Thursday, February 2, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Darkest House (Secret Six)

From left: Villains United, Unhinged,
The Darkest House, THE CAT

(I'd have bought the whole series, but for the fact that
some copies sold out and are now going for 
lots and lots of money, so if you're interested... grab copies!)
finally recieved my copy of The Darkest House, the final book in the Secret Six series. Because I had to wait for the book, I already knew what was coming, lesbian-content-wise (the internet has no secrets), but in honour of it being the final book, and because the original series summary was posted long ago, before many people may have seen it, I figured I'd write a final review.

The Secret Six are a family of second rate misfit villains, who are just heroic enough to be appealing, underdog style, and just monstrous enough to be scary, and just stubborn enough to justify taking on all comers (that they should really back down from). That's basically their origin story and continual motivation, along with their saving grace. They never back down and they hate being told what to do. So they end up getting out of things through sheer gall and blood and stubbornness, and they've become an actual family, as well as a team.

Unlike all the other books in the series, it's a fairly straightforward plotline following an almost seamless story, rather than being broken up into completely different sections. The art is consistent and awesome. The story itself is both kick ass and depressing.

 If you're new to the series, I'd check out the full summary instead. Be warned that while it's very good, it is also violent and disturbing. These are not good characters. 'Good' as in nice, that is. They are very well written. And drawn. No gratuitous booty shoots here!

All their books and appearances in order:
For details of their actual appearances in each book, see this post.
  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

Who are the Secret Six in this book?
Our current team (of eight, as gets pointed out by a despairing would-be promoter they hired) consists of

  • Scandal Savage (kick ass fighter, conscience and leader, and part of the 'family' nucleus of the team)
  • Bane (huge, strategist, father figure, scarily Batman obsessed, raised alone in a prison, and really confused about human interactions)
  • Catman (ex-pathetic villain, ex-failed hero, now a suberb tracker and scary loner type, respected by his friends)
  • Deadshot (Floyd Lawton, amazing shot with a gun, no conscience, not much in the way of higher thoughts, but frequently commits secretive self sacrifice for his friends. Also Jeannette's lover, and still a little bewildered about that)
  • Jeannette (Dead lady Banshee, refined, smart, and scary and very fond of Scandal, her ex, and attracted to death. She once took down Wonder Woman, complete with innuendo)
  • Ragdoll (disturbing, contortionist fetishist who tried to replicate with surgery his famous villain father's triple jointedness, also peculiar and disturbing in all other kinds of ways... some of which are elaborated on in this book)
  • Black Alice (crazy goth teen, who happens to be incredibly powerful, able to steal the powers of any magic user she knows of. She was kinda adopted into the group after they had a few run ins)
  • King Shark (he's... a giant shark-man. He lives to charge at people screaming 'I'm a shark', and then bite them in half. Basically, he's leftover from the temporary group Bane threw together, and dumb muscle).
  • We also have Liana, Scandal's current lover (a smart, compassionate stripper and pretty tough in her own right, though not physically), who isn't on the team, and Knockout, Scandal's old lover, currently trapped in Hell, a warrior demigod who lives for battle - and Scandal. 

Plot summary (skip this bit if you really don't want spoilers)

We start off with Bane getting dressed up and marched out for a date, with a friend of Liana's. Bane is confused by the requirements of human interaction, but manages to impress his new ladyfriend by being huge and violent, and slightly gentlemanly.

Then there's a short job in which the Secret Six are paid by a loser who just inherited his grandfather's criminal empire to go conquer an island for him. They end up fighting the Doom Patrol and then it all falls apart. We see quite a bit of the Doom Patrol's perspective, as well.

Poor Scandal's worn out from their island trip, so stands Liana up. This turns out to be a bad thing, as Liana's crazy stalker kidnaps her. Meanwhile, Scandal and Ragdoll get in a fight over the Get Out of Hell card (turns out Ragdoll still misses his old friend Parademon from Villains United), and Ragdoll gets stabbed. And grabs the card, and disappears into hell. Of course, rather than going 'how could you?', the Secret Six just shake their heads and agree that there was justification. And then jump straight into running off to Hell to rescue their friend and Scandal's beloved. Black Alice freaks out, shows them the way but refuses to come, and then leaves.

