marvel, I was used to the plot method, and totally expected to adapt that plot synopsis into storytelling and pages. What I immediately appreciated from the full scripts was knowing the dialog, so matching acting and expressions to what the characters were saying was much easier to do. And, given that they thought out their stories quite thoroughly, I rarely felt the need to deviate from that script for the sake of clearer storytelling.

Kesel: The thing I enjoyed most, without a doubt, was how collaborative John wanted the process to be. He said he saw us as a band, and we were all trying to make the best music possible, so however that happened was cool with him.

We each had our role to play - John on lead guitar, Luke on keyboards, I guess maybe I was drums - but we could all suggest things to the others. Whatever made the work better. That was one of the best lessons I ever learned in this industry and, quite honestly, it’s something I do to this day on any project I work on myself.

I took full - and probably unfair - advantage of this crack-in-the-door and started sending John long, hand-written letters filled with ideas about the Squad. Long letters. I believe his wife Kim named them “Kesel Epistles.”

John was unfailingly gracious - never complained, never told me to go jump in a lake - and actually incorporated a number of my suggestions into the book. To my great joy.

Ostrander: The briefing scenes came about because I hadn’t done a team book before. In the storylines, the team was often split up into several groups of smaller characters, and this was an opportunity to not only establish what the story was about, but to get them all in one place and let them bounce off each other. It was inspired by TV shows like Hill Street Blues, which was popular at the time.

Kesel: John’s writing was electrifying. Very exciting, very intense. Also: very funny. He constantly - constantly - took B- C- and D-level characters and didn’t just make them interesting, he made them memorable.

Greenberger: The book worked because in 1987 there were just a few team books at each company, and they were all heroes.

Credit: DC Comics

Adam Glass: (writer, "New 52" Suicide Squad): I use to get my comic books from this candy store in the Bronx and I remember seeing that amazing Suicide Squad #1 cover by Howard Chaykin.

And it was this great picture of all these bad guys, I've seen most of them before, but a few I hadn't. Then it says: “These 8 people will put their lives on the line for our country. One of them won't be coming back!” And I was in. Bad guys? Someone's going to die? Where do I sign up?

Ostrander:We ripped a lot of our plots from the headlines. The first issue of Suicide Squad opens with what appears to be terrorists taking out an airport full of people. I’m not sure they’d let us do a story like that today.  We always tried to keep one foot grounded in the real world.
 

THE WALL:

Gold: It was Amanda Waller that made the series unique. John created Amanda out of whole cloth, basing a few of her nuances on people he knew in Chicago.

Glass: Amanda Waller “The Wall” was a bad ass. She would take on Batman and call him “rich boy.” She knew his secrets and let him know it. Even Superman was scared of Batman, but not the Wall. Black, female, looked like your aunt, come on, you weren't seeing that anywhere else but Suicide Squad.

Credit: DC Comics

A favorite moment – Suicide Squad #10.  Batman, disguised as Matches Malone, sneaks into Belle Reve to steal some info and has it out with Waller, who gets the better of him.

Gold: Launching Amanda (in Legends) was wonderful and great fun - watching the reaction was great fun. When I got in the back seat, watching Amanda take on Batman was just a joy.

Ostrander: Amanda Waller was truly like a wall, the way Luke drew her - I loved what he brought to the character. When we got to go into her background, we saw the way something like that forged you. She was pragmatic, pure and simple.

Kesel: The Wall is one of the best characters introduced in comics in the last 30 years. Totally unique. I haven’t kept up with all her incarnations, but I feel very strongly that if she isn’t an overweight black woman - which instantly makes her someone who is both underestimate and highly intimidating - a lot of the point of the character’s been missed.

That said: Viola Davis is an amazing actress with the right sense of intensity and determination. She’ll rock as the Wall.

 

Credit: DC Comics

DEADSHOT:

Kesel: Deadshot was, of course, the book’s break-out character. And a favorite of mine as well.

Ostrander: Deadshot was a character they’d introduced in the 1950s, and then didn’t reintroduce him until the 1970s, with this brilliant costume design by Marshall Rogers. And then they didn’t do much with him after that, except appear in Batman anniversary issues.

I based his characterization on an interview I’d seen on TV with a hitman - just this cold, emotionless, matter-of-fact person. He said he didn’t value his life, why should he value yours?

Kesel: Suicide Squad #22 - when Deadshot shoots the Senator who’s blackmailing the Squad - is still, to this day, the one comic I’m most proud to have worked on. I still have all the original art from the story’s climax, and it’s never leaving my hands.

Credit: DC Comics

Ostrander:That moment, where Deadshot shoots Senator Cray so Flag won’t - that was a defining moment, for that character and for the Squad.

