Saturday, December 06, 2014

The so-so first issue of Secret Six 4.0

This week DC launched their fourth iteration of the Secret Six concept since E. Nelson Bridwell and Frank Springer first used the name for a team of covert military types in a short-lived, 1960s series by the name. This new version of The Secret Six is the third time the team starred in a comic book of their own, and the second time a Secret Six book was written by fan-favorite Gail Simone.

After the Bridwell/Springer version concluded after seven issues, the concept was mothballed until the late 1980s, when Martin Pasko and Dan Spiegel revived it for a regularly featured strip in the then-weekly Action Comics. This was as much a sequel as a reboot, using the same basic concept and some of the same characters. (Also? I found it to be really, really dull, but that's just me.)

The concept next came out of the vault in 2005 for a miniseries entitled Villains United, written by Gail Simone. A chaotic but transformative time for the publisher's shared-universe setting, the book was one of several meant to lead up to Infinite Crisis, each of which was intended to explore a particular genre or aspect of the DC Universe. As the title suggested, Villains United focused on the villains, which were all being organized into some kind of mega-union. A few rebellious ones refused to join—Catman, Deadshot, Cheshire, Ragdoll II, Scandal Savage and an Apokolyptian Paradeon—and ended up working for a mysterious benefactor codenamed Mockingbird, ala the previous incarnations of the group.

That series lead to a one-shot, a Secret Six miniseries and, eventually, an ongoing series entitled Secret Six, written by Simone and featuring a basic core cast of characters—Catman, Deadshot, Ragdoll and Scandal—with the other two slots on the team going to various villains who would come and go, usually going by way of either betraying the team, or being betrayed by the team or, occasionally, defecting or dying. It was a pretty good series, although the premise—that The Six were mercenary villains available for hire—was somewhat undercut by the fact that they rarely actually ever pulled any jobs or completed any contracts. Instead, they mostly fought each other and dealt with other, worse villains Simone threw at them. Even in a villain book, villains can only be so villainous, apparently.

That series, which lasted a very respectable 36 issues, was one that—somewhat surprisingly—did not make the cut when DC rebooted it's line post-Flashpoint. While I know the book wasn't a super hot-seller, it sold respectably, and, it turned out, much better than a lot of the first class of New 52 books did. From the outside looking in, I would guess the book's cancellation and failure to relaunch in The NEw 52 had more to do with Simone focusing her energies on writing the new Batgirl (and taking on the herculean task of selling Barbara Gordon as the one and only Batgirl in a new, rebooted universe, after Barbara Gordon had spent over 20 years as Oracle and "Batgirl" became a legacy coename carried by two different characters, both of whom were popular enough to do something Barbara Gordon hadn't been able to do up until that point: sell a Batgirl series).

Well that and the fact that once you excise the back-story and history from all of your characters, it makes telling stories about them sort of difficult. The roster as of Secret Six #36 consisted of Catman, Deadshot, Scandal, Bane, Ragdoll II and Jeanette. Deadshot was to appear in Suicide Squad, Bane and Catman were Batman characters whose origins and natures were likely up in the air as the New 52 hurriedly took shape behind the scenes, Scandal and Ragdoll were similarly questionable given their fathers were both villains (and ones from the Golden Age, whose characters were mostly to be relegated to a new, parallel Earth-2, although ultimately Vandal Savage remained on Earth-New 52, and I believe Ragdoll was introduced sans any mention of his Golden Age villain father). That pretty much just left Jeanette, a banshee that Simone had created for the series. And with a new Suicide Squad featuring its own villain team, perhaps two villain team books seemed redundant.

(I suppose I should also mention 1997 one-shot Secret Six #1, by Chuck Dixon and Tom Grummett? Part of the Dan Jurgens-lead effort in trademark renewal known as the "Tangent" line, it like its fellow one-shots re-purposed several old comics titles along with some still in-use, giving the character names to brand-new characters with little to nothing in common with the originals. For an alternate universe, it proved surprisingly popular, and Tangent characters till pop up now and then...much more often than, say, New Blood characters, created during a concerted effort on the publisher's part to create a new generation of superheroes.)

