“Brainiac” Writer: Robert Venditti Artist: Wilfredo Torres Colors: Jordie Bellaire Letters: Dave Lanphear Editor: Andrew Marino
As with Batman ’89, I wanted to like Superman ’78 more than I did. Unlike that one, I don’t think it works.
Superman: The Movie is a favorite of mine. I think it’s one of the best — if not the best — comic book adaptations and superhero movies of all time. There’s a lot of reasons why that movie works, mostly because a lot of thought went into every aspect of making it. From the wild visuals of Krypton to the bucolic Smallville sequence and the then-modern vision of life in Metropolis, it all works. Richard Donner was the perfect director for the material. The actors were all well chosen and give good performances, the script is smart, and it has some real emotional heft.
When Superman II followed in 1981, I remember loving that one, too. Revisiting it, though, it’s such a mixed bag. The Donner-directed sequences stand out as the best, while the Richard Lester segments less so.
Side note: I was lucky enough when I worked at Variety to meet both Donner and the film’s producer, Ilya Salkind. Each one’s version of the reasons for the split are irreconcilable, by which I mean that neither perspective matches up. Salkind at that point, around 2006 or so, was talking up plans to make a movie about Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster that never materialized.
Anyway, this comic takes it inspiration from the Donner vision, even paying tribute to his death on the inside front cover. The story involves the entry of Brainiac into the Superman cinematic series. Unlike Batman, Superman lacks a deep bench of villains. That’s why all the movie versions use either Lex Luthor or General Zod — those are the only ones people know and care about.
The problem is the comic is too literally trying to be a movie. If this was the script for a movie being made in the early to mid-1980s, it would have been fun. But as a comic, it moves so slowly across six issues, tries so hard to check all the boxes and provide some variation on a moment from the films, that it has no identity of its own.
Dialog scenes that would have passed quickly and with wit in 30 seconds or so in a movie become two pages of talking heads in comics form.
Brainiac is decent villain. I have no clue if they tried to “cast” the character with the likeness of an actor from the early 1980s. And it does bring the bottle city of Kandor into the picture, which is cool, but uses it to bring back Superman’s parents. Making Superman choose between his life on Earth and remaining Brainiac’s prisoner in Kandor is perhaps the best character test of the series, but it just comes off as an echo of the choice he already made in Superman II to give up his powers to live with Lois.
The art is another mixed bag. The likenesses are good, and it somehow manages to evoke the blocky art style of Silver Age Superman comics. But it also has a stiff quality that makes me think Torres used a lot of photo reference.
The end result is six issues that breeze by like it was two. It reminds you how good the movies are without coming close to being as good as them. Maybe another creative team could pick up the Superman ’78 premise and do something with a little more energy. Otherwise, you’re probably better off just revisiting the movies.
Things changed again for me in in the autumn of 1990. In pursuing my journalism career, I began working as a reporter for the the college newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat. I worked three days a week at the Wildcat, and my beat was the University Medical Center, and general assignment.
This took up a lot of my time and instantly expanded my social circle from almost nothing to an entire newsroom of like-minded people. My first published article was about students who worked as lifeguards at one of the pools and were suddenly laid off despite new pools opening up in a new recreation and sports center. I wrote about some of the research being done at UMC, covered some student health issues, and did a fair bit of general assignment stuff on whatever needed to be covered.
Boy, was it fun. Very hard, at times, but a lot of fun.
It also cut into my comics time. I didn’t mind so much — it was good to have those new experiences. I had gone back to buying from Fantasy Comics over on Campbell Avenue. I was enjoying the increasing energy in the overall superhero field with the rise of the artists who would soon form Image Comics, and started to branch out more into other types of comics.
I already mentioned I was digging Shade the Changing Man by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo. This was before Vertigo was its own imprint. But the “mature readers” section of DC was already pretty unified, as it was all under the leadership of Karen Berger. I started checking out the other titles from this corner that were mentioned in the Shade letters column. Two of them made an immediate impact: Hellblazer and The Sandman.
