Tom McLean is a writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles. He writes mainly about the entertainment industry for such trade publications as Variety and Animation Magazine, with a focus on animation, visual effects and comic book movies. He wrote the book Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.
I became a Star Trek fan at the age of 6. I started grade one and all the kids on the playground were talking about how cool Star Trek was. This would have been in September 1975, and Star Trek had just started being shown locally in syndication five days a week in the late afternoon — perfect for kids to absorb after school and before dinner. I was an instant fan. My mother told me she and my father used to watch Star Trek when it first came on the air, and would make sure they were home the nights it was broadcast.
The show's syndication success made possible a good amount of merchandise for the day.
The Star Trek Exploration Set model kit box. It looks like it's not too difficult to land one of these.
First, it was model kits of the USS Enterprise, the bridge and the "Exploration Set," which included a phaser, communicator and Tricorder. Each one came with an order form for iron-on transfers, and I sent away for as many as I could. I remember having to wait an unusually long time for one set to arrive as Canada Post was on strike and no mail was being delivered. There was one set that included the Starfleet symbols for Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty, and my mom would put them on the correct colored turtlenecks I seemed to wear a lot. I'm wearing my Kirk yellows in my Grade 1 school photo. (Side note: A few years back I was seated at a press event across from William Shatner and showed him this photo. His response: "That's wonderful!")
The offer for the iron-on transfers. I believe I ordered than one set of these.
There also was the Dinky die-cast USS Enterprise, for which I lost the shuttlecraft one day and was crushed never to recover it; toy utility belts and various cheap "ray guns" that came in Trek packaging despite looking like nothing on the show; some cool walkie-talkies; and the Mego dolls, or "action figures" as they would soon be called. I remember having quite a few of those, including a few hard-to-get ones (at least in Canada) that my parents brought back from a trip to the U.S. And I was lucky enough to get the Enterprise bridge playset with the cool transporter function for Christmas.
Die-cast USS Enterprise vehicle with shuttlecraft. It also had disks you put in the saucer and when you turned the bridge they'd fire out the front.
The USS Enterprise bridge playset from Mego was made of printed heavy cardboard with a vinyl coating on it. The chair and helm were very cheap. But the real attraction was the transporter. You'd put a figure in on side, spin the top and then press the right button to stop it on the other side and it emulated the look of the show! They used the same thing for the tornado in the Wizard of Oz set my sister had.
The Mego Star Trek Walkie Talkies were pretty cool. They were much bigger than the ones on the show, but they did work reasonably well.
These cheap utility belt toy sets were common in the 1970s, though this was easily the best, with accurate looking versions of the phaser, communicator and tricorder.
But time moves on, and a cooler space show came along the next year: Space: 1999. That was what my friends and I were all into in 1976-77, with season two episodes airing weekly on the CBC on Saturday afternoons, to be followed by a couple of curling matches and, hopefully, a good cartoon from the NFB before Hockey Night in Canada came on at 6 p.m. I was wearing my Space: 1999 costume, in fact, the night my parents shoveled us all in the car at the end of the school year to go to the drive-in and see a new movie called Star Wars. (That's a whole other story.)
Back cover ad that appeared on August 1979 issues of Marvel comics. Note the shared screenplay credit for Gene Roddenberry and Harold Livingston. This scan was from a copy of X-Men #124. This would have appeared on newsstands in April or May of 1979.
I was primarily aware of Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the ads that appeared on the backs of comic books in the year or so leading up to its release. I saw the movie the day after it opened, on Saturday, Dec. 8, 1979, at the Paramount Theater in Edmonton as part of a friend's birthday party. I liked it a lot while I was watching it. What's not to like? It's space! It's Star Trek! It looks cool! But the memory of the movie faded really fast. By Christmas, you would have had to remind me that I'd seen it.
Not anymore. I previously owned two copies on VHS: one the letterboxed theatrical cut and the other the home video extended cut. I have the Director’s Cut on DVD (more on that later). And now I have on Blu-ray the original theatrical cut, which I popped in the other night to run through one … more … time.
Note: This is a post I meant to write about six or seven months ago, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Stuff happened, but I still have a lot to say on this topic. So here’s a belated tribute to the movie’s anniversary, told in three parts.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most divisive entries in the decades-long canon of Star Trek.
Much like the return of Star Wars twenty years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture faced high expectations from a fan base that had patiently waited a decade for a continuation of the beloved series. Weighed down by behind-the-scenes production problems that have become legendary in their own right, the movie upon release was heavily criticized for its languid pacing, meandering direction and lack of action. Coming just two years after Star Wars had sparked a sci-fi and visual-effects boom, the movie was not-unfairly dubbed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture and Spockalypse Now by fans and critics upon its release Dec. 7, 1979.
Despite its many flaws, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an unlikely hit. It failed to generate toy sales and licensing revenue along the lines of Star Wars, but Trek fans tenaciously indulged in enough repeat viewings to deliver an impressive domestic box-office take of $82 million and a worldwide gross around $175 million. That made it the No. 5 film of the year, ahead of Ridley Scott’s Alien and just behind Apocalypse Now, Rocky II and The Amityville Horror. Kramer vs. Kramer was the year’s top-grosser, with $106 million in domestic ticket sales.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture also ended up being a hit in the then-new secondary market of home video, becoming a top rental on videocassette and the short-lived videodisc format upon its release in 1981. And it was further boosted by its airing as an ABC Sunday Night Movie in 1983, which restored some 12 minutes of footage cut from the theatrical version. The restored scenes had a huge impact on the story, including as it does a scene where Spock comes to terms with his own internal conflicts and sheds a tear for V’ger. The extended edition was released on home video to become the definitive version for fans. And a director’s cut was released on DVD in 2000, with Robert Wise going back in to polish the edit and finish several sequences that fell victim to tight deadlines.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a long development history. Production on the original Star Trek series was never smooth, from the original 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike that NBC rejected, to the then-unheard-of second pilot with William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk, through the fight to save the show from cancelation and its eventual demise. Most accounts from people who were there portray an often-chaotic production.
