Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Monsters are Coming

To start off, for people that might stumble to this entry looking for the DC comic titled Secret Six, written by the usually excellent Gail Simone. As a name, the Secret Six has a long history. With DC, there are two teams predating the current team of villains. The first team was of various normal people, with specialized talents: a magician, a boxer, a scientist, and so on. Each is being blackmailed by a mystery-man calling himself Mockingbird who may be one of the men or women that makes up the group. In a unique twist, the identity of the blackmailer is kept a mystery and is still unrevealed when the series reached an untimely end. In the late 1980s where it became popular to treat characters from the 50s and 60s as being in "real time" and killing off and replacing heroes with modern versions, the original Six are brought out of retirement and sent on a flight that results in their deaths. However, one seems to have survived as Mockingbird recruits an all new team, including a son of an original member. The new six have robotic enhancements so that each has a singular special power. The mystery of who killed the original team and who really is Mockingbird is finally revealed.

But, before that, the Secret Six was a pulp series from the latter half of 1934. History takes a strange turn as the name precedes the pulps. The term was also used by a group of Chicago businessmen that were interested in toppling Al Capone. Before then, it was used by a group of men siding with Jim Brown and the abolitionist movement.

If you're still reading, DC also took the name Suicide Squad from a pulp team of characters.
The early 1930s saw the birth and explosion of the hero pulps and the pulp superhero: The Shadow, followed first by the Phantom Detective and then Doc Savage a month later in 1933. In 1934, Popular would turn to dependable Robert Hogan to create The Secret Six, a book that featured a team of characters having the larger than life adventures not too disimilar to those that would find the Shadow or Doc Savage.

The chief difference is that the Secret Six did not have the charismatic and superhero leader. In many ways they are akin to DC's later non-Super teams such as the Challengers of Unknown and Sea Devils. While there is a leader of the group who is a better detective, better man of action, better looking, etc., there's not this large gap of ability between him and the others. Also, much like several of the DC teams and even Doc's own group of aides and the Shadow's agents, the various members of the Six are specialists.

The Secret Six are:
King: The leader of the group. A young man of action, barnstormer pilot, previously on death row and sought by police for a murder he didn't commit.
Luga: Large Zulu chief and King's servant and regular cook for the Six.
Key: Possibly the one member of the group that really was a crook and is now reformed. His contacts provide the group with much of their information on the movements of the police and underworld. A master burglar and safe-cracker. A man of slight build.
Bishop: The moral center of the group who seems genuinely religious and keeping the group on the straight and narrow, to the point that they even try to curb their use of swearing. Built along the lines of the stereotypical portly Friar Tuck mold
Doctor: The scientist of the group, in both medical and technology.
Shakespeare: Master of disguise, he disguises the Six for undercover work.

They are also helped by:
The Dummy: A deaf man whose hearing has been restored and feeds them information overheard in Police Headquarters.
Legs Larkin: A former criminal contact of the Key's feeding him information on the Underworld
Flo the Fleecer: A beautiful gold-digger and possible con-artist who is attracted to King.

The Secret Six are all wanted for crimes, although it's possible that only the Key (and his contacts) actually has a past life of crime. As such, their old names and past lives are foresaken and they make their headquarters in an isolated cabin with enough grounds on which to keep their own plane. It's not clear how they make the money needed to feed themselves and operate their vehicles. In this sense, one can see familiar lines that Hogan followed from his most popular series G-8. Like the Six, his real name is never revealed and while very competent, he's not quite along the superhuman lines of Doc Savage, the Shadow, or even the Phantom Detective, Secret Agent "X" and the Spider. He needs the help of his assistant Battle to create the most convincing disguises. And, like G-8, at least in this novel, there are scenes of the groups sharing meals together, a possible theme or belief of Hogan's: the importance and communal nature of sharing meals, illustrating the idea of the group to be more than just friends but a family created by necessity and common goals.

