Sunday, February 27, 2011

Suicide Squad, 1-24

Taking a slight step out of my norm today. Most of my Comics Cabinet reviews are of trades, books I’ve stopped buying, or books that have come to an end. The ongoing singles I tend to buy get caught up in the monthly reading and don’t lead to review. With the better ones that works out because I recall what’s going on from month to month. Today’s review is definitely one of those better ones.

Really, on my list of things to read Secret Six is right there with Invincible in the superhero titles. They’re both consistently good and consistently memorable. Secret Six probably has more humor than Invincible and currently has better art. So, here we go with the first 24 issues of Secret Six.

The first arc, entitled Unhinged, spans issues 1-7. Gail Simone writes, while Nicola Scott pencils, and Doug Hazelwood inks. It’s a full out roller coaster ride from the beginning. The Six are retained by someone to break Tarantula out of prison on the west coast and bring her and a card she stole from a fearsome mobster to the employer in Gotham City. The Six are now composed of Scandal Savage, Bane, Catman, Deadshot, Ragdoll, and Jeannette. Well, the latter isn’t with the team at first, and Scandal Savage is in the cups over the death of teammate and lover, Knockout. She sobers up for the job, though. Tarantula is broken out and the card obtained. Throughout the team is told that every villain in the DCU who’s working freelance is going to try to kill them for the card. Evidently it was created by the demon Neron and is a get out of Hell free card. Between that and the bounty on them, it's a lock there will be a lot of interest in the card.

Lesser known villains, and the occasional better known like the Cheetah, attack throughout the mission. The fearsome, never-before-seen mobster also comes out of the box in which she lives to personally try to regain the card, as it was stolen from her. Many deaths of bystanders and unknown mobsters occur. Some of the lesser known villains have a hard time of it, too. Fortunately for King Shark he grows back parts like a lizard.

In the end Deadshot, in uncharacteristic compassion, steals the card from his teammates in an attempt to protect them from all the hired killers. Of course, this band being its own brand of psychotic, he shoots Jeannette and Scandal, beats Catman, and runs over Ragdoll in the process. They track him down and try to kill him for his troubles, thinking he’s just stealing the card for himself. Our fearsome mobster turns out to be Ragdoll’s sister, Alex aka Junior, who has mutilated herself in the same way he has and is even crazier than he is, which is saying something. She, Tarantula and the card all go over a bridge, at least as far as everyone except Scandal knows. Scandal actually has the card. When Alex goes over, the hired killers stop attacking, as there’s no card and no one to pay them.

It’s a great way to open the series. The team had been established previously in Villains United and through some additional appearances in a limited series and in Birds of Prey. Most of that history, such as Deadshot killing The Fiddler, is mentioned at some point during this 24 issue start, but it’s not necessary to have read those issues to enjoy these. Simone has the team fleshed out as individual identities from the jump. Deadshot, Catman and Bane all have associations with Batman but not with each other. Bane almost immediately takes on a paternal view of Scandal. Jeannette and Deadshot become a couple in the most emotionless and amoral of senses. Most importantly, the fact that Scandal has the card lays groundwork for much to come later, as her lover Knockout is presumably in Hell.

Issue 8 is out an out fun. Simone writes while Carlos Rodriguez pencils and Bit inks. It’s a double date with Jeannette and Deadshot going out with Scandal and a stripper who looks a lot like Knockout (and was hired in the first issue by Deadshot, Catman and Ragdoll to try to make Scandal feel better). Deadshot has promised not to kill anyone on the date, so when neo-Nazis that he and Catman maimed in a previous issue spot him and attack him, he’s constrained in a way he’s not normally. Liana Kerzner is the name of the stripper. She’s remarkably nonplussed by the abilities of everyone else on the date, as well as the attacks by the neo-Nazis. The issue also features a 3 page short called Ragdoll Dreams. This was drawn by Amanda Gould and is a beautifully child-like yet freakish depiction of things that go through Ragdoll’s head as he’s been locked in the trunk of Catman’s car for three days after he snuck in there to go along on the double date.

Issue 9 is also a single issue story. This one ties into the Battle for the Cowl stories running through the various Bat titles at the time. Fortunately it really has nothing much to do with all that, other than Catman and Bane each speculating that the other wants to take on the mantle of Batman. Meanwhile, they’re slaughtering a kidnapping team that’s killing and kidnapping wealthy Gotham City residents in a coordinated assault designed to take advantage of Batman’s absence. Simone is again writing and Scott and Hazelwood are back on art duties. It’s beautifully done. Somehow I like the art in this issue better than in the original 7 issues, even though it’s the same team. Ragdoll’s along with Bane and Catman, dressed in his own bizarre way as Robin. They even manage the notorious climbing of a wall on ropes, a la the Batman TV show of the ‘60s. Lots of humor amidst the mayhem and a nice scolding by Nightwing toward the end. Of course, our three “heroes” feel put upon by the scolding for their killing ways and don’t perceive how that’s a problem.

