Creator Profile: John Ostrander by Jerry Whitworth
Be it his work on Suicide Squad and Star Wars or his original character GrimJack, John Ostrander is a legend in the comic book business producing some of the best character driven stories in the industry. Born in 1949 and raised in Chicago, Ostrander was brought up Catholic and actually spent a year studying to become a priest. Instead, he would go on to become an actor and playwright working for the Organic Theater Company before being invited by friend Mike Gold, who was looking for content for his burgeoning publishing company First Comics, to produce back-up stories about “Sargon, Mistress of War” in the pages of their first comic Warp in 1983 (based on the plays being done by his theatric company). From there, the writer went on to scribe Starslayer: The Log of the Jolly Roger following the departure of its creator Mike Grell where in a back-up story of the title he co-created GrimJack with Timothy Truman. A mercenary and private investigator, John Gaunt operated the bar Munden’s under the name GrimJack. Within a year after his creation, GrimJack would be featured in his own monthly comic book series that would last for around seven years under his creator’s pen (with subsequent mini-series and one-shots like Demon Knight, GrimJack Casefiles, Killer Instinct, and the Manx Cat). Two years into his run on his GrimJack book, Ostrander would do his first work for DC Comics.
With the Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics changed everything. Some fifty years of stories were largely wiped out, featuring a single Earth where the planet’s heroes were no longer super friends, in fact they were largely pretty fresh to their roles as saviors and guardians and the Justice League of America was no longer made up of the best and brightest. Within months of the event, the publisher would initiate another event, largely as a launching point for the new wave of titles growing from the groundwork of the new DC Comics. Scripted by Len Wein and drawn by John Byrne, John Ostrander was brought on to plot the mini-series for the event Legends. In a world that didn’t fully trust these emerging heroes, the dread Darkseid of Apokolips (who sought the Anti-Life Equation whose components can be found in Earth) saw an opportunity to have the planet defeat itself. Minion Glorious Godfrey masqueraded on Earth as a social commentator using his power of suggestion to turn the world against its heroes, the while Darkseid created the monstrous Brimstone to defeat the Justice League of America and dispatched the size-changing Macro-Man to frame Captain Marvel for murder. Following the beating of Robin by an angry mob, the POTUS banned all superhero activity leaving the Earth defenseless. The move prompted Amanda Waller to reactivate the Suicide Squad program (this time with supervillains) to deal with Brimstone and Godfrey to lead his fanatic followers to try and topple the United States government. Godfrey’s attack prompts the heroes back into action to defeat him, several of the heroes forming a new Justice League in its wake.
Following the events of Legends, Ostrander would begin a five year run of the new series Suicide Squad. Arguably the work he is most fondly remembered for, the title was different from virtually every book at the company for its time. While the team included heroes like Rick Flag Jr, Nightshade, Nemesis, and Bronze Tiger, they were the chaperones for the villainous cast which generally included Deadshot (saved from obscurity thanks to Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ legendary Detective Comics run), Captain Boomerang, Count Vertigo, and Duchess (an amnesiac Lashina of the Female Furies). Ostrander had the task of making the villains remain in character as criminals serving out a term but still had personalities and motivations: people rarely wake up one day and decide to become a crook, such was the Squad who on its surface we shouldn’t care if they live or die and yet Ostrander made us care. Deadshot was the child of affluent parents however when his mother convinced Deadshot’s brother (whom he idolized) to kill their father (whom he hated), he tried to protect his brother and kill their father for him, only to instead shoot and kill his brother. Years later, he turned to a life of crime when he tried to replace and eliminate Batman only to fail. This began a longtime rivalry with the Dark Knight and Deadshot would develop a close, but strained, relationship with Rick Flag. It would also be revealed the reason the villain is so willing to operate recklessly stems directly from a death wish carried since the loss of his brother by his own hand. For this and much more, Deadshot became the breakout star of the title, the character largely fleshed out by Ostrander (the villain only appearing a handful of times before his treatment under the Squad’s scribe). Even in the latest reboot from DC Comics in Flashpoint the company was sure to attach Deadshot to the new Suicide Squad series.
