Suicide Squad is one of the most unique super-hero comics ever published. It revels in antiheroes, features storylines with inconclusive endings, and takes place in the real world rather than the highly fictionalized earth of DC Comics. Where many comic adventures take place in a word that seems far from the daily news headlines, Suicide Squad reads like the backstories never reported in the newspapers of the late 1980s and early 1990s. At its best, Suicide Squad unfolds like a secret history of Reagan-Bush foreign policy.
From the opening scenes of Suicide Squad #1, it’s clear that this comic will be unlike any other comic featuring costumed characters.
The issue opens in a setting familiar to nearly all readers: a busy urban airport. Ordinary people mill around, dashing to their terminals to catch flights or to baggage claim to reclaim their precious possessions. But soon it’s clear that not all these people are ordinary. Some of the people in the crowd are super-powered terrorists wearing ordinary clothes, muttering prayers to Kali. As some of the terrorists’ allies come through extra-spatial holes, this relatively normal scene grows terrifying. These super-powered guerillas, dressed in the same sorts of clothes that you and I might wear, massacre hundreds of civilians — and appear to kill the President of the United States.
As the action ends, our hearts are in our chests. This isn’t supposed to happen. The terrorists can’t win. Readers are thrown off guard by the desolation of the sequence’s final scene, which shows hundreds of people dead in the airport. We are thrown off even more by the apparent near-reality of the incident.
This was just a simulation, an internal beta test for President Hurrambi Marlo of Qurac, an exporter of terrorism and mash-up of dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The plain-clothes villains are called the Jihad, and they look to complete the plan they tested in the airport simulation. The American President wasn’t in danger at that moment, but Marlo has ambitions to make a statement that will be remembered forever. Thankfully Amanda Waller, Rick Flag and other members of the American intelligence community have a plan to combat this evil. They will recruit a new Suicide Squad of villains to fight what Marlo and his Jihad represent. Few brightly-costumed heroes could ever be part of a struggle that promises to be this ruthless. It takes a villain to defeat a villain, and only a team of villains can provide the government plausible deniability in what is essentially an illegal proxy war. The recruitment of the Suicide Squad will be the first move in a long chess game between our antiheroes and their nemeses, a game that mirror events happening in the non-fictional world.
The struggle between Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad and Marlo’s Jihad spans nearly the full run of Suicide Squad, providing a terrifying real-word grounding for this action series. Along the way this ongoing battle will also correspond with the ways the United States sees itself in an ever-changing world, during an era when America sometimes found itself in league with villainous campaigns and in which truly heroic freedom fighters could be hard to find. In a super-hero universe suffused with bright colors, the world of the Suicide Squad was muted and confusing. As with America’s leaders of the time, few Squad members escaped their missions with clean hands.
The New World Order
Suicide Squad premiered in comic shops in late February 1987, mere months after the 1986 mid-year elections. The ’86 elections were largely seen as a referendum on President Ronald Reagan; he’d won re-election in 1984 with a crushing 58 percent of the popular vote, but became embroiled in a series of scandals during his second term in office. As a result, Democrats regained control of the Senate in the midterms and immediately launched investigations into events they saw as Presidential overreach.
One of the hallmarks of President Reagan’s foreign policy was a series of proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union. Under the Reagan’s administration, the US military invaded the small nation of Grenada to remove a Communist government, supported the government of El Salvador even as it used death squads against its people, and funded the corrupt Contras of Nicaragua to overthrow a democratically elected Socialist government. This sort of strategic interference had been part of American foreign policy since the end of World War II. For instance, the CIA conspired to overthrew governments in countries such as Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1957), Chile (1973), and, perhaps most fatefully, Iran (1953).
President Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service drove the overthrow of democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Mosaddegh had threatened to nationalize Iran’s enormous oil industry, which in turn threatened American and British power and profits in the region. American forces helped execute a coup against Mosaddegh and installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah (essentially the king) of Iran. The Shah proved to be a dependable American ally in the Middle East; at the same time, he ruled his country with an iron fist. By 1979, however, the Shah’s power had begun to fade and the rage of his citizens grew unabated.
Fundamentalist Iranian Cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini headed a movement to overthrow the Shah. His resulting revolution, and incipient anger at the United States over the coup, helped lead to the 1979-81 Tehran hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The hostage crisis was a key reason Reagan won the 1980 election over incumbent President Jimmy Carter. By the mid-80s, however, as Iran became embroiled in a seemingly never-ending war with neighboring Iraq, relations between America and Iran were secretly thawing. In the realpolitik world of the Cold War, the Reagan administration needed Iran to help America’s anticommunist ambitions. This secret thawing of relations led to the biggest crisis of Reagan’s presidency.
