Old Ventures 2, Ch. 27

Twenty-Seven, Bakdida, Iraq, 2015

Ian positioned his pistol awkwardly in its holster while he retrieved a combat knife from a sheath on his leg. Then he picked the pistol back up. A crash, stones either from the construction or perhaps some sculptural elements, in the next room caused one of the two guards to leave via the opposite hall. The remaining guard watched his exit, and continued facing away.

Ian crept inside the room, taking care to make his footsteps as silent as possible. He was within a few feet of the ISIL fighter when the man began to turn. Ian didn’t have time to swear, but sprang into action, leaping towards the man with his knife outstretched. He pocketed his pistol, and used his free hand to cover the fighter’s mouth as he pushed the knife into his back. He twisted it, slicing into his spine. The fighter went limp from the waist down, and fought to breathe as his diaphragm stopped responding. Ian couldn’t hold all of his weight up, but helped him collapse forward as quietly as he could. Ian removed the knife from his back, and slit the fighter’s throat. Either way he was dying, but it was a quicker death, a courtesy, one he likely didn’t deserve.

The more cautious move, at least as far as his safety was concerned, was likely to rendezvous with India and Jalal. But that could mean the man he killed getting discovered, and them blowing the explosives, killing the hostages, possibly all of them.

No, the better option for the mission was disabling the bombs as quickly as possible, and hoping that India returned before the guard did.

The bomb wasn’t terribly intelligently designed. There was a single detonator in the center, with wires to each explosive spiraling out from that center. He didn’t see any battery back-ups or the like, so he didn’t have to worry about one explosive going off after being disconnected. But that still left the wires themselves.

Ian retrieved a set of wire cutters from a pouch on his belt, as well as some forceps. He never liked this kind of work. Maybe that was because for every two men who successfully disarmed bombs, he knew someone who died in the attempt, usually when they became overconfident about their own skills, or too pressed for time.

He followed the wire again with his eyes, starting at the detonator, trailing along the wall, before being planted into a home-cooked plastic explosive at a half-dozen locations.

The largest danger was the receiver, designed to accept a signal from who knows how many sources. It was possible each of the ISIL fighters had a switch, or only one of them. It was wired with multiple redundancies, any attempt to remove it from the battery would set off multiple explosives. Which meant he was going to have to disconnect every explosive individually.

He used the forceps to separate out the right wire at the detonator, then positioned the wire cutters. He took a deep breath, then cut through. He traced the next wire from the explosive to the detonator, again found no redundancies, and snipped it, as well.

“This is too easy,” Ian said, and stopped. He stood up, and traced the wiring from the third device. It was taped about eye-level along the wall. He did the same for the remaining explosives, and aside from taped wires, they all seemed just as simple in their design as the first two. It was all sloppy, even down to a strip of tape that seemed to just be hanging off the wall, like it had been placed there momentarily, and then left even after it became clear it wasn’t necessary.

Ian returned to the detonator, lined up the third set of wires and cut through them. He moved to the wires on the opposite side, and positioned his snippers on the wires leading to the fourth, but stopped. Something screamed at Ian from the back of his mind, and he glanced again at the wires taped along the wall.

His eyes caught particularly on the stray strip of tape hanging off the wires above, but it was only designed to look innocuous. He could see a slight extrusion, where a wire connected the two, largely hidden by the hanging length of tape.

He got up, and traced the taped section along the wall, and nearly jumped. Not only were the wires interconnected, ensuring that both needed to be cut simultaneously, but they were both wired to a simple push-button detonator. Not only couldn’t he cut those now, but even once the explosives were disconnected from the central detonator and battery, they were still hooked up to a secondary device. He was going to need to hold the room until he could finish dismantling the bomb, or those last two explosives would still remain live.

He traced the wiring from the final explosive to the detonator. This one was straightforward, like the others before. He took a breath, closed his eyes, and cut it.

He felt a twinge in his shoulder. Had he pulled something? He could feel himself hurtling towards the floor, unable to brace. The twinge burned hotter, like he was on fire, and only then did the report from the rifle register in his brain, leading him to the realization that he’d been shot.

He tried to reach back to the wound on instinct, which only made it hurt worse, confirming that it had just missed his vest. Moving his arm was agony, breathing pained him nearly enough to make him black out. And he could hear angry, excited Arabic. They were coming for him, and quickly.

With his left hand he groped for his pistol, but it wasn’t in his holster. He tried to replay getting shot, how he fell, where it would have landed. Somewhere to his left, by his shoulder, seemed like the best expectation. He patted the stone floor, but his hand came up empty. He decided to check by his side, as he heard the shouting in Arabic coming closer, when his hand brushed something that skid across the stones, definitely plastic and metal. He got his finger into the trigger well, and managed to spin the gun so he could grip it. He raised it just as an ISIL fighter came into view, and fired three shots center mass. For a man bleeding out and nearly unconscious, his grouping was surprisingly tight.

He managed to turn enough to put four shots into the next man. Someone screamed from elsewhere in the room, and Ian heard the sound of feet beating a quick retreat. It wasn’t terribly comforting, because he knew that he could be retreating to the remote for the detonator. Ian knew he needed to get up, hold this room, and finish decommissioning that bomb. It would all start with a single step. But he found he couldn’t even lift his pistol off the ground again. This was going to prove more challenging than he’d expected.

Relevant Review: The Great and Secret Show

The Great and Secret Show is an adaptation of Clive Barker’s first Book of the Art into comic form. The art is done by Gabriel Rodriguez, the impressive artist behind Locke & Key. While I think it would be easy to assume that what makes L&K work is Joe Hill’s writing, I think that misses the subtle craft of Rodriguez’s art. It’s more towards the exaggerated, animation-inflected end of the realism spectrum, but there’s a grubby humanity in his art, in particular in Sam Lesser. Sam’s a bad man, but Rodriguez infuses him with sadness, and his soulful, expressive eyes do make you wish for better for him.

Perhaps part of why I’m so focused on Sam is that Randolph Jaffe kind of looks like a grown-up Sam, with thinning hair and those same, kicked-puppy eyes. Jaffe starts out as our introduction to the world of the Art. In a different story he’d stay our protagonist. But Barker likes complicated worlds, with heroes who become villains and villains who become heroes, and just because someone’s turned from face to heel doesn’t mean they won’t become a face yet again when a still more evil villain arrives.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jaffe works in the dead letter office of the post office. His supervisor demands he split whatever booty he finds in the letters, but otherwise gives him free reign. Jaffe discovers, between the lines of paranoid rants about UFOs and psychics and conspiracies the underpinnings of a secret world, the world of the Art.

This story twists around like a pit of angry, cannibalistic snakes. Jaffe (I refuse to call him the Jaffe), creates his own nemesis while searching for a partner to help him unravel the secrets of the Art. He and this partner engage in a power struggle that ends up enveloping an entire town in their schemes, moves, and countermoves.

Oh yeah, Jaffe’s rival, Fletcher, has a sort of evolved monkey sidekick for some reason. So there’s that.

One of the first, which probably is less squicky if you assume it’s more metaphysical and unintentional than overt. A group of young women swimming near the site of their great psychic battle end up pregnant; whatever metaphysical underpinnings might have been at play, the women experience it as a violation and an assault. One of the reasons why Barker is relatively good at this kind of story is that he follows through on the consequences of an assault like this. That there are multiple women involved also means that the women are given more opportunity to fall apart as individuals, as opposed to being expected to represent all assault victims. It’s also a corruption of a sort, beyond even the usual sort of disruption typical, which could reasonably (if incorrectly, to my mind) be read as saying that sexual assault survivors are damaged goods; if that makes you uncomfortable by all means skip the story- Barker tends to walk a line on sexual violence that isn’t for everyone, and honestly, I think that needs to be okay. There’s a rainbow of experiences that bring people catharsis; even if it’s not my cup of tea, I think people  should be free to pursue the things that make them whole or make them heal. That’s not the only permissible discussion of sexual violence, but I think in general provides pretty open borders as to what I’m personally open to.

