This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 24, 2016.
A powerful businessman enters politics in order to promote his own agenda. He rallies lower-class white Americans around his demagoguery as a vibrant, crime fighting alter-ego armed with a crossbow. It is through his exuberant personality that he channels people towards racial hatred and provokes riots. A local team of superpowered individuals gets involved to undermine his dangerous antics and stop his rise to power.
This probably sounds like a comic riffing on the Trump campaign. It’s actually the plot of Suicide Squad #4,published almost 30 years ago. What was once an unremarkable one-shot (at least in comparison to the rest of this consistently remarkable series) of this seminal series has found new meaning as modern allegory.
The antagonist of this piece is W. James Heller, who has taken on the uninspired alter-ego of William Hell to recruit white criminals while capturing those that do not meet his Aryan ideals (ie, black people). His speech in front of police and news cameras does not directly acknowledge those racist ideals though. He applies a populist sensibility instead. Language is a code where “common man” stands in for “white man” and “those who would destroy… our way of life” replaces “minorities.”
This sort of coded language makes William Hell seem like a subtle beast in comparison to Donald Trump. Hell does not speak directly to his hatred of non-Aryan men and women, but instead crafts situations that make his case for him. Trump, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to find codewords for those he despises; Mexicans are accused as an entire group of being “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.”
As James Heller, the curtain between his language and meaning is somewhat dropped. He uses the same coded jargon as William Hell at what is essentially a white power rally, referring to his allies as the “common man.” However, he also uses more direct and insulting terms in obvious reference to non-Aryan Americans. There is a direct connection between the highlights of his speech and the arguments made by Americans even at the time of this comic’s publication against the advance of Civil Rights.
Heller specifically points to the construction of a welfare state as being a pervasive problem, along with the spread of drugs and inclusion of “the uneducable” in universities. Each of these topics unfairly targets minorities while cloaked in language that claims to be about fairness and ability. The closest Heller comes to drawing the “us vs. them” line based on race is to speak to “our society” in front of only white supporters and black protestors.
Deadshot dresses as William Hell and arrives to stop Heller’s speech with one written by Rick Flag. This speech does not appeal to brotherhood or equality, but instead redirects the hate. Deadshot shouts at the gathered supremacists that they are being used by Heller and driven by irrational animosity. Rather than attempt to persuade them with peace, he redirects their hate towards the wealthy man using them to prop up his own career.
Deadshot’s speech is cynical in nature, but it’s not wrong. Parallels can be drawn between the manner in which Heller has manipulated working-class white Americans (his “common man”) to how the GOP promotes values voting while pushing economic policy that harms poor members of its own voting base. By utilizing fear and hate, Heller prompts these people to work against their best self-interest. Deadshot appeals to self-interest with a speech every bit as callous as his own personality.
After the rally ends and Heller has been discredited by a plan that can best be described as “time travel shenanigans,” Flag discusses his intent in writing the speech. Challenged by Nightshade for not appealing to a higher ideal, he points out that what he spoke to was a sense of democracy, a higher ideal in and of itself. The common enemy and pursuit of “enlightened self-interest” are not too different than what drove many revolutionaries to found the United States. It is not romantic, but it exposes a belief that a democratic system is bound to eliminate men like William Heller eventually.
What is most striking about this issue is not how much resemblance it bears to the political reality of America in 2016, but that it treats these issues with so little seriousness.
The William Hell alter-ego is a parody. The very fact that a man named William James Heller chooses William Hell as an alter-ego is enough to expose that this character is not to be taken too seriously. His speech patterns also highlight Ostrander’s take on ultra-conservative America. He adds the word “punk” to the end of almost every sentence addressing a set of robbers in a poor imitation of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan.
This treatment of Heller is revelatory. The greatest threat he poses to the team is when Deadshot encourages him to shoot Boomerang. Heller is a one-and-done villain designed to highlight a successful caper story more than anything else. He is made into an even greater joke later in the series when he hires Deadshot to assassinate Amanda Waller in a revenge plot, only to have The Wall tell Deadshot to kill Heller instead for $1 more.
This may be partially due to the makeup of the Suicide Squad creative team, at this point entirely composed of white men. While they acknowledge racism as a threat to the peace, it is relatively minor compared to other realistic threats like the crumbling USSR and American involvement in the Middle East. While they address racial tensions in America throughout the series, most notably in the form of Amanda Waller’s origin, they appear confident that the problem was one in the process of being resolved by the forces of time.
William Heller is not a Presidential candidate or even a statewide force in Louisiana. He is involved with local New Orleans politics in Suicide Squad #4; that is where his career ends. While he may have the potential, due to his wealth and personality, to one day target higher office, Heller is exposed and ended before that ever occurs.
Racism in Suicide Squad #4 is not limited to the antagonist of the issue. In a briefing for the mission Captain Boomerang reminds reader that he is an open racist. He refers to African Americans with an Australian slur for the country’s native population of Aborigines (previously seen in Suicide Squad #1-3 as well). What is even more disconcerting is his reference to an argument still made today: that higher arrest rates among minorities reflect a greater inclination toward criminal activity, rather than improper or biased policing. Boomerang, a thief and murderer himself, even excuses the fact that every criminal on the Suicide Squad is white by claiming that what he and Chronos do is more like art.
All of this highlights a belief that in 1988, 23 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, an open racist could not successfully seek national office. Heller is a nuisance through and through. It is this mindset that may explain why instead of becoming a relic, Suicide Squad #4 has only become more relevant. Ignoring the divisions within the American populace and the dangers presented by hate groups has allowed these wounds to fester and grow. A personality useful for a gag in a superhero comic has become one of two souls prepared to assume the Presidency in January 2017.
Suicide Squad #4 remains an entertaining comic and highlight of the storytelling compression found in this series. But, the passage of time has elevated its status. It is now an artifact of optimism in American history and how that perspective might have led us to folly.