Suicide Squad: The Story of Task Force X by Jerry Whitworth
Considering the success of Marvel Studios at the box office, Warner Bros. has poised itself to make a similar dash with its DC Comics properties. One recently announced project reportedly featuring some of its most iconic characters is Suicide Squad. Herein, supervillains are recruited as special operatives for the US government to commute their sentences in return for taking assignments with a low projected survival rate. In other words, forming a “Suicide Squad.” The concept certainly has some origins in The Dirty Dozen, a 1967 blockbuster war film about a ragtag band of criminal soldiers given a suicide mission. That film itself may have been based on the real life “Filthy Thirteen” who operated behind enemy lines to secure or destroy bridges used by the Axis during World War II. Roughly only half of that platoon would return unharmed from their mission and the media would embellish their story casting the group as a bunch of savages that wore war paint, refused to wash, and earned each other’s respect through violence. In regards to the Suicide Squad, the original such group was quite a ways different.
Task Force X, better known as the Suicide Squad, was a quartet of specialists led by ace pilot Colonel Rick Flag and featured co-pilot and medic Karin Grace, physicist Jess Bright, and astronomer Dr. Evans. The group’s nickname derived from its members surviving tragedies where those that died urged each survivor to continue fighting in their stead. The concept was not an original one, similar premises used by Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown (which may have inspired the Fantastic Four) and later by the Doom Patrol. As comic books shifted toward Science Fiction around this time, the group generally dealt with extraordinary threats like giant monsters. The run of the group’s adventures would be brief at six issues before being resurrected and revamped to its modern take in the mid-1980s under the guidance of writer John Ostrander (the work he maybe best remembered for in his career). Following the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the world had changed where heroes were no longer widely trusted by the public, their activities outlawed by the authorities, and the heroes themselves were considerably less than each other’s best friends such as they were in the Golden and Silver Ages. As the superhero re-emerged in the modern time, so did the supervillain and government espionage official Amanda Waller reactivated the Suicide Squad, this time with its ranks composed of these villains.
Largely based out of Belle Reve Penitentiary for metahuman criminals in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, the Squad was led by Rick Flag Jr. (son of the original group’s leader) and often included government “chaperones” in Nightshade, Nemesis, and Bronze Tiger with operatives like Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Count Vertigo (as many of the other villains to make rounds in the group wouldn’t survive their missions). The criminal members of the group would be kept in line by being implanted with explosives that would be detonated for disobeying orders or trying to escape. Likely the breakout star of the series would be Deadshot who Ostrander fleshed out from an obscure character with a handful of appearances facing off with Batman across almost four decades to a tragic character wracked with guilt over his past which emerged in a death wish. The series would be a surprise hit, creating almost its own imprint as titles like Checkmate!, Manhunter, Captain Atom, and Peacemaker emerged closely tied to Suicide Squad as Firestorm would largely be folded in and these titles would even have their own crossover in “The Janus Directive.” Competitor Marvel Comics put out a similar concept with the Freedom Force some time before the revamped Suicide Squad to less stellar results.
As the world became more dangerous for mutants, X-Men foe Mystique decided to enlist her Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in service of the US government in exchange for pardoning their crimes and protection from the authorities for being mutants. The group would go on to add various new members, notably the trio of World War II veterans in Crimson Commando, Stonewall, and Super Sabre. A somewhat similar group emerged in the Spider-Man comics with the Outlaws under benevolent mercenary Silver Sable. The government-sponsored supervillain concept would be revisited later during the event Civil War in the Thunderbolts. Originally a ploy by the anti-Avengers group called the Masters of Evil to supplant the Avengers when they disappeared, the Thunderbolts was a disguise to earn the public’s trust in order to hide in plain sight towards villainous goals. However, treated with respect as heroes, its members had a change of heart and decided to abandon their evil ways. During Civil War, the Thunderbolts instead became an army of supervillains used to recruit more villains and capture anti-registration heroes. Notable villains like Green Goblin, Venom/Scorpion, and Bullseye made up the core group brutally hunting the likes of Spider-Man and Captain America for their government masters. Civil War is one of the stories set to be adapted for screen by Marvel Studios though at this time it’s unknown if the Thunderbolts will play a part.