Kesel: In the moment Deadshot shoots the Senator, he is the story’s hero and villain - something I’ve never seen in comics before or since. I’m very proud to have been a small part of that.

But.

That storyline was in John’s original outline for the Squad - and in that outline Deadshot died in the hail of bullets following the Senator’s death. And I still think he should have died.

Yes, that would have deprived us of a great character, but it’s the one time I saw John’s fondness for a character soften what he did to the character. On one hand, yeah - I’m glad Deadshot is still around. John made him into a great character! But - that would have a been such a great death.

Credit: DC Comics

Greenberger: Killing Deadshot would have been a ballsy move, but the Bat-office liked what we were doing with him, and felt there was a place for him down the road. Additionally, we were free to do the miniseries, and killing him didn’t fit those plans.

Ostrander: The Deadshot miniseries let us get into the psychology of the character. Floyd idealized his brother, and in trying to “save”him, Floyd accidentally kills him, and that set Floyd down this path. It was dark, but you know, if you read noir, you know you have to go all the way. The cast of characters in this miniseries was so twisted that Deadshot came out looking pretty well.

McDonnell: The Deadshot miniseries, that was the first time I got to ink my own stuff. It’s some of my favorite work.

Ostrander: It was my favorite collaboration with Luke. The end of issue #3, where Deadshot tortures and kills the man who killed his son, and slowly pulls off his mask, and the last page is this splash-page close-up of him screaming “I’m coming home, Ma!”– that’s one of my favorite sequences ever.
 

CAPTAIN BOOMERANG:

Kesel: If you had told me a year earlier that I’d like Captain Boomerang -that he’d be one of my favorite characters and I’d be pushing for a one-shot starring him - I would have laughed in your face. And yet... that’s the magic of John’s writing.

Ostrander: Captain Boomerang was so much fun, because as low as you though he could sink, he’d find another level to sink. Of everyone on the Squad, he’s the only one who’s comfortable with who he is.

One of my favorite issues with Luke is the one where he’s been impersonating Mirror Master to commit crimes while not on Squad Duty, and he has to keep going back and forth, changing costumes, like an old farce.

Credit: DC Comics

Kesel: The thing I liked most about John’s Boomerang was that he had a real personality! He was an unrepentant sociopath who was constantly gaming the system. He was, as they say, clearly the star of his own, inner movie. When Waller tells everyone on the Squad that they’re expendable, you know Boomerang looked around and thought “Yeah, right. They certainly are.” But he never thought that applied to him.

Credit: DC Comics

I loved that he did the bare minimum to stay on the Squad. He certainly wasn’t someone I’d trust. But John gave him an easygoing charm that made him tolerable, otherwise I’m sure Deadshot or someone else would have put him out of their misery about two issues into the series! He’s the sort of character who’s great to watch from a distance, but you would absolutely hate in real life.

I pushed and pushed for a one-shot with the character - which, at one point, was supposed to be written by John, laid-out by Keith Giffen, with me supplying finished art; I even roughed out a logo! It didn’t happen, but it would have been sweet

Greenberger: We got to make Captain Boomerang a real corrupt villain, first with masquerading as Mirror Master to avoid Waller, and then the whole pie gag.

Ostrander: The pie in the face gag - we stretched that out for two years.

Kesel: Funny story: I wanted to do an arc in Superboy guest-starring the Squad, and I ran into a lot of resistance. The Squad’s own book had just been cancelled, and the thinking was: sales clearly indicate there’s no interest in these characters. Why use them? But I love the Squad, stood my ground, and did the three-part “Watery Grave” story. (The first time King Shark worked with the Squad, I’ll point out).

I said it wasn’t the Squad without Waller, Deadshot, and Boomerang - and those are the only characters I was cleared to use. Everyone else came from the Superboy book. Which was fine with me - it’s still one of my favorite Superboy stories.

There was talk at the time about killing Boomerang in one of the big events that was being planned - no idea which - and I begged them to let me kill him in my Superboy story instead. If he was going to die, I wanted him to be killed by someone who loved him. In the end, they only let me maim him - I had Deadshot shoot him in both hands. Can’t remember what happened with Boomerang after that - he’s dead now? Replaced by his son or something, right?

DC’s always had trouble with older characters— feels the fans can’t relate to them.

The thing with Boomerang is - yes, he was older, he was balding- but that was part of the point. He was an old dog who couldn’t learn new tricks! Not only couldn’t— didn’t want to! And the fact that he was older proved he was good at what he did. It worked for him. He was a survivor! None of that comes through with a younger character. Oh, well...  

Continue on and read part two of  Newsarama's Oral History of DC's Suicide Squad. With tallies of favorite characters, favorite moments, and the body count the team has accumulated over the years.

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