Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today let’s take a look at an excellent series that somehow managed to last six years despite having no heroes in it! This post was originally published on 29 April 2013. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Secret Six by Gail Simone (writer, Villains United #1-6; Six Degrees of Devastation #1-6; issues #1-14, 16-22, 24-36; Suicide Squad #67), John Ostrander (writer, #15, 17-18, 23; Suicide Squad #67), Paul Cornell (writer, Action Comics #896), Keith Giffen (writer, Doom Patrol #19), Dale Eaglesham (penciler, Villains United issues #1-2, 4-6), Val Semieks (penciler, Villains United #3), Brad Walker (penciler, Six Degrees of Devastation #1-6), Nicola Scott (penciler, issues #1-7, 9-14), Javi Pina (artist, issue #6), Carlos Rodriguez (penciler, issues #8, 13-14), Amanda Gould (artist, issue #8), Jim Calafiore (artist, issue #15, 17-22, 24-28, 30-36; Suicide Squad #67), Peter Nguyen (penciler, issue #16), RB Silva (penciler, issue #23), Marcos Marz (penciler, issue #29), Pete Woods (artist, Action Comics #896), Matthew Clark (penciler, Doom Patrol #19), Ron Randall (penciler, Doom Patrol #19), Wade von Grawbadger (inker, Villains United #1-2, 4-6), Prentiss Rollins (inker, Villains United #3), Jimmy Palmiotti (inker, Six Degrees of Devastation #1-6), Doug Hazlewood (inker, issues #1-7, 9-14, 16), Rodney Ramos (inker, issues #5, 7, 13), Bit (inker, issue #8), Mike Sellers (inker, issue #10), Mark McKenna (inker, issues #11-12, 14, 16), Alexandre Palamaro (inker, issue #23), Luciano Del Negro (inker, issue #29), Art Thibert (inker, Doom Patrol #19), Sean Parsons (inker, Doom Patrol #19), Sno-Cone (colorist, Villains United #1-6), Paul Mounts (colorist, Six Degrees of Devastation #1-6), Jason Wright (colorist, issues #1-30; Suicide Squad #67), John Kalisz (colorist, issues #30-36), Brad Anderson (colorist, Action Comics #896), Guy Major (colorist, Doom Patrol #19), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer, Villains United #1), Pat Brosseau (letterer, Villains United #2-4, 6; issue #14; Doom Patrol #19), Nick J. Napolitano (letterer, Villains United #5), Travis Lanham (letterer, Six Degrees of Devastation #1-6; issues #2-3, 5, 9, 11, 13, 15-36), Steve Wands (letterer, issues #1, 12; Suicide Squad #67), Sal Cipriano (letterer, issues #4, 6, 8, 10), Rob Clark Jr. (letterer, issue #7), and Rob Leigh (letterer, Action Comics #896).
Published by DC, 51 issues (Villains United #1-6; Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation #1-6; Secret Six #1-36; Suicide Squad #67, which comes after issue #16; Action Comics #896, which comes after issue #28; Doom Patrol #19, which comes after issue #30), cover dated July – December 2005 (Villains United); July 2006 – January 2007 (Six Degrees of Devastation); November 2008 – October 2011 (Secret Six ongoing).
Some SPOILERS below, but I try quite hard to keep the major plot points under wraps. Fear not!
Villains are fascinating in fiction simply because they do things that “regular” folk can’t imagine doing, and therefore they provide a violent, visceral, and vicarious thrill (yeah, that’s right). The great villains can sustain a story, because they’re so good at being evil that readers (or viewers) want to see what they’re going to do next. In our Manichean world, however, we do want to see the villains punished eventually. It’s probably (I’m not a sociologist!) for that reason that comic book series starring villains tend not to last very long. It’s too difficult to make sure the villain gets his comeuppance while still keeping the series going. We crave punishment, in other words. There have been some exceptions, especially in recent years as the line between heroes and villains becomes increasingly blurred, and of those exceptions, Secret Six is the acme. None of the characters in the book are anti-heroes like Frank Castle. They’re not “above” such petty distinctions of good-and-evil like Victor von Doom in Marvel’s Doom 2099. The characters in Secret Six are pretty vile human beings, all in all. So how did Gail Simone make this book so good?
