1. "If She'd Wanted You Dead ... "
I. If our recent discussions about Captain America have been, in part, about how to portray a villain as a hero, or a traitor as a martyr, then it's instructive to turn to Gail Simone's work on the "Secret Six" and note a similar if more deliberate process at work. Because, of course, Ms Simone has to portray her cast of largely irredeemable and frankly mostly monstrous n'er do wells as sympathetic and engaging to a greater or lesser degree, or few readers would be motivated to pick up the "Secret Six" at all. And, so, where some creators have by accident, or perhaps even by carelessness and lack of forethought, ended up having Captain America undermining the Constitution while eliciting our support for his endeavours, Ms Simone must month after month achieve the same end of making the unconscionable congenial without having the sympathetic and patriotic cloth that Captain America is cut from to play with.
And I think that even though most every reader is aware of the trick that Ms Simone is performing with such unpromising and super-villainous material, the degree of bold cleverness and sheer story-telling dishonesty in "Secret Six" is at times perhaps under-recognised. Or perhaps I should say, it's at times been under-recognised by me. For, until I read "Six Degrees Of Devastation" recently, the library book rescued from the back of my car while I was waiting for a blown tire to be repaired, I hadn't noticed how incredibly studied and, yes, how cold-blooded was the trickery involved in writing that's on show in most every page and nearly every panel of the "Secret Six". For it isn't that Ms Simone doesn't openly declare that her characters are, at best, rather dense and impulsive, and at worse, frankly flat-out bloodcurdling monsters. She does indeed openly and regularly declare this to all and sundry, but she does it with such a cunning misdirection that the reader's eye, and heart, is usually simultaneously caught by a far more endearing and attractive piece of information, a declaration of love, perhaps, or an escape predicated upon uncommon bravery. And so the mind is distracted and the heart is deceived and the reader carries on engaged with the fate of a pack of monsters who, almost to a super-villain, shouldn't trouble our feelings other than to cause us to hope that they're all soon safely locked away from the good people of the DCU for an exceptionally long time.
And so, in preparation for the soon-to-come "Secret Six: Depths" trade paperback, which is released next month and which I'm looking forward to reviewing (*1) , I thought I'd put that not-too-unpleasant few hours spent reading and re-reading "Six Degrees Of Devastation", while waiting for that tire to be fixed, to some good use here, and to try to examine how the appalling characters of, in particular, Deadshot and Scandal have been made into something both more shiny and yet still utterly grubby in "Secret Six".
*1 - The Splendid Wife has offered to fund this, er, "research" as an early birthday present! What an unexpected and yet typically Splendid gesture from the Splendid Wife.
II. Now, are you ready? Please notice. There is nothing in Ms Simone's hands .....
2. "You have to admire her fortitude ... "
It's the most obvious and commented upon - and perhaps the least interesting - of Ms Simone's narrative strategies with the "Secret Six", that she engages our sympathies for her reprobates by having them in conflict and combat with characters who are considerably more despicable than even they are. In such a fashion can pretty much any recidivist from psychopath to petty thief be made sympathetic, and, in "Six Degrees Of Devastation", Deadshot is placed in such dire situations against such appalling antagonists that the reader instinctively sides with him. So, whether it's the torturing beasts murdering their prey in North Korean concentration camps, sword-wielding and shapely female assassins who attack him while he's walking with his family through a park, the killer monks of the deadly super-villain Cheshire, or the armies of the psychotic Immortal Man Vandal Savage, we're never allowed to take anybody's side except for Lawton's. We readers, after all, tend strongly towards the taking the part of the powerless against the powerful, and Deadshot in "Six Degrees ... " is often both staring at his imminent doom while still appearing capable of mustering a damn good fight. We can share in his power, cleverly, while being moved by his powerlessness.
But this is, of course, a well known, if no less laudable, narrative trick, though it does become a rather obvious sympathy-generating strategy over a collection of 6 issues, with the dice being so constantly loaded against "our" super-villains. And yet, there's a lovely and telling quote on Wikipedia that illustrates how we readers know we're being played by Ms Simone in this fashion while, despite ourselves, being subject to the terribly insidious effect of what's being done to us by this trick;
"Although the current incarnation of the Secret Six are technically villains, several members of the team are treated sympathetically and come across as heroic, if only on the virtue of the team encountering individuals who are even more bloodthirsty and villainous."
Accurately said, of course, except that the Secret Six aren't "technically villains". They are villains. That word "technically" is a reflection of the doubt and emotional misdirection that Ms Simone's technique causes. There's not a member of the "Secret Six" on show in these pages who doesn't commit herein a string of incredibly serious crimes, against both American and International Law. Even Catman, who seems to be positioned in "Six Degrees Of Devastation" as a man on the road to redemption, is constantly invading the sovereign territory of other nations and wounding and murdering substantial number of opponents.
