Even if you’re familiar with DC’s colorful catalog, no one would fault you for not knowing a damned thing about Rick Flag. Considering the company’s vast pantheon of generic white military dudes, there’s very little that makes the character shine by his lonesome. No, not even that bright yellow top helps him stand out. Luke Cage wore it better.
So who the hell is Richard Rogers Flag, Jr.?
Debuting in 1959’s Brave and the Bold #25, Flag was created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru as leader of a quartet of government-sanctioned adventurers, nicknamed the Suicide Squad due to the volatility of their missions. The team lasted less than a year before it drifted into obscurity, popping up in Silver and Bronze Age comics whenever a writer/editor felt nostalgic.
When John Ostrander came to DC and revived the Suicide Squad brand he radically revamped the concept; however, as a diligent custodian of continuity, he knew he needed some connectivity to the past. Rick Flag tethered the new to the old, serving as the hard-assed leader to Amanda Waller’s band of supervillain soldiers. The one-two punch of Suicide Squad #1 and Secret Origins (v2) #14, both illustrated by Luke McDonnell, immediately set up a taut and tantalizing scenario for Flag. While the Legends crossover introduced the crux of his role – normative, rigid morals clashing with dissidents like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang – those two issues provide a glimpse into his eerily tragic history.
Courage. Duty. Sacrifice. Those core values are the mythology of Rick Flag; in Secret Origins #14 we learn how a trio of losses bake the concept of heroic death into the man. His mother gave her life to save him from a careening car; a grieving Richard Montgomery Flag flies his plane into the nefarious War Wheel, saving a city from ruin; in adulthood Rick Jr. leads the original Suicide Squad into a no-win situation and his colleagues, Hugh Evans and Jess Bright, are killed when attempting to take on a Cambodian Yeti.
In the back half of Suicide Squad’s premiere issue we discover the toll of these successive sacrifices. When the hardened and emotionally blunted Flag boards the SS-1 and laments the loss of his compatriots, he’s shocked to find Karin Grace, his former flame and ex-Squad-mate, has joined Waller’s staff as a medical expert. The reunion is anything but sweet as Karin expresses scorn in regard to Flag’s absence following the disastrous Cambodia mission. Though the exchange only lasts a few panels the dynamic between the two enforces Ostrander’s new status quo for Flag: a determined, brooding time bomb whose ticking is drowned out by the brightly costumed jackhammers surrounding him.
It’s quite fascinating to track Rick Flag’s febrile descent over the first third of the series, and I’ll argue that his arc is the backbone of the title’s first two years. After the disappointing meeting with Karin, the leader of the Squad achieves some minor victories. Yet when the team botches a rescue mission in Russia, the cracks start to form. In Suicide Squad #6, when the Enchantress goes full crazy, Flag salvages things by giving Deadshot some very direct motivation.
In the same issue Nemesis, a frequent ally of the Squad (but maybe not so much Amanda Waller), refers to Flag as a “part-time idiot,” specifically in reference to his ignorance of Nightshade’s affection for him. You can probably apply that comment broadly as well. Flag’s quality traits are washed out by huge deficiencies, like the apparent inability to form significant human connections. Rick’s abrasiveness towards members of the Squad is a constant you can count on. From the very beginning, and until the explosive end, Flag rarely shows affection or compassion for his inmate underlings, and can barely muster a respectful tone when interacting with his superiors.
A parade of personal and professional losses culminates in a dissolving of Flag’s sense of identity. In both issues #10 and #13 Flag faces off against Batman, with the latter turning into an almighty rumble. McDonnell draws one of his best pages in depicting of the savage brawl between two “iron” men too bullheaded to stop punching.
Though the Caped Crusader and Colonel Canary-Shirt are chasing the same ends, they fight due to Batman’s refusal to work with any members of Waller’s clandestine Task Force X. The simultaneous shunning and beating crushes Rick, and he takes it out verbally on the Squad. There’s a noticeable paradigm shift for both the character and the series when the premiere hero of the world, a man who knows everything about courage, duty and sacrifice, refuses to work with a guy who defines himself by those values.
The slow grind on the Flag’s psyche sets up arguably Suicide Squad’s most famous story. Issues #21-22 pay off the previous two years of plotting. “Rogues” is a great story through and through, and the centerpiece is Nightshade’s confrontation with Flag. She questions him about his recent withdrawal and practically begs him not to follow his father’s path, not to commit an unnecessary “respectable” suicide. She strikes at the heart of the Flag family legacy, calling it cowardice disguised as courage. Rick merely responds with defensive and emotionally dense retorts. Courage. Duty. Sacrifice. Flag perverts them in his mission to protect the Squad by assassinating its would-be-outers, Derek Tolliver and Senator Joe Cray. Flag’s Lincoln Memorial standoff with Deadshot robs him of everything. Deadshot’s murder of Cray works completely counter to Flag’s intent, exposing the world to the villains in the employ of the U.S. government.
Flag’s final mission in Suicide Squad #26 demonstrates John Ostrander’s mastery over longform comics. “Stone Cold Dead”, penciled by Grant Miehm with inks by Karl Kesel, is coy. It balances many ongoing and future subplots before getting to the meat of things, namely Flag’s journey into Jotunheim, home of the Jihad, to explode a hidden A-bomb left over from WWII. The path into the heart of the facility is expertly crafted; Miehm’s creative layouts and sturdy panels are complemented by caption narration of Flag’s shockingly poignant goodbye letter to Eve Eden. Slotted right before the ambitious “Judas Directive” crossover, issue #26 is stealthily crucial to the series at large. “Stone Cold Dead” proves anyone is expendable, actualizing the core tenant of Suicide Squad, and makes death count.
So. Who the hell is Rick Flag?
Underneath the prickly shell and the stern demeanor is one of the more damaged and empty characters crafted by Ostrander, McDonnell, and their collaborators. In rereading the series this summer I was surprised at how persistently aloof and brutish the character is, refusing to adhere to anything but his own personal belief structure. While figures like Deadshot and Count Vertigo are more prominent and theatrical commentaries on suicide and depression, Flag’s tale is perhaps more realistic in its depiction of the disorder. The dull life, interacting only with co-workers, having no apparent likes or dislikes… there’s a haunting undertone to Rick Flag Jr. and, in a truly sad way, it makes him one of the most sympathetic characters in the book.