As part of the unique voices of the cast and the inherent drama the players faced, a number of the characters would hook up (Nightshade and Flag, Tiger and Vixen, etc) but, most importantly, Ostrander put the “suicide” in Suicide Squad as you never knew when a villain’s last mission may go down. Be it being killed by enemy forces or getting your arm blown off like with Slipknot if you abandon a mission, the title raked a high body count (at one point, there was an entire website dedicated to the deaths in the book). On one occasion, when Duchess sees her memory return and convinces her teammates to go with her to Apokolips, most of the team get cut down by alien forces (including long time Justice League and Teen Titans villain Dr. Light). Ostrander even killed off the lead character in Rick Flagg in one issue (well, as dead as one could be in a comic book – Ostrander would bring him back some twenty years later with a loophole he left in place). As an inside joke, Ostrander would also kill off British creator at DC Comics Grant Morrison, placed in the squad as the Writer torn apart by a werebeast which he described on his portable word processor up to his death. No one, be it the lead character, longtime villain, or a fellow creator, was safe in the pages of Suicide Squad. While the series ended in 1992, Ostrander would return to his characters in Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag in 2007 and penned another issue of the series in 2010 with Gail Simone.
Several months prior to working on Suicide Squad in 1987, John Ostrander would pick up the series the Fury of Firestorm from his friend Paul Kupperberg (childhood neighbors who gave Ostrander a cameo in Daring New Adventures of Supergirl before the writer broke into the industry) which, by the end of the year, saw its title changed to Firestorm, the Nuclear Man. Ostrander would also team with Del Close for the next two years to produce a new monthly horror anthology named Wasteland which was an attempt by the writers to generate a higher-level of work than DC’s previous House of Mystery series (while avoiding the shock, twist endings of the elder Tales from the Crypt). It was also in 1987 John Ostrander would marry fellow writer Kim Yale. Yale, who also hailed from Illinois, began working in the comic book industry at Eclipse Comics the same year of her nuptials to Ostrander and would collaborate with her husband on several titles the following year (including Suicide Squad). In 1988, the husband and wife duo would work together on the new series Manhunter. Two years after Legends came DC Comics’ next event, Millennium, which their book spun out of.
Millennium told the story of the Guardians of the Universe leaving the Green Lantern Corps to operate independently of them, their creation the Manhunters return using data gleaned from the events of Crisis to infiltrate the supporting cast of Earth’s heroes to wipe them out from within using human converts. One such convert was Mark Shaw, a public defender joining the Manhunter cult in order to become a costumed vigilante. He would eventually abandon them when he realized their true plans and then become the supervillain the Privateer (alternately, the Star-Tsar), trying to destroy the Justice League of America from within as a believed ally. When this failed, Shaw would come to join the Suicide Squad to work off his sentence offering his unique knowledge of the cult to bring down the Manhunters during the events of Millennium. Upon mission’s end, Shaw was freed and he took up his Manhunter identity again but this time as a bounty hunter. This job brought him into conflict with the likes of Captain Cold, Catman, Count Vertigo, and the Penguin as well as become involved in the next event Invasion! later in the year. The following year in 1989, Ostrander and Yale would reintroduce one of DC’s most iconic characters in a completely new and innovative way.
In the pages of Suicide Squad and Manhunter, the character Oracle was introduced. An anonymous hacker and information dealer, after around a year of helping the Squad and Manhunter it was revealed her true identity as Barbara Gordon, daughter of Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon and formerly Batman’s ally Batgirl, her days as a costumed crimefighter came to an end when a bullet fired by the Joker paralyzed her from the waist down during the events of Batman: The Killing Joke. However, while the Joker took away her ability to swoop down upon criminals from Gotham’s rooftops, he didn’t take away her spirit, hunger for justice, and strength of character that served her as Batgirl and would serve her again as Oracle. In time, this would lead Gordon to form the Birds of Prey team of heroes and become the chief ally of Batman (and later the Justice League of America). Ostrander and his wife started a road that raised Barbara Gordon such that future writers of the character like Dennis O’Neil, Lewis Shiner, Chuck Dixon, Grant Morrison, and Gail Simone would turn her into one of the strongest and most powerful heroes in the DC Universe combining the importance of computer networking in the modern world (banking, GPS tracking, social media, etc) and Gordon’s tenacity and drive that makes her almost a magic genie for the heroes of Earth (capability to find people, uncover intelligence, open electronic locks, manipulate surveillance, etc, all in mere moments).
