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Friday, July 17, 2015

Panel Vision - Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag

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So, as part of my ongoing celebration of the Suicide Squad trailer that’s been blowing up the internet I thought it’d be fun to look at one of the squad’s craziest comic incarnations with Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag.  In case you’ve never heard of the team, the Suicide Squad is a group of super criminals assembled by the US government for black ops missions of low survival rate.  The thinking is that they take easily controllable and super powered bad guys and have them take on problems so that if things go wrong the only people who get hurt were already evil and if anything gets exposed there’s plausible deniability. 
Though the roster is constantly shifting due to character deaths, these are SUICIDE missions after all, there are a handful of consistent team members.  Deadshot, an expert marksman and D-list Batman villain, Captain Boomerang, an Australian Flash foe, Count Vertigo, European aristocrat who fought Green Arrow, and Bronze Tiger, another bat foe, make up the team’s core membership.  There’s also the squad’s government handler Amanda Waller, one of the most badass women in all of comics.  The only other major human character on the team is the in field government asset Rick Flag Jr., the man from whom this mini-series takes its name.  

As far as I can tell chronologically Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag takes place during DC comics’ missing year.  This was a cross-title event in the wake of the mid-2000’s event comic Infinite Crisis.  Basically all of DC’s titles jumped forward in time by a year and the weekly comic series 52 chronicled what happened in that missing year when Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were all inactive.  However 52 couldn’t touch on everything and one big change One Year Later was a new roster for the Suicide Squad including the return of Rick Flag Jr. who had been missing for some time.  Raise the Flag explores where Rick was, the team looking for him, and the first mission he led upon returning as team leader, and it is incredibly goofy. 
Firstly the answer to “where Rick was” is the kind of pure comic book insanity that so often infiltrates the hard nosed world of espionage that Suicide Squad claims to inhabit.  It turns out Rick went missing while trying to disarm a mystic nuke and the resulting explosion teleported him to the land of Skartaris.  Skartaris is a relatively forgotten little corner of the DC universe from the mid ‘70s where it was introduced in The Warlord.  Warlord is mostly forgotten today but the comic was actually a big part of the sword and sorcery push that gave us Marvel’s Weird World and Conan comics.  The big addition Warlord made was that his barbarian landscape was also populated with dinosaurs.  Which means about a 3rd of Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag is focused on Rick Flag as basically Jason Bourne trapped in the lovechild of Narnia and the Lost World.  He fights dinosaurs, there’s a mystic sword, dinosaur men, it’s an amazing adventure romp.  

However the real craziness of Raise the Flag doesn’t hit till about half way through the comic.  By this point Rick Flag has returned to the Suicide Squad but in his absence Amanda Waller has grown the group.  Most of the new members are fairly disposable, minor no-name villains like Blackguard, a Booster Gold villain, or Windfall, member of the Masters of Disaster.  The big new addition is The General, one of the most beautifully ridiculous things to come out of Grant Morrison’s phenomenal Justice League comic run.  The character is actually an evolution of the Captain Atom supporting character General Waid Eiling, a standby at DC whenever a writer needs an evil military character.  Morrison’s twist was that when Eiling was dying he found a way to transplant his brain into the un-killable body of the incredibly obscure old JLA villain the Shaggy Man only genetically altered to now no longer be shaggy.  That’s the kind of base level insanity that makes the seriousness and bizarrely placed realism of Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag all the more endearing.  The comic is populated with brain transplant crazies, Satanist nuns, and Russian dancers turned state sponsored superheroes but it executes all of it with straight-laced sincerity.  

But as I said, that’s just the garden-variety insanity you find when trying to tell an honest story with humanized characters within the mad confines of the DC comics universe.  Where Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag really transcends is in the Squad’s target for their inaugural op: their mission is to kill Halliburton Industries.  Now obviously the comic doesn’t specifically call them that, falling back on the incredibly thinly veiled pseudonym of Haake-Bruton industries though they make extra sure everyone gets that’s a smoke screen by having the companies CEO basically BE Dick Cheney without even trying to hide the likeness.  The entire comic is punctuated by bizarre bouts of, for lack of a better term, leftist wish fulfillment like this.  There’s a religious character Twister, who’s framed as a nun that believes God hates everyone.  Obscure villain Windfall is given a pretty devastating back-story for why she’s imprison, having enacted brutal revenge on a frat that date raped her with impunity.  There’s even a white supremacist villain on the team named White Dragon who gets his face exploded in the comics climax, also they have Deadshot kill the Dick Cheney stand in. 

For awhile in comics this kind of thing was really just the way to go.  The series came out around 2008, right when national consciousness was kind of shifting towards the kind of Obama-mania that would lead to his appearance in Spider-man a bit later.  The entire concept is goofy in the extreme but also strangely endearing.  I already wrote a whole piece about wish fulfillment and revenge fantasy and what really saves Raise the Flag from falling into the same trap of the Punisher is how little time is actually spent on Not-Dick Cheney and Not-Halliburton.  They aren’t really the central antagonist, that’s kept on the General’s character trying to run a coup operation on the squad, they’re just there in the background as a group against whom ultra-violence is completely acceptable.  It also helps that we’re introduced to them by way of hideous wrong doing so even if the Dick Cheney parallel is completely lost on you they’re already pretty despicable villains in their own right.  It’s also pretty cool how the series re-imagines the evil coporation archetype to fit better within the world of DC comics.  

It’s funny, I chose to highlight this moment in the Suicide Squad’s history because of how ridiculous it is but reading it again it’s strangely endearing.  There’s a major attempt by the series to truly embrace the weirdness and un-reality of DC comics rather than to cover it up under the guise of gritty realism.  What’s more the story is a perfect blend of thrilling action, well-written characters, and charming ludicrousness.  Consider this one recommended. 

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