The Unsung Heroine Who Helped Shape 'Suicide Squad'

Aug 4, 2016
Originally published on August 5, 2016 11:25 am

Happily, the creators behind the 1980s comic series Suicide Squad have been getting a fair amount of attention with the release of the splashy new movie it has inspired. Writer John Ostrander created the comic (with artist Luke McDonnell) and Ostrander's late wife, Kimberly Yale, co-wrote it for much of its run. But in all the coverage of the film, Yale has been completely overlooked.

Back in 1987, when Suicide Squad launched, very few women wrote comics for Marvel or DC, the two big comics publishers. Heidi MacDonald, who was an editor for DC and friends with Kim Yale, says you can't deny Yale's influence on Suicide Squad. Yale's husband, John Ostrander, agrees.

"We would talk about the overall plot, and then she would take a scene, then I would take a scene," Ostrander remembers. "I would go back over her scenes and she would go over mine and we were free to make changes to each others' scripts, and if there was a disagreement we could talk about it."

Yale, who died in 1997, was brought to my attention by YA and comic book author Grady Hendrix. As a teenager in South Carolina in the 1980s he was devoted to the comic about bad guys forced by the U.S. government to fight for good.

"DC had been inventing all of these really stupid C-list supervillians for Batman and everyone to fight," he recalls. These characters had goofy names and superpowers—like Captain Boomerang, whose power was throwing a boomerang, or Slipknot, whose power was tying knots. Still, he says, they harbored dark potential.

"They have this cold blooded amoral side," says Hendrix. "And [Ostrander and Yale] started using them in ways that took them more seriously."

Ostrander says he and his late wife loved developing minor bad guys from DC's archives.

"We fleshed them out," Ostrander says. "We tried to give them more depth, more background. We tried to explain them a bit, [so] that you could identify with them."

Hendrix believes that having a female co-writer might explain why Suicide Squad's cast looked completely different from other comics of the era by featuring numerous characters of color, a Catholic, a born-again Christian, a character with disabilities and several powerful women who often served as a given storyline's moral center. It was Ostrander who created Suicide Squad's inimitable boss — a short, 200-pound African-American woman named Amanda Waller, who kept the bad guys in check through plots that often mirrored real-world geopolitical situations. They also reflected the overall shift taking place in comics at that time, from bright and colorful super-powered spectacle towards gritty noir.

Because Suicide Squad's characters were expendable, they could be, and sometimes were, killed off. But Ostrander credits Yale with safeguarding Suicide Squad's female characters, even the ones in relatively small roles, like the staff who work at the prison where the supervillains serve their time. "Kim made sure we were not being stereotypical and giving them panel time," says original series editor Robert Greenberger .

And Yale helped revive a character who started off as marginal, even dopey: Batgirl. After a C-list career that stretched over a couple decades, Batgirl — real name, Barbara Gordon — ended up getting tortured, shot, paralyzed and possibly raped by the Joker. Once that happened, DC benched her. John Ostrander and Kim Yale dug Batgirl out of comic book limbo and rebuilt her as Oracle, the DC universe's information broker and super hacker. Ostrander says Yale built a believable story about female trauma and resilience. She created a complex superhero who realistically used a wheelchair.

"Kim wanted to show how difficult it was to move from a wheelchair just into a car," Ostrander says. "And she wanted us to detail — in every panel, the whole page — the difficulty." She did her research, he says, interviewing people about what using a wheelchair is like.

"She wanted to make sure we got it right."

When Kim Yale died, she was only 43 years old. In the months after her diagnoses, Yale wrote a column for Comics Buyers Guide, about being a feminist in an industry that did not then care about female readers. She wrote about the need for diverse heroes, long before that concept became part of the cultural conversation. And she wrote about her breast cancer for fans of a genre that valued breasts for their size.

Kim Yale is remembered as a trailblazer by friends and former coworkers. But even within the comic world she's not particularly well known. For a while, The Kimberly Yale Award for Best New Talent was awarded every year at San Diego Comic-Con by an organization called Friends of Lulu, an organization promoting women in comics that Yale helped to found. When Lark Pien won it in 2004, she'd never heard of Kim Yale.

"I think I would have liked to meet her," Pien says. When she accepted the Kimberly Yale Award she met dozens of women cartoonists. "It made me feel included and my respect for the larger community grew."

I saw the movie Suicide Squad with Robert Greenberger, the original series' editor, who found it wildly inconsistent, but he enjoyed recognizing the fingerprints of the original comic book team. Even though the character Harley Quin was added later, Greenberger believed that Yale would have liked how she was handled in the film, and Yale would have responded well to Amanda Waller's expert manipulations and machinations. "Kim definitely would've appreciated a lot of the moral threads that were introduced here," he told me.

"Oh god, she would be so excited about it," says John Ostrander. "I'm sure wherever she is, she's bouncing up and down going, 'I want back in! I want back in!'"

