Review: Secret Six: The Darkest House trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

That a book where a man's fingers are bitten off and another pours hot sauce in his own eyes can also be one of the most heartbreakingly touching collections I've read in a long time is testament to the prowess and creativity of writer Gail Simone.

Secret Six: The Darkest House offers a superb conclusion to this series; the Six try, for once, to save themselves, and it ends up leading to their annihilation. Simone knows the only way Secret Six can end: tragically, but also with an iota of hope.

[Contains spoilers]

Darkest House contains all the necessary elements for a grand Secret Six adventure -- one teammate double-crosses another, and the entire team is drawn in to a situation where their very souls are at stake. There is such a mixture of the beautiful and the sublime here that it's often hard to tell which is which -- the team goes to Hell, fighting demons, where their most ridiculous member has been made a prince; and yet Bane, who kills without thought, is brought up short by the accusation that he might not be an honorable man, and where the characters spend almost an entire issue standing stock still, debating whether love and free will exist.

Among the comic book internet, Secret Six is much praised, but my guess is that in the larger world Secret Six is the book no one's reading and should be. That a book that's this intelligent and this complicated made it this far in mainstream comics is a small miracle (though it shouldn't be). I'd like to see DC Entertainment give Gail Simone a creator-owned Vertigo series next; if this is what she can do with fewer continuity-ties and limits than are on a book like Birds of Prey or Batgirl, one imagines, then all I want is more.

The trip that the Secret Six take to Hell here is the most moving part of the book -- that the team follows Scandal Savage to Hell, obediently and stupidly, because they love her even though they can't put that name to the emotion; and that Scandal realizes she loves the Six even more than she thought she loved her paramour Knockout. This is not, however, the most brilliant part of Darkest House; that comes in the three chapters that follow. Having returned from Hell with the knowledge that they're all damned, Scandal decides the team should try to be happy in the moment, and sets Bane up on a date. Bane is happy, for a moment, but that happiness is so anathema to him that it spurs him to destroy the team.

It's fitting that Keith Giffen's Doom Patrol appears in this book, as they've been heroes who're equally self-destructive; I noted in my review of Brotherhood that when the Patrol is at their lowest, Giffen serves up an unexpected moment of grace where the Patrol begins to try to live better. Darkest House is a twisted mirror of the same; the Six finally achieve the self-actualization that they've puzzled over throughout the book -- they may be killers, but they are not the evil found in the man who tortures Scandal's other girlfriend Liana -- but this victory warps Bane and leads to their capture. The Six could never win, as it turns out, which should surprise no fan of these hard-luck heroes; finally going on the right-er path only lead to their end.

The Six are, and remain, a study in contrasts. The final chapter, which finds the Six in a Reservoir Dogs-evoking standoff and making a Thelma and Louise-style escape, is punctuated by interludes that show the Six's best selves. Bane feels the emotion that brings about their end; Catman and Deadshot grudgingly not-quite-admit their friendship; and most significantly, Scandal proposes marriage to both Knockout and Liana. What we must see in a relationship between these three is a complete absence of jealousy, something far more enlightened than we'd expect from "bad guys." It's for this reason that Huntress takes no pleasure in the assembled heroes defeating the Six before Bane can complete his scheme; there is something unassailable about the Six, even as they kill and main without hesitation.

Darkest House starts off with the two-part aforementioned Doom Patrol crossover. I won't wax nostalgic here about the final Doom Patrol collection we never got; rather I'll say that in contrast to the Secret Six crossover with Action Comics, where each book came off lesser than it does alone, Simone and Giffen perfectly match their styles. Simone's Doom Patrol sounds exactly like Giffen's such that there's no dissonance to their appearance; Giffen equally writes a nice scene of the Patrol and the Six as friends (or enemies with a truce) at the end. Doom Patrol fans should steel themselves, however -- the included Doom Patrol issue ends on a cliffhanger, which would only be resolved in that Doom Patrol collection we never got -- no, must control myself ...