I saw the ads for the new writer taking over Hellblazer with issue #41 (May 1991), a writer named Garth Ennis. The ads made clear that the series’ protagonist, John Constantine, had lung cancer from smoking in almost every single panel he’d ever appeared in. The art looked cool, so I picked up that first issue and liked it.
But what really blew me away was the second issue, Hellblazer #42 (June 1991), and it remains to this day one of my favorite single issues ever of a comic book.
This story, titled “A Drop of the Hard Stuff,” has cancer-stricken Constantine heading to Ireland to seek the help of his old pal, Brendan, who lived in a lighthouse with dark-haired beauty Kit and dabbled in magic himself. Brendan loved to drink, and always had time for a pint of stout, glass of whiskey, or goblet of wine.
After catching up and getting pleasantly sloshed, Constantine tells Brendan he’s got cancer and he was hoping that his old pal might know a spell that would help him out of this spot. Brendan replies by saying he was hoping John would be able to help him in the same way, though for him it’s liver cancer, and he’s got very little time left.
So they decide to get completely sloshed, and Brendan takes John down to the cellar of the lighthouse where there’s a pool of holy water blessed by St. Patrick himself. He lights a candle, casts a spell — and turns the holy water into stout beer. John and Brendan start drinking it, and Brendan reveals that he made a deal with the devil to be able to acquire and enjoy the greatest life of drink known to man, in exchange, of course, for Brendan’s soul. Brendan says he tried to get one over on the old man by stipulating that his soul must be claimed by midnight on the day he dies or it goes free.
Brendan spends his final few hours with John, who gets up to leave noting it’s almost midnight. At the top of the stairs, he comes face to face with the devil himself, who’s come to claim Brendan’s soul. John figures he owes it to his pal to try to delay him until midnight, so he offers the devil a drink, saying that doing so would put all Brendan’s drinking adventures to shame. The devil likes this and agrees. John fills two pints of Guinness from the well, they say cheers, and each take a deep drink.
“So that’s what he was up to! Magic stout …” says the devil.
“Yup,” says John. “As long as that candle burns it keeps it from turning back into holy water.”
The devil panics, John smiles, and kicks over the table with the candle and it goes out. The devil screams in pain. John lights a cig and pushes the devil into the pool of holy water, and the devil dissolves in a hideous howl.
The clock strikes midnight. John’s saved his pal, but now he knows for sure he must do anything he can to avoid dying and ending up in hell because he’ll have to pay big time for this offense.
I was so completely hooked by this story, I began to buy every back issue of Hellblazer I could find. The previous issues, mostly written by Jamie Delano and drawn by the likes of Mark Buckingham and Richard Piers Rayner, were quite different, but unlike anything else I had ever read and quite fascinating. Once I figured out stout was Guinness, it became my adult beverage of choice.
Then there’s The Sandman. As I’m writing this, the first season of the Netflix series adapting the first two major arcs of the comic has just debuted. I’ve seen the first episode and adored it, and I can’t wait to see the rest of season one and what’s coming up in season two.
The first issues I bought of the comic book was The Sandman #22 (Jan. 1991) and #23 (Feb. 1991). This was the beginning of “The Season of Mists” storyline, with art by Kelley Jones and script, of course, by Neil Gaiman. I distinctly remember the literary quality of this comic stood in stark contrast to anything else I had read before, even the likes of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. I quickly scored back issues through #16 at Ken Strack’s AAA Best Comics in Phoenix, and in those issues found two stories that made me a forever fan of The Sandman – and comics as a medium.
The first was “Calliope,” in The Sandman #17 (July 1990). This was one of Gaiman’s single-issue stories and it was devastatingly good. The story followed Richard Madoc, a novelist with writer’s block who acquires a real life muse named Calliope. Her services are not acquired freely — he rapes her to get the inspiration that not only undoes his writer’s block, but fuels his rise to literary and cultural stardom unknown in modern culture. Calliope pleads with Morpheus in a dream to help free her — they had one been intimate. The Sandman appears before Madoc and makes his case. But when the writer complains that he’d have no ideas without her, Morpheus unleashes his anger and fills the writer’s mind with so many ideas it drives him mad. He frees Calliope, and the rush of ideas fades away to nothing at all. This was all in 22 pages with fantastic art, and made a huge impression on me.
