This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 12, 2016.
Black magic. Long lost siblings. Ancient gods. Incest. Possession. Alternate dimensions.
These are not the plot points most readers expect to focus on when picking up Suicide Squad, but they are the defining element of “The Nightshade Odyssey” in Suicide Squad #14-16. The story itself is not a highlight of the series’ first volume. If anything, it is most notable for the characters it introduces and removes from the team’s roster. However, the arc’s existence and anomaly status speak volumes about the strengths of Suicide Squad.
A brief recap of “The Nightshade Odyssey”: Eve Eden (a.k.a. Nightshade) is granted permission by Amanda Waller to lead the team on a private mission. They enter the mysterious dimension which grants Eve her powers in order to discover what happened to her brother Larry after he was left there as a child. Larry finds the team first and imprisons them, having been corrupted by a force called Incubus. Incubus seeks to be reunited with its sister force, Succubus, which just happens to be the power source of another Squad member, The Enchantress. Incubus removes Enchantress’ powers, gives them to Eve, and plans to breed with her. The Squad breaks free from their restraints, Eve escapes Incubus’ influence, Deadshot kills Incubus, and they are all rescued from the now crumbling Nightshade Lands by Shade, the Changing Man.
It’s really a bizarre story.
What’s most remarkable about the meat of this story is that it does not read as an outlier when moving through the series. It is preceded and proceeded by stories tied to the real world, one in which the Squad invades a South American country and another where they battle a terrorist cell, respectively. What happens in the Nightshade Lands are not tied to Waller’s goals or the security of the United States. It is based on a favor from “The Wall” to one of the only team members who isn’t tied to the team based on a prison sentence.
It remains a cohesive part of the story because it is built on the greatest strength of Suicide Squad: character. The reasons for the mission are based in Nightshade’s origins; the reason each Squad member goes along makes sense given their portrayal. Deadshot and Duchess are always looking for action (an excuse to die or kill something). Bronze Tiger and Vixen are loyal teammates who respect Nightshade. Captain Boomerang has to be drugged in order to go, only awakening after the mission is FUBAR.
Writer John Ostrander bases the mission in a deep understanding of Nightshade’s history reaching back to her origins when created by Steve Ditko and Joe Gill at Charlton Comics in 1966, with editor Bob Greenberger constantly referring readers to Secret Origins #28. This is standard procedure for the series. It rarely created characters from scratch, Waller and her support staff providing the major exception. Instead, Suicide Squad took the many elements from a character’s continuity and wove them into a cohesive and compelling whole. As strange as Nightshade’s origin is, it provides her with an origin that explains her private and protective nature, while adding layers of darkness explored in future stories.
Everyone’s response to what happens in the Nightshade Lands follows what readers would have come to expect. Deadshot treats every problem the same and ultimately saves the day by shooting a demi-god with the same casual demeanor he would dispatch a random thug. Captain Boomerang remains an opportunist, coward, and complete loser. Even in an unexplainable plane of existence, his first reaction is to bargain with whoever is in power; he STILL manages to offend that person in the process. This reliable set of characterizations is a key element of the charm of Suicide Squad. In a universe filled with magic and monsters, they remain relatively down-to-earth with low-key humor and deeply human reactions.
Even the introduction of Shade the Changing Man, a super cop on the run from another dimension, becomes a bit of rigamarole for the Suicide Squad. When Amanda Waller meets the man, she sees an opportunity and strikes a deal. In exchange for aiding Shade on a mission to attack some corrupt officials from his home dimension, he joins the Squad (giving them a significant power boost after losing the Enchantress). Remove elements of science fiction and mysticism from this plotting and it’s easy to see how it would become a more “standard” Suicide Squad story. It’s all about compromise, forced allies, and the long game. Every decision is character-driven and serves a broader purpose (while still providing plenty of action in the present).
The biggest surprise of “The Nightshade Odyssey” may be that Enchantress and June Moone are the least defined characters in this arc. Besides some internal thoughts of fear regarding the relationship between these two personalities when traveling between dimensions, Enchantress is as much of a prop to the plot as Incubus. While the shifting of power affects both June Moone and Eve Eden in future issues, here it is a matter of moving things along.
While the characters and their responses are in line with previous issues of Suicide Squad, “The Nightshade Odyssey” provided artist Luke McDonnell with an opportunity to experiment in ways not seen in the series before or after. He makes use of techniques that blur backgrounds with color and abstract shapes. These are primarily used in splash panels giving readers a sense of the Nightshade Lands before focusing on individual characters. The artists also alter how they shape forms, removing outlines and relying on clear, bold inks to express an exploding face.
These elements overlay McDonnell’s pencils and Bob Lewis’ inks, so as not to separate these panels from the rest of the page, but add a new element. In a time when colorists did not receive much attention from readers, Carl Gafford was working hard to provide clarity with limited tools in a complex arrangement. He utilizes red for rain and monstrous shadows, effectively painting over the page and adding another layer. Other effects utilized inSuicide Squad #16 when Shade enters the picture reveal a Ditko influence in McDonnell’s designs. Not only did Ditko create Shade, but the bizarre forms and boundless setting of the page evoke his work with characters like Doctor Strange. The effect is disconcerting, but perfectly readable.
McDonnell also provides the most compelling elements to the Incubus sections of the story. His illustrations of angels being cast down from Heaven and Larry’s aunt crumbling to dust in the middle of an incestuous kiss are evocative pieces that maintain a consistent tone with the much more down-to-earth elements of the comic. Backgrounds transform, becoming as important of a character as Incubus and an even more compelling foe. His draftsmanship allowed the issue to combine so many disparate elements, provoking a wide range of responses while still reading as a united whole.
Although “The Nightshade Odyssey” carries a banner on all three of the issues being discussed here, and is even the title of the third collection in DC Comics most recent series of Suicide Squad reprints, it’s hardly the focus of all three issues. At best it occupies the second half of Suicide Squad #14 and introduces the plot of Suicide Squad #16.
The other half of these issues are filled with Amanda Waller politicking in D.C., various Squad member sub-plots, and an entirely different mission to bring Shade into the Suicide Squad fold. It’s not organized in standard layers of plotting, either. Once the “Odyssey” begins, it is the sole focus of the comic. Everything else comes before or after this story. In terms of plotting, Suicide Squad has far more in common with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Fourthan current superhero comic trends. Much like “The Galactus Trilogy”, “The Nightshade Odyssey” takes as much space as it requires before moving onto the next thing. Ostrander and McDonnell find excellent cliffhangers in each issue, but do not extend their story to fill the entirety of available pages.
While “The Nightshade Odyssey” is unlikely to make anyone’s list of top five Suicide Squad stories, and is not a definitive take on the series by any means, it might express the series’ core strengths better than any other story arc. Rather than resting in what would be considered comfortable territory like a Jihad or Personal Files story, it stretches the concept to its furthest. What you discover is that the Suicide Squad can work in almost any genre: horror, fantasy, and science fiction are all present. It is that potent of an idea.
What makes the Suicide Squad work are the characters at its core, men and women like Amanda Waller, Eve Eden, Deadshot, and yes, even Captain Boomerang, along with creators like Ostrander and McDonnell approached each story with that knowledge. The Suicide Squad won’t always come back in one piece, but no matter where they go, they are capable of telling a thrilling story.