The most important foreign policy scandal of Reagan’s administration – and in fact one of the biggest foreign policy scandals in American history – was the Iran-Contra scandal. Senior Reagan administration officials secretly facilitated the sales of arms to Iran (then embargoed from buying weapons from the US) in order to illegally fund counter-revolutionary Contras in Nicaragua. The scandal convulsed the American people, and drew intensive attention to the US’s long history of meddling in the affairs of foreign countries.
At the same time, relations between the United States and Soviet Union had never been more unpredictable. Reagan reached office promising to dominate our longtime Cold War enemies. His first term was marked by an escalation of the Cold War, especially in Asia and Central America, as both countries sponsored counterrevolutionary militias to help bolster their limited resources. However, in March 1985 a new leader took over the Soviet Union and changed everything. Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power as the youngest leader in the USSR’s history. Gorbachev embraced glasnost and perestroika, openness and restructuring, and helped make the once closed society much more open to free speech, dissent, and limited capitalism. A fateful summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986 humanized the two men to each other, allowing their warm personal relationship to break the longstanding wall of mistrust between the two countries. In the wake of that summit, both countries were able to pursue a new world order that did not revolve around a conflict between the world’s great superpowers.
Suicide Squad thus premiered at a time when world affairs were unpredictable and in which the old stasis was beginning to change. After George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan in 1988, and Gorbachev’s reforms began to bear fruit, world affairs lost their former focus. The bipolar relationship between the US and USSR had provided a kind of terrifying stability worldwide. The new world order brought an even more frightening uncertainty. As Gorbachev said in 1988:
“Whether in the East or the South, the West or the North, hundreds of millions of people, new nations and states, new public movements and ideologies have moved to the forefront of history. Broad-based and frequently turbulent popular movements have given expression, in a multidimensional and contradictory way, to a longing for independence, democracyand social justice. The idea of democratizing the entire world order has become a powerful socio-political force.” (Speech to the United Nations, New York, NY, December 7, 1988)
The Heroes Villains Shall Save Us
Superman was a “golden boy” hero for the old world order. As the bipolar conflict receded, however, rogues such as Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Shade became the dark and gritty antiheroes of the New World Order. It was their responsibility to execute the clandestine plans of America’s intelligence agencies (later the plans of countries that need mercenaries to carry out political actions) and bring some order to the chaos caused by the slow fade of the Soviet Union’s influence on global geopolitics. Whether engaging with the Quraci Jihadists, or the Soviets in a memorable three-parter, or in the Middle East in the intriguing “Serpent of Chaos” storyline, the Suicide Squad became fighters for a new generation of muscular American foreign policy.
The swagger may have been different, but the Suicide Squad resembled a latter day version of Eisenhower’s CIA. They overthrew governments and created chaos on a monthly basis, with no concern of the consequences of their actions. In that way these anti-heroes may have been some of the most realistic comic characters ever presented.
One of the Squad’s earliest missions took them to the Soviet Union in order to free political prisoner Zoya Trigorin, whose story you can see above. Starting with the first few pages of the tale readers get an ironic twist. Readers would expect the Soviet leader would want to repress free speech in his country, no matter what. Instead we’re shown that President Gorbachev wants this particular political prisoner released as a means of reducing her influence. That moment cleverly inverts American perceptions of the USSR and gives a logical reason for that inversion. Even with a giant portrait of Lenin displayed on the wall behind him and his companions, Gorbachev argues for moderation and for a thoughtful approach to freeing the prisoner. As Gorbachev says later in the scene, if Trigorin is released, “She then resumes her writing and her second-rate talent buries her. That is good, constructive, productive thinking, Comrade Zastrow. I like it.” (Emphasis in the original)
Thus writer John Ostrander delivers an extra level of tension that readers may not have otherwise expected for a “mission to Moscow” story. Rather than a standard spy thriller, there’s a feeling that the story will go in unexpected directions. After an extended sequence that gets the team to the “Novogorod Psychiatric Hospital just outside of Gorki”, we get a delightful sequence with the Enchantress and an even more delightful sequence in which Trigorin reveals she doesn’t want to come to the United States…
And then the shit hits the fan. It’s fascinating that Trigorin agrees with Gorbachev. It was a twist unlike any we’d seen before in comics. It’s logical, intriguing, and leaves our characters without any sort of plan for next steps. What follows is a wonderful mix of traditional super-hero action and political espionage, involving giant weapons, improbable scheming, and a breathtaking battle against Soviet super-team the People’s Heroes – who worry as much about their political standing in the Kremlin as they do about defeating the American interlopers.
