Friday, December 14, 2012

Recommended Reading for 12/14: Secret Six

Theoretically, Secret Six was a losing proposition. It was a book starring villains, something that rarely, if ever, succeeds. And they were B, C, & D list villains at that. And the team leader was a gay female character. But somehow, it succeeded, and became one of the best comics DC Comics has put out in the past decade.

The first book featuring the team known as the Secret Six (which is actually a much older name, from spy comics published in the 60s) was Villains United, part of the countdown to Infinite Crisis. There, the team fought against the Secret Society of Supervillains under the auspices of Lex Luthor. This was followed by a Secret Six mini-series and a couple appearances in Birds of Prey. All of these stories were written by Gail Simone, one of my favorite writers in comics. Her handle on this oddball assortment of broken and insane characters endeared them to me, and I was excited when the monthly was announced, with two new members to fill holes left by the deaths of  members over the course of the earlier stories.

The principal cast of Secret Six are the characters appearing in the picture at the top of this post. Scandal Savage was the daughter of immortal caveman Vandal Savage, and was a master of bladed weapons. Deadshot, former Suicide Squad member and Batman rogue, was a master marksman with a deathwish. Catman, a D-list Batman villain who had become something of a joke, was revitalized by Simone to be a master hunter, heartthrob, and badass. Ragdoll was the son of the original villain of that name, an old Flash and Starman foe, who had surgery to make him triples jointed like his dad, and is as twisted in mind as his body could become. The two members added for this incarnation were Bane, who I've written about at length in the lead up to a certain movie from this summer and Jeannette, an immortal banshee.

The principal theme of Secret Six was redemption. Each of the Six were there for seemingly different reason, some for companionship, some for family, some just because they didn't have anything better to do. But each of them had done very bad things in the past, and most of them saw an opportunity with the Six to make right with themselves and maybe even the universe. Throughout the series, the Six flirt with both sides of the hero/villain coin, and try their best often to follow their consciences. This often leads to infighting, and not in the cute, "Wolverine and Cyclops are bickering again," way. There are often blows and blood shed among the members. But, like the twisted family they had become, they always seemed to wind up back together, following their path with the good intentions of redeeming themselves. But you know that they say what good intentions pave the road to...

Now, here's where I usually talk about plot, and I will get there, but I want to spend some time really focusing on the characters, simply because these are a collection of really interesting one. For a bunch of hardcore killers, Simone (and a guest writer who I'll be talking about in a minute) made them some of the most three dimensional characters I've ever seen an a superhero comic. Each of the characters exists in a web of relationships with others, their teammates as well as other supporting character, with some in particular pairings which bring out the best and worst in each other. Simone truly captures the way we are all defined in our journeys by the people who we surround ourselves with, something that I often find missing in superhero fiction.

Deadshot, Floyd Lawton, was a Bat villain who had appeared no more than half a dozen times in his history before being taken by John Ostrander and made into one of the stars of his classic Suicide Squad series. Deadshot had lived a life of luxury, but a twisted one, where he and his brother had been manipulated by their parents, leading to Floyd accidentally killing his beloved brother. From then on, Floyd held a death wish, not actively suicidal, but willing to take chances that others would consider insane. Ostrander redefined a minor villain into a brilliantly well rounded figure, and the Deadshot mini-series he wrote was voted the greatest story he had ever written on Comic Book Resources. After Suicide Squad ended, Deadshot more or less went back to gun for hire status until Simone picked him up. She gave him relationships, a bromance with Catman and a romance with Jeannette, but neither of them changed who he was deep inside. He was still a man who still doubted his own worth, and who still had a hard time relating to people. It was a great evolution of the character. On a side note, one of the few issues of Secret Six not written by Simone was a Deadshot one off written by none other than John Ostrander, which was as good as any Deadshot story written before or since.

