Review: Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Secret Six is back to wonderful mayhem with writer Gail Simone's Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle. I continue to believe, unfortunately, that the title is not as strong as at the beginning of the series, but Cats in the Cradle is a marked improvement over the last volume, Danse Macabre. Still, Cats has some moments that are as taut as anything we've seen so far in Secret Six, both shockingly violent and startlingly non-violent, and fans will be riveted nonetheless.

[Contains spoilers]

When the Secret Six is routinely hip-deep in blood, it's hard to keep track of whose killing the most. While it would be hard to characterize Catman Thomas Blake as the team's conscience, however, we can recognize that Blake's misgivings -- if not about killing, than at least about what killing does to him as a person -- have been present from the beginning. In Secret Six: Unhinged, Blake worries to Sixer Deadshot that he's "lost the horizon" -- that Blake no longer knows if the bad things he does are evil, or if his sensibilities have just changed so far that he simply has a different perspective than regular people on his actions that might be perceived as evil.

Simone doesn't give Blake resolution on this question so swiftly. Indeed as recently as Danse Macabre Blake is schooling a bereaved father on the finer points of torturing a criminal, though Blake does pause later to wonder what effect the situation had on young Black Alice, bearing witness. But at the beginning of the second chapter of Cats, Blake tenuous hold on morality seems to disappear in an instant, over a few brief pages that draw the reader closer and closer into Blake's feral green eyes. I worried in Danse that the Six had lost their backstabbing aesthetic, but it's back in force as Blake seriously contemplates killing his teammates in exchange for the life of his kidnapped son. The moment is electrifying -- classic Secret Six.

We learn later that Blake's new madness is not so sudden or unprecedented as it might previously have seemed. In flashback, Simone shows that Blake is the child of an abusive father, who goaded Blake into killing his mother before Blake also later killed his father. (The similarities to Green Arrow's revised origins in Green Arrow: Into the Woods, especially as relates to lions and safaris, are interesting.) Despite that Blake's child came from his being manipulated by the villain Cheshire, who's later betrayed Blake and the Six more than once, Blake's anguish over his own parents is enough to set him on a vengeful path when his son is endangered. Blake does not ultimately attack the Six, but he leaves a trail of carnage as he attacks his son's kidnappers; even Deadshot notes that Blake's torture of one criminal is "&^%$ed up" even by Deadshot's standards.

The kidnapper turns out to be a Mr. MacQuarrie, a self-styled "hero" with no superheroic powers other than to be very, very rich -- kidnapping Blake's son turns out not to be for vengeance on Blake, but on Cheshire for murdering his family when she blew up Qurac. "I am a new kind of hero," MacQuarrie tells Blake. "I right wrongs. My family is dead, yet yours lives. Is that fair? Forget good and evil, I ask you, is it right?" MacQuarrie suggests that Blake tell Cheshire their son died even though he lived, and with some hesitation Blake complies.

Through MacQuarrie, Simone presents the epitome of what Blake has feared to become -- someone without morals, only their instinctual sense of right and wrong; strangely, it seems what Catman fears to become is entirely animalistic. In carrying out MacQuarrie's vengeance against Cheshire -- irrespective of, or perhaps especially because Blake kills MacQuarrie right after -- Blake's transformation in this way is complete. The "rest in peace" that Blake speaks at the end of the "Cats in the Cradle" storyline, seemingly directed at his son, could as much be his own soul or conscience. It will be interesting to see, in the next book, how losing Blake's more level perspective may then affect the Six as a whole.

All of this contains the elements I've grown to love in Secret Six stories -- moral ambiguity, mystery villains, and the team divided against itself. Cats is mostly Thomas Blake's story, but Simone provides a wonderful moment where Scandal Savage leaves the team to find Blake and her self-appointed guardian Bane forbids it -- we have wondered all along when Scandal and Bane's relationship would reach a crisis point, believing it would happen with much bloodshed, and instead they part ways with silence and a kiss on the cheek. Here, Simone reminds us that the Six don't fight for what we think they should, they fight for what they think they should, and could as often as not solve their difficulties without bloodshed when necessary. This works all the more to make the Six characters seem, like Paul Cornell wrote in his introduction to Unhinged, like real people, bound to act in unexpected ways.

I am not entirely sold on Cats, I would mention. The characters are as lively and humorous as ever, but while the story focuses mostly on Blake, the B-plot has Black Alice picking a childish fight with Scandal over petty perceived slights. "This ain't," as Deadshot delicately puts it, "showers after gym class," and Alice's tantrum indeed comes off as a tantrum, something I don't think the Six would tolerate letting alone that I as the reader don't care much about it. Every character here has a personal tragedy, but that Black Alice tried to cure her father's asthma and gave him cancer (something one imagines Zatanna could fix pretty quick) pales in comparison to Jeanette's epic description of her own decapitation in Secret Six: Depths. Simone and Secret Six are funny, but bits like "the Demon Estrogen" were groaners; there just wasn't a lot to Cats outside Catman.

