Thomas J. McLean

Writer, Editor, Author

A Comics Compulsion to Learn the Truth About the Original ‘Secret Six’

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.

The Comic Book Heroes 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.

Behold! ‘Cats: The Butthole Cut’

I can’t believe this actually exists. But somehow, its existence in this universe is essential.

Who remembers that Mandalorian boyo, Fenn Shysa?

I bought this copy of Star Wars #68 in 1985 on a bright sunny day at a comic shop whose name I forget but was located on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, Alta.

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.

Adam Driver in The Report

‘The Report’ Solidly Struggles for Relevance

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.

The Report is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Vader vs. Obi-Wan – Reimagined

This is an interesting little bit of filmmaking.

Clearly they went to great pains to recreate Vader and the Death Star, as well as putting Alec Guinness’ likeness on a double of Obi-Wan. It’s a lot of effort.

It lacks restraint, however. It’s too over the top. It would never look right in the movie, as the few bits from the movie that are kept in this edit show. It’s just waaayyyy too much.

Still, it’s interesting to see old settings and actors recreated so convincingly.

The teaser trailer that made ‘Batman’

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.

Reading Comics: Mr. and Mrs. X #1-8

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.

Kelly Thompson’s 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 that regard.

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.

Reading Comics: Iceman (2018) #1, 3

Bobby Drake has always been a bland character, all the way back to 1963’s X-Men #1. But, boy howdy, there’s been no shortage of writers who’ve tried to rectify that, with often strange results. Roy Thomas sent him off in suit with his pal Beast to haunt 1960s coffee shops full of beat poets and pretty girls. Chris Claremont sent him off to college to study accounting, not even bringing him back into the X-Men fold for the death of Phoenix in X-Men #137. Louise Simonson gave him a bunch of girlfriends in X-Factor, including Opal Tanaka, which began the first of many plots about how much of a bigot Bobby’s father was. And Scott Lobdell amped up his powers, had his body taken over by Emma Frost, and then gave Bobby’s dad redemption when he was nearly killed by the Friends of Humanity.

But nothing’s raised Iceman’s profile as much as Brian Michael Bendis revealing Iceman to be gay in 2015’s All-New X-Men #40.

That brings us to Iceman #1 and #3,  part of a five-issue series following up the 11-issue 2017 run, both from writer Sina Grace and both focusing on Bobby sort of learning to live life as a gay man who’s also a superhero. The problem with these stories is they’re way too on-the-nose. You can almost line up the expected plots and watch them get knocked down one by one: How does Bobby find a date? How does he introduce his boyfriend to his parents? Does he move out west to be with his new beau? Of course, there’s some superheroing in the mix, but the focus is clearly on the personal drama, which unfortunately reads like Bobby’s got a new job and has to figure out where the lunch room is.

Issue #3 offers a bit of fun in that it brings in the amazing friends of long-ago Saturday mornings: Firestar and Spider-Man. There’s a superhero thing to do, but it’s more about the three friends all dealing with the dates they’re on when the villain attacks. Maybe it’s just me, but everyone is so interested in getting along that none of the characters feels like a real person. The art is okay, but stiff — it feels like something a fill-in artist would have done in the 1980s.

If Marvel’s going to stick with Iceman being gay, it needs to come up with better stories that don’t hinge just on the fact that he’s gay. While I know there are fans who will eat this up right now as being very in the moment, it’s too one-dimensional to be remembered for any thing but that.

Reading Comics: Domino (2017)

Domino never stood out as character worthy of her own series, but Gail Simone has changed my mind after reading Domino #1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and Annual #1.

Most of the Simone-scripted comics I’ve read were from DC; I’ve never really read her Marvel work, and it’s clear from this she’s a much better fit at the House of Ideas. I actually want to read more about this character, whose previous most memorable comic book moments involved her being Cable’s sidekick in the early days of X-Force and the unfortunate X-Force: Sex and Violence miniseries, for the final scene in issue 3 involving Domino agreeing to give Wolverine a blow job after they successfully saved the day. (Yes, it’s as gross as it sounds.)

Here, Domino is much more interesting: she gets a dog, goes on missions with her pals Diamondback (formerly a villain in the Mark Gruenwald run of Captain America in the 1980s) and Outlaw, who’s so much of a hoot that I’m amazed I missed her completely until now.

Together, these women are fun, funny and get into a really solid superhero story involving some nasties from Domino’s past. (Not sure I knew Domino’s origin, but it’s recapped nicely here, so I got everything I needed to know without the story slowing down.) The art by David Baldeon is terrific — light, funny, nicely rendered and it tells the story.

I really like this version of Domino and look forward to filling in this collection and reading more as it continues in the upcoming Domino: Hot Shots miniseries.

Reading Comics: Astonishing X-Men (2017) #13-17

Astonishing X-Men #13-17 is a very flat story with some nice covers. Check ’em out.

Matthew Rosenberg does something here that is increasingly common: He’s focused more on the bits and on trying to write flashy dialog than he is on telling a clear story. It’s a bit of a disease, one that I think you could lay at the feet of Joss Whedon. There must be a lot of Buffy fans out there wanting to write comics.

This series wraps up this series of Astonishing with a limp tale about Alex Summers, recently freed from being falsely turned into a bad guy in Uncanny Avengers, trying to form a new team of X-Men. Of course, he can’t call them X-Men because Kitty Pryde owns the trademark to that name with Xavier dead, and explicitly tells him not to use it. They try to make that a recurring joke, but the artist’s limited ability to draw human facial expressions gets in the way.

The threat this time out is O.N.E., a generic government agency out to do something bad to mutants. Havok tries to recruit Beast, who’s teaching at Harvard until the Reavers show up and wreck the place. Also, Kitty has Warpath follow Havok to keep him out of trouble — and to keep him from calling his group X-Men. (Still not as funny as it wants to be.)

They all crash Dazzler’s third-rate anniversary tour for Sounds of Light and Fury looking for Forge, who’s running her light show and, I assume, doubling as her roadie. He says no to the offer and vanishes from this arc, but Dazzler is desperate for something to and signs. Then, the group finds Colossus drinking away his pain in a dumpy apartment after Kitty walked away from him at the altar. Piotr is easily the most interesting character in this weak bunch, which ends up with a strange showdown at the Xavier Academy that resolves nothing and has no impact. This is five issues of treading water at the most basic level and it’s pretty depressing to read.

A brand-new era? Not quite.

Bonus comic: Dazzler: X-Song #1 (2017) by writer Magdalene Visaggio and artist Laura Braga. This issue ties into the Astonishing X-Men run, with Dazzler going on tour incognito as part of a band with the groan-inducing name Lightbringr, that brings out fans in both the mutant and inhuman communities — often with conflicts popping up at the club venues. There’s some mutant jerks who are showing up at the concerts to buIly the inhuman fans that show up. And of course, Alison has to step in and stop it. There’s some strange scenes with Colossus trying to get Alison to come back to the X-Men. And if there’s a story in here, it’s very slight.

The art fares slightly better, but the interior is sketchy in that storyboard style and doesn’t match the promise of the cover, by Elizabeth Torque and Ian Herring. Dazzler remains a tough character to crack.

Lot of people love the character’s premise and look, but solid stories for Ms. Blaire have been hard to come by, with Chris Claremont’s run with her in X-Men from 1986 to about 1990 standing out as the real exception.

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