A lot of the rest of this story is about those women, and their children. The story goes in wild, weird directions, but suffice to say that the Art is, at its heart, about developing a way to reach deep into the human unconscious, granting both power and knowledge. The story is imaginative, and at times gut-wrenching. Since we’re still waist-deep in a pandemic, this suggestion is more robust than usual, because while I’m excited for the coming Candyman sequel, seeing it in a theater at this point is just irresponsible. The Great and Secret Show is a better value, and reading it is almost guaranteed not to kill any of your neighbors or coworkers.

Relevant Review: Candyman

Okay… so, apparently I somehow got it into my head that Hawkeye was premiering today. Wrote it on my calendar and reviewed the 500+ page Matt Fraction series that I think is likely to form the backbone of the series… only to discover I was apparently 3 months early, and instead have nothing to post today. Apparently Candyman is in theaters. In general, I’d be thrilled for you to support it, except that right now, given Delta, you might kill someone. So maybe don’t.

Instead, you can come back Friday and watch me flail writing a last-minute review up for the original movie (or if I get wanged in the head by a boomerang arrow, maybe even the whole trilogy; author’s note: please do not fire boomerang arrows into my home in an attempt to get more content). Maybe after you can go watch the trilogy, instead. Just don’t go watch a movie in a theater right now. Even vaccinated, even masked, it’s just too much of a risk to the vulnerable, including kids. Even if the new Candyman is the Citizen Kane of bee-based hook-killer horror movies riffing on Blood Mary (and I genuinely hope it is), it’s not worth contributing to somebody’s death.


Because you were all good kids and nobody fired a boomerang arrow into my home, and because I’m a workaholic, I reviewed the original Candyman trilogy, with a little extra sweet for you sweets (I know the context of that in the movie, but I promise you I’m not threatening to smother any of you in honey; my wife expressly forbade it, before I would have even thought to ask, which I think says more about them than anyone).

Relevant Review: Candyman, Candyman 2: A N’awlens Candyman Do, Candyman 3: Candymanliest

I’m pretty sure listing out the titles like that doesn’t earn me a stabbing, but death by Tony Todd’s a pretty good way for a (sometimes) horror writer to die. Not that I’m fetishizing being penetrated by Tony Todd or anything… yeah, you’re the weirdos.

But as of this writing, the entire original trilogy is available to stream for free (provided you’ve got a handful of streaming subscriptions), so save your kids and immunocompromised loved ones the exposure and stay in. And as a bonus, you can even watch in the buff without anyone making uncomfortable Peewee Herman references.

Candyman 1 (Free on Peacock)

Candyman has a pretty amazing pedigree. It’s based on a short story by Clive Barker (he of Hellraiser, which impressively turned BDSM from odd to horrifying, also writer of the pretty good Book of the Arts, the comic adaptation I’ll probably review when given half a chance… though maybe this was that chance? Maybe I’ll have to do a second review this week…); as with everything Barker, it has to come with something of a content warning, because his exploration of violence and horror tends to have a sexual tinge- likely the product of growing up a gay man in a fairly homophobic America. It’s got haunting music by Phillip Glass, which elevates virtually any scene it’s used in, and builds what could have been a memorable B movie to iconic. Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Virginia Madsen… the main cast is really solid. And it has Ted Raimi as a horny, leather-clad bad boy (the role he was born to play). Even the director (who also wrote the screenplay), Bernard Rose, did Immortal Beloved.

Tony Todd deserves a special shout-out. He is covered in bees in some of his scenes, and these were the bad old days before CGI, so those are live bees.

I’m not even sure that the caveat needs to be repeated at this point, but the first Candyman is a product of its time. I even think its heart’s in the right place- which is why I think Jordan Peele chose to give it a proper sequel as part of his ascendency- for its time it is a remarkably socially conscious tale, pushing back against some of the worst stereotypes and stigmas against black people, even while working hard to show some of the plight of ghettos like the Cabrini Green of the 90s. Rose deserves some credit, for relocating the story to Chicago from Liverpool; America’s complicated racial history adds greater texture (and danger), and I have to assume was an intentional attempt to wrangle empathetically with a tough subject.

Such wrangling isn’t without its pitfalls. The sympathetic single mother of color presented in the film, played by Vanessa Williams (just not that Vanessa Williams), speaks in a very broken, Ebonics-inflected patois (though I think it’s more a white writer’s tin-eared imitation of African American Vernacular English than true representation of AAVE). I imagine the idea is to portray even her as human and deserving respect and dignity, that you don’t have to speak English properly to be worthy, but that it hews too close to stereotyped language and presentation in this respect muddles the well-meant message, if only a little. And it’s certainly better than the respectability politics variant would have been, where only Madsen’s black friend who is also an intellectual deserves to be seen as human for having risen above such a station (I feel gross just typing that out, so hopefully it illustrated the point enough to be worth the bile rising in my throat).

Bizarrely, Eddie Murphy was originally chosen for Candyman, but they couldn’t match his price for a relatively low-budget horror movie. I really hope we figure out interdimensional travel (or at least TV), because I desperately need to see that version, especially if we could find one where Madsen was replaced by Sandra Bullock due to scheduling conflicts.

What I think works best, though, is how slowly the film burns. Sure, you see an urban legend telling of a murder attributed to Candyman, but the film is firmly set in our real world, with the dangers being the very real ones you’d find in the worst parts of any city. The first half of the movie is about setting the mood, building a lived in life for Virginia Madsen without anything supernatural happening at all. Even once that starts, it feels like it could be attributed to the aftermath of a concussion- and a mental break brought on by traumatic experiences. The movie plays it close to the vest whether or not there’s anything sinister happening at all, rather than a woman lashing out violently during psychotic episodes- but because we spend so much time living inside of Madsen’s head, it’s our life that’s unraveling, the fragility of our own existence exposed. And when the movie refuses to give Madsen answers, perhaps gaslighting her, it does so to us, too.

It’s really not until Madsen calls Candyman a second time that we actually see his (no hook pun intended) handiwork. Even then, we could just be watching her shattering identity from her perspective, justifying her own violence as belonging to a ghost. Hell, even “It was always you, Helen,” could refer both to her being the reincarnation (or whatever) of his doomed love but also be an indication that Helen was always the source of the slayings, that she was always the monster. Regardless, she rejects that violence when awake, risking herself to save the missing infant hidden at the bottom of the bonfire’s kindling. I think this idea is further bolstered when the priest says that despite her deeds, in her heart she desired to do God’s will.  

There’s even an interpretation of the movie where the real monster is the impact of racialized violence on the supposedly civilized, that anyone who truly attempts to reckon with the history of racial violence in this country has to be driven mad and murderous by it- or they already were mad and murderous, and willing to take these instincts out on the people of color we as a society structurally oppress.

Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (Free on Amazon Prime)

The sequels, by contrast, are largely forgettable. I imagine some of the proposed prequel made it into the sequel, since Rose had originally intended to focus on the slavery-era romance origins of the ill-fated central couple, and Farewell to the Flesh is set in New Orleans to be near Candyman’s origins. This is fairly questionable, since this movie retcons Candyman into a slave; in the original he was free and educated, a Black painter who fell in love with a white woman at a time that was a potentially deadly mistake. I’d imagine the instinct goes towards wanting to make the story about American racism’s original sin, but it waters down the message, to me, in effect saying slavery is the only racism that matters. I suspect that’s why the new movie drops these sequels from the canon. Though… I have to say that the early CGI shattering of Candyman is almost worth the price of admission (in the same way that the end credits music of Maniac Cop 2 justifies the movie). Some of it is practical, and actually kind of cool… and the rest is laughable, as is the general thrust of the ‘Candyman’s soul is in a mirror, so you beat the invincible monster by smashing it’- it would be the equivalent of defeating Friday the 13th’s Jason by stubbing his toe.

Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (Free on Hulu)

Seriously, though, what the hell is with this series and retconning Candyman’s origin? In the three years since the last sequel, apparently they changed it so he wasn’t killed propped against a tree, now he’s tied to it. I don’t know what that does, other than maybe tweak Christian sensibilities because now it’s kind of like a crucifixion.

I’m also starting to get uncomfortable with the Candyman’s fixation on attractive blondes. If it was just that, I wouldn’t care; but it’s that it feels like we’re still playing on same sexually charged Dracula tropes as the first movie, despite the fact that in the last two movies Candyman’s interests are focused on his direct descendants. And I mean, technically, after so many generations their kids wouldn’t be total mutants, and he’s a ghost so likely producing offspring isn’t the point, anyhow, but the weird, pseudoincest is creepy, and not in the way you want from your horror movies.

This movie is a shipwreck of trains, somehow. To maximize their measly budget, the same characters get killed multiple times in hallucinations or dream sequences or something (it’s really unclear). And the nudity feels gratuitous. I’m not a prude, not by any stretch; if we’re honest I’m more of a rhyming letch. But just because we can have a naked character doesn’t always mean we should. Watching a woman portraying the same character as in the last film (replacing a much better, but likely much pricier, actress) walking around naked with her throat slit… like who is that for? Sure, every budding Ed Gein in the audience was aroused, but why? And because if you’ve watched the previous movie you likely have rapport, that scene is tragic, because her character deserved better than to be a titillating corpse. Yeah. Only if you’re really hard up should you watch the third one, and I mean that in virtually every sense.

Candyman (2021)

So, yeah, I like Candyman. I can even appreciate what Farewell to the Flesh was doing, even if it didn’t quite have the caliber of talent the original did, it’s a pretty solid B effort following what is a horror classic. The third is trash, and not even the kind that finds a way to be fun. You just kind of feel bad for watching it. So probably don’t.

But having revisited this series, I can say I sincerely hope a well-done sequel, as I can only assume Nia Dacosta’s movie will be, can live up to the legacy of this franchise, in particular its first film. But seriously, don’t further structural oppression by seeing it in theaters right now. As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, economic and social inequalities mean any negative impact will hit hardest those least able to withstand it, in particular people of color. I’m not saying if you do see it in theater Candyman will get you. I’m saying you’ll make Candyman cry. Bees. Because I’m pretty sure he cries bees. His bee tears may get you. I don’t honestly know enough about bees to bee able to say.

So stream the original from the comfort and safety of your own home, instead, until we can all safely and responsibly see the sequel, either together or at home.

Relevant Review: Marvel Knights Black Widow: The Complete Collection

This is a review for the Adult-oriented collection of stories written by Greg Rucka and Devin Grayson (it’s 3 collected 3-issue mini-series).

To start, I love Greg Rucka. Queen & Country is one of the best comic series, period, one of the best spy things ever* (Bond just can’t compete), and he’s also one of the best men writing women in comics, to boot. His Wonder Woman explored the character more thoughtfully than most runs could ever dream. So my expectations for this collection of Black Widow stories was almost certainly too high… Conversely, I think I’ve read some of Devin Grayson’s work, but not enough to remember specifics. I also couldn’t remember if they were a man or a woman, and the prospect of Black Widow being steered by two men was potentially problematic. Two things to get us off on the right foot: she’s a lady, and she’s good. Now, to the spoiler averse, if you’re curious, you can get this for free from Comixology Unlimited, and as part of Kindle Unlimited (or read the first two series from Marvel Unlimited here and here).

Devin’s story was first, and if I’m reading it right, was the introduction of Yelena Belova; it’s also the strongest story in the group. The character gets crafted here as a hungry Russian replacement for the Black Widow identity; Natasha was their spy, originally, so it would make sense they’d want to reclaim the mantle. Yelena’s got the right combination of need to prove herself and confidence that she can to make her interesting. Or at least interesting enough. I think the movie goes a step further, making her an interesting character, both by dint of making her Natasha’s pseudo-sister, and by giving her an adorable personality (and Florence Pugh is a very watchable actress; she even makes the grating but great Midsommar work).

By contrast, comic book Yelena is pretty no-nonsense, in the way you’d likely assume from her being a spy. The story of her and Natasha racing to track down a toxin either to destroy it before it can be used or secure it for the Russians is compelling enough to propel the story, and the interactions between the two Widows is fun in a Bond playing off one of his male co-stars sort of way.

Of course, the first story in the book being the best means it’s all downhill from there, which isn’t necessarily a problem, depending on how steep the hill is. And here, it’s not bad, but the content of what goes into that not bad will limit the audience somewhat.

The second story, apparently handled jointly by Grayson and Rucka, is about Natasha kidnapping Yelena and, Face/Off style, having them surgically altered to look like one another. She goes a step further, and sets Yelena, who now looks like Natasha, to kill the real Natasha, who she is told is Yelena (and looks it). The point, apparently, is that Natasha is trying, through manipulating Yelena, to get her to see that this job will turn you inside out. Sure, there’s a subplot about regaining some Russian nukes that only Yelena could access… but the main attraction is Face/Off meets Gaslighting.

I get the point of it, but there really isn’t a point where a connection gets made that explains why Natasha’s so personally involved in the mission; she’s played coldly, handled at arm’s length. Most of what we learn of her interiority comes from Daredevil and Nick Fury talking about her. So by definition, they can’t tell us why her, why now; does Natasha see herself in Yelena, and hope to spare her the anguishing growing pains that brought her to her heroic life? Are there particularly grubby former comrades involved in this op she hopes to spare Yelena from? Is it the existence of the Red Room, which Natasha would like to stick it to by freeing Yelena from its grasp? I feel like Natasha’s motive needed to be made crystal clear, because of how far over the line she’s willing to reach on this one. It’s also the second time in as many stories where Yelena is convinced Natasha’s been gunned down in front of her (albeit this time she pulled the trigger). At some point, you’d think she’d learn to check Natasha for a pulse, is what I’m saying.

The third story is the one that actually comes from the Marvel Max line, meaning more swearing, and occasionally very little sex (there are two partially obscured nipples in the third issue belonging to a character we don’t know- this functions both as a parental content warning and a beacon for all of my sad, lonely fellow perverts- it’s also probably the reason this is the one story not available on Marvel Comics Unlimited). This has kind of a grindhouse feel to it, as Yelena (this story doesn’t feature Natasha at all) investigates the death of her mentor/trainer in an underground sex club.

This story’s probably the weakest of the three, but it’s not a long drop, and does function as kind of an epilogue to the other two. Yelena discovers, upon investigating, that her mentor had an unhealthy obsession with her, that what she saw as their professional relationship had, to him, taken on a sexual edge, and that he channeled this urge into a high-end dominatrix who could play the role of the young Widow. I won’t spoil the proceedings, but the epilogue makes clear that the entire operation was performed by the GRU to make Yelena aggressively assert herself as the new Black Widow.

