Review: Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 11, 2013

[Guest reviewer Scott Beattie writes about the Memphis Grizzlies for Straight Outta Vancouver]

At its core, the concept behind Suicide Squad is incredibly brilliant and elegant: a group of villains goes on high-risk black ops missions for the US Government in exchange for time off their prison sentences. In addition to creating an ensemble thriller featuring a cast of anti-heroes, the concept also helps fill in some of the nuts and bolts of the DC Universe as it fleshes out minor villains while also explaining their continual presence in other superhero titles despite the fact that they should be in jail.

Unfortunately, this concept is not well-served in Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth, the squad's first appearance in the rebooted DC Universe. The first seven issues of the series feature poor dialogue, forced humor, and an excessive amount of violence. The concept alone should be intriguing for first-time readers, but long-time fans of either John Ostrander's original Suicide Squad or Gail Simone's Secret Six will probably find this incarnation unappealing.

[Review contains spoilers]

Perhaps in a nod to the Ostrander run, Kicked in the Teeth is divided into small arcs of 2-3 issues, each of which represent a particular mission. Of the three, the first is easily the weakest as it is yet another Walking Dead-type scenario. Given the overabundance of zombie stories in the media at the moment, one really has to craft a distinctive take on the idea in order to rise above the pack, and writer Adam Glass fails to do so. The other missions, which revolve around putting down a prison riot and tracking down an escaped Harley Quinn, fare much better.

Unfortunately, any goodwill earned by the story is lost just as quickly due to poor characterization and wooden dialogue. Glass wisely opts to cast the biggest names of the series, Deadshot and Harley Quinn, as leads, and yet the characterization of both is lacking. In the past, Deadshot has demonstrated both an inner battle between self-serving practicality versus loyalty towards his friends as well as a complex moral code -- he once assassinated a senator who attempted to blackmail the squad in order to prevent Rick Flag from doing it himself -- but those nuanced traits are absent here. Instead, the reader is presented with a lead who hates the missions and his companions, and whose entire personality is that he always follows orders. Deadshot does not experience any remorse or even excitement when he kills his teammate Voltaic; he does it without any emotion because he has been ordered to set up a scapegoat. Amorality on its own does not differentiate him from any other villain or anti-hero, and this characterization has reduced one of the DC Universe's most compelling characters into one of its most bland.

Harley Quinn is more recognizably herself, and the way in which her relationship with the Joker is explored in light of Detective Comics: Faces of Death is one of Kicked in the Teeth's highlights. Although she has definitely been oversexualized, this is somewhat forgivable given the same oversexualization in other high-profile projects such as Batman: Arkham Asylum. Less forgivable are the bad puns and lame jokes that the reader is constantly subjected to. Admittedly, this is another of Harley's trademark features, but while writers such as Paul Dini have made it charming, here it is merely annoying. Even worse, the bad puns seem to be contagious and every team member makes their fair share of bad jokes (even Deadshot joins in, telling a fat civilian to "Slow your roll").

The remaining characters are mostly forgettable cliches. One wonders if the series would have been better served by featuring a more classic lineup with members such as Bronze Tiger or Black Orchid. Lime and Light, whom Green Arrow battled in The Midas Touch, join the team for the third mission, and while nothing much is done with them, their appearance does give a more cohesive feel to the New 52 universe.

Many of these deficiencies in characterization are a result of wooden dialogue. When Captain Boomerang says, "Nah, we're the bad guys. Got anything to say to that?" or Deadshot tells El Diablo to "Take it easy chili powder. Take a look at this," it makes it difficult for the reader to take these characters, who are supposedly hardened killers, seriously. Based on similar problems in his "Legion of Doom" story in Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint Featuring the Flash, it seems that this is a reoccurring problem for Adam Glass, which is especially strange given his background in television.

