Review: Secret Six Vol. 1: Friends in Low Places trade paperback (DC Comics)


Secret Six Vol. 1: Friends in Low Places begins Gail Simone’s second Secret Six series (in the 2014 late-New 52/DC You-era), following her post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint Secret Six series from 2005-ish to 2011. Simone’s earlier Secret Six is without question one of DC Comics' best series of the 21st century, a book that deserves far more acclaim than it’s ever received, worthy of a top spot on every “best series you’ve never read” list, and so the bar was high for the relaunch.

What we get in Friends is in the end simply confusing. The spirit of Simone’s Six is there, but not perhaps the full-fledged drama and lunacy; if the latter chapters of Simone’s first Six were perpetually turned up to 11, Friends hums along at a 7 or an 8. Like a song that only sounds familiar, the reader starts to sing along only to find the words are actually different; a big 180 in terms of what the book seems to be about versus what it is eventually actually about only muddles things more.

That this book exists at all might very well be enough; I’m satisfied simply to see certain characters here appearing on the same page together again. But at the same time Friends on its own doesn’t make a lot of sense, its build-up not matching its denouement, and I wouldn’t even be surprised to find Simone’s original plans for the book got kiboshed somewhere in the middle, about where the book changes artists. There are certainly ways that the second and final volume could bring this all to a satisfactory conclusion, but I’m not especially optimistic that will happen.

[Review contains spoilers]

A difficulty of the New 52 (among successes) was the tension between not wanting to tell the same post-Crisis stories again versus not giving newer elements room to breathe. My go-to example is Tim Drake, whose unprecedented issues-long journey to the Robin persona was dramatic post-Crisis, but then whose New 52 origin was summarized dully in a single #0 issue special. No one needs two long “road to Robin” stories, but neither is a one-off tell-not-show origin issue of much use to anyone (especially readers new to the character).

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

I was reminded of this difficulty while reading Friends in Low Places. In Simone’s original Six iteration, we were about two miniseries and 12 issues in before all the members of what would become the classic Six’s lineup were even introduced, giving these characters lots of room to expand around one another. Here, the new Six are sharing intimacies by the fourth chapter and declaring themselves a family by the sixth. Team books have been built on less, but having been down this road before, the quick path to catch-up doesn’t offer the same amount of heart.

It’s hard for a Six fan to quite know where to orient themselves in this book, too. Thomas “Catman” Blake, Simone’s original Six protagonist, is at the center again, surrounded by some familiar teammates, some other of Simone’s established creations, and some brand new. But it’s not long until other old Six elements creep in — Mockingbird, a staple of all of DC’s Secret Six iterations, and also Scandal Savage, Ragdoll, and Jeanette, not to mention references to the two wives Scandal married at the end of Simone’s original run.

When Blake and Scandal tussle and Blake says, “I know you,” I wonder if we’re meant to wonder — like that strange Secret Six figment where everyone was recast as Old West figures — whether this is all a trick, whether old enemy Cheshire or Mad Hatter or Junior has the Six hooked up to machines, making them imagine a suburban adventure where they never met before. Or is established characters thrown together in new ways what the powers that be think readers want?

But the truth, if we’re at the truth yet, is stranger than that. Despite that Blake has already spent a year imprisoned by “Project: Mockingbird” as part of the “experiment,” and that the new Six are painstakingly locked in a giant coffin underwater and made to ponder “What is the secret?” lest one of them die, it all turns out to be a plot by the Riddler simply to recover a stolen diamond without which he for some reason can’t marry his girlfriend (who, also weirdly, is Sue Dibny. Might everyone here already be dead?). I can’t figure how locking up Blake for a year originally was supposed to produce the diamond, nor how trapping the six suspects together and giving them nothing to go on but “What is the secret?” was supposed to do the same.

It is the Riddler, sure, but this seems lackluster Riddler-writing on Simone’s part, letting alone that no one ever figures out the riddle so much as Riddler’s mole Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny just tells them about it, nor does Ralph-as-mole ever attempt to suss out the diamond’s location. Frankly the initial Saw-esque intimations of a locked-box torture-chamber group experiment are a lot more interesting than the cackling Frank Gorshin finale, such that Friends commits the cardinal sin of interesting the audience in a mystery (a Secret Six mystery, no less!) just to reveal the mystery never mattered.

Notably the two escape room chapters are drawn by Ken Lashley in a pleasant, spooky painterly style before the book transitions to its mostly suburban setting with Tom Derenick and Dale Eaglesham. I’ve no real indication one way or the other, but the Riddler’s plot at the close of this book is so incongruous with all the setup at the beginning that one wonders if something changed halfway through. It is easier to believe that the end of this book was never intended as a match for its beginning — with art then needing to be redone posthaste by other artists — than that the same Secret Six that once brought us a ghoulish nightmare in a crate would now have the trite climax of explosives on a Gotham dock.

Between these two poles is, as alluded to, a period where the new Six holes up in suburbia and tries to lay low; dysfunction ensues. The fourth chapter is where Simone’s new Six shines brightest, a series of vignettes in which Blake beats up a dog-abusing neighbor (and then steals the dog), Black Alice and “Big Shot” share a chaste cuddle reminiscent of Bane and Scandal in the original series, genderfluid character Porcelain takes on bullies, and the Ventriloquist’s dummy, hilariously, sits and watches TV. Though things were never quite this domestic with the original Six, the take-no-prisoners, make-no-apologies approach is very familiar, the point in which this Six feels most like their predecessors.



Would that Secret Six Vol. 1: Friends in Low Places had been entirely about anti-villains hiding out in middle America, my reaction might have been different. But we have on one hand a grand conspiratorial mystery, on the other hand a plain supervillain scheme, and in the middle Catman, Scandal, Ragdoll, and Jeanette. What is the secret (and is it that you can’t go home again)? Is there a secret at all? I don’t know. It sure was nice to see the Ragdoll dialogue font again.

[Includes variant covers, character and cover sketches]

Comments ( 4 )

  1. The original Secret Six by Simone is one of the greatest DC Comics in the publishers history (yes, it's that good, in the top 25 without a doubt. I could see arguments for top 10).

    The bizarre reappearanced in the much maligned (deservedly so) New52 era is one of the worst books in the publishers history, for much the reasons you outlined.

    1. I've been reading now rumors of a TV series that never was. Maybe this tamer approach is meant to be a pilot framework of sorts?

  2. I didn't even know this book existed. Now I'm probably going to forget about it again after that review ...


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