Review: Suicide Squad Vol. 3: Death is for Suckers trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Adam Glass finishes one of the more controversial starting runs of the New 52 with Suicide Squad Vol. 3: Death is for Suckers. Glass tells a twisty story in which the reader can never be sure who's going to die next, and moreover whom thought dead might return to the living; in this way, Glass's story has shades of John Ostrander's fan-favorite series, even if it never quite achieves that book's full nuance. Glass's Squad remains an amusing mix of irreverence and thoughtfulness, designed to keep the reader off guard -- just when you think the book has swung too far one way, it moves back in the other.

Though this volume doesn't share the "Death of the Family" titling and seems mostly removed from the Bat-universe, one of the most notable aspects is Glass's face-off (so to speak) between Harley Quinn and the newly-returned Joker. Glass is responsible for the first real interaction between Harley and the Joker in the New 52, and while his depiction of Harley may still not be to everyone's tastes, I thought Glass offered some interesting insights into the characters' dysfunctional relationship here.

[Review contains spoilers]

There's a moment in the second part of Glass's two-part "Death of the Family" story in which Harley, waking up after having been choked to unconsciousness by the Joker with a chain, believes she sees for a moment what looks like a Brian Bolland Killing Joke Joker -- trench coat, pink shirt, green bow tie. The Killing Joke-era Joker is hardly a "tame" iteration, but the juxtaposition of that Joker with the mutilated, gruesome-faced Joker of the moment is exceptionally striking; it really demonstrates that if we thought the Joker was frightening before, he's doubly frightening now.*

This comes after the Joker has punched Harley, held a knife to her throat, dragged her by her hair, and stuck a razor in her mouth and then cut her cheek open. We are meant to understand that some time in the murky past of the New 52, the Joker and Harley worked together and were actually "good" partners -- that something like the Batman: The Animated Series version of the Joker and Harley actually existed. But what works as slapstick in a cartoon inevitably translates to abuse on the comics page, and that's what Glass demonstrates here -- whatever romanticizing might have been done of the Joker and Harley in the past, this is an abusive relationship now, where the Joker hesitates not at all before beating Harley and even biting a chunk out of her ear.

Glass's most revealing addition to the Joker/Harley mythos, one that I don't think any other writer has ever considered before, is that Dr. Harleen Quinzel, despite the coincidental name, isn't the Joker's first Harley Quinn. When the Joker locks Harley in a dungeon to rot among the corpses of other Harleys past, their relationship for perhaps the first time makes the most sense. The Joker did not fall in love with Harley -- the most preposterous tenet of the idea of a Joker/Harley relationship -- but rather this is a game that the Joker plays over and over with impressionable young women: corrupting them, making them his sidekick, and ultimately discarding them. Glass finally offers a reason that explains sensibly why the Joker wants Harley and why she wants him in return, and that reconciles how the Joker supposedly treated Harley in the past versus how he's treating her now.

(Glass leaves unspoken the obvious comparisons between the Joker and his Harleys and Batman and his Robins, which a cynical view might see Batman "using and losing" his partners in much the same way. It's a pity Glass is out of the Bat-universe now such that he can't pick up on this in the future.)

Following the "Death in the Family" story is a transitional issue in which Deadshot appears to return from the dead and Harley recovers from her injuries, which bridges with flashback the Squad's last disastrous mission against Basilisk and their next one. Having just been beaten by the Joker, Harley now seems to break up with Deadshot -- with fisticuffs -- and Deadshot responds in kind. It's another example of Harley in an abusive relationship -- until Glass reveals that Harley, at least, is just pretending, fighting with Deadshot such to speak covertly about Harley's suspicions that boss Amanda Waller now has the power to resurrect dead Squad-ers.

Harley and Deadshot have been the book's central and most-defined characters, but in this moment it really becomes their book -- Harley and Deadshot against the world. The Harley/Deadshot relationship has never seemed quite "right" -- because Glass's iteration of Deadshot is somewhat rougher than the more honorable version in Gail Simone's Secret Six; because it seems an incongruous leap for Deadshot to go from dating the more put-together Jeanette in Secret Six to looney-tunes Harley in Suicide Squad; because there's been a general "ick factor" in Glass's portrayal of their relationship so far; and because of Harley's general depiction only alongside the Joker -- but in this issue, I finally saw how it could work. This comes, again, just as Glass is leaving the book, so whether Suicide Squad's next writers will continue this dynamic or abandon it remains to be seen.

The final three issues get to some of that "twistiness" I referred to in this series. Two of them spotlight Yo-Yo, a new character Glass created in volume one apparently for the sole purpose of having him get eaten by King Shark; Yo-Yo survived, and now not only is he one of the most powerful members of the group, but Glass gives him an origin and pits the team against Yo-Yo's sister, Red Orchid, as the story's villain. Though Yo-Yo's return has been foreshadowed for a while, more surprising is the return of Voltaic, another bit player whom Deadshot killed in the first volume, also back on the team. Glass introduces a fascinating dynamic in the possibility that Waller could resurrect dead Squad members, such that even death wouldn't grant them "parole" from the Squad, but again, no telling whether future writers will continue to explore this.

Glass's final issue then shifts somewhat away from the ongoing Basilisk storyline and focuses on Waller, as she enlists the Squad personally to help her save operative Kurt Lance. It's an odd finale that goes off on a strange tangent involving swamp monsters, but also brings something of a resolution to Glass's run in that Waller disarms the neck bombs that guaranteed her the Squad's loyalty. Art for the issue is by Cliff Richards, approaching the characters more realistically and less cartoony, and it's probably the volume's best-drawn chapter; Henrik Jonsson, Sandu Florea, and Fernando Dagnino each have more animated styles that worked for Suicide Squad but that I didn't favor quite as much (and Dagnino has a tendency at times to draw Harley as quite impossibly busty, to the point of absurdity).

Adam Glass's Suicide Squad has been a weird ride, at times too gross and at times too flip, but also with some subtle depth (maybe too subtle) buried within the stories. Certainly, this book ended up far better than the torturous first issue suggested it would. Glass begins a lot of good storylines in Suicide Squad Vol. 3: Death is for Suckers that he doesn't get to finish, but perhaps they'll find favor with the teams to come.

[Includes original and variant covers, as well as the "WTF" two-page cover, and artists' sketches]

Coming up -- Red Sonja and Batman: Li'l Gotham!

*In practice this doesn't hold up, because nothing the "new" Joker does during Death of the Family really compares to the Killing Joke Joker shooting Barbara Gordon; frankly, in practice the "new" Joker is rather tame, only ultimately pretending to mutilate the Bat-family instead of actually doing so. Appearance-wise, however, the "new" Joker takes the cake.
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  1. Is Joker telling the truth about the multiple Harleys? I got the sense that it was a psychological fake-out, especially because it seemed like Joker and "our" Harley were together for a large chunk of the New 52's "five years" ... or maybe I'm still stubbornly clinging to MAD LOVE.

    1. If it was meant to be a fake-out, it didn't translate to me, at least. I totally get that the timeline doesn't actually work, but, y'know, "comics time." Personally, the corpses on the floor suggested to me that the Joker was serious, and moreover, I "like" this idea that there have been multiple Harleys because it explains to me better what the Joker is doing in this relationship than that the fearsome, maniacal Joker is actually in love with someone. Also the unstated implication that Batman is the same way with his Robins.

    2. I think you can still safely cling on to 'Mad Love'. Nothing in that story hinted at Joker genuinely loving Harleen, so her not being the first Harley wouldn't take anything away from that.