Sunday, August 14, 2011

So long, Secret Six (part one)

Earlier this month, issue #36 of Gail Simone's Secret Six hit the shelves, bringing the comic serial to its undeserved conclusion. Since it's August and I still have some time left before the S.A.D. drives me to write nothing but morose existential tracts for a good five months, what say we follow my airy mood where it will and discuss comic books for a few minutes, hm?

The Secret Six began in the pages of Villains United, a companion book to the Infinite Crisis clusterfuck event of 2005. In 2006 it appeared in its own miniseries, and finally got a monthly book in 2008. I began following it in 2009, and since then it has been the only comic book serial I've made a point of picking up on an issue-by-issue basis instead of waiting to check out the trade paperbacks. I'm sad to see it go, but as I've said before, part of being excellent is knowing when (or being compelled) to quit while you're ahead.
The quickest way of explaining Secret Six would be to describe it as the spiritual successor to John Ostrander's Suicide Squad series (1987-1992). Rather than following the adventures of a team of do-gooders in tights, Secret Six is about a group of costumed villains drafted into running missions against even worse villains.

In its more profitable days, DC Comics released new serials on a fairly regular basis. After the Gold and Silver Ages of comic books, when readership began dwindling somewhat, the executives were often reluctant to take a chance on giving a monthly book to some brand new character nobody had ever heard of. More often than not, the heroes to get their own books were the co-stars of established characters -- like Nightwing, for example. When Nightwing spun-off into his own book, the writers had to devise a new group of villains for him to square off against. When the book folded, Nightwing got reabsorbed into the pages of Batman and Detective Comics to trade blows with the Joker and Penguin again, while all of his villains ended up in comic book limbo. All of them were still technically out there somewhere, but certainly not active in the pages of any DC books. This has happened any number of times: for every regularly-appearing Lex Luthor, Joker, or Sinestro, there's about a dozen small-time supervillains sitting around gathering dust in the intellectual property vaults of DC Comics.

These are the villains with which Secret Six is concerned -- the B and C-list badguys who never made it into the spotlight. As such, its pages depict a darker, danker, and scuzzier (not to mention much funnier) realm of the DC Universe than the other monthlies. (It also means that Simone has much more freedom to do whatever she pleases with the characters, since none of the other writers/editors at DC have any interest in using them for anything.) The premise is simple: after being brought together in the pages of Villains United, the Secret Six works as a sort of supervillain A Team, doing unscrupulous jobs for any corrupt moguls, rogue governments, evil megalomaniacs, or rich men with grudges willing to commission them. The missions never go smoothly. The Six are always outnumbered, outgunned, and frequently coming within a hair's width of turning on and killing each other before managing to eke out some semblance of a victory and escaping with their lives.

For anyone already familiar with the series, this has been much more exposition than you wanted. For any comic book fans who have not had the pleasure of reading it, it would be much more fruitful to do yourself a favor and pick up the collected volumes instead of absorbing more of my verbiage.

In the meantime, let's see Secret Six off properly with a stroll down memory lane in the form of another quick n' easy TOP (n) LIST. Spoilers are to be expected, but the series has far too many twists for one blog to give away; I doubt anything you learn here would detract from your enjoyment of reading the series properly.


20.) Mr. Savage Admonishes the Help

For most of the team's lifespan, the Secret Six is lead by Scandal Savage, daughter of Vandal Savage, the DCU's most famous immortal warlord/psychopath. When Vandal decides he wants his daughter back under his thumb, she briefly feigns submission and surrenders herself at his Kyoto retreat. In the middle of dinner, Scandal kills everyone in the room, pins her father to the wall with a pair of katana blades, and makes a break for it. Vandal is more annoyed about this than anything, and particularly with his underlings.

Takasaki then apologizes for being able to carry out his final order(s) and drops dead. Vandal fetches his own damn kimono.


In the "Unhinged" storyline (the first arc of the regular series), a deranged monster of a mob boss named Junior gets robbed of his most valuable possession: a bona fide "get out of Hell free" card forged by the demon Neron. The card ends up in the possession of the Secret Six, and Junior offers a multimillion dollar bounty to anyone who can kill the Six and get it back. A small army of career supervillains takes up Junior's offer, but only because they want the card for themselves. Electro rip-off Bolt has a particularly colorful way of asking for it:

18.) Meet Ragdoll

From the very beginning, one of the Six's core members is Peter Merkel Jr., a.k.a. Ragdoll -- a contortionist with artificial joints, a surgery addiction, and a diseased mind. When Nicola Scott did the penciling work for the first two arcs of the regular series, Ragdoll's hideous appearance became a lot more cuddly, and his personality seems to have shifted a little to accompany his new baby face.

17.) "I wonder what it's like to fuck a butterfly?"

When Jim Calafiore took over pencils from Nicola Scott after issue #14, Ragdoll's appearance reverted from cute to creepy. His personality seems to follow suit:

16.) "The firm but loving hand of a father."