The idea for the comic stems from one of DC’s semi-regular reboots, Infinite Crisis, which was preceded by several mini-series that were somewhat connected to the impending big event. By far the best one was Villains United, in which Lex Luthor, Talia al Ghul, the Calculator, Dr. Psycho, and Black Adam created a Secret Society of Super-Villains – almost a trade union, if you will. They did this in response to the revelation that DC’s heroes had no problem excising bits and pieces of people’s brains, a nasty bit of business from Identity Crisis, which started the ball rolling toward the quasi-reboot of Infinite Crisis. With Luthor involved, this became a “closed shop” situation, and when a few villains – Catman, Deadshot, Scandal Savage, Cheshire, Ragdoll, and a Parademon – said no to joining the Society, they were targeted for extermination. Scandal is in touch with a mysterious benefactor called “Mockingbird” who blackmails them into going after the Society, and the stage is set for the first mini-series. At the end of the series, they decide to stick together and hire themselves out as mercenaries, which leads to the next mini-series and the ongoing.
So Simone solves one problem by making the Six “less vile” than those they fight. The Society is comprised of far more villains, and while the Six fight against it because they don’t want to be subject to the Society’s rules, by doing so they’re “saving” the world from an organized and ruthless group of superpowered bad guys. They don’t really succeed in stopping the Society (which is broken up during Infinite Crisis), but they weaken it and keep it distracted from doing real damage. In the second mini-series, Six Degrees of Devastation, Vandal Savage, the famous DC immortal being, wants his daughter (Scandal) to produce an heir, and the Six fight against him. As Vandal Savage is another rather awful person, the Six come out looking better for it. When the book becomes an ongoing, Simone has the Six take missions that usually don’t involve heroes, so they don’t have to fight the “good guys” all that often (although superheroes do show up), and they also usually end up doing the right thing even if they don’t want to. Simone realized early on that she had a good hook – the Six actually do care about certain things, including the others in their group, so when a mission presents an opportunity to do true evil or to betray their teammates, they usually end up doing the right thing (eventually, that is – many members betray their teammates at one time or another, but they’re always welcomed back to the fold). It also helps that the missions they take tend to involve horrible people, so even if they’re doing horrible things, it’s usually to people who deserve it. Simone makes the book less about the actual villainy and more about the characters interacting, and that’s why the book works.
Simone takes characters that aren’t A-list but aren’t completely obscure, either, and makes them her own. Her talent really lies in characterization – there’s really only one brilliant plot in Secret Six – and so the fact that she’s using characters that weren’t top-of-the-line in the DC hierarchy means that she can create personalities for them and play them off each other. The most recognizable characters she used were Floyd Lawton and Thomas Blake – Deadshot and Catman. Both are old Batman villains, but they never became A-listers, so Simone could use them without stepping on toes. Lawton is famous because he was a very old villain (he first appeared in 1950) who disappeared for over 25 years before Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers redesigned him in the late 1970s. From then on he showed up occasionally, until John Ostrander decided to use him in Suicide Squad (of which Secret Six is a spiritual successor) and he became much more prominent and a far more interesting character. Simone uses Ostrander’s template for Lawton, but she makes him even more nasty than Ostrander did (the changing mores of comic books probably have something to do with that). Blake, meanwhile, first appeared in the 1960s a few times, then reappeared in Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Detective Comics run in 1990. He drifted around until Brad Meltzer decided to use him in Green Arrow, turning Blake into an overweight loser. Simone remade him as a “noble savage,” more comfortable around cats than humans, a superb tracker, and far more vicious than his earlier incarnations. Lawton and Blake are part of the core of the team. They’re joined by two Simone creations, Scandal Savage and Peter Merkel (Ragdoll). The earliest version of the group featured Cheshire, who betrays the team but not before she gets pregnant by Blake – their son becomes an important plot point in the ongoing. The early version of the team also includes Knockout, the Superboy villain from Apokolips. She and Scandal are madly in love, but Knockout was rather annoyingly killed off by Tony Bedard in Birds of Prey #109, and when the ongoing starts, Scandal is still recovering from losing her. Knockout’s death would shadow the team for the entire run of the series, but it seems somewhat arbitrary that Bedard would kill her off. Simone introduces a new character, Jeannette, a banshee, in the ongoing, and she also adds Bane to the team. Her depiction of Bane is excellent – he’s still the Batman villain, but she tweaks his sense of nobility enough that he becomes a far more interesting character than he ever was when Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench wrote him. Simone also uses her own creation, Black Alice (who debuted in Birds of Prey) for part of the ongoing. So while she was able to create some of the characters from the ground up, she was able to take some established characters and make them much more interesting than they had ever been before.
