Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

25 March 2016

Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places

Collects: Secret Six v. 3 #1-6 and DC Sneak Peek: Secret Six #1 (2014-5)

Released: February 2016 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401254858

What is this?: A new Secret Six! Five criminals and a PI are hunted by the mysterious Mockingbird, who wants some information from him. Who is he, and what does he want?

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and artists Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham, and Tom Derenick

It has to be natural to make comparisons when you’re reading a title that has been recently rebooted, like Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places.

I’ve read most of writer Gail Simone’s run on Secret Six — the final volume, Caution to the Wind, will come out next month — and it’s hard not to compare Friends to that run. Frankly, it was hard for me not to mix-up the two different versions of the team. I’m not sure whether the source of that disorientation is the reboot or the book itself — but I’m leaning toward Friends.

Secret Six, v. 1: Friends in Low Places coverIn Friends, four villains (Catman; the newest Ventriloquist; Strix, a Talon from the Court of Owls; and new character Porcelain), a superpowered teenager (Black Alice), and a private investigator (Big Shot) are tormented and hunted by Mockingbird. Why? Mockingbird is coy about the reason, imprisoning them and asking, “What is the Secret?” They escape (without answering) and form a team of sorts.

Mockingbird claims to be an arch-criminal, but his plans are haphazard at best. He’s looking for a stolen diamond, but he doesn’t ask about the gem. He’s trying to protect his identity, sure, but he’s dealing with criminals, a teenager, and a private investigator; he’s asking for “the Secret,” yet it’s hard to imagine a more secretive yet stubborn group. Everything is a secret with them. Mockingbird sends a team, led by Scandal Savage, to track and fight the new Six, although it’s unclear what he hopes to achieve. He and Scandal hope the Six will be re-imprisoned, but Mockingbird has a mole in the group, which he uses almost immediately after the fight to draw the team into a … trap, of sorts. (The trap is he threatens to blow everybody up, including his putative fiancée and himself, if he doesn’t get what he wants. I’m not sure why it’s effective.)

It doesn’t help that Scandal’s team doesn’t seem interested in fighting the Six, despite Mockingbird threatening to use hostages against the Scandal. Nor does it help that the team — Scandal, Silver Banshee, and Ragdoll — were all members of the pre-reboot incarnation of the Secret Six. During the entire fight, part of me was bothered that those three were fighting against Catman.

The fight scenes don’t raise the stakes; instead, they seem to lower them. The scrap between the Six and Scandal’s team is frequently amusing, but no one’s heart seems to be in it, and Scandal unilaterally ends the fight by walking away. (She also doesn’t seem interested in the obvious next move of joining forces against Mockingbird.) The final fight between the Six and Mockingbird’s forces is desultory at best; Strix takes out Mockingbird’s men in a few panels, and the rest of the fight is the team reluctantly turning on Mockingbird’s mole despite having more effective options other than fighting among themselves. Perhaps this is intentional; the Six have no tactician, and they’re mostly people whose first and last recourse is fighting. It doesn’t make the book entertaining to read, though.

The art doesn’t help the fight scenes. Ken Lashley’s work on the Six’s escape from Mockingbird in the second issue is a few chaotic panels followed by a declaration of victory, while Tom Derenick’s art for the final fight lacks dynamism. Derenick tries to give a demonstration of Strix’s fighting style on a single page, but the horizontal layout makes the fight into a sidescroller, with that old video-game logic: antagonists come out of nowhere, they could possibly spawn forever, a character might not be something you can fight, and the fight ends arbitrarily. The battle in #3, which takes place in Big Shot’s suburban home, is much better, but it’s played for laughs, and there’s always a sense everything is being held back.

In the first two issues we should ideally be meeting the team and seeing how the members relate to one another. However, those issues feel disorganized; the first issue is mostly about Catman, how he was captured by Mockingbird and how poorly he fares in captivity. (His actions when he meets the rest of the Six in #1 have little to do with how he relates to them later on.) Issue #2 has many flashbacks to Catman’s captivity — no, not this captivity, but the captivity before that, the one we didn’t know had occurred. The double captivity is confusing, and the lack of issue labels doesn’t help; since the book includes a “Sneak Peek” issue, and I assumed one of the first two issues was that issue — something loosely connected to the regular series but that might not match up well to its continuity. Getting captured twice by Mockingbird makes Catman look like a chump, but the focus on Catman in these issues gives the impression Secret Six will be Catman and the Kitties Five, something the rest of Friends doesn’t dispel.

The book does have a lot of things going for it. Simone’s sense of humor is still appealing, and with a few less faults, that humor might have won me over. The other characters are types, but entertaining ones. Big Shot is the straitlaced suburbanite, unwilling to curse (or to have others curse) around ladies. The Ventriloquist is a Norma Desmond-type, believing the spotlight will find her and her dummy, the seemingly sentient Ferdie. Strix is silent, phonetically writing all her communications on a pad of paper and completely unable to guess what is socially acceptable. The “writing on paper” gag becomes impractical many times — who would let her write during combat? — but I’m willing to accept it for now. More concerning is that Strix is identified as a Talon for the Court of Owls, but neither “Talon” nor “Court of Owls” is explained. I know what they are, but a footnote would have been nice. I don’t think DC does footnotes any more, though.

Big Shot’s relationship toward Black Alice quickly becomes paternal. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Scandal Savage and Bane in the previous volume of Secret Six, but that’s all it is: an echo, a parallel, an allusion. The relationship differs in many important ways: Big Shot and Alice are relatively nice people, which Scandal and Bane were not; Alice is young enough and Big Shot not so controlling that the relationship doesn’t have any creepy overtones; and most importantly, Alice enjoys Big Shot’s protectiveness. Their scenes together are sweet.

Porcelain is an afterthought. We learn the character’s basic powers — making hard matter brittle — and we’re told the character is trans to some degree, shifting from presenting a female to male persona to the world. We never discover if that’s a normal, real-world transition or if it is something in Porcelain’s powers. It hardly matters, since we see Porcelain as male only for a brief moment in issue #3. Unlike the others, we learn little of Porcelain’s personality. In the big fight scene, Porcelain is knocked out between issues #5 and 6, as if either Simone or Derenick had forgotten Porcelain was unaccounted for at the end of #5 but didn’t want to spend the necessary time showing what happened.

As revealed by my comments above, I’m not enamored of the art. Lashley draws the first two issues plus a few pages of the third. His work is atmospheric, but it lacks the detail needed to plant long-term hints; it’s hard to tell, for instance, that the singer on the first page of #1 is the same character who hits Catman with a taser a few pages later. Derenick (parts of #3 and #5, and #6) and Dale Eaglesham (Sneak Peek, #4, and part of #5) have much clearer styles. Their work is complementary, similar enough that I sometimes miss the handoff between them. I enjoy the clear lines and clear action both of them supply, but as I noted before, their fight scenes lack a certain vitality. I can’t decide whether that’s because the fights are written as pro forma, or if the art is the reason the fights seem so lackluster.

Friends is a disappointing book, but it’s not without promise. I’ll probably pick up the next volume, but I may not pre-order it. (I’m assuming the DC Universe didn’t re-reboot before the next six issues were released.)

Rating: Secret Six skull symbol Secret Six skull symbol (2 of 5)

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