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Writer Top Five: John Ostrander

This collection of ‘Writer Top Five’ posts is about the writers who have the most comics in my collection and my favourite books of theirs. John Ostrander has written a lot of comic books, but I don’t have all of them by any stretch: it’s down to a few runs on a small selection of comic books that earn him a place on the list.

Ostrander studied theology and was an actor, but started writing comic books in 1983, co-creating Grimjack for First Comics with Timothy Truman. (I have to confess: I’ve never read any Grimjack, despite being an Ostrander fan.) He would start working at DC in 1986, plotting the Legend mini-series and writing Fury of Firestorm. But it would be the series he started writing in 1987 that would put Ostrander on the map and leave his mark on comic book history – Suicide Squad was a reboot of a short-lived title from The Brave and The Bold from 1959, but this new series was something else, and is the reason why there will be a Suicide Squad film next year.

Ostrander was still writing Grimjack during this time, but the success of Suicide Squad meant he was kept busy at DC, writing Hawkworld and Firestorm, as well as launching an ongoing series for the Spectre (with frequent collaborator, Tom Mandrake, on art), and also doing some work at Valiant on various titles. In 1995, he would start writing comic books for Marvel as well, including titles such as Punisher and X-Man, and launching a Heroes For Hire title. He wrote the Kents maxi-series for DC that would lead to him to be a go-to guy for Westerns for a while, writing Apache Skies and Blaze of Glory for Marvel. At DC, he would launch an ongoing series for the Martian Manhunter, the first for the long-standing member of the Justice League. In 2000, he would start writing Star Wars comic books for Dark Horse, which he would continue to do for over a decade (another confession: I have never read any of Ostrander’s Star Wars comic books). He continues to write a variety of comic books (including a Suicide Squad mini-series), as well as a regular column at Comic Mix and you can follow him on Twitter. He and Mandrake will be publishing Kros: Hallowed Ground, after a successful Kickstarter that has just completed financing. So, now my top five comics as written by Ostrander (NB: it should be pointed out that technically Ostrander didn’t write all of these comic books alone: from the mid-1980s to 1997, he co-wrote many with his wife, Kim Yale, who tragically died from cancer):

5. Heroes For Hire
With early art by Pasqual Ferry, Heroes For Hire was a comic book that was fun and light (perhaps not an obvious aspect of Ostrander’s gritty work on Suicide Squad or thoughtful work on The Spectre), and it used a variety of Marvel characters in a series that unfortunately lasted only 19 issues. The new team comprised Luke Cage, Danny Rand, the Hulk, Scott Lang, Black Knight and White Tiger, with appearances from Brother Voodoo, She-Hulk and Shang-Chi; it was filling a hole in the Marvel universe created by the Heroes Reborn nonsense, and was an enjoyable use of Marvel characters – Ostrander had a good handle on them – and it was a shame that it was cancelled.

4. Martian Manhunter
It’s surprising to think that although the Martian Manhunter had been around for so long in the DC universe, there hadn’t been an ongoing series for the character. Ostrander (with Mandrake on art duties) added a lot to the character because nobody else had the opportunity before (apart from Oreo cookies), including a lot of Martian history and the fact that the Martian Manhunter was a famous superhero in the southern hemisphere, using different identities. It was a thoughtful series for a thoughtful character, and it was another shame that it was cancelled due to low sales after three years.

3. The Spectre
Ostrander used his theological training to imbue this ongoing series, placing the Spectre in morally ambiguous and ethically challenging situations, adding layers to the character and the history of the Avenging Wrath of the Murdered Dead. Mandrake’s dark and moody art was the perfect accompaniment, even more than when he was drawing Martian Manhunter, and the series lasted for over five years of interesting stories in a shady corner of the DC universe.

2. Deadshot
This is perhaps a bit of cheat, because this four-issue mini-series for the breakout character of Suicide Squad should be considered part of Suicide Squad series, but this is my blog post so I can bend the rules if I want. Floyd Lawton had been created as a Batman villain, but Ostrander (with his wife, Kim Yale) turned Deadshot into an extremely intriguing and multifaceted character, with a tragic history and complex reasons for the decisions he makes. Much in the same way that James Robinson turned the old villain, The Shade, into such an interesting character that he deserved his own series, Ostrander and Yale turned Deadshot into a character worthy of a mini-series while being a star of a team book.

1. Suicide Squad
I discovered Suicide Squad after the fact, due to the internet (which is appropriate, as an inadvertent typo of Suicide Squad would lead to the name of the rec.arts.comics awards, called the Squiddies) and the recommendations on the rec.arts.comics boards. I remember picking up the series in the back issue bins of the comic book shop I frequented at the time (as talked about in this post) for 25p each, which seems like a bargain now. It was a worthy recommendation because the Squad was unlike anything else in the mainstream DC universe: supervillains used in covert operations under duress, characters actually dying (not comic-book dying) during the series, great characterisation of minor figures, and the powerhouse character that was Amanda ‘The Wall’ Waller. Smart, dynamic, political, gritty, emotional, funny (such as the issue where Ostrander used The Writer in the Squad, who was basically Grant Morrison when he put himself into Animal Man at the end of his run, with a laptop to rewrite the action as it went along) and deserving of all the good things that have been said and written about it. Some creators are inextricably linked to a series or character (Walt Simonson and Thor, Frank Miller and Daredevil, Chris Claremont and the X-Men); Ostrander is inextricably linked to the Suicide Squad and for that he deserves respect.

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