It’s hard to come up with a lasting concept in superhero comics. New characters and teams are cooked up every few months and thrown at the wall, and very few of them stick there. The Suicide Squad, however, has had staying power. First conceived in its modern form in 1986 (there was an almost wholly unrelated team by that name in the 1950s), it’s still around three decades later with the same core concept: A bunch of entirely expendable supervillains are thrown together by the U.S. government to carry out black-ops missions. If you’re looking to bone up on the Squad and its characters in advance of this weekend’s Suicide Squad, here are five comics volumes to pick up.
Suicide Squad [Original Version] Vol. 1: Trial by Fire
You can’t beat the core source material. In their initial Suicide Squad stories, writer John Ostrander and penciler Luke McDonnell took a chainsaw to the typical tone and structure of the DC Comics universe and, with the disassembled pieces, built something the industry hadn’t seen before. It had elements of The Dirty Dozen, to be sure, but it was distinctly a superhero-universe story—albeit one where nobody had good intentions and everybody hated one another. The tales here are funny, thrilling, and surprisingly political.
Spoiler alert: Will Smith’s character is quite important in Suicide Squad. He plays longstanding DC hit man Deadshot, a gun for hire who never misses. If you want one of his best stories, you can’t go wrong with this collection of a four-issue miniseries and two Batman stories. The miniseries is the highlight—in it, Ostrander, McDonnell, and writer Kim Yale give the reader a noir-ish story about our antihero protagonist going after a crime boss and finding out his benefactors aren’t telling him everything about what they’re up to. The result is solid, pulpy fun.
Batman Adventures: Mad Love
Fair warning: This isn’t technically a Suicide Squad story. However, it’s arguably the best single story ever told about the movie’s breakout character, Squad member and face-painted nut job Harley Quinn. Harley was introduced as one of the Joker’s henchpeople on the incredible Batman: The Animated Series, and this one-shot comics story by her creators, writer Paul Dini and artist Bruce Timm, was set in that universe. It gives us Harley’s tragicomic origin as Joker’s psychiatrist-cum-paramour, as well as an action-packed—and surprisingly romantic—plot about her attempts to win her man’s favor. It’s echoed heavily in the movie and stands on its own as a terrific short story.
Suicide Squad [Rebooted Version] Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth
In 2011, DC Comics undertook a wildly ambitious change in course: They canceled all of their universe’s series and relaunched them with new No. 1 issues set in a wholly rebooted continuity. Suicide Squad had lain fallow for a while, but a brand-new version of it was created as part of the new lineup of titles. The tale was actually quite controversial and remains button-pushing even now: It brought Harley Quinn onto the team (something not tried before) and made her more sexualized than she’d ever been; it also made team leader Amanda Waller younger and slimmer. Although this volume is spottier than anything else on the list, it remains crucial, as it’s the single most influential story for David Ayer’s film. Plus, its high-octane nuttiness is, at times, a rock-and-roll delight.
Copra Round One
Indie-comics creator Michel Fiffe grew up loving the original Ostrander run on Suicide Squad, and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he decided to honor it by totally ripping it off. He wrote and drew this magnificent, small press–published story about a thinly veiled homage to the Squad, and it’s a complete trip. It’s way weirder than almost anything ever done with the actual DC Comics team, yet somehow remains true to the misfit spirit of the original. It makes one wish these kinds of freewheeling quasi-adaptations happened more often.
See also: Suicide Squad Isn’t Very Funny