There are a bunch of reasons I’m over-the-moon excited about The Suicide Squad, including the stacked cast and the hilarious trailers. And I’m always here for James Gunn. But one of the main reasons why I cannot wait for the latest outing of Task Force X is the way Gunn has gone out of his way to acknowledge the legacy of John Ostrander, one of my all-time favorite comics creators. Ostrander has a cameo in the film (as featured in the trailers), and Gunn has given him shout-outs whenever he’s been interviewed.
I fell in love with the Suicide Squad comics because of Ostrander’s writing (along with that of his late wife, Kim Yale.) I think I picked up an issue of the Squad from the bargain bins because it had Batman on the cover, and then I was hooked. I had to hunt down every single issue, and now I have all the trades.
Ostrander more or less created the modern version of the Suicide Squad back in the late 1980s, springing out of the underrated Legends crossover. Basically, a bunch of supervillains and Z-grade heroes who are deemed expendable get sent on extremely hazardous missions, and if they fail to obey orders, bombs implanted in their heads will explode. (That’s Ostrander himself, in the gif above, implanting a bomb in someone’s head in The Suicide Squad.) This is a delightfully pulpy premise, with shades of the Dirty Dozen, but in Ostrander’s hands it became something way more powerful.
Ostrander’s (and Yale’s) run on Suicide Squad, with Luke McDonnell among other artists, was notable for its focus on character development, for everyone from the ruthless boss Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis in the movies) to a host of cartoony supervillains like Captain Boomerang. Among other innovations, Ostrander regularly showed the members of the Squad undergoing therapy, with therapist Simon LaGrieve, and in later issues, they receive counseling from a priest, Father Richard Craemer. The whole point of the comic is that these characters are disposable, and they can and do get killed off at any time — but Ostrander and Yale force us to care about their inner lives, and even their moral struggles. An excellent spinoff miniseries delves deeply into the character of Floyd Lawton Deadshot, a sharp-shooter who’s estranged from his well-heeled family.
This focus on character, and on giving these monsters and losers real interiority, leads over time to some really clever plot twists. Like in issue #22, there’s a U.S. Senator, Joseph Cray, who’s threatening to reveal the existence of the Suicide Squad to the public. So the Squad’s leader, Rick Flag, decides to assassinate Senator Cray before he can blow the whistle. Amanda Waller orders Deadshot to stop Flag from assassinating Senator Cray “by any means necessary.” So Deadshot finds the most straightforward way to prevent Flag from killing Cray — by killing Cray himself. (Maybe he took Waller’s orders too literally?)
Also, Ostrander and Yale were instrumental in taking Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), who was injured in the Joker’s rampage and subsequently sidelined in the Bat-comics, and turning her into a badass hacker named Oracle — thus leading, eventually, to Gail Simone’s epic run on Birds of Prey.
The best word I can come up with for Ostrander’s writing, in Suicide Squad and elsewhere, is “humane.” Ostrander was studying to become a Catholic priest at one point, and his work is full of interesting questions about what it means to be a good person and lead a good life. As someone who was raised by an ethical philosopher myself, I found Ostrander’s work thrilling.
Beyond Suicide Squad, there are a LOT of other Ostrander-written titles you should hunt down. Here are a few that I love:
Gotham Nights (with art by Mary Mitchell et al.): A couple of years before Kurt Busiek wrote Marvels, giving us a view of the Marvel Universe from the standpoint of ordinary people, Ostrander did more or less the same thing for Gotham City, writing a four-issue miniseries full of vignettes about regular folks living in the shadow of Batman. The Dark Knight barely appears in these issues, but his presence is felt everywhere, and Gotham City has seldom felt like such a rich, believable place. Ostrander wrote a sequel miniseries, which I didn’t love quite as much. (Sadly, as with most of the comics I’m recommending, there’s no collected edition, so eBay is your friend.)
Grimjack (with art by Timothy Truman et al.): And here’s the big one. If someone has heard of Ostrander at all, they’ll probably mention two series: Suicide Squad and Grimjack. And the good news is, IDW published several collected editions of Grimjack back in the day, which are still findable. In a nutshell… Grimjack takes place in a city called Cynosure, which is a meeting point of different dimensions. Which means magic coexists with extremely weird science, and people wander in from all kinds of genres. The main character, John Gaunt, is a veteran of the Demon Wars, and he hangs out in a bar called Munden’s Bar, where random famous characters from comics and other media sometimes show up in the background. And there’s a lizard named Bob who cries out for gin. It’s really hard to convey the bizarre-noir feel of this comic, but the tortured John Gaunt becomes one of comics’ most compelling characters over time, and the mythos gets deeper and deeper as well.
