Bring On The (DC) Bad Guys!

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Mark this date on your calendars people, because what I’m about to say is something that will not often be repeated on this blog: Back in the mid-70s, both Marvel & DC put out comics featuring super-villains as their stars and… the DC book was better. Truthfully, I really love both publishers, but Marvel is generally my fave—particularly so during the era in question—so coming from me this is saying something.

Marvel’s book was called Super-Villain Team-Up and it featured the pairing of the Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom almost exclusively for the life of its run. It was a good series; not a great one. Part of the problem was that both characters were atypical villains. (Quite honestly, the Sub-Mariner wasn’t really a villain of any kind by this point, having long since put his bad-guy days behind him.) Both had a sense of honor, which took away most of the fun and novelty of a comic about villains… which, in turn, kinda defeated the purpose of the whole exercise, no?

The DC book, on the other hand, was better because they got it right. It was called The Secret Society of Super-Villains, and while it regularly featured a pretty cool hero at the center of nearly every issue (Captain Comet, one of my childhood favorites), it was the bad guys that made this comic different, exciting, and fun. As the old saying goes, “when I’m good, I’m good; but when I’m bad, I’m better!” Well, the villains in this series were bad to the bone and that’s what made this comic SING!

How to Read ‘Em

Captain Comet and the Secret Society were busy beavers back in the Bronze Age, bouncing back and forth between several titles beyond SSOSV proper. So for newcomers looking to catch up on their adventures, I would suggest the following reading order:

  • Secret Society of Super-Villains 1-5 (June 1976-Feb. 1977)
  • DC Special 27 (May 1977)
  • SSOSV 6-7 (April-June 1977)
  • Super-Team Family 11-12 (July-Sept. 1977)*
  • SSOSV 8-9 (Aug.-Sept. 1977)
  • Super-Team Family 13 (Nov. 1977)
  • SSOSV 10 (Oct. 1977)
  • DC Special Series #6 (aka The Secret Society of Super-Villains Special, Nov. 1977)
  • Super-Team Family 14 (Jan. 1978)
  • SSOSV 11-15 (Dec. 1977-July 1978)
  • Cancelled Comic Cavalcade #2 (which contained the aborted sixteenth issue along with the unfinished pencil pages of Secret Society of Super-Villains 17; these stories were later reprinted in the 2012 trade paperback, Secret Society of Super-Villains, Volume 2)
  • Adventure Comics 460 (Nov. 1978)
  • Justice League of America 166-168 (May-July 1979)

…I realize some of these dates may seem more than a bit out of whack, but trust me—that is not only the best reading order by my own reckoning, it is largely the official reading order according to DC.

For example, Secret Society #10 is dated a month earlier than Super-Team #13, but clearly should be read afterward, as it shows Star Sapphire arriving at the Sinister Citadel immediately after the events of STF #13.

Along these same lines, DC Special #27 would appear to slot in perfectly between SSOSV 6 & 7 if we went strictly by cover date, but SSOSV #6 ends on a cliffhanger that is picked up immediately in issue #7, thus it reads best in the order given.

Finally: I put an asterisk next to Super-Team Family 11-12 because neither Captain Comet nor the Secret Society actually appear in either of these issues. HOWEVER… this is where the “Atom’s Quest” storyline begins, and both the Captain and the Society will get neck deep into this arc by the time of Secret Society #10/Super-Team #13, so if you want to prep for this by reading the Atom storyline from its beginning, the natural placement for said issues would be as listed.

First Draft

Before the publication of Secret Society of Super-Villains #1 (June 1976), a different first issue had been rejected by DC head honcho, Carmine Infantino. This aborted first-draft of the Secret Society comic saw print in Amazing World of DC Comics #11 (Apr. 1976), offering fans a rather fascinating peak behind the scenes of DC at the time. As stated in the text piece accompanying the story, writer/editor Gerry Conway sat down with Infantino after this issue was completed and quickly discovered that “Carmine’s concept of the magazine was significantly different from his. Most of the differences, although significant, were in the degree of background detail and art style, and while some companies might just try to fix them as they went along, DC decided to go ahead and give the mag a whole new look.”

Infantino’s problem with “background detail” was probably quite literal, as artist Ric Estrada gives us several pages with simplistic layouts and overly-large panels that skimp on detail.

