Suicide Squad: The Silver Age


By Robert Kanigher, Howard Liss, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6343-0

The War that Time Forgot was a strange series which saw paratroopers and tanks of the “Question Mark Patrol” dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. Assorted crack GIs discovered why when the operation was suddenly overrun by pterosaurs, tyrannosaurs and worse…

However, the combat-&-carnosaur creation was actually a spin-off of an earlier concept which hadn’t quite caught on with the comics-buying public. That wasn’t a problem for Writer/Editor Kanigher: a man well-versed in judicious recycling and reinvention…

Back in 1955 he had devised and written anthology adventure comic The Brave and the Bold which featured short complete tales starring a variety of period heroes: a format mirroring that era’s filmic fascination with historical dramas.

Issue #1 led with Roman swords-&-sandals epic Golden Gladiator, medieval mystery-man The Silent Knight and Joe Kubert’s Viking Prince. Soon the Gladiator was side-lined by the company’s iteration of Robin Hood, but the high adventure theme carried the title until the end of the decade when the burgeoning superhero revival saw B&B transform into a try-out vehicle in the manner of the astounding successful Showcase.

Used to launch enterprising concepts and characters such as Cave Carson, Strange Sports Stories, Hawkman and the epochal Justice League of America, the title began its run of beta-tests in issue #25 (August/September 1959) with the fate-tempting Suicide Squad – code-named Task Force X by the US government to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The scary tales were all illustrated by Kanigher’s go-to team for fantastic fantasy Ross Andru & Mike Esposito and they clearly revelled at the chance to cut loose and show what they could do outside the staid whimsy of Wonder Woman and gritty realism of the war titles they usually handled…

The Brave and the Bold #25 introduced a quartet of merely human specialists – air ace war hero Colonel Rick Flag, combat medic Karin Grace and big-brained boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price – all officially convened into a unit whose purpose was to tackle threats beyond conventional comprehension such as the interstellar phenomenon dubbed ‘The Three Waves of Doom!’

The quartet were built on a very shaky premise. All three men loved Karin. She only loved Rick but agreed to conceal her inclinations and sublimate her passions so Hugh and Jess would stay on the team of scientific death-cheaters…

In their first published exploit a cloud from outer space impacted Earth and created a super-heated tsunami which threated to broil America. With dashing derring-do, the trouble-shooters quenched the ambulatory heat wave only to have it spawn a colossal alien dragon emanating super-cold rays that could trigger a new ice age…

The only solution was to banish the beast back into space on a handy rocket headed for the sun, but sadly the ship need to be piloted…

Having heroically ended the invader, the team were back two months later as B&B #26 opened with an immediate continuation. ‘The Sun Curse’ saw our stranded astronauts struggling (in scenes eerily prescient and reminiscent of the Apollo 13 crisis a decade later) to return their ship to Earth. Uncannily, however, the trip bathes them in radiations which causes them to shrink to insect size…

Back on terra firma but now imperilled by everything around them, the team nonetheless manages to scuttle a proposed attack by a hostile totalitarian nation before regaining their regular stature…

A second, shorter tale then finds the quartet enjoying some downtime in Paris before the Metro is wrecked by an awakened dinosaur. Of course, the tourists are ready and able to stop the ‘Serpent in the Subway!’

In an entertainment era still dominated by monsters and aliens, with superheroes still only tentatively resurfacing, Task Force X were at the forefront of beastie-battles and their third and final try-out issue found them facing an evolutionary nightmare as a scientist vanished and the region around his lab was suddenly besieged by gigantic insects as well as a colossal reptilian humanoid the team dubbed ‘The Creature of Ghost Lake!’ (December 1959/January 1960). They destroyed the monster but never found the professor…

A rare failure for those excitingly experimental days, the Suicide Squad vanished after that triple try-out run, only to resurface months later for a second bite of the cherry…

The Brave and the Bold #37 (August/September 1961) opened with Karin displaying heretofore unsuspected psychic gifts and predicting an alien ‘Raid of the Dinosaurs!’ which pitted the team against hyper-intelligent saurian whilst ‘Threat of the Giant Eye!’ focussed on the retrieval of a downed military plane and lost super-weapon. The hunt took the Squad to an island of mythological mien where a living monocular monolith hunted people…

In #38 (October/November 1961) the team tackled the ‘Master of the Dinosaurs’ – an alien using Pteranodons to hunt like an Earthling would use falcons – after which the fabulous four fell afoul of extra-dimensional would-be conquerors but still had enough presence of mind and determination to defeat the ‘Menace of the Mirage People!’

