Change of Pace: By Popular Demand II: Secret Six
By Troy Brownfield
We’re back with the second of our “By Popular Demand” installments. Yes, there will again be tweeting that a DC book isn’t a change of pace. Nevertheless, this one in fact is. Under regular writer Gail Simone and regular artist Nicola Scott, Secret Six remains a wicked kick. Launching out of the “Infinite Crisis” lead-in mini-series “Villains United” and a subsequent “Secret Six” mini-series, the ongoing book keeps us entertained with its blend of fractured personalities, flexible morality, mordant humor and frequently punishing action.
So, since we love a gimmick, here are Six Things We Love About Secret Six.
Yes, It’s Different: One of the best things about the series is how it brings together characters that have historically been villains and treats them in a sympathetic light. However, it doesn’t really rehabilitate them, and the leads are still capable of making awful choices in bone-headed ways. Even when Deadshot more or less attempts to put himself in harm’s way in the interest of possibly protecting his teammates near the end of the “Unhinged” arc, he still comes off as a complete dick about it. Simone is not afraid to tempt you to dislike her cast. Regardless, I wind up finding them even more endearing as they struggle to stick together despite their many obvious issues.
The Cast: Simone made some terrific choices in assembling this group, and deserves mighty praise for the Catman Reclamation Project. Once a lower-tier Batman villain reduced to out-of-shape failure in “Green Arrow” appearance a few years back, Catman came back to life under Simone. He’s intelligent, tough, and both haunted and driven by his old foe, the Dark Knight. Catman struggles with his own morality, committing heinous acts when necessary but unable to leave the scene of a store robbery in progress without interfering. His budding nobility makes him a great foil for Deadshot, the amoral assassin that had a code once, but is so confused by his own frequent bloodlust and cynicism that he takes comfort in only dark humor and violence.
Despite Deadshot’s frequently amusing lines, the comedic star here is definitely Rag Doll. Disturbed beyond conventional words for it, the flexible felon lends himself to a number of laugh-out-loud moments over the course of the series. Whether making an awkward proposition to a stripper dressed like Knockout or gently ribbing Catman and Bane for considering taking on the role of Batman, Rag Doll can be used to defuse any situation with bizarre and disturbing humor.
Former leader Scandal Savage, daughter of immortal villain Vandal Savage, has her own problems. Aside from her father issues and the loss of her love, the aforementioned Knockout, she’s got her own lust for violence and bad decisions. That’s been counterbalanced by Bane. Bane realized early on that Scandal lacked a father figure to keep her together, and has tried to assume that role. Recently, that meant taking control of the team and benching Scandal.
Last, there’s Jeannette. A banshee with a penchant for Victorian dress, she joined the team during the first arc of the regular series. Immediately attracted to the killer inside Deadshot, she’s found herself on the receiving end of his bullets on a couple of occasions. That’s not how you build trust, kids.
The Villians for the Villains: How do you make bad guys likeable? Put them up against villains that are much, much worse. From Rag Doll’s psychotic sister Junior to former ally Mad Hatter to slaver Mr. Smyth, the bad guys here are absolutely despicable. Junior in particular was extremely disturbing. All of these characters serve to push you toward rooting for the Six, even if you’re aghast at their natures.
Nicola Scott!: Good Lord, Nicola Scott was born to draw comic books. Technically proficient with a smooth line and the ability to render huge numbers of characters extremely well, Scott keeps all the action moving with solid pacing. The first arc was a real test, considering that it was loaded with dozens of guest villains. Not only did she do a great job with all of them, she defined the regular cast quickly and efficiently. She’s also able to capture the cinematic quality of a scene, guaranteeing that the comedic timing and expressions with be spot-on or that the giant fight will be well-choreographed. She definitely deserves more recognition.
Unexpected Twists: Simone and the gang have managed to surprise me more than once. Sometimes it’s in the humor, as when the guys somehow thought it might have been a wise move to hire that stripper that looked like Knockout to cheer up Scandal. That’s a hilariously awful choice to make, and the whole bit was beautifully uncomfortable. The plots are also kept lively by the lingering possibility of betrayal. It always seems like someone could “flip” at any moment, and you’re quite sure who’s going to make it and how.
We Said It’s Funny, Right?: In an age of extremely serious books, the value of the humor here cannot be underestimated. Simone and Scott never go for the easiest joke. They do, however, often go for the joke that’s going to disturb your sensibilities and bother you for a while. I have to admit that I love the recurring bit of Rag Doll tossing/tricking Mad Hatter to his apparent death. Yes, I probably have problems, too.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure why Secret Six isn’t a huge hit. It has whip-smart writing, great art, a complex cast, and yards of spot-on gallows humor. It would also be fairly accessible to new readers, particularly since there are trades available. Despite the fact that it’s a Big-Two book starring super-characters, I feel quite confident in agreeing with our requesting readers and declaring that it is, indeed, a Change of Pace.