Saturday, May 05, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle

This trade collects issues #19-#24 of Secret Six, which includes the four-issue story arc it takes its title from, and two done-in-one, space-filler stories. "Cats in the Cradle" refers to a 1974 folk rock song by Harry Chapin about a father's poor relationship with his son, and how such prioritizing work over family can be passed down like other genetic traits or family traditions. Writer Gail Simone apparently chose it because Taken was already taken.

If you've not read Secret Six, it's a comic book about a six-person team of mercenary villains including Batman villains Catman and Deadshot, an original version of Ragdoll, Scandal Savage (the daughter of Vandal Savage) and other characters who come or go to replace the ones that get killed off or betray the team.

It was written by Gail Simone, who introduced the team in the 2005 Villains United miniseries, and it lasted until 2011's thirty-sixth issue. When it launched, it featured art by Nicola Scott, but J. Calafiore took over at one point, the point at which I stopped reading the book, not being a fan of Calafiore's artwork, which I find, rough, ugly and full of way too many lines.

In this story, the Secret Six—of which there are actually seven, including Bane and Simone creation Black Alice—attempt to destroy Brother Blood's cult at the behest of a rich, eccentric old man. Said rich, eccentric old man also hires a team of killers to kidnap Catman Thomas Blake's infant son from his supervillain mother Cheshire (the fertile supervillain who is also Roy Harper/Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow's baby mama), and, over the phone they threaten to delay killing the boy for one year for each and every member of Blake's team that Catman is able to kill.

Catman thinks a moment, remembers Taken (or at least its trailer), and responds as Liam Neeson did to the captors of his daughter:
Catman then goes AWOL, tracking the three men who took his son in order to brutally murder the fuck out of them, while his fellow killers-for-hire track him in order to help him or stop him or something. During the course of this, Simone flashes back to Catman's "secret origin," in which we learn his abusive, big game-hunting father was a huge asshole who killed his mom, and who Catman then killed in retaliation.

Secret Six has always been one of the modern DC Comics' most violent and decadent series not written by Geoff Johns, but it's also been the one where all that violence and decadence fits best, rather than feeling inappropriately grafted on, like some kind of debilitating tumor, as the very premise of the series is that it's about some of the worst supervillains regularly fighting the absolute worst supervillains. The book should wallow in darkness; the characters should be fairly unlikeable, even morally abhorrent.

That said, darkness and decadence and amoral protagonists aren't exactly what I want to read about in the DC Universe, so I tired of the book pretty quickly, especially when its main redeeming quality—Scott's art—was stripped away. Simone can be a pretty funny writer at times, but at other times she can take a good joke too far by simply telling it over and over again. A good example in this storyline comes at the beginning, when Ragdoll is asked what he's thinking, and he delivers a few-sentence long monologue about how devastating the abuse he suffered as a child was, and then non-sequitirs into "But then I thought...'I wonder what it's like to ^%$# a butterfly?'"...and then he keeps talking about fucking a butterfly long after the surprise has worn off (And yeah, they can't say "fuck" in the book, although a naked Cheshire can bite a man's lips off and, later, Catman can bite a guy's eyeballs out of his head).

Call me crazy, but I prefer a Catman who is a bored wealthy socialite big game hunter who one day decided to dress up in a cat costume to fight Batman for kicks and who also wore a magic luck cape, or even one who simply commits cat-themed crimes and occasionally uses a giant robot cat, to one who is a sadistic killer with a fucked-up childhood.
I was rather pleasantly surprised by Calafiore's artwork in this storyline. It seemed a lot smoother and more accomplished than the last time I had seen it—Gotham Underground—and the ugly character designs and over-usage of lines and the shadows they create actually seems appropriate for the content of a book like this, telling a story like this.

The final two stories of the book are pretty weird. One is "Predators," which is basically "The Most Dangerous Game," featuring the Secret Six as the prey, and it reads, looks and feels like the inventory story it no doubt was. It was written by John Ostrander, and drawn by R.B. Silva and Alexandre Palamaro. I read it when it was originally published in comic book form, and wrote about it the night I read it here.

The final story is by the Simone and Calafiore creative team, back after their one-issue break, and it's called "Unforgiven", so apparently Simone didn't even bother to disguise this one's film inspiration. It's essentially a done-in-one Elseworlds story, in which the members of the team appear as Old West versions of themselves, in the Old West. Also, The Trigger Twins are in it. It's interesting enough, but pretty random, and I'm not sure what point it served, beyond killing another issue.

My absolute favorite aspect of this entire collection, however, is the cover of the trade, which was taken from the cover of Secret Six #21. Catman is triumphantly holding a dead mouse...but he's all beat to hell himself. I like the way the cover implies that there was just an epic battle between Catman and the mouse and, while Catman ultimately defeated the mouse, the mouse put up a terrific fight, and kicked six kinds of shit out of Catman before finally falling to Catman's superior size and strength.

Secret Six was one of several DC titles that didn't survive the New 52 purge of September 2011. Sales on the title were always fairly low, based on the estimates those of us who aren't DC Comics have access to, and it was at cancellation level, but the gigantic boost the New 52 gave all of the titles might have kept it alive longer, essentially resetting it's dial from the cancellation level it was shipping at in the summer of 2011 to the hit levels of so many New 52 books.

I suppose it's possible it was cut on account of continuity—I'm not sure how Bane has been changed by the reboot, for example, or if Deadshot and Catman still have their ex-Batman villain cache in tact—but it's also possible that Suicide Squad was designed to take Secret Six's place as the darkest and most violet DCU book, the one dealing with bad guys fighting worse guys, so having Suicide Squad di>Secret Six running simultaneously might have seemed redundant.

It's also possible Simone gave it up in order to take on new assignments too, and they thought it wouldn't be worth doing without Simone. When the New 52 launched, she was moved to the new Batgirl and was co-writing The Fury of Firestorm, although she's no longer working on the latter title.

I don't think Calafiore is currently drawing anything for DC, but I'm not positive about that.


Akilles said...

Nice rev. Seems like I won`t read this one though.

"'s a comic book about a six-person team of mercenary villains including Batman villains Catman and Deadman,..."

I believe you meant Deadshot, like you wrote to the latter part of the review.

JRC, the OWL Says Who said...

I didn't care for Calafiore on S6 at first either, but after a while became a great fit. I loved this book, and losing it has been one of the factors that has kept me from giving the nu52 a fair try. I'm not boycotting, I just feel that if they couldn't keep the best book they had going--and yes, I think it's the best written book they had--than why bother.
I have started grabbing Green Arrow since Ann Nocenti took over though--it still needs to find its legs.

Also, spotted a goof: "I was rather pleasantly surprised by Ostrander's artwork in this storyline. It seemed a lot smoother and more accomplished"
I think you meant Calafiore in place of Ostrander's name there?

Caleb said...

Thanks, guys. I fixed 'em.