After Trek ended its original TV run in 1969, Roddenberry tried to move on to other projects with little success. He wrote and produced the feature Pretty Maids All in a Row, a screwball romantic comedy which starred Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowell and featured Trek veterans Jimmy Doohan and William Campbell. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. And his Trek-like attempts to do more sci-fi concepts on TV struggled to find an audience, with Genesis II, The Questor Tapes and Planet Earth all airing as TV movies but failing to make it to series.
Realizing Trek would likely be his one and only golden egg, Roddenberry moved back to the property in the early 1970s as Star Trek’s syndication success was skyrocketing. He succeeded in getting Trek back on the air as an animated series, but that was (unfairly, I think) dismissed by pretty much everyone as kids’ stuff, with the real goal being a live-action reunion of the original cast on the small screen or the big screen.
Entire books have been written about the back-and-forth between Roddenberry and Paramount on the issue of reviving Star Trek. Those plans were constantly in flux, taking the shape at various times of a low-budget feature series similar to Planet of the Apes, a series of 90-minute TV movies, a weekly hourlong TV series and, again, as a feature film of some kind. What eventually clicked was a return to the TV series format as Star Trek: Phase II, which would premiere in 1978 as the flagship show of Paramount’s planned fourth television network.
Most Trek fans know what follows: Roddenberry reworked the series, taking on suggestions most notably from the detailed and loving critique offered by “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode writer David Gerrold in his 1972 book (revised in 1984), The World of Star Trek. Among the changes: Kirk was too valuable as the captain of the Enterprise to go into dangerous situations each week, so an executive officer was created to handle that part of the job in Willard Decker. Decker also had some emotional baggage in his relationship with the ship’s new navigator, Lt. Ilia, who was from a planet where sexual relations was just how they got along. (This idea was never explained beyond the idea that Deltans just had sex with each other at the drop of a hat and it was normal for them. Being promiscuous is one thing, but the idea that you’d go into, say, a business meeting and do something sexual as a form of greeting is, well, strange and, frankly, sounds more than a little exhausting.) Chekov got promoted to chief security officer and Nurse Chapel, played by Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett, was promoted to doctor. When Leonard Nimoy refused to return to the daily makeup routine that Spock called for, Roddenberry created a replacement in Xon, a full-blooded Vulcan science officer who instead of trying to control his emotional side like Spock sought to discover that side of himself as a way to better work with and relate to his crew mates. (If any of this sounds familiar, just change the names of Decker, Ilia and Xon to Riker, Troi and Data, and you’ve got half the crew set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The success of Star Wars lit a fire under Paramount, which invested a lot in developing Star Trek: Phase II. What’s especially interesting is that the show never had a chance. Announced in the summer of 1977, it was clear by early August that Paramount’s fourth network didn’t have the support to ever get off the ground. In the book Star Trek: Phase II — The Lost Series, the Reeves-Stevens write that Paramount’s then chief Michael Eisner decided in a meeting Aug. 3 that the pitch for the pilot “In Thy Image” was feature worthy and in that moment the series was dead. But it was a secret kept in that meeting for four long months, during which time scripts were written that would never be produced and sets half-built while behind-the-scenes machinations progressed on the real project, which was the feature. The great expense was apparently justified by the idea that if Paramount decided a year after the feature to return to TV, they’d have a dozen scripts already in the can and ready to go.
Meanwhile, the production cast Stephen Collins as Decker, Persis Khambatta as Ilia and David Gautreax as Xon. Coming on as director was Robert Wise, a true Hollywood legend who started as an editor on Citizen Kane before directing such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Heck, even Leonard Nimoy agreed to come back, demoting Gautreaux to a cameo as the commander of the Epsilon 9 station in the final movie.
It looked at this point like a feature would be smooth sailing, but the production was anything but. The script, first and foremost, needed to be updated to work as a feature. Veteran TV writer Harold Livingston was brought on board and began running afoul of Roddenberry, who constantly interfered in the scripting process by poorly rewriting pages that didn’t need it and setting everything back with substandard work. Livingston quit and was re-hired several times by Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Roddenberry, it seems, was trying to earn a screenplay credit by any means necessary, with his rewrites providing evidence he could submit to the WGA to earn that credit — and the money that came with it. (Roddenberry pulled a similar stunt with original series composer Alexander Courage, writing lyrics to the show’s theme song that were never meant to be used as a way to earn half the writing credit and therefore half the royalties from the tune. Courage never again worked on Star Trek.) Final writing credits went to Foster for story and Livingston for screenplay. You can read one version of the script here.
So production began without a finished script, which is never a good idea. With the movie shot almost exclusively on sound stages, production proceeded largely in story order. That explains why the movie’s plot is so vague for so long, treading water with lengthy re-introductions of the crew members and the USS Enterprise. DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, as usual, point out the idiocy of this with one of the movie’s best lines: “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?”
