Sunday, 12 February 2012
On "Secret Six: The Darkest House"
No other comic has emerged from the mainstream since the cancellation of the Secret Six that's in any way as compassionately and as combatively concerned with social issues as Gail Simone's scripts for the Six always were. For all the windbaggery of conservative pundits whinging that the super-person comic is saturated with leftist propaganda, the truth is that there's a great ignorant silence that lies at the ethical heart of most of today's cape'n'chest-insignia books. Instead of conviction and curiosity, there's so often the taken for granted absence of anything that's smart and passionately relevant to the wider world beyond the soap-opera and the strurm und drang of the superhero tradition. Because of that, the occasional desultory token of social difference matched with a typically porn-faced representation of sex and gender knits together in the mind like a picket-line protesting the possibility of anything but more of the same escapist mind-rot. Torture as an unchallengeable good? Murder as a facet of nobility? Politics as a concern of no-one but the office-chaser and the psychopath? That there are a few other books which work as something more than adolescent-minded piffle puffed up with a sheen of sixth-form pretension is undeniable, but so too is the fact that there's hardly any of them, and not a single one is as controversially insightful and moving and decent-hearted as Secret Six was. Today's is a marketplace where the super-person comic-book of ideas, rather than that of self-absorption and spectacle, is practically, if not entirely, extinct, and there's sadly very few creators who know enough to care about anything other than the broadest cliches of character and emotion. Because of that, the cancellation of the adventures of Scandal Savage and her partners in psychological disorder still rankles and festers, and in part that's because nothing else of comparable ambition and quality exists to obscure the fact of the Six's absence from the shelves.
The last of the wine, The Darkest House collects the contents of the final seven issues of Secret Six, and adds the conclusion to the crossover with Doom Patrol to the package. Nothing makes it more apparent than this collection that the very last monthly book that the sub-genre could afford to loose was Secret Six.To those who'd dismiss the book's politics as reflex liberalism, or worse, red propaganda, it's worth pointing out that Gail Simone's long been engaged in a subtle if substantial challenge to one of the traditional rank-closing shibboleths of the left. For Secret Six has always been founded on the principle that there are criminals and norm-breakers who are fundamentally incorrigible. Nowhere is this made more obvious that in Caution To The Wind, in which the Six decide to follow Bane's crusade against Batman for a variety of fundamentally irrational reasons. From the catastrophically low IQ of King Shark to the psychopathy of Deadshot, the Six are all brutally and irreparably broken. Love certainly won't cure them, and it's unlikely that therapy could do anymore than slightly inform the rationality of a few of their ranks. In that, Simone's work is anything but an unthinking expression of the peace and love branch of the international anti-American conspiracy.
Of course, Secret Six was also a comic written to challenge the reactionary assumption that crime is always a question of free will and individual responsibility. Each of the prominent members of the Six was assigned a specific and severe pathological disorder by Ms Simone, and the clear implication of this was that the degree of culpability that each bears for their crimes was anything other than absolute. Many of the Six were marked by psychological conditions rooted in profound and protracted childhood traumas, and though the degree to which they might be defined as rational and blameworthy differed from character to character, Simone's scripts constantly emphasised that these were deeply damaged human beings just as they often behaved as monstrously dangerous individuals. They can't be reformed, and it would be a challenge to ensure that they are in one way or another restrained, but it would take a heart of stone and a mind constructed from the same to consider that the Six are nothing but inhuman creatures to be culled in the name of a greater good. It's in Simone's brilliant portrayal of individuals who are still recognisably human while retaining their profoundly anti-social disorders that the book's bravery became most obvious. For Simone's scripts constantly suggested a more humane if entirely challenging option to those offered by the typical public debate about mental health and crime. In Secret Six, the reader was perpetually compelled to feel compassion for the book's fundamentally dysfunctional and irrevocably dangerous cast. No matter how much harm they were shown inflicting upon the world around them, we were still encouraged to note the fierce similarities as well as the appalling differences between them and us.
