Gail Simone, Nicola Scott, & Doug Hazelwood, Secret Six (DC, 2009). $2.99, monthly
By David B. Olsen
The devil and I read different comics. Well, maybe not the devil, but when you are having a conversation on Halloween night, on the poorly lit porch of a house that backs up to a cemetery, with a friend in an intricately grotesque mask and studded leather jacket—well, under these conditions you tend not to make distinctions in your princes of darkness. So he was the devil in the moment, anyway, and his taste in comics is almost exactly what you might expect: savage, brutal, bloody. (It was maybe the first conversation I’ve had in which “rape” was listed as a selling point for something.) An avid devourer of The Boysand Herogasm, the devil scoffed at the so-called “purity” of most of my favorite books, in which the sex is generally consensual and the bloodshed is slight enough that it comes out with a little bleach and water. I’m no prude, but I guess I’m not all that prurient either. The book that I should have asked for his thoughts on, however, is Secret Six, but we were interrupted by the arrival of Colonel Sanders, Run DMC, and a priest.
Okay, so it’s not really all that upsetting or gruesome, and the sex is either strictly verbal or indefinitely interruptus, but Secret Six is still one of the most damnably underrated books being published right now. It is witty and energetic, jubilantly violent and unforgivingly smart. Gail Simone’s writing can be alternately goofy and grave, and Nicola Scott’s pencils are maybe the best reason to fall in love with characters who would probably have no reservation about robbing you. The tender glances that she effects between characters reveal precisely what the Six themselves would seek to hide: that they care. Because when it comes to being on a team of villains, rejects, and loners, it’s in one’s best interest to be as distant and detached as possible. In this way, it’s a fairly standard story: bad guys who band together to be bad and get paid, but who end up taking care of each other in the end and defeating something worse than themselves. And plus in the case of Deadshot, you get the added Well-I-don’t-really-care-about-helping-you-but-I-will-because-it-proves-that-I-care-so-little-about-anything-that-I-can-help-you-freely-because-either-way-it-doesn’t-matter-to-me. The rest of the team are also just as aloof in their own ways. Scandal Savage has the big, sad eyes of an animated Disney heroine, but she also kicks ass. Bane is in withdrawal from venom and treats Scandal like Koko the gorilla with her little kitten, but he also kicks ass. Catman is never going to be Batman despite his best efforts, but he also… well, you get the point. Jeanette is a banshee with what is tantamount to PTSD, and Ragdoll is an amoral, castrated pervert with impossibly jaunty limbs and an almost literary sense of the absurd. Together they are a team, apparently.
At least that’s how they market themselves. And in “Depths”—the most recent story arc, now concluded with issue #14—they find work on a prison island run by the evil slave-owner Mr. Smyth (which, as I actually write it out, sounds like a scarier version of Scooby Doo). Smyth’s philosophy draws on the sketchier moments of human history in which slaves literally shouldered the burden of humanity’s most enduring monuments. The Secret Six are there to prevent any interference, and so when Jeanette pulls an I-hate-Amazons-but-I’ll-secretly-free-Artemis-from-the-slavers-in-the-middle-of-the-night-anyway, the team is split along moral lines. Pitted against each other – three-on-three – the Six prevaricate and pussyfoot around their own civil war for a few issues in the middle, sufficing to kill enough prison guards to keep the book bleeding. You already know that they’ll never really square off, because there’s always a bigger bad. Also, Wonder Woman arrives. Also, there is Mr. Smyth’s talkative, diminutive assistant (which, as I actually write it out, sounds like a scarier version of Fantasy Island). Also, a captive phalanx of rogue Amazons. Also, the Devil is there, and he has an epicurean taste for metahuman morsels.
I suppose that the reason I like Secret Six so much is because it is equally dark and joyous. This book never sacrifices gravity for tomfoolery, but lets the best of what’s good in comics today mingle with and contaminate each other. For example, as the team is divided by the choice to overlook or overthrow slavery, the petulant Ragdoll remarks with disappointment: “No one even seems to want to hunt and kill their friends these days.” Although Scandal slaughters about a dozen armed guards with a smile, at least she gives them the chance to call their loved ones first. When someone’s head gets eaten toward the end of the arc, I can’t say I wasn’t rooting for the eater. The violence of the book is rendered with a sense of beauty and wonder, as though Simone and Scott are genuinely interested in what happens to the human body at limit events. And like great artists or scientists or both, the Six are eager to experiment.
The devil may care little for Simone’s complex, sympathetic characters or the strong, soft curves of Nicola Scott’s art, but at least the body count is right.