Issues 10-14, entitled Depths, return to the multi-issue arc format. A man named Smyth has purchased an island in warm climes, taken over its government, and constructed a massive prison. His plan is to return slavery as a valid concept and to have all the world’s prisoners shipped to his facility so that the better parts of humanity can achieve their full potential. He has a partially completed facility, slave labor from the island's populace, and guards from around the world. He hires the Six to provide additional security and tests them on arrival, which they pass when Deadshot shoots and kills a woman he’s told is an escaping prisoner but who was really a slave laborer who Smyth told could leave if she made it to the fence line.

Shortly after this the team begins to disintegrate, as some members are adamantly opposed to slavery. As a result Jeanette frees Artemis, leader of a band of Amazons who are prisoners there. Scandal joins her, leading Catman to attack Scanal, thus infuriating Bane. Just then, Wonder Woman arrives and beats Jeannette. Jeannette, though, is a banshee. When she switches to that mode, she screams Wonder Woman into a comatose state, so the prison now holds Wonder Woman. Catman, Deadshot and Ragdoll become fed up with Smyth, though, and the team is re-united, at least so much as it ever is. A demon is being held at the prison and is let loose to attack the freed Amazons but it loses its head. The Amazons were there because they had attacked Washington, DC, so there’s some question of whether they should be freed, but the Six don’t really care about that. Wonder Woman has more problem with that, but only momentarily.

The hardest part of the battle is an Amazon who’s become unkillable because of her function as healer of the imprisoned band of Amazons. She uses something called a purple ray to heal them and her constant exposure has made her immortal. She’s sided with Smyth. Fortunately, Deadshot shoots her in the head, which at least temporarily stops her from killing the rest.

One of the more interesting elements of Secret Six is that Bane refuses to take the Venom that gave him superhuman strength. He’s still larger and stronger than most because of his use of it for so long, but he’s also not berserk. He won’t use it because it’s addictive. In this story, Scandal uses it without his knowledge. At the end, Bane and Jeanette agree that Bane should lead the team instead, so he tells Scandal she’s off the team for her own protection.

The issues also visit Liana at her job. She’s being stalked by a customer who’s infatuated with her and won’t take no for an answer. There’s also a very nice flashback to Jeanette’s younger days and to Scandal’s childhood when her father, Vandal Savage, made her run a gauntlet to save her mother’s life.

Issue 15 returns to a single issue arc. It’s written by John Ostrander and penciled and inked by Jim Califore. Deadshot is having fantasies of shooting pretty much everyone, including his friends and lover (Jeanette, who he’d shot not all that long ago). He meets a priest he knew as a kid at a diner and takes a walk through his past and his Gotham neighborhood where he lived with his wife and son after being disinherited by his father. His home is condemned now, but it’s where he became Deadshot after his wife and son were killed. It’s a nice origin on Floyd Lawton. Of course, he doesn’t really resolve his problem with fantasizing about killing everyone. He just decides he’s got it under control.

Simone returns with issue 16. Peter Nguyen does pencils and Hazelwood is back on inks. This issue brings Black Alice onto the team. She’s a 16 year old who can take on the powers of any magic wielder she knows. She doesn’t have to be in the person’s presence or even know them personally. She’s kind of a Rogue character because of the absorption and the iffy control of the powers, but she can control who she takes from and doesn’t have the whole touching issue. It’s a funny story as the Six take her to the strip club where Liana works, in an attempt to get her to not want to join the team, but that’s all she wants to do. She wants to make money to pay for cancer treatment for her father. There’s a nice bit in the beginning when Catman and Deadshot free a psychopathic killer in order to deliver him up to the father of one of his victims. Catman gives the father lovely instructions on how to slowly kill the killer. Black Alice also has an inexplicable liking for the bendy, scarred Ragdoll, who had his genitals removed quite a long time ago.

In the end, she’s allowed on the team and we’re off to issues 17 and 18. These are the Blackest Night crossovers that are joined with the one shot Suicide Squad that was published in the midst of all that mess. I have that issue, too, but I’m not going into it. Suffice it to say that the Six and the Suicide Squad are in conflict. Amanda Waller is trying to get the Six under her control, though she really only wants Deadshot back on the Suicide Squad. There’s much fighting of dead villains and heroes when the two teams aren’t busy trying to kill each other. It’s fun enough, and has the advantage of being written by both Simone and Ostrander, as well as beautiful art by Califore, but it leaves me cold. Most of that is because I really didn’t like the legions of dead in Blackest Night. I had no idea who most of them were or if they had any significance. The entire Blackest Night story was written for those entirely too enmeshed in the lore of the DCU, which was at the expense of a good story. It ended up at the status quo at the end, though Deadshot did leave a bullet in Waller that was too close to her heart to remove.