It’s kind of skeevy, all told- moreso because it means the book is 2 for 3 manipulating Yelena in ways that feel awfully close to a (metaphorical) assault; the story even seems to understand this, as Yelena asks Natasha in the middle story how she could rape her (mind) that way. That one feels worse, because Natasha is played as being cruel to be kind, as doing it for her own good, in a way that… makes me uncomfortable.

And I think I might not have been, if the medium-term plan was to get Yelena out of that situation. If Widow had been right, if she’d put Yelena through a pretty gross series of violations and gaslighting and it worked. But the implication is, at least in the short run, she failed. Yelena remains a Russian operative, and then gets further violated in the third story. I know from reading Bendis’ New Avengers run that Yelena eventually resurfaces running a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. team, and also that that story does her incredibly dirty. It seems more recently her character has been given a second chance at being a legacy character (if you’re not familiar with the term, boy do I have an article coming for you), perhaps due to her prominent place in the Black Widow movie, or the fact that (spoiler) she’s likely going to take  up the mantel herself after Natasha’s death in Endgame (can a character fridge herself? I’m legitimately uncertain). But if what you’re after right now is more Yelena, flawed as it is this might be as good as it gets, at least until some more recent arcs get wrapped up.

Old Ventures 2, Ch. 26

Note: I can’t go too in-depth at the moment, but to coincide with the launch of some of my short stories to the moon (no, really), I’m working on an aggressive content plan moving forward, including regular Wednesday(ish) posts. The hope is to be able to launch the final book in the Nexus trilogy around the time that we launch Sam’s short story collections into space. It has had an impact on Old Ventures 2… but I’m still trying to do both.


“Jesus,” Rose said, watching a woman tear a chunk of flesh out of a man’s temple with her teeth.

“It’s good Joe isn’t here,” India said, “or we’d have to have a conversation about whether or not they’re zombies.”

“Clearly they aren’t,” Laney said, smashing a chair over a child. “Zombies don’t eat each other.”

Rose punched the biggest man she could find in the head, then picked him up and threw him at the crowd.

“We aren’t even making a dent,” India said, “especially not wearing kid gloves.”

“Non-lethal,” Laney said, exasperated. “We have to believe these people can still be saved.”

“I can shoot to wound,” India complained. “And it isn’t like Rose isn’t breaking bones and faces.”

“I’ve been working at this long enough to know that gunshots don’t enter or exit the body cleanly. Even assuming you fire surgically, this is a jostling crowd. Bullets won’t go where you want them to, and it isn’t an issue of skill.”

“Maybe not, but without, I can’t contain-” several of them managed to get the front doors open, and fell outside.

“We have to stop them,” Laney said frantically. “If they leave- if this is contagious and it gets out-”

“I can yell at them to politely turn around,” India offered.

They heard gunfire from outside. “God, no,” Laney said, her face going white.

“Who?” Rose asked.

“ICE,” India said, her voice barely a whisper.

ICE agents in paramilitary gear shoved their way inside, and turned off the safeties on riot shotguns. 

“We can’t let them-” Rose said.

“We can’t stop them,” India interrupted.

“Grab whoever you can and get them into the back room,” Laney said. She put her arms around a young girl, clinging to her mother’s hand even as she gnawed her mother’s wrist into a bloodied mass of shredded flesh. The woman was busy punching an elderly man in the head, and didn’t seem to register the injury at all. Laney leveraged her height and the hand’s bloodiness to rip the child away, and rolled both of them into the storage room.

Rose arrived behind her an instant later, one half of an elderly couple under each of her arms. A teen boy grabbed India’s gunbelt, and she elbowed him in the head, and yanked him behind her.

Laney and Rose were already in the process of knocking the elderly couple unconscious. India’s teen pulled himself up with his weight on her shoulders, counter-balanced by his feet on her hip. “God damn i-”

She stopped as the front room erupted in gunfire. Rose tore the teen off India, and backhanded him. He went limp in her arms, and Rose lowered him to the floor.   

Rose was breathing heavily, seething as she stared at the door separating them from a massacre. An ICE agent kicked in the door, and she squared to him. “Take one step closer and I’ll feed you those guns,” Rose said, her anger rattling in her chest. India’s eyebrows shot up, and she took her phone out of her pocket and started dialing.

“What she means,” Laney said, stepping between them, “is we’re citizens, and of our right minds, and there’s no need for further bloodshed.”

“What about them,” the ICE agent asked, pointing at the refugees they subdued with the barrel of his gun.

“They’re our business,” Laney said, “and there’s no need to point a loaded firearm at unarmed and cowering people. We’re no threat, and neither are they.”

He chewed his gum angrily. “That’ll be up to the cops. From here, it looks like you were fomenting a rebellion of illegals, to me.”

“You should leave now, you wretched little man,” India said, “before my team of high-priced and exceedingly feral lawyers decide to focus their glaring attention on your likely sordid little existence.”

“What did you just-”

He was interrupted by her phone as she put it on speaker, “Inform you that this conversation is being transcribed and that it is now being recorded, and anything you say to my clients will be used both in a court of law and in any ethics violations findings deemed necessary.”

The ICE agent spat his gum onto the carpet. “You ladies have a wonderful afternoon.” He spun on his heels, and left.

“Did he leave?” the ‘lawyer’ said from the opposite end.

“Joey?” Rose asked.

India shrugged, and said, “I didn’t have time to get my lawyers involved. High-priced and feral as they can be, they have secretaries and court appearances.” “And I have no life whatsoever,” Joey said.

Relevant Review: What If comics

If you’re dipping a toe into the What If comics the first thing you’re going to realize is that it’s an anthology series. That means some of the stories will be written by seasoned professionals, like Gerry Conway, who know how to spin a good yarn, or at least a competent one. And some won’t, or might be done by otherwise good writers who nevertheless turn in something uninspired, or chase what could have been an interesting idea down a dull, pointless alley.

I’ve always loved the idea of What Ifs (and Elseworlds, for you DC folk), taking familiar heroes and putting them in unfamiliar, even strange circumstances to see which parts of their status quo were circumstantial and which elements were core to who they are. This can make a lot of these stories really samey; they often go to extreme lengths to get the characters back to as close to their status quo as possible, as if to disprove the entire thesis behind the books (Elseworlds feel much more guilty of this, by the way). But typically, you hope for something that tickles the imagination, and offers places for you to build out your own idea of how these hypotheticals play out; very occasionally you get a story that makes space for that but is also moving and engaging in its own right.

I grabbed some of the more recent issues (from the 2018 run, read oldest to newest), because they’re free with Marvel Comics Unlimited. I also grabbed the first collection of What If Classic, which is free on Comixology Unlimited. The Classic issues are older, which means a much higher ratio of text to picture; they’ll be longer, denser reads, with more complicated stories. They’ll also feel a little slower, if you’ve done most of your reading on more recent books.

The first issue in the Classic collection, is What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four. These days it seems like a silly thing; after all, he’s spent time as a member of at least two different fantastic teams since. But this was back in his raw days, where he was defined as much by his status as a down-on-his-luck loner as by his quips. So sticking him on the Fantastic Four was an interesting idea, and it even plays with some interesting ideas- though how intentionally really isn’t a given.

