John Ostrander has been a vastly under-rated and under-appreciated writer of mainstream comics since the 1980s. He crafts multi-faceted characters who squirm around ethical dilemmas in consistently thought-provoking stories. Pretty unlikely for a series brashly titled as Suicide Squad, right? And to be precise, action elements are prioritised in this collection of the earliest material from a series that ran for over five years and has been sporadically revived since.

The title was first applied to a series of 1960s adventurers, but here it’s a derisive nickname applied to Task Force X, a governmental organisation offering costumed villains the opportunity to reduce or cancel their jail terms. This doesn’t come cheap, requiring participation in covert missions from which they may not return, carried out wearing a band with enough explosive to blow their arm off should they see escape as a viable option.

Deadshot would develop as the most compelling of the villains, here already a sullen loner displaying a bleakly pragmatic view of the world. The ridiculous Captain Boomerang is played up as morally bankrupt comic relief, yet also displayed as lethal, and the dual and opposite characters of innocent June Moone and sorceress Enchantress make for a tragic combination.

The villains are accompanied by cast members of a more heroic stature. With some obvious selections off-limits, Ostrander gathered the flotsam and jetsam of the DC universe, supplied what were previously (for the most part) blank slates with a character, and integrated them flawlessly with their thoroughly reprehensible colleagues. Military man Rick Flag is driven and haunted, Nemesis is a master of disguise, Nightshade’s otherworldly powers come at a cost and martial artist Bronze Tiger seemingly Suicide Squad’s anchor of stability. Team leader Amanda Waller is a magnificent creation, a bullish barrel of elemental force whose unethical approach prioritises mission success.

In his own way artist Luke McDonnell is also under-rated. There’s no flash or frills about his art, but he conveys what’s needed, be it a terrifying attack on a busy airport, a chase through Soviet Russia or a prison attack by Darkseid’s minions.

Over time Ostrander would develop favourite characters, and no matter how desperate the situation their survival was all-but ensured. With these episodes, though, there is no instant identification of the soon to be deceased, delivering a greater tension to already good stories. Reprints of this top-notch 1980s series continue with The Nightshade Odyssey.