The Hell thing... well, it's established canon that there's a scary afterlife dimension in the DC world, so I'm not going to roll my eyes too much about that. They've remained deliberately fuzzy on how souls get sorted, or rather by whom, but the good/bad afterlife thing turns up in plenty of mythologies (personally, I think it might be some sort of auction: the powerful gods grab the 'good' souls while the 'evil' gods end up carrying off the 'bad' ones).
The rest of them make it into Hell, where they find Ragdoll, still alive and decidedly not on their side anymore - it turns out he was born without a soul and has been greeted by Hell with open arms. Naturally there is fighting, and stupid challenges, and a refusal to quit even when faced by overwhelming odds. And amazingly, they all make it back out, although not entirely undamaged - they walk out knowing that they are all destined to end up back there, which lends a fair bit of fatality to the rest of the book. And poor Bane is a little upset, as he always tried to be 'righteous'. In his own creepy way.

Meanwhile, Liana is enduring a really nasty, horrible 'I'm going to purify you with PAIN' situation. It came across quite strongly as a parallel to the main storyline. She was in personal hell, the whole time her lover was literally in Hell. And Scandal ended up rescuing both her sweethearts. So I think that was probably deliberate.

They discover that Liana is missing almost as soon as they get back. So they turn up on her kidnapper's doorstep to open up some really nasty whoop ass on him. I mean really nasty - finger biting (off) nasty. Nasty as in Liana saying 'please don't kill him?', being carried off to hospital by Jeannette and... yeah. You guessed it. They kill him anyway.

Huntress: Um hey, you realise that the entire hero universe has turned up to kick your ass, right?
Catman: So? We're the Secret Six. We don't understand the concept of 'unreasonable odds'

Poor Knockout doesn't remember who she is and is still locked in trauma, and everyone's feeling pretty down. Anyway, now they're all somewhat at loose ends, and know they're all doomed, so why not follow Bane on his new crazy epic plan to defeat THE BATMAN (inspired by his new love life). They start out with a epic assault on The Penguin, in the course of which, Knockout remembers all the great things in life (killing, Scandal, terrified enemies, Scandal...). Cue Scandal taking time out to fix her love life, before continuing with The Plan. Unfortunately they get outed, and pretty much every hero in Gotham, and out of it (including Superman) turn up in a great Send Off of Overkill. Being the Secret Six, they of course, refuse to quietly surrender...

Moments of Note Regarding Love Lives and Other Hilarity
The wonderful (spoilery) happy ending to Scandal's lesbian loves.
There's a fair bit of subtext between Jeannette and Scandal, with Jeannette calling her 'love', and fighting for Scandal's relationship (really obvious if you already know about their past relationship, but could look like endearments otherwise).
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 on the right. But it's awesome.
 Jeannette bends Deadshot over for a kiss, bodice ripping Romance-cover style, before plunging into battle, which is simply marvellous.
Scandal throws Knockout over her shoulder and tries to carry her off at one point - which is pretty incredible considering how much bigger Knockout is than Scandal.
Catman and Deadshot also have a whole 'of course we're too tough to admit we like each other' conversation, which Ragdoll calls them on. It's not really subtext, except that the author was complaining about not managing to get them to kiss.
Ragdoll: Just kiss already.
 Oh, Catman's still clearly carrying a torch for Huntress, refusing to let her be targeted or harmed.
And in King Shark's dream-nightmare, he's walking down a red carpet, and one of the press asks if it's true that he's dating Aquaman! (During the good bit before the trick ending arrives).
Why the Ending is Actually Okay (yes I am in denial)
Now, graphic novel readers are probably aware that DC Comics had a big 'restart' event, in which they threw out all the accumulated years of canon and history and character development (or lack of), and basically started over. Part of me is sad about that, but part of me thinks it's a good idea, as really, the comic universe has a lot of baggage, from years of different writers and eras. And a huge cast. They must have employed several staff just to keep track of who had done what and interacted with whom when.

This means that a) The Secret Six finale is 'old' canon, not 'new' canon, so they could be brought back in some form, maybe. And b) that this allowed the writer to write a huge, dramatic finale, because there was no worry about how to maybe undo it all later. And c) How do you one-up getting out of Hell alive? They got every single hero in DC Comics (or just about) to turn up and fight them.

In Summary
An awesome series. With awesome, varied, horrible, brave, loyal, treacherous characters, rescued from the second stringer lists, and given real lives, real feelings, real friends and real loves. Also, really nasty weaponry. I am very, very sad it is over - but will be picking up any graphic novels written by Gail Simone in future for strong female characters, awesome minority characters and a range of sexualities. And really good writing.

The series won the 20th, 21st & 23rd GLAAD media awards for Outstanding Comic Book

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