And that's for me one of the most amusing and effective methods used by Ms Simone to make us sympathetic to the Six. For it's not just that the enemies of the Six are portrayed as being worst beasts than "our" heroes-not-heroes, but that the crimes that the Six commit rarely seem to be actually that; crimes. So, in these 143 pages, Deadshot engages in the following mayhem:
- trespassing on the sovereign soil of North Korea. (But North Korea's in the Axis Of Evil!)
- effecting the murder of "The Commandant". (But that Commandant was horrible!)
- takes part in a massacre of North Korean prison guards (But they're horrible too and it's all in self-defence anyway.)
- fails to take responsibility for the fate of the prisoners themselves after the massacre.
- stands by as Scandal undertakes the appalling and protracted torture of one "Pistolera" (Oh! But Pistolera set Savage's girl-friend on fire!)
- murders Pistolera in stone-cold blood in order to "save" Scandal from the "feeling bad" which might result if she finished off the woman she'd just been torturing for such a long time in such a horrendous fashion. (What a nice man, to save his friend from such guilt!)
- slaughters large number of knife-waving monks protecting their home from assault. (He couldn't just avoid the fight! He had to help get the woman who tried to assassinate his team-mates!)
- sleeps with the lover of his team-mate Scandal. (It's not a crime! There was no compulsion! And she was so hot! She was naked!)
- helps, or at least stands by, as the Mad Hatter commands Elasti-Girl to eat Beast Boy. (Er ... well, Deadshot didn't actually order her to eat him, and it was a neat scene! And there wasn't any eating in the end, was there, so no harm done! And it's only the Doom Patrol.)
- massacres a huge number of Vandal Savage's guards, during his third trespass on foreign shores in 143 pages. (But they were bad! Vandal Savage is bad! They deserved to die! And our baddies are good baddies! And they HAD to do it!)
And in such a way, as we know, the awful Deadshot becomes something of the heroic Deadshot. Huzzah!
3. "You're A Good Friend, Floyd ... "
I. I'm particularly impressed by how the reader is constantly being informed of how Deadshot is a great guy while at the same time being shown how his behaviour is often utterly unethical, to say the least. We should be overwhelmingly appalled and disgusted by his murder of the tortured Pistolera, if we have the slightest degree of engagement with the concept of human rights and, indeed, normative standards of empathy, but in nips Ms Simone, who with one hand shows us something terrible and then;
- makes us laugh with Deadshot's laconic wisecrack following the murder: "Who wants Cake?"
- has Deadshot portray his actions as self-sacrificing and noble: "I knew you'd feel bad if you pulled the stopper and let the water drain out, so I did it for you. No big deal"
- shows Scandal kiss Lawson tenderly on the head after the murder while saying: "I think, this once, a kiss, Lawton."
Yet, we are touched.
II. Ms Simone laces these pages with similarly exploitative and effective tricks, as indeed she should, for it's of course the business of the writer to manipulate the reader until the job at hand is achieved. When Deadshot is ambushed in Star City's park while walking with his daughter's mother and their child, he is represented as nobly unconcerned about his own fate (*2), as we'd expect from a man with a death-wish, but deeply concerned with the fact of his families' survival. How do you make an evil mass murderer sympathetic? Why, have him offer to lay down a life that he cares little for anyway while making sure that his daughter doesn't suffer, in body or mind;
"Get out of here, Susan. Make sure ... Don't let the kid look back, hear?"
What a top bloke! Look he's saving a stereotypically attractive young woman and her innocent cute child. What else can we feel, faced with these traditional markers of virtue, except "What a top bloke!"
(*2), Yet it's really not so noble, is it? In this scene, it feels as if Lawton has assumed the qualities of Gary Cooper as High Noon approaches, but Deadshot's a man with a death-wish, so self-sacrifice hardly carries the weight for him that it would for Diana Prince, or Barry Allen, or you and I. Again, a really clever narrative trick. The appearance of a hero, but the absence of heroic virtues.
III. So, let's take a look at the many virtues of Deadshot in the pages of "Six Degrees Of Devastation". He's a family man, a lsupportive ex-lover and father,working at a difficult trade in order to put his daughter through " ... Harvard a hundred times with the money you've saved for her education." He's a loyal friend, willing to murder tortured women in order to spare a team-mates' conscience. He stands beside his friends and comrades, facing down overwhelming odds, though while he looks so heroic firing off all those bullets, and even as he seems so tragic as Knockout announces that he "has the deathlust", the truth of it is that because of his lack of desire to stay alive, he's a liability to them all.
Still, that isn't obvious on the surface, as little is in "Secret Six". On the face of the story, he's that walking arsenal that you'd appreciate having beside you as those fiendish North Koreans charge towards you. And as a convivial team-member, in addition to a hard-fighting one, he even seems to like Ragdoll enough to not murder him when he has a clear shot at his mind-controlled team-mate. (He's also the reader's point-of-view character when he gently mocks the strangeness of Ragdoll and the Mad Hatter too. He seems to see these characters as we do, and yet his response to their oddness isn't excessively cruel while it is quietly amusing, so we warm to him.) Why, even when Deadshot argues against going after Scandal when she returns to her father's house, he does so from what appears to be a respectful perspective, mindful of his team-mate's right to choose her own destiny. It is as if he's a tarnished gun-slinging Western hero, down to his wise-cracks and his nimble, supple trigger-fingers. And whether that role is played by John Wayne in "The Searchers" or Gene Wilder in "Blazing Saddles", that's an ornery stereotype we've become accustomed to opening our hearts to.