In the end, as a KGB agent tells Gorbachev, “everyone has lost.” The thoughtful Russian General Secretary corrects him. “Except Zoya Trigorin. She has become the martyr in fact that she always wanted to be. The circumstances of her death will ensure her place among the literati as her work could never have done in and of itself.”
This story rests comfortably in the late Cold War period, when the US and USSR were still enemies, perestroika and glasnost were just starting to take effect, and the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen. Ostrander’s writing is conscious of the importance of propaganda, but also points to how American and Russian objectives were sometimes more similar than the public may have thought. Ostrander does a masterful job of threading the needle with his intriguing political approach.
Right there is the essence of the Suicide Squad as fascinating antiheroes: they lose, but somehow win at the same time.
One of the most intriguing Suicide Squad stories takes a team of villains to Jerusalem in “Serpent of Chaos”, Suicide Squad #45-47 (Sept.-Dec. 1990). The storyline starts with a bang, as the evil Kobra reveals the philosophy behind his sadistic plans. Ostrander and Kim Yale’s writing in the scene above is delightful character-building, showing the arrogance of Kobra while at the same time showing the centrality of philosophical thought to thinking people. Since philosophy will ultimately cause the downfall of his plans, it’s smart to place it front and center here.
The Squad is hired to come to Israel. There, they find themselves caught in a web of espionage and counter-espionage between the Arabs and Israelis. Intriguingly, this story doesn’t acknowledge the American-Soviet conflict, even as a background. It shows that just three years after the Russia story, the state of the world has changed dramatically. This arc hit comic shops at roughly the same time as the first Gulf War exploded into full-fledged war, as Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. President Bush’s coalition did not include Gorbachev’s Russia because that country was facing its own internal problems. However, Russia did not oppose the US. In fact, the Soviets’ attention was more focused on keeping their country together as Soviet republics began agitating for freedom.
In fact, the key character in this storyline is Dybbuk, a creature described wonderfully above and intended to represent the future of warfare. By bringing in this character, writers Ostrander and Yale are pointing to the future, suggesting the sorts of electronic battles that have become commonplace 25 years after the character’s first appearance. They also point to the philosophies that would motivate such a creature, existential questions very different from the way in which flesh and blood citizens see the world.
Kobra uses philosophy to turn Dybbuk towards destruction, threatening to bring the Middle East into a cataclysmic war, with nothing less than the destruction of The Dome of the Rock. The Dome is the third holiest site in all of Islam, and, as the Atom says, “If Israeli jets destroy the Dome of the Rock, the Middle East will be engulfed in a holy war!”
A desperate battle ensues to prevent the dawn of the Age of Chaos. The Atom fights with a demonic ferocity, but the battle turns on a different question of morality and right than readers had been expecting.
“Serpent of Chaos” once again shows the thoughtful approach Ostrander and Yale take to exploring political complexity in this series. They prepare the reader to expect a story that explores a political backdrop in one way, then quickly subvert it by moving in an unexpected direction. These tales have twists and turns and unexpected character moments that show the difference between documentary and fiction.
In some ways this story reflects the ideas expressed by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which captured the international zeitgeist of the time. Fukuyama’s central thesis was that the end of the Cold War also represented the end of history as such. Mankind was evolving into an embrace of western liberal democracy; in short, from ideology to pragmatism. In Dybbuk, a creature of technology and therefore a creature of the future, Yale and Ostrander demonstrate that philosophy in this story — perhaps inadvertently – and in fact, much of Suicide Squad can be seen as an exploration of power in a post-bipolar world.
Around the Messy World with the Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad explores a version of the world that is very different from the one in which superheroes usually live. This is not the Justice League, where bright colors and heroism prevail. In fact, when Superman, Batman, and Aquaman guest-star in Suicide Squad #59-62, they seem out of place. Their lofty confidence, superior attitudes, and bright costumes present a striking contrast to the more grounded world in which the antiheroes of the Suicide Squad live. This is also true for other flashy heroes, such as the Doom Patrol, who appear in the Suicide Squad/Doom Patrol Special.
DC’s headline superheroes lived on the front pages of newspapers in DC’s fictional universe, where their faces were a daily fixture next to Gorbachev’s, Reagan’s, and Bush’s. But the world of the Suicide Squad was far from the front pages. They were on the front lines of the new world order. They brawled and killed, loved and lost, and earned money and freedom. In the end, they were America’s next generation of fighters and their epic stories are still powerful over a quarter-century after they first appeared.