Simone certainly didn't frame her apparent beliefs in stories which were fixed to allow her basic principles to shine without contradiction or conflict. She constantly emphasised how terrible the deeds of the Six were, and the reader was never asked to unthinkingly take the side of the murderous through the presentation of a comfortingly Disneyfied take on disordered thinking and it's terrible consequences. In The Jagged End Of The Chainsaw, for example, the Six murder Lana's kidnapper and torturer despite his victim's conviction that he should be allowed to live. "He may not have a relationship with God ... But I do." argues Lana, and yet Scandal still murders the man by driving metal claws through his brain. This is exactly the opposite to propaganda into which moral debates are reduced to simple problems and even simpler solutions. Simone demanded that we regard the Six as human even when they're committing the most despicable of crimes. This was as confrontational a definition of moral responsibility as can be found anywhere in pop culture. For in the way that the cast endlessly betrayed one another, and in the limited and yet life-affirming comfort that they each took in their constant reconciliations, the reader was being challenged to recognise the worth of folks who can only occasionally express themselves in ways which are recognisably compassionate and unselfish. They were, we were always being made to see, often doing their very best despite their terrible crimes to be something more, something better, than predatory and atomised.
Month after month after month, Secret Six didn't just deliver the requisite hyper-brawls and astute character moments, the good if often perverse humour and a significant measure of deliberate unpleasantness too. It also continually provoked the reader to think about what it was they were consuming, and about their own political convictions in the light of that. For few characters and institutions come out well from Simone's stories across the run of Secret Six, and the light that the book shone on the wider world was rarely one which could encourage complacent thinking. Even the reader who was simply out for a measure of wish-fulfilment in the form of brawling heroes and sexual fantasies, as symbolised by Eric in Suicide Roulette, was continually being confronted about what their preferences in fiction said about their own ethical good health. Actions had consequences in Secret Six, and the venting of the machismo of powerful men always carried with it a cost rather than just a celebration of one bloke's capacity to violently lord it over another. The Six were repeatedly presented as examples of exactly what not to do in life, while their few friends and lovers were sympathetically revealed to be flawed and fractured themselves simply through the fact that they were so needily willing to trust to the ultimately untrustworthy. As such, the reader who might not tend to question the behaviour of the leads in more typical comics might here find themselves wondering about issues of power and responsibilty, about more than just who wins and who seems to be the toughest brawler on the block.
Because of this attention to psychology and character, principle and politics, it's impossible not to wonder what will happen to the characters from Secret Six now that Ms Simone is no longer their custodian. With DC's comics now concerned with a quite different continuity, what came next for the likes of Ragdoll and Jeanette? Where the capture and imprisonment of other criminals in the typical superhero comic serves as the end of events, here the reader is too involved with the characters not to think of what followed after the drugged-up Six fell in the super-villain equivalent of the last scene of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.. Just as Simone's characters allow us to consider the degree to which we're responsible both for ourselves and for others, so too does their obvious moral incompetence inevitably inspire thoughts of how the police, judicial and prison services will deal with them. It's telling to recall, for example, that the state in Ms Simone's Secret Six stories seems repeatedly content to throw the super-villains of the DCU away into the medieval likes of Arkham Asylum, or to even draft them into the Suicide Squad. It's hard to imagine that such a regime would be likely to do anything than throw the Six into the deepest and most secure hole that it could find to dump them in. What reason is there to feel any faith in the willingness and capacity of the DCU's jails and hospitals to care for the Six? The utter irresponsibility of the pardon for the Six which Amanda Waller once secured stands as evidence that criminal psychology and its inevitable consequences was never a real concern for the powers-that-be in these tales.
Certainly the superheroes who nobly congregated to pummel the Six into submission in Blood Honour seemed unconcerned, with the exception of the Huntress, about the consequences of leaving their opponents to the mercies of a system which patently can't either restrain, reform, or enrich the lives of those it incarcerates. (How impossibly high must the recidivism rate be in the superhero universes?) The pummelling seemed inevitable and necessary, but that which followed probably wasn't. There's barely a stitch of evidence that the criminally irresponsible in the DCU are ever treated with any measure that's compatible with respect and compassion once they're finally locked up. Because of that, the Secret Six will surely always break out and terrorise both the ill and good of society again, and the reader knows it. Whether as individuals or as the most dangerously unpredictable of collectives, their inability to take responsibility for their actions matched with comic-book society's refusal to appropriately take responsibility for them means that nothing but the worst can ever happen.
And so, in its own way, Secret Six points its readers outwards to their own world and asks how it is that we treat our own disordered fellow citizens, and how is it that we justify the treatments and the punishments our governments administer in the name of the greater good. Who would dare to argue for the rights of the irreparably criminally disordered in this day and age?