The last time Catman, Thomas Blake, appeared before Simone took him up, he was a joke; an overweight third stringer in witness protection. The first time we see him in Villains United, he's in the best fighting trim of his life, and living in Africa with a pride of lions. When the pride is killed, Catman joined the Six. He was one of the members most seeking his redemption. He wanted to do right, and tried to steer the Six towards missions that would do some good. He even thinks about assuming the mantle of the Bat after Bruce Wayne's apparent death. But the wild cat in Catman does come out, and when his pride is threatened, he is as deadly, if not moreso, than any of the Six. When his son is kidnapped, Blake goes on a spree that would make Liam Neeson's character from Taken faint. But like the others, Blake doesn't exist in a void, and aside from being part of the new Abbot and Costello pairing that is Catman and Deadshot, Catman had a tempestuous relationship with the Huntress, a cast member of another Simone series, Birds of Prey. These two relationships show exactly where Catman was: one foot in the mercenary world of Deadshot, who might care more than he lets on but is still a killer, and one foot in the heroic world of Huntress, a character who understands the urge to kill but has done her best to not.

Scandal was a mystery character when she first appeared in Villains United. In retrospect, the connection between her and her mystery father is obvious; the rhyme between Scandal and Vandal should have jumped right out at me (I had thought she was possibly Nyssa Raatko, the other daughter of Ra's al Ghul until the reveal). Scandal has the fast healing and nigh immortality of her father, Vandal Savage, and is deadly with any blade, especially the ones on her gauntlets, the ancient Laminas Pesar. Scandal as she first appears in Secret Six is mourning the loss of her love, the former Female Fury, Knockout. She pulls herself out of her depression and gets the team their first mission, and is their leader. Scandal, like Catman, tries to find the moral right in what the Six are doing, and tries her best to do right by the others, as hard as they make it for her. Bane takes a strangely paternal interest in Scandal, protecting her and coddling her in a way that makes her uncomfortable on more than one occasion. She also begins a new romance with Liana, a stripper she met in a somewhat awkward attempt by Catman and Deadshot to cheer her up after the death of Knockout. The courtship and burgeoning relationship is very sweet and real, with Scandal having to work through her feelings for Knockout, which never truly go away.

Bane is, of course, best known as the man who broke the Bat. As I said above, I wrote a long feature on Bane back in July, but suffice it to say, I love the way the character was handled in Secret Six. Other writers have forgotten that Bane truly believes he is among the righteous, but Simone never did. She wrote Bane as a character who feels like he is a paladin, even though underneath that there is a small doubt that he is possibly not as good as he portrays. His relationship with Scandal is at times sweet, and at times kind of creepy; Bane wants to be her protector and father, but doesn't seem to understand what that means. Simone plays with Bane's limited life experience when she sends him off on his first real date, which is a delightfully funny scene.

Jeannette was the new member of the team, introduced in the third issue of the ongoing series. She remained something of the outsider, seeing the team's foibles and acting as an audience proxy, or as much as one can associate with an immortal banshee. Having lived for over four hundred years, and seen many monsters and monstrous deeds, Jeannette is not shocked by the evil deeds the Six take part in. Her attraction to Deadshot is initially sparked by the fact that he is steeped in death, something that appeals to the Banshee in her. She is cultured, clever, and friends with Scandal, which is what initially brings her into the Six. By the end, though, she is as much a part of the family as the others.

And then there's Ragdoll. Oh, Ragdoll. I don't know if I have the right words to sum up Ragdoll. He's covered in scars. He's completely insane. But under all that, there is a tremendous well of pain, caused by the brutality of his father, the cult leader and original Ragdoll, who ignored him because he wasn't born with powers, hence the scars from all the surgery he had to replicate them. I actually think I'll let Ragdoll speak for himself.

That is possibly one of my favorite pages of anything ever.

Other members joined the Six over the course of the run. Members from before the series began included Cheshire, Parademon, Knockout, Mad Hatter, and Harley Quinn. Black Alice, the young mystic with the power to duplicate the magical powers of others, joined the team to make money to help treat her father's cancer. She was an odd fit, which she was meant to be, with her seemingly cold to the actions of the Six, but still being young and unable to quite grasp what she was getting into. King Shark, the bipedal shark man, though, fit in just fine as a walking death machine, and that's pretty much what he did and was for his time in the book, which was perfect.

