In the preview for the new Suicide Squad: Rebirth, Amanda Waller has to justify the Squad’s existence to President Barack Obama. This, in fact, isn’t the first time she’s had to justify the team to a real President — in Secret Origins #14, the issue that came right before the Suicide Squad book was launched, she had to explain the entire history of the Squad to President Ronald Reagan. Because the Squad that the movie is about — the Squad made up of supervillains — is not the first Squad.
The Suicide Squad, or their more official name Task Force X, first appeared in The Brave and the Bold #25 and it was made up of Rick Flag, Jr., combat medic Karin Grave (who was in love with Rick), astrophysicist Hugh Evans, and nuclear physicist Jess Bright. It was their job to go out and investigate monsters and other paranormal events.
Eventually, it was revealed that they also weren’t the first Suicide Squad — that, in fact, there had been a Suicide Squadron during World War II, made up of soldiers who had committed felonies and were now being sent on suicidal missions, primarily those to Dinosaur Island, where they fought “The War That Time Forgot.” (Yes, these were all in a book entitled Weird War Stories. The Silver Age was wacky.) In fact, later on, it was revealed that this Suicide Squadron was led by Rick Flag, Sr.
The original Suicide Squad had a number of issues dedicated to them in The Brave and the Bold, but the book pretty soon found its niche by teaming up two superheroes, so the Suicide Squad faded into obscurity. Flag was a member of the Forgotten Heroes and the Squad appeared in an storyline in Action Comics, but that was pretty much it until the 1986 crossover Legends. During Legends, Amanda Waller finds the files of the Suicide Squad and decides to restart Task Force X, this time using imprisoned supervillains.
The Squad operated out of Belle Reve in Louisiana and was initially made up of a number of supervillains (primarily Captain Boomerang and Deadshot), mixed in with some superheroes (like Bronze Tiger and Nightshade) led by Rick Flag, Jr. During the Secret Origins issue, it was revealed that Flag had led the previous Suicide Squad in a disastrous mission that ended with two of them dead and Karin Grace traumatized. She still served as combat medic for the new Squad, but refused to talk to Flag.
This new Suicide Squad, written by John Ostrander, quickly established itself as something completely different from other books in the DC universe. It was more akin to The Dirty Dozen, with a team of specialized members going into a covert mission that just as often ended in failure as it did in success. And sometimes, even if the mission was a success, people died. In Legends, the first team member to die was Blockbuster; in the Suicide Squad book, the next member to die was Mindboggler — the fact that almost all of the characters were C-list characters meant that pretty much anyone could die.
The head of the Squad, Amanda Waller, most often didn’t participate in the missions, but had her own troubles to contend with: politics and bureaucracy. She often struggled to keep control of the Squad and keep it operating, staving off corrupt politicians and superheroes who wanted it shut down. She even got Batman to back off by threatening to use her considerable resources to find his secret identity. (This moment was condensed into one supremely awesome moment in Justice League Unlimited where Waller calls Batman “rich boy.”)
Ostrander and his writing partner and wife Kim Yale continued writing Suicide Squad, introducing new members (like Oracle) just as fast as they killed off old ones, until issue 66, at which point the team was disbanded. After that, well, there was a long period of time when the Suicide Squad appeared only in cameos and often was just a random assortment of supervillains. Waller apparently assembled a new team for a storyline in Superboy called “Suicidal Tendencies” and they made sporadic appearances elsewhere.
There was a short-lived Suicide Squad book by Keith Giffen that was a humorous counterpart to his JLI and then Ostrander returned to the book in 2007 with a mini-series entitled Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag, about Rick Flag, Jr. After that, however, there was very little Suicide Squad until, ironically, another book with the same initials came about: Secret Six.
Secret Six, like Suicide Squad, was a book that had started as something very different from how it ended up: the original Secret Six was about six people (August Durant, Lili de Neuve, Carlo di Rienzi, Mike Tempest, Crimson Dawn and King Savage) who were being blackmailed by a mysterious person named “Mockingbird” to do various espionage related jobs. It was basically a cross between Mission: Impossible and Charlie’s Angels if Charlie was a complete bastard.
The book itself, coincidentally, only lasted six issues before it was cancelled without revealing who Mockingbird was and it wasn’t until later issues of Action Comics Weekly that the mystery was solved.
However, in 2005, for the Infinite Crisis crossover, Gail Simone created a new Secret Six team, this time made up of supervillains. They starred in a mini-series called Villains United before getting there own book. The book itself had a lot of ties with the previous Ostrander Suicide Squad book — the villains, including Deadshot, went on various missions, most of them covert, and sometimes they ended badly, with people dying.
In fact, during the Blackest Night crossover, Simone was even able to co-write an issue of both Secret Six and Suicide Squad (since the book was resurrected for one issue, like other dead books) with the original Squad writer John Ostrander. This ignited a renewed interest in the Suicide Squad and once the New 52 was launched, a new Suicide Squad book was launched along with it.
Over the years, the Suicide Squad has included a large number of supervillains and other characters, from Ambush Bug to Shade the Changing Man to Grant Morrison himself (he was called “The Writer” and died when his laptop malfunctioned). They have been adapted in animation (the Justice League Unlimited episode “Task Force X”) and in live action (both Smallville and Arrow have had versions of the Suicide Squad, although since Waller was played by Pam Grier in Smallville, that version is inherently better).
And now with a new movie comes a new version, this one written by Rob Williams, with art by Jim Lee. Williams has already brought back Rick Flag, Jr. from limbo. Let’s see what else this Suicide Squad will do.