The same year in 1989, an event known as the Janus Directive would take place across John Ostrander’s three DC titles (Firestorm, Suicide Squad, and Manhunter, the latter two with his wife Kim Yale) as well as Paul Kupperberg’s Checkmate! and <a href=”http://comicartcommunity.com/2012/06/greg-weisman/”>Greg Weisman</a> and Cary Bates’ Captain Atom (and also incorporated Peacemaker, a Charlton character updated for the post-Crisis DC Comics the previous year in a mini-series penned by Kupperberg). In the story, the terrorist cult Kobra tried to employ a space satellite to wipe out electronics and living creatures in the Eastern United States in an operation called the Janus Directive. In order to execute the plan, they planted a fake Amanda Waller in place of the real one in order to set her Suicide Squad against various other government agencies in order to generate misdirection. However, their plan fell through when the real Waller murdered her double but went through with the plan in order to uncover the Kobra agents in her organization. Upon completion of that task, the various forces converged against Kobra and stopped them. The following year, Ostrander would collaborate with his GrimJack co-creator Timothy Truman to tackle Hawkman.
Following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Hawkman was radically revamped. Timothy Truman wrote and drew a three-issue limited series entitled Hawkworld which upon its surface could have been a prequel to the Silver Age Hawkman. However, the series was so much more. Beautifully written and drawn, Hawkworld tells as much the story of Thanagar as it did Wingman Katar Hol as the hero is a harsh, unflinching lawman who is a violent fascist operating in a world at the height of its decadence. The world is in fact an imperialistic state that conquers other cultures with the belief it is for their benefit as corruption and greed permeate every level of its government. Migrant workers from various worlds toil as little more than slaves to support the superior natural residents of Thanagar who have become incapable of working as they once did, instead buying more than earning and indulging in recreational drugs. The work, an obvious nod to the so-called great nations in history including the United States, was a masterpiece and was quite commercially successful. As such, it was an editorial decision to make the series ongoing and set in the present, essentially doing away with the Silver Age interpretation of Hawkman (though many several attempts were made to salvage that character, generally being poorly received). Truman would initially remain on for the ongoing series alongside John Ostrander before the latter became the sole writer. Ostrander would pen the series for three years before it transitioned to the series Hawkman which the writer scribed several issues for before turning it over to Paul Kupperberg. Ostrander would tackle what is considered one of his most critically acclaimed works during his run on Hawkworld.
Teaming with frequent collaborator Tom Mandrake in 1992, John Ostrander would take on a new Spectre series. Unlike previous series and stories of the Spectre which featured the character mostly punishing criminals with a dark humor (in nightmarish ways that in some way herald back to their crimes), Ostrander offered moral dilemmas which question the Spectre’s practices pulling him into a gray area which herald back to the writer’s previous theology education. Further, we look back on the unknown Biblical history of the Spectre as to how he came into being and why he was attached to slain policeman Jim Corrigan. Part of this set up Eclipso, a powerful supervillain that generally bounced around various titles, as being the Spectre’s nemesis and Ostrander touched upon a character quite familiar to him in Count Vertigo when the Spectre slew his entire nation for centuries of crimes therein. During the series run, the character of Michael Holt would be introduced as a man contemplating suicide after the loss of his wife and child only to have the Spectre appear to him and inspire him to take up the mantle of Terry Sloane, better known as Mister Terrific. While Ostrander worked on the Spectre, his wife Kim Yale would learn she contracted breast cancer. Yale collaborated with her husband for the Summer 1996 book The Batman Chronicles on the story “Oracle: Year One” revisiting the character they helped reinvent together. Yale would live to see the book reach print, but it would be the last project the couple worked on together. Sadly, Kim Yale died March 3, 1997. The Spectre series would run for six years and its end led Ostrander and Mandrake to their next collaboration.
