Saturday, July 9, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Secret Six

Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation
Six Degrees of Devastation
The Secret Six series of graphic novels are part of the wonderful new trend from DC Comics for strong LGBT character comics. Written by Gail Simone, this is recent - and short lived - series from DC Comics that features the lesbian Scandal Savage, a main character throughout the whole series. She's awesome.

The Secret Six are a group of antiheroes, second string villains, who live together and contract out as mercenaries to a variety of employers (guards, rescue missions, assassinations - they do it all). The Secret Six is their official name, but only five of them are that permanent - the 'family'.
This is a pretty violent series, much more to the taste of Batman fans than Superman, but the character development and the plots are mostly as interesting as the violence and action (although it does get darker as the series progresses). The art isn't absolutely mindblowing, but it's certainly good enough.

My cat approves of these books. And not just because of Catman
From left: Villains UnitedUnhingedThe Darkest House
The characters are all actually interesting, mesh very well, are casually amoral but not entirely monstrous. It's a very fine line to draw, in a way - exemplified by the beginning of the first book in the series, Six Degrees of Devastation, where they're sickened by a concentration camp, free the prisoners... and then walk away while the prisoners massacre the guards.

All their books in order:
  1. Villains United (Countdown to Infinite Crisis)
  2. Villains United/ Infinite Crisis Special #1 (collected in The Infinite Crisis Companion )
  3. Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation
  4. Birds of Prey Vol. 7: Dead of Winter
  5. Birds of Prey: Club Kids
  6. Secret Six: Unhinged
  7. Secret Six: Depths
  8. Secret Six: Danse Macabre
  9. Secret Six: Cat's in the Cradle
  10. Birds of Prey Vol 2: The Death of Oracle (Catman & Deadshot only, but bonus story with Renee Montoya!) Birds of prey #7-15
  11. Secret Six: The Reptile Brain
  12. Secret Six: The Darkest House [review]

Our team:
Scandal Savage

Scandal Savage is the daughter of the evil, powerful and immortal Vandal Savage. She's a deadly fighter, tough, and fights a lot like Wolverine, with her wrist-claw Lamentation Blades. She's initially the leader of the group but is off the team in the second half of the series (although she's still around - they make a distinction between 'team for jobs' and 'team as in family'). She's prominent, confident, smart, not blatantly fanservicey, and it is made quite clear that she's gay (and perfectly happy about it) in every book.

Knockout is her lover - super strong, tall, fast healing, gorgeous, she's the most powerful member of the team, and the one who ticks all the classic 'superheroine' boxes. Except for being a villain, of course. An ex-Female Fury from Akopolips, she used to fight alongside Superboy, until casually murdering a police officer.

Her non-masked identity was as a stripper. She wasn't originally gay. Technically, she's bisexual, or possibly pansexual - but she's just as in love with Scandal as Scandal is with her.

Secret Six: Depths
Secret Six: Depths
Deadshot, Catman and Ragdoll are the rest of the team. Later, they're joined by Bane and a steady series of 'sixth members' - each fascinating in their own way (for example, the aristocratic Jeanette, the mad Mad Hatter).

Deadshot is probably the most violent bad guy member of the group. Give him a gun and he'll shoot anything, and he doesn't really care what. A generally nasty character, he has his good points - like the little daughter he refuses to see because of the danger it would put her in.

Catman used to be pretty pathetic, but is now the closest thing they have to a hero. Not that he's good, necessarily, but he's fairly honourable and a pretty nice person. He also seems to have deliberately modeled himself after Batman (even their silhouettes look similar) - something Bane mocks him about in Depths.

Villains United (Countdown to Infinite Crisis)
Villains United
(Countdown to Infinite Crisis)
Ragdoll is a peculiarly creepy, endearing - and suddenly vicious and quite insane- character. Addicted to surgery, he's scarred and bald, wearing a mask in public, lifting it for moments of openness. More notably, his limbs are now incredibly flexible and multiply jointed, and his party trick is to strangle someone by wrapping his legs around them.

First appearing as the villains in Villains United (Countdown to Infinite Crisis) they got their own series shortly after. In Villains United, they were caught in the middle of the larger battles of heroes and villains, refusing to join Lex Luthor's society of supervillains, leading to war. Knockout joins the Society undercover at Scandal's request, but breaks cover to save Scandal's life from one of the Society members.

