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Making the Modern ‘Suicide Squad’

A conversation with comics writer John Ostrander

DC Comics
DC Comics

The John F. Ostrander Federal Building is an unlikely symbol of the cultural importance of the comic book movie. The building appears at the beginning of Suicide Squad’s third act (if the film can be said to have an act structure) and is the setting for some eye-catching if incoherent superhero action. But that’s not the point. The point is: John Ostrander, comic book writer, has a building named after him. A fictional one, yes, but still.

It’s the least DC Comics could do.

Ostrander, modern creator of the Suicide Squad, is 67. As a child, he was an avid reader of superhero comics. His mother, having read Fredric Wertham’s hysterical comic-books-cause-crime screed, Seduction of the Innocent, objected. This only fueled Ostrander’s interest, which he carried (surreptitiously, because nerd culture was not acceptable in the late ’70s) into adulthood.

By his 20s, he was making a living as an actor and playwright. Ostrander’s thriller Bloody Bess, a revenge tale set during the golden age of piracy, was produced at Chicago’s Organic Theater Company in 1974, with a cast of future TV stars Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue), Joe Mantegna (Criminal Minds), and the late Meshach Taylor (Designing Women).

Knowing of Ostrander’s talents as a writer and his affinity for the superhero medium, Mike Gold, a friend and cofounder of a small comic book publishing house called First Comics, gave him his break into the industry. Ostrander was 33. “I may have been comics’ oldest rookie,” he said in 1999. Gold moved over to DC Comics in 1986, and, shortly thereafter, the company hired John Ostrander to work on its Crisis on Infinite Earths follow-up event, Legends. The series produced several spin-offs, one of which was Suicide Squad.

The conceit for Suicide Squad was to create DC’s version of The Dirty Dozen. Ostrander assembled a cast of established second-tier DC villains (like Captain Boomerang, an expert in, yes, boomerangs) and low-level (read: killable) castoffs. To lead the team, Ostrander (with help from his friend Mike Gold) created Amanda Waller, an African American woman (modeled after the actress Nell Carter) from Chicago who took shit from precisely no one, Batman included.

John Ostrander’s original Suicide Squad run went 66 issues, plus an annual, from 1987 to 1992. The style was gritty. Ostrander sprinkled details from real-world events into tightly plotted arcs. There are no clear victories in Ostrander’s Suicide Squad stories, which, for the time, were strikingly morally ambiguous. From the outset, it was clear the writer had particular talent for rehabilitating, rediscovering, and recontextualizing underused characters (such as Barbara Gordon and, later, Martian Manhunter). Suicide Squad was never really a hit, but for those who loved it, there was nothing else like it.

Michel Fiffe, a Brooklyn-based artist and writer whose critically acclaimed DIY comic Copra began as an homage to Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, is one of the people heavily influenced by Ostrander’s work. “John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad is timeless,” he told me over email. “Along with artist Luke McDonnell and ultimately with co-writer, the late Kim Yale [more on her in a bit], John Ostrander showed us how to take a team book for a big-time publisher and make it into a personal statement, rocking the status quo one page at a time … The end result is evidence that the creative team were doing so much more. They were operating on a different plane than their peers and probably didn’t even know it.”

Ostrander remained prolific after the 1992 cancellation of Suicide Squad. Seeking treatment for glaucoma in 2009 barely slowed his output. For the past few years, he’s worked exclusively in the Star Wars universe.

Ostrander’s latest comic for DC is Suicide Squad: War Crimes, a one-shot issue, obviously timed to take advantage of the cross-promotional heat, such that it is, from the movie. Since Ostrander’s original run, Suicide Squad has been rebooted several times. The current iteration of the book, which comes out twice a month, is Volume 5. War Crimes, which is unconnected to DC’s ongoing Suicide Squad title, is Ostrander’s first time back with the team since an eight-issue miniseries in 2008. I talked with him about Suicide Squad: War Crimes, and his original run, over the phone.

Tell me about ‘Suicide Squad: War Crimes.’

It’s my first time back with Squad in a long, long time. The genesis for it was I was talking with my better half, Mary Mitchell, about reports that we had read that George Bush, [Dick] Cheney, and [Donald] Rumsfeld can’t really travel overseas because there are countries that want to grab them and put them on trial for alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I took that as an idea. I took someone like them but not them, and had them grabbed off the streets of Manhattan by a strike force who then hustles them over to the Hague in the Netherlands, to the international criminal courts where he’s going to be put on trial for war crimes. There are people in America, of course, who are outraged. Who want to send the military in. But the idea that the U.S. is going to invade an ally is not necessarily one that fits well with a lot of people. So, what do you do? You call the Suicide Squad, who are tailor-made for something like that, to go and get him. And they do and of course the mission goes sideways. Because that’s what happens with the Squad.

Drawing on real-world politics is one of your trademarks. The first arc of your original run depicts a state-sponsored terrorist attack on an airport. Ronald Reagan appeared in the book several times and [Suicide Squad handler] Amanda Waller goes toe-to-toe with him. Did you ever have trouble getting that kind of subject matter into ‘Suicide Squad’?

Not in this one, no! When they contacted me — Andy Khouri, our editor — he told me that what DC wanted was a John Ostrander Suicide Squad story. So, I said “OK.” I started by looking at the world, as I usually do when I’m working on the Squad, by figuring out what would be the most resonating story that offered the best possibilities.

Talk about some of the influences you brought to comics when you were starting out.

My theater background [has been] very important. I learned about structure and how to carry characterizations through dialogue. Layers of the character. And that very idea that there are layers to a character. One of the best acting instructions that I ever received was: Don’t be afraid of contradictions and don’t try to explain the contradiction. Just state it, let it lie, and that will add more resonance to the character. Because we’re all made of contradictions. We want one thing, then we want the other thing. Sometimes we want both at the same time.

Your ‘Suicide Squad’ is known for its strong female characters and your late wife and cowriter Kim Yale was obviously integral in that. You worked closely on the creation of Oracle together.

That was wonderful. She loved what I was doing. She was a very good writer, in particular as an essayist. She was a much better essayist than I was. I’m not, what I would call, a fine writer; I’m more concerned about, OK, what happens next. But, Kim was very concerned about the construction of a sentence, and what’s being expressed here. After the first two years [of Suicide Squad] I convinced Robert Greenberger, our editor, to let me bring Kim on as the cowriter. She was more of a night person than I am. So, we would plot together — we did it plot-first — and when we got the art she would get certain scenes to write and I would have certain scenes to write. She might write hers at night when she was up, then I would go over them in the morning. Or, we would just exchange the scenes. Then, if there were any disagreements, we’d resolve them.

I was rereading your original ‘Suicide Squad,’ and it struck me how trenchant a lot of that material is even now. One of the Squad’s early antagonists was William Heller, a racist businessman who stokes fear of minorities through the media to build a supremacist gang and whose grandfather “maybe sold stuff to the Nazis.” I mean, this dude is basically running for president right now.

One of the interesting things about William Heller, for me, is that one of my feelings about characters is that, if you’re writing a character, you have to find them within yourself. All the characters in the story are you. They’re all aspects of you. So, for Heller I had to go into myself and figure out where was the racist in me. Which of course, exists. So I had to go into myself and find that and that’s not always comfortable. But, it tends to lead to a good story.

Something I’ve always wondered: Captain Boomerang’s Australian lingo, where did that come from? Is that real?

OK, this is actually funny. I got books of Australian dialect and I would comb through them and pick out words or phrases that I thought were good. There’s this Australian writer named Dave de Vries who’s a good friend of mine. He was over visiting and he said “Oh yeah, mate, me and my buddies we get together and we read it aloud and we have a good laugh, because no one sounds like that in Australia!

But, I said, I got it out of a book! “Yeah, well, it’s outdated!” So he gave me few phrases and things and I toned it down from there.

It must be gratifying to see something you worked so long on get discovered by a massive audience with the release of the movie.

It was amazing. I got invited to the premiere as well. So I got sit in the theater with all the actors. It’s nothing like I had ever considered back then when I was writing. Even today it’s never anywhere in my head. I consider my job to go out and do the best work I can and hopefully it finds an audience.