Writer, Editor, Author

Tag: Joe Gill

‘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:

Page 4

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

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.

Page 24

"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.

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.

Page 2

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.

Page 10

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 13

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’ Stumbles in Its Second Outing

"Secret Six" #2 (July 1968). Art by Nick Cardy.

"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.

Page 5

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.

Page 20

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.

‘Secret Six’ #1 Spills Its Guts — All Over the Place

"Secret Six" #1 (May 1968) is half a good comic.

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?

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