At some point, clauses in the contracts of Shatner and Nimoy kicked in to give them story approval, so production slowed down again as everyone tried to figure out an ending to the movie. There were reportedly days where scenes were written in the morning for the cast and crew to shoot later that day.
The ending they did come up with is actually pretty good, though the middle of the movie is a serious slog. The alien object is revealed to be Earth’s primitive Voyager 6 probe, given the ability by an advanced race of alien machines to complete it mission of gathering all data possible and returning it to its creator. Along the way, it amassed so much data it became sentient. But it lacks the emotional side it needs to move to the next level. So V’ger seeks to merge with its creator, which it does with Decker, and moves into the next realms.
Having finished principal photography, Star Trek: The Motion Picture moved into its next disastrous phase: creating the visual effects. Again, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kindhad pushed visual effects to a new level and shown their storytelling potential. And in the wake of Luke Skywalker’s rush down the Death Star trench, there was no way effects like those used on the original Star Trek series or on more recent efforts like 2001: A Space Odysseyor Space: 1999 were going to cut it. But George Lucas and his team at ILM, which created those effects and innovated those techniques, were working on The Empire Strikes Back. That meant Star Trek: The Motion Picture had to go elsewhere to find work that lived up to that level — a very tall order.
By all accounts, the original effects team, Robert Abel & Associates, spent somewhere north of a million dollars and had produced almost no usable footage. Adding to the pressure, Paramount pre-sold the movie to exhibitors, who had forked over significant advances for the right to screen the finished movie on Dec. 7, 1979. That money had helped Paramount finance the movie, but it also meant the release date couldn’t budge. It was a mad scramble to finish the movie and several important shots and major sequences got lost in the shuffle.
Wise also was battling the studio over the final cut of the film, with the studio pushing a version that featured more of the expensive VFX it was paying for while Wise was trying to balance the story. The mad race to finish the movie left Wise without a chance to test screen the movie with an audience, which he said for years afterward would have helped improve the balance of VFX spectacle and story.
Standing out as a triumph amid this scramble is the iconic score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Reportedly, Goldsmith’s original score was found lacking by Roddenberry, Wise and the Paramount brass. They wanted a triumphant theme along the lines of John Williams’ score for — you guessed it — Star Wars. Goldsmith came up with a theme on the spot that satisfied everyone and went on to become an iconic part of Trek’s musical history, returning in subsequent features and as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Finishing the film truly came down to the wire. Final effects sequences were cut by hand into each individual print of the movie on a Paramount soundstage occupied by hundreds of film canisters waiting to be shipped out. Wise himself carried the print shown at the Washington, D.C., premiere with him on his flight out of Los Angeles.
Fan reaction could be summed up as disappointed but grateful for the movie’s existence. The box office results were not in Star Wars territory, but they did reveal an audience existed for Star Trek. And the movie turned a profit despite the studio calculating a then-record production budget of $44 million that — fair or not — included all the development costs of Star Trek: Phase II and likely all the way back to the early 1970s.
That success opened the door for more Star Trek, albeit versions that were much less extravagant.
"Secret Six" #7 is another superior issue, suggesting the series could have done some really cool stuff it this wasn't the final issue.
This period was a tough one for comics. The Silver Age was winding down, the industry was facing distribution issues amid a volatile economy and a new series was bound to struggle for sales. Of the "DC Experiment" titles Jacobs and Jones lauded in "The Comic Book Heroes," none was a commercial hit. But, as they write:
"But the experiment had been an exciting one, and the field seemed suddenly flushed with the rcognition of its newly expanding horizons. Anything, it now appeared, might be tackled in the medium."
Titled "An Eye for an Eye," this issue strangly lacks credits for the usual creative team of E. Nelson Bridwell on plot, Joe Gill on script and Jack Sparling on art. The story shines a spotlight on Carlo Di Rienzi, who is back on stage pulling off impossible feats as an illusionist. Like this one:
Not sure why he doesn't just walk around the wall, but OK, it's comics.
On the way home, he's kidnapped and chained up by some tough guys who want to know where to find Mike Tempest, a.k.a. Tiger Force. Carlo, of course, refuses and conveniently flashes back to that time he rebuffed mobsters pushing on him a protection racket. The result of that was the mobsters blowing up his house as he pulled up in a car marked "Carlo the Great."
Page 8 is pretty effective in showing the aftermath, and generating a lot of sympathy for Carlo. Bat-fans will surely see some similarity between this and the famous "Death in the Family" storyline from Batman #426-429.
Torture's terrible, but Sparling's art on pages 11 and 12 look great. There's a strong EC influence here, with a solid dose of noir that is, again, very unusual for DC books of the era, if not just about any entertainment of the era. The coloring on panel 4 of page 11 is a great example of how to use the simple options of the day to create drama.
Pages 13 and 14
All of it leads up to this cool spread in which King Savage and Crimson Dawn come to the rescue and deliver a Kirkian beat-down on these pug-ugly mobsters. Sparling does great work here and his version of King is the closest he's gotten to channeling the influential power of Jack Kirby's work. I love Crimson's double-handed Kirk chop and wonder how and why that move was so popular in the 1960s. It's clearly worthless, taking away all the leverage. It looks cool, though it also always reminds me of the fight scene between Nicolas Cage and John Goodman in "Raising Arizona" where Cage lifts his hands to deliver a Kirk blow and scrapes his knuckles across the rough popcorn ceiling. Excellent stuff.
