Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Secret Six: The Darkest House

As I mentioned the last time I wrote about a Secret Six trade, I drifted away from the title around the time its initial artist Nicola Scott left and it became apparent that J. Calafiore was going to be her permanent replacement; looking back, I guess I read 16 of its 36 issues in the serially-published, comic book-comic book format, and just recently started rounding up the last couple of trades worth of issues (Thanks, Ohio public libraries!).

This past week I read two collections, Secret Six: Danse Macabre (#15-#18, plus Suicide Squad #67) and Secret Six: The Darkest House (#30-#36, plus Doom Patrol #19). The former was no damn good, consisting of a single issue in which writer Gail Simone introduces her Birds of Prey character Black Alice to the team (an issue featuring some of the worst published art I've ever seen), a Ostrander-written time-waster starring Deadshot and then the Ostrander/Simone Blackest Night arc, in which her Six fights his Suicide Squad—plus Black Lantern versions of deceased Squad members.

The latter was much better, and a good chunk of it would have made a pretty strong climax to Simone's run on the title...and the characters and concept, which she actually started writing a few years earlier than Secret Six #1 with some miniseries and specials.

There are three stories contained in this trade.

The first is a crossover story with the short-lived, Keith Giffen-written 2009-2011 Doom Patrol series (How short-lived? I actually totally forgot that series existed, despite having read the first few issues, until I saw an issue of it in this trade). That's called "Suicide Roulette," and the first half is by the regular Secret Six team of Simone and Calafiore; in it, a young, put-upon slacker inherits his grandfather's secret criminal empire and decides to use those resources to become a 1950s-style, Rat Pack-esque super-ganster. In order to secure an island HQ, he hires the Six and sics them on The Doom Patrol, who were defending Oolong Island.

The second half appeared in DP and was written by Giffen, with rushed, uneven art by a trio of different pencil artists.
It's basically just a big, 40-page fight with no real impetus or conclusion or stakes. Apparently, the crossover was meant to buttress the sales of one or the other title by introducing the few readers of one to the other. Or something.

As a nothing-but-fighting and a few jokes story, it's fine. It's the the eight-memember Secret Six (Bane, Scanal, Deadshot, Catman, Ragdoll, Jeannette, Black Alice and King Shark) versus the new and improved Doom Patrol (Robotman, Elasi-Woman, Negative Man, Bumblebee and Ambush Bug).

It's followed by the three-part title story, which is devoted to two threads. In the sub-plot, Scandal's current girlfriend, a stripper who works at a strip club where she dresses and dances as Scandal's dead ex-girlfriend Knockout, is abducted by a crazy guy in an extremely red jacket, who wants to convert her from lesbianism and stripping by pouring hot sauce in her eyes.

In the main plot, Scandal and Ragdoll fight over the Get Out of Hell Free card from the very first Secret Six story arc and, when he's mortally wounded, he uses it to transport himself to hell. The Scandal and the remaining team (sans Black Alice, who was already in Hell and did not care for it enough to go back).
DC's Hell is a perfect playground for Simone and the black humor and black melodrama that she seems to delight in the writing of in this title. It also serves as the ultimate example of the bad guys-versus-worse guys premise of the series, as hell is literally full of the worst of the worst. Our heroes, who are all villains, actually seem like heroes again when compared to the devils and demons they face down there.

The setting also serves as a super-heated pot where the long simmering sub-plots can all come to a full, roiling boil, and story elements from throughout the run are revisited and resolved: Not only the use of the card, but we also see the return of deceased original members Knockout and The Parademon, Catman checks in on his parents (who Simone has crafted a nicely mythological fate for, and there's a neat twist regarding one person's heaven being another person's hell) and the various characters all expressly determine what they mean to one another and their perception of themselves.

It also gives Calafiore the opportunity to draw lots of ugly, fucked-up shit, which he's pretty damn good at. I"m not into his art, but his drawing of Catman's mom was nicely disturbing, and the demonic forms the Six take while in Hell are pretty intersting.