John Ostrander would helm the Suicide Squad title for five years across close to seventy issues before the book met its end. However, the concept simply refused to die. The group popped up here and there, taking a somewhat more significant turn during the “Our Worlds at War” event as a clandestine spear wielded by Lex Luthor, President of the United States at the time. Likely this exposure set-up the return of the title, however with a somewhat humorous spin its resurrection became short-lived. Following this, Task Force X would transition to the small screen for an episode of the animated series Justice League Unlimited (this team including Deadshot and Captain Boomerang). In the comics, the group yet again became something that popped up from time to time but another very Suicide Squad-esque team would emerge in the events leading up to the event Infinite Crisis. Therein, a union of Earth’s supervillains is formed with a distinct “no scabs” rule, meaning everyone was a member or they would become a target for extermination. Despite this sentiment, several villains nonetheless decided to refuse to join the so-called Society, becoming instead the Secret Six.
Originally, the Secret Six was a small group of covert operatives created during the Silver Age in a seven issue series. The team would be re-branded twenty years later as cybernetically enhanced agents. This brand new and improved Secret Six fared even worse than its predecessor, lasting two arcs as a back-up story in Action Comics. Fan favorite writer Gail Simone would reactivate the group in the pages of Villains United joining together Deadshot, Catman, Scandal Savage, Cheshire, Rag Doll, and a Parademon. The group proved popular enough to get its own mini-series, Batman villain Mad Hatter and Female Fury Knockout replacing the traitorous Cheshire and deceased Parademon. Following this, the group emerged in Simone’s highest profile ongoing series Birds of Prey with Harley Quinn subbing in for the Hatter. Around the time the stage was being set for the Secret Six, so was the return of Checkmate with Amanda Waller as a notable character who again employed her Suicide Squad. Leading into the event Final Crisis, Waller regained Deadshot and re-teamed him with Rick Flag, Nightshade, Bronze Tiger, Captain Boomerang, and Count Vertigo as well as new recruits like Bane and Plastique to capture Earth’s villains and send them to a prison planet. Inevitably, she would betray Deadshot and Bane, sending them to the planet as well for the limited series Salvation Run. John Ostrander would return for a Suicide Squad miniseries detailing some of the events between the Squad’s reappearance in Checkmate and up to Salvation Run.
Deadshot and Bane would escape the prison planet, joining together as part of an ongoing Secret Six series by Gail Simone that ran for almost forty issues across three years, ending as the event Flashpoint rebooted the DC Universe. The group would transition through several members including Black Alice, King Shark, and Giganta as at one point two-thirds of the team quit when Catman sought vengeance for the death of his infant son (and John Ostrander would guest write or co-write several issues of the series). The Suicide Squad would continue to pop-up in several different titles and would return to the small screen, this time in live action, for the series Smallville (including Deadshot and Rick Flag). Following DC Comics’ reboot, a new Suicide Squad title emerged featuring Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and King Shark which led to New Suicide Squad as Deadshot and Harley were joined by Deathstroke, Black Manta, and Reverse-Flash.
Recently, the prominence of the group has been on the rise, emerging in the blockbuster Batman: Arkham video game universe first mentioned in the game Origins and then featured in a direct-to-video animated film Batman: Assault on Arkham (featuring Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Captain Boomerang). The Suicide Squad went on to become part of the television series Arrow featuring Deadshot and Bronze Tiger (with a cameo by Harley Quinn). It is perhaps because of the response of the audience to these appearances and the desire to produce comic book-based blockbusters like Marvel Studios that a Suicide Squad film is being eyed for a 2016 release. Thus far, Harley Quinn has been cast for the movie (Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street) as rumor has it Deadshot and the Joker are set to appear. As for the comics, Gail Simone is set to return to the Secret Six this December including Catman and Black Alice.