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However, according to Paul Levitz (from an interview in Back Issue #35, p. 27), Infantino’s main complaint was that he wanted to see the clubhouse/headquarters of the society depicted and explained. It’s a somewhat odd criticism; one that really shouldn’t have sunk the entire effort as it did. (Couldn’t they have just added a building diagram in the second issue?) So I’m still inclined to think Infantino rejected the issue primarily due to Estrada’s art.

The story itself is also very simple in its construction, as we only get five villains in this version of the society: Gorilla Grodd, Star Sapphire, Manhunter, Captain Cold, and Clayface. The story’s title, “Beware the Brotherhood of Crime,” is preceded on the opening page by a mock invitation reading, “Attention… you are cordially invited to attend the first bi-monthly meeting of… THE SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS… attend or die!”

In many ways, the story covers the same ground as the eventually published issue #1, but in broader strokes. One aspect that Conway got right from the very beginning was that these characters remained just as nefarious here, as the protagonists, as they were when they were the antagonists in the superhero books. After working together to break into a military complex, they waste no time turning on one another once their primary objective is in sight.

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Ultimately, I believe Infantino did Conway & the fans a big favor by requesting the full re-do. Not that this first effort was bad, but the second-draft first issue that eventually reached the stands was a vast improvement over what we got here.

The “Real” Premiere Issue

In that published first issue, Clayface is gone but all the others (Grodd, Star Sapphire, Manhunter, and Captain Cold) are there, PLUS (are you ready?): Sinestro, Copperhead, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, the Wizard, and Shadow Thief. So we get a lot more villains for our thirty cents—and the art of Pablo Marcos here is also a tremendous upgrade.

We open with the same “attend or die” invitation, but no real title to speak of. (Unless the title is simply meant to be “The Secret Society of Super Villains.”) One by one, the members of our cast are introduced, until we get to Sinestro’s arrival at the “Sinister Citadel” in San Francisco, where the renegade Green Lantern is greeted by a receptionist named Camille.

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In short order, we discover that Camille is the new Star Sapphire.

sapphire-2

And based on the “oui” and “monsieur,” it’s safe to assume she’s of French extraction. So how did this mysterious French woman become the new Star Sapphire? The text promises that this is “something we’ll be revealing as we race along,” but nearly forty years later, I’m still waiting.

This is indicative of the wild, zany, lunatics-running-the-asylum era we’re in. Further examples: Shadow Thief appears in three panels this issue, but then disappears forever. Also, you’ll notice the one caption notes Catwoman being in attendance, but she is not pictured here, nor is she mentioned ever again.

In any case, after a brawl with some robotic doppelgangers of the Justice League, Manhunter appears as (seemingly) the de facto leader of this enterprise, speaking on behalf of some mystery boss. He announces that the attendees all need to prove themselves further via some form of test, to which Gorilla Grodd responds (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I’m Gorilla-f*cking-Grodd, muthafucka! I don’t need to prove shit to you or your punk-ass mystery boss! Why would I agree to go along with this bull$hit?” To which Manhunter replies, “For the only reason any of us do anything, Grodd– enlightened self-interest!”

What a mindf*ck and yet it makes perfect sense. These are a bunch of cutthroat crooks and would-be conquerors, so of course they want to stick around and see what the angle is & how they might benefit from it. So they all agree to the testing.ssosv01-1

First up is Grodd and Copperhead, who are off to steal a “sphere of solid plutonium” from some kind of secret lighthouse. Things start out well enough, but once it starts to go sour (as Copperhead takes a bullet to the shoulder), Grodd does exactly what you’d expect: He ditches Copperhead and saves his own skin.

Back at the Citadel, Manhunter assures everyone that they have ways of keeping people from squealing, so need to worry about Copperhead tipping off the cops to their operation. When Captain Cold wonders when they might meet the big boss in charge of all this, Manhunter offers only “icy silence.”

So who was the big boss? Spoiler alert: It was Darkseid. In the first draft we saw in Amazing World of DC Comics, this fact was revealed almost immediately. Here, it’s left a mystery—adding much more dramatic weight to the tale while also enticing readers to come back for the second issue. As I said earlier, this issue is much better than the first draft.

