Secret societies are all the rage right now, and who's to argue? There's the cloak-and-dagger dynamics, usually some sort of color coordinating armbands or accessories, unique pass phrases, hidden hangout spots, and of course, special handshakes. Even Steve Rogers is getting in on the shadow society game these days with the upcoming "Secret Empire" event.
The idea of secret organizations isn't at all new within the comic book realm, and can sometimes make for some rather terrifying groups of bad guys. As Cap preps for welcoming a whole new association existing only in darkness and spoken of in whispers, we at CBR have thought of some of the best secret societies to populate the pages of comics over the years.
16 LEAGUE OF ASSASSINS/SHADOWS
It's hard not to include this society of shadow warriors in this list. Most notably an enemy of Batman, the League of Assassins has supposedly existed for hundreds of years in secret. Much of the League's history remains enshrouded in mystery, much like their long-time leader Ra's al Ghul. Under his guidance, the group assassinated key figures in world politics, stole sacred artifacts and destroyed anyone who dared stand in their way.
The organization itself is terrifying in its strict guidelines for membership. Most recruits must undergo tireless training, eschew their former identities and be willing to sacrifice their lives for their leader. Some rather notable members have emerged from the group including Talia al Ghul, Deathstroke and Merlyn, all of whom carry the organization's fierce ideals of... well, killing to resolve a number of their problems. The League of Assassins remains one of the most well-known (and thus, not-so-secret) societies, but is definitely not one to be messed with.
15 BROTHERHOOD OF EVIL
Just because you start with the intention of remaining secret, doesn't always mean that your group will stay that way. The Brotherhood of Evil operated relatively under the radar as a criminal organization before the Doom Patrol caught onto their plans. The organization was coordinated by the Brain, who guided their objectives from the background. After their first major defeat by the Doom Patrol, the Brotherhood's remaining members stayed in hiding, amassing resources for their next move for world domination.
As far as secret societies go, the Brotherhood of Evil was fairly light on the subject. The conclave of rogues were easily found out and defeated by the heroes, but their resilience while they lay in wait is where they excelled. They were nothing if not patient, sending out spies and awaiting for the proper time to enact their evil plots. Plus, having a literal brain for a leader pretty much fits the bill for an underground covert group.
14 THE MORLOCKS
When you think of shadowy groups, words like "secret" and "underground" may come to mind. These guys took the latter half much more seriously, and literally. The Morlocks were a group of usually physically-deformed mutant outcasts that mostly lived in the sewers and tunnels beneath New York City. Many of its members were hideously deformed from their mutations and felt safer underground due to their inability to pass as unmarred humans.
The society, as it were, obeyed a singular leader named Callisto for a time. She directed her fellow pariahs to carry out raids on the unsuspecting residents above. The misfits would go out under the cover of night, stealing everything from food and clothing, to even the occasional child. The society welcomed all whom were spurned by surface-dwellers, revelling in their shared hatred of "regular" folks. Their ranks were all equal, following their singular leader until she was later defeated by Storm. As far as being a secret society, what the Morlocks lacked in structure they more than made up for in slinking in the shadows.
13 THE SECRET EMPIRE
If there was a contest on most generic secret organization name, these guys would take the cake. An adverse presence in Marvel comics since the '60s, the Secret Empire is a collective of minds that serve their leader entitled "Number One." Existing initially as a subset of HYDRA, this group amassed wealth and influence through criminal means. Kidnapping, theft and dubious scientific experiments were often this society's bread and butter throughout the years.
Their schemes, however, grew bolder over the years. They forcibly turned Midnight into a cyborg and worked to abduct more heroes to replicate their success. At one point, the group intended to start a nuclear war before The Defenders put a stop to them, so there's little this organization will say "no" to. Regardless of their current standing, the Secret Empire has remained an ever-present threat to Marvel heroes and doesn't appear to be letting up anytime soon.
12 THE BLACK GLOVE
Secret societies aren't just for scientific minds or the disenfranchised mutated masses, the painfully wealthy can apply too! The Black Glove was a shadowy organization led by Simon Hurt that was comprised largely of loaded socialites who also happened to be completely immoral. This group isn't so concerned with world domination as it is entertainment. The Black Glove appears to use its collective wealth and sway with corrupted officials to coordinate large schemes, on which they all place bets.
One such scheme was a plan to see if Batman could survive "the ultimate ignoble defeat." The organization kidnapped Nightwing, dispatched the Outsiders and buried the Dark Knight alive. Batman, however, was able to escape near death and all bets were effectively off. Literally. Eventually, the Black Glove was largely wiped out by the League of Assassins. Who's to say, though, that a few aren't still lurking in the shadows, salivating at the prospect of their next gamble?
