Overview: With Task Force X otherwise engaged in the Aquaman crossover story “Sink Atlantis,” Amanda Waller is forced to turn to an all-new group of leveraged bad guys. But how will “Suicide Squad B” fair when Swamp Thing takes an interest in their mission?
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): In the depths of the bayou swamp at Belle Reve Prison, a secret medical lab is alive with activity. Amanda Waller gazes down from an observation deck at a surgery that is clearly not going according to plan. The surgeons grow more and more alarmed but it is not just because the operation is going badly. There is something else in the operating theater with them and it wants out.
Back in her office, Waller gets the bad news from her assistant. Candace Laramie has escaped from the medical wing. It seems she had a partner who didn’t survive the initial surgery, but why they were being operated upon together remains unclear. The assistant recommends mobilizing Task Force X, but Waller admits that the Squad is currently unavailable. To handle this scenario some new players are going to have to come in off the bench.
We are introduced to a new group of Belle Reve inmates who will be given the opportunity to earn leniency on their sentence by stepping up in a time of need. Malcolm Merlyn, the Dark Archer, Ragdoll the contortionist, Scream Queen the Vampire, Shimmer a matter manipulation master, Baby Boom an explosives expert, Tao Jones force field wielder, and the reptilian-looking Skorpio, a master of blades.
Waller tells her new Squad a story about Candace Laramie and Dennis Gaines. Unknown assailants abducted them two years back. Just as authorities were about to declare them dead, they reappeared having been surgically conjoined. They now function as one being or did until recently. Gaines seems to have died in the operating room. Laramie was now on the run but was considered still highly dangerous. Merlyn, ever the self-preservationist, exclaims that it is common in deals like this for someone like Waller to leave out critical information. Waller, of course, reminds Merlyn and the newly assembled team that this is an opportunity, one they’ve barely earned. If they don’t like the terms of the assignment, she’ll be more than happy to find replacements. Subtextually, the explosives Waller plants in the heads of all her “agents” as a contingency hang, a ghostly spectral reminder of what is really at stake.
Out in the storm swampy night, we finally get a glimpse of the fugitive. Candace Laramie is run ragged, out of breath but scared to stop lest her pursuers catch up. She carries with her the lifeless form of Dennis Gaines. But it’s not a burden she can relinquish. As she comes fully into view we see that Gaines body is still attached to hers, his torso and arms swing free, a macabre reminder that she’s likely to die soon as well.
A voice calls to her in the night. The disturbance has brought the attention of Swamp Thing. Her eyes widen with renewed terror, but he assures her that he isn’t a threat to her. Rather he wants to protect her from whatever pursues her in the night. And while the new Suicide Squad is indeed close behind her, there is something else in the shadows that no one can protect her from. And now the ghostly forms take shape. Phantasms rising from the swamp and seemingly all around, reaching clawed, disfigured appendages towards her. Swamp Thing attempts to block their path but the ghostly figures grasp even him, pulling him down to the swamp, which should be his favored ground.
Candace turns to run but she isn’t able to put much distance between herself and Swamp Thing when something THUNKS into a tree trunk mere inches from her face. Merlyn remarks that missing on purpose is a waste of his talents, but his arrows have the intended effect, herding Candace towards the waiting arms of Ragdoll. Between the two members of Waller’s new Task Force, they seem to have wrapped this job quickly. But the shadows of the swamp hold something more terrifying than Swamp Thing tonight. As the phantasms take shape around Ragdoll and Laramie, he notices that their forms appear surgically altered. Somehow, these ghosts are following Laramie and Gaines, perhaps triggered by the death of Gaines. Whatever they are, Merlyn isn’t so quick to engage, and soon the fiendish fingers have wrapped tightly around Ragdoll’s tricky contortionist body. As he is pulled down into the swamp, Ragdoll pleads for Merlyn to do something.
“Don’t let them take me!” is the last phrase he can muster before being pulled into the grime and mud and darkness.
