With Suicide Squad right around the corner, it’s time we give it the same treatment that we did Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (and Captain America: Civil War, and to a whole host of other major comic book films) and run down the top comic books to read before heading off to the movie theater.
These 16 selections were not only chosen due to their quality of composition or their chronological/historical importance to Task Force X, but also to highlight some of its most notable members, including its leader, Deadshot (Will Smith), and its most famous member, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Along the way, we’ll reveal the squad’s utterly bizarre origins from back in the late 1950s and highlight some alternate-reality tales that are sure to have an influence on director David Ayer’s latest addition to the DC Extended Universe.
So, without further ado, here are the 16 Comics To Read Before Suicide Squad releases on August 5.
16 The Three Waves of Doom!
Yes, it’s a cheesy title – because it’s from a period when comic books were extraordinarily cheesy.
Published in September 1959, Brave and the Bold #25 introduced the world for the very first time to the Suicide Squad, which is called in to stop a reptilian-looking alien from destroying a coastal resort town. Using its “flying laboratory,” a special plane with the latest in scientific investigation and analysis, the team is eventually able to capture the extraterrestrial menace and then fly him to the sun, where he is booted off into its fiery depths.
Colonel Rick Flag (played by Joel Kinnaman in the upcoming film) makes his very first appearance as the Suicide Squad’s leader – a team which, in this original incarnation, has absolutely nothing to do with criminals and everything to do with rank-and-file scientists, doctors, and pilots. When the unit would pop up in its next major appearance in DC continuity in 1986, it would be revamped to include both the now-familiar villain concept and lineup.
15 Trial by Fire
This 1987 storyline served as a grand reintroduction to the Suicide Squad, providing a new start for the team and a new rendition of its backstory. (A bit of historical humor: while President Ronald Reagan is reviewing a request to shut down Task Force X, he hears an argument against the move that notes the squad has been around since Harry S. Truman’s administration, meaning that it’s been in action since at least the end of World War II.)
Consisting of a whole lot of varying adventures, including one set in a classic-Cold-War Russia and others featuring run-ins with none other than Darkseid himself (the big baddie likely set to make his filmic debut in Justice League, Part I), the real retro gem in the Trial by Fire collection is in seeing how the creative team initially took a roster of B-level villains (essentially, rejects from the ‘60s) and fashioned them into something truly remarkable: franchise-leading characters that have lasted to this day, including some, such as Deadshot, who have entered the forefront of the DC Universe.
14 From the Ashes
This trade paperback, published in 2008, is something of (yet another) rebirth for Task Force X, as it was published shortly after one of several recent DC reboot-esque events, this time the Infinite Crisis miniseries and the resultant “One Year Later” storyline. What makes this salient to the upcoming film – and just a good read overall – is its writer, the John Ostrander. This legendary comic book scribe was the one to give Suicide Squad its modern identity back in the ‘80s (he’s the writer of Trail by Fire, as it happens) and, now, its 21st-century updating here (he was also the creator of Amanda Waller [Viola Davis], a Suicide Squad staple).
This updating/rebooting story sees Waller being deviously conniving and manipulative (a quality undoubtedly to be showcased in the movie), adds to the complexity and hidden history of Rick Flagg (namely: how he didn’t die from a previous storyline a few years before), and shows how one of the squad’s members betrays the team, killing several characters in the process. It all combines to make this a good primer for new readers and a grand payoff for all the old-timers.
13 Discipline and Punish
The fourth volume of the monthly Suicide Squad comic (that’s the version previous to the current one, New Suicide Squad [which started in 2014], for all those playing along at home) was part of yet another DC reboot event, this one called The New 52 (which is itself getting tinkered with as we speak in the form of DC Rebirth – phew!).
This take on the team was meant to be even darker than before, and the “Discipline and Punish” storyline was meant to illustrate that fact. Amanda Waller attempts to exact even greater control on her collection of misfits by using several ploys and deceptions, but the resultant effect is to have Harley Quinn see through the various mind games and, in turn, enact a few of her own. Temporarily exacting control over Belle Reve (a meta-human prison and home to the task force), Harley is able to turn the table on Waller and force a new deal for her and the team, severely reducing their sentences.
12 Kicked in the Teeth
The inaugural arc of Suicide Squad, volume four, sees the continuity slate wiped clean and offers up not only a new origin of Task Force X, but also a new roster, adding Harley Quinn into the mix for the very first time. It even adding this tasty little bit to her past: in an attempt to finally win the Joker’s affection, she tracked down and murdered every lawyer who ever helped to lock him up, and then proceeded to dance with their corpses.
In this storyline, we learn how the heavy-handed tactics that Amanda Waller – who has her role in the DC Universe fleshed out and expanded, essentially making her the equivalent of Marvel’s SHIELD director, Nick Fury – has recently instituted lead to the team members’ domestication, starting with the implanting of “microbombs” into their bodies and ending with the deaths of several Squad members.
