Today we’re discussing the fourth issue of John Ostrander and Luke McDonnells Suicide Squad, with a story titled William Hell’s Overture. I think this story is interesting because in re-reading it I thought it may have been the weakest of Ostrander’s main run. It doesn’t really connect to that much, it doesn’t further the characters and it doesn’t set up any future stories or reflect on past events. It’s largely a filler issue. A one off story that isn’t mentioned again. That being said Suicide Squad #4 is also perhaps the issue with the most to say. Like a lot of comics of this era, this issue tries to be socially conscious. This story tackles issues of race, white supremacy and it’s threat to US democracy. So now in a year which started with a mass of Bigots storming the US Capitol it has even more impact.
This issue concerns a new vigilante called William Hell who is set up pretty well in the issue’s opening scene. Hell apprehends a small group of crooks robbing a store and making a getaway, pretty standard superhero stuff that anyone who’s a fan of the genre will have seen plenty of times. Hell’s got trick crossbow bolts and a dramatic entrance, everything a good superhero needs. But Ostrander pulls the rug out from under us here when Hell allows both of the white criminals to escape, leaving the criminals of colour behind for the police. Hell remains and answers some questions for the media, regurgitating some familiar nonsense about “our way of life” and the “common man.” Yep, Ostrander has made a straight up white supremacist superhero and it’s the Squad’s mission to take him down. See, Hell has established a white supremacist group through his blonde haired, blue eyes alter ego W. James Heller.
Amanda Waller notes that William Hell only arrests minorities, pinning him to Heller (probably doesn’t help that they both have hell in their last name. What an idiot).
Waller’s briefing for the Squad is undercut however by Boomer being a total racist. Ostrander reminding us once again that Boomerang is the absolute worst. We also get an interesting side to this story and a fun call back to Deadshot’s old backstory. See Floyd also grew up with privilege and was once friends with Heller. So he reveals that Heller’s parents were killed in a race riot and then was brought under by his grandfather who worked with the Nazis. There are some interesting and somewhat problematic connotations here that I will get back to later.
Boomer and Bronze Tiger set a trap and Boomerang runs free to join the neo nazi group. I love this bit because everyone acknowledges that Boomer was being over the top with his racism and I’ve never known if he was playing it up or just being himself.
This all leads to Heller’s big speech with Boomerang and his crew behind him (I just want to point out that I think it’s hilarious that Heller’s big muscle is Captain Boomerang. So pathetic). This is interrupted by William Hell swooping in who instead preaches about working together regardless of skin colour. This of course is Deadshot in disguise. Heller storms off and then “the real Hell” saunters onto stage (gee I wonder who William Hell could be). Deadshot challenges Hell to shooting an apple off of Captain Boomerang’s head. Of course Deadshot hits his mark, Floyd reveals Hell is Heller and is then swiftly shot in the back. Of course it’s all a ruse and the Squad exfiltrate everyone out of there safely reflecting on the events of the story. That’s the basic plot but there’s a lot more meat here to dig into.
Ostrander is dealing with some weighty themes and commentary in this story, but it’s not done perfectly. For instance the role that the cops play in this story is interesting. It can be read that the cops are enablers, turning a blind eye to Hell’s clear bigotry. They quell the riots and immediately silence the criminals of colour. There is also some clear commentary on the role of public perception in race relations. Deadshot notes that in his speech he didn’t appeal to their patriotism, only preyed on their fears. Bronze Tiger also notes that they won by destroying the public opinion around Heller, implying that his standing and popularity gave him power.
These are all weighty ideas and I don’t think they are executed as well as you would hope. For one a lot of it is quite muddled and clearly coming from the perspective of a white man. There’s the idea under the surface of “let’s just put our differences aside” which is made clear by Flagg on the final page. He notes that the people back there at heart are “good people” but it is unclear as to who he is talking about. Is he talking about the protestors or the white supremacists?
There’s also the fact that Heller’s parents were killed by protestors in Heller’s sympathetic backstory. Protestors are presented elsewhere throughout the issue in a more positive light. So the commentary on protest and rioting is again confused. Are protestors something good that pushes back against gross injustice or are they dangerous mass riots? My reading on the cops as well may not be entirely accurate. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is a deliberate message that Ostrander was trying to convey and how much has come from my own interpretation.
I think it is worth noting why Ostrander chose to tackle these issues. This issue was released August 1987 just two months after the Chapeltown Riots. So this may have been Ostrander’s attempt to grapple with a lot of issues prevalent at the time. There is certainly iconography in here to suggest it with a burning building, perhaps echoing a building that was burned to the ground in the Chapeltown Riots.
Either way this issue had me thinking deeper than I initially thought. When finishing it I was astounded at how ahead of its time this particular story was. It deals with ideas around bigotry and hate and how this is fueled through speech and rich white men. However the more I thought about it the sadder this has become as a reality. The issue wasn’t ahead of its time. It was just discussing the same issues over 30 years earlier. The answer to the cover’s blustering question is made evident. “Who brought the city to its knees?” We did. We haven’t learned and we refuse to better ourselves. Swarms of racist alt right bigots swarmed the Capitol in January emboldened by the words of powerful politicians preying on their fears. Suicide Squad #4 is muddled for sure, but it is still a painfully relevant story that hits hard maybe more than it ever has. But some comfort can come from this story. As Ostrander closes out the issue he leaves us with a sense of melancholy and a glimmer of hope for the future.