Scandal comes out in the most casual way possibly in Villains United #5

Knockout reveals which side she's really on and rescues her girlfriend, Scandal in Infinite Crisis
They also appear in  Villains United / Infinite Crisis Special #1 as part of a huge crossover, in which the events of Villains United are wrapped up, we get to see Knockout and Scandal as a 'proper' couple, and the team decides to stick together as mercenaries.

This story was collected in The Infinite Crisis Companion along with several similar 'wrap up' stories.
The team gets to know each other. Over ribs.
Villains United / Infinite Crisis Special #1

Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation
Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation
The first official Secret Six book, we get roughly even coverage of all the members as Scandal's father decides to destroy the group and bring his heir back to him. Plenty of individual attacks on the group members, ending with a showdown against Vandal Savage.

It has lots of lovely Knockout and Savage time. Definitely a good one for anyone looking for superhero (...or villain) lesbian romance.

Lesbian-related moments...

- Knockout nearly dies from an attack during a romantic getaway, but not being human, survives.
- Turns out she's bisexual, as she promptly has sex with Deadshot to unwind... without realising this is a faux pas on Earth (Knockout swears that it meant nothing, he means nothing and she'll never do it again now that she knows). Scandal uses it as an excuse to leave the group, and protect them from her father.

Birds of Prey Vol. 7: Dead of Winter (issues #104–108)
Spy Smasher is controlling the Birds of Prey and sends them on a mission to Russia, where they go up against the Secret Six who've been hired to guard their target.
In this crossover, Knockout goes and fights Barda inconclusively, Harley Quinn is the temporary sixth member, and Catman and Huntress discover a mutual attraction. Much like Villains United, here the Secret Six are the villains, and the main character are the heroes.

Again, more lovely lesbian naked time occurs. However, the story ends with each team going their separate ways, and they finish the story arc in another book, in issue #109, 'Stone Cold Knockout'. 

Birds of Prey: Club Kids (issues  #109-112, 1188)
This graphic novel is a collection of short stories finishing off the Birds of Prey series (they came back again in a new series with Gail Simone). Apart from Knockout's death in #109, we also see a bit more of Black Alice before she joins the Secret Six.

 It is written by Tony Bedard and are crossovers with story threads in Final Crisis, and the fallout from Death of the New Gods

A side note about Birds of Prey:
 I've managed to read most of the Birds of Prey graphic novels now - also written by Gail Simone, full of female superheroes and very worth checking out - and we get to see the beginning of Black Alice (she joins the Secret Six in Danse Macabre), who comes to the attention of the Birds of Prey when she's busy murdering drug dealers, and later when the Secret Society try to recruit her.
Knockout does not take the idea that she might lose to Barda very well in Birds of Prey #109

Secret Six: UnhingedSecret Six: Unhinged
Now this is a good one. Loads of action, a fun storyline and a snake-pit of interesting characters. Plus, good artwork.

It opens with Catman trying to discuss the state of his soul with Deadshot, wondering if they're actually evil or just missing something. Deadshot couldn't care less, of course, but humors him. Oh, they're buying ice cream for Scandal's 'cheer up' party, and a gang of white supremacists are trying to rob the place. Eventually they annoy Deadshot enough that he takes them down and shows them how to properly rob a store, and the two wander out and keep talking about whether Catman has any 'good guy' left in him. Until Deadshot points out that Catman left the upset gang to do what they liked with the store owners... (which was a classic moment).

Anyway, the team hire a stripper called Liana to comfort Scandal, after they get her to drag herself out of bed, who has a vision - or a drunken hallucination - of Knockout. Considering Knockout's deity-like status, it is just possible enough to be believed...

Scandal decides her team are idiots, and gets back to work. The team have been hired, mysteriously, to rescue a woman from prison, who has a certain Get Out of Hell Free card in her possession (although they don't learn about this until too late). Unfortunately, every evil villain around wants it too, include a particularly nasty creature with a connection to Ragdoll and a lot of personal issues - and the money to put an enormous and ridiculous bounty on each of their heads (Junior also turns up in a terrying story in the Birds of Prey crossover, The Death of Oracle, along with a brief cameo from Catman).