11 THE CABAL
For every light, there is a darkness, and the Cabal suited this ideal perfectly. An antithesis to the collective group of influential heroes dubbed The Illuminati, this group was put together first by Loki, but fell apart quickly due to internal power struggles. Norman Osborn later revitalized the team, recruiting Namor, Dr. Doom, Loki, The Hood and Emma Frost, the White Queen. The collective was tasked with filling the intellectual void left by their more noble counterparts after "Secret Invasion," and like their forebears, quietly controlled the superpowered world from the shadows.
Unfortunately, the Cabal was more mired with secret dealings within their own organization than anything else. Namor and Dr. Doom had behind-the-scenes schemes against Osborn, while Loki was busy planting seeds of doubt and distrust within their leader for his eventual fall from power. Norman himself didn't hold any trust for his newly assembled team, as he threatened them constantly with the numerous weapons he had, including The Sentry/Void. The Cabal might not have had a long run, but they truly encapsulated what a secret society is all about: shady dealings and lots of betrayals.
This society was originally so secret that it was merely referred to as "THEM" in early comics. Advanced Idea Mechanics (or A.I.M. for short), is a splintered branch of HYDRA consisting of the best and brightest scientific minds. The collective has created a plethora of evil creations and devices, all in a bid to amass wealth and power at the behest of their leader, the Scientist Supreme. The terrible inventions they create are immediately sold off to the highest bidder, to which A.I.M. only hopes it contributes to the destruction of the world.
Before its recent restructuring as Avengers (and then American) Idea Mechanics, which has redefined its remit under altruistic purposes, this formerly-secret society definitely did its best to remain hidden. A.I.M. once held headquarters deep in a Florida swamp in order to evade detection. Their taste for evil and chaos even led to the creation of the deadly adversary M.O.D.O.K. and the reality-bending Cosmic Cube, in a bid to further the world's turmoil. The sheer amount of technology available to A.I.M. alongside their propensity for secrecy makes their collective a powerful one indeed. Besides, what other secret society rocks the beekeeper look this well?
9 THE SPIDER SOCIETY
If any organization takes the word "secret" to heart, it would be the Spider Society. Originally created in 1099 A.D., the association was made up of folks who worshiped magic totems. They functioned largely in shadow (except for a small public-facing shell company called WebCorps), working on their own to facilitate peace in order to achieve their ideals. This was something that their mortal enemies, the Sisterhood of the Wasp, disagreed with. The Spider Society dealt with the mystical and its members passed their power through their bloodlines as the years went on.
The most prominent member of the Spider Society was Araña, as she was caught in the group's crossfire with the Wasps and nearly killed. As a means to save her life, she was bestowed with a magical tattoo of a spider that granted her super abilities (pictured above). Though the Spider Society has mostly remained enshrouded in secret, it still continues its long fight against the Wasps to this day in hopes of stopping them for good.
8 ORDER OF ST. DUMAS
When secret societies are mentioned, it's not hard to find some whispers of the Knights Templar far behind. At least, that's where the Order of St. Dumas got its start. Originally an offshoot of the Templars, the religious Order devoted themselves to the saint and worked to preserve his fanatical teachings from within the shadows. The collective prided themselves on training a given champion to fight on their behalf in various operations, though they eventually suffered a schism when said title holder was defeated.
One such offshoot was responsible for the creation of Azrael, the deadly assassin that took on Gotham's crime for a stint during "Knightfall," with brutal and even deadly results. Besides training powerful warriors, the Order kidnapped highly intelligent people in an effort to hoard knowledge from the rest of the world. Matching its zealous origin, this group was entirely about keeping themselves "enlightened" as the chosen few, and perfectly content to leave all others to the dust.
7 THE GRAIL
As the name might suggest, The Grail is a secret society tasked with protecting the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Of course, (this organization being from the pages of "Preacher" and all) their actions to accomplish this are incredibly sinister. The group maintained the "purity" of the Christ bloodline through inbreeding Jesus' several children throughout the years. Their plan was to create a threat of nuclear war to introduce the preserved ancestor of Christ as a new messiah that "stops" it from coming to fruition. Once the world believed in this new deity, The Grail would be in full control, as they pulled the strings from the shadows.
This secret society had a vast network of resources at its disposal. It had wealth, influence and even an army of military forces. Unfortunately it was all undone by one of their most high-ranking members Herr Starr, as he overtook the organization and used many of its assets in a bid to kill Jesse Custer. Regardless, this particular group is patient if nothing else. They spent well over a millenia amassing power in the shadows, and very few would dare to contend with them.
There may be a number of offshoots and splinter cells, but none can compare to the original core organization called HYDRA. Similar to The Grail, this collective has been amassing power over hundreds of years. Despite their garish outfits, subterfuge is this group's bread and butter, as their operatives are deeply embedded in all manner of political parties, national security forces and high-level corporations to subtly spread their influence. Many of their plans include some sort of global domination, be it in the form of new biological weapons or brainwashing powerful heroes to do their bidding.
