Friday, February 27, 2015

Up Against the Wall: Who is Amanda Waller?

Every comic fan has a few characters they love that aren't the marquee names. Sure, Batman's my favorite, always has been and will be. But I have a special place in my heart for the likes of Pete Wisdom, The Shade, Lucifer Morningstar, and Graimjack. And Amanda Waller. I have been waiting for the confirmation on her casting in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie before I did this post, about the history of one of the greatest characters introduced in the past 30 years, and now that Viola Davis has been confirmed, I thought this was a great time to talk about what makes The Wall so great.

Amanda Waller was introduced in Legends #1, written by Len Wein and John Ostrander, the first major DC Comics crossover after the universe restructuring Crisis on Infinite Earths. She was presented as the person organizing the new Suicide Squad, in this case a team of supervillains who had been offered reduced sentences if they took part in risky, probably lethal, missions.

Waller became one of the central figures in the Suicide Squad monthly that spun out of Legends, a book that many fans consider one of the great mainstream comics of the 80s. And for me, one of the main reasons for that is Amanda Waller. Waller was a completely new character, and one who wasn't like anyone else is comics. She was a short, stocky, dark skinned African American woman. And she clearly was tough as nails. And she only got tougher the more you got to know her. John Ostrander, who with his wife Kim Yale wrote the entire series, had created a character who just grabbed your attention. She had no powers, but was willing to stand up to the lunatics who were working for her, to gods, and most impressively, to Batman. If there's one image that sums up Waller to me, it's the cover to Suicide Squad #10.

Super heroes and villains of height and muscle are cowed by one look from Batman. And this woman who stands a head and change shorter than him is standing up to him and telling him off! How awesome is that?!?

But Waller was a much deeper character than just a shouting, grumbling harridan. She was deeply loyal to family and those few who she considered friends. She came from Chicago (native city of creator Ostrander), having gone from living in the Cabrini-Green Projects to serving as a congressional aide before finding out about the Squad and reforming it. Under Waller, the Squad sent missions into the Middle East and the Soviet Union, as well as other political hotspots. She never had a problem watching the members of the team die in the process, although the slipping sanity and eventual death of team leader Rick Flag Jr., not a convict but a volunteer, weighed on her. She was even willing to serve prison time for her convictions, when she used the squad for an unsanctioned mission to eradicate a drug cartel in New Orleans.

After leaving prison, Waller took the Squad freelance, working closer with them as they served as mercenaries. Suicide Squad ended with Waller retiring, but she remained a supporting character, popping up occasionally in the DCU in books like Eclipso (where she led a group of heroes against the God of Vengeance Eclipso), and in various crossovers. She even served as Secretary of Metahuman Affairs under Lex Luthor during his presidency.

After the Luthor Administration folded, Waller once again organized the Suicide Squad under the US government, and then graduated to being the White Queen of the UN sanctioned superhuman response organization, Checkmate (as an aside, I think Waller might be the only White Queen who could show Emma Frost a thing or two about being in charge). This was during the excellent Greg Rucka run on the Checkmate series, the first time Waller felt right as a character since Ostrander stopped writing her. This was a Waller again who was ruthless and cunning, running her own missions behind the back of the rest of Checkmate. She is eventually dethroned when her secrets are revealed, but she goes on to run the Suicide Squad again, and to secretly manipulate the Secret Six, a team featuring former Suicde Squad mainstay Deadshot.

But like most characters in the DC Universe, the New 52 deeply effected Waller. The new Waller is still the head of the Suicide Squad and is still a force to be reckoned with. But the new Waller is both model thin and has a lighter complexion. I don't want to talk about the specific connotations of this too much, partly because I don't feel qualified and partly because, when the casting rumors started, Jospeh Phillip Illidge did a better job of it than I ever could in his piece on Comic Book Resources, but I miss the original Waller. She was a character was diverse, and not just on race but on something ever rarer in superhero comics: body type. She had a very distinct visual, something that made her stand out. And again, look that that cover! I'm sure current Waller could fight Granny Goodness too, but the classic just looks totally badass doing it!

I also think the new Waller loses a little something in her changed background. Instead of being a political manipulator and operative, this Waller is a soldier, having been a member of Team 7 and working her way up through the ranks. She's still a schemer, and still as tough as before, but again, I have a preference for the Waller who was willing to fight gods without the formal training. Still, new Waller has been the head of the Squad, head of A.R.G.U.S. (the New 52's US government metahuman liaison organization) and former her own Justice League to counterbalance the classic League in case they went rogue. That's not a bad list of credentials.

Viola Davis is an incredible casting choice, one I think is excellent, but she's far from the first Waller on screen. For a character who is less than thirty tears old, she has appeared in more TV and movies than you would expect, and I think with Davis, she is now the second most portrayed female DC character, second only to Catwoman. Yes, there have been more Amanda Waller's on screen than Wonder Womans. That's a testament to how great the character is. Pam Grier played her on Smallville, where she was a queen of Checkmate. Angela Bassett's performance was one of the better aspects of the lackluster Green Lantern movie, despite the odd choice of making her a government scientist instead of a government agent. And Cynthia Addai-Robinson plays Waller as a recurring character on Arrow; she much more resembles to current Waller, but does retain the hardness that makes Waller such an impressive character.

But my favorite Waller outside of comics is, probably not shockingly, an animated version, the one from Justice League Unlimited. When I was dream casting in my head back in the day, the actress who I pictured playing Waller was CCH Pounder, late of The Shield and Warehouse 13. And wouldn't you know it, but CCH Pounder voiced this version of Waller, as well as other animated DC projects, and she's perfect. Her voice immediately commands respect. And the portrayal was spot on. From Batman appearing in her bathroom while she showered and her not even blinking when she finds him in the bathroom, demanding a towel, to her touching scenes with Batman Beyond Terry McGinnis in the brilliant episode, "Epilogue" this was exactly how I pictured Waller. And since she was on JLU, I got an Amanda Waller action figure, which might have just ended my need for any other action figure ever.

As a final note, another reason to be glad for the casting of Viola Davis is the fact that she's an impressive actress who can hold her own. So much of what we're hearing about the new Suicide Squad movie makes me worried that it's going to be "Joker and Harley and their wacky friends." The Joker is a force of nature as a presence on screen, and I feel like the person standing up against him needs to rise to the occasion. I think Davis is an actress strong enough to make the Joker step back and cringe, to hit all the right notes to be the best Amanda Waller we've had on screen yet.

With Amanda Waller's profile only raising with the upcoming Suicide Squad film, there will be plenty of new material and hopefully collections of classic material. Right now there are trades available of all the New 52 Suicide Squad. The classic Squad run had one trade, which may or may not still be in print, and sadly the Checkmate material is out of print. But Gail Simone's Secret Six is coming back in print in new volumes, and Waller's turn there is another great appearance. And there's always new episodes of Arrow and classic Justice League Unlimited if you want to get to know the first lady of comic book espionage better.

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