A crazed stalker tortures the stripper Liana in Secret Six: The Darkest House, calling her a "whore"; she replies that she knows prostitutes that are better people than her attacker. Gail Simone's Secret Six embodies this scene -- the characters within have committed some of the most gruesome acts I've ever seen in a DC book, but they're also some of the bravest, most loyal, and most emotionally real characters I've ever read about.

The Six are not bullies, sparing an innocent family in the end, and as such we're given to see some nobility in them; but then they also torture here in this book for no reason other than that they're paid to do so. I would love -- love -- for DC to release an omnibus edition of Secret Six, if only so I could run around shoving it into people's hands and saying "Here! Read this!" Secret Six, in my opinion, deserves the kind of recognition given to James Robinson's Starman, precisely because it's so complex -- Batgirl aside, I'm eager to see if Simone's next work from DC shines as brightly.

[Includes complete covers. Printed on glossy paper]

New reviews coming up next week. Also you might've heard we announced this here DC Trade Paperback Timeline ebook yesterday -- give it a gander if you haven't already.

UPDATE: After writing my review, seeking out others who'll miss Secret Six as much as I will, I found this post at Too Busy Thinking About Comics, which I think quite beautifully sums up all that's great about Secret Six. You can read the full post at the link:
No other comicbook has ever focused more on those caught not just on the periphery of what society regards as acceptable, but of what it considers to be human too. Without ever turning her cast of disordered and opportunistic criminals into palid and comfortably amusing anti-heroes, Simone and her many artistic compatriots constantly pushed the boundaries of how the super-person book engaged with issues of difference and deviance, of compassion and psychoticism, of community and self-interest. That they succeeded in doing all of that while regularly producing stories which were so touching and indeed hilarious only marks out how untypical and beguiling the comic was. (Anti-social personality disorders have rarely been as funny, or as bleakly tragic either.) Secret Six was the book where folks who wanted to think and feel as well as be surprised and excited turned up every month, and the quality of Ms Simone's scripts remained uniformly high until the book's final issue in the late summer of this year. ...

UPDATE AGAIN:: Gail Simone was nice enough to chime in with this:

Collected Editions 2014 Comic Book Gift Guide
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12 comments:

  1. Let's put it this way...After Green Arrow, Secret Six is the only TB that I rushed out to buy in 1st printing and it will be sadly missed in the new DCU.

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  2. Just curious, Green Arrow under which writer?

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  3. Count me among the "no one's reading and should be". I bought Villains United and the "Six Degrees of Devastation" trade, both of which I enjoyed immensely, but I just couldn't find a place for them among my already cluttered reading list. Your review of the end of the series puts it on my "maybe I'll get around to it someday" list.

    Just wondering, do you know if all of the books are still in print? I just checked and they are all on Comixology, so at least they are available if the books aren't around anymore. I guess it's too much to hope for a Secret Six $0.99 sale, when the series isn't being published anymore.

    Incidentally, I've noticed that Gail Simone isn't on the new Firestorm series anymore. That's too bad; I may still pick up the first arc that she wrote to see how it is, but knowing that she doesn't continue will likely discourage me from getting it (unless reviews of subsequent books are very positive).

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  4. A Secret Six Omnibus? I Second that!

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  5. Fortuitous timing - I just read this one last night. I was going to go one story arc at a time, but the Doom Patrol crossover was so good that I devoured the whole book in one sitting. Divine work, truly heartbreaking both in content and in its finality. What I love about Simone is how she can merge grotesquerie and beauty with a deft and graceful shift in tone, and she's helped in no small part by J. Calafiore's artwork (although was the resemblance between Spencer and Scandal intentional?). It's simultaneously funny (King Shark's "hell") and touching (the slow burn of Catman's almost-relationship with Huntress), and the DC Universe is poorer without it.

    I'll continue the clamor for a Secret Six Omnibus (even though I own all the trades) and add that Simone's New 52 work on Batgirl and Firestorm has been less than her usual fare; here's hoping she gets a chance to recapture her own unique voice.