11 Pure Insanity
The first installment of New Suicide Squad, the current monthly title, sees Amanda Waller replaced by Vic Sage, who wishes to maintain the essence and mission of Task Force X but “spice it up” a bit by adding two new members: Deathstroke the Terminator, one of the deadliest supervillains in the entire DC Universe, and the brand-new, so-called Joker’s Daughter, who’s seemingly every bit as psychopathic as her spiritual father. Unfortunately, the entire arrangement blows up in Sage’s face, as Deathstroke and the Clown Princess of Crime prove to be just a tad on the feral side – it doesn’t help that they don’t sport any implanted bombs – and Waller herself manages to help spin the situation out of control.
As the dust settles on their first pairing of missions – including some hijinks at a Chinese meta-human cloning facility – Amanda Waller is left standing, putting Sage in his place and once against reasserting her will over the squad. The most interesting part of the storyline, however, is the question that her team poses back to her: since she has no microbomb herself, why does she keep coming back?
10 Coils of the LOA
In the foreground of this three-issue ‘80s tale (once again written by John Ostrander), Task Force X is dispatched to disrupt, at the least, and assassinate, at the most, the leaders of the LOA (that’s the Louisiana Ordinance Association), an organization that peddles drugs and utilizes a Voodoo-based motif in the process. In this instance, it is developing a series of rare poisons in order to “create a simulacrum of zombies.”
In the background, we see the continuing fallout of governmental ire at Waller, who’s increasingly under fire for her extremist methodology (namely, operating under her own purview as opposed to that of her 'superiors'). The situation only gets worse when a number of the Suicide Squad members (including Deadshot), who are dispatched to take care of the growing zombie army, end up going rogue instead of returning to home base upon completion of their assignment.
9 Up against the Wall
What makes one single issue of the ‘80s Suicide Squad comic (that’s volume one, #10, in case you’re curious) so legendary as to join the ranks of other entire storylines boils down to one simple scene.
Batman (Ben Affleck), having heard rumors of the mysterious Task Force X, finally sneaks into Belle Reve and does what the Dark Knight Detective does best: investigates to see whether the claims of the Suicide Squad have any validity. They do of course, and when Bruce Wayne tracks down Amanda Waller and informs her that he’s now going to expose her secret black-ops outfit, she turns the table on him by threatening to do the same exact thing to him. It turns out that, for some inexplicable reason, Bats didn’t wear a glove when in one of Belle Reve’s cells, and Waller not only has the print, but she’ll run them for an ID, if necessary. The two end up in a stalemate, with the Caped Crusader privately vowing to find another way to blow the governmental whistle.
Since we know that Batman will have a role to play in the film, are we to suspect that a similar scene may play out?
8 Bad Company
In an operation designed to retrieve a scientist from a cult that calls itself Basilisk, Amanda Waller puts Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) in charge (much to the consternation of the unit’s usual leader, Deadshot), even going so far as giving him the detonator that controls the microbombs implanted in the rest of the team.
The mission is a failure, with the squad on the verge of being captured, when Deadshot speaks a code phrase: “Wong Fon Shay,” which, it turns out, is the name of a Basilisk member who was killed by a boomerang (obviously making Boomerang himself the prime suspect). Realizing that his team is rebelling against him, Boomerang attempts to activate the detonator and kill them all, but a second shock of betrayal follows – the device was a decoy. In fact, the only reason for his inclusion on this mission at all is to use him as a bargaining chip in the event that they were captured; not only will Task Force X leave Boomerang behind, they’ll also send Basilisk the corpse of their long-lost Wong Fon Yay.
7 Suicide Squad vs. Justice League
When a member of the Suicide Squad is held imprisoned in a Soviet prison (following a previous failed mission in Russia), Justice League International is ordered to intervene and rescue him. Rick Flag, meanwhile, openly defies Amanda Waller’s orders not to mount a rescue operation of their own, since she believes it’s nothing more than a trap to nab the rest of the unit.
The two teams meet in the USSR and proceed to – what else? – fight one another, with the central (and most brutal) battle being between Batman and Flag. The two even refuse to stop fighting after the rest of the Justice League and the Suicide Squad have resolved their differences. Finally, the pair is dragged apart, the squad retreats (before falling into the Soviets’ hands), and JSI reaches an agreement with the Russian government for the incarcerated anti-hero to be returned to the US.
Should the Suicide Squad and Justice League films prove popular and turn into franchises, there is much material here to draw from – including the story arc’s consequences for Batman and his membership in the league.
6 Nightshade Odyssey
Nightshade, a Task Force X member who doesn’t make an appearance in the film (at least, not that we know of), has a multitude of powers that can only be described as mystical, such as teleportation (using an alternate dimension) and transforming herself into a shadow. Based upon our own summary of “The Nightshade Odyssey,” she takes her teammates to the dimension where her powers originate from – only to discover that her long-dead brother is there, possessed by a demon known as the Incubus, who is now ready to mate with its magical sister, the Succubus, in order to foment utter darkness once and for all.