Anyway, Scandal's quite upset about her lover's death, and she's rather bluntly reminded by Catman that Knockout probably went to hell - making the card suddenly very important to her. Catman's feeling guilty and clearly wants the card, Deadshot says he doesn't and actually gets heroic, and matters are generally tense all around. And then we get to meet the charming and aristocratic Jeannette, who has mysterious ties to Scandal (a past relationship - Jeanette's bisexual), is incredibly powerful, and is dead. Although that's not immediately evident. We do get a flashback to her childhood in the castle of the bloody Countess Bathory, though.

The Hatter - a little upset at Ragdoll throwing him off a wall in Six Degrees of Devastation appears to be behind the whole job, in an attempt to meet the Six again. And you know, wreak vengeance. Sadly, the vast crowd of villains after the bounty on their heads (and the card), get in his way. And then Ragdoll throws his hat away, so he has to go rescue it.

Bane, hilariously, decides that Scandal needs a father's love and steps into that role - without actually telling Scandal or adjusting for the appropriateness of the situation. Which leads to such delightful lines as "You may have one ice cream of your choice" as they hijack an ice cream van. But by the end of the book, a distinct bond is forming, as both rescue the other in turn from certain death.

Definitely one of the best books in the whole series.

Secret Six: Depths

Secret Six: Depths In which Scandal meets up with Liana again by chance and goes on a date with her. Then there's an interlude of Bane, Catman and Ragdoll playing hero in Gotham for a little while (with Bane and Catman both pretending they are like totally not trying to be the Batman), followed by the 'main' action, with the whole team heading to a prison island on a guard job, which includes a whole group of Amazons. And Jeannette reveals a bit more of her extremely scary and sad Banshee side, as well as a lot of personal dislike of Amazons (who hid and let all the other women suffer). Oh, and she totally whups Wonder Woman.

Ends with Bane taking charge and kicking Scandal off the team.

Scandal and Jeannette, with blades and fan out.

This is a pretty grim story, the prison is nasty and the team ends up divided over following their contract or not. Bane is increasingly becoming a father-brother figure to Scandal as well, which is quite interesting to watch.

Interesting lesbian-related developments:
- Scandal is very prominent (although the team shares the action fairly evenly again) and actually goes on a date. The whole thing starts with full page of Liana glomping her in a supermarket.

This is apparently how Liana cheers people up.

Liana and Scandal on their date.
Apparently Scandal is adorable. Awww. 

Flashback to Liana dressed as Knockout in Secret Six: Unhinged

At some point, Scandal may have to mention she's a villain.
- Wonder Woman turns up and fights Jeannette (the Banshee), who makes cracks about whether they get to kiss now. There's also some innuendo as Jeannette rescues Artemis.

Jeannette frees Artemis, along with a hint of subtext

"Is this the part where we kiss?" 
 This is made more interesting by Wonder Woman's - heck, all the Amazons' - long running lesbian subtext.
Diana (Wonder Woman) and her cousin Artemis

Jeannette is scary and powerful

Gail Simone also thinks of Diana as bisexual. And there's this awesome page floating around the web.
A fairly awesome interview about Wonder Woman's dating status from the marvellously LGBTQ-friendly Greg Rucka in Wonder Woman: Down to Earth (thanks to K.D. Bryan in the comments for the ID!)

Secret Six Vol. 3: Danse MacabreSecret Six: Danse Macabre

The plot in Danse Macabre revolves around Deadshot. An old group (the terrifying government agent, Waller, and her Suicide Squad, who he rejoined briefly in Birds of Prey #109) wants him back, and attempts to kidnap him in order to persuade him. This is definitely one of the better books and we even get a bit of Scandal/Liana.

Scandal being off the team basically means she doesn't go into the field but she still handles intel and communication back at base, and she's still part of the decision making.

There's an introduction story about Deadshot, who's been feeling particularly homicidal, enough to worry even him, and he calls up an old priestly friend and they have a chat about Batman and Deadshot's family.