The Invisible Girl is the one who keeps getting shunted to the side. Sure, the team renames themselves the Fantastic Five, but almost immediately after they run into convoluted reasons why only four of them can go anyplace at a time, leaving her the odd woman out. It’s possible these were some subversive gender politics, given the times (I guess by ’77 it may not have been all that subversive, compared to sixteen years earlier). But Sue doesn’t take it lying down. When given a chance to run off with Namor, she takes it. Reed and Sue stop being a couple, because she realized he didn’t need her the way she wanted him to.

But before we get to that sucker-punch of a close, we get to see a Spider-Man who doesn’t have to struggle anymore; with Reed vouching for him with the government, he’s cleared of any suspicion, and even J. Jonah Jameson embraces him. And Reed’s able to put him on salary, so he’s not constantly scraping to get by. He finally belongs somewhere, has a family (no offense to May or MJ). You can see why they had to swerve left- and make it Reed who gets the heartbreaker of an ending. Oh yeah, and the Uatu in this book is bonkers looking.

The second issue, covering what would have happened if Bruce Banner had retained his mind even when in the body of the Hulk, is weirder stuff; it still follows the same, almost wish-fulfillment. Banner marries Betty, and ends up working with Mr. Fantastic and Professor X; in this one, though, Banner disrupts the expected flow, and because of his intellect causes the Fantastic Four to disband, and prevents the formation of either the Avengers or the X-Men, leading to the bizarre necessity to fuse Banner and Xavier and Richards to create the X-Man to fight Galactus. It’s weird, even by comics standards. They stalemate him long enough for him to wander off in search of an easier snack, but the effort cost them their powers, which apparently also prevents them from combining to be a 12 foot gold guy again.   

That odd note is a terrible place to segue, but it was already one more Classic story than I’d budgeted time to read (hence my lateness posting here). The rest of the books I read are more recent, from 2018, also collected in With Great Power. Certainly the art is prettier, even if the batting average is definitely lower.

Sadly, the first up, .Exe Men. is one of the uninspired. It’s the X-Men as a Matrix rip-off, but without anything interesting, different, or subversive in the world-building. In fact… even that makes it sound better than it was. It was the Matrix sequels with a coat of X-Men paint on it, but for some reason only Cable and Domino show up. Since it was the first, chronologically, of the new books, I despaired having more to read.

So I wasn’t prepared for Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man story. It’s short, a little too quick, honestly, but Flash Thompson gets bit by the spider and gets the Spider powers. If you’re of a mind to read it, I’d suggest you do so, before reading this synopsis: but it packs a punch when Peter’s aunt’s treatment is impacted by Doc Ock stealing an isotope, leading Peter to track down Flash and demand his help… only Flash is a jerk, and reacts like a jerk would… punching Peter. Only this Peter is a regular human nerd, and a punch from Spider-Man for somebody like him is fatal. Flash realizes what he’s done, and to make up for it, tracks down the isotop to save May, before turning himself in. Now… the story could have done a slightly better job emphasizing that what Flash lacked was the life lesson that with great power comes great responsibility, and how that lack of care had brought him to this low ebb… but Flash realizing he isn’t the man he wants to be, and the only way to try to be is to take responsibility for who he has been, and seeing Spider-Man led away in chains… it’s an improvement, to say the least, from that last story.

The next was What if Spider-Man became the Punisher (the cover said “Peter Parker” but it’s not just a normal nerd usurping Frank, it’s Spider-Man deciding with great power must come a great arsenal). This one’s an odd duck. It doesn’t really justify its premise- it’s not that he internalized years of bullying or ran into a Frank Castle still haunted by his days in Vietnam- he just decides, “Well, I could be responsible, but guuuuuns.” They had a neat idea, or maybe costume design, and didn’t put in the elbow grease to make it make sense. Ignoring that, the execution is okay… I mean, the Punishing Spider (I think this is the closest to a name they settled on) does quit eventually, having narrowly saved Gwen Stacy from the Green Goblin’s bridge tossing (so the story does get some points for avoiding that fridging), only… a shot up Frank Castle stumbles into the alley where Spidey tossed his gear, finding the skull… so aside from some B list Spider-Man villains getting gunned down, pretty much return to the status quo.

Fourth was the Ghost Rider issue. This one takes the weird instance of KISS putting drops of their blood into some comics and uses it for a tongue in cheek Satanic Panic story set in the Marvel offices, but also Ghost Rider is an intern there. I’ll let you know if I ever figure out what the hell is happening in the story… but don’t hold your breath. I know it didn’t quite get whacky enough to be fun like it so clearly wanted to be.       

Fifth is probably the third best story (damningly faint praise; at one point it was second…), What If Thor was raised by Frost Giants. Odin loses his war against the Frost Giants, and rather than he and Freya raising Thor and Loki, Laufey does. Laufey takes a shine to Thor, who is strong and brave, and takes to the Frost Giant’s might makes right philosophy. Loki’s guile is unappreciated there, and he finds solace in the friendship of the imprisoned Freya. So what we get, instead, is a warped version of the story we know, with Thor and Loki coming to blows, and Freya perishing in the fighting when she tries to save Loki. It’s a tragic tale, one that presents both characters with interesting new choices and lives to live.

The Sixth of the run was What if Magik became the Sorcerer Supreme, and I’m so glad this run ended on this one, because it’s special. Dr. Strange is a character who I think always functions best as mysterious, aloof, even a little unknowable. That’s why his character works better in Thor Ragnarok and the Avengers movies than in his own movie. But here he rescues, cares for and trains Magik, whose mutant abilities finally let her escape the demonic Belasco who kidnapped her to become his apprentice. Magik and Strange develop a tender, familial relationship, until confronted (literally) by her demon. In twenty-some pages it develops character relationships and tells a story about healing from trauma that actually has some weight to it. This one I would recommend with absolutely no caveats at all, except maybe a trigger warning for childhood abuse (mentioned, not shown). I think what I’ve always loved about the What If idea is that at its best, it uses the differences in its concept to show the core of what makes its characters tick. Doctor Strange is an odd guy who helps weird people with peculiar problems, but in his own, odd way, really cares. Illyana (Magik) is a traumatized girl trying to get the hell away from all of the things that hurt her; more than anything she just wants to be a normal girl who didn’t grow up in Hell (Limbo, technically). The story, like the best of stories, is about helping someone find the peace they so desperately need.

Relevant Review: The Suicide Squad movie

It’s pretty good.


You want to know more than that, don’t you? It mostly works.

First of all, I’m new to this, and I’ll likely spoil things, because I don’t have a good handle on what constitutes a spoiler to the broader audience. So if you want to go in fresh and covered in placenta like a newborn, don’t read further (I can’t help you with the placenta part, sorry); if you’re on the fence, trying to decide whether or not to watch it, well, I already told you your answer. I’ll try to be light on spoilers, but I’m going to discuss what works in the plot and the characterization, so I’m sure I’ll cross at least someone’s line about details. You’ve been warned.

What Doesn’t Work

I’ll start with the things that don’t quite work: the movie kills half its misfits within the first fifteen minutes. That means that you don’t get enough time with them to care about them, it means you don’t even really get to see what makes any of them tick. These characters function as a mislead, one that at least borders on mean-spirited. To be fair, I laughed a lot; for the first chunk of the movie, its black, bleak little heart was beating in time with mine. But ultimately at least some of these deaths feel flat; better executions of this part of the concept like Rogue One or the Dirty Dozen make you spend enough time with the characters to start to care about them, to make it hurt more when the characters meet an ignominious end. But there are worse executions, too, and it’s a balancing act: make us care too much and we’ll never forgive you for murdering our faves, and it’s probably better to cut their time short than break our hearts.