In the distance, Scream Queen and Shimmer are picking up some of the chatter of the encounter on their communicators. Scream Queen doesn’t even need the radio; her vampiric enhanced senses allow her to hear the screams for miles. And while Shimmer wonders if they should move to back up Merlyn, Scream Queen is in no such hurry. Indeed, spending this free time they’ve been given any other way than putting themselves in danger is more her speed. It may be her vampire-seduction or it might be mutual, but she seems more interested in going “under-cover” with Shimmer than helping out the rest of the team.
Back in another part of the swamp, Laramie has put some distance between herself and Merlyn, not to mention Swamp Thing. But she now encounters Tao Jones. Jones claims not to be interested in hurting her, but she does plan on finishing the job at hand. She asks that Candace come quietly since she can’t guarantee her teammates will offer her the same passage. Skorpio appears, and while Waller has demanded they bring Laramie in alive, he wants to know exactly what she did to Ragdoll.
She tries to explain that she isn’t the one in control. But Skorpio and Jones haven’t seen the phantasms up close yet and they’re hard pressed to believe her story. For the moment they have bigger problems, however, as Swamp Thing comes smashing into the clearing, demanding they leave the woman alone. Skorpio thinks Swamp Thing must be the one who killed his friend, so he turns his attention directly to the elemental beast. For all his bravado and tough talk, in the end, the phantasms drag him under, still screaming that he’s actually the scariest thing in the swamp.
Merlyn has been taking in as much of the action as he can from a distance. Reporting back to Waller, she shows a keen interest in the arrival of Swamp Thing. Now the mission parameters have been updated and Waller wants them to bring the monster in from the storm. Merlyn asks about the apparitions, but she simply tells him to concentrate.
Laramie has slipped away from Tao Jones again and for the moment only Swamp Thing follows closely. The spirits continue harassing him until she exclaims, “Leave him alone, he’s helping me!” Shocked, Swamp Thing realizes only just then that the phantasms are in some way attached to her. Candace slumps, holding her arms in the rainy night against the cold and against her own fears.
“Look at me, I’m hideous,” she exclaims. Swamp Thing, bemused, asks if she has taken the time to get a good look at him. Nevertheless, she is adamant, they are not alike. Swamp Thing is the very essence of life. Laramie is surrounded by death. And finally, she seems ready to tell her story.
When she was combined and physically attached to Dennis Gaines, she tried to block out the horrible acts he committed. But when he died, something in her came alive for the first time. Now, the souls of those he killed and wronged cling to her as if they know that she isn’t long for this world. And while they seem to want to keep her alive, it’s almost as if they do so only because they claim the rights to her very soul.
Merlyn crouches close by observing everything. But he is a man of experience and one of the reasons he has stayed in jail so long is to avoid encounters with god-like beings such as the ones before him now. He’s not sure it’s worth tangling with Swamp Thing and whatever clings to Candace Laramie, no matter what Amanda Waller is selling. Scream Queen, on the other hand, is ready for action. She dives into the fray with Shimmer backing her up. Swamp Thing moves to intercept the new Squad once again, but this time it’s Baby Boom and her explosive charges that turn the tables. The remainder of the team moves into position and now it’s a battlefield.
But while this team has power, they lack the intangibles that only an experienced crew like the main Task Force X can display. The members of this squad aren’t working as a team; they’re simply a bunch of individuals after the same thing. And that’s why they can’t win. As the squad closes in on Laramie, the phantasms appear again. Merlyn keeps a wide berth, firing arrows to keep them off balance, but Jones’ force field does nothing in the face of the spirits and Baby Boom’s explosives are similarly inadequate. Shimmer finds her powers won’t transmute them either and soon what looked like a simple extraction has gone completely sideways. Baby Boom is gone. Shimmer, unable to believe what’s happening to her, is overrun by the ghosts. As they cling to her clothes and begin to tear her flesh, Scream Queen begs Laramie to call them off, but it’s of no use and now we know for certain that Scream Queen truly had feelings for Shimmer. As the life drains Shimmer’s body, Scream Queen holds Laramie’s life in her hands. Merlyn tries to get her attention, and he can see in her eyes that she has retribution in mind, but she is beyond reasoning with. With a flick of her wrist, she opens Laramie’s throat and her body too crumples into the murky waters of the swamp.