And that brings us to this week's Secret Six #1, by Simone and the art team of Ken Lashley, Drew Geraci and Jason Wright (Lashley pencils and inks, Geraci also inks and Wright colors). The concept here is, thus far, very different from that of all the previous incarnations, and the only character hold over from Simone's last run is Catman, referred to only by his real name, Thomas Blake.
Blake is our point-of-view character, and we first meet him in a desolate New Mexico roadhouse, where he's being pawed by an attractive young woman and an attractive young man. Simone, here free to recreate the character post-reboot, is apparently playing up a characterization of him as bi-sexual in the minds of fans of the previous Secret Six series, where his friendship with Deadshot was rather regularly seen as something more of a romance than a bromance. He's apparently supposed to be quite handsome, as even the agent who approaches him refers to him as "smolder boy" (Lashley draws all the men and women as attractive though, so he doesn't stand out that much; maybe some manga-style sparkling eyes and teeth would have helped...? The only "ugly" characters are the ones Lashley gives ugly signifiers, like big beer guts and long, unkempt beards and so on).

They attempt to arrest Blake, but he realizes they're not really the government agents they claim to be, an he fights back, apparently using some cat-like super-powers. Not only is he very fast, but he grows claws of some kind at some point (unless he slips them on between panels? They look artificial*). He also loses his shirt and makes an angry cat-face on the title-page.
I read it as Blake catting-out in the way that Bruce Banner Hulks-out, but the words don't explain it, and Lashley's drawing of the character in the scenes are close enough that it's hard to read it as a definitive transformation on his part.

He awakens in a dark room, looking at the vagina of one of the five people in the room with him. So let's see, 1 + 5 = 6! Yes, this must be the Secret Six!

The room is, the script said, shaped like a coffin, although we're never presented with any visual evidence of this. These other are all Simone creations or co-creations, some of them brand-new, others not so much. These are:

—Black Alice from the pre-Flashpoint DCU, who I believe made her New 52 debut in that godawful DC Universe Vs. The Masters of The Universe miniseries I can't believe actually saw print. She first appeared during Simone's pre-Flashopoint Birds of Prey run, and was one of the villains to join the Six's roster during the pre-Flashpoint Secret Six

—Strix, one of the Court of Owls' Talons, who is pretty Cassandra "Batgirl II" like and who appeared in both Simone's Batgirl and the now-cancelled New 52 Birds of Prey book by...whoever; it wasn't by Simone, I know that

—The Ventriloquist II...well, she'd be Ventriloquist III all together. The New 52, she's The Ventriloquist II; following Arnold Wesker, as Paul Dini and Don Kramer's Peyton Riley doesn't seem to have exited in New 52 continuity. This Ventriloquist is the Simone-created character that looks like the girl from The Ring and whose ventriloquist dummy is actually a fully-articulated, string-less marionette puppet, which looks like the puppet from the Saw movies and has weaponry akin to that of some puppets from The Puppet Master movies. As the premise of this issue might suggest, Simone liked those Saw movies an awful lot.

—Porcelain, an apparently new character who is a thief and whose power is to make hard substances brittle and breaking (good for cracking safes...literally)

—Big Shot, a private eye who can Hulk-out, and, if I was betting money on this, will be the first character to die, as he seems to be the less interesting of the two new ones

Here are Black Alice, Strix and an extremely awkwardly-posed Porcelain, all hiding their feet; there appears to be a bunch of tables or bleachers in the room for a story reason, and here Lashley uses them to not draw feet, but, as you can see with Porcelain on the right, he just sorta decided not to draw her left foot, and Geraci must have decided "Well, if Lashley's not going to pencil her foot, I'll be damned if I'm gonna draw it for him," and Wright decided, "Jeez, I know we can do a lot with computers these days, but I'm not fucking adding a foot in just because these two lazy bastards can't be bothered to draw one."

Once in the room, Blake meets the other characters and we get a few snippets of characterization, as well as the premise which, true to the book's name, is somewhat mysterious. Who captured all these people? (Well, probably someone called "Mockingbird," but, if so, who is Mockingbird really?) Why? What do they have in common?

First clue? Two locked boxes that a voice commands them to open. One contains six masks, the other a badly mangled corpse. Then a there's a message that appears asking "What Is The Secret?" The Six have five minutes to answer, or one of them dies.

