The five series I looked over in the first part of this mini-series were not the only short-lived series initiated in the wake of Carmine Infantino’s promotion to Editorial Director. This time I’m looking at just two series, which like their contemporaries failed to last more than seven issues.
The Secret Six
Like Beware the Creeper I’ve long since known and enjoyed the first issue of this series, but it’s only relatively recently I’ve finally made the time to read the series in full. Unlike The Creeper, The Secret Six debuted not in Showcase but their own title – on the cover of it to be exact – and went on to a very strong initial story that made me want to read the rest of it. And I was not disappointed.
The point of The Secret Six, which was what made it the success it was creatively if not commercially, was that it was not a superhero series, not in any way. It’s closest cultural parallel, to which it was continually compared, was TV’s Mission Impossible, in that it was a thriller series, at times criminal, at others espionage, employing a team of specialists, whose abilities were fully human, and far less exaggeratedly so than Batman.
The gimmick was that the Six were gathered together by blackmail by an unknown person going under the name of Mockingbird, who set missions in which the sextet combined their skills either by bringing down organised crime or by striking back at communist plots (this was a very Cold War series with a visceral aggression against Commies). Each member was under Mockingbird’s thumb for one reason or another. The twist was that Mockingbird was one of the Six himself. Or herself. Or so we were led to believe.
The series was written by the combination of Nelson Bridwell, who plotted the episodes and ex-Charlton writer Joe Gill, who dialogued them, with art by Frank Sparling, employing a scruffier, looser, quasi-cartoonist line that was both very effective for a series grounded in gritty reality and far more appealing than any of his superhero work.
The first issue was all about introductions. Six individuals with nothing in common with each other abruptly abandon the jobs they are undertaking and set off to a meeting, where they are taken about a VTOL jet and instructed to wear identical white uniforms – long-sleeved t-shirts and trousers – each decorated by a Roman Numeral, from I to VI. They are, in order, King Savage, stuntman, Dr August Durant, scientist, Carlo di Rienzi, magician and escapologist, Lili De Neuve, former actress and make-up artist, Mike Tempest, ex-boxer and bum and Crimson Dawn, model. All owe Mockingbird a debt. All can be exposed or abandoned for defiance.
Savage was a Korean War pilot who cracked under interrogation: Mockingbird sprang him in time for Savage to save his side but could expose his treachery. Durant has been poisoned: Mockingbird supplies him with daily pills that hold off his fatal disease. Di Rienzi’s wife is dead and his son crippled: Mockingbird pays for treatment that will enable him to walk again. De Neuve was falsely accused of murder: Mockingbird supplied a false alibi that could be withdrawn. Tempest was Tiger Force, boxer, who ratted out the mob: Mockingbird conceals him from their revenge. And Crimson Dawn was a foolish heiress, seduced, her money spent, her family ridiculing her: Mockingbird can reveal her connection to fat, foolish Kit Dawn to that family.
Bridwell provided a taut, convincing plot, putting the Six through their paces for their first assignment, whilst Gill skillfully contributed snappy patter that betrayed bitter humour and cautious misgivings between these strangers without ever descending to anything remotely campy or even flippant. You could believe in these people: they were solid.
The six succeeding issues followed a template. The Six, either by direct assignment from Mockingbird or else by appeal from one of their members who needs assistance, conduct further missions. Each issues centres specifically upon one of the Six, explaining their situation, and the circumstances in which Mockingbird gained his/her influence over them in greater depth, and allowing each member of the team, as well as the reader, to see how plausible it might be to accept each one as Mockingbird, and not merely the seemingly obvious figure of Dr August Durant.
That’s always to assume Mockingbird was one of the Six and not an external figure. That must have been the case as Bridwell, in one of the later lettercols, admits that they have been dropping subtle clues as to the true identity of Mockingbird through the whole series, but that no-one has yet picked up on any of them. I certainly hadn’t. If that was true. And assuming that, the Six were the only characters to appear in each issue.
Like I said, the obvious assumption was Durant, and I favour him personally. It’s he who, in issue 1, advances the theory that Mockingbird is one of them. And in the two cases where the team acts to protect one of their own, it is Durant on both occasions who makes the point that, although their actions are unsanctioned, their mysterious leader would quickly pull them off it if he/she disapproved.
But seven issues was all The Secret Six got, seven issues and oblivion for nearly two decades. It’s a damned shame because it was a gripping series, but it wasn’t superheroes and even as early as 1968/69 the readers couldn’t accept adventure in any other form. We’re paying for that narrow-mindedness in spades by now.
On the other hand, it would have made a bloody good TV thriller series…
According to Wikipedia, The Secret Six were finally resurrected in 1988 in Action Comics Weekly. By then, Bridwell had passed on, so it was Martin Pasko who reintroduced the team, with art from Dan Spiegle, who put the new Secret Six into spandex uniforms. Durant was specified as Mockingbird, putting together a wholly-new team in the first episode then being killed off, with all the originals, in the second. Despite that flat statement Di Rienzi apparently becomes Mockingbird until he’s killed off in the last episode. Sounds like complete nonsense to me: I shall treat that as never happening.