There's some great "Mission: Impossible" stuff on page 19 with a disguised dummy, followed by a great, moody finale with big, even wordless panels.
And then it's all over. The final page is only a partial page, and "Secret Six" comes to an unexpected end without revealing the identity of Mockingbird and many interesting missions untold.
"Secret Six" wouldn't return to comics form until 1988, when DC converted "Action Comics" into an anthology titled "Action Comics Weekly," which featured 48 pages of comics a week. The debut of this format in "Action Comics Weekly" #601 featured the debut of a new "Secret Six" serial written by the recently departed Martin Pasko and drawn by Dan Speigle.
Action Comics Weekly #601 (May 24, 1988). Art by Dave Gibbons.
It was a continuation of the original series, though the intervening years had passed. The original Six was all still alive, though much older, as Mockingbird assembled a new Secret Six. The identity of Mockingbird was eventually revealed in one of the later episodes, and "Action Comics Weekly" only ran 41 issues before returning to its previous format as a monthly Superman title. And when DC revived Secret Six in the early 21st century, it used the name for a completely concept and set of characters.
Does "Secret Six" hold up? Yes and no. The early issues in particular are a real struggle to get through, but readers who stick with it will get to some really nice vintage storytelling that stands out for its time as well as for today. Definitely a fun one to visit — or revisit, as the case may be.
"Secret Six" #6 (March 1969) is the best of the series short run.
Up front, the cover really stands out amid the other books DC and Marvel were publishing in 1968. It's gritty, with just a hint of sex appeal.
This issue puts the spotlight on Lili De Neuve, as a famous actress is murdered in her spa. The plot gets a bit complex, but it goes something like this: the murdered actress, Jeanne Gautier, years ago murdered a high profile producer whose death was blamed on Lili, who did visit the scene after the murder. Mockingbird arranged an alibi for Lili that saved her from being guillotined for the producer's murder. But Jeanne is the only person beside Mockingbird who knows the alibi is false as she saw Lili at the crime scene. Got it?
So the Secret Six investigate the scene of the crime and link it to Marcel Valory, who was Jeanne's ex-boyfriend.
King and Mike head off to find Valory and run straight into trouble at the Casino Royale. This is pretty great fight scene with the tough guys rolling up their sleeves and then figures flying through the air. Sparling brings a nice, cartoony style to this scene that's just the right mix of tough and fun.
And here's where it gets really fun, as Crimson heads to the beach to turn Valory's head and distract him. The coloring gets strange on this page with a full figure of Crimson revealing herself on the beach in a bikini — I think those are supposed to be sunglasses she's wearing, not a blindfold. Sparling shows off some really nice figure work here and makes Crimson a total knockout without resorting to the kind of oversexualized brokeback stuff that came in later comics.
And it gets better, with the first of two splash pages in this issue showing what happens when King Savage comes over and plays the bully to evoke a more aggressive response from Valory. Sparling again shows his figure drawing skills and proves he can draw men as well as he can draw women.
And that leads directly into page 14, wrapping up the sequence in great style. What makes this really great is the facial expressions: Valory in shadow and Crimson with wild smile. I also like Valory's clenched fist, the way they're holding hands and Crimson's twirling of the sunglasses as King lies defeated in the sand. Great stuff!
This wraps up in typical Secret Six fashion, with Lili disguising herself as Jeanne Gautier to get a confession from Valory in front of a live theater audience. And yes, that's as weird as it sounds. Page 20 has some great coloring, though, making the most of the three available shades of cyan to give the scene depth. And page 22 resorts to the old trope of using the sandbags whenever a chase scene heads backstage at a theater. Crimson, of course, delivers the final blow with a bit of panache.
In all, a really fun issue, but sadly there's only one more to go before cancellation.
"Secret Six" #6 (Jan. 1969). Art by Jack Sparling.
If you needed more proof Crimson Dawn was the breakout star of "Secret Six," the cover to issue #6 (Jan. 1969) should seal the deal. The cover is by far the series’ best so far, with Jack Sparling’s art having a clear sense of depth that’s accentuated by the excellent use of color and that nice, big logo pasted on at an angle. Good stuff.
The plot this issue is less important than how it opens the door for E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Gill’s script to tell the tale of how Crimson Dawn got started. It involves stolen crown jewels that, if not recovered, will allow political forces unfriendly to Western interests to take power. The man behind the theft turns out to be Johnny Bright, the man who stole — and then promptly crushed — Crimson Dawn’s heart and finances.
Sparling again makes all this stuff work better than it should. On page two alone, he has inky black silent panels and a nice central image featuring the Secret Six in disguise that shows off Sparling’s ability to delineate character.
As with the previous issue’s venture into China, Crimson’s origin runs afoul of modern politically correct conventions by showing one of her major flaws to be that she’s fat. Of course, being large, she though no man would ever love her, giving Johnny the chance to sweep in and make off with the family fortunes. And now, Crimson’s family is so angry with her, she has to disguise herself — by losing all that weight and becoming a fabulous model, all thanks to Lili De Neuve’s luxe French spa.
So, furthering the plot, Crimson Dawn now looks so not-fat, that Johnny fails to recognize her at all and only her similar name — she was previously Kit Dawn — gives him pause to mention it all.
Sparling again does a good jobs playing with contemporary trends, with a handful of pages with odd angles to the panels and in a modern dress that is good-looking enough to avoid being too dated.