The other big, grinding piece is that the movie doesn’t quite congeal. There’s lots of really great little character beats and emotional moments, but it’s missing a pass or two on the script to have really made it feel like cohesive parts of a whole. I’m probably grading on a curve, here, because James Gunn is really good at this: every meticulous detail in his Guardians movies feel lovingly placed and necessary (aside from maybe the Gamora ‘whore’ ‘joke’ and possibly the odd prosthetics fixation of Rocket). It all flows together nicely, like a well-designed lazy river. And maybe that’s intentional; maybe as a war film this is supposed to be messy and chaotic, and what I’m noting is a design choice moreso than a flaw, so your mileage may indeed vary from mine.

I don’t think the face turn certain characters take work as well as they could have, too. The remaining characters are literally moving in the opposite direction and just kind of… stop, and decide to do the right thing. This could have been done through dialog, or through the parallels of team dynamics with their explicated family dynamics. Or relating the native Corto Malteseans to those families (Polka Dot Man seems explicitly formed for this, he literally sees his mother everywhere, and is a lunatic, so him stamping his feet in the dirt and emotionally bleating out, “I’m not letting her do to them what she did to me,” would have been a hell of a transition). It would have taken twenty seconds of snappy dialog* to convince the characters and the audience that this was a reasonable course, or even that it was the necessary one from a self-preservation standpoint, a “There’s no way this horror stays on this island” combined with an “and Earth is where I keep all my stuff.” Maybe Gunn didn’t want to belabor the point, and there are plenty of reasons (which may differ character to character) to choose to save the day. But it is a choice, one made at great personal risk of Waller’s immediate wrath, to say nothing of a fight they are almost certainly not all up to.

I’m not sure that Harley’s interlude works all that well, either; sure, it gives her kind of a quasi-arc, dealing with fallout from her relationship with the Joker… but the movie kind of grinds to a halt for it. It involves the nicer, more reasonable Presidente, and I even get that his exit from the movie is likely meant to be the ratcheting up of tension, as his less-hinged brother takes the reigns, but it feels like the movie makes you do that calculus yourself, in a way that didn’t feel paid off to me (maybe Gunn has started to believe his audience is smart enough to follow along, but if that’s the case, he forgets we’re also rats pressing buttons looking for the plot to reward our obsession with the occasional pellet or scritch on the head; an implicit part of the creator/audience dynamic is rewarding us for putting ideas together- while also delighting us with swerves we didn’t, but still add up). And it has its own pretty neat little action scene… but I don’t think it feels like it does enough, either for Harley or the movie’s plot, to justify the time it takes away from the central plot. I’m not saying you couldn’t have done something like this, but it feels like its own little Hobbs and Shaw in the middle of a larger Fast movie.

Polka Dot Man’s… condition. I can roll with him being screwy (even if his screwiness seems to overlap with Harley’s in ways that make both less unique). I’m even on board with the ways his relationship to his mother warps his relationship with his abilities and the world at large. But twice we see the ways his power seems to impact him physically… and it feels like it’s building either to pathos or a joke; it leans more towards the former, but it still doesn’t quite arc in a satisfying enough way to cash the substantial checks this character writes in the trailers (or maybe I just really wanted more Polka Dot Man).

Amanda Waller somehow not being in a straightjacket. Look, I adore the version of Waller in the Timmverse (I know Diniverse is a more clever/phonetically pleasing name, but it was Bruce Timm guiding it all those years, whereas Dini only worked in it sporadically). In that universe, Waller was cruel and efficient, Bond’s M if she’d been operating in black ops so long the lines between the good guys and the bad guys blurred to the point where she made no distinction, and accomplishing her mission was the only relevant conversation. Ayers’ version (at least in the released films) is a cartoon. She shoots half her staff because “they didn’t have clearance.” If they didn’t have clearance it’s because she let them work on a mission for which they didn’t have clearance… her fuck up, so her mass-murder is purely to cover her incompetence. It takes a character who was a “finish the mission at all costs for the greater good type” and makes her a petty, scheming bureaucrat. Which this movie, to its credit, hones in on like a laser. She spends lives pointlessly; fully half the deaths in the movie can be directly attributed to her being bad at her job while also refusing to loop in those better at it who are literally on the mission. Fully three of our leads have military experience, and yet her plan was to throw people into a woodchipper because that makes for a good distraction, right?   

What does work

Okay, so maybe starting with what doesn’t work makes me sound too negative on the movie, because overall I enjoyed it. I’d probably put it behind the two Guardians movies, and probably just ahead of Slither for his third best to date (sorry, Super, but it’s a strong filmography, and someone has to take up the rear). Some of that is honestly just what’s on the tin: Guardians is a feel-good found-family operatic-space/action movie set in perhaps the most cohesive shared universe around (sorry Star Wars). Suicide Squad is meaner and leaner, a war movie set in a DC Universe that kind of hates us for existing at this point, but still has some heart, and enough of that found-family vibe is earned to make it a lot better than the first one, and even better than most films in the genre overall.  

King Shark. Full stop. I loved the rendition of the soft-spoken but sweet-natured King Shark as voiced by Ron Funches on the Harley Quinn show (go watch it, damnit), but turning him into a full doofus (but just smart enough to be self-aware and want more) makes him basically Hulk if Hulk were interested primarily in eating those he smashes. His friendship with Ratcatcher feels adorable and genuine, and Sylvester Stallone asking, “Nom nom?” of vanquished foes is delightful in a way that I never thought I’d feel about cannibalism.

Peacemaker: he’s an extremist, but played completely to the hilt by John Cena. He feels like he’s going to be just another obnoxious ultra-right-wing d-bag- and he is also that- but he is the most glorious version of that that even though you should hate him, you will find yourself seriously considering watching his up-coming TV show, even knowing they are likely to turn the ultra-right-wing d-bag dial up to thirteen (from eleven, obviously). And his rivalry with Bloodsport is one of the highlights.

Ratcatcher’s paternal bond with Bloodsport. In the first movie, Harley and Deadshot had a weird relationship. Half of it was Deadshot warming to Harley as a surrogate for his daughter, but the other half was setting him up as a quasi-love-interest for her post-Joker life. I don’t think this was an Oscar Isaac in every scene of Star Wars, “wait, so now he’s going to be a love interest for whatever character he’s in this scene with, too, including his ball droid (no pun intended)?” or even leftover chemistry from the pair working together as a romantic partners in Focus. Quinn, as a shrink, would all but certainly have turned up her nose and diagnosed that confusion as an Elektra complex. But this movie makes Ratcatcher and Bloodsport work; she’s just sweet and naïve enough we understand how he’d see his daughter in her, and he’s just damaged enough that she can see her father in him, and both want to save the other, in more ways than one (just not that one, because it would be icky- and, no, I don’t mean in a taboo hot way, either , you weirdos).

The chapter breaks. Not only are they visually interesting, sometimes even beautiful, but they’re fun and keep the movie’s momentum going in ways that are inventive and entertaining.

The way the movie treats Waller. This one is likely the most spoilery I’m going to get, but when the movie finally steps back from Waller and basically says, “Maybe the real villain is standing in this room,” it works for the plot, it works for the characters involved, and it does the most heavy lifting bridging the continuity between movies as this quasi-sequel, sort-of reboot does. I wish it had gotten there earlier, but it happens when it needs to, in a way that might well have been forced by the very structure set up for it in the first Suicide Squad. Seriously, though, there’s no reasonable way a third movie happens after this; Waller’s mismanagement makes her casualty rate way too high. Either Waller needs to be full rogue at that point, and she’s the one the Squad goes after, maybe for running her own even more black ops variant of the Squad even further off the books and more corrupt, or they need to be offering a full pardon. Because ten years off what are for most of them multiple life sentences isn’t worth it if you’re told to walk through a wall of bullets, and increasingly that seems to be the case (her murder of Savant in particular seems exceedingly cruel and pointless).

