(Another rewrite of an old post from my own blog, this one from 2011)
Bronze Age books suffered a lot from shifting creative teams. For every book like Flash, where Cary Bates was the writer throughout the decade, we seemed to have three or four like Skull the Slayer, where constantly changing writers wreaked havoc on any attempt to provide a coherent storyline. One place where that kind of worked, though, was DC’s Secret Society of Super-Villains. It’s not a great book, but the shifting writing staff and editorial direction gives it an improvisational feel, where I never know what’s coming next. As villain-centered books don’t fit conventional hero story arcs, that’s not such a bad thing.
Writer/editor Gerry Conway’s original first issue had Darkseid recruit Clayface, Star Sapphire, Captain Gold, Gorilla Grodd and one of Manhunter’s surviving clones to steal an experimental nerve gas. The villains realize that rather than being out for money, Darkseid intends to conquer Earth and vow to work against him. It’s a classic set-up — set the villain protagonist against someone even worse so they end up as antiheroes — though less than classic for Darkseid. Seriously, like Earth has better weapons than Apokalips does?
As detailed in Amazing World of DC Comics #11, after Ric Estrada penciled the story, Conway sat down with Carmine Infantino, who suggested some changes. They weren’t major, but they led to Conway rethinking the story and writing a new one with Pablo Marcos drawing it. At the start, messages go out to super-villains ranging from Gorilla Grodd to Copperhead, plus a new Star Sapphire. When they show up at an elegant San Francisco high-rise, Manhunter greets them and discusses the advantages of working as a team for his unseen employer, with the tower as their HQ. All they have to do is pass their initiation tests. At the end of the issue Grodd passes his but Copperhead flunks.
I really liked this issue, and rereading didn’t change that. Forming a super-villain team that lasted for more than just one or two issues of fights offered the potential for interesting characterization and different stories. I was also intrigued on first reading that the next-issue blurb announced the return of Captain Comet. At the time he hadn’t been seen since the 1950s, except for one reprint, so my nerdy little self was hooked.
Unfortunately, where #1 promised the slow reveal of the Society’s secrets, all that went out the window in #2. The initiation tests are apparently done, with a new member, Hi-Jack (formerly of the Royal Flush Gang) replacing Copperhead. They’re in the middle of a fight with Green Lantern when Captain Comet returns to Earth, assumes GL is the bad guy and “saves” the villains. With David Anthony Kraft writing, this is unsurprisingly awful (I know he has some fans here. I ain’t one of them); Comet assumes GL is the bad guy because one of the villains babbles “I won’t let you kill me!” as if Green Lantern was known for summary executions. And apparently Comet knows nothing of the Green Lantern Corps despite two decades exploring space.
While the Society figures they can dupe Comet into helping them, Manhunter tells him the truth: Darkseid has created the Secret Society as a more powerful version of Intergang. Presumably as the Manhunter clones were assassins for the villainous Council, Darkseid thought this clone would be evil (it’s never explained) but instead the clone hopes to turn the villains against him. We spend the next couple of issues with some of the villains going mano-a-mano with Darkseid’s agents. The others encounter Kirby’s Stan Lee-parody Funky Flashman who suggests what they need is better PR: Why shouldn’t heroes get the blame for all the property damage when titans clash, instead of the villains?
But then Conway was out as editor, replaced by Denny O’Neil, then Jack C. Harris, and we got another sharp change of direction. The Secret Society take on Darkseid himself, without success until Manhunter, as shown below, blows the Lord of Apokalips to kingdom come!
The letter column explained that Harris and new writer Bob Rozakis wanted to start fresh, without drawing on failed past series such as New Gods and Manhunter. That assessment sounds bizarre today, but the era when, as Keith Giffen once put it, DC editors passed Darkseid around like a bong were far in the future. In the early 1970s, DC looked on Kirby’s Fourth World as a failed experiment. It shows in the writing — Darkseid might as well have been R’as al Ghul or Luthor for all the difference it made.
Funky survived the shakeup but the PR plotline didn’t. Flashman simply sat around the Society HQ, acting as the team’s manager but entirely ineffective, like Maxwell Lord’s halfwit brother. The focus shifted to Captain Comet, who felt a responsibility for rounding up his former allies. Over the next couple of issues he works with Black Canary, then Hawkgirl, to take down various members carrying out schemes of their own. Then Conway came back to the writing and the focus broadened to take in the villains’ side of things. A new mystery employer hires the SSOV to find four sorcerous McGuffins from an old World’s Finest story, then Grodd recruits his teammates for a couple of unsuccessful world-conquering plans. The stories weren’t great but I really had no idea where it was going. That’s not a bad thing.
Finally the mystery employer pulls off his mask to show who he really is — the Wizard himself! His powers have been diminishing on Earth One but the four talismans have restored him. Now he tells his team-mates the reason he left Earth-Two: he and his fellow Justice Society foes are so psyched out from their repeated defeats, whenever they go up against their foes, they’re beaten before they start (an idea I’ve seen in a couple of other stories). The Earth-One villains won’t have that problem, so he wants them to come back to Earth-Two and fight the JSA for him. After getting rid of Funky, the Wizard leads the current membership (Professor Zoom, Blockbuster, Floronic Man and Star Sapphire) to Earth-Two. Oh, except they make an unplanned side trip to Earth-Three, leading to the first appearance of the Crime Syndicate in 15 years.
In the final issue, written by Rozakis again, the villains begin their attack on the JSA by taking out minor players such as Atom and Dr. Midnite; that way, when they go after the big guns, the heroes won’t have any backup. Showing a more typical lack of strategy, the Wizard doesn’t kill the captives, deciding to keep them alive until he has the entire team to execute at once. The series ends with Captain Comet pursuing the villains to Earth-Two; back on Earth-One, the Silver Ghost from DC’s Freedom Fighters hires the Society to take out that hero team.
At which point the book died along with so many others in the infamous DC Implosion. Had it kept going, I suspect we might have seen Star Sapphire team up with Captain Comet against her fellow villains; they’d been dating unawares in their secret identities and she was really PO’d the Wizard had shanghaid her to Earth-Two. Instead, the arc finished in a flashback in Justice League of America #166 telling how Captain Comet rallied the JSA to beat the villains. The Secret Society fled back to Earth-One and a final defeat by the JLA.
Lots of books suffered from this kind of creative shuffle during the Bronze Age (e.g., the short-lived Blackhawk revival). With Secret Society of Super-Villains, though, it kind of sort of worked.
#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by Ernie Chan, Dick Dillin, Dick Giordano, Rich Buckler, Curt Swan and Buckler again. If you click on the Amazon links and buy, a percentage of the money (as super-villains used to say) goes to my favorite charity — myself!