Swamp Thing is incensed. But he is not a mercenary. He takes Laramie’s body and demands that the Squad leave his swamp. With her dying words, Laramie admits that she wanted it this way anyways, but that doesn’t make Swamp Thing feel any better about it.
Back in Waller’s office, the only survivors, Merlyn and Scream Queen, are asked to explain their failure. Scream Queen simply dares Waller to blow the charge in her head and before she can even get the words from her mouth, it’s done. Brains and viscera spray the surprised Merlyn.
Just then, from within the fruits and vegetables on Amanda Waller’s lunch tray, Swamp Thing appears anew. He warns that she should not think lightly of making an enemy out of him, for he does not tolerate transgressions on his swamp.
Waller is unparsed. She has done her homework and knows that for all that type of talk, and despite his sudden appearance, he cannot be everywhere at once. He has to let down his guard sometime and when he does, she’ll be there to cage him. It’s a standoff, as Swamp Thing admits he can’t always be there to watch over Waller. But as his echoing voice fades from the room, Waller and Merlyn are left with a final thought…
“…But someone will!”
Analysis: Annuals have a frustrating tendency to be good for only a couple things: Bringing the plot of the main book to a grinding halt, exploring aspects of the book that virtually no one cares about and mainly getting the completest reader to spend an extra buck on something that generally has very little to do with the comic book they love. If we’re really lucky, annuals are one part of an interesting line-wide crossover event. Which of course means you’ll need to invest in the other parts to get the complete story. Or maybe, just maybe, they contain something that’s actually crucial to the development of character or story. Often annuals have a different creative team, as they can also function as a chance for new or up and coming talent to break through. Sometimes this works out well, sometimes less so.
So it’s a pleasant surprise picking up Suicide Squad Annual #1 this summer. The story of a secondary team, haphazardly thrown together by Amanda Waller when Task Force X is away on a more important mission with repercussions that might echo across the DC Universe, really manages to pack some punch. The storyline immediately gives a nod and recognition to the fact that Task Force X is engaged elsewhere. This seems like a small thing but keeping continuity in place is important if the reader is to be convinced to go “off-mission” in this instance. There’s a different creative team, but anyone who isn’t familiar with Cullen Bunn at this point hasn’t been paying attention. His prolific body of work includes massive runs on the likes of Sinestro, character-expanding stints on Deadpool and Magneto, as well as creator-owned projects. He is well known for writing bad guys, horror, mystery and essentially anything with a dark edge. His name on the byline is a major plus.
The story itself takes the Suicide Squad premise and squares it. Task Force X is always about the “wrong people for the job,” in this story we’ve got the replacements for the replacements. They know they’re in over their heads but they move forward because that’s what it takes when you’re a super villain.
There’s another part of this story that we don’t always get from annuals. Actual repercussions. While these villains may consider themselves survivors, there’s a serious body count racked up by the final act, another feature indicative of Bunn’s writing prowess.
Ronan Cliquet does a serviceable job, leading me to believe he may, in fact, be getting the big league nod so to speak in this roll. There’s nothing to complain about in his pencils and the dank, dark, stormy bayou is actually conveyed nicely. But neither is there anything particularly worth writing home about in regards to his work. I’m sure we’ll see his name again in places like this.
One thing this book does do is put a fairly large cross-section of characters on the page and in particular some characters that don’t see a lot of runs. Cullen Bunn deftly maneuvers the newcomers like Swamp Thing, who appears like a rebel without a cause, itching for a fight while at the same time claiming to simply want to be left alone. There’s certainly a power behind the elemental and in some ways, the character stands out stealing the show in the same way he steals the mission parameters from Task Force Y. At the same time, you can see how Malcolm Merlyn would easily fill the leadership role that Deadshot often inhabits. And you can bet that if we notice it, Amanda Waller does also.
Final Thoughts: All in all, Suicide Squad Annual #1 gets a little bit of extra credit for bucking the trend and combining parts to give a sense of whole to this book that isn’t initially expected. Whereas these books are often dollar bin fodder at best, “For the Wicked, No Rest,” hefts a bit of weight and delivers a high impact story letting the characters do exactly what their mission parameters specify; Act as a stop-gap and fill in for absentee bigger names.