There’s some good “Mission: Impossible”-style action going on with people wearing disguises, etc. There’s a nice silent action sequence on page 13, another diamond-shaped panel layout on page 14.
Page 16 goes a step too far with the jagged panel layouts proving a distraction from the story, and Crimson’s now-dated line “That turns me on, Johnny!” (I can’t read that line without hearing Andrea Martin as perpetually harassed yet starstruck Miss Purdy in the classic SCTV sketch “The Nutty Lab Assistant,” where she says “How about it? John?” in asking musical guest star John Cougar [pre-Mellencamp] to sing his hit “Jack & Diane” for her again. See the clip below, about 6:55.)
It’s much the same on page 21, where Crimson reveals her real identity to Johnny. Of course, the jewels are saved, and everyone’s so impressed with Crimson that they wonder aloud if she could be Mockingbird.
Of course, readers are told to come back next issue to see if that might be true!
A mess of a cover for "Secret Six" #4 (Nov. 1968). Art by Jack Sparling.
The covers on “Secret Six” #3 and #4 are my least favorite things about those issues. Neither is strong but #4 in particular is a weird mess of an image muddled by an orange and brown mess of color and a too-small logo. I like big, bold logos that you can see from across the room.
The plot this time is a standard Cold War scenario given a touch of currency by being set in China instead of the Soviet Union. China was a closed society at the time as it underwent from 1966-1976 the Cultural Revolution, which was meant to correct the deficiencies of the Great Leap Forward five years earlier. Millions died in both events, though exact numbers are hard to pin down. I think pop culture would have dealt very differently with China in the 1960s had events been better known and understood in the West. Anyway, this story starts with disgraced General Pao waiting in his cell for execution, when King Savage enters and puts a real scare in him on the splash page.
Jack Sparling again shows he’s a good match for the material, giving the series’ unusual need for exposition a nice touch on pages two and three by really putting a sense of personality and even fun into the poses for each character. I especially like Mike Tempest showing off his muscles and Crimson Dawn doing much the same.
King Savage gets the backstory treatment this issue, starting off with his reckless youth racing dragsters and segueing into flying fighters in the Korean War. He’s shot down, captured and forced to talk by none other than General Pao, before Mockingbird arranges his escape and heroic return. Sparling pulls out the EC card for this sequence, delivering a really scratchy and moody sequence that fits the sequence well. The coloring, which is uncredited in the comic, also delivers some great mood with strange mixes of secondary color.
Speaking of color, things go off the rails a bit as the team arrives in China to extract Pao and bring him back to the West, as Lili DeNeuve makes up the team to pass for locals. That means unfortunate exaggeration of the epicanthral fold and a skin tone that bears no resemblance to that of any human. Neither would pass muster today. The coloring at least could be argued as limited by the technology of the day. There was no easy way to convey skin tones that weren’t white or black. The physical exaggerations in the art are really just awful, though thankfully not as bad as it could have been. Or even as bad as it is for some of the other characters in this issue, starting with General Pao. I doubt DC could reprint this today without some alteration, adjustment or apology.
And then comes page 11, which Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones chose to illustrate the entire series in “The Comic Book Heroes,” and it is a terrific page featuring a full-figure image of Crimson Dawn crouched undercover firing a rifle at a distant traveling car. This is a great example of using odd angles and panel shapes to create a dynamic story-driven comic page. It’s the clear highlight of the issue, which from here on out struggles to maintain that level of quality.
Crimson Dawn really emerges as the most interesting member of the Secret Six. After blowing out the tire of the car with her rifle, she kills the three men inside the vehicle and later during the climax of the caper, having positioned herself correctly, efficiently shoots Mike Tempest and Carlo Di Rienzi with her rifle. It’s all part of the plan, and her targets are soon revealed to have worn bullet-proof vests, but Crimson clearly has depths of dedication to this kind of work the others fail to show.
The plot in this issue has finally found a nice balance between the kind of careful machinations the premise requires and believability. This is far more realistic and compelling than the vacuum-cleaner plane from the first issue, and the street-level viewpoint and scratchy ink work make it a quite compelling read.
There’s a few pages that use gimmicky layouts, though not to too much distraction. Page 21 uses a diamond design featuring the team in the middle and other events wrapping up in the panels surrounding it. And page 22 has this chain design where Sparling draws images inside each link, leading up to the finale on page 23, which is one of those half-pages rounded out with an ad for Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.
One final note from the letter’s column: Editor Dick Giordano answers a letter explaining that Nick Cardy got the gig of drawing the cover to issue #2 because he was in the office the day they came up with the concept. Springer wasn’t, so he missed out. That’s comics.
"Secret Six" #3 (July 1968). Art by Jack Sparling.
Jack Sparling takes over the art on ”Secret Six” as of issue #3, and the title immediately improves across the board.
Sparling had an interesting career in comics. Born in 1916 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, his family moved to the United States when he was very young. His first comics work was in New Orleans before he and writer William Laas created the ”Hap Hopper, Washington Correspondent“ comic strip, which Sparling drew from 1940 to 1942. He later drew another strip, ”Claire Voyant,” from 1943 to 1948. He then moved into comics and worked mostly for Dell, Gold Key and DC, with his handful of assignments for Marvel including “X-Men” #30 in 1967. One of the books he drew for Dell was an adaptation of the “Mission: Impossible” TV series, which could be one reason why “Secret Six” editor Dick Giordano tapped him to replace Frank Springer. His last work in comics looks to have been about 1989 or 1990, and he died in 1997.