It would have been the perfect ending to the series, really. But the last issue of the arc must have shipped in the summer of 2011, and Simone still had to keep the title going for two more issues before "The New 52" canceled and replaced the universe that Secret Six belonged to. So there's one more story in here, the two-part "Caution to the Wind," which follows up on at least one plot point from "Darkest House": Bane, the villain who once defeated Batman and conquered Gotham City, realizes that he's going to hell anyway, so there's no point in trying to live by a noble code, and, also, he doesn't want to be the joke character Simone has been writing him as anymore, but would rather go back to being Batman's archenemy.

So he goes back on venom, and talks his teammates into helping him re-break Batman and re-conquer Gotham City.

Now, his plan in "Knightfall," when he first beat Batman, was to a) study Batman and his methods, until he knew everything about him, including his secret identity, b) break every single one of Batman's enemies out of Arkham Asylum simultaneously and heavily arm them, c) wait for Batman to run himself ragged fighting and re-capturing them all, and then d) chill out in the Batcave and wait for the exhausted Batman to come home and then beat the living hell out of him and break his spine.

His plan here is a) capture The Penguin and force him to give up intel on the Bat-family b) Kill the random assortment of Bat-hangers-on Red Robin, Batgirl (Stephanie Brown), Catwoman and Azrael (Not Jean-Paul Valley, the newer one) by having two members of the Six double-team each of 'em and c) hope that demoralizes Batman into quitting. Or something.
It's not a very convincing turn for the character, and the plan is kind of dumb, ill-formed and poorly-communicated. Simone seems to have been going for a twist ending, but in order for that twist to land at all, it needs to seem genuine, but Simone never has Bane make a good case for his turn back towards supervillainy, nor for the rest of the Six—all of whom just escaped hell and got a pretty good idea what awaits people who continue to act like total bastards and doing stuff like killing teenagers for no real reason—to go along.

It ends with the eight members of the Six holed up in a wareshouse, surrounded by just about every superhero in the DC Universe, and having to decide whether to surrender or go out fighting. As in the climax of The Dark House, they choose fighting-to-the-deah over surrender, but it's a pretty weak, false choice here, since obviously they're not going to go out in a blaze of glory, since it's not like Batman and Superman are going to cut them down as they try to plow through them.

Oh, and Bane gives 'em all venom before they make their charge, which means Calafiore draws the ladies with cleavage veins and Catwman with a severe case of Liefeld mouth:
Not cool, Calafiore.

I suspect the trunctuated ending might have had something to do with the abrupt end of the DCU and replacement with the New 52, and that this was a later, longer story that got smooshed into fewer pages and scheduled before Simone would have liked (something seriously seems missing between the end of "Darkest House" and the beginning of "Caution to the Wind"), but, whatever the reason, it's a whimper of an ending after the bang of the previous story arc.


So, what happened to the individual members of the Secret Six in the New 52?
I've seen Deadshot and King Shark on the covers of Sucide Squad, and see that King Shark was rebooted from a Great White shark to a poorly-drawn hammerhead shar (Actually, he looks like a Great White with alien eye-stalks, as if the peron who designed him never saw a picture of a hammerhead, and wasn't sure how to go about finding one).

I've also heard Deadshot doesn't have a mustache in the New 52.
I'm pretty sure I've seen Bane on the covers of some Batman comics too, so obviously he still exists.

Scandal appeared in a Vandal Savage arc of DC Comics Presents, right? Or was that another female descendant of the immortal caveman villain...?

What of Ragdoll, whose status as a legacy villain I assume means he's not allowed on Earth-New 52, but must rather belong to Earth-2...?

What about Catman...?

I assume Jeanette and Black Alice, as Simone creations, haven't turned up in the New 52 yet. I also assume Knockout hasn't, since we've only seen a handful of Fourth World characters so far.


SallyP said...

Losing Deadshot's mustache is probably one of the worst of the New 52's sins.

Timothy23P said...

Vandal Savage is still around, origins intact. A reboot can't get rid of him.