In 1993, John Ostrander started year long runs on Magnus, Robot Fighter and Rai and the Future Force for Valiant Comics. The following year, he tackled the Eternal Warrior for Valiant for a two year run and penned a Bishop mini-series for Marvel Comics (leading to subsequent mini-series XSE in 1996 and Bishop: XSE in 1998). Ostrander would relaunch Punisher for Marvel in 1995 for their Edge imprint for a two year run. In 1997, Ostrander became the ongoing writer for Marvel’s Heroes for Hire featuring the Golden Age Human Torch, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage lasting two years. As he worked on that series for Marvel, Ostrander teamed with Timothy Truman again to create a year long limited series set in the wild west with Superman’s adopted ancestors for the Kents. Also in 1997, writer Grant Morrison reinvented the Justice League of America by adopting modern pastiches of the “Big 7” and placing them in high-octane revisions of past adventures featuring a great deal of action in the new series JLA. The first arc returning the absent White Martians last seen before the Crisis, the series was a hugely successful hit in which DC Comics adamantly wanted to capitalize upon. In one way they did this was to give an ongoing series devoted to the League’s Martian Manhunter the following year. Coming off of the Spectre, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake tackled the new series. As the Martian Manhunter was largely only seen in the Justice League titles after the Crisis, his new backstory following the event was largely left unwritten (save the initial arc of JLA). With such a near-empty slate, Ostrander built an entire mythology behind the character.
Before the Crisis, Mars was a world populated by yellow, green, and white skinned residents who all shared superhuman and psionic capabilities with the power to shape shift. While scientifically advanced, they had only developed the knowledge to travel between planets after J’onn J’onzz was transported to Earth in a freak accident of Dr. Saul Erdel as he tested a communication device of his own design. Becoming the Manhunter from Mars, shortened to Martian Manhunter, various Martians began springing up on Earth after J’onn including his nemesis Commander Blanx with his White Martian army. After Crisis, however, it was often said Superman would be the last survivor of Krypton (not counting the Phantom Zone prisoners) and it was generally assumed the case was similar with Martian Manhunter. But with Morrison’s JLA, where the White Martians were reimagined as the Hyperclan, the door was open for John Ostrander to largely do what he wished. With this, he reimagined Mars itself, called Ma’aleca’andra (after C. S. Lewis’ Malacandra of Out of the Silent Planet) by its people, where only the Green and White Martians existed, gripped in a civil war over Saturn. Called H’ronmeerca’andra by the Martians, it was decided to create clones of themselves in order to mine Saturn’s hydrogen where the Green Martians made Red Saturnians as the White Martians chose White Saturnians. However, while the Green treated the Reds as equals, the White Martians treated their clones as slaves which, when discovered, started the conflict between the Martian races. This retcon heralds back to the Pre-Crisis character Jemm, Son of Saturn, who was initially created to be Martian Manhunter’s Green Martian cousin until editors decided J’onn couldn’t be split between appearances in Justice League of America and his cousin’s title, leading to Jemm becoming a Red Saturnian.
In addition to making changes to Mars’ history, Ostrander expanded the backstory of his series’ protagonist. The Manhunter’s pre-Crisis “pet” Zook was re-imagined as Zo’ok, a shape-shifting plant native to Mars that has a symbiotic relationship with the people, attached to them where it feeds on life-sustaining nutrients but can be psionically manipulated to shift at the Martian’s command to form their clothing. J’onn’s father was a brilliant scientist named M’yrnn who sought the so-called Life Equation and his mother Sha’sheen a Manhunter, the peacekeepers for the planet, and was gifted with prophetic sight. The couple gave birth to twins, a rarity among their people, who Sha’sheen named from her visions of the future as J’onn J’onzz (“light to the light”) and Ma’alefa’ak (“darkness in the heart”). Where J’onn took after his mother to become a Manhunter, Ma’alefa’ak followed their father to become a scientist and would make contact with an alien world called Apokolips. An ambassador from the alien planet named Kanto came to Mars and brokered an exchange of ideas, so far as befriending J’onn. However, this was all a ruse. Apokolips’ ruler, the despot Darkseid, sought the Anti-Life Equation, which makes those that know it the masters of life and death able to control the minds of others. He could sense components of the Equation on Mars, including in its people, and sought the research of M’yrnn which would expedite his efforts. So, Martians including Ma’alefa’ak were kidnapped and dissected, physically and mentally, to uncover their elements of the Equation, leading to war. J’onn would go on to rescue those taken, including his brother and My’ria’h (the female he would fall in love with and marry) as the forces of Apokolips were beaten back.
