The new Secret Six ongoing series follows a Secret Six miniseries which was a sequel to the Villains United miniseries which tied into Infinite Crisis. Furthermore, it picks up on plot elements introduced when the Six guest-starred in Birds Of Prey. Therefore, its publishing history is chock-full of a lot of what I’ve come to dislike about the constant crossover manipulations of DC’s superhero line …
… so why did I enjoy it so much?
[SPOILERS for last week's Secret Six #1, and probably for previous parts of the Sixer saga, after the jump.]
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The short, rather facetious answer is that, over the course of those two miniseries and BOP issues, I’ve grown to enjoy the adventures of this little band of miscreants. I’m also a big fan of the Gail Simone/Nicola Scott/Doug Hazlewood collaboration which worked so well in BOP, and which looks extra-good in the new Secret Six #1.
Indeed, while Secret Six #1 does raise some questions (see, e.g., Douglas Wolk’s review), I don’t think it’s that unfriendly to new readers. If it makes anyone feel any better, I can’t remember whether the six-member roster (or, for that matter, the group’s name) has ever been explained. In any event, I haven’t had time to go through Villains United to look it up … but then again, apparently almost no one on DC-Earth calls that other group “Birds Of Prey,” so I don’t know that it’s that critical. With regard to the book’s premise, basically the Sixers are what they seem to be: a group of super-people with various degrees of criminal intent, using their talents to get rich.
Since this is a DC book, of course there’s a bit of history. DC’s original Secret Six (created by E. Nelson Bridwell and Frank Springer) was a group of spies with a twist; namely, that their mysterious leader (“Mockingbird”) was actually one of them. Secret Six vol. 1 ran for seven issues in the late ‘60s before vanishing into Who’s-Who-level obscurity. However, the feature was revived twenty years later as part of Action Comics Weekly, with a new Six guided by the new creative team of Marty Pasko and Dan Spiegle. (Frank Springer returned for the second story arc.) This time around, the Sixers each had a particular disability which was mitigated by one of Mockingbird’s devices (artificial eyes, limbs, etc.).
The current team also started out with a mysterious leader named “Mockingbird,” but the similarities pretty much stopped there. That Mockingbird recruited particular super-criminals who would refuse to join the new Secret Society of Super-Villains, so naturally the Sixers ended up hunted by the Society. This made them not quite anti-heroes, not quite irredeemable villains, but (in the words of writer Gail Simone) “selfish, spoiled brats [who are still] the closest thing to friends any of them have ever known.”
The Sixers’ eponymous second miniseries was driven by these dynamics. Beginning with the rescue of one member and ending with the sort-of rescue of another, it showed the group staying true to each other despite bed-hopping, mind control, and the intrusions of the “new guy,” the Mad Hatter. Thus, the Secret Six is one of those why-not? groups linked by overlapping self-interest. It’s not a family, an assemblage of complementary skills, or even a non-team. It’s them against the world, and they aren’t particularly bound by any ethical code. Unlike the supervillains conscripted into the Suicide Squad, the Sixers aren’t beholden to any authority but themselves. Accordingly, this Secret Six can claim a rather unique perspective on DC’s shared superhero universe.
Paranoia and the spirit of the underdog aren’t the end of Secret Six’s appeal, though: Gail Simone and her artistic collaborators have made the Sixers a fun group to follow. With membership changing across the two miniseries and the BOP storyline, a core group of four Sixers now remains: Scandal Savage, daughter of the immortal Vandal Savage; Ragdoll, triple-joined son of the Golden Age villain (who I tend to hear in David Hyde Pierce’s voice); and Catman and Deadshot, ‘50s Batman villains since updated heavily. As of now, the ‘90s Bat-villain Bane is the fifth Sixer, with the last to be named later. Still, I’m starting to think that the fifth and sixth spots on the roster will come open frequently, since they tend to be filled either with one-and-dones (Cheshire, the Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn), or members who end up dead (a random Parademon, Knockout).*
Speaking of membership, it’s also kind of refreshing to see a team book — even one with an established history — use its first issue to introduce one new member, allude to a second, and jump right into its first storyline, without a table full of photos anywhere in sight. At the end of Secret Six #1, we’ve been introduced to “Junior,” the killer in a box (inspired, I wonder, by the cult horror film Basket Case?); we’ve seen two of our principals in Pulp Fiction-esque action; and we’ve watched the group pull together to help its heartbroken leader.