The character work on Secret Six is important, because Simone’s plots are just okay. The plots tend to follow a standard template: The Six go on a mission (and in the ongoing it’s usually because someone pays them); one of the team betrays the rest of them OR something regarding the mission causes the team to fracture; there’s a ton of violence; the team lets bygones be bygones and tends not to get paid. There’s nothing particularly wrong with these plots, to be sure, but Simone comes up with only one really good plot – in the first arc of the ongoing, she sends the team to pick up Tarantula, the character from Nightwing who is perhaps most famous for “raping” Dick Grayson (there’s still some controversy about whether she did or not, hence the quotation marks). Catalina – Tarantula – possesses a card created by the demon Neron that allows its holder to get out of Hell, and the Six have been hired by a mysterious employer to break Catalina out of Alcatraz and escort her across the country to Gotham City. Meanwhile, the villain she stole it from, an enigmatic creature called Junior, is on their trail, as are the hundreds of villains Junior hires to stop them. This is a superb plot – in the DCU, Hell is an actual place that several characters have visited, so everyone wants the card, and even though the Six claim they’re not going to betray each other, we know it’s coming and are just waiting to see who cracks. Meanwhile, Junior is an amazing villain – one of the best creations of the past decade or so in comics. The arc got the ongoing off to a tremendous beginning. However, Simone’s plots after it were not of the same caliber. Again, there was nothing wrong with them, but Simone struck gold with the first arc, and she tended to mirror that just a little. The next big arc, “Depths,” stars a villain who is building a prison for every criminal in the world, and the Six gets a bit grumpy because he’s using slave labor. Some of the group wants to fight against the bad guy, and some of the group wants to finish the job. The “Blackest Night” crossover that comes next hearkens back to the first two mini-series, in which bad guys want to kill the Six, so they become good guys by accident. In the next arc, “Cats in the Cradle,” an old man hires some evil dudes to kidnap Catman’s baby son to blackmail him into killing his teammates, but instead he accepts that the kid is dead and starts hunting them. In the next big arc, “The Reptile Brain,” the team has split, and Bane and Jeannette recruit new members, who are sent to Skartaris to conquer it. Amanda Waller sends the rest of the team to stop them, and they fight amongst themselves once more. In a two-part crossover with Action Comics, they’re hired by Lex Luthor to provide security when he meets with Vandal Savage, and of course it all goes sideways. Then, in a two-part crossover with Doom Patrol, they’re hired by a brash, teenaged supervillain who wants to conquer Oolong Island and build his base inside a volcano (he’s trying to recreate the 1960s). Like the previous crossover, that doesn’t turn out too well for them. In “The Darkest House,” Scandal decides to go to Hell and retrieve Knockout, and as she kept the “get-out-of-Hell” card from the first arc, she thinks she can. Unfortunately, another member of the team got to the card first, so once again the Six has to fight one of their own. Finally, in the last two-part story, Bane decides to attack Batman’s “family,” which doesn’t work out too well. His motivation is odd – it feels far more like a “Well, this series is ending so it needs to go out with a bang” rather than something that this Bane would really do, but it’s rescued because of Simone’s character work with Bane, which I’ll get back to. As you can see, all of these arcs are solid plots, but they don’t really dazzle with cleverness. The reason they work so well is because Simone has done such a marvelous job with the characters that we believe they could act the way they do. That’s why the series is so impressive.
