Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Secret Six #1 Review

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Nicola Scott

Three years ago, DC Comics made the wise decision of having four mini-series that led into its summer crossover, Infinite Crisis. While two of them were pretty forgettable (The Rann-Thanagar War and Day of Vengeance), two of them were a couple of the most interesting mini-series DC has ever produced, The OMAC Project and Villains United. The latter story was about six otherwise C-list villains recruited by Lex Luthor to stop Alexander Luthor, Jr.'s plan to impersonate him and unite the villains of the DC universe in an assault against the heroes. This story was very well received, and has since spawned two mini-series, both entitled "Secret Six", following the adventures of his group of third-rate villains.

It can be very hard to write a story based on the lesser-known characters of the DC Universe. After all, they are probably lesser-known for a reason. Well-known characters tend to tap into some sort of psychology of archetypes that enables multiple writers to tell meaningful stories about them for decades. A few years ago, Grant Morrison did something similar with Seven Soldiers of Victory in which he used or created seven lesser known heroes of the DC universe. Gail Simone has done the same thing very successfully with the villains. The characters come across as well-drawn, quirky and ultimately very believable despite their obviously disordered personalities. In a way, Secret Six is the villainous answer to Seven Soldiers, showing that a stong author can write stories using any material, and even find ways to make their stories stronger using the absurdity of the material.

The Secret Six, who are now reduced to four after the deaths of Parademon and Knockout, are hired in this story to kill Tarantula, a prominent character from the Nightwing comics who dated Nightwing until she murdered Blockbuster and was sent to prison. She stole something the size of a card, and a creepy villain who lives in a box named Junior wants it back. Huntress, who apparently dated Catman in the Birds of Prey comic, tries to warn him off of the "job" under the orders of Batman.

However, the plot is not what makes this comic book so interesting. Simone's strength is not really with her plots but with her characterization. Her characterization of Catman is especially strong, and he has always been her most well-written character. If anyone is a C-lister, it is him. He is a knockoff of a knockoff, somehow blending the names of "Batman" and "Catwoman" just because at some point someone at DC thought that there should be a male version of the latter. Part of what makes him so interesting is precisely that he is so third rate. He wants to go "straight", but has no idea how to do it. His retirement to live with the lions failed miserably after he murdered several hunters. Now, he is still working as an assassin, musing that he would like to reform, but with no real plan of how to do so. He and Deadshot are witnesses to a liquor store robbery, where they oscillate back-and-forth on how to handle it. At first, they simply ignore the robbers, then they decide to rob the liquor store themselves. On realising that the robbers are likely to kill the witnesses after they leave, Catman goes in and "saves the day" by beating the original robbers brutally and scarring them like Zorro. His confusion about how a hero is supposed to behave is so well written that one can hardly help but laugh when Deadshot says, "Yep, guess the Justice League oughtta be callin' any day now, General Glory".

The other characters are superbly drawn as well. Deadshot is a dangerous killer with no conscience. He's not really a psychopath, but more of a man with no moral compass of any kind. Ragdoll is truly creepy, and Simone does a great job of blending his insecurity and goofiness with his brutality. Scandal, the daughter of Vandal Savage, spends most of the issue drunk after the death of Knockout (which happened in the Death of the New Gods story), but when the rest of the Secret Four snap her out of it by hiring a stripper dressed as her former lover, she doesn't get angry as one might expect, but appreciates the gesture and turns back into the cold and effective leader she was in the former books. There is also a nice moment with Knockout and Scandal, where we are reminded that Knockout is a goddess and may not really be dead, keeping the book in continuity with what is happening over in Final Crisis without overwhelming the story or turning it into a crossover.

The villain, too, is suitably scary. In a story about villains, the antagonist villain has to be even more...villainous. When killing an insubordinate lackey, Junior is not content so simply kill the lackey, but horrify him and his family. He even kills his dog. When your main characters are villains, having a dark, barely human creature living in a box as the villain is suitably terrifying and I look forward to seeing what Simone plans to do with the rest of the story.

This book doesn't have the same sense of fun with evil that Thunderbolt's current issue has, nor does it have the same sense of malice as Final Crisis. Instead, Simone very carefully and very successfully tells a story about villains without necessarily having any overwhelming theme about evil. She takes these characters very seriously, and has a lot to say about them, their characters and their relationships. We see Catman's futile attempt to reform and the confusion of the other members as to what it is they really want or what will really satisfy them. I'm not sure if this is intended to be an ongoing series (there's no "1 of 6" anywhere on the title), and I am very interested to see what Simone will do with these characters in the long run.


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