Review: Batman/Superman Vol. 1: Who Are the Secret Six? hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Joshua Williamson's Batman/Superman Vol. 1: Who Are the Secret Six? poses a question in its title, but unfortunately the answer isn't much of a mystery. Despite what was suggested in the lead-in epilogue from Williamson's Heroes in Crisis: The Price, this is not a paranoid thriller about allies who can and can't be trusted; instead the so-called Secret Six (aka the "Infected") show up wherever Superman and Batman are and attack them en masse over the course of this story. So whereas this book feels like a must-read on the continuity wonk level — tying together the Dark Nights: Metal/Death Metal books with "Year of the Villain," the Superman titles, and Supergirl — in terms of story it's a bit light. Neither are the Infected — culled from DC's second-tier precisely because they're B-listers in need of spotlight or because they're in limbo enough not to be missed — terribly compelling as villains, which also puts a damper on things.

I'm keenly aware that I've been largely critical (though fascinated) with Williamson's Flash run, even as I've enjoyed his crossover books of this type (Justice League vs. Suicide Squad immediately comes to mind), so I was hoping to like this title. But the factors above, plus what seems a repetitious plot coming next time around, gives me concern. Batman/Superman (or Superman/Batman) titles have a tendency to start strong and purposeful and then peter out — to the detriment of both characters and the team-up series as a whole — and as yet I don't see evidence that this go-around will be any different.

[Review contains spoilers]

Williamson preserves the dual narration inherent to these Batman/Superman books, starting back with Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman. Back then, the big events on the docket were Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, for which Superman/Batman provided the first intimations; after the fall of President Lex Luthor and the arrival of Supergirl Kara Zor-El, however, from there Superman/Batman became largely episodic, largely an anthology of Superman/Batman team-ups rather than a central site of DCU goings-on as it had proported to be. Its cancelation 87 issues later was an unexpected mercy given the pomp with which the series began. The New 52 Batman/Superman revival, astoundingly, equally floundered, promising at the beginning to explicate the connections between the New 52 Earth 1 and Earth 2, but ultimately didn't have much consequence, becoming eventually just another venue for Superman-title crossover stories.

The most recent attempt at this kind of regular team-up title was the Rebirth Trinity, pairing Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. This too started as a big thing, where the New 52 Batman and Wonder Woman would get to know the newly arrived pre-Flashpoint Superman in the Rebirth world. That lasted only about an arc, till Superman Reborn smoothed that particular continuity wrinkle, and then this too became a mostly secondary series of "just because" stories, lasting only 22 issues. A great many of these involved analogue villains — Lex Luthor, Ra's al Ghul, and Circe — battling the trinity of heroes.

That's why it gives one pause at the outset — skipping all the way to the end — to see Superman's General Zod confronting none other than Ra's al Ghul. There ought be some difference between whatever comes next and the previous series' "Dark Trinity" story, not in the least because Zod is, at time of this writing, currently Superman's ally. Granted I haven't read the forthcoming story yet, but that Williamson is going back to the well so quickly — teamed-up heroes fight their teamed-up villains — and that a part of this is Ra's, again, is deeply worrying. It looks like this series going down the same old path, and we know from previous series where that leads.

Again, for one wanting to see Superman and Batman get up in each other's (title's) business, Secret Six is the place to be. The Batman side's contribution is notable but small, bringing Superman into the aftermath of the Batman Who Laughs miniseries; at the same time, there's no mention of City of Bane here, nor does Superman inquire when Batman will be returning his wedding present, so the ties are strictly outside the Bat-titles proper. The Superman side's contribution is far more significant, though seemingly tacked on; Batman comments on Superman having revealed his identity to the world as of Superman Vol. 3, but it's not as though it affects the plot, nor does the art acknowledge it enough to dispel the possibility that the dialogue was just a late-game add-on. That final issue of the book, both in the trade and moreso in the single issue, also directs the audience via editorial box to a couple different Year of the Villain miniseries and to follow Wonder Woman into the Supergirl book.

That's catnip for those who like that kind of thing, and I don't disparage it in the slightest. Also Williamson writes Superman and Batman just fine within these pages, no false notes or such, and one can even see some motivation within these pages for Clark revealing his identity in the Brian Michael Bendis book (more overt motivation, perhaps, than even the Bendis book offers). But that good characterization does not extend to this book's titular Secret Six. Three of these — Shazam, Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes, and Supergirl — are of the Teen Titan set, and Williamson writes them like bratty, slang-spewing teenagers; ultimately they don't read like a threat so much as an annoyance. The new angry Donna Troy has been problematic in Rebirth even before being infected by the Batman Who Laughs and so these developments just seem compounding writers' existing troubles; she and the infected Hawkman bickering is also less frightening than annoying, a far cry for instance from the horrific possessed heroes of Blackest Night.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman/Superman Vol. 1: Who Are the Secret Six?

So, Batman/Superman Vol. 1: Who Are the Secret Six? is what it is. Superman and Batman fret for a while and get knocked around by some possessed heroes, and that sets the backdrop for Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen so that miniseries doesn't have to. Again, not bad for a bald-faced tie-in, though possibly we'd all have been better served by this as a Batman/Superman miniseries than an ongoing. Looking ahead, I see a solicitation that promises to "reverberate across the DC Universe for months to come!" If true, I'd certainly be game, but forgive me for being skeptical.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Summary
Reviewer
Collected Editions
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batman/Superman Vol. 1: Who Are the Secret Six?
Author Rating
3 (scale of 1 to 5)
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed Metal. I really enjoyed the first issue of Death Metal. I've enjoyed large portions of JL, JLD, and JLO in the lead up to Death Metal (with some seriously unejoyable parts in between). I just straight didn't enjoy this at all. More paranoid Bruce, more secrets amongst the Trinity (remember Infinite Crisis when we were done with that? Good times), more poorly executed reveals of who the Secret Six are. I just didn't get the point of this after reading it - was this just to get BWL out of jail? But it had to be super elaborate because it's a version of Bruce that planned it?

    As a side note about Bruce and Clark - I really like the King/Snyder version of their relationship (Superfriends for King, Superman Unchained is a good exemplar of it from Snyder, but Metal had it, too) and I feel like everyone else writing right now really misses the boat. They're brothers, friends, two guys who don't agree about everything but respect and are in awe of each other. I feel like Williamson just missed that here - the narration seemed like he was trying to mimic it but didn't believe in it or something? I don't know, it just didn't ring true with how I want to see Bruce and Clark interact.

    Also, how interesting are we really supposed to think a Ra's/Zod team-up (or whatever) can really be? I can't imagine grabbing volume 2 of this. I'm skipping The Infected collection now (had been planning on getting it) unless you really pump it up. Hopefully Justice Doom War and Hell Arisen are better.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Ra's/Zod story is only two issues and I thought it was pretty fun. It's not so much a team up as it is Batman and Superman interjecting themselves into a conflict between Ra's and Zod (Zod wants to use the Lazarus Pit on the mini citizens of Kandor). It doesn't really upset the current status quo with Zod as he's still trying to save Krypton and rebuild on Jekuul. The arc after that just started and they're fighting Atomic Skull.

    My main annoyance with this is they use the last 2 pages of the volume (or issue #6) to randomly setup the Ra's/Zod 2 issue arc, which could have easily been included here, but aren't obviously. Pet peeve of mine.

    ReplyDelete