Simone takes these somewhat pedestrian plots and infuses them with so much drama, interpersonal relationships, violence, and twisted humor that it doesn’t really matter that they’re somewhat similar to each other (it’s not a surprise that issues #8, 9, and 24, three single-issue stories that focus on the characters more, are excellent). The humor of Secret Six is the secret weapon, because Simone understood that in the post-Identity Crisis DCU, straight-up heroism was being discounted and everyone turned to their own personal dark sides. She comments on this at the end of Villains United, when Blake and Lawton warn Oliver Queen that the Society plans to “mindwipe” the heroes, much like the heroes “mindwiped” Dr. Light in Identity Crisis. When Green Arrow tells Blake that he (Oliver) appreciates Blake “coming to the good guys for once,” Blake punches him and says:
Don’t kid yourself. Good guys don’t lobotomize people who are already in handcuffs. Every stinking thing that’s happened because of it is on your heads. Remember that. People are going to die, because you took a shortcut. … You were all great once. You can be that way again … but you’d better hurry. Before the line between you and us gets too damn blurry to see.
Simone puts in Blake’s mouth the sentiments of a lot of DC readers (not all, certainly, but a vocal minority, at least), who reacted against this “darkening” of the DC heroes, and in this darker DCU, how could a book about villains stand out when the heroes often acted like villains themselves? First, Simone made the Six even darker than the heroes, but at the same time, she made them have different personalities than your average hero. But she added humor, which makes the book even smarter. Secret Six is like a black situation comedy, in that everyone has the perfect comeback, usually delivered with biting humor. In the first issue of Villains United, Talia and Dr. Psycho visit Catman in Africa, and Blake tells them he doesn’t want to join the Society. Psycho says, “I can make you eat you own entrails, Blake. I can make you stick your thumbs in your eyes while dancing the lambada.” Without missing a beat, Blake says, “Maybe. And maybe I can resist long enough to shove my knife into your brain from the soft tissue under your chin.” Then he threatens Psycho with being eaten by lions, saying, “Tabby’s pregnant, by the way. It may comfort you to know that I’ll remember the protein you provided when she slings her litter.” Simone’s razor-sharp dialogue and the way her characters deliver them totally deadpan even as things turn to shit around them – the first time we see Deadshot, he doesn’t kill some of their targets until he finishes his cigarette, even though they’re about to crash into the jeep in which he’s sitting – is a hallmark of the series, and this reaches its apotheosis in Peter Merkel Jr., also known as Ragdoll, who might be Simone’s best creation.
Ragdoll is an old villain in the DCU, as he appeared first in 1942 as an adversary of the Flash. In the modern age, James Robinson revived him in Starman, where he became a much more disturbing villain, and his son, also called Peter, is the character that Simone creates in Villains United. The original Ragdoll was “triple-jointed,” and he became a contortionist before turning to crime. In issue #3 of Villains United, we find out that his son, Peter, was not jointed like his father, so in order to not be a disappointment to him, the son underwent voluntary operations that gave him “fully rotating, self-lubricating implants.” The operations left him horribly scarred, though, and obviously unhinged him even more than he had been. But Ragdoll is a brilliant character because Simone makes him such a perverted and disturbed individual with no filter, so he says whatever he wants. Plus, despite the fact that the first time we see him he’s killing someone, everyone always underestimates him, which makes him both angry and sad. He doesn’t know how to interact with people, and early in the book, his only friend is the nameless Parademon, who has a fairly unhealthy obsession with Ragdoll. The Parademon sacrifices himself at the end of Villains United to save Peter, so Ragdoll has him stuffed and mounted in his room in the House of Secrets (which is the Six’s headquarters once they establish that they’re a group). Later, when Black Alice joins the team, she finds Peter extremely intriguing, and he’s somewhat flummoxed by this. What Simone does nicely is show that everyone on the team likes Peter, but he’s too insane or damaged to realize it. When he inevitably betrays the team (as everyone does, eventually), it’s because he believes that no one on the team likes him. He returns to them when he realizes what they’re willing to do to save him. Ragdoll is also by far the funniest character in the book, and one of the funniest characters in comics over the past decade or so. He always says the completely inappropriate thing, but his brutal honesty is a bit metatextual (Simone does this a lot in this comic), as he says things that fans often think about the characters in the DCU. One of the running gags of the comic is Lawton begging Ragdoll to stop telling him things, because Peter makes even a hardened killer like Deadshot uncomfortable. In issue #9 (a single-issue story that tied into the whole “Battle for the Cowl” thing after Bruce Wayne’s “death” in Final Crisis), Bane, Catman, and Ragdoll head to Gotham to rescue some kidnapped kids because Batman isn’t around. It’s one of the best issues of the run, and Peter’s dialogue is superb. When