Over the course of this blog, I’ve written, extensively, about the ways that comics address political and social issues. The “preachies” in EC Comics are perhaps the most obvious examples of this. Today, I want to look at May 1987’s Suicide Squad #4 written by John Ostrander and drawn by Luke McDonnell. “William Hell’s Overture” is a self-contained story early Ostrander’s Suicide Squad run, and it focuses on William James Heller, the founder of the racist Aryan Empire and his construction of William Hell, a vigilante who only arrests Black, Asian, or Latino criminals while allowing whites to go free if they choose to join the Aryan Empire. The Suicide Squad unmasks Hell for what his racist and hate filled propaganda, and the issue ends with the team talking about patriotism and democracy, and it is here that I want to focus the bulk of today’s post.
In order to unmask Hell for what he is, the team targets one of Heller’s political events. Deadshot dresses as the vigilante and approaches the podium, taking it from Heller. The goal is to give the audience a view of a hero while also uncovering Heller’s actions. Deadshot focuses his speech on unity, the cooperation of individuals while others work to drive a wedge between them. He tells those gathered there,
You’re decent folks. You work hard. You sacrifice for your family and your country. You respect and obey the law. No one ever gave you nothing. You made what you got. You struggle to keep it. Only one way to do that. You got to stick together. And I mean all together — black, white, latino, what have you! The only power you got comes from your numbers! Those in charge know that! And what’s the best way to keep you under control? Hate! Keep you separate from those with which you should have something in common! And you fall for it… every time! Get this through your heads — black, white, whatever; You’re all the “little guy.” And anything — any right, any freedom — they can take from the next guy they can take from you. And that’s a fact.
Deadshot’s speech echoes W.E.B. DuBois, Lillian Smith, Fred Hampton, and countless others. On the surface, his speech shifts the audience’s hate towards those in power, and when one of Heller’s men shoots Deadshot, the crowd turns on the Aryan Empire, making William Hell a symbolic hero for the community. Members of the Suicide Squad, dressed as EMT’s, arrive before the authorities and wisk Deadshot away in an ambulance. The issue concludes with an eight-panel final page showing the squad driving away and talking about what just happened.
The sequence begins with Nightshade praising Deadshot for appealing to the audience’s “patriotism” on his speech, appealing to their belief in the egalitarian beliefs of the United States. However, Deadshot looks at her and pushes back, telling her, “If they’d believed in brotherhood and equality and all that hooey, this whole situation’d never’ve come up.” Deadshot points out that the key to his speech wasn’t his appeal to equality; it was telling them that the powerful sought to maintain power by sowing division. This fact, on the surface, plays on the ideas of equality; however, at its cores lies the recipients focus on their own self-interest, a feeling that they will do whatever is necessary to maintain their own lifestyles and existence. This isn’t survival. It’s the feeling of maintaining security.
Nightshade responds, “So you manipulated them, preyed on their fears . . . just like Heller did.” She points out that Deadshot’s rhetoric, while quelling the hate, does the same thing that Heller’s does, explicitly playing upon the audience’s fears in order to have them do something. Deadshot tells her that if she has an issue with the speech she needs to speak with Colonel Flag because he wrote it. Nightshade turns her questioning towards Flag and asks him if the speech was his “idea of patriotism.” Again, Nightshade frames her question around the idea of equality and patriotism, a striving for the ideals expressed throughout the centuries. Yet, Flag tells her it’s not “patriotism” that he appealed to, it’s “democracy.”
Even here, though, Flag hedges and tells her that while he wants to them to come together for “the common good,” they actually do it out of “enlightened self-interest,” and this fact, while being “democracy shorn of its ideals” is still, at its center, democracy because that initial self-interest, while selfish and self-centered, will hopefully lead to they remaining “together for the common good,” working towards egalitarianism. For Flag, it’s a step in the right direction, a step towards sustaining democracy. Yet, will it happen?
The issue ends, and we don’t see if it’ll happen. However, Flag’s comments and the tensions between patriotism and democracy are important here. Patriotism, while good, can have negative impacts when taken to the extreme. We see this with nationalism and the confluence of patriotism with other beliefs such as Christianity. A love for one’s country is not, in and of itself, negative. A belief that one’s country is superior and the sole focus of existence is negative. The counter to this hyper patriotism is democracy, the ideal that everyone has a voice and an opportunity to live their best life. It’s a belief that no one is better than anyone else, and that fighting for the “common good” is worth it because focusing on the common good will benefit everyone.
Focusing on the common good is also a focus on one’s self-interest because when we achieve good for all that means that we achieve good for ourselves. We benefit ourselves just as much as we benefit those around us. Instead of having to set up GoFundMe pages to pay for medical bills, individuals would be able to have their medical needs met without having to put them off or go into debt. Instead of having to go into life-shattering debt to further one’s education, individuals would be able to continue their education and benefit society as a whole. These are only two examples; however, some tells individuals that their self-interests matter a lot more than the common good, thus causing individuals to hurt themselves so others won’t get support.
At the end of the Suicide Squad #4, the question becomes, “How do we maintain democracy?” This is a question, especially with the anniversary of January 6 this week, that we need to think about. This is what we need to focus on. We need to focus on the common good, not on our self-interests which cause us to ignore those around us. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.