One thing in common with this flush of unsuccessful series is that Carmine Infantino claims to have come up with the concept and assigned others to develop it. If it’s true then it’s an admirable thing, this willingness to go against a grain that many had clung to in the face of Marvel’s first dominance, sticking to the ‘classic’, the comfortable, the familiar approaches, rather than plunge into something new where they feared being out of their depths.
On the other hand, the lack of success for any of these series suggests Infantino was not another Kirby, though any such conclusion must be tempered by factoring in that a large proportion of DC’s audience were just as conservative as the management.
Bat Lash had already had the in-house build-up for his debut in Showcase : I remember seeing the advert for this shambling silhouette and the tag-line ‘Will he save the West – or Ruin it?’ over and over. The raggedy figure must have represented an early iteration of the character because, as soon as Mr Lash appeared, he was anything but ragged. He was a smiling, elegant dandy, a courteous man, a con man and a ladies man, who tried to avoid violence but who, when it was pressed upon him, was pretty darned good at it. You just had to watch out when he carefully removed the flower from his hat and put it to one side for safety.
He may have been a Wild West character, but Lash was also a very contemporary one, a child of 1968, of a growing counter-culture, of the hippy dream of peace and love and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. No doubt this ‘peacenik’ stance, even in a moderated state, contributed to the series’ commercial failure.
That and the fact that the Western was practically dead by then.
For the Showcase try-out, Infantino commissioned Sergio Aragones – yes, he of MAD magazine and Groo the Wanderer – to plot the story for Nick Cardy to draw, pencils and inks, with veteran Sheldon Mayer brought in to dialogue the issue. For the series, Denny O’Neill came in to dialogue (and Cardy was credited with the plot for issue 2) but otherwise it was the same team.
Cardy’s art is lovely, loose and flexible, and with that cartoonish element that ideally suits the tenor of the stories, though when the letters page suggests he has equalled his former boss, Will Eisner, I have to dissent, no disrespect.
As for the stories, they’re generally good fun. Bat Lash is played as a charming rogue, a drifter coming and going through the usual cliches of western towns. He’s constantly professing his hatred of violence, and his love of peace and flowers, even as he’s lying and cheating his way wherever he goes.
The fact is, Bat Lash is an unprincipled chancer, and completely selfish with it, willing to con anyone over anything and with only a very few, and very occasional flashes of human remorse. In short, the man’s a stinker, and don’t you forget it. O’Neill and Aragones are never shy of showing this, only they wrap it up in clever moves, demonstrating Lash’s superior intelligence, and his ability to improvise (and plan ahead when the situation requires) with a high degree of intelligence. And it’s all about charm. Lash gets his way, especially with the ladies, who he invariably kisses and runs, by surfing on his easy-going, romantic and charming manner.
There’s a personal touch in issue 4 when the pair introduce a villain by the name of Sergio Aragones, and Cardy draws him like the senor too (it is to be presumed that this bandido has no connection with the former Governor Sergio Aragones, mentioned in passing in issue 1). The fictional Aragones is every bit the twister that Bat Lash is and the issue long challenge between them is full of betrayals and promises.
It’s tremendous fun, but it’s also full of Mexican accents and cliches. Now I’ve never heard Aragones speak, but even now I’m led to believe his spoken English is, shall we say, imperfect, so this may well have been phonetically accurate at the time, and there’s nothing in the collaboration that suggests O’Neill had anything less than full enjoyment with his partner, but a half-century on, it automatically looks a bit cheap.
Plot-wise, if I wanted to be critical, I would point out that the stories tend to be a bit episodic, short vignettes leading up to regular bouts of gunplay and the like as Bat Lash ducks and dives.
And then it all crashes, abruptly, in issue 6. Denny O’Neill summarised things neatly on Wikipedia, explaining that he and Aragones had set out to depict a charming rogue, and suddenly DC re-wrote him as a churlish rogue. Issue 6 presents the origin of Bat Lash, farmer’s son who became a killer after his parents were killed by crooks stealing their land. It was deadly serious, cheap and nasty from beginning to end, and it shovelled a shitload of shit over the character, removing his ability to be regarded as a charming conman.
Instead, Bat Lash’s charm was merely superficial, but he was brutal and greedy underneath. His sister disowned him, preferring to become a nun in support of her best friend, the girl Bat was going to marry, who had found her true vocation, and he was sent away, an empty vessel. In its way, it was a story that would fit perfectly into the modern-day preference for presenting innocent characters as broken and corrupt, but this was done over fifty years ago.
Issue 7 was the last issue. It continued the onslaught on Bat Lash by introducing the kid brother he feared had been killed, grown up as a heartless bounty hunter on the trail of Bat Lash. The two confront each other and the only person who knows the truth is killed by them when he jumps in the way to stop them shooting each other down. It’s another piece of nastiness, and good riddance to the title if this was what now passed for a Western.
Officially, Bat Lash was cancelled for low sales. Comics were never cancelled for any other reason. It’s been stated that sales were good in Europe, but low at home, and O’Neill, in Wikipedia has cast doubt on the official reason, stating mysteriously that he had reason to believe there were other factors, but not detailing what they were.
I don’t care. Bat Lash 1-5 were fun and entertaining, issues 6-7 were unmitigated crap, and I wouldn’t have wanted any more of them to escape.