Comet Sighting

The second issue, credited to Conway as writer/editor and Dave Kraft as “co-writer,” opens with the arrival of Captain Comet back on Earth after many years in deep space. This was the captain’s first comic appearance since 1954—a gap of twenty-two years! The first human mutant in comics history (pre-dating the X-Men by more than a dozen years), Comet was a “future man” that was “born a hundred thousand years before his time,” possessing tremendous telepathic and telekinetic powers to go along with his vast intellectual and mental abilities. He’s a fascinating figure in comics history, one that I will explore more in-depth in a separate blogpost sometime in the near future.

Back to the tale at hand: Almost immediately after Comet sets foot back on Earth, a robbery takes place, perpetrated by Gorilla Grodd and a new villain named “Hi-Jack.” Later, Hi-Jack mentions having previously worked with the Royal Flush Gang, so the more savvy and well-read comics reader can figure out where he came from, but still—this “Hi-Jack” character has never appeared anywhere else before as such, and at no point is his identity or history ever explicitly spelled out. It’s yet another of the many plot points in the SSOSV run that the writers will never get back to, nor ever quite explain.

Anyway, when Comet springs into action, he finds Grodd and Hi-Jack battling Green Lantern. Incredibly, Comet appears to assume that Lantern is the bad guy and pops him one before aiding Grodd and Hi-Jack in their escape. Back at the Sinister Citadel, the other society villains vote Comet in as a member because hey, as long as the sucker wants to fight for us, why not let him? Grodd assures the others that he can maintain a telepathic shield that will keep the captain from learning the truth about them.

Later, Manhunter tracks Captain Comet down alone so they can speak privately. Before Manhunter can confess the true nature of the society, Comet cuts him off, revealing that he is already aware that the society is comprised of criminals—unlike Manhunter and himself.

Suddenly, Comet & Manhunter find themselves attacked by Mantis, one of Darkseid’s many lackeys. (This may not totally blow the Darkseid reveal, as Mantis is not as closely associated with ol’ stone face as, say, Desaad or Kalibak.) A brief combat takes place.

ssosv02-20

…But the two heroes quickly run Mantis off. Later, Manhunter leads several society members (Comet, Grodd, Star Sapphire, and Captain Cold) to Darkseid’s “secret sanctuary.” Thus begins the…

Wild Roller Coaster Ride!

Things are about to get crazy, so please remember to breathe. You may also need a scorecard to keep track of everything that’s about to happen.

So after Manhunter reveals Darkseid to be their leader and that he plans to take over Earth, the society members get waylaid by Mantis. The second issue ends on the cliffhanger of Comet, Grodd, & Cold having been beaten, and Mantis demanding the surrender of Manhunter & Sapphire. Issue # 3 (credited solely to Dave Kraft) sees Sapphire and Manhunter make a strategic retreat and then splitting off, with Manhunter going back to the Sinister Citadel for reinforcements while Sapphire decides to seek out aid of a more heroic nature.

Meanwhile, Copperhead is busted out of prison by a mysterious figure, while Captain Boomerang and Mirror Master steal a meal from McDonald’s… because VILLAINS, remember? It’s a minor touch, but again, a nice one.

Manhunter then gets back to the citadel just in time to break up a fight between the Wizard, Sinestro, Hi-Jack, Mirror Master, and Captain Boomerang. He then fills them in about Darkseid wanting to take over the world, and everybody appears to be on the same page as they’re off to free their comrades at the sanctuary.

ssosv03-19

Once more, we see Sinestro and the Wizard playing the villains’ roles to perfection—and yet again, it makes total sense. Sinestro is an alien and the Wizard hails from an alternate Earth, so what do they care what Darkseid does with this world? Of course, neither is going to tip their hand just yet.

And in another side trip to subplots-that-go-nowhere land: The valet/butler would appear to be an agent of Darkseid, or perhaps someone else equally sinister, but we never get back to this.