Although the Suicide Squad – and the reader – is led to believe the Succubus is hiding within Nightshade, it turns out that it’s secretly been residing in Enchantress (who most certainly is in the movie adaptation, being played by Cara Delevingne) this whole time. Apparently, the demonic creature that had possessed Enchantress years earlier and given her her magical powers had hidden the Succubus within her in an attempt to foil this apocalyptic plan. It ends up succeeding, as the anti-hero outfit ends up saving the (supernatural) day.
5 The Truth about Katana
Let’s start with a bit of quick backstory: due to a massive fight between Batman and the Justice League over whether they should intervene in a foreign crisis, the Dark Knight opts to head out on his own, inadvertently meeting up with a number of other superheroes who either aren’t allowed or simply refuse to join the League. Seeing the need for an alternative to the JLA, Bats decides to officially organize them as the Outsiders.
One of these members is the brand-new character of Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a mysterious Japanese woman who is a straight-up killing machine with her titular blade. Almost exactly a year into the Outsiders’ various adventures, the creative team decided to finally divulge Katana’s backstory in the two-part “The Truth about Katana” storyline. When Katana’s, erm, katana is stolen and brought back to Japan, she follows it, and, in the process, finally admits to her teammates that her sword (which is appropriately called Soultaker) contains the souls of all the people that it has killed, including her husband’s. The thief – who turns out to be her brother-in-law/her husband’s murderer – resurrects all the spirits trapped within the katana, and they work to get vengeance on the Outsider.
4 Deadshot: Beginnings
A character renowned for his death wish – arguably the real reason why a bullseye is on his costume – both readers and Deadshot himself begin to question the validity of his psychological composition when his son in kidnapped, and the anti-hero begins a one-man war to track him down and save him. There’s also the sub-plot of his psychiatrist, Dr. Marnie Herrs – who just so happens to be his ex-lover and the mother of his child – which only serves to further flesh out the psychological complexity of Floyd Lawton and the origin of Deadshot.
But arguably more important than the actual contents of the story’s plot is its tone, pacing, and, most notably of all, its level of violence. This is a dark book, even allowing for the then-recent release of Alan Moore’s brilliant (and existentially bleak) Watchmen miniseries. There is an insane amount of violence (involving both bullets and fisticuffs) and a brooding, haunting pale that hangs over the entire story. The perfect tale, in other words, to fit into David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, specifically, and Zack Snyder’s DC Extended Universe, generally.
3 Joker’s Asylum II: Killer Croc
A miniseries that sees the Joker (Jared Leto) host up several different tales, each highlighting a different Bat-villain, this installment focuses on, of course, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), following him as he escapes from Arkham and, oddly enough, becomes adopted into a crime family (literally – the head honchos are a “low-level gangster” and his wife).
The story is actually titled “Beauty and the Beast,” with the fairy tale serving as a strong framing device, but the issue also exhibits a strong crime noir vibe – as is evidenced by Croc, who slowly works his way up the crime hierarchy, eventually being outfitted in a button-down shirt and vest. The look, obviously, is meant to highlight the fundamental question of just how much of an animal or a man Waylon Jones really is, something which (more or less) is answered at the conclusion of the one-shot, when Croc, who’s had enough of the betrayal and treachery, asks to be put back in Arkham Asylum.
A graphic, disturbing, and deranged story, Joker is an one-shot that was published the same year Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight came out. It wasn't a coincidence, as the graphic novel borrows heavily from Heath Ledger’s Joker, and then, in turn, uses that approach to redesign and reimagine all the rest of the Bat rogues gallery, from the Riddler to Two-Face to Killer Croc (whose appearance here seems to have played more than a passing influence on Suicide Squad’s upcoming rendition of the character).
Told from the perspective of Jonny Frost, a street-level criminal, we see how Joker attempts to rebuild his criminal empire – and reclaim his title as the crime lord of Gotham City – upon his discharge from Arkham. Along the way, Frost is thanked for his increasing loyalty to the Crown Prince of Crime by having his wife raped and, ultimately – well, we won’t spoil it for you here. Rest assured the book is well worth a read, and it's been confirmed as having a direct influence on the upcoming take on the Clown Prince of Crime.
1 Mad Love
One of the most famous Batman stories of all time, Mad Love follows two tacks: it recounts Harley Quinn’s origin, and it spins a new story of revenge, betrayal, and, ultimately, love, not only between Harley and the Joker, but also Batman.
Let’s tackle that origin tale first: when Harleen Quinzel arrives at Arkham Asylum with the intent of becoming something of a famous psychologist, she instead finds herself falling head-over-heals in love with Joker, believing him to be a product of both a disastrous childhood and a victim at the hands of Batman. Her obsession eventually leads her to adopt the persona of Harley Quinn, and she spends a great deal of her time planning the ultimate death for Bats with her dearest.
Which leads her to attempt to pull off that plan by herself, believing that it will finally goad the Joker into marrying her and starting a family. Instead, it enrages him, and all hell breaks loose from there.
Did we miss a classic Suicide Squad story? Do you have any recommendations for must-read comics featuring the other squad members? Let us know in the comments.