Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
The cover of October 1977’s Secret Society of Super-Villains cries
Who gave the secret order to kill Captain Comet?
Was it Star Sapphire? The Wizard? Gorilla Grodd?
– Or someone else?
We who know the fate of SSoSV might nod knowingly at the surely-unintentional connection between that breathless blurb and the “publishorial” at the end of the issue.
First, though, some history.
The short-lived mid-‘70s series looks initially like one of those titles which is remembered more fondly than it deserves to be. At best its regular (rotating) cast wasn’t exactly A-list, and the featured characters got increasingly more obscure over the book’s short life. Midway through said life SSoSV tied into an equally esoteric Atom storyline in another almost-forgotten title, Super-Team Family. Even if I didn’t know who a mysterious love interest would turn out to be, her real identity seemed painfully obvious. The inevitable battle royal with the Justice League even happened outside the book itself, in a DC Special Series issue (which, unfortunately, yours truly found on eBay too late to discuss here).
Nevertheless, it’s hard to dismiss SSoSV summarily. Despite its rocky start, I wouldn’t call the book as a whole “bad,” but neither does “quirky” accurately describe it. “Flawed” comes closer, and “snakebit” suggests itself as well. However, the phrase which came to mind as I started reading its fifteen issues was “ahead of its time” — which, obviously, requires some explanation.
Secret Society of Super-Villains was part of “Conway’s Corner,” an eclectic collection of titles written by Gerry Conway, better-known back then as a Marvel writer. There he had worked on many of the House of Ideas’ headliners, including Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man; but at DC Conway’s Corner included B- and C-list properties like Blackhawk and the revived All-Star Comics. Of course, Conway also wrote his share of big-name books, including Justice League of America and Detective Comics, so the idea of a villainous JLA wasn’t much of a stretch. In fact, SSoSV spends a good bit of its first arc hitting some familiar team-building marks, including the requisite high-tech headquarters.
I found that first five-issue arc disjointed and confusing. The worst part involved a caption identifying Catwoman, who appears nowhere on that page and is never subsequently mentioned in the story. (A later letters column basically says “we goofed.”) The story itself relies on two relatively recent additions to DC’s superhero stable, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters. Seems that Darkseid has been using another of Paul Kirk’s clones to recruit super-villains to the Apokoliptian cause. The villains eventually rebel, as does Darkseid’s minion Mantis, and yadda yadda yadda, the Manhunter clone “kills” Darkseid towards the end of issue #5.
As you might imagine, the idea of Darkseid reaching out to Earth’s super-underworld reminded me immediately of Final Crisis. It also struck me as another way to reintroduce the Lord of Apokolips to a more general superhero audience, since (except for First Issue Special #13, a few months prior) New Gods had been cancelled for over three years and Darkseid hadn’t been seen for two. Add in the fact that Conway not only plotted the First Issue Special story, but would write the upcoming New Gods revival, and Darkseid doesn’t look like the only manipulator around.
Still, all that intricacy — plus the inevitable infighting — got in the way of the book’s simple premise. Over those five issues, almost everyone in the book was on the verge of betraying everyone else: Manhunter and Captain Comet were only pretending to be villains, Mantis wasn’t entirely loyal to Darkseid, and of course the villains themselves ended up turning on the Apokoliptian crew. When combined with some less-than-clear work from artist Pablo Marcos, and the usual dose of clunky ‘70s exposition, those early issues often felt cluttered.
Shifting creative teams also didn’t help: Conway edited the first four issues, and also wrote issue #1. After co-writing #2 with Conway, David Anthony Kraft wrote #3 and #4 solo. Pablo Marcos pencilled issues #1-4, Bob Smith inked #1 and #2, and Vince Colletta inked #3 and (with Ernie Chan) #4. Issue #5 then brought wholesale changes, in the persons of editor Denny O’Neil, writer Bob Rozakis, and penciller Rich Buckler. Jack C. Harris replaced O’Neil with #6 and Conway replaced Rozakis with #8, but Buckler stayed on through issue #9. Following Dick Ayers’ work on #10, the team settled down, as Mike Vosburg pencilled the book’s final five issues. Appropriately, though, Bob Rozakis replaced Conway on issue #15, the final one published. (Rozakis also wrote the unpublished #16 and #17.)
And in fact, once the Darkseid/Manhunter subplot was out of the way,* the book was more free to tell straightforward super-caper stories. Issues #6 and #7 told standalone stories, one about kidnapping, and the other about killing Superman. Issue #7 was especially fun, since it involved not only a power grab by Lex Luthor, but the villains mistaking the filming of a Superman movie for the real thing. The next three issues riffed on a familiar JLA plot, as the Wizard commanded the team to locate three items of power (the Sorcerer’s Treasure) which Superman had disposed of back in 1959’s World’s Finest Comics #103. Once these had been located, the Wizard used them to restore/augment his own powers, which had been on the fritz ever since he’d arrived from Earth-2. Naturally, he then tried to take his teammates back to his old home, but after a couple issues of setup, issues #13-14 found the villains (and regular guest hero Captain Comet) on Earth-3, fighting the Crime Syndicate. The book’s final issue (not counting its continuation in the bootleg Cancelled Comics Cavalcade) involved the Secret Society finally getting to Earth-2 and systematically eliminating members of the Justice Society.