But I want another Nom Nom. When?

*The snappy dialog that could have bettered the movie

You waded through my whole self-important, half-baked criticism, so you deserve a treat. I’ll warn you, just knowing who is alive at this point in the film is probably the biggest spoiler I’m posting, so don’t continue reading if that’s a problem for you.






The remaining members of the Suicide Squad are walking away from the menace, with a, “way above my paygrade” look on their faces. Close on the mud, as Polka Dot Man stamps his little white boot down.

I’m not letting my mother do to them what she did to me.

Ratcatcher leans into Bloodsport.

It won’t stay confined to this island.

Bloodsport sighs, turning back towards the threat, glancing at the hard drive literally up his sleeve.

It isn’t really saving my daughter if she gets her face eaten by a starfish.

The pair turn together and walk towards Polka Dot Man. King Shark realizes everyone but him and Harley have turned around and are walking in the opposite directions.


He runs towards them, with all the bounce of a child on a playground, despite his size.

You’re all nuts.

Harley chokes back emotion.

HARLEY (quieter)
I feel like I’ve found my people.

She runs after them. They line up for a dramatic shot, and exchange knowing glances.


And scene. I was ballparking 20 seconds, but that’s…. probably about right (might expand to a minute or so, depending on how long you let moments breath). Everyone gets a line, everyone gets their character beat in the moment… and the found family vibe only gets stronger.

If you want a little more from me, I reviewed the Jim Lee/Rob Williams Suicide Squad comic, or if you’re looking for more original fare, I pitched a sequel to Birds of Prey. And I should be back next Wednesday with another Relevant Review, this one about some What If issues.

Relevant Review: The Suicide Squad comic (2016)

“If Polka-Dot Man can have meaning, any of us can.” -James Gunn, to Fandom.com

James Gunn, the man whose career is single-handedly proving there are no bad ideas, only crummy executions, was given the Suicide Squad to retool at a low ebb, having temporarily lost the reigns of the Guardians of the Galaxy (it was a whole crappy saga of right-wing crybaby pants-wetting)- or maybe his talent is limited to alliterative comics thing. But his ‘secret’ really seems to be giving a crap about his characters in a way a lot of us don’t feel cared about, and in making his misfits loveable, he makes all of us misfits in the audience feel like we can be loved, too. But this isn’t a review of a movie I haven’t seen and isn’t even out here, yet.

This is a review of similar/related, “You liked X, what to try next” stripe. Everyone knew the idea behind Suicide Squad was cool, a supervillain deniable ops unit run by the shadiest of government operatives, oh, and always with a body count of colorful has-beens. Note, the 2021 Gunn film really shouldn’t be mistaken for David Ayers’ much less polished, We Really Wish This Hadn’t Been Suicide Squad from 2016 (in the year of our simulation crapping the bed 000001).

Suicide Squad Rebirth Deluxe Edition

There are certainly newer Suicide Squad things to cover, but both being budget conscious and being a book I snapped up a while back on sale, I’ve been looking for an excuse to read the Rob Williams/Jim Lee book, which is on Comixology Unlimited as well as DC Universe (no word yet on when it might be coming to Marvel Comics Unlimited- and yes, I will likely continue to make variations on this joke until forced to stop, so write my congressperson).

Okay, it’s genuinely bizarre that this book starts (after a prologue) with Obama shutting down Waller’s black ops supervillain ring (obviously it doesn’t take, or we wouldn’t have a book). But it’s hard not to imagine what would have happened under the other guy… imagine Orange Thanos with a More Pornographic Chin with his own villain hit squad; he’d basically become doughy and less honest about his comb-over Lex Luthor (and way, way dumber). There’s a plot bunny* there, is what I’m saying, one on super-steroids with cybernetic components (this plot bunny might have a further, nested plot bunny- Russian nested plot bunnies- which might in itself constitute another plot bunny).

Sadly, the interlude doesn’t last; I could genuinely have gone for a slightly angrier Obama getting pissy that his supervillain smart bombs were just as messy as drone strikes, maybe even build in an arc about how people were starting to protest, after their origins got leaked, and you could have done a version of the drone debate, but for the ethics of using supervillains as an elite strike force with a justifiable body count (both civilian and their own). I’m… really not sure if it’s a sign of quality that a work like this creates plot bunnies just as quickly as actual rabbits procreate, or if it’s a sign that it’s not fulfilling its promise that there seem to be so many of the little bastards.

But to the squad. This story introduces Hack, a Harley fangirl, which seems… dumb, at least within the world of DC Comics, because the horrific crimes of the Joker make her a party to mass-murder and potentially genocide, plus the abuse inherent in their relationship is on pretty stark display, and lionizing the Quinnpin of Crime because she’s ‘free,’ while showing she’s also free of the constraints of sanity… it just doesn’t serve to do anything other than make Hack seem either stupid or thinly written. She’s also massively overpowered; she’s a technopath, meaning she can talk to/control tech, can download the contents of secure computers into her memory, oh, and teleport groups of people across massive distances over the internet, but in doing so effectively scans them, allowing her the ability to basically xerox people and (potential spoiler) recreate them if they die. It’s… not great.

The team in the 2016 book seems like a less colorful version than even the ones we got in the Ayer movie- like the roster is similar, but they’re all doing variations on quipping action hero stereotypes whose butt-cheeks remain permanently clenched so tightly they can’t actually be witty or interesting, and Harley Quinn, who’s doing a nonsequitir but also not terribly interesting Coocoo’s Nest. 

I think even then, I might have liked the book if it was sticking the landing on serious realism (within the four-color comic reality), but it misses both the possibility of interpersonal drama and the pathos of the intrapersonal. Like, Enchantress and Killer Croc have a burgeoning relationship, largely because they both are treated like monsters but on the inside just want to be normal, decent people. They don’t deal with this in any real way, where June is kind of horrified that what is technically not bestiality but is really really close to it for comfort is part of that equation; it’s basically missing the interesting subtext of the beauty and the beast story it’s doing. And you might have even been able to justify it, if their eventual hook-up was played for a joke, even, the equivalent of a drunk one-night stand and waking up to someone you would not have chosen sober. But instead it just kind of… happens. It lands with a thud, no dramatic payoff, no pathos, no character having an interesting character moment, no romance, it just… exists. Story as shit happening, people quipping, but no one really caring (also known as the overly superficial read of the MCU’s house style).

Another example happens during the same story. Belle Reve prison (also the Squad’s HQ) has, through contrivance, had all of the people within essentially reverse polarities. That means most nice characters turn nasty, most sane ones turn homicidal, and Harley Quinn puts down her Coocoo Puffs. As essentially the only member of the Squad still capable, saving the day falls on her thin shoulders. This should have been a really interesting story for her, think Flowers for Algernon, but if, at the climax, the rat had to sacrifice his intelligence to save a bunch of people; it could have been both tragic and heroic, and cemented her as a character to be reckoned with (and Williams, too). And instead it’s mostly an excuse for Harley to put her hair up, wear a white coat and glasses, and use a little more strategy than her usually chaotic plans allow for. There’s if memory serves a line that tangentially mentions that another character is aware that she’ll be sacrificing something, but Harley isn’t even really conflicted, let alone devastated at what she’s about to lose.

