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Grumpy Old Fan | Farewell to the role models of Secret Six

by  in Comic News Comment

With last week’s final issue of Secret Six, the curious journey of a fan-favorite title came to an end. It began as Villains United, a six-issue miniseries (with subsequent special) which tied into 2005-06’s Big Event, Infinite Crisis. The characters proved popular enough to warrant their own six-issue sequel, called simply Secret Six (and collected as Six Degrees Of Devastation); and that in turn earned them a respectable 36-issue regular-series run. I suspect Secret Six could probably have gone as long as writer Gail Simone wanted, but the New-52 relaunch seems to have gotten in the way.

Now Simone is moving on, co-writing Fury Of Firestorm and writing the Barbara-Gordon-centered Batgirl — but before that, she and penciller Jim Calafiore gave the Sixers an eminently appropriate sendoff.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW for some parts of the Sixers’ sordid past….)

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Of course, for Secret Six the most appropriate course of action was often the most inappropriate. The first issue of the current series centered around the group cheering up leader Scandal Savage by finding an exotic dancer who looked eerily like her murdered lover. When your colleagues include a random Parademon and a triple-jointed sociopath with the demeanor of Niles Crane, “normal” tends to slide out of your vocabulary. DC had done bad-guy-specific series before, from the venerable Secret Society of Super-Villains and the ‘80s revival of Suicide Squad to the recent run of Luthor stories in Action Comics, but Secret Six carved out its own eclectic niche. Simone and her artistic collaborators (including Dale Eaglesham, Val Semeiks, Brad Walker, and Nicola Scott) combined semi-moral characters with anything-goes plotting and the darkest of black humor to create a book which wasn’t so much about villains as it was about horribly damaged people. The Sixers chose to stay together as long as it suited them, and more often than not it suited each of them to create some sort of camaraderie. No doubt DC wants to continue Secret Six’s cheerfully fatalistic tone with the New-52’s anti-heroes in books like Suicide Squad and Red Robin and the Outlaws. However, it’s not that simple. Secret Six has a lot to teach — but DC must first look for the right lessons.

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Of the four miniseries billed as Infinite Crisis lead-ins, three got follow-ups almost immediately. Besides the S6 mini, a Shadowpact series followed Day Of Vengeance and a Checkmate ongoing followed The OMAC Project. Ironically, although Secret Six got the least immediate commitment (a miniseries versus the other two ongoings), it lasted a good bit longer. Part of this was simple timing — the Secret Six ongoing didn’t start until after Shadowpact was cancelled and Checkmate was on its last two issues — and part of it was probably the convenience of a 2007 guest-shot in Simone and Scott’s Birds Of Prey. In these ways Secret Six found and built an audience gradually. Six months passed between the end of Villains United and the VU Infinite Crisis Special, and the next month the S6 miniseries debuted. Five months after the mini ended, the Sixers guest-starred in BOP, but it took fourteen months after that for the S6 ongoing to appear. Again, I would argue that much of Secret Six’s audience is Gail Simone’s audience, following her from book to book and glomming onto Secret Six after she and Nicola Scott left BOP.

This is not to say that Secret Six was a BOP clone. The latter centered around a trio of characters (Black Canary, Oracle, and the Huntress) over which DC probably exerted significant control, or at least veto power. By contrast, Simone appeared free to put the Sixers through all kinds of wringers, regardless of how “established” they were, or how much history they’d already accumulated. Heck, in Villains United #1 she killed the Fiddler, a Golden Age Flash villain (perhaps seen most famously in “Flash Of Two Worlds”), to free up a spot for Catman.

