Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Secret Six #16

Secret Six #16

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Peter Nguyen
Inkers: Doug Hazelwood & Mark McKenna
Released: December 9, 2009

This issue opens with the calm and jovial ranting of a child molester as he narrates the rain-soaked panels that show his police caravan taking him out to the shallow graves where he buried his young victims. He's a disturbed and disgusting man in an orange jumpsuit and prison manacles, talking about having sex with children with the ease of a man talking about ex-girlfriends. Enter two members of the mercenary outfit the Secret Six, here dressed as local sheriffs, busting in to rescue the sex offender and killer, efficiently overpowering the small detail of officers assigned to escort him on this grizzly outing. So quick are our mercenary protagonists that the entire break goes down before any shots could be fired. At scenes end, the three men are stood in the rain, two of them calmly smoking, the prisoner now freed from his shackles, basking in relief as he tastes freedom once again. There are no colorful costumes. There are no hi-tech gadgets deployed. The fisticuffs are bare minimum. The rain, the mud, the scattered-shot lightning all combine to cast everything in deep shades of murky purple. This is the criminal world at its most foul, stripped of any super-villain glamour, bereft of any comic book trappings. It's just filth and a few sad, pathetic men.

Not all is as it seems, however, as we quickly learn that this jail-break has not been a rescue at all, but a kidnapping, on behalf of the bereaved father of one of the children victimized. The molester finds himself in short order, strapped to a table in a secluded warehouse somewhere, the angry and vengeful father stood over him with jagged hunting knife. There work done, the two men of the Secret Six depart, but before doing so, one imparts onto the blade-wielding father nearly step-by-step instructions on how to properly flay a human being to death. Three sad, pathetic killers become four.

If there is one message that resonates out of these first 16 issues of Secret Six, it would be one that is encapsulated cleanly in this first sequence: things only get worse. A father loses his child to a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills, and the outcome of the whole process is that it turns him into a kidnapper, torturer and killer. Nothing ever gets better. Things only get worse.

The hired-gun crew of Secret Six is rife with substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, and death. Each of the members is afflicted with some form of the above list, and they all suffer severe depression. Their conversations with each other rarely veer out from under layers of sarcasm, and moments of real emotional revelation tend to be exploited later on as weakness. They all carry with them the demons of tortured pasts. The world that surrounds them in their present offers no solace nor hope. They have been hunted by villain and hero alike, and each other when circumstances have pitted them on opposite sides. They have witnessed torture and enslavement, at times aiding in their practice. They have been the hired tools of unrepentant and unhesitant killers. They have seen the worst of humanity, and they have taken it to bed.

The second half of this issue features a scene that demonstrates the odd duality of the series, the part of the book that keeps it from sinking into depressing muck. For, make no mistake, there is a humor to the series, a dark joyousness even. As our two Six-ers, Catman and Deadshot leave the warehouse they are confronted by a teenaged witch who is determined to latch onto them. In an oddball, frat-boy attempt to shake her, they make there way into a local strip club, a club that features exotic dancers dressed up in sexed-up versions of the outfits worn by various villains of the DCU. They are the kind of cheap costumes one would find folded up in a plastic bag and sold at a Halloween pop-up store, on the rack next to "Sexy Pirate" and "Sexy Nurse". Live on stage, ogle to the gyrations of "Sexy Bane", "Sexy Mister Freeze", and most hilarious of all, "Sexy Mr. Mxyzptylyk". It's a moment that speaks of writer Gail Simone's love of the DCU, and her fearlessness at playing with the pieces of it; to acknowledge it's existence as a world these people somehow both live in and live outside of. They are alive in a world that treats their costumes and likenesses, their symbols and crests, as objects of idolatry and commerce. She has used this trick before, both in Secret Six and in Wonder Woman, and it's effective at injecting humor as well as satirical commentary.

It's telling that she employs it in this issue, as well, in a scene far removed from the grime of the opening sequence. Here, the colorful and impractical costumes of villainy are pushed to their extreme, pushed out onto a red-velvet stage, flooded by disco-lights and mirrors, displayed as objects of sexuality and farce. The murder and torture committed by the men and women who wear the costumes being parodied here is somehow reduced to spandex and fishnet. All the supposed glamour of evil becomes a ribald joke. Contrast this to the gray and purple mire of brutality, kidnap, torture and murder being committed in the name of moral relativity, by men wearing the plain and simple uniforms of legitimate law-enforcement officers, in the books opening, and the satire becomes even more biting, even more heartbreaking.

Gail Simone has managed something very special with Secret Six. She has created a book that uses the surface world of superhero comics, all of its trappings and genre clichés, to tell stories of hopelessness and fear. The characters at the center of this world, the stars of the book, are all sad and lost in their own despair and seeming inability to unfetter themselves from the worlds they have created around them. They have all given up, really. They fight, they drink, they kill, and they sit and watch the (DC)Universe go by all around them. They've become walking costumes, parodies of themselves. Live, on stage.

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