Admittedly, Sparling’s cover for ”Secret Six” #3 is less than promising. The unusual composition of an extreme closeup at an odd angle of a solider holding a machine gun at the top of the cover is difficult to make out at first. The logo is shrunk, which is never good. And the art of the team members in the various cross-hairs just looks off, even though that cross-hair gimmick is cool enough for other artists — John Byrne’s cover to ”Alpha Flight” #12 (July 1984) comes to mind — to have used to good effect elsewhere.
But things get much better inside the book, as Sparling stylishly handles the series’ difficult exposition with each character getting a page that introduces them to readers and puts each in immediate peril.Sparling draws each page with a full-length figure of a cast member that reveals character in a bold, inky and elegant line. It looks great and it’s a long way from the house style DC used for years, perhaps best exemplified by just about anything inked by Murphy Anderson. And this, along with a couple pages explaining this issue’s mission gets the story a good eight pages in before the real action takes place.
That action is the one element in the series that hinges on continuity. In "Secret Six" #1, Mike Tempest fights a henchman he recognizes as Hanrahan, one of the mob muscle men who clobbered him after he blew the whistle on their attempts to fix the fight. Now, the syndicate Hanrahan is with is out to get its final revenge on Tempest and they capture him and are prepared to kill him by firing squad in the morning. The rest of the team, of course, has to rescue him.
In addition to the sketchier style and heavier inks, Sparling’s art reflected the changing styles at DC with angular panel designs of the type made popular by Neal Adams. The technique works well enough here to liven up pages driven by plot, with Carlo Di Rienzi infiltrating the prison dressed in a sombrero and sporting a Spanish accent bad enough to embarrass Speedy Gonzales.
The Secret Six liberate Tempest and replace him with a captured Hanrahan doctored up by Di Neuve’s makeup to look like Tempest.
Then the real highlight of the issue arrives in a really excellent two-page spread in which the firing squad puts an end to Hanrahan. There’s a lot to love in this spread, with the chains in the massive third panel overlapping the row of panels above it, the display lettering for “Wait!”, and most notably the excellent coloring of the final panel to really add depth and drama. It’s also pretty violent, establishing for the first time in the series a real sense of stakes and peril. It’s not typical DC Comics stuff.
The story deals with plot for a few pages as the villain is revealed and the Secret Six track him down. The final showdown can’t live up to the drama of the firing squad, but Sparling again gives the final melee energy, believability and grit. There’s a few more angular panel shapes, of course, and then the final blow is delivered by Crimson Dawn, who clearly begins to step to the forefront of the series, and then it’s over and the 60-day wait begins for the next issue.
"Secret Six" #2 (July 1968) is, unfortunately, less memorable than the first issue. The cover is the best part of the comic, featuring a stylishly paranoid illustration by Nick Cardy that makes good, abstract use of the limited color palette available at the time.
The story involves a convoluted plot to protect the plans to the nation’s top new weapon by, of course, stealing them. Said weapon is revealed on page one to look exactly like a SR-71 Blackbird — best known in comics as the X-Men’s preferred jet during Chris Claremont’s run— thought here it’s dubbed the XB-107 and said to be ale to remain in flight for six months, reach speeds of mach 4.5 and capable of delivering a nuclear attack anywhere in the world. Page two does a decent job of summing up every member of the group with a ton of text, before the caper heads to the Pentagon for its first phase.
The story by E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Gill is more difficult than the first for artist Frank Springer to give any visual zest, and there are more than a few questionable art decisions. Panel three on page six tries to add some zing by putting what I think is an extreme closeup of a soldier gripping the rifle in the foreground of the panel, but the full figure of the soldier that’s clearly several feet away is drawn with his helmet overlapping the weapon’s strap, giving the entire composition an unintentional M.C. Escher quality.
The better art sequences come later in the story, with King Savage scaling a hotel in moonlight and advancing the plot by paying unusual attention to the necktie collection of his absent target, a Soviet agent distracted by the charms of Crimson Dawn.
There’s also a bit of fun in a street brawl in a bazaar in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that evokes in a small way the basket chase sequence of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The story ends with an unconvincing nuclear explosion caused by two wires being connected incorrectly — all of which costs the Soviet agent his life.
There’s a placeholder letter’s column in this issue that features a strange caricature of Dick Giordano, officially now the series’ editor, in which he promises a new direction for "Secret Six" and the other titles he edits at DC. It’s as close as Giordano came to aping Stan Lee, signing off by writing, in all caps, "THE BEST IS YET TO COME!" And after issue two, it was going to be difficult for him to be proven wrong.
There are no credits in the issue, but the indicia lists Murray Boltinoff as editor and a text page features bios of artist Frank Springer and writer E. Nelson Bridwell, so that’s the basic team for this new bimonthly series that would have arrived on newsstands sometime in early 1968. The book makes a big pitch for readers to plunk their 12 cents for this comic with the cover, which is the first page of the story and includes the pitch right there for all to see:
Cover to "Secret Six" #1, May 1968. Art by Frank Springer.
The cover kicks the story into high gear, rapidly introducing an interesting cast of characters. The first pages shows the crash on the cover was a stunt for a movie, pulled off by King Savage, who promptly ditches the set for a more important call. The next two pages introduce the five remaining characters and does so quite well as long as you don’t think too hard about any of it.