Thus, Simone pulled off a pretty neat (and enviable) trick: giving new life (well, Fiddler notwithstanding) to a set of old characters. Either DC didn’t care anymore about Deadshot, Catman, et al., or they trusted that Simone would make ‘em viable once more. Moreover, many of these folks had already been revamped at least once already. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers revived Deadshot in their mid-‘70s Detective Comics run before John Ostrander made him an integral part of the ‘80s Suicide Squad. Like Deadshot, Catman was a ‘50s Bat-villain, but he’d become a tubby punchline thanks to Brad Meltzer and Phil Hester’s 2002 Green Arrow arc; and Simone had to bring him back from that humiliation. Simone introduced readers to Catman’s harrowing childhood, and gave him a certain uneasy closure; just as under Simone, the Mad Hatter’s off-putting tendencies were ramped up to a truly disquieting degree. King Shark and Knockout each appeared in the ‘90s Superboy series, and were used by Simone as a rampaging lout and an honor-driven warrior. Bane had a little more depth than fellow event-comics-villain Doomsday, but he drifted around the Bat-books before becoming a reluctant ally in a Gotham Knights arc. Simone not only reawakened his alpha-warlord mojo, she got him into a brief-but-successful dating relationship.

Simone’s own creations were no less fascinating. I’ve mentioned Ragdoll’s anarchic wackiness, but not his odd, sweet relationship with the nameless Parademon, whose stuffed corpse he later kept in his bedroom. The teenaged Black Alice vacillated between lashing out at the group and wanting it to accept her. Jeanette, a banshee, exuded a regal air of menace.

However, the glue holding the group together was Scandal Savage, daughter of the immortal villain and one of Simone’s most fully-realized characters. At times, Scandal was the group’s mother, confidant, best girlfriend, unrequited crush, and unquestioned leader. When Bane took over, it shifted the book’s tone noticeably. Nevertheless, Scandal remained the title’s spiritual center, and her relationship with Knockout helped drive much of the group’s adventures. It was fitting that the book’s final issue found a way to reconcile Scandal’s love for both Knockout and Liana, the lookalike dancer.

On a more macro level, it was appropriate (in the more conventional sense) that Secret Six end in an epic battle with dozens of superheroes. The metatextual implications were clear, as the Huntress narrated:

These people fought for each other. They protected each other. They would fight to the death, no question. […]

In the end, we won. Of course we did. We always win. Because we’re heroes. Right? It’s because we’re heroes.

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As the stakes grew higher, and (in what I assume was a deliberate echo of similar battles with other baddies in Villains United and elsewhere) the army of superheroes grew, until finally the Superman and Batman families joined the likes of the Birds of Prey and Teen Titans and Justice Society and Justice League, I couldn’t help but think that Secret Six was itself being overwhelmed by the more familiar, more upstanding, more marketable avatars of the New 52.

And that, I think, is the most significant lesson to be learned from the quiet success of Secret Six: that an allegedly-impenetrable shared superhero universe can become accessible through a book like this which opens a window onto it. While Secret Six was a darker window whose angles didn’t quite add up right, it knew how to show off the DC Universe to a readership which might be seeing it for the first time. Secret Six featured guest appearances from Batman and Wonder Woman, but it also took readers to the House of Secrets, the lost world of Skartaris, and back into the black-ops world of Amanda Waller.

Simone and company could do these things in no small part because their team was built around castoffs and oddballs. In this respect Secret Six is a close relative of Agents Of Atlas, Nextwave, James Robinson’s Starman, the heroes of “Architecture & Mortality,” and 52. We worry that books like these won’t find an audience because supposedly they are aimed at fans with DC Ph.Ds, or they rely too heavily on esoteric points of continuity. Inevitably, though, we find that those sorts of titles have in common memorable characters which convey clearly their creators’ distinct voices. If the New-52 books are designed around a “less-used” universe, then books like Secret Six will be in short supply. More to the point, an antisocial attitude will only take the New-52’s edgier offerings so far.

Now, maybe I’m wrong about this. In fact, maybe I’m wrong in a few respects. Maybe the new takes on Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and King Shark will do right by their recent portrayals. Maybe the New-52 books will have enough old-school references (Roy Raymond, TV Detective! Abnegazar, Rath, & Ghast! Harvey Harris!) to satisfy us lifers; and maybe the kids today really do want a super-milieu which feels showroom-fresh. I’m just afraid DC is cutting off a practical conduit into its considerable history. Whether it’s Wally West, Scandal Savage, or Stephanie Brown, characters who can offer such insights tend to produce dedicated fans; and those fans can then branch out into other books and different areas of the DCU. Obviously that’s been part of DC’s playbook for a while, but perhaps now the strategy is changing. Here’s hoping it hasn’t rendered Secret Six and its ilk prematurely obsolete.