Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Suicide Squad

DC was having considerable success launching new features and titles with their Showcase magazine, and so they decided to convert The Brave and the Bold into a similar mag, dropping the swashbucklers that had been featured in the mag so far, effective with the above issue.

The Suicide Squad (also named Task Force X) had four members; Rick Flag, the pilot and leader:
Karin (no last name specified at least in the first three issues), the blonde-haired nurse and love interest shown above, and Jess Bright and Dr Evans:
Despite the different specialties mentioned there, in practice the two functioned just as the "scientists" of the group, with little other than the glasses and the pipe to differentiate them.  Note in particular that this is a gang of four, much like several more successful series that were launched during the same era, i.e., the Challengers of the Unknown, the Sea Devils, Rip Hunter's crew and the Fantastic Four.

It is revealed in the opening story that all four members of the Suicide Squad were involved in World War II, and all of them had similar experiences where people around them all died, but left them behind to carry on the fight:
It's an interesting bit of characterization, which reveals why they are so willing to take on desperate missions for the US government.  This being the late 1950s/early 1960s, the desperate missions mostly involved monsters and dinosaurs:
There was only a modicum of characterization in the series.  We learned early on that Rick and Karin are in love with each other, and that Karin wants it to be open.  But Rick refuses because he knows that Jess and Dr Evans are also head-over-heels for Karin.  This is mentioned by Rick in every issue, but we only see it demonstrated once:
Why didn't the series catch on?  The concept of a Suicide Squad seems a good one; a few years later TV would have success with the Mission: Impossible series, which has a similar premise.  I suspect there are a couple of reasons, beyond the predictable monsters and minimal characterization.  For starters, the team is missing one critical element from the "smart guy, strong guy, woman, kid" formula that worked for the Fantastic Four, Rip Hunter, and the Sea Devils: the kid, who gives the readers someone to identify with.

Second, the timing.  The superhero craze was underway; after the first three issues featuring Rick's daredevil troupe, B&B launched one of the most successful DC features of the Silver Age: the Justice League of America.  With so many new and colorful superheros, it was hard for the Suicide Squad to stand out in the spinner racks.

DC did give them another three issues (B&B #37-39) to try to win their stripes, but they ran into a third problem.  Comics increased in price from 10 cents to 12 cents effective with the December 1961 issues, which included B&B #39.  The effect on circulation was immediate and dramatic, with almost all titles shedding 10-20% of their readers.  Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that DC was less willing to launch a new mag.

This  post was inspired by an email from a reader named Kirk.  I tried to reply, but the recipient domain refused the message.  An aside to Kirk; the reason Andru and Esposito worked on Wonder Woman, Metal Men, Suicide Squad and the War that Time Forgot series has much to do with the editor of those features.  In every case it was Robert Kanigher.  Each of the DC editors had his own stable of writers and artists back then.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know about that premise for the Suicide Squad--very reminiscent of the Challengers.
Kanigher obviously liked the name, since he also gave us the Suicide Squadron (PT boats taking risky missions) and the WW II Suicide Squad (guys taking risky missions--by amazing coincidence mortal enemies always wound up working together).
I'm not sure the Impossible Mission Force is really comparable though. Their missions weren't suicidal as much as logically impossible (bust through impregnable security, get a secret only one man knows, etc.).

Pat said...

Fraser, I agree about the comparable nature of the origin to the Challs. But I have to disagree about the IMF; if the missions are impossible then surely the force is committing suicide by attempting them. MI is different because the stories were more realistic and more intricate. No doubt about that. But the overall idea of a force that could handle the jobs nobody else would attempt because they were too dangerous? Suicide Squad absolutely fits as does the IMF. Maybe there is some common ancestor?

Arion said...

Good post. I remember that Ostrander wrote an issue of Secret Origins, I think retelling the past of the original Suicide Squad.

Steve Trevor said...

It's just occurred to me how alike the early artwork of Ross Andru is to Don Heck.