Elsewhere, Sapphire finds Green Lantern (or more accurately, he finds her). She tells him their predicament and he agrees to come along, promising to watch her closely the whole time, as he (wisely) does not trust her a whit.ssosv03-25

Back at the sanctuary, the society frees Grodd, Comet, and Cold, forcing Mantis to flee. It is noted, however, that some of the society members were more helpful in this effort than others…

Meanwhile, Darkseid and his brutish son Kalibak have been watching this all unfold back on Apokilips. The issue ends with Darkseid deciding to go to Earth along with Kalibak, who promises his father he will destroy the society for him personally.

Now the fourth issue (written by Dave Kraft and edited by Gerry Conway) might be the peak of the series as an endlessly fun battle royale. It opens with the rest of the society demanding answers from Sinestro and the Wizard, who basically sat back and did nothing while the others were battling Mantis and his men.

ssosv04-01

The two sides mix it up, with Wiz and Sinestro dishing most of the punishment—which includes the Wizard zapping Hi-Jack away to “the land of limbo”—before the two traitors depart the scene together.

Meanwhile, Sapphire has led Green Lantern back to the premises, but poor GL winds up ambushed by Mantis, who soaks up nearly all of the energy from his power ring. Mantis is so drunk with power as a result, he begins to muse aloud that his power might rival that of Darkseid himself… not realizing that Darkseid has just arrived on Earth and is standing right behind him.

At the same time, Sinestro and the Wizard have returned to the Sinister Citadel only to discover someone else has just taken up residence there. Yes, the raiding of the Jack Kirby treasure chest continues with, of all people, the FUNKY FREAKING FLASHMAN.

…Btw, the vertically-challenged valet from the prior issue is functioning as Funky’s ottoman here. There’s no mention of any of the seeds previously planted in regard to him.

Cut back to the sanctuary, with Sapphire entering the chamber where her comrades are, believing that Green Lantern is following close behind, only to discover that those footsteps she hears belong to none other than Kalibak (who promised his father, Darkseid, that he’d crush the society for him at the end of the previous ish, remember?). He tosses Sapphire and Cold aside rather easily, but then Gorilla Grodd steps up. He & Kalibak go crashing through a wall and tumble straight into the San Francisco Bay. The wild melee continues through Fisherman’s Wharf and out into the streets, where the two wind up hit by a trolley(!). At this point, Grodd decides he’s had it and resorts to brainpower.

ssosv04-26JPG

YET AGAIN, the villains remain villainous. It’s such a guilty pleasure, enjoying how utterly awful they are.

Back outside the sanctuary, Mantis attacks Darkseid, but the ruler of Apokolips literally laughs off the assault. Mantis then falls at his master’s feet and grovels for his life, but Darkseid points to the sky as he pronounces judgment—the Black Racer, “whose touch is death,” has arrived. Another dramatic cliffhanger.

Issue #5 marks a major change in direction. Conway & Kraft are out; while Bob Rozakis is in as the new writer with Denny O’Neil the story editor. The first half of the issue is Rozakis cleaning up nearly everything that Conway & Kraft started. It’s seven pages of a brawl that feels like it’s been ongoing for four straight issues… oh wait, it actually has been going on for four straight issues! If one were to lay it out in real time, from the end of issue #2 though these first seven pages here, the whole thing could not take place over more than an hour or two. Now that I think about it, this may be the wildest, craziest, most action-packed string of issues in the history of superhero comics.

As the issue begins, Darkseid—suddenly feeling charitable—decides to give Mantis one more chance to save himself, IF he can vanquish the society members who have just emerged from the sanctuary. The results are fairly predictable.

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…I feel the need to note that despite the cliffhanger the previous ish, Black Racer serves merely as the symbolic harbinger of doom here; he never takes a direct hand in any of the action. Maybe Kraft & Conway had plans for him to be a more active participant this issue, but alas, we’ll never know now.

Anyway, after watching Captain Comet take his turn using Mantis as a punching bag, Darkseid’s just about had enough. He summons a boom tube to make his exit, but Manhunter is determined to stop him at any cost, reminding him as he dives into the tube behind him that, “my creators made me the ultimate assassin– a human bomb, with enough explosives to destroy any target… including a god from Apokolips!”

ssosv05-07

R.I.P., Manhunter. It broke my heart to see him go. (And this was before I had even heard of the Walt Simonson version of the character!) At any rate, this wrapped up most (but certainly not all) of the Conway-Kraft plot threads.

NEXT: A New Direction

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