And that's the first issue. Blake makes a discovery about the location of the room, and that would seem to be a bigger deal than the cliffhanger ending, in which The Ventriloquist introduces her puppet to her co-hostages (and, I suppose, to new readers who were fortunate enough to not read Ventriloquist II/III's previous appearances)...
...but that's the ending Simone went with. Oh God, that lady who looks like the girl from The Ring in this comic book that seems an awful lot like the first Saw movie has a puppet like one from the later Saw movies, and he's got fucking drills like a killer puppet from The Puppet Master movies! This comic has way more homages to horror movies than I would have imagined!

Given the relatively limited page count and the mysterious nature of the premise, the first issue more-or-less has to be little more than a limited introduction to certain surface aspects of the characters and a few clues, which isn't really enough to help a reader decide whether said reader wants to try Secret Six #2 or not. And that alone seems, to me anyway, a good reason to decide not to. Fans of Simone's will likely want to stick around though, and she has enough of 'em to keep the book going for quite a while, I suppose. (If you're really on the fence about the book, or just curious rather than committed to whatever Simone writes, I'd recommend waiting for the first trade paperback collection).

Lashley's art is harder to judge. It's of relatively high quality in design and rendering, but not so hot in story-telling, at least when it comes to revealing visually information that the reader is either told verbally, or meant to imply from the verbal components. So, basically, it fails as good comics art, but it looks really nice, and this art team's all-around quality makes all the pages look pretty great, even if they don't work as they should. For a film metaphor, think of a superb cinematographer working with a poor director, whose film is based on decent if generic genre script.

As a fan of DC's characters, the book failed to interest me in at least two instances. Neither Catman nor Black Alice seem the least bit visually interesting, at least not in this issue. The former doesn't have a Catman costume, of course, and the comic seems to suggest he may be some sort of were-cat rather than a bored, rich jerk who finds a magical cloth he thinks gives him super-luck and decides to dress up like a amalgam of Batman and Catman just to prove he's good enough to play with the super-people of Gotham City. And Black Alice only uses her power, which is to "borrow" the powers of DCU magic-users temporarily, once in this issue, but, when she does so, the visual component of temporarily appearing in a sexy pop-goth version of that magic-users costume isn't employed, so that here she's just a magic-borrower who...borrows magic. That's fine and all, but it's not as interesting looking as a magic-borrower whose clothes change into goth cover versions of various superheroes, you know? (Of course, here she borrows magic from Zatanna who, in The New 52, often just dresses like Black ALice always does in her default mode so maybe a New 52 Black Alice is a lose/lose prospect...?).

Great Snakes and Ladders cover by artist Dale Eaglesham, though.


The weirdest thing about this comic book though? There's an ad for the comic book you're reading in the comic book you're reading!
I wonder, is this some sort of slick marketing trick that works on just enough people to make it worth the publisher's effort to use? Is there a certain percentage of readers, like, .007%, that will see that ad and think, "Secret Six by Gail Simone and Ken Lashley? That sounds like exactly the sort of comic I want to read! I'll set down this comic book I'm reading at the moment and go to the comic shop and buy that comic book right this instant!" And then they do so, before they realize that they are actually already reading that comic book?

Or is it just a matter that no one advertises in comic book anymore**, and they have to put something on there, so it might as well be a house ad for the product that the customer has already purchased because otherwise, DC would have to go to the trouble of creating a new house ad for, I don't know, Klarion or collections of Simone's The Movement or something, and that would be too much work.

There's also an advertorial encouraging readers to buy Secret Six #1 that appears in the back of Secret Six #1, which is pretty weird, but more understandable, as DC only does one advertorial per week, and to ask an editor or assistant editor to write a 250 pages about how something is awesome might be too taxing, especially if it's only going to appear in the one book (This advertorial, about how Secret Six #1 is awesome, would appear in the other forty-some "New" "52" books, of course).

*I didn't notice this when I read the book the first time, but when looking more closely for art to scan, I did: Blake is sometimes wearing gloves, and sometimes not. Whether he takes them on and off throughout the issue, or if there are just a lot of coloring mistakes or what is not clear. I just re-read the whole comic just looking at Blake's hands, and I can't tell who—penciler, inker or colorist—is making which mistake in which panel, but the whole glove thing is pretty fucked up.