we first see him, he’s dressed as Robin and he calls out to Catman, “Never fear, old chum! The he/she wonder is on the case! Holy capital punishment or some such!” Blake tells him that Robin doesn’t talk like that, and Peter says, “Really? Where’s the fun in that?” Later, he says, “To my Bat-pole!” and Blake tells him (in a superb panel of the three of them climbing the side of a building, à la the old Batman television series), “That sounds a bit unsavory when you say it. Of course, everything sounds unsavory when you say it,” and this delights Peter. “Cheese-stuffed manicotti,” he says, and then, “Ewww! It does!” Simone has him say several other things throughout the comic, and it’s a measure of how well she’s written the character that, to us, it does sound unsavory. Even though she doesn’t bring it up again, readers are constantly reminded of it whenever Ragdoll opens his mouth, and it makes reading him even more fun. Simone doesn’t just use Ragdoll as comic relief, as she occasionally reminds us how dangerous he is, and in issue #22, he actually acts “sane” for a moment, and it’s one of the more terrifying moments of the series. It’s a very nice tightrope Simone walks with regard to Peter, but she pulls it off.
Of course, Simone does great work with the other characters as well. She makes Lawton and Blake one of the great bromances of comics, as they’re just similar enough to be friends but different enough to be mistrustful of each other. Blake seems to think he’s slightly more noble than Lawton, while Lawton still thinks Blake is denying his true nature. This comes out early on, when in Villains United Blake discovers that Lawton killed the lions that Blake was living with in Africa, which drove Catman to join the Six to seek vengeance. Simone, as she does, doesn’t belabor the reconciliation – Lawton apologizes, and the two move on. Jeannette takes a liking to Lawton, and in issue #8 (another very good single issue), they double-date with Scandal and Liana, a Knockout-lookalike that the team set her up with. Simone does a nice job with Lawton, showing his “softer” side even as he’s always aware of what’s going on around him. In “Depths,” he’s actually the one who stays “loyal” to their employer the longest, even as the rest of the team decides that what the man is doing is despicable. But Lawton comes around, and once again the team comes through. John Ostrander writes issue #15, which focuses on Lawton (who was always one of Ostrander’s favorite characters), as Richard Craemer (probably Ostrander’s favorite creation) shows up when Deadshot thinks he’s losing control. It’s an interesting retelling of Deadshot’s origin, although it feels like Ostrander was setting something up for Simone to run with – Lawton losing control of himself – that she never really got around to. Lawton is also a major focus of the Suicide Squad/Secret Six crossover, which isn’t the best story arc, as it ties into the whole “Blackest Night” rigmarole, but it does allow Ostrander to revisit his great creations and show how valuable Lawton is. Amanda Waller wants Floyd back on the team, but he chooses his current group. This arc also has a tremendous fight between Catman and Bronze Tiger, in which both of them almost die. “Cats in the Cradle” is where Blake comes to the forefront, and it’s also the arc that changes him the most dramatically. A man hires three diabolical assassins to kidnap Blake’s infant son – the one he had with Cheshire – and tells him that they’ll kill the boy, but he’ll live a year for every team member Blake kills for them. As Blake considers it, Lawton is the first to realize that something bad has happened – “There ain’t no Thomas, sis,” he says to Scandal. But Blake won’t do it – he picks up the phone and tells them to go ahead and kill his son. He knows enough about them just from the telephone call that he can find them and kill them. Then he leaves the team. Lawton, Scandal, Ragdoll, and Black Alice go after him, leaving Bane and Jeannette to re-form the team. Blake has gone into the darkest parts of his soul, and Simone uses this story arc to show how horrible his upbringing was, with his father trying to “make him a man” by forcing him to kill animals, while his mother tried to have a better influence on him. It all ends terribly, but it explains some of Blake’s actions, not only in this arc but in his career. As with many of the dramatic endings in the series, Simone doesn’t have the characters deal with it directly, but it shadows the series from then on. Blake rejoins the team when Bane and Jeannette take the new members to Skartaris, but he’s still not right. One of the things that Simone does very well in this series is take these horrific events and incorporate them into the characters’ personalities without being too obnoxious about it. Blake never really recovers, but while he is hardened, he’s still a bit more noble than the others. Meanwhile, Lawton’s exposure to people with a slightly more moral code than he has means he becomes a bit more moral. Simone doesn’t give them a big ending (the ending of the series is seriously flawed through no fault of Simone’s, anyway), but it’s telling that the last word Lawton says in the book is “Blake!” as his friend is cut down (not killed, though) and they fall right next to each other. Simone did far more work with Blake than she did with Lawton (who, as noted, Ostrander turned into a fascinating character in Suicide Squad), but she made them a great couple, and the way they played off each other was a strong part of the comic.