Following "Cats in the Cradle" are two single issues, the first written by John Ostrander of Suicide Squad fame. Ostrander has certainly earned his reputation time and again on Squad, Spectre, and more, but "Predators" here has similar problems to Ostrander's guest-written stories on Danse Macabre. It's nice to read a Secret Six story away from "Cats"'s drama, where the team battles a common enemy, but the plot is far too generic. The characters involved could have been the Secret Six, or the Suicide Squad, or the Titans for Hire or the Teen Titans. Jeannette is super-strong, Scandal flips around, and so on -- the story really fails to illuminate the Six in any sort of specific way. Glad to see Ostrander's name here, but "Predators" seems a slow point after the events of "Cats."

Cats in the Cradle ends with a great, bizarre single issue by Simone that posits the Six as characters in the Old West; the drifter Deadshot comes to town and helps Scandal and her deputy Bane fight a villain resembling Junior and her henchman Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson. Aside from a frame that suggests the story is a mere Punch and Judy puppet show fantasy, and words of ally Thomas Blake in the end, there's overt explanation given for why we're visiting the Six in the past. It doesn't matter -- the Six as gunslingers is a load of fun, and I'd just as soon see them as World War II spies and 1920s mobsters next.

Blake utters, as Junior kills him in the end, "Thought we might be heroes," and Junior replies, "Not in this lifetime." The implications are fascinating -- are there numerous time-separated instances of the Six, like there are the Suicide Squad and Shadowpact? Does Simone mean to suggest iterations of the Six have tried to be heroes time and again, and that maybe our group will finally succeed -- or that every Six is doomed to fail? I am just as eager to see this book's next volume take up the plight of the Old West Six as I am to see it never mentioned again -- a strange aberration interpreted for better or worse depending on how the Six is doing that day.

And one other thought: I have not liked Secret Six as much, these past few volumes, as I did when the book started. The Old West tale, "Unforgivable," is essentially a re-telling of my favorite Secret Six trade, Unhinged. Does the use of Junior, Aaron and Tig, and others suggest a return to that best era of Secret Six post-Cats in the Cradle? I don't know, but this book has done it again -- I'm done with one volume and immediately eager for the next.

[Contains full covers]

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3 comments:

  1. Earlier this year I read the first three trades of Secret Six but I didn't share much of the positive feedback this series gets. I think I would like to give it another try though. At the time I bought them I also purchased a lot of other trades and I just though it was too much and I ended up returning what didn't blow me away.

    I didn't hate it but I didn't think it was something great. I don't like when a series or book -- or anything for that matter -- gets hyped up quite a bit and when you try it out it turns out to be just okay. I feel like I should be exclaiming with joy just as other reviews but I don't. Sometimes I wonder if its just me or not.

    I'm did the same with Watchmen and DKR; when I first got into comics those two were atop those "essential lists" but when I read them I wasn't blown away as some people make those works out to be. They're good books and I own both; I've noticed that on re-reads I appreciate the stories more. Obviously if I was reading comics in the 80s those books would have more of an impact.

    One title I did jump for joy with was JMS's Spider-man run. I think only because I bouhght the CD-ROM of the complete ASM collection and I started from issue 1 and made it through JMS's run and his take was like a breath of fresh air. I loved what he did and having read through 40 years worth of Spider-man issues made JMS's run one of thoses "essentials" on my list.

    Switching gears, can you allow comments on your DCU 52 trade format poll? If not, I just want to comment that I'm surprised that paperback seems to be way ahead of the other formats. My thoughts are that each title should be taken into consideration.

    Take Morisson's Batman; they've been releasing his stuff in delux editions and I would HATE it if they switched to the smaller hardcover size or paperback. Plus, his Batman seems to be a big seller so it will likely be a smart business move to release a hardback and paperback edition to please all trade readers.

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  2. Sure, I understand what you mean about over-hyped series not living up. In part I think that's a trade-waiter's constant dilemma -- now that I've heard great things about Scott Synder's Detective Comics, must that not color my perception of the book? Will I like it a lot because I've heard that I will? Will I judge it too harshly because it can't live up to the hype? Something I wonder about, too.

    If by the "first three" Secret Six trades, you mean Unhinged, Depths, and Danse Macabre, I'd encourage you to try out Cats in the Cradle, too. For me, Danse was a let-down after Depths, but Cats is back to a better level of Secret Six (and Reptile Brain is good, too).

    Now that the DCU 52 trade format poll has ended, there'll be a post on the results tomorrow; hope you'll comment then. I have referred to what you said about the deluxe editions; that's a good point.

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  3. I know what Abu is talking about...I remember when I first read Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One (about 3 years ago), thinking "that's it?" I mean, I enjoyed them well enough, but they were hyped as some of the greatest of all time.

    Watchmen started off slowly for me, but I was truly blown away by the ending.

    Definitely one of the drawbacks of being a wait-for-trader. However, at the same time we are also "saved" from reading really bad stories, right? :-)

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