Take Crimson Dawn, who in a single introductory panel is revealed as a top model working the runways of Paris only to later have Mockingbird explain a few pages later she’s an heiress who fell in love with a con man who took all her money and was “glamorized” so her family would be unable to recognize her and, presumably, be able to get revenge on her. If you’re confused by that, just wait.
“Uncanny” Carlo di Rienzi is a famous illusionist who vanishes on his own act when Mockingbird calls. The act itself is an unclear mess. He appears to trade places with an assistant locked in a crate, but the panel shows the assistant suddenly standing on stage where di Rienzi was standing while in full view of there audience. How was this supposed to work, given there’s no typical comic book magic at play?
Also getting one-panel intros are August Durant, who appears to be one of the United States’ top atomic scientists, and Lili de Neuve, a hairdresser/masseuse in high demand among the ritzy ladies who frequent the French Riviera. Lastly, there’s Mike Tempest, who’s tossed out of a rundown cafe on the Marseilles waterfront for being unable to pay the check. There’s a dramatic assemblage, in which the reader has to endure such scintillating dialog as “Silence! Listen, … do you hear a plane?" followed by a panel featuring a strange looking military-style craft and someone shouts “An airplane!” as though the sight of one is more rare than Bigfoot. And then we get more back story and Mockingbird’s hold over each is revealed: Durant was infected with a fatal disease by a foreign power and needs the cure only Mockingbird can provide; Tempest was the top boxer know as Tiger Force before his refusal to throw a match led to his testifying in court against mobsters who beat him severely and would kill him were Mockingbird to tip them off; di Rienzi also defied the mob, which killed his wife and injured his son, who will walk again one day thanks to the treatment Mockingbird so graciously provides. Then on page 9, the final three, including Crimson Dawn, get their due in a single half-page panel: de Neuve was framed for murder and would still be in prison were it not for the alibi Mockingbird provided, while King Savage was an ace pilot in Korea who was captured and talked to the enemy and would be branded a traitor were it not for Mockingbird arranging both an escape and a life-saving warning of enemy movements that earned King the title of hero. Adding to the cramped intensity of all this is the half-page advertisement on that very same page 9 for a Monogram hobby kit of a strange looking vehicle called Beer Wagon.
There’s a lot to unpack in these first nine pages (10, if you count the cover). The underlying premise of this group of odd characters with somewhat sordid skeletons in their closet being blackmailed into performing espionage missions is really quite compelling. That one of the team members is also the mysterious blackmailer is also a really cool idea. But both of those ideas require some real skill to pull off well and, to be frank, Bridwell’s script is not up to the task. The quickly drawn sketches of these characters is squirelly in the extreme and falls apart like wet tissue paper under even the most basic scrutiny. But there are still interesting moments, mostly held up by the quality of Springer’s art. The cover intro is effective and a technique that I’d think more comics, aside from Watchmen, would use. Springer’s staging is really effective and his art has some nice detail even if his characters are a little stiff looking. The standout segment is Tempest’s origin, which is moody and a good shade more violent in a realistic way than the rest of DC’s output at the time. Springer also gives Durant, di Rienzo and to some extend de Neuvea convincing physical identity that makes them immediately identifiable throughout the story.
Page 11. Try not to laugh at the vacuum plane!
Remember where I said this was half a good comic? We’re now getting into the other half, a strange tale that makes even less sense than the first half and is likewise held up by a few passages in which Springer’s art finds a way to make it all seem cool. Page 11 sets up the mission: There’s a man named Zoltan Lupus, who spent all his considerable wealth on an invention that sucks the oxygen out of the air.The drawing of the weapon looks like a Transformer who converts from an airplane into a vacuum cleaner, and this idea of vacuuming the oxygen out of the air and suffocating people in the villages below is almost impossible for a rational brain to process. Zoltan, who looks like the singer for a heavy metal band at age 80, also has set up his own nation on an island that once was home to an escape proof prison. His plan is to get funding to finish his weapon from four wealthy businessmen and then use it to blackmail the world into doing something the story never explains. Anyway, the businessmen coming to the island provides the opportunity for the Secret Six to get inside and stop Zoltan from doing his thing.
As I said above, the premise of the series requires the plots to be highly dextrous and intricate to work. Unfortunately, "Secret Six" lacks the imagination to pull that off and goes instead for Crimson cozying up to one of the businessmen and slipping a drug in his drink so Tempest can be made up by de Neuve to pass for him and basically walk inside. This works, and the rest of the team either is smuggled in via crates of key equipment or by the tried-and-true method of going in via the sewars. The latter provides a few interesting moments with Di Rienzi and Crimson swimming into a pipe and finding an unexpected grate blocking their way. Di Rienzi panics but Crimson produces a bobby pin that the illusionist can use to remove the screws holding the grate in place. The sequence end on another half page, but it’s a nice half-page with a two-panel sequence in which Crimson and Di Rienzi emerge from the tunnels to find their captors waiting.
Page 14. That crazy chick Crimson saves the day!
Page 15. Trouble!
Things get confusing and weird for a few pages. Then Durant is revealed to have been captured and awaits death as the subject of a test of Zoltan’s vacuum machine. Springer delivers a rather striking panel taking up two-thirds of page 18 of Durant, in shadow, awaiting his fate amid some funky looking machinery that looks like one part is built with a smiley face over a water fountain. This is followed up by another nice sequence of Durant as the machine injects laughing gas into the room instead of sucking out the oxygen. There’s a big fistfight that makes little sense, with Tempest coming face to face with a henchman he recognizes as one of the men who beat him up in his origin sequence. Everyone gets out and the next adventure is teased.
