Writer, Editor, Author

Tag: The Comic Book Heroes

‘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.

‘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.

Page 6

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.

Page 8

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.

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.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 1

Finishing the Blake Bell book on Steve Ditko reminded me that I really enjoy nonfiction books about comics, comics creators and the comics industry. I also realized I have quite a few such books and they might make for an interesting post. Then I started listing them and realized it might take several posts.

So here’s the first one, focusing on books that offer historical overviews or essays about comics as a medium or specific comics characters

All in Color for a Dime and The Comic-Book Book, both edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. These are very influential books in comics history, being collections of essays about all kinds of topics from Jingle-Jangle Tales to Captain Marvel. All in Color was first published in 1970 and became a rare and expensive find by the time I learned of it, so I had to wait for the 1990s re-issue. The Comic-Book Book was one of the first books on comics I got, as it was commonly available in used bookstores. I picked it up the first time because of Don Thompson, whose reviews in Comics Buyers Guide I enjoyed reading quite a bit in the last few years before he died.


Superman: The Complete History, Batman: The Complete History and Wonder Woman: The Complete History, all written by Les Daniels and beautifully designed and filled with amazing images by Chip Kidd. These are really solid and fun books to read and look through, even though there’s something about them that feels restrained and somehow corporate in tone. The book on Wonder Woman was the most interesting to me as her history is written about less frequently, even though it’s perhaps the most oddball and interesting of them all.

The Comic-Book Makers by Joe Simon with Jim Simon. I checked this out of a library and then had to return it before I finished reading it because I was moving. But it was interesting enough for me to seek out when it came back into print years later. An excellent look back at what it was like to work in the Golden Age of comics from one of the most-accomplished creators of that time.

The Comic-Book Heroes, by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. The original, 1984 edition of this was a book I coveted for a long time before I got to read it. I first saw it in the Waldenbooks at Paradise Valley Mall in Arizona sometime in late 1986. I desperately wanted to read it because it was the first history of comics I had seen that covered the era I was most interested in — the superhero books from the Silver Age on. Being a broke teenager, it took me a while to come up with the cash to buy the book, by which time the sole copy at the store had been sold. I didn’t see another copy until a few years later when I was in college and one turned up at the excellent Bookman’s store in Tucson. I devoured the book and loved it, especially for how compelling it was in recounting not just what happened in the books but the companies and people who were creating them. It also had some great criticism of a lot of comics of the time. Needless to say, I re-read this book several times and was thrilled when an updated version came out in 1996. That version was even better than the original, expanding the original book to cover everything that happened in the 1980s and up through the insanity of the speculator market and through the crash. Jones, of course, saw much of this first hand as a prolific scripter for both Marvel and DC, and the book is full of interesting details. If a third version were to be produced, I would be first in line to buy it.

Perhaps even more compelling is Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. This one goes all the way back to the dawn of the comics business and focuses in particular on Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz as they start and build DC into the industry powerhouse. This is full of well-researched details and exposes a shadier side of the industry. The battle over Superman waged between DC and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is central here, and the details are both fascinating and heartbreaking. There’s plenty of other great stuff from the Golden Age and even a look at the circumstances that created the comic book in the first place. Another absolute must-read.


Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes, both by Les Daniels, seem like they’d be natural bookends. The Marvel edition is a surprisingly solid, warts-and-all history of the publisher from the days of Martin Goodman up through the heyday of superstar artist Todd McFarlane. It does a very good job of covering all the bases and features lots of very nice cover reproductions and vintage photographs of creators. There’s even an illustrated “how-to-make-comics” section and annotated reprints of some vintage stories. The DC version, however, is nowhere near as interesting because it doesn’t weave the details into as interesting a narrative. Instead, it’s episodic and focuses a lot on how successful DC characters have been in other media. The Marvel book is better, but the DC version is still interesting for the photos and artwork.

I already wrote a ways back about Watching the Watchmen by Dave Gibbons, and had a chance to talk to Dave about the making of the book. I wish this kind of documentary evidence was readily available for more seminal comic book series. Basically, Gibbons kept every drawing and every scrap of paper related to the series and presents here in astonishing detail the work that went into making this important book. Gibbons also writes down his recollections, and it all adds up to a fascinating look at what creating comics can be like.

One more for this post: The Photojournal Guide to Comic Books, photographed by Ernie Gerber. There were four volumes in this series, with the third and fourth devoted exclusively to Marvel. These were very hot and expensive when they first came out, featuring color photographs of the covers of thousands of comics. It wasn’t comprehensive, but it included all the historically significant books from the Golden Age up through the 1980s. Today, the internet does this kind of thing better with extensive online photo galleries that can be searched and viewed with ease. But I still admire these and pull them out on occasion to thumb through because I always spot something interesting I hadn’t noticed before.

Next: Great comic book interviews.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén