This week's issue of Aquaman sees the return of John Ostrander to DC Comics. I've talked about Ostrander before, mostly in reference to his brilliant runs on many Star Wars titles, but he's a writer with a tremendous body of work. He's one of the great comic book writers, and one of my all time favorites. But sadly, the majority of his seminal works are not readily available in printed form (they may be digitally, but digital ain't my bag). I am planning some serious dissection of a lot of these works, in a John Ostrander week here on the Matt Signal, but since I didn't get through the reread on this week's recommended reading, I thought I'd do a dry run on the Ostrander pieces, giving a sneak preview of some of the titles I'll be talking about in much more depth there. This is by no means a full rundown of all of Ostrander's catalog, as I'll be mostly discussing his 80s and 90s DC works, with his creator owned opus thrown into the mix as well. So, without further ado...
Pretty much everyone who reads comics knows the concept behind Suicide Squad, but in case you don't, it's this: Supervillains go on covert missions for the government to earn time off their sentences, but there's a good chance they won't make it back. It's a great concept, and it's been rebooted twice since (three times if you count Warren Ellis's run on Marvel's Thunderbolts), but it's never worked as well as it did under John Ostrander. Why do you ask? Well, for one the plots were smart, intricate, and had a feeling of authenticity; some took place in real world locales that were politically troubled, something Ostrander has jokingly said he stopped doing when real political trouble flared up in those places when the issues were released. The series not only dealt with supervillains fighting terrorists or worse supervillains, but is one of the first comics to really delve into the darker side of the governement, the political backbiting and blackmail; this is a post-Watergate America, where government uses its power not necessarily to help the people. But what really made this series was the characters. Ostrander took a bunch of B-,C-, and D-list characters, and made them into major players. Before this series, Deadshot was just a marksman who shot at Batman; after this he was a layered, complex, haunted character. Captain Boomerang became a nasty, vindictive, petty little man with all sorts of issues, instead of just another Flash Rogue. Ostrander, with his wife and writing partner Kim Yale, also introduced Barbara Gordon as Oracle, dealing with the fallout from The Killing Joke and building Barbara up in a way that lasted over twenty years (on a side not, if you like this, you should check out Ostrander & Yale's story from Batman Chronicles #5, "Oracle- Year One: Born of Hope" a wonderful story that directly bridges the gap between Killing Joke and Suicide Squad). And of course, Ostrander also introduced the inimitable Amanda Waller, a character still used regularly to this day, and who is unique in comics: no super powers, no secret spy training, just a tough woman who knows her duty, does what she must, and who can stand toe-to-toe with Batman and tell him off. The Wall is one of Ostrander's great creations, and one of my favorite characters in comics. Without this series, I feel like a lot of villain-centric comics we've seen since, including Secret Six, Thunderbolts, and Geoff Johns's run on Flash, would have been very different, or not existed at all, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the Squad for that alone.
When Comic Book Resources did their list of the greatest John Ostrander stories ever, this mini-series was number one, and it was my vote for number one as well, so I think it's richly deserved. While it ties into Suicide Squad, it's so good I wanted to give it a little room of its own so I could really discuss it some. This mini-series gives the details of Deadshot's past. Not his origin story, necessarily, not the story of how he became a supervillain, but the why of it. After you've read the series, you can't help feeling a bit sorry for Deadshot. This is a guy whose family are nightmarish, parents who use their children as chess pieces in a war against each other, and who have no qualms about it. The series begins with the kidnapping of Deadshot's son, and leads down into a well of darkness so deep that it's hard to believe there's any light again. I am shocked that this series wasn't published with a suggested for mature readers on it. It is a very mature story, never flinching at the darkest sides of human nature and going places that most writers would never take their characters. It is never graphic though, which makes it all the more chilling. As a warning, if you are not someone who likes a story that is bleak, and that ends without a happy note, or who is uncomfortable with children in real peril, this is not the series for you. If you can get past those things though, it's worth reading to see Ostrander craft Deadshot into a character who has real dimension and depth, who might be a villain, but has humanity underneath all his snark, cigarette smoke, and violence.