Again, the use of DC minutiae in these two extended storylines — not to mention reviving Captain Comet after 22 years — felt very “modern” to me, mostly because I have gotten accustomed to such references and revivals. I’m sure other DC superhero books of the ‘70s mined past issues regularly, but footnotes and cover copy seem to treat the Sorcerer’s Treasure and the Earth-3 characters (“back after 14 years!”) as forgotten relics. More to the point, though, SSoSV struck me as a book willing to make those connections regularly, not unlike Steve Englehart (also late of Marvel) riffing on the 1940s in his contemporaneous Detective Comics run. DC might even have imagined SSoSV as a sort of clearinghouse for obscura, either to satisfy longtime fans (“longtime” probably being less so back then) or to educate the rest of us.
As much as I rail against interconnectedness today, though — and as much as it’s frustrated me in this research — I think more of it might actually have helped SSoSV make its mark on the larger DC line. Literally from the very first page, I wondered why Captain Cold and Mirror Master, leaders of the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery, were a) away from Central City and b) not being written by current Flash scribe Cary Bates. The latter has an easier answer, of course; but the former still bugs me. Like the Justice League, the Secret Society mostly includes established characters familiar to readers from their appearances in other books. (With later appearances from Grodd, the Trickster, and Captain Boomerang, the Rogues were well-represented in the SSoSV.) Accordingly, the writers and editors of SSoSV no doubt had to work with their colleagues on those appearances, just as the Justice League writers and editors did. It may be easier with villains, because the same villain doesn’t have to appear in every issue … but a villain can also have extended absences (jail, death, reformation) which might take him/her out of play. In any event, the “bigger” SSoSV’s roster got, the more coordination it probably faced — so no wonder it settled on the Wizard, Professor Zoom, Blockbuster, a new Star Sapphire, and Jason “Floronic Man” Woodrue. Here was a lineup which wouldn’t put big crimps into anyone else’s schedule, especially since it was going on a tour of the Multiverse.
And that, I feel certain, led to the book’s cancellation as part of the infamous “DC Implosion.” I say this based on DC publisher Jenette Kahn’s essay in the back of issue #10, where she discusses the criteria used to evaluate which books would be getting the axe:
Which book do you kill and which do you fix? Low sales are not enough in themselves to cancel a title. The answer lies only in a rigorous reevaluation of the comic’s inherent quality, with the following questions always kept in mind:
1. Just how much money is the comic book losing?
2. Is top talent being drained by the book when the same artist and writer could be freed to create something else?
3. Is the creative team still committed to the book despite its low sales? Do they want the chance to try to turn the comic around?
4. Was the reason for putting out the book truly a sincere one?
5. Is the central character of the book in some way part of comic mythology and should special efforts be bent to keep him/her in the public eye?
6. Is the book augmenting or diminishing the prestige of the DC line?
There are other questions to ask, and often the whole raft of questions must be asked again even after a book’s been fixed. A fix, after all, isn’t always for the better.
On the other hand, some books deserve resurrection.[…]
Not all these questions can be answered merely by reading the book or knowing certain behind-the-scenes details, but my educated guess would be that SSoSV was, to a significant extent, too “unimportant” to the rest of the superhero line. I don’t know how well it sold or how “sincere” its goals were. I bet Bob Rozakis and Mike Vosburg could have given the book a more stable creative team. Although SSoSV arguably “augmented the DC line’s prestige” by bringing lesser lights to the readership’s attention, I still think that question #5 is the kicker: a title focused on unfamiliar villains and starring Captain Comet simply didn’t merit “special efforts.”
In that regard SSoSV is a self-defeating concept, but only if it lacks the same kind of coordination as Justice League and similar super-team titles. Conway used the Secret Society twice in his multi-year run as JLA writer: first in 1979, when the Wizard and company switched places with a handful of Leaguers;** and two years later, when the Ultra-Humanite recruited a bigger band of Secret Socialites (with Floronic Man the only holdover).*** Conway even sandwiched these appearances around a Darkseid-plus-supervillains storyline in 1980’s JLA/JSA team-up.**** Still, none of these villain groups boasted the star power of Grant Morrison’s Injustice League (which featured Luthor, the Joker, Circe, Mirror Master, Doctor Light, and Ocean Master) or Infinite Crisis’ dozens-strong “Society” (headlined by Luthor, Talia al Ghul, Doctor Psycho, Deathstroke, and Black Adam). These latter-day groups obviously had the freedom to draw on the top of DC’s evil org-chart.
Ironically, though, the villain group with the most staying power may well be the castoffs of Gail Simone’s Secret Six, assembled from the Society’s rejects but promoted initially by the surefire marketing of a line-wide crossover. Secret Six shows that a villain-oriented title can succeed, and can certainly “augment the prestige” of DC’s superhero line. Other villain-oriented books — Thunderbolts, Wanted, Empire, etc. — have succeeded with different goals, and on their own terms. Again, Final Crisis was probably the Secret Society’s last turn on a really big stage; but I doubt it’s gone for good, despite Wonder Woman’s recent best efforts.
Accordingly, I’d love to see Secret Society given the attention the concept suggests. I’d even welcome a big-event-style miniseries; because hey, it’s been fifteen years since Underworld Unleashed focused on the bad guys. DC’s unfortunate tendency towards ultra-violence notwithstanding, the Secret Society of Super-Villains is an idea whose time might finally have come.
* [The book did maintain a very thin Fourth World connection through Kirby creation — and Stan Lee parody — Funky Flashman, who appeared from #4 through #12.]
** [This arc, in JLA #s 166-68, May-July 1979, helped inspire Identity Crisis … but we knew that, right?]
*** [JLA #s 195-97, October-December 1981.]
**** [JLA #s 183-86, October-December 1980.]