However, The Secret Six didn't prove to be a success story, only lasting a few issues. This may be due to the generic and normal nature of the lead. Or it could be due to Hogan not really exploiting his large cast to the fullest extent. Other authors of the other books didn't need to use their full casts. Dent quickly rotated Renny, Johnny and Long Tom in and out of the Doc books, focusing mainly on Monk and Ham. By nature of the title, one expects to see the full cast. Most of the Six are barely cyphers, given a few small tasks or lines but that's it. Nor does Hogan physically describe the characters each issue or explain their relationships and why they do what they do. This works fine in a series like G-8 where the backdrop of the War and that he's a spy is enough to know of the set-up or a case like the Shadow where the character and his origins are supposed to be mysterious. But, most of the hero pulps took pains each issue to treat the hero as if it might be the reader's first encounter with him. Hogan doesn't write that way here nor in the Wu Fang novels which tend to make the recurring characters non-descript.

The advantage is the plotting of the stories. "The Monster Murders" is from December 1934, featuring a cover of a giant ripping the roof of a building and the Six scattering. A couple of the Six are on a walk when they come across dogs the size of horses running wild in the streets and aid the authorities in routing them. Meanwhile the Key and his contacts bring the Six a case of suicide and possible blackmails. As this puts them on the trail of two men, one over 6 feet and another over 7 feet, which leads them to even taller men that are impossibly tall, Key's case and the giant dogs seem obviously linked. And, it culminates in an exciting explosive finale. It's an exciting story, focusing mostly on the efforts of King and Key (who shares some of G-8's aide Nippy's sense of humor).

The reader will probably be ahead of the Six on figuring out a lot of what's going on in the story. And, with the science fiction plot, the fact that the Doctor is so under utilized other than as a Doubting Thomas and complain is a bit maddening. It makes him seem as if he doesn't bring that much to the table where the team is concerned in a plotline that you'd think would give him a lot to do and take a bit of the center stage. Another problem is that King and the team don't really treat the giants as "impossible" and follow up on the leads that it suggests or the obvious links to the giant dogs until near the end. It's one thing trying to find someone that's over seven feet tall, but once the giant is ten feet, eighteen, or forty, you're entering the realm of something un-natural going on. But, they continually approach it as aberrations but not necessarily un-natural.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the name, "The Monster Murders". One of Batman's earlies adventures pitted him against Hugo Strange and his giants, also identified as monsters in the story's titles. Most attribute this similarity to the Doc Savage novel "The Monsters", the cover featuring Doc being held in the grip of a giant hand and Bob Kane and Bill Finger are known to borrow from the pulps. This Doc novel has proved to be one of the more popular and enduring. Of all the covers, this is the only cover that Bama faithfully follows in his cover of the reprints. The story was also used to adapt for a radio script and was adapted in the 1970s Marvel color comic series with covers by Gil Kane and lush interior art by Andru and Palmer. The Doc story was first published in April, earlier the same year as the Secret Six novel. Is this a case of  Hogan borrowing from the Dent novel? It's possible that he was not as taken with Dent's efforts as Doc didn't really have to deal much with the giants as much in his novel, more with the gangsters behind them. Here, the team and society in general seem genuinely threatened with a nigh unstoppable threat, the Six outmatched.

Or, it could be a case that there's something in the water to prompt two stories of giant "monsters" in the same year. A little thing that was called King Kong in the theaters just the year before. In fact, the climax of the Secret Six novel seems taken right from the movie with the giant taking a lovely blonde as a prisoner and foresaking a cure in the hopes of making her the queen of the world and fighting attacking planes to the death.

There's even an earlier precedent to both of these novels. Three decades earlier, H. G. Wells writes the novel "The Food Of The Gods And How It Comes To Earth", dealing with humans transformed into giants and ultimately a war between them and the rest of humankind. In fact, "The Monster Murders" could be taken to have elements of another Wells novel, "The Island of Doctor Moreau".

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