I’ll spin this out into a separate blog, since it’s getting wordy, but the comic isn’t living up to its full dramatic potential. But it’s got good bones. Recognizing the story potential, and getting it most of the way there, isn’t the default. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rob Williams grows into one of the better comic story-tellers around. And of course, Jim Lee’s art, as always, is beautiful. High-tech, expressive, detailed and always very consistent.

I’d say at a minimum flip through it. If you’re looking for a place to start on Suicide Squad… I don’t know that I could suggest it be here. Maybe it’s just that, four years later, it feels very much like what it was, a companion to Ayer’s movie version: not as fun as it should be, not as smart as it could be, but also nowhere near as dark as is should be, either. Better, unequivocally (I made the mistake of rewatching the extended cut of the movie to prep for the sequel, and it’s… worse than I remembered, even though I remembered not liking it). For now, go see Birds of Prey, instead. I liked it enough I pitched a sequel, which no one will make, but hopefully you’ll get a kick out of. You’re welcome.

Dramatic Potential, Organic Execution, and Power

Now is as good a time as any to explain one of my pet peeves, as a writer (note: this was excised and repurposed from a review of the Suicide Squad comic… which sort of spoils my feelings on it, I know). Your main tool for story momentum is drama. Drama doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic, per se; sometimes it’s about tension, or suspense; to paraphrase Hitchcock it can be more exciting waiting an hour for the bomb to go off than the few seconds of the explosion. But think of drama as kinetic potential energy, you’ve lifted a bowling ball over your head, and all you have to do to release that energy is let go, and gravity will do the rest.

So, say you have a pair of roommates. One is closeted and gay, and the other is outspokenly homophobic, but at least outwardly the two are friendly and seem to like each other fine and get along. That’s already a story with some interesting dramatic potential there. Dramatic potential doesn’t dictate how the story plays out, it just dictates the important points for the story to cover. Examples of ways this could play out: 1) the gay roommate may come out to his homophobic roommate and that causes him to reexamine his phobia and change his ways; 2) the homophobe realizes that his homophobia was always to mask his own sexuality, and the two become romantically involved; 3) the gay roommate confronts the homophobe, eventually having to physically fight him to stop him victimizing others. This list is of course not exhaustive, but as you can see, the drama inherent in those relatively simplistic character dynamics set the two of them on a collision course within the story.  

There is drama inherent in all of us, in our situations, in our needs, in the things we can’t stand. A good story doesn’t introduce potential drama, whether in the form a character flaw or a dynamic, that it’s not going to pay off in some way. This is basically applying the principle of the Chekov gun more broadly to all of the different constituent elements of drama in a story. It’s also recognizing that, especially in long-form story-telling, comics and TV in particular, part of this skill is in recognizing where remaining deposits of drama still lie; usually within the first year or two of a show, or by the end of the second movie in a franchise or second book in a series, you’ll have exhausted most of the drama you initially planned for, in all of your outlining. But there are still nuggets there. The reason why a character remained unmarried, the reason they’re adamantly against having children of their own, the reason they’re a Libertarian even though they’re not an idiot or a sociopath (this last one is inherently tricky to pull off; don’t play with Libertarians at home kids, at least not without the supervision of an ethical adult [it should be clear this would exclude Libertarians]).

A really great example of a show utilizing its dramatic potential to the utmost is Power on Starz. The only time every drop of a character’s drama isn’t wrung out is because occasionally a character dies before their time; but barring that, Power will find a way to set characters against one another just to see how any particular set of bumper cars will bounce off one another.

There is, however, a corollary to this idea. You should use as much of your story’s inherent dramatic potential as possible, but you have to earn it. If your homophobe is going to come out, you have to focus on his back-story, the reasons he wasn’t comfortable with the idea he was gay, the reasons he would have hid and the reasons he starts to recognize that part of himself, and gains the courage to live that truth. If your homophobe is going to realize the error of his ways, you have to give some details as to how he got there, why he stayed there, and what changes and how it changes him, to sell the idea that the character would go through that transformation.

This is, obnoxiously, a place where Power sucks. Characters who spend seasons extolling the virtues of their found family, who would die for one another, whose family are closer than any blood they have in the world, will turn on a dime and decide to try and murder one another for almost no reason at all. The show is straight up bad at the ways in which it will just reverse coarse on a character or an arc to maximize dramatic potential, which is just tragic, because it has the effect of blunting that potential. A betrayal burns so much hotter when it’s earned, when you feel both the justifiable love and hatred the character has, when you can see it in an actor’s eyes that he feels like he’s got no choice but to pull the trigger, all while knowing he’s all but pulling it on himself, too- that even if he’s not catching this bullet literally, it’s going to kill him, anyway.

It’s still a thoroughly watchable show, and dramatic as all hell, especially if you ignore that the characters are all a little… flighty. I suspect early on in the show they decided they wanted the idea of the hero vs hero comic book fights, or the two characters have a misunderstanding arc from more traditional TV (in particular sitcoms), but wouldn’t stomach the silly contrivances that usually set the characters on their collision course. Most of the conflicts in the show involve characters who are drug dealers who have personally murdered dozens of people and are usually pawns in overlapping power plays perpetrated by layers of federal investigators and underworld figures from a variety of competing crime families. So when something bad happens, inevitably, the main characters blame each other by default, rather than assume, you know, that any number of outside rivals might be responsible, instead; the show essentially becomes Occam’s Rube Goldberg machine. Even that could have worked, if the show were built around a conceit of a central loss of trust.

The closest the show got to that transformational moment was a central romance that was also infidelity; but the show wanted to have its cake and eat it, too, and presented Jaime and Angela as Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed, perhaps, but also predestined to their love and fate. That’s a start to families bursting apart, brothers drawing guns on one another, but it can’t work as the whole incitement, especially when they spend so much of the show’s early seasons showing us the inside of the relationship and making the audience want it to succeed. Had they shown that conflict from his wife’s perspective, or his adoptive brother and partner in crime, who felt he wasn’t respecting the family he would never technically be a part of… you could have built that, but you needed to do the work. It likely would have required that adoptive brother and the wife clinging to one another, both hurt and betrayed, finding solace in each other’s arms, and then having to hide, and lie, and then a cascade of increasing deceit, betrayal, and heartache to make you not only feel that the characters’ love would turn to hate, but that you feel for them so hard that you want them to have revenge against other characters you love, that they deserve to have it, since they can’t be made whole.

Had it been some big, bungled moment that shattered the ability of our leads to see any foe but the one who is already in the house, or even a series of small but building betrayals, where the show takes the characters could have felt organic, and their emotions raw, and powerful; that sounds excitingly and appropriately Shakespearean, but what we got instead was a show that recognized dramatic potential on instinct, but more often than not wasn’t willing to show the work of how you got the character from their starting point to where the story needed them to be. It results in the same silly contrivances, only these ones aren’t borne on the shoulders of the story, but weigh down the characters with nonsensical behavior. You stop believing in their reality, and while it can still be an arresting distraction, the artifice prevents it from changing the way you feel about your own world.

Stories are literally contrived. The best artisans skillfully obscure that contrivance, while still trying to maximize the power and stakes of their story, so that whatever is at the heart of the story they’re trying to say can shine through. I can’t promise you that if you try to be more aware of both dramatic potential and executing it in organic ways that your stories will be good. But they will feel more real to your audience, and your characters will feel more real to you, too.