At the beginning of the regular series, Bane joins the team. That's right --- the Man Who Broke the Bat himself. Of course, after about a decade of doing nothing but reminding people about how he beat Batman (and getting passed back and forth by writers who had no idea what to do with him), Bane is the supervillain equivalent of Vanilla Ice by the time he ends up in the Six.

Simone reinvents Bane by humanizing him: when he joins the team, we see him trying to kick his addiction to Venom, forget about Batman, and get on with his life. Despite being the sort of person who'd rip off a guy's arm and beat him to death with it, Bane does have a sensitive side, which Simone explores by giving him a love interest in the form of Scandal Savage. Bane, however, is no less of a damaged freak than the rest of the Six, and isn't exactly interested in Scandal as a consort:

15.) Catman vs. Loki

Semi-reformed Batman foe Thomas Blake, a.k.a. Catman, is the closest thing on the Secret Six to a "hero." He's not sufficiently blackhearted, psychotic, or avaricious enough to be labeled a villain, but he's too far outside the law and too violent to be a goodguy. For most of the team's existence, we watch Catman trying to grapple with the stress of being a moral gray area on a planet where just about everyone is either on Superman's team or working with the Legion of Doom.

In the "Cats in the Cradle" arc, a group of very effective hired goons kidnaps Catman's illegitimate son. Catman does not take this well and finally snaps, leaving the group to hunt down and kill the kidnappers, one by one.

The second man on his hit list is an Afrikaner giant calling himself Loki. When he catches word that Catman is on his trail, Loki spends two pages giving a grandiose monologue about the the epic gladiatorial duel between man-lions he expects to occur.

But Catman isn't in the mood for chivalry, and defies Loki's expectations in a spectacularly violent sequence of which the Comics Code Authority would have never approved.

(Not pictured: Catman beating Loki with a tire iron and ripping out his spine.)

Hmmm. In the interest of expediency, perhaps we should get the "Deadshot shoots someone" moments out of the way all at once...

14.) Deadshot Shoots Giuana

In the "Depths" arc, the Six get strong-armed into the employ of a Mr. Smyth, who is such a vile bastard that even a team of costumed badguy mercenaries find themselves at a moral crossroads. Scandal, Jeanette, and Bane defect and try to escape, whereupon Catman, Deadshot, and Ragdoll are ordered to hunt down and kill them.

Catman and Ragdoll end up switching sides as well, but Deadshot holds out for much longer. As a career assassin, he takes his professional reputation much too seriously to shirk his responsibility to an employer. It isn't until Jeanette and Catman are about to be sliced to pieces by Smyth's amazon enforcer Giuana that Deadshot's heart finally grows three sizes:

I had to crop the image a bit, but believe me when I say that I have never seen a better-framed headshot in any comic book.

13.) Deadshot Shoots Yasemin Soze

Tired of constantly being compared to him by her teammates, Deadshot's replacement on the Suicide Squad wants to see which of them is the better killer and challenges him to a duel. You can guess how well that goes.

Deadshot's parting advice to her: "Take the shot you got, lady."

Cold, man.

12.) Deadshot Shoots Amanda Waller

Amanda "The Wall" Waller is the head of Task Force X (nicknamed the Suicide Squad), Deadshot's former boss, and reigning queen of government spooks. After her bid to draft Deadshot back into the Squad and shut down the Six backfires (due to some Black Lantern-related interference), Waller decides to call it a night.

"You coming, Lawton?" she asks. "Back where you belong?"

"About that," says Deadshot.


(Of course, it doesn't make that much of a difference: unbeknownst to Deadshot and the rest of the Six, Waller has already been pulling their strings from a distance for some time. She's just that good.)

11.) "Small world, huh?"

At one point, the Six breaks up into a pair of independent opposing teams. The first group's lineup consists of Scandal, Catman, Deadshot, Ragdoll, Black Alice, and the government agent Tremor. The rogue second team is made up of Bane, Jeanette, King Shark, Lady Vic, Giganta, and Dwarfstar.

Giganta and Dwarfstar are both closely linked to Ryan Choi, an incarnation of the Atom Simone created in 2006. Giganta shares an on-again off-again relationship with Choi, while Dwarfstar is the Venom to his Spider-man.

Around the same time Dwarfstar and Giganta joined Bane's team, Deathstroke the Terminator and his own team of supervillains for hire got their own lackluster rip-off book (that Gail wasn't writing and had no say in) off in another corner of the DC Universe. To get the book some hype and boost Deathstroke's badguy cred, their first mission has them murdering Ryan Choi on Dwarfstar's tab. Simone was reportedly annoyed about this, but had no choice but to run with it.

So: Ryan Choi is dead. Giganta doesn't know about this, and she certainly has no idea that one of her new teammates paid to make it happen.

Fucking COLD.

Well, I think that's enough for tonight. Check back later in the week for part two.

1 comment:

  1. I've always been a Marvel guy. Just found their heroes more interesting. But I will give DC credit: when your headliner heroes include some of the biggest idealists out there, your counterbalancing villains tend to be some of the most effective psychos conceived in fiction.