B&B #39 (December 1961/January 1962) called “time” on Task Force X after ‘Prisoners of the Dinosaur Zoo!’ saw the team uncover an ancient extraterrestrial ark caching antediluvian flora and fauna and ‘Rain of Fire!’ found them crushing a macabre criminal entombing crime-busters in liquid metal. That was it for the Squad until 1986 when a new iteration of the concept was launched in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Or was it? Superhero fans are notoriously clannish and insular so they might not have noticed how one creative powerhouse refused to take “no thanks” for an answer…

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, horror stories, superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and other genres too numerous to cover here. He also scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the very first story of the Silver Age – which introduced Barry Allen AKA the Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the World in 1956.

Kanigher sold his first stories and poetry in 1932 and wrote for the theatre, film and radio before joining the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945, he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and Lady Cop, plus memorable villainous femme fatales Harlequin and Rose and Thorn. This last he reconstructed, during the relevancy era of the early 1970s, into a schizophrenic crime-busting female super-hero.

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into espionage, adventure, westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Amy at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

Among his many epochal war series were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, the Haunted Tank and The Losers as well as the visually addictive, irresistibly astonishing “Dogfaces and Dinosaurs” dramas sampled in the back of this stunning hardback collection…

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and even used the uncanny but formulaic adventure arena of The War that Time Forgot as a personal try-out venue for his many series concepts. The Flying Boots, G.I. Robot and many other teams and characters first appeared in the lush Pacific hellhole with wall-to-wall danger. Indisputably the big beasts were the stars, but occasionally (extra)ordinary G.I .Joes made enough of an impression to secure return engagements, too…

The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968) skipping only three issues: #91, 93 and #126 (the last of which starred the United States Marine Corps simian Sergeant Gorilla – look it up: I’m neither kidding nor being metaphorical…).

Simply too good a concept to leave alone, this seamless, shameless blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Caprona stories (known alternatively as the Caspak Trilogy or “the Land That Time Forgot”) provided everything baby-boomer boys could dream of: giant lizards, humongous insects, fantastic adventures and two-fisted heroes with lots of guns…

In the summer of 1963, a fresh Suicide Squad debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #110 to investigate a ‘Tunnel of Terror’ into the lost land of giant monsters: this time though, a giant albino gorilla decided that mammals should stick together…

The huge hairy beast was also the star of ‘Return of the Dinosaur Killer!’ in #111 as the unnamed Squad leader and a wily boffin (visually based on Kanigher’s office associate Julie Schwartz) struggled to survive on the tropically reptilian atoll…

In SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) a duo of dedicated soldiers faced ice-bound beasts in ‘The Suicide Squad!’ – the big difference being that Morgan and Mace were more determined to kill each other than accomplish their mission…

‘Medal for a Dinosaur!’ in #117 bowed to the inevitable and introduced a (relatively) friendly and extremely cute baby pterodactyl to balance out Mace and Morgan’s barely suppressed animosity, after which ‘The Plane-Eater!’ in #118 found the army odd couple adrift in the Pacific and in deep danger until the little leather-winged guy turned up once more…

The Suicide Squad were getting equal billing by the time of #119’s ‘Gun Duel on Dinosaur Hill!’ (February/March 1965) as yet another group of men-without-hope battled reptilian horrors and each other to the death, after which the un-killable Morgan and Mace returned with Dino, the flying baby dinosaur, who found a new companion in handy hominid Caveboy before the whole unlikely ensemble struggled to survive against increasingly outlandish creatures in ‘The Tank Eater!’

Issue #121 presented a diving drama when a UDT frogman won his Suicide Squad rep as a formidable fighter and ‘The Killer of Dinosaur Alley!’ Increasingly now, G.I. hardware and ordnance began to gain the upper hand over bulk, fang and claw…

Undisputed master of gritty fantasy art Joe Kubert added his pencil-and-brush magic to a tense and manic thriller featuring the return of the G.I. Robot in stunning battle bonanza ‘Titbit for a Tyrannosaurus!’ in #125 (February/March 1965), after which Andru & Esposito covered another Suicide Squad sea-saga in #127: ‘The Monster Who Sank a Navy!’

This eclectic collection then tumultuously terminates as scripter Howard Liss and visual veteran Gene Colan craft a masterfully moving human drama from issue #128 which was astoundingly improved by the inclusion of ravening reptiles in ‘The Million Dollar Medal!’ and the last tale in this volume).

Throughout this calamitous compilation of dark dilemmas, light-hearted romps and spectacular battle blockbusters the emphasis is always on foibles and fallibility; with human heroes unable to put aside long-held grudges, swallow pride or forgive trespasses even amidst the strangest and most terrifying moments of their lives, and this edgy humanity informs and elevates even the daftest of these wonderfully imaginative adventure yarns.

Classy, intense, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, the original Suicide Squad offers a kind of easy, no-commitment entertainment seldom seen these days and is a deliciously guilty pleasure for one and all…
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.