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.
“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 Neuve a 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.
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.
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 bought DC 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.
With interest in Star Wars at one of its peaks thanks to the release of Rise of Skywalker and the success of the Disney Plus series The Mandalorian, it was only a matter of time before a humble blogger like myself dug up the long-forgotten tale of Fenn Shysa.
Who’s Fenn Shysa, you ask? Well, Mr. Shysa is one of 212 warriors whose mission of protecting the planet Mandalore got sidetracked when the Emperor commandeered those warriors to fight on his side in the Clone Wars. Only three survived, with the most senior officer, named Boba Fett, disenchanted with fighting for a cause, went into the bounty hunting business. That left the other two, Fenn Shysa and Tobbi Dala, heading back to Mandalore and fighting the slavers who had infested it.
They eventually ran into Princess Leia in Marvel Comics’ Star Wars #68-69 (Feb.-March 1983), who was searching for clues to whereabouts of Fett and Han Solo. The roguish Shysa was not an unappealing man, with his Irish brogue and handsome features, and he helped Leia find a clue to Solo’s location while defeating the slavers and setting back the Empire on Mandalore. It was not without its costs, however, as Tobbi Dala sacrificed himself for the cause.
Shysa later returned in the comic series post-Return of the Jedi as a member of the Alliance of Free Planets and Han Solo’s semi-serious romantic rival for Leia’s affections.
These comics are a bit pricey when it comes to originals, but interesting not just for the story, by comics veteran David Michelenie, but the art by Gene Day and Tom Palmer. Day’s breakdowns on 68 and pencils on 69 in particular were excellent and brought some real visual energy to the story.
Obviously, Shysa’s backstory for the origin of Boba Fett now clearly falls into the non-canonical Legends category, but he remains one of those memorable characters from that old Marvel run who wouldn’t be out of place getting a revamped or revival of some kind.
The Report is a good movie facing an uphill battle to find a wide audience and awards glory. The latter is pretty unlikely for anyone except for Adam Driver, who’ll be recognized far and wide for his role in Marriage Story before The Report. The former is a shame, because writer and director Scott Z. Burns does a solid job of turning pretty difficult material into a compelling narrative.
The Report dramatizes the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s use of what it called enhanced interrogation procedures and came to be more correctly labeled as torture. Driver is, as usual, terrific as lead investigator Daniel J. Jones, while Annette Bening pulls off a believable Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The cast also features a who’s who of top TV talent from the past five to ten years, including Jon Hamm, Matthew Rhys, Jennifer Morrison, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll and Maura Tierney. I really liked the casting of Ted Levine (best known as serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs) as CIA director John Brennan.
Technically, it’s a very well done movie of the story everyone says they wish there were more of. It’s well-written, well-cast, well acted and effectively evokes both the grit and grime of anonymous black sites with both slick and merely functional bureaucratic settings. It lacks the melodramatic sweep that made, for example, Oliver Stone’s awesome JFK a riveting tale of investigation and government corruption, but it also sticks to a much more conventional version of the truth.
The movie covers material that ranges from recreations of some of the most egregious and offensive acts committed by American government officials in the name of protecting the nation from the next 9/11 to committee meetings and detailed and excited discussions in a sealed subterranean investigation room. This is Driver’s movie and he makes Jones a surprisingly likable bureaucratic protagonist fighting to get the story both correct and out to the public.
The real problem the movie has is a dramatic one. Yes, the material uncovered by the report is dramatic and shocking. But the report also came and went in real life, without making the impact on policy that it warrants. Which raises another problem in terms of seeking a wider audience as it plays so neatly into the extremely polarized political divisions of American society that there’s no way it could change anyone’s mind. Its portrayal of Democrats as the good guys and the Republicans as willingly and completely complicit is only countered by a few jabs at former President Obama and his desire to avoid extreme and impractical political battles. It ends up portraying Jones’ dive into the truth as impotent — in the end, it doesn’t matter that he’s right, that he’s documented horrible things. He never had a chance to spark change.
And The Report meets the same fate. Driver makes it worth a watch, and it is smart and intelligent — it’s just a question of how many people really want that.
I have strong memories of seeing this teaser trailer playing many times in late 1988 and early 1989 at the Gallagher Theater in the Student Union at the University of Arizona. It was the first time I recall hearing of people paying full admission to a theater just to see the trailer.
(Side note: When I was a kid, we called these previews, not trailers. I know why they’re called trailers, as they used to run after the movie back in the old, old days. But why we still call them trailers when previews makes more sense eludes me. I can’t even remember when the term trailer came back into fashion.)
I was not yet much of a DC or Batman reader at that time, and therefore only tangentially aware of the controversy around casting Michael Keaton. So this trailer was really the first look anyone had at this movie and it sold it completely and totally.
The importance this movie had at the time for comics is easy to underestimate in this day and age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But there was a time in the 1980s when comics fans knew the medium was full of storytelling gold while the general public still thought of comics as kid stuff and the Biff! Pow! Sock! of the Adam West series defined the idea of comic book adaptations. This was going to be the movie that got comics noticed! That proved to the world that they weren’t just kid stuff! And then everyone would flock to comics shops to get in on the hobby, making all those collectible issues the die-hards had been hoarding for years worth a literal fortune!
Some of that came true, some of it didn’t. But I still think this is one of the best uses of a teaser trailer in modern movie history.
Mr. and Mrs. X is something rarely seen in the X-Men universe: a romance comic. (X-Force: Sex and Violence doesn’t count in my book, but Pryde & Wisdom I would say does.) The execution doesn’t always live up to the hype here, but at it does have its charms.
scripts on issue #s 1-8 are good, but I don’t think she’s doing enough to play
up the personalities of Rogue and Gambit and give them some way to spark off of
each other. The Rogue and Gambit miniseries that preceded this one was better in
Plus, the use of a
power dampener collar on Rogue so that she can touch and be touched by Gambit —
a necessity for newlyweds — really undercuts the forbidden nature of their
attraction that made their relationship so interesting. “Solving”
Rogue’s major problem like this feels like a cheat.
As for Gambit, he’s
lost a bit too much of his scoundrel quotient here. He should be more trouble,
one step ahead of everyone (at least he should think so).
I love the covers.
It’s Terry and Rachel Dodson, so of course they’re terrific.
The interior art is by Oscar Bazaldua is solid, but he tends to use the same facial expression over and over for Rogue — and it’s one that doesn’t really look like the way she’s been drawn over the past 38 years.
A little editing
would help too. Wasting panels and pages for setup shots is a writer and artist
issue that’s too common in comics — stop trying to be a movie, folks.