Then there's an abrupt scene change into a new story, with Deadshot and Catman kidnapping a child molestor (and murder) from prison and delivering him to one of the children's fathers, along with a knife and some practical instructions for torture. They're observed by Black Alice, a disturbed teen girl with the ability to steal magical powers and lots of issues, who announces she wants to join (she's crossed over from the Birds of Prey series, if you're curious). Unfortunately, she's way too powerful to brush off (she has the ability to steal the power of any magic user she knows about), so Deadshot and Catman decide to lose her by visiting a strip club. Cue Liana's appearance, Scandal and the rest of the team turning up to take a look at Black Alice, the girl taking on some cops, and the team stepping in and eventually letting her join.

Matters get a bit complicated after that, with the team heading out on a rescue mission that turns out to be an ambush by the Suicide Squad, while Waller goes after Scandal back at the house. Problem is, a bunch of Black Lantern zombies turn up (including the dead Atom - or as Ragdoll puts it, "the flying fetus of doom!") and go after everyone.'ve gotta love Bane's expression
After it's over, Scandal tells Waller to get lost (and implies that she's still in charge, she's just letting Bane have his head for a while), and Deadshot gives Waller something to remember him by.

Awesome lesbian moments:
The strip club scene is quite fun - it's supervillain night, and Liana turns up on stage as Knockout. Scandal turns up shortly after, tells Deadshot she's already seen what Liana's got, so to speak, then they try and take Alice away before Liana gets fired.

It's supervillain night at the strip club, and Liana is front and center as Knockout
"I'm afraid you're several dates too late for that, Mr. Lawton"
Later, Liana turns up to collect Scandal for a date and Bane goes into protective father mode, hustling Liana off to ask her about her intentions, what this 'date' ritual consists of (a PG animated movie!), and starts asking for a list of all her sexual partners and potential STDs (...which is actually a pretty awesome bit of sexual awareness, if very creepy and over the line).

Bane ambushes Liana and goes into Father-figure mode
Bane starts by asking Liana's intentions and then escalates.
Luckily Scandal arrives and sweeps Liana off for a night of PG animation... or not.
 Anyway, Scandal interrupts, informs Bane that her intentions are entirely carnal and sweeps Liana away (the latter suggesting that they skip the movie entirely).

That is, if Scandal can bear to get on the scary pink bike.
Alas, Liana turns out to have a bright pink motorcycle, which causes Scandal a few qualms.

Secret Six: Cat's in the Cradle
Cat's in the Cradle. Gail Simone (Secret Six)- This one is mostly about Catman hunting down some men who steal his son (and killing them all). Scandal and the rest of the team are left behind, so don't really show up much. If you're mainly interested in Savage, skip this one.

- the current newest sixth member, Black Alice decides (briefly) that Ragdoll is her boyfriend and that Scandal is after him (at which point says "uh, I'm a gay woman"); and they fight. It did feel a bit like the writer went 'oh no, readers might not know this character is gay! We must remind them!' - due to her lack of plot time, there was no casual moment to mention this.

Catman later appears in the Birds of Prey crossover, The Death of Oracle - in which he arranges to persuade Huntress he isn't worth waiting for, and refers to the events in Cat's in the Cradle.

Secret Six: The Reptile BrainSecret Six: The Reptile Brain

Written by Paul Cornell, issues #25-29 of Secret Six start right from the end of Cat's in the Cradle with the Secret Six being hired by the government with the promise of pardons and taking on a new Secret Six (led by Bane). Bane and Scandal still have the whole father-daughter thing going on, there's scifi travel to another world full of dinosaurs and fairly prehistoric tribes, intrigue, and government interferences.

The art in this issue is different in style too... a lot cleaner and flatter, and much less of the grimness and gore of the rest of the series.
Scandal Savage attacks with
her Lamentation Blades in The Reptile Brain

This is the final-but-one book in the series and gets pretty confusing, as it includes a large crossover introducing a new team/upcoming series - made up of most of the old Secret Six, including Scandal - as well as a number of random characters (such as the government agents Waller of the Suicide Squad and Spy Smasher, who turned up in the Birds of Prey series, and was responsible for them crossing paths with the Secret Six in Birds of Prey Vol. 7: Dead of Winter).