Hawkworld/Hawman (with art by Timothy Truman et al.): I know, I know. Nobody loves poor old Hawkman. Especially nowadays, after he damn near ruined the first season of Legends of Tomorrow. I can’t even keep track of Katar Hol’s origin anymore. But Truman created a new spin on Hawkman back in the early 1990s, which turned Hol’s home planet of Thanagar into an oppressive dystopia, bent on enslaving other worlds. Katar, a police officer, leaves Earth with another winged officer named Shayera, and they settle on Earth, in Chicago. Ostrander took over writing Hawkworld when it became an ongoing series, and developed a storyline where instead of bringing enlightened alien wisdom to Earth, Katar and Shayera learn about human ideals, including the concept of civil rights. They grapple with the question of how to build a just society, at least as much as they do with Byth and the Shadow Thief.
Star Wars (with Jan Duursema and various other artists): Back when Dark Horse held the rights to publish Star Wars comics, Ostrander wrote a ton of them, and he brought his trademark humanism and concern for justice and decency to that ancient distant galaxy. Ostrander had a hand in so many great comics in this universe, but two runs stand out to me. First, there’s all of the comics he wrote starring Quinlan Vos, a “gray” Jedi during the Clone Wars. We first meet Vos suffering from amnesia and running for his life — and even after Vos gets his memories back, his identity crisis never quite ends. As good as Ahsoka Tano’s arc in the Clone Wars animated series is, Quinlan Vos’s is even better, as he goes undercover with Count Dooku and tries to bring down the baddies without succumbing to the Dark Side himself. And then there’s Legacy, in which Cade Skywalker, a descendant of Luke Skywalker, is a drug addict in a shattered future version of the galaxy — until (wait for it) destiny comes calling. Dark Horse put out an omnibus of the Vos stories called Jedi in Darkness, which you can still get, and Marvel has kept Legacy in print as a series of “Legends” paperbacks.
The Spectre (with Tom Mandrake et al.) The Spectre is one of those old-school DC Comics characters who rarely seem to work that well in the modern age. Half the time, he’s police detective Jim Corrigan, and the other half, he’s a green-hooded ghost who is the physical embodiment of God’s wrath. Prior to Ostrander’s series, Michael Fleischer and Jim Aparo had made waves with a gonzo take on the Spectre where he goes around inflicting gruesome, wacky torments on evil-doers. But Ostrander, true to form, found a more nuanced take on this supernatural enforcer, asking: what does it mean to confront evil? Why is God’s wrath taking human form anyway? Early on, the Spectre is forced to check his own biases when he decides to blame a woman suffering with HIV/AIDS for her own plight, and later he goes on a rampage, murdering innocents to try and put an end to war and misery. Ostrander gave Jim Corrigan the best ending he could possibly have, and I’m kind of bummed that Corrigan was ever brought back. There’s a trade of the first twelve issues called Crimes & Judgments, but the rest has never been collected, sadly.
Honestly, I could be here all day listing my favorite comics by Ostrander (and sometimes Yale.) I still have like two longboxes full of the stuff that’s never been collected in trades. The guy has been incredibly prolific, and you can never go wrong picking up anything he wrote. Even when he was just doing a fill-in issue on someone else’s comic, he always found a way to create memorable characters and give a greater moral weight to all of those superhero punch-ups.
I have TWO books coming out in the next four months! Coming August 17: Never Say You Can’t Survive, a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. I posted these essays on Tor.com as I was writing them last year, but the book version is massively streamlined and also contains a lot of new material. I’ve been so happy to hear from early readers that this book has helped them to keep writing and creating in the midst of honestly a lot of scary real-world turmoil. Pre-order it here!
And then in mid-November, there’s my first full-length short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes. This book contains my best-known stories, like “Six Months, Three Days,” but also a ton of deep cuts, and it’s basically a showcase for all the types of writing I’ve been doing. There’s some extremely silly comedy, there’s some dark horror, there’s a lot of romance, and there’s stories that kind of defy categorization. A lot of these stories come back, one way or the other, to queer communities and chosen families coming together to survive some weirdness or some actual bad times. I’m really proud of these stories and I can’t wait for you to read them all. Here’s the pre-order link!
And of course, my young adult debut, Victories Greater Than Death, is still available, and it’s chock full of explosions and feels and supersmart queer kids saving the galaxy. Like you do.