Finally, Simone performs remarkable surgery on Bane’s personality, turning him into a weird yet gripping character. Bane was never particularly interesting before Simone got a hold of him – Dixon and Moench never did too much with him, as he was created for one purpose: to break Batman’s back. That accomplished, he kind of drifted for years before Secret Six. Simone used some of the seeds that had been left, but her Bane becomes a fascinating character early in the run – in issue #2, he recognizes that Scandal needs “the firm but loving hand of a father.” He decides, naturally, that he would be best at this. Simone also plays up his sense of honor – he’s a killer, sure, but he doesn’t consider himself an amoral person. We first see glimpses of this when Deadshot threatens to kill Tarantula in issue #3 – Bane says “We should not harass a prisoner. It is unseemly.” A few panels later, he gets angry at Deadshot: “Perhaps you would like to threaten me instead of the girl, Mr. Lawton?” Simone continues to expand on this idea of Bane as the “noble villain” as the arc continues, while showing how incredibly tough he remains, as Junior tortures him in issue #5 but he still finds a way to kill one of Junior’s sidekicks. Finally, in issue #7, he takes Venom – which he had sworn not to do – to save Scandal’s life. Simone does a nice job showing the depth of his commitment to her, but it also starts leading him down a path that he didn’t want to retread. In issue #9, when he and Catman try to pick up the slack in Batman’s absence from Gotham, Bane picks a case that deals with missing children, again showing his odd paternal fixation. In one statement from Bane, Simone nails the idea of villains in a superhero-dominated universe: “They define us because we have allowed them to do so. They are both our motivation and the architects of our descent.” Bane seems to struggle with this idea far more than the others, although this might be the general theme of the entire series, especially the final, Bane-driven arc. At the beginning of “Depths,” Scandal tries to help Bane before he becomes addicted to Venom again, and their relationship becomes closer, although Bane thinks it means that Scandal accepts him as a father figure. Later in the arc, Scandal herself takes Venom, and this causes Bane to seize command of the team and order her off the team. He has taken the “parent/child” paradigm to its logical conclusion. He tries to stop Black Alice from joining the team because of her youth, but he can’t. Finally, when Blake leaves the team to hunt down the men who took his child, Bane and Jeannette form a different team and go on the mission to Skartaris. All of this comes to a head when the team travels to Hell, where Bane finds out that he’s damned. “But I am a righteous man,” he says. “I’m not like them. I live by a code. A code of honor.” He’s told it doesn’t matter, and he realizes that what he does on Earth “makes no difference.” Scandal, however, points out that it’s not true, and the friendships he has made on the team mean everything, because they forgive him. When they return to Earth, Scandal convinces him to go on a date which turns out very well. Unfortunately, it leads to the end of the team, because Bane realizes that he failed to “break” Batman because Batman is surrounded by people he loves. Love made Bane weak because he lost control (when he was defending his date), and love makes the Batman weak. So he plans to destroy everyone in Batman’s life. This ends extremely poorly, and unfortunately, Simone resets Bane a bit, as he’s free of “encumbrances” like Scandal and he can be the best Bane he can be, but it doesn’t change the fact that Simone has done a very nice job making Bane a fascinating character and the odd “moral” center of the team.