Nearly 20 years after her death, Kim Yale is still a powerful part of the comic book industry. Today it's far more common for women to write, draw or create superheroes, even at the major publishing houses. And that, along with Suicide Squad, is an key part of Kim Yale's legacy.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The summer's final big comic book movie opened today. "Suicide Squad" is not an ordinary superhero movie. For one thing, it's about supervillains. And its original story was conceived by a rather extraordinary couple. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Suicide Squad" was not much more than a title owned by DC Comics when it was pitched to writer John Ostrander in the 1980s.

JOHN OSTRANDER: And my first reaction was "Suicide Squad?" What a stupid name.

ULABY: But Ostrander soon took to this idea. "The Dirty Dozen" meets "Mission: Impossible" with supervillains.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUICIDE SQUAD")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Amanda Waller) Complete the mission, you get time off your prison sentence. Fail the mission, you die.

ULABY: Both the movie and comic are intended to maximize weak intellectual property, says author Grady Hendrix, who loved "Suicide Squad" as a teenager.

GRADY HENDRIX: DC Comics had been inventing all these really stupid B-list supervillains for, you know, Batman and everyone to fight, like, you know, Captain Boomerang, who throws boomerangs or Slipknot, who ties really good knots.

ULABY: Or Deadshot, whose superpower is shooting a gun. He's played by Will Smith in the movie. The comic was rare in its extremely diverse cast, including many characters of color and extremely powerful women.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUICIDE SQUAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This is Katana. She's got my back. She could cut all you in half with one sword stroke just like mowing the lawn.

ULABY: That diversity is partly because the "Suicide Squad" comic books that inspired the film were co-written by a woman. Kim Yale was John Ostrander's wife. She died in 1997 of breast cancer. Ostrander says the two of them loved taking these goofy minor villains.

OSTRANDER: And we flushed them out. We tried to give them more depth, more background, explain them a bit. We made sure that you knew them and that were able to identify with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUICIDE SQUAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Amanda, we have hostiles up ahead.

DAVIS: (As Amanda Waller) Flight, get out of there.

ULABY: Ostrander created the supervillains' boss, a short, 200-pound African-American woman. In the movie, she's played by the far more svelte Viola Davis. She's a top-secret government agent who makes these bad guys fight for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUICIDE SQUAD")

DAVIS: (As Amanda Waller) For those of you who don't know me officially, my name is Amanda Waller. There's an event in Midway City.

ULABY: Ostrander credits Kim Yale with safeguarding "Suicide Squads'" female characters. And Yale was one of very few women even writing comics, says Heidi MacDonald, herself a former editor for DC.

HEIDI MACDONALD: There was only one or two other women who were doing it at Marvel or DC at that time.

ULABY: At DC, Kim Yale helped revive a totally minor character, Batgirl, who'd never been more than just a sidekick. Then she got shot, paralyzed and likely raped by the Joker. DC benched Batgirl. But Kim Yale and John Ostrander dug her out of the archive and reinvented her. Ostrander says Yale used Batgirl to build a believable story about trauma and resilience.

She created a complex superhero who uses a wheelchair realistically.

OSTRANDER: Kim wanted to show how difficult it was to move from a wheelchair just into a car. And she wanted us to detail in every panel, the whole page, the difficulty.

ULABY: She talked, he said, to people about what using a wheelchair is like.

OSTRANDER: And she wanted to make sure that we got it right.

ULABY: When Kim Yale died, she was only 43 years old.

MAGGIE THOMPSON: (Reading) In the three months since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I've lost both breasts and learned my cancer packed its bags and traveled to my abdomen and pelvis.

ULABY: Those are Kim Yale's words but not her voice. I could not find a single recording. But Yale wrote a column for a trade magazine called Comics Buyer's Guide shortly before she died. I asked her editor and friend there Maggie Thompson to read them. Yale's columns were about being a feminist in an industry that did not then care about female readers.

She wrote about diverse heroes long before their importance became part of the cultural conversation. And she wrote about her cancer for readers of a genre that valued breasts mostly for their size.

THOMPSON: (Reading) Before I went down to surgery for my left mastectomy, I couldn't resist flashing the Upper East Side as I changed from my clothes into a hospital gown. A sun-rising bronze struck all of the buildings stretching north from 67th and York Avenue. And I wanted to show the world how beautiful I was at sunrise.

I also taped onto my gown a note over my left breast, which read, it's the left breast, guys.

ULABY: Her friends remember Kim Yale as a trailblazer. But even within the comics world, she's not super well-known. For a while, an award was named for her that honored female cartoonists. When Lark Pien won it in 2004, she'd never heard of Kim Yale. Now she's grateful to her.

LARK PIEN: I think I would have liked to meet her.

ULABY: Pien says accepting the Kim Yale award at Comic-Con meant meeting dozens of women cartoonists.

PIEN: It made me feel included. And my respect for the larger community grew.

ULABY: Many of the "Suicide Squad" characters created by Kim Yale and John Ostrander are not in the new movie. Some were added after the couple stopped writing it in 1992. Still, Ostrander assured his late wife would be first in line for tickets.

OSTRANDER: Oh, God, she would be so excited about it. I'm sure wherever she is, she's bouncing up and down going, I want back in. I want back in.

ULABY: What Kim Yale did, besides shaping one of the most interesting comics of the 1980s, was helping to build an in for the women cartoonists who followed her. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.