When Ostrander took over Firestorm, the title was a fun book about two unlikely people, a college professor and a student, who merged together to form a superhero. It was as if Spider-Man and Professor X had to become one guy to use their powers. Ostrander took the book and went somewhere very different with it. His first two issues alone, tying into the Legends crossover event he was co-writing, feature Ronnie Raymond forcing the Firestorm merge on Professor Stein, and Stein reacting in a way that is a thinly veiled (and eventually not even veiled) analogy to rape, a subject rarely dealt with in mainstream comics at the time, and never dealt with anywhere near this tastefully. When Stein found out he was dying of cancer, his final wish became to force the USA and USSR to disarm their nuclear weapons, a story that is very much of its time, but works well in a world where tin pot dictators and religious zealots now control nuclear weapons. With Stein removed from the equation, Raymond found a new partner, a Soviet, and Ostrander spent time letting readers get to know him, playing a card about how we are all really people, no matter our government. And the last couple years of the series dealt with Firestorm discovering he was Earth's fire elemental, and a lot of stories involving environmentalism. While it sounds like a lot of topical tales, they were all told using superhero tropes, with lots of cool villains and combat, and the series never got preachy. Ronnie grows up, trying to really find his way in an adult world he has a hard time understanding. Ostrander did a great job of gradually altering the Firestorm formula, making something different than the traditional superhero title it was, without losing readers by respecting the past and having his own strong vision for what the book could be.
Detective Comics #622-624
This isn't a long form, sprawling epic like most of the other things on this list, but I had to toss in on here. First, a shout out to Brandon, a friend of mine and regular reader here, who mentioned this story as one of his favorite Batman stories when I did my list of favorites, and it reminded me just how great it is. In the duel narrative, Batman hunts a serial killer murdering people in his name in the "real" Gotham, while an unauthorized comic is being released in Gotham telling the origins of Batman, only this Batman is a demonically powered killer. Half of each issue is the comic within a comic, with different art. It's a great detective story, with some gorgeous art from Mike McKone on the real world pages, and Flint Henry on the macabre comic within a comic pages.If you're a Batman fan and have never read out this story, it's a self-contained, three issue arc with a lot going for it.
I don't know if it was Ostrander who decided the Spectre was more than just a vengeful ghost, but instead was the embodiment of the wrath of God bonded to a mortal, but if it wasn't him, he sure took the idea and ran with it. The Spectre becomes a series about justice, vengeance, and redemption. While there is plenty of magic and monsters, heroes and villains, the main struggle of the series is one internal to the Spectre, of Jim Corrigan, the hard boiled 40s cop who serves as the Spectre's host, in conflict with both himself and the Spectre itself. Reverend Richard Craemer, a supporting character who served as a chaplain and confidant to some of the Squad, came with Ostrander to this title, serving as a sounding board, and at times a conscience, for Corrigan. The Spectre quests to save a woman he has scene prophesied to die, to find the heart of America, to determine exactly what kind of man Corrigan himself was, and eventually to find God himself. The series watches Corrigan eventually find his grace, his own forgiveness for a life lead in anger, and when Ostrander left the book, Corrigan left the plain of the living, a major change to a classic character that DC stuck to until the New 52; it's a testament to Ostrander's strength as a writer and the strength of this run that DC left this change in. Two particular issues of note: Issue #54 featured the first appearance of the current Mister Terrific, Michael Holt, who still exists in the current DC regime. Issue #51 is a great issue featuring Batman and the Joker, where the Joker briefly has possession of the Spectre's power. The series is drawn nearly entirely by Tom Mandrake, one of Ostrander's constant collaborators (along with Jan Dursema, Flint Henry, and Tim Truman), who by the end of this list will have worked on more than half of the titles.