Page 19. Nice work from Springer.
One thing that occurs to me after reading this issue is the credits on these issues list Joe Gill as writing dialogue, suggesting the book was created Marvel style. That would have been radically different for DC in 1968 and shows some of the shortfalls that come from that approach — namely that it's great when the writer and artists connect, and a real mess when they don't.
Next issue: Things get worse before they maybe get better?
I've long wanted to get back to writing about comics on this blog.
I've been especially inspired of late by the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube. If you like comics and aren't watching this, I highly recommend you check it out now! The channel is run by Pittsburgh-based cartoonists Jim Rugg ("The Plain Janes,""Street Angel,""Aphrodisiac") and Ed Piskor ("Hip-Hop Family Tree,""X-Men: Grand Design"), and they run through a lot of great comics history and interview some of the real greats of the business in a unique way. What strikes a chord for me is the channel's love of comics as comics — not corporate IP being held in check for an eventual movie — this is just about comics and the work that's on the page. And they also understand that comics are best when they are a subversive medium, and so the focus is often on the most critically acclaimed works, like Alan Moore's "Miracleman," and the best indie comics of yesteryear and today. It's the sort of thing that makes you long for the days when you had hours to spend diving through quarter bins at your local comic shop or convention to find those treasures that the speculator crowd (which seems to have made a big return of late) would never pick up or understand.
This approach has definitely affected my comics reading of late and I've been thinking more and more about those hidden gems and wild, almost-forgotten experiments. So up first is a short-lived DC Comics series from more than 50 years ago that I'd long wanted to check out and finally have: "Secret Six."
My introduction to "Secret Six" came not in the pages of any comic, but a book about comics. "The Comic Book Heroes," published in 1985 and written by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, was extremely influential on me.
Cover to "The Comic Book Heroes," by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. Published by Crown Publishers in 1985.
I first saw a copy shortly after my family had relocated to Arizona, on a shelf in the back of a Waldenbooks outlet in Paradise Valley Mall. I lacked the cash to fork over the $11.95 cover price as I preferred at the time to put my limited expendable resources into buying comic books themselves. But I seemed to spend a lot of time at the mall and was able to read a decent portion of the book before it was bought by someone else or remaindered.
I didn’t acquire my own copy until 1989, when I was a journalism student at the University of Arizona and found a copy at Bookman’s, a huge used bookstore that to this day remains one of my favorite places ever to just hang out. I know I read it more than once, probably more than twice in the first few months I owned it.
This was a book that really put into perspective the comic book industry I knew. The books on comics I had previously found in libraries and bookstores focused almost exclusively on the Golden Age, an era that at the time seemed far away and completely inaccessible without access to the tons of cash that would be required to become well-read in any part of that era. Jacobs and Jones instead started with the Silver Age, running up comprehensively through the 1970s and putting an early spin on the heady expansion of the direct market in the 1980s up to the book’s publication.
The book also was vastly entertaining, examining the content of the most impactful stories of those times and also talking about the creators and the business goings-on behind the books. While Silver Age books also were mostly beyond my budget, "The Comic Book Heroes" nonetheless sparked an interest in reading and experiencing the comics its authors wrote about with love, passion and knowledge.
Chapter 18 is titled “The DC Experiment,” and devotes eight pages of text and two pages reproducing interior pages from "The Hawk and the Dove" #5 and "Secret Six" #4. The book covers what the authors write is an intense period of experimentation that came about after the Kinney Corporation conglomerate boughtDC in 1967 and added it to its roster of funeral homes and parking services. Run by Steve Ross, Kinney would soon acquire Warner Communications and bring DC under its umbrella. But first, the new management had to face of sluggish sales and the rising threat of Marvel.
Seeking an editorial director who could unite the fiefdoms that editors like Mort Weisinger and Julie Schwartz had long rule, DC’s new owners tapped freelance artist turned DC cover editor Carmine Infantino for the job. Infantino’s experience as an artist instead of a writer or businessman made him an unusual choice, and he quickly took advantage of the new role to bring in veteran artists as editors and let them loose to innovate some new titles. Among those new editors was Dick Giordano, who had previously been executive editor at Charlton Comics when it was putting out some of its better titles, like "Captain Atom," "Blue Beetle" and "The Question."
The titles comprising the DC Experiment of the chapter’s title included short-lived but well-regarded series such as "The Creeper," "The Hawk and the Dove," "Bat Lash" and, of course, "Secret Six." Jacobs and Jones wrote an entire page on "Secret Six," noting the obvious inspiration of the hit TV series "Mission: Impossible" before spending a pair of lengthy paragraphs explaining the premise, characters, and how the series’ relatively realistic tone eschewed aliens and superpowers for an approach flavored with gritty pulp elements. They hail the “excellent quality of the strip” and lament that its short, seven-issue run failed to resolve the main premise, which as of that writing had yet to be revisited.
So with all that running around in your head, how could you not want to read this comic?
It took many years for me to acquire the seven-issue run, mostly picked up whenever I stumbled across one in a comic shop or convention bargain bin. I finally finished the run last year, and even more miraculously managed to assemble all seven issues in one place so I could read them.
And now I have.
Next, I'll delve into the fascinating mess that is "Secret Six" #1, and from there we'll see how well it hold up 52 years later. Stay tuned.