To be fair to Glass, he is hindered by the series' art. Over the course of seven issues, there are seven different artists (Federico Dallocchio draws two issues himself and splits duties on two others, thereby earning the cover credit by default). While none of the artwork is particularly bad, the constant shift in art gives the entire volume a feeling of instability. The transition from artist to artist is especially noticeable in the several instances when it occurs mid-issue, and the series would greatly benefit from more consistency in the next volume.

Suicide Squad is a title that I have an intense amount of loyalty for, and I was willing to forgive this volume for its flaws, but if there is one thing that has really tested my loyalty, it's the violence. Obviously, a title like Suicide Squad is inherently violent -- Ostrander's run in the late '80s was promoted with the promise of at least one character death per mission -- however, its presence in Kicked in Teeth is problematic because it is mostly gratuitous. The first issue is almost entirely devoted to the scenes of the Suicide Squad being tortured, only for Glass to reveal by the end that it is a set-up by Amanda Waller to test their resolve, rendering nineteen pages of torture meaningless. Even the three deaths of squad members feel hollow. When Yo-Yo is eaten by King Shark it adds nothing to the plot or either character; the reader had no time to connect with Yo-Yo, who had only been introduced in the previous issue, so his death accomplishes nothing more than shock value. But Glass gets even this wrong, as King Shark ate someone once before, removing surprise from the action. For anyone who is not impressed by violence for its own sake, these instances can be incredibly off-putting.

For most fans, Suicide Squad: Kicked in the Teeth will be an unfortunate disappointment. Even new readers may have trouble enjoying this series once the initial thrill of the concept wears off. I'm happy that Suicide Squad is once again a monthly series, and even happier to know that new writer Ales Kot is joining the title this May.
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6 comments:

  1. "Violence for its own sake" is how I felt about the Legion of Doom series as well. That series was bad enough to make me want to avoid Adam Glass, and your review doesn't do anything to dissuade that.

    Contrast that with Swamp Thing Vol 1 (which I just happened to read and CE recently reviewed), which had a fair amount of violence, but it didn't feel gratuitous or forced. Rather, it made the whole book creepy like a good horror story should.

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  2. D. Mark Simms-- I didn't mention this in the review, but, unfortunately, I thought Kicked in the Teeth was the worst volume 1 of the New 52 that I've read (I've read about half of them).

    It seems like DC (and maybe comics as a whole) have really been going in a more violent direction for the past decade. That means that for every Swamp Thing we also get Adam Glass or Static Shock's arm being cut off.

    Personally, I'm fine with the violence on the darker, edgier titles, but I'd like to see it toned back on some the more traditional superhero titles (and especially the Young Justice books). What are your thoughts?

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  3. Excessive violence can definitely be a crutch, especially when it's done for its own sake and/or for padding. It's a tool that some writers know when to use well, but many don't.

    An example: I'm not the biggest of gorehounds, but at the same time, I'm a huge fan of "Guyver", a manga and anime well-known for being messy. One of the most effective "Guyver" stories involves the gruesome death of Enzyme II. At the same time, there's a running subplot with Aptom messily killing off the Hyper-Zoanoid Five that just drags on.

    Another example: the death of the Invisible Man in "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 2". Even within the confines of that story, Alan Moore can't quite keep the mood straight.

    (See also my stipulation that the Thor/Power Pack "Thor and the Warriors Four" crossover series has the most mature portrayal of death in recent comics.)

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  4. I acually liked this volume more than I thought. I was really unsure if I should buy it, but I'm glad that I did and I am looking forward to the next volume (which is out today if I'm not mistaken).

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  5. Spooky -- I always love to hear a range of viewpoints. Tell us more what you liked about this book.

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  6. Well, it's entertaining. It's not a complicated or heavy read. And if you are looking for something like that, this isn't a bad choice at all.

    I get, that it's not for everyone. It probably isn't for you, if you compare it with old runs of the same title. It's loud, it's violent, it's bitchy and last but not least it is fun. And King Shark is hilarious! :)

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