Issues 19-22, entitled Cats in the Cradle, get the series back on track. Simone’s writing and Califore’s got the art. It’s lovely. A wealthy man hires the Six to retrieve his son from the Brother Blood cult. He’s already dead by the time they infiltrate the cult with Black Alice, though, which the old man new. As the Six go to the man’s house to get paid a call comes in for Catman on the old man’s phone. The old man knows the call is for Catman even before he picks up the phone. It’s a kidnapper on the other end. He’s taken Catman’s son from Cheshire, the boy’s mother. They’re going to kill the boy if Catman doesn’t kill his teammates.

Instead of doing the expected, Catman tells the kidnapper he’s coming to kill all the kidnappers. He lets on that he has an idea of where they are, too. The old man then shoots himself in the head, but his manservant still pays the team. Catman then takes off on his own to track down the killers while some of his teammates try to find him. Catman first kills an Italian who was part of the kidnapping team and had returned home to Italy. He does it gruesomely to get information out of the man about the other kidnappers. He then goes to South Africa and kills an enhanced Boer named Loki who has dreams of an honorable fight between himself and Catman, as men of a certain ethos. Catman’s having nothing of it and severs the man’s spine before leaving him to be devoured by lions.

Throughout the story there are flashbacks to Catman’s youth with his crazy, wealthy father who thought Thomas Blake was coddled and made soft by the boy’s mother. This lead to the killing of the mother and a slow death for the father when Thomas in turn stabbed him. Unlike Floyd, Thomas seems to have retained his wealth.

Catman does track down the lead kidnapper, a Brit who has an ability with electricity. Catman kills him despite the electricity coursing through him and goes into the house, only to discover that the old man, though maimed and bed ridden, is not dead. The old man did kidnap Catman’s son and placed him with a loving family. Catman decides to leave it at that, though he kills the old man. Seems the old man never did care about getting at Catman. He wanted to get back at Cheshire, who had done him wrong. Catman calls Cheshire and tells her their son is dead before he kills the old man, who goes happily.
Most notably in this story, Bane and Jeanette do not pursue Catman. Only Black Alice, Scandal, Deadshot and Ragdoll pursue him, and they never catch up to him. Bane and Jeanette are dedicated to the job they're supposed to be taking on next, so they bring in 4 new members to join the team. Giganta, Dwarfstar, Lady Vic and King Shark were all seen in the opening arc, Unhingned. Of course, they were trying to kill the Six then. King Shark is primarily interested in eating just about anyone. Dwarfstar is a rapist and murder who can shrink, a la the Atom. Giganta seems to be in it for the money. Lady Vic is something of a cypher at this point, but wields a sword.

Issue 23 returns to one shot form. Ostrander writes again while RB Silva does pencils and Alexandre Palamaro does inks. It’s a variation on The Most Dangerous Game. Wealthy guys pay to come to an island and use high end military gear to hunt and kill people. They’re all dissatisfied with the ease of killing normal mercenaries, so the island operator hires the Six but then knocks them out while they’re on their way and separates them and takes away any weapons. He then unleashes the wealthy, who preserve their anonymity from one another by using the names of presidents. Even without weapons, the Six kill them all fairly easily. It’s an issue that’s supposed to take place before the Catman story, which explains why the team is united, though it doesn't explain why Black Alice isn't there. Other than that it doesn’t make much difference when it occurred. It’s not a great story, but it’s passable.

Issue 24 was more interesting. Simone wrote and Califore returned on art. It’s an Elseworlds sort of thing. It’s set in the American West in the late 1800s. Scandal is a town Sheriff. Bane is one of her deputies. Deadshot is a bounty hunter. Jeanette is a saloon girl, as is Liana. Ragdoll operates a Punch and Judy show. Catman is a trapper who’s been left for dead by twins who are iterations of the henchman of Alex (Junior) in the first arc. The entire story harkens back to that, as Junior is coming to take control of the town and has hired Slade Wilson to clear it out. All of the Six and Liana end up dead in this one, while Wilson ends up losing his other eye. It’s a nice character exploration in a short story that hasn’t anything to do with continuity. It may will be one of my favorites in the entire run to date.

Altogether this is easily the best super powers title published by either DC or Marvel. Ok, I don’t read any Marvel these days, but if there was anything I thought worth purchasing, this would be better. With the quality of the art, I’d put it ahead of Invincible, but Invincible is more consistent for having the same creative team almost all the time. Some of Ostrander’s writing isn’t as strong as Simone’s writing. More noticeably, when there’s a break in the artists so that neither Califore or Scott are doing the pencils, it’s a bit of a detraction. Nonetheless, this book is something anyone who likes to read good stories should be getting. Like the Vertigo titles Northlanders and Scalped, longer arcs are intentionally bookended by shorter tales that may only involve a few members of the team, or only one. The way this book is being published it looks like there’s a plan for a long way down the road akin to a creator owned title. As long as Simone and Ostrander continue to be the writers on the book, I look forward to a long and happy experience with this read. These B list villains are now some of my favorite characters in comics. And let's not forget grovelling servant, Insignificus.

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