The other was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in The Sandman #19 (Sept. 1990). This is one of the most famous issues of the series, as William Shakespeare and his troupe perform the first of two plays commissioned by Morpheus for a unique audience — the faery folk the play itself portrays as a way to ensure they are never forgotten. It’s clever and engaging beyond words, with delightful, delicate and expressive art by Charles Vess.
I hope both episodes are adapted for season two of the Netflix show, even though I know that even the greatest adaptation could never equal the stature of the comics in my mind.
The Sandman was one of the first comics I set out to read trade paperbacks on. This is because the back issue prices were already pretty high. There already was The Doll’s House, which collected issues #8-16 — a steal at $12.95.
I remember looking forward to buying the trade paperback of the earlier issues, and picking up a copy at Fantasy Comics on the day it came out. Preludes & Nocturnes collected issues 1-8 of The Sandman, and did not disappoint. (Yes, both editions included issue 8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduced Death. At the time, I’m sure it made sense to kick off The Doll’s House with that terrific story, but it more correctly belongs as the epilogue to Preludes.)
In direct opposition to pre-Vertigo DC comics was the explosion of energy new artists were bringing to mainstream Marvel and DC superhero comics.
The X-Men were top of the heap at Marvel, with Jim Lee and his Homage Studios mates taking over the art chores on The Uncanny X-Men, starting with issues #267. The following issue, #268, which came out in early fall of 1990 was a huge jolt of excitement with Lee drawing a single-issue tale by regular scribe Chris Claremont that alternated between an 1940s meeting between Captain America and Logan, and a present-day tale involving Logan, Jubilee and Psylocke helping out the Black Widow.
That was followed up by the return of Rogue in The Uncanny X-Men #269. Always a favorite, Rogue had vanished into the Siege Perilous some 20 issues before and just now returned. She ended up in the Savage Land, just getting by on her own — in a wonderfully revealing torn up costume that fueled the imagination of many a male reader. She runs head to head in her mind with Carol Danvers, and comes out face to face with Magneto.
The Extinction Agenda crossover was next. Compared to today’s crossovers, this was a modest affair — it ran a mere nine issues, three each for X-Men, X-Factor and The New Mutants.
But it was Lee on X-Men that drew everyone’s attention and jump-started sales to a new level. I remember being home at my parents’ house that spring with a cold. My mom was driving past AAA Best and stopped in to get some comics. Ken knew who I was, and my mom came home with copies of Superman #54 and the double-sized Jim Lee glory of The Uncanny X-Men #275 with a gatefold cover.
Things were building now toward the relaunches that defined the summer of 1991. Louise Simonson dropped off of The New Mutants, and Rob Liefeld instantly began transforming it into X-Force. Whilce Portacio took over X-Factor and, with Chris Claremont scripting, finally resolved the identity of Cable and set up the eventual return of the original X-Men to the team.
One of the nice thing about comics at the time was they were still cheap. Most Marvel and DC comics cost $1, and most stores were moving lots and lots of copies of Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man and other top heroes. Batman books especially were doing well, with sales strong across the board two years after the Tim Burton movie. We now awaited the sequel, which was due in 1992.
Speculation also was coming into play in a more obvious way. There had for years been people buying multiple copies of certain hot comics as they came out in the expectation that they would increase in value. While the vast majority of Marvel and DC back issues were common and relatively cheap in the 1980s, the influx of both readers and speculators started to have an effect. Once-common back issues became a bit harder to find, and prices started to edge up a bit. DC and Marvel both had hits with multiple covers on Legends of the Dark Knight and Spider-Man, and had now bought into this promotional tool wholeheartedly with X-Force #1 and X-Men #1, coming in the summer of 1991.
“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 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.