On page two, Blake has no gloves. Go ahead and look; I scanned the panel above. On page three and four, he has brown gloves on, the fingers of the right glove pointed into claws. On page six—the title page, also scanned above—he appears to have a very light brown glove on his right hand (note the claws), which his left hand is flesh-colored. From page eight on, the entire scene in the mysterious room, he doesn't have gloves on, although there are a few panels where he's clawing at stuff, his fingers having points to them again.

Studying the linework, every panel of his arms does have a horizontal line around where a glove would meet the forearm, but it's not always a solid line, and, after the first action scene, his hands are rarely colored brown. It seems weird he'd be wearing clawed gloves just chilling in a bar being pawed at in that first scene, though. Maybe he put them on in a split-second between talking to the agents and jumping them? And presumably they'd strip him of his claw gloves before sticking him in that room, but he still has claws...?

I can't really make sense of it, but apparently there are a lot of mistakes. Don't make me come over there and edit your damn comics for you, DC! What's that? You're moving to LA? Oh, fuck that—that's too far and I'm afraid of flying. Whatever then. I'll still complain about this shit on the Internet, though.

**No, for real. There are 15 ads in this comic, between the one on the inside front cover and the one on the back; that's a lot of ads for a book containing just 20 pages of comics. The ads are for, in order, an ad for a TV show based on a DC Comics character (the one that's semi-canceled already), and ad for a company selling apparel featuring DC Comics characters, an ad for another TV show based on DC Comics characters, an ad for a card game that looks like it may have actually earned the publisher a few dollars as it is not a house ad of any kind, an ad for another TV show based on DC Comics characters, an ad for the NBA on TNT (also not a house ad? Or does Warner Bros, which owns DC, also own TNT?), a house ad for Secret Six #1, an ad for a DC Comics hardcover collection, an ad for a DC Comics miniseries, an ad for DC Comics one-shot, a two-page ad for one of the comics previously advertised, an advertorial for Secret Six, an ad for the fourth and final live-action TV show based on a DC Comics character that is currently airing, and, finally, an ad for a video game based on DC Comics characters.


Jacob T. Levy said...

This Simone fan won't be sticking around. Artistically a mess, emotionally uninvolving, and insufficiently interesting as a plot to make up for not caring about the characters.

SallyP said...

My comic book store didn't have this last week, so I missed it, and was quite depressed. I have to admit that the art leaves me a tad less than impressed, but then I was so spoiled with the magnificent artwork that Nicola Scott used to do, for the previous incarnation of Secret Six.

Also, I miss Deadshot and Ragdoll. And Scandal. And Bane. Black Alice was my least favorite character. is Gail Simone, and I'll see what she does.

Bram said...

You've made it clear that it's time to haul out all those old Tangents for a re-read. I really like those … most of them … as far as I remember.

Mostly, though, I just want to get alerted to follow-up comments from anyone else commenting what seems to be an odd move in the midst of some really good DC new launches.

Jer said...

an ad for the NBA on TNT (also not a house ad? Or does Warner Bros, which owns DC, also own TNT?)

Time-Warner owns TNT - it was part of the buyout of Turner Broadcasting that also got them CNN, TBS and Cartoon Network back in the day.

I don't own the issue, but I wonder who the cardgame publisher is. I actually find it hard to believe that there's exactly one ad in the book that isn't a Time-Warner property, but AFAIK Warner doesn't own any non-video game assets. Maybe it's for a licensed Time-Warner property?

Thanks for the write-up - I think Simone's work in general hasn't been as good since the New 52 reboot came along. Mostly because Simone was always really good at playing with existing continuity and backstory and now she's lost that tool to use. And her own tendency seems to be to want to go darker than I'm interested in going these days.

Caleb said...


The card game was Munchkin or Munchkins. I don't have book in front of me, so I don't remember which, now.

And I agree with your assessment of the New 52's effect on Simone's DCU writing. It goes triple for Geoff Johns, whose greatest skill was solving continuity problems and selling continuity patches in a way that fans wildly embraced.

Bram said...

Yeah, ad was for Munchkin. Which seems like it's been getting more hype these days in the comics world, perhaps in advance of its comic from … Boom. Hm.