Review: Secret Six: The Reptile Brain trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 10, 2011

I'm skeptical of one claim bandied about in the run-up to the DC Comics relaunch, that the relaunch would clear the decks of years of continuity choking off writers creativity. Letting alone that I believe continuity to be essentially inescapable, Gail Simone's Secret Six: The Reptile Brain is a perfect example of how the long history of a shared universe can be strikingly, immensely powerful. Some of what Simone uses (or re-uses) here is her own, something I found distracting in Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle, but works considerably well here; others of what she uses borrows from the edges of the DC Universe's wide tapestry in very effective ways.

[Contains spoilers. Not much more I can say without spoiling elements of this book]

The first few pages of Reptile Brain, despite that they star the "replacement" Secret Six and not our favorite anti-heroes, are one of those perfect comics sequences, self-contained, that appear to be going one direction and then twist in another for a perfect punchline. Such is the case when the Six's "routine" shakedown on a yacht is suddenly interrupted by none other than Simone's Spy Smasher Katarina Armstrong, late of Birds of Prey.

Someone unfamiliar with Simone's previous work might just see the Six surrounded by US officials, but for fans of Birds (and Checkmate, for that matter), the trajectory of Reptile Brain becomes suddenly wonderfully clear -- Armstrong's Six on one side versus Mockingbird Amanda Waller's Six on the other. The chill of understanding that the reader receives when Armstrong makes the scene only comes by being a dedicated reader -- only comes through the virtues of continuity -- and I daresay a comics universe without those instances (if such were even possible) would be poorer indeed.

(Aside: I'm writing this just as the new DC Relaunch/Amanda Waller controversy is breaking. Reptile Brain contains some fantastic Amanda Waller scenes, and I can't help but read this book as something of a farewell to this iteration, at least, of one of the great characters original to the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, pre-Flashpoint era. I do not think the "thinning down" of Waller for the new DC Universe necessarily represents a greater racism or sexism than what otherwise underlines society insomuch as I think this is another attempt by DC to reflect the greater media depictions of their characters; that does not mean, however, that it's a change rather poorly thought-out and executed.


Further, there is considerable comedy to a scene in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies in which a Kryptonite-addled Lex Luthor grabs up artist Ed McGuinness's significantly rotund Waller in a passionate kiss that just wouldn't be as absurd with the new younger, slimmer Waller nor would be as funny without knowing the decades-long individual and shared histories of these characters. Here, once again, is the power of continuity, not so easily dismissed. End aside.)

To add continuity on top of continuity, Simone then takes both Six teams and drops them unceremoniously in a dinosaur-infested jungle, expertly revealing little by little that they're in fact in Skartaris, the magical alternate DC dimension of Warlord fame. And this is not just Skartaris-as-background, as its often the case when DC characters make a visit. Simone actually drops the Sixers right at the end of Warlord creator Mike Grell's most recent 2009 series, which ran for sixteen issues but so far under the radar that DC never even released a collection of it -- and Simone makes that series' final events key to what happens in Reptile Brain. A turn off to some, maybe, but I love that Simone cares enough about DC Comics continuity to make use of it (in an accessible way), reader familiarity be damned.

What emerges is Secret Six at its best -- two groups of villains, neither quite right or wrong, debating the finer points of colonialism and their own friendship with one another as they battle over whether the United States will annex Skartaris. It is bloody and morally gray, and in the end both teams decide to abandon their mission completely rather than keep fighting -- a peaceful ending that's perfectly against type. That Simone grounds the underlying conflict in political and interpersonal issues helps to balance the swords and sorcery setting that otherwise wouldn't serve Secret Six. From when Simone reintroduces Spy Smasher in the beginning to where she tidies up elements of her All-New Atom run in the end, the "Reptile Brain" storyline is riveting from start to finish.

I picked up Reptile Brain, however, most specifically because it crosses over with Paul Cornell's Superman: The Black Ring, volume one of which I absolutely adored. Unfortunately, as good as a Lex Luthor/Secret Six Simone/Cornell crossover sounds, I found these issues markedly dull. Luthor hires the Six to be his hidden bodyguards in an encounter with Vandal Savage; the Six are almost immediately revealed, and spend most of the rest of two issues standing around while Luthor and Savage bicker about blowing up the building they're occupying. Savage comes off whiny here and the perceived danger to the characters is near nonexistent; even despite that Sixer Scandal Savage confronts her dad and we delve further into Scandal's origins, these issues lack the pep of "Reptile Brain" before them, and they were less than I expected.

Still, four good issues balance out two lesser ones, and Secret Six: The Reptile Brain is ultimately a prime example of the Secret Six series we've grown to love. Unfortunate doesn't even begin to describe that the next book coming down the pike will be Secret Six's last; more on that when it arrives.

[Incluides original covers.]

Reptile Brain crosses over with the second volume of Superman: The Black Ring, and coming up is our review of that book. See you then!
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