While he had a couple of mini-series, J'onn J'onzz never had an ongoing series until the late 90s when Ostrander and Mandrake, fresh off The Spectre, took the Manhunter from Mars and ran with him. By far the most traditionally superheroic of the series I'm talking about today, it's still a fascinating character study. Martian Manhunter had spent much of his existence as the rock the Justice League rested on, but very little time had been spent revealing what he did when he wasn't with the League. So, Ostrander took the fact that J'onn was a shapeshifter, and decided that Martian Manhunter had different identities all over the world. He would switch race, gender, and species to live among humans and learn more about humanity. A good amount of time was spent investigating J'onn's past. Not only was his life on Mars more fleshed out, along with the introduction of his evil brother, Malefick, and conflicts with Darkseid and his minions while a Manhunter on Mars, but his time on Earth was expanded. Since J'onn was brought to Earth in the 50s, why couldn't he have met Clark Kent in Smallville, had an adventure with the Spectre earlier in his career, or was a part of the 70s superhero team, the Justice Experience, under another identity? That last one brought the DEO, and their most famous agent, Cameron Chase, into the mix, as Chase's father was another member of the Justice Experience, and had some resolution for Chase, whose series had been tragically cut short, when J'onn had to face down Doctor Trap, the villain who killed her father. All-in-all, it was an excellent superhero series, with great character beats, and had an issue where Martian Manhunter went nuts from Oreo (or Chocko, I assume due to rights issues) withdrawal and smacked around Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. It was pretty awesome.
If there is one magnum opus in Ostrander's work, something that you could hand to anyone to give them a great sample of what he can do as a writer, Grimjack would be it. Grimjack was created by John Ostrander and Tim Truman in the late 80s as a back-up in Starslayer before spinning off into his own title. The title character is John Gaunt, called Grimjack or the Grinner, an aging mercenary living in the city of Cynosure. Cynosure is the nexus of all realities, where different blocks phase in and out of reality; you can be on a block that is high tech, wander into a neighborhood that is all magic, and never find your way back to the science block. Gaunt owns Munden's Bar, a pub where people come to him to hire him to solve their problems, problems that usually wind up with him killing someone. Ostrander built a vibrant supporting cast around Gaunt, including his old running buddy Blackjackmac and Mac's paramour Goddess (who is actually a goddess), his old partner in the Transdemensional Police, Roscoe Schumacher, Gordon Munden the bartender, Bob the watchlizard, and various villains, including The Dancer, a former arena combatant turned revolutionary, and Major Lash, and immortal with a series hatred for Gaunt. The world and the characters are Ostrander's to play with, and he uses that freedom to tell stories you couldn't do with most superheroes. Gaunt is a pure anti-hero, often doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and you can see shades of Grimjack in many of Ostrander's other leads, characters like Jim Corrigan, Quinlan Vos, and Cade Skywalker. What is especially cool, is about two-thirds of the way through the series, it is revealed that Gaunt has been cursed, that he will never know peace until Cynosure is destroyed, and that he will be reincarnated over and over until then. The last third of the series takes place long after John Gaunt is dead, and focuses on Jim Twilley, the new incarnation of Grimjack. Ostrander builds a whole new cast and ends the series, with the promise of an original graphic novel called Grimjack in Hell and then further incarnations. These projects didn't occur, but Ostrander and Truman returned to tell a couple tales of Gaunt before the series began. The art throughout the series is also outstanding, starting with Truman, followed by Tom Mandrake, and then Flint Henry, with some fill ins along the way. IDW, who published the two new Grimjack stories, Killer Instinct and The Manx Cat, also reprinted much of the early Grimjack, but stopped before the Twilley arc, and never finished it.
Since this is a Lost Legends piece, all of this work is uncollected or out of print in its whole form. While there was one volume each of Suicide Squad and The Spectre, and the first 54 issues of Grimjack were collected, none of it is currently in print. I have over time, been able to collect all these runs in the totality in single issue at conventions and comic shops, and they were all well worth it. This is also by no means the entirety of Ostrander's work. From DC there's also Hawkworld, JLA: Incarnations, the late 80s-early 90s Manhunter, and The Kents (a great Western focusing on the ancestors of Superman's adopted family). From Marvel there's Heroes for Hire, three mini-series starring the time displaced X-Man Bishop one in the present, and two set in the future he came from, two Westerns featuring Marvel's stable of Western heroes, Blaze of Glory and Apache Skies, and a run on Punisher (of which I am still trying to find issue 10). And that's just what I'm coming up with off the top of my head. Ostrander is one of the great writers currently working in comics, and going out and checking out some of his classic work as you wait for the next arc of Dawn of the Jedi or Agent of the Empire is really worth your time.