It's an brilliantly effective role which is particularly evoked for deceptive purposes in the book's opening scene set in a North Korean concentration camp, where a fellow prisoner declares that Deadshot is "Like a savior ... ", tellingly just before being shot dead. And at that murder, Deadshot declares "All right, you bastards." and shots down the guard who killed his prison acquaintance. And our hearts jump at that action, as Deadshot apparently takes up the death-dealing six guns of the aroused Eastwoodian hero, and look how noble Floyd Lawson seems. Or at least, he does until we notice how, after a firefight, he and his friends race off to their own escape while leaving the prisoners behind. Some saviour, that Deadshot. Saviours, after all, tend to get crucified while facing down impossible odds in order to save the powerless, but the "Secret Six" are off and looking after themselves while Deadshot intones;
"It's only five miles to China. They might make it."
Ah, he seemed like a saviour, made us thrill as if he were the saviour, and then he saved himself.
IV. And Deadshot's vices? Well, he engagingly spoils his daughter, and he finds it hard to keep it in his pants, though even that's with Knockout, who's quite unfortunately disengaged from conventional notions of monogamy. (It is very hard not to feel considerable sympathy with Knockout when the issue of her creation and abuse, and the effect of those tragedies on her behaviour, is considered, but Deadshot had, as Catman put it, "... screwed all of us this time.") Oh, and he cares not a whit for any moral or legal notion that doesn't grab his inadequate powers of attention, which leads him down to endless crimes of murder and indeed mass-murder and, oh, yes, yet more mass-murder, and so on.
Deadshot may appear to be a sad man worthy of our sympathy, and since every human being is worthy of our consideration, perhaps that may be true. He's certainly a man with a troubled past. It would take a cold heart and a callous mind not to pity the boy who was fated to become Deadshot. But our first and only thought should be; "When is somebody going to protect humanity by taking this monster, one way or another, off of the board?"
And yet that isn't even our last thought. Good writing, ah?
4. "I Got The Shot! I Got The Shot!"
Quite this reader's favourite moment in "Six Degrees Of Devastation" involves Catman's narration during the assault on Cheshire's home, wherein he asks himself;
"You're a good friend, Floyd. Maybe the best I've had. So why am I so sure I'll have to rip your throat out someday?"
With Catman being the closest to a truly heroic figure in "Secret Six", his fondness for Deadshot obviously carries a great deal of weight with the reader, particularly those who know of Floyd Lawton's fondness for surrogate brothers. Yet it isn't the warmth of Catman's feelings for Deadshot that I so enjoyed, but rather the stupidity of his question; "So why am I so sure I'll have to rip your throat out someday?". It's so rare to have a character in comic books who is quite so lacking in either self-awareness or common sense, and I like having a comic-book lead who is neither hyper-engaged or utterly ignorant in a mainstream book. (Even given how unrealistic superhero "realism" is, Catman seems far more human than the four-colour norm.) But, honestly, hasn't Catman got the nous to figure out that the reason he'll one day have to rip out Lawton's throat is that Deadshot is a seriously damaged, not-to-be-trusted mass-murderer? And that one of Deadshot various loyalties and afflictions, if not an interacting set of them, may well result in Deadshot turning on Catman one day, even despite Lawton's faux-filial fondness for him.
How brilliantly Ms Simone plays her cards here. We like Catman, Catman likes Deadshot, we like Deadshot. It's so manipulative that it deserves applause. Misdirection, if not outright lying, is what good writers do, after all.
End Of Part 1: Coming Next: Scandal!
nb 1: My thanks to Josh Reynolds for help with the identity of Deadshot's ex-lover. Cheers, Mr J!
nb 2: "Secret Six: Six Degrees Of Devastation" by Gail Simone, Brad Walker and Jimy Palmiotti, is published by DC Comics, and available bookshops and in Norfolk Library stock too. I feel guilty that I didn't discuss the involving work by artists Mr Walker and Mr Palmiotti in this piece, but the object of concern here was Ms Simone's script. Any reader who hasn't already picked up the book should do so, and there they'll see that the art is very certainly worthy of attention on its' own, with in particular a full page splash of a naked Mad Hatter which once seen will be very hard to forget. I'm only saying .....
I'd like to try to take a look at how Ms Simone gets us on-side with Scandal in the next post on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics in a few days time. Scandal is a character quite previously unknown to me, so my response to her is a touch different to that of the familiar Deadshot. I hope my admiration for Ms Simone's craft and purpose shone through here, and that the piece didn't seem in any way snipy or sarcy. I do have concerns about this business of presenting obvious villains as heroes, but that's for another day, and this was about respect and not carping. I hope to see you soon, and please do feel free to torpedo these musings! That ol'comment box is just below.