Other than the cold road to redemption, the core members of the Six also share an important issue: they all are lacking or have issues with family. Deadshot's upbringing was a nightmare that ended with him killing his brother, and he lost his own son to a child killer. Catman's father was abusive, and led young Thomas Blake to becoming a patricide. Scandal's father is an immortal world conqueror who trained her from her youngest days to be a killer. Ragdoll's father was a creep, a killer, and probably worse judging by his other kid. Bane was born in jail to a broken mother who died and left him, a young boy in the hardest prison in the world. And Jeannette was given by her poor family to serve as a handmaiden to Countess Elizabeth Bathory, one of history's greatest serial killers. These people had no family, so they found a way to make one of their own, as twisted and dysfunctional as it was, and for them it worked.

The stories that Simone tells in Secret Six would have worked in few other superhero comics. They are twisted and dark, perfectly fitting the book's protagonists. The first story sees them breaking the Tarantula out of jail to use her to retrieve and item for the mysterious crimeboss, Junior. The mcguffin of the story is a card, forged by the demon Neron, that is a "Get Out of Hell Free Card." But think about it: with a group of characters unsure of their own fates, their own righteousness, that card means the world, and the card will come into play later. Over the series, the team fights slavers, the government, undead Suicide Squad members, other villains, heroes, and dinosaurs.

The penultimate arc of the series sees the Six travel to Hell with the card. Ragdoll stole the card from Scandal to resurrect his dead friend, the Parademon, while Scandal wants to use it to free Knockout. In the end, though, the six are told by Blaze, the queen of Hell, that they can do what they wish, that they are all damned and will be back soon enough. The road to redemption has ended without any redemption, and the broken Six are left to determine their future. The final arc sees Bane take charge and lead the Six on one final grand attempt to take out Batman. If he is damned, Bane has decided to embrace his villainy. In the end, the Six makes a final stand against the gathered heroes of the DC Universe. Despite all the betrayal and backstabbing, the Six make their final Butch and Sundance stand together.

Simone had two excellent artistic compatriots on Secret Six. Nicola Scott, who had worked with Simone previously on Birds of Prey, brought a smooth style to the series; her Jeannette being stunningly beautiful and her Catman more handsome than he had ever been portrayed before. She could draw monsters just as well, with the twisted Junior (whose identity is one of the big twists at the end of the first arc. I don't want to spoil it for you) sending shivers down my spine. J. Calafiore took over after Scott left, and didn't miss a beat. I've loved Calafiore's work since his run on Aquaman with Peter David, and he drew an awesome Six. One day, I'll get around to sharing some of the sketches I've gotten in my sketchbook, and my Calafiore Deadshot is a favorite.

There's so much more to say about Secret Six, but I'd rather let you discover them for yourselves. Any comic that mixes pathos, action, horror, and humor so perfectly needs to be read to be believed. Sadly, this past week Gail Simone was removed from her last book at DC. I'm sad to see her go, but can only imagine what wonder she has waiting for us. Gail, let me know, and I'll be first in line.

Secret Six has been collected in six trade paperbacks, listed in chronological order for your ease, since I am unsure if they are numbered on the spines: Unhinged, Depths, Danse Macabre, Cat's in the Cradle, The Reptile Brain, The Darkest House. But to get the full story, you should start with the trade of Villains United, followed by the first Secret Six mini-series Six Degrees of Devastation, and the Birds of Prey arc featuring the Six, Dead of Winter.

1 comment:

Shut in Nerd said...

Secret Six was definitely one of my top 5 picks from pre-Nu52 DC. Always looked forward to each issue and I miss that book so much. I was enjoying the last run of Thunderbolts/Dark Avengers also as it had a similar vibe at times, but I'm not so sure about this new team assembled.