Most of issue #1′s character work is spent on Deadshot and Catman, hetero life partners who won’t acknowledge how much they care. Their main scene takes place in and around a botched convenience-store holdup which, yes, incorporates the old “heroes stop unsuspecting street thugs” device. The difference, however, is that an exasperated Deadshot ends up a) explaining the finer points of robbery to said thugs, and b) providing Catman an opportunity to work out his frustrations and see a little justice done while he’s at it.
See, Deadshot is comfortable with his moral choices, but Catman isn’t; and in fact struggles with the idea of turning to the good side. Catman dresses like a superhero (like a yellow-and-orange Batman, as it happens) and might even be in lurve with a superhero (the Huntress, going back to that Birds Of Prey arc). Deadshot’s merciless mockery of Catman as a superhero wannabe might even be funnier to first-time readers, since we only see Catman in costume after their big convenience-store scene. There’s more depth to Deadshot, not just in older books like Suicide Squad but also in the previous miniseries; but all we need to know about him and his relationship to Catman is conveyed in their scenes.
As for the other members, issue #1 apparently thinks the best way to show team solidarity is to have the other members give Scandal the birthday present of a … stripper? hooker? frustrated actress? … dressed like her murdered lover. Now, on paper that sounds pretty crass. Everyone at least looks a little embarrassed at the idea, with Bane observing that it “does not seem morally defensible.” However, in its own twisted way, it works, and it winds up being rather touching.
That’s where the work of penciller Nicola Scott, inker Doug Hazlewood, and colorist Jason Wright comes in. When they switch from the skinny, platform-booted faux-Knockout to Scandal’s vision of the real thing, it’s not just a matter of drawing a different person. Subtle differences in expression, facial structure, and color highlights combine to bring the reader into Scandal’s vision. Scott then switches from an extreme closeup to a couple of wide-shot panels, which isolate the lovers against blank backgrounds (this moment is for them alone) and bracket an heroically-posed Knockout. As the scene ends, halfway down the next page, an off-center closeup of Scandal draws attention to her tousled hair, bleary eyes, and faint smile. Her fellow Sixers are “idiots,” but her expression says that their morally-indefensible thoughts were appreciated.
Villains United was pencilled mostly by Dale Eaglesham, with one issue by Val Semeiks. The Secret Six miniseries was pencilled by Brad Walker and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, and it turned out looking somewhat like Tim Sale. Scott and Hazlewood previously drew the Sixers in Birds Of Prey, but with this issue her pencils and his inks both seem a lot tighter. Scott also seems to be packing a lot more detail into her scenes, including more individuated figures and faces, and a good range of expressions. Some of her background characters seem right out of a George Pérez crowd scene, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of her friends are making cameo appearances in this issue. Scott and Hazlewood do especially well with regard to Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton, portraying him as a rumpled cross between Bruce Campbell and a biker-mustached Earl Hickey.
The linework is also helped greatly by the colors of Jason Wright. Hi-Fi Design provided colors for Scott and Hazlewood on Birds Of Prey, but Wright’s shadings and gradations are significantly more intricate than I remember. His work takes art which was pretty darn good to begin with, and gives it a weight and depth I’d not seen before. It’s perfectly appropriate for a book which isn’t so much grim ‘n’ gritty as it is just grimy.
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All that is a long way of saying that I think that a lot of Secret Six #1 stands alone to set up the Sixers, their relationship to DC’s super-communities, and the kinds of adventures they have. It’s a character-driven setup which relies upon efficient use of character moments, not a parade of references to earlier storylines. As a group, the Sixers have a decent amount of history; and as individuals, most have a good bit more. However, Ms. Simone seems determined to focus on these characters in the constantly-moving present, dwelling on those histories only as needed to push her players forward. It’s an inviting approach, and I hope it’ll be a long run.
* [I’d list the Fiddler among the one-and-dones and/or the dead, but his death opened up a spot for Catman.]