Unfortunately, Ma’alefa’ak was among the tortured and disassembled, he was taken apart and reconstructed becoming a malevolent, sadistic disciple of Darkseid. Empowered by his dark god, Ma’alefa’ak invaded the minds of his people (their chief taboo) searching for components of the Anti-Life Equation including My’ria’h before he was uncovered by his mother, whom he nearly killed until J’onn saved her and brought his brother down. For the greatest crime, Ma’alefa’ak was provided the harshest penalty, losing his telepathy and means to hook into the group mind and had his memories and identity wiped. However, Ma’alefa’ak would recuperate and created the virus Hronmeer’s Curse which made Martians burst into flames when they melded their bodies and minds (an essential component to Martian life). J’onn, his wife, and their daughter K’hym would hold out longer than most, but they would eventually succumb as J’onn watched in horror as his family melded and burst into flames. J’onn would hunt down his brother and leave him for dead, wandering his planet alone for months before being transported to Earth. Ma’alefa’ak would survive and, sensing his brother, take the name Malefic (the word for a planet that brings misfortune in astrology, Mars chief among this idea), masquerade as J’onn, and nearly kill his friends in the Justice League of America (but slew Karen Smith, J’onn’s detective partner in his civilian identity of John Jones). The Manhunter would battle his brother and again leave him for dead on a space vessel that collided with the sun. Ostrander would further expand J’onn’s rogues gallery, adding enemies like Bette Noir, Headmaster, Pyre, and the Cabal.
Martian Manhunter would last for three years and its completion opened up Ostrander’s schedule to pen several mini-series and one-shots for Chaos! Comics’ Lady Death. He would also do a mini-series featuring Marvel’s Western heroes in Blaze of Glory: The Last Ride of the Western Heroes (and its sequel Apache Skies two years after for the MAX imprint). But, more importantly, it allowed him to work in a universe he has become known for almost as much as his Suicide Squad and GrimJack work. In 1991, Dark Horse Comics began publishing comic books based on the Star Wars franchise after being awarded the license from Lucasfilm. John Ostrander would write the ten-page story “Deal with a Demon” in Star Wars Tales in 2000 joined by artist Jan Duursema opening the door to producing a cornucopia of Star Wars comic projects including for the main series (“Twilight,” “Darkness,” “The Stark Hyperspace War,” “The Devaronian Version,” and “Right of Passage” arcs), Boba Fett: Agent of Doom, The Clone Wars, Republic (for a five year run), Jedi, Legacy (for a four year run), Purge, and Legacy – War (several of these stories perpetuating the “Vector” storyline featuring Celeste Morne). Most recently, Dark Horse has published Ostrander’s Dawn of the Jedi as well as Agent of the Empire: Iron Eclipse mini-series, featuring Empire agent Jahan Cross, that was so popular a second mini-series in Agent of the Empire: Hard Targets is on the way in October 2012.
In 2009, John Ostrander’s struggle with glaucoma threatened to take his sight. Unable to afford surgeries necessary to save his eyes, the comic book community came together. A PayPal and website (the now defunct comix4sight.com) were set-up and an auction produced by Mike Gold was scheduled at Chicago Comic-Con to raise the necessary funds. After being publicized in various websites such as Wizard Magazine’s site, Bleeding Cool, Newsarama, Comic Book Resources, and Comics Alliance, pieces from Andy and Joe Kubert, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Bruce Timm, Mike Grell, Kevin Smith, Dave Sim, Matt Groening, Gail Simone, Joe Quesada, Jim Lee, Matt Wagner, Christos Gage, Rags Morales and Drew Geraci, Francis Manapul, Stephane Roux, Terry Dodson, Terry Moore, Bill Willingham, Paul Chadwick, Phil Hester, Timothy Truman, Nicola Scott, Patton Oswalt, Norm Breyfogle, and others were collected and sold. Overflow from the proceeds were provided to the Hero Initiative. With everyone’s help, the erosion to Ostrander’s sight was stopped and his vision has maintained since.