Part of the secret society's resilience is due to their ideal of coming back twice as strong after a defeat (cut off one head, two will grow). Hydra's activities haven't stalled with their numerous failures, as they seem to keep pulling new tricks out of their collective hat. As of late, it was revealed that Captain America himself was a sleeper agent for the group, with numerous terrifying prospects on the horizon for all of civilization. Even though they're pretty well known these days, Hydra started off as an underground group whose tendrils extended from the shadows and embedded deeply into the unwitting society of today.
5 SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER VILLAINS
What better way to remain incognito than to actually put the word "secret" in your underground society's name? This clandestine group has had a number of leaders over the years including Darkseid and Alexander Luthor Jr., but their mission remained consistent: do something evil. Honestly, the Society's grand plans varied depending on the continuity over the years, but most had to do with taking over the world or striking back at numerous Justice League members.
Like so many other teams comprised of super villains, the SS was mired with internal power struggles. If it wasn't the Joker killing off a leader, it was some other rogue causing trouble. More recent iterations had the team operating as an underground group, evading detection from Justice League heroes and planning secret attacks to dismantle them. It may have taken them a few defeats to get to this point, but the Secret Society of Super Villains has finally become the terrifying, shadowy organization it always intended to be.
4 THE OUTSIDERS
Not to be confused with Batman's "Outsiders," these Outsiders are a relatively new underground group uncovered by the Green Arrow. This organization is made up of a network of clans revolving around a specific weapon totem such as the Shield or (conveniently) the Arrow. They actually share some ideals with the emerald archer, in that they want to eliminate corruption; but, of course, they have ended up turning into the very thing they sought to end.
In the New 52, it was revealed that Robert Queen, Oliver Queen's father, attempted to find the Arrow Totem but was killed in the process. Recently the group was rallied to start a war with the Green Arrow, spurred on by their new leader Komodo. A few clans splintered from the main conclave to aid the emerald archer, in his fight to stop the rogues. Considering how long these guys managed to stay hidden, The Outsiders are an accomplished secret society. Whether or not their group will retreat into the shadows or step out into the public again soon, remains to be seen.
3 THE ILLUMINATI
Not every secret society is created with ill intent. The Illuminati in Marvel comics was spearheaded by Iron Man initially, in order for a type of background organization that could exchange information; not unlike a United Nations for superheroes. Some of Marvel's best and brightest made the ranks of this group, including Professor Xavier, Mr. Fantastic, Namor, Dr. Strange and Black Bolt, with a select few others later invited into the fold.
The society collaborated in secret over the years on a number of conflicts, like helping Mr. Fantastic collect the Infinity Gems to keep them out of the wrong hands. Another decision made by the group was to shoot Hulk into outer space as a form of banishment for the volatile hero. The Illuminati served as a secret society tasked with making the tougher decisions its more public-facing counterparts couldn't. Even though they wanted to make their world safer, they could only do so by manipulative means from within the shadows.
2 HELLFIRE CLUB
Underneath all the wealth and glitzy soirées, the Hellfire Club was at its core a devious society attempting to manipulate politics and economics through their numerous influences. The club outwardly appears as a high-end, members-only establishment in multiple cities, but its Inner Circle of leaders is where the true scheming is done. The organization is populated with a number of well-known mutants such as Sebastian Shaw, Magneto and M, with plenty of others frequenting behind the scenes.
They made their existence first known to the X-Men when they attempted to take over the mind of Dark Phoenix in a plot to use her for their own means. Their defeats have never been enough to outwardly wipe them off the map, making them one of the more persistent secret groups. The Club has always been able to retreat into the darkness, lick their wounds and shuffle their ranks while retaining their influence elsewhere. The Hellfire Club has existed as a secret society for a number of years and will likely continue hidden in plain sight for many more to come.
1 COURT OF OWLS
When your secret society is so well hidden that not even Batman knows about it, you deserve accolades. Such was the case with the Court of Owls, a collective of largely anonymous members that watched Gotham from the shadows and amassed power through violent means. Bruce Wayne is targeted by the group when his philanthropic activities run against the Owls' plans for continued corruption. They trap Batman in a maze in an attempt to break his sanity, then unleash all of their enforcers -- the unkillable Talons -- to finish him off.
The sheer depth to the Court of Owls' subterfuge and how embedded they were in Gotham is nothing short of impressive. They harbored numerous hideouts in the city, none of which the detective had any idea about, and even revealed that Dick Grayson was selected to be a Talon in his early life before being taken in by Bruce. There was little in Gotham that didn't have the Owls' influence pressed upon it, and they nearly defeated Batman for good. Very few secret societies had the reach the Owls did, and even fewer could manage to so threaten the Dark Knight.
Which hidden society is your favorite in comics? Let us know in the comments!
Marvel's "Secret Empire" event will take place in Spring 2017.