Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Alex Maleev
DC Comics: Black Label, October 2021
American publisher DC Comics has (with an eye upon commercially benefiting from the goodwill generated by the successful 2021 motion picture, The Suicide Squad), released a new title, Suicide Squad: Get Joker!, under its Black Label imprint.
The Black Label imprint is the lurching zombie of Vertigo Comics. The once avant garde, highly successful imprint Vertigo Comics was shutdown by DC Comics in January 2020. The Black Label line is intended to be the inheritor of the experimental ethos of Vertigo Comics.
So far, that has been an inconsistently achieved objective.
This is writer Brian Azzarello’s second foray into the superhero genre under the Black Label imprint. The first was Batman: Damned, which we have reviewed: https://www.worldcomicbookreview.com/2019/02/03/batman-damned-2-review/ which included the now notorious panel of a nude Batman’s shadowy genitals.
Suicide Squad does not suffer from peeking penises, but is peppered with plenty of swear words. Silver Banshee, once a fearsome opponent of Superman, mutters “Fackin’ rookie” when she discovers that Batman’s rogue protege, Red Hood, will lead a new line-up of the Suicide Squad. Their mission is to kill Batman’s quintessential nemesis, the Joker.
This is undeniably a new perspective of the longstanding arrangement between the US government and costumed bad guys underpinning the Suicide Squad, dating back to John Ostrander’s wonderful series in the 1980s: supervillains are coerced into covert government operations, rather than made to fight and catch or kill other supervillains.
Mr Azzarello has come up with a masterful insight into how a broke madman like the Joker can have an army of thugs and stage elaborate acts of destruction and mayhem. It evolves that the Joker is funded by a Russian program to cause civic destabilisation within the United States. Mr Azzarello has taken the idea of Russian interference in social media platforms to cause social division using bots and other techniques, and extended this to create a Russian plot to sow chaos by providing money to one of America’s most fearsome supervillains.
In 2018 US think tank Rand Corporation published a paper entitled Countering Russian Social Media Influence https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2700/RR2740/RAND_RR2740.pdf . The authors note, “Russia’s strategy is diffuse. In many cases, as detailed in the RAND Corporation’s Firehose of Falsehood publication, Russia’s strategy is to question all narratives and obfuscate facts, rather than push a particular narrative, with the ultimate goal of degrading trust in Western institutions and the democratic process.6 In other cases, a Russian campaign might have a specific and clear objective, such as avoiding blame for the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 or the poison- ing of its former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia also uses a wide range of tools to achieve its goals—including cyberattacks, public messaging, and state-backed media—but the connection between these tools is not always clear. Formulating a specific response to this range of strategies and behaviors can be difficult.”
But Mr Azzarello has the Suicide Squad’s fearsome boss, Amanda Waller, exhibit no qualms about a direct approach – squishing a Russian asset who causes enormous domestic problems for the US government.
This suits the Red Hood and Batman’s sometimes ally Harley Quinn. The Red Hood was once Robin, the teenaged sidekick to Batman. Robin murdered by the Joker, the result of a macabre telephone poll conducted by DC Comics in 1988, where readers could phone in a choice as to whether the teenaged boy was to be killed. DC Comics opted to have the boy bludgeoned to death by the Joker. We doubt that would occur today without broad public outcry. Robin was resurrected in 2004 by DC Comics, and adopted the new identity of the Red Hood.
As for Harley Quinn, she is the jilted and abused ex-girlfriend of the Joker, sufficiently motivated to kill him. The other members of the team are shanghaied into the Squad with the carrot-and-stick approach first conceptualised by Mr Ostrander – help and your prison sentence will be commuted, go off-mission and a substance injected into your neck will horribly kill you. By the end of the first issue, one of the players suffers that fate.
While the title does not feature DC Comics’ most popular costumes crimefighter, Batman, the character’s associated concepts linger throughout the story. The protagonist is a former sidekick (and occasional associate) of Batman; Harley Quinn is a comedic foil to the dark tones of Batman’s many titles; the story is to do with a government assassination attempt on the Joker; much of the first issue is set in Batman’s home town of Gotham City. Batman abhors murdering his enemies, no matter how foul and depraved they might be.
And with DC Comics, all roads lead to Rome, or at least, the Batcave: according to this list https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_current_DC_Comics_publications on Wikipedia, DC Comics presently has 24 regular monthly titles, seven of which are concerned directly with Batman’s adventures (including Justice League), and four others are so do with characters associated with Batman (Catwoman, Joker, Robin and Nightwing). This means almost half of DC Comics’ regular fascicles feature the World’s Greatest Detective (as he was known in the 1970s – a sobriquet that has fallen away in favour of grit and martial arts prowess).
And in Rome, as Juvenal noted, you give the mob “panem et circenses”. When Amanda Waller visits Red Hood in prison, he is surprised by the identity of his visitor – he was expecting Batman. DC Comics’ readership does, too.
Perhaps in future issues we will see Batman intervene to prevent Red Hood and his fellow squaddies from killing the Joker.
Or perhaps not. When the Red Hood sees that Waller and not Batman comes knocking on his cell door and says he was expecting a “friend”, Waller replies, “I find the word friend is awesome, or sucks – overused to the point it’s no longer descriptive.” We do not know if this is a subtle jibe at DC Comics’ reliance on the Caped Crusader (another forgotten phrase) to sell comics. We hope so.
Why is this very interesting story appealing in the Black Label imprint? DC Comics seem to want to hedge its bets on whether or not storylines appearing in Black Label titles may or may not fall into its regular continuity.
This allows for the possibility that Red Hood and Harley Quinn might get burned to a crisp, which would never be permissible in a mainstream DC Comics’ book.
Or, indeed, that the Joker might die.
A word on artist Alex Maleev’s art. We first encountered it in an Avengers story when a reincarnated Hawkeye finds himself in a bittersweet tryst – a beautiful story in which the unexpected romance and Hawkeye’s reconciliation of his need for justice is accentuated by the startlingly wonderful Klimt-esque profiles of the amnesiac Scarlet Witch.
We see this again in Mr Maleev’s sensual depiction of Harley Quinn, and the looming shadows of Belle Reve prison.
However, we think the rendition of violence is not Mr Maleev’s forte. A firefight in a bar does not have the requisite dynamism.
Notwithstanding that, we enjoyed this. The climax at the end of the first issue (which we will not spoil) was genuinely unexpected, and suggests that there is not much of a difference between Waller and the Joker.
We wonder where the story will go. We will be following this title through to its end.