What’s even more unusual about the book is that Simone doesn’t take any characters “off.” Black Alice and King Shark aren’t in the book too long, but they both are very interesting and different from everyone else. Villains like Aaron and Tig (from the first arc) are handled very well, so much so that even their horrible fates make the reader feel a bit bad for them. Simone seems to know exactly the right way to handle each character, so that they become far more “real” and clever and compelling than when handled by others. She knows the characters so well that when they do something, it never feels in the service of the plot, but like something they would actually do. At the end of Six Degrees of Devastation, the fact that Mad Hatter tries to kill Scandal because she knocked his hat off is well done, as is Ragdoll’s efforts to talk him down. Then, a page later, Merkel betrays the Mad Hatter, because, as he puts it, “I’m afraid there’s really only room for one dandy freak on this team, Mr. Tetch.” It’s a funny few pages, but it’s also perfectly done because Simone has been laying the groundwork with Peter Merkel so well. Even though every character speaks very cleverly, it’s clever in the context of their personalities – things Scandal says would not work if Deadshot said them, and things Catman says wouldn’t work if Bane said them. This distinctive style for each character is a reason why this book is far better than a lot of comics from this particular era, in which characters speak the same and often just to move the plot along. Simone’s characters talk to each other, and while they exposit occasionally, they banter a lot more, and it’s very fun to read.
As with most superhero comics of the time, the artwork on Secret Six is, unfortunately, usually secondary to the writing. Simone worked with four primary artists on the book, and they all do a fine job. Dale Eaglesham’s smooth lines and fetishization of the male form give the comic a solid beginning, while Brad Walker’s more cartoony style worked well for a book starring the Mad Hatter. Nicola Scott is probably the best artist to work on the comic (either she or Eaglesham), and it’s too bad she didn’t stay for the entire run, as she and Simone seemed to work well together (she got a chance to work on Wonder Woman, which is probably why she left, but she didn’t last very long on the title, so I wonder if she has any regrets). She has a very precise, smooth line, and she’s tremendous with facial expressions, which is very helpful when combined with Simone’s acidic scripts. Scott and Hazlewood’s detailed line work and Wright’s soft colors work well together, giving the book a more naturalistic look, which works pretty well in the grittiness of the DCU underbelly. Jim Calafiore was probably the most contentious artist on the title – some people just don’t like his angular style, and he’s certainly not as good at facial expressions as Scott, but he does a pretty good job with the book. He’s much more comfortable with the violent aspects of the book, and under his pencils, the book becomes even darker than when Scott was drawing it. Calafiore isn’t as good at page layouts as Scott is, and occasionally, some of his panels are a bit incomprehensible, but he usually acquits himself well. If we consider the history of superhero art in general, it’s rare to see the art challenge the reader as much as on more “artistic” projects, so it’s not like the main artists or the various fill-in artists on this series are asked to do so much. They do a decent job, and none of them interfere with Simone’s script too much. In the assembly-line world of mainstream superhero comics, all the artists can do is make sure the book is legible. For the most part, they do that here.
Secret Six has been collected into what looks like eight trade paperbacks, and it’s not very old at all, so it should be easy to find. Apparently issue #29, which is the second part of the crossover with Action Comics #896, is in the Action Comics trade, but that’s the way things work, occasionally. I would argue that Simone has never been better (I haven’t read everything she’s written, but I’ve read quite a bit), as she takes her twisted and dark sense of humor (which has served her well throughout her career) and weds it to superb character work and exciting (if unspectacular) plots, and the result is stellar. Of all the indignities heaped upon the old DCU by the reboot, the abrupt end of this comic is perhaps the most egregious (I don’t know how well it sold, so perhaps it would have gotten cancelled anyway, but the ending does feel abrupt). Simone certainly might approach the heights of Secret Six again, but for now, it’s her masterpiece, and it’s not a bad legacy at all.
Always remember that the archives are there for your perusal! “S” has barely begun, and I’m already piling up the titles that begin with it! What will be next????
[I didn’t write too much about the art, but I didn’t really want to, either. Sometimes the focus is on other things! Simone hasn’t really come close to matching this in the decade since it ended, which is too bad – she’s a good writer, but she hasn’t quite reached the heights she attained on this series. I met her once in San Diego, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to her about this comic, as she was at the DC booth and was simply signing things, but it would be interesting to chat with her about this series. Oh well. I have linked to the first trade below, because it’s not really something you should miss if you want to read the ongoing. Give it a look!]