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Tag: Jack Sparling

‘Secret Six’ #7 Wraps Up the Series With an Inky, Moody Tale

Secret Six #7 (May 1969). Art by Jack Sparling.

"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:

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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."

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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.

Page 19

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.

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"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’ Series Peaks With Sexy Issue #6

"Secret Six" #6 cover. Art by Jack Sparling.

"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Page 14

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.

Crimson Dawn’s Revenge is a Star-Making Role in ‘Secret Six’ #5

"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Page 16

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!

‘Secret Six’ #4 Goes Behind the Bamboo Curtain

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.

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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.

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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.

Page 11

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.

Page 22

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.

Sparling Brings Style, Vigor to ‘Secret Six’ #3

"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.

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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.

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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.

Pages 13-14

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.

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