Successful formula fiction requires two things. First, a formula that works when it’s reused over and over. Second, characters who make the formula interesting; as Roger Ebert once put it, love is a cliche, it’s the characters that make a love story worth watching. Robert Kanigher’s WW II Suicide Squad stories — part of the The War That Time Forgot series — fail on both counts.
War That Time Forgot ran for eight years in Star Spangled War Stories, built around a simple formula: U.S. soldiers in WW II battle dinosaurs (actually super-dinosaurs capable of crushing submarines or lifting tanks in their jaws). A number of recurring characters passed through the series over the years: the G.I. Robot; the acrobatic Flying Boots; Naval officer Tommy Smith, who’d been raised by pterodactyls (and people wonder why I love comics); the Skipper, part of a “Suicide Squadron” of PT boats; and the unrelated Suicide Squad.
Kanigher obviously liked the name “Suicide Squad” as he’d already used it for Task Force X, an elite team of government agents that enjoyed a few tryout issues of Brave and the Bold. The equally elite WW II task force specialized in sending two-man teams out on suicide missions that invariably involved dinosaurs. That would be formula enough for most people, but Kanigher threw in something more: each team consisted of two men who hated each other’s guts.
That’s not a bad concept for a story, of course. It works in “Gun Duel on Dinosaur Hill” (SSWS #119) in which a Western sheriff is teamed with “Wild One,” an outlaw he once took down. Wild One’s determined to avenge his defeat, but by the end of the story he realizes he’s in the wrong and the mission is more important than his ego. As film historian Jeanine Basinger has written, that’s a classic character arc for a WW II combat film. As a series formula, though, it got repetitive fast. Particularly when Kanigher had one team, Morgan and Mace, go through it repeatedly, issue after issue, panel after panel without ever changing their relationship.
As we learn in #116, Mace and Bill Morgan had been a toboggan team at the Winter Olympics. Bill pushed Mace into taking a dangerous curve too fast; Mace lost his nerve, the toboggan crashed, Bill died. His brother Vic blames Mace for not only killing Bill but losing America a gold medal (he seems to think both are equally awful failures). When Mace gets an mission using his toboggan skills to reach an icy Axis base, Vic gets himself assigned as the second man. He’s convinced Mace will turn yellow and blow the mission unless Morgan keeps a gun pointed at his back.
In the duo’s four appearances, Kanigher hammers this character dynamic home over and over, by having Morgan constantly threatening Mace and accusing him of cowardice:
“You’re not going to knock me off the way you did my brother.”
“I’m OK, but this .45 says you’re not, unless you keep going.”
“I should have known you’d chicken out on me when the chips are flying.”
Even when Mace does something heroic, Morgan dismisses it: “Guess that wound made you go out of your head long enough to hallucinate that tank was a trolley car.” Sure, the dialog at its best is snappy, but the character dynamic got old by the end of the first story. It doesn’t help that contrary to the cover blurbs, they aren’t actually a team that hates each other — it’s all on Morgan’s side. Like Don Hall in the original Hawk and the Dove, Mace almost never fights back; he just hopes he can prove himself to Morgan some day.
Kanigher may have realized these guys weren’t exactly the World’s Finest team; subsequent adventures gave them a pterodactyl and then a cave-boy as sidekicks. The additions couldn’t overcome the underlying weakness in the formula. Apparently it worked for Kanigher, though, as he used the same idea even in some non-Suicide Squad War That Time Forgot stories.
John Ostrander retconned and improved the history of the WW II Suicide Squad when he began writing the 1980s Task Force X. Any luster that accrues to the name is entirely due to him.
#SFWApro. Center cover by Ross Andru, others by Joe Kubert