Sadly, it lacks most of the intriguing character-driven and psychological stuff, even the 'team mates must kill each other' part doesn't really last long and could have been a lot more dramatic. On the plus side - it looks like Scandal is definitely going to be around for more, along with the rest of the team. And the team seems to be settling into a dynamic that actually works for them.

There's a bonus story actually written by Gail Simone (issue #896 of Action Comics, collected in Superman: The Black Ring and Superman: The Black Ring Vol. 2) which features the original team at some point earlier in their career, hired by Luthor and facing off with Vandal Savage. Good writing, lots of betrayals in a row, most un-gritty art.

The Final Volume: Secret Six: The Darkest House
Secret Six: The Darkest HouseThe very last trade paperback of the Secret Six is not to be missed. Among various tying up of threads, an attempt by Bane to purge his Batman-demons (by violence, obviously), Scandal finally uses that get out of hell free card, and we get a wonderfully queer-friendly solution to her and Liana. A major, major chunk of the book is about Scandal and her relationships.

There's a full review here, because I read the last book so long after the rest of the series, and because there was a lot to talk about. 

Jeannette also offers a solution to Scandal's relationship dilemma... If you really don't want to be spoiled, don't click through to the scan below. But it's awesome. If much too short.
The wonderful (spoilery) happy ending to Scandal's lesbian loves.

Oh, and while the Secret Six are sacrificed in the great DC restart, there's a petition for them to stick around here and some of them do get to stick around.

Summary of sexualities of the main characters:
Knockout, Catman and Jeanette - bisexual

  • Knockout is shown explicitly as bisexual
  • Jeannette is implied, but it's easy to miss - she's an ex-lover of Scandal
  • Catman is not shown explicitly (though you can certainly read subtext in some of his scenes with Deadshot), and the writer has expressed annoyance that she didn't get to show him as canon bisexual before the series was cancelled.

Scandal & Liana- lesbian

  • Both very central and obvious

Bane, Deadshot - straight

  • Both interested in women, never show interest in men

Ragdoll - ...who even knows. Pansexual?

  • Let's just say... he was written to be perverted in all directions, and not always with other people.

Black Alice - into Ragdoll, so again, who knows?

Of note: Tremor (Roshanna Chatterji) is an asexual female (according to Gail Simone) who appears in The Reptile Brain (issues 25-28) as part of Amanda Waller's team, in the New Earth crossover. 

Tremor is now a main character in the 2013 series, The Movement, also written by Gail Simone. This comic features a young, headstrong team of superheroes who have taken over their part of the city and kicked out the government (essentially). It is well worth picking up, both for the story and the LGBTQIA content. It not only expands on Tremor's asexuality, but the rest of the team includes both a lesbian and a bisexual woman, a whole variety of ethnicities, and a scary girl in a wheelchair.
and a gay male, and at least one other lesbian that may or may not join the team.

All the Secret Six books in order:
  1. Villains United (Countdown to Infinite Crisis)
  2. Villains United/ Infinite Crisis Special #1 (collected in The Infinite Crisis Companion )
  3. Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation
  4. Birds of Prey Vol. 7: Dead of Winter
  5. Birds of Prey: Club Kids
  6. Secret Six: Unhinged
  7. Secret Six: Depths
  8. Secret Six: Danse Macabre
  9. Secret Six: Cat's in the Cradle
  10. Birds of Prey Vol 2: The Death of Oracle (Catman & Deadshot only, but bonus story with Renee Montoya!) Birds of prey #7-15
  11. Secret Six: The Reptile Brain
  12. Secret Six: The Darkest House [review]

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  1. Lovely! Pitch perfect recap. I adore Secret Six to the point where I even put up a petition to keep it going:

    Having read Knockout from her time back in Superboy I was surprised and later delighted by Gail's version of her. Scandal, Liana and Knockout are wonderful characters.

    As for your Wonder Woman page, it's actually from the start of LGBT-friendly novel and comic book writer (and creator of the modern lesbian superheroines Batwoman & Question) Greg Rucka. His Wonder Woman series is delightful and that particular page can be found in Volume One, "Down To Earth":

  2. Thank you for the Wonder Woman link - I couldn't find the original anywhere!

    And I've added the petition to the review - thoroughly approve btw - and I'm glad you enjoyed it.