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  6. Gosh, go read this series. It is not always perfect (rough spots roundabouts Blackest Night) but when it shines, it shines, and it stands out overall as one of the most unique and thought-provoking series I've ever read. Secret Six is compared to Ostrander's Suicide Squad, but it is not Suicide Squad -- different, more expansive, deeper and more emotional overall (as in the quote above, "Simone and her many artistic compatriots constantly pushed the boundaries of how the super-person book engaged with issues of difference and deviance, of compassion and psychoticism, of community and self-interest").

    I'm not sure about "out of print" per se, but it does look like Secret Six: Unhinged (first trade of the regular series) is available, whereas Depths (second trade) is harder to come by. Which is weird and annoying, etc. A $0.99 Secret Six digital sale would be really cool, but I'm not holding my breath, either.

    Yeah, I don't like the seeming Ethan Van Sciver/Gail Simone fallout on Firestorm any more than the John Rozum/Scott McDaniel fallout on Static Shock -- in the perfect comics world of my imagination, artists and writers would just get along. I'll still read both books, but my sense of each is tarnished somewhat.

    Secret Six Omnibus. I'd entirely buy that even though I have all the trades.

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  7. "I'd like to see DC Entertainment give Gail Simone a creator-owned Vertigo series next; if this is what she can do with fewer continuity-ties and limits than are on a book like Birds of Prey or Batgirl, one imagines, then all I want is more."
    If you haven't already done so (and I guess you probably have), then you should check out Simone's 'Welcome to Tranquility' - you won't be disappointed.

    I'm definitely going to start in on the SS trades at some point - I've only read the first one so far.

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  8. I have not read Welcome to Tranquility, but I'm beginning to sense I should.

    Up to Zach's comment, I definitely enjoyed Calafiore's artwork more here than I did when he first started on Secret Six; it look me a while to transition from Nicola Scott's detailed work to Calafiore's looser shapes, but I think he really nailed the gore, especially, in this book.

    If I had one nitpick, since you mentioned it, it's that I didn't buy Bane's relationship with Spencer, at least at the beginning, because Calafiore made her seem so plain in part because Calafiore has a looser style. There wasn't enough to Calafiore's depiction of Spencer to make me believe it was "love at first sight." And I take your point that Spencer looks like Scandal, but that's troubling in its own right, because Bane and Scandal's relationship is never supposed to be sexual, but more paternal. If anything, Spencer should have looked quite entirely different from Scandal, though I don't know like what, exactly.

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  9. It seems the hardest Secret Six collection to find isn't an official one. Birds of Prey Dead of Winter featured the team before the start of their ongoing title. It's very hard to locate at a reasonable price.

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  10. As for Spencer, I didn't mind the relationship so much because the idea of Bane having a fulfilling relationship is just so inconceivable to me. Plus I had a feeling Simone was building up to a punchline, and Bane's "Thank you..." was satisfaction enough.

    What I did have a problem with was a) the complicated position of Liana, especially coming from the "inventor," so to speak, of Women in Refrigerators, and b) the extremely ambiguous ending as far as who's left alive. I'm sure that my second complaint is a casualty of the DC reboot (damn you, Flashpoint!), but the fact that we're meeting Kass Sage, a different Vandal Savage daughter, in the New 52 makes me nervous about Scandal's fate. But at least the door is open for a new Secret Six once DC Editorial comes to their senses and realizes that Suicide Squad =/= Secret Six.

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  11. "Thank you for the use of your nethers." Ha!

    I hold out some hope James Robinson is enough of a fan of Secret Six to allow a possibility of Scandal still existing; no reason Vandal Savage can't have more than one child, of course.

    Bad news, however -- Dan DiDio just said on his Facebook page there's no plans to reprint Secret Six: Depths at this time. More's the pity. (Someone should go ask him if that means an omnibus is on its way!)

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  12. Great review. And nobody was reading this book. My shop only ordered copies for customers that requested it, so it was difficult to influence others to jump on. If I had to pick a favorite DC title, it would have to be this one. It was so good to see it end the way it did, with an actual finale. Highest possible recommendation!

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