The Unsung Heroine Who Helped Shape 'Suicide Squad' The late Kim Yale co-wrote the comic book series that inspired the film hitting theaters this weekend. Neda Ulaby talked to several people who are happy to see her contributions recognized.
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The Unsung Heroine Who Helped Shape 'Suicide Squad'

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The Unsung Heroine Who Helped Shape 'Suicide Squad'

The Unsung Heroine Who Helped Shape 'Suicide Squad'

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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.

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