Bring On The (DC) Bad Guys!

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The Mysterious Machinations of Gorilla Grodd

Picking up in the pages of The Secret Society of Super-Villains Special (or if you prefer, DC Special Series #6), Grodd’s new group manages to beat nearly all of their targets, but instead of killing them one at a time, Angle Man puts them in this kind-of state of suspended animation. Now is this just a ridiculous contrivance to keep the heroes alive? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s a contrivance; but no, it’s not completely ridiculous. As has been shown in this series over and over again, none of the villains are remotely trustworthy. So in order to ensure the cooperation of all parties, nobody gets to kill their archenemy until all of the heroes are defeated. In other words, just as an example, let’s say they killed the first hero on the list, which would have been Batman. Well once he’s dead, what’s Poison Ivy’s motivation to stick around and continue to help the others defeat their arch-foes? Once again, this plan is going to blow up in everyone’s faces because (as Grodd himself admitted back in issue #4), “there’s no honor among thieves.”

Despite this, they still almost succeed; falling at last before the combined might of Superman and Captain Comet. Once more, Grodd will not allow himself to eliminate Comet, and this time it costs him. “No!” he thinks to himself at a pivotal point in the battle, “I can’t allow Comet’s death! He’s too crucial to my master plan! If anyone must fall– it must be the Secret Society!”

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The storyline resumes in Super-Team Family #14, with the Plant Master showing up to join Star Sapphire in helping Grodd take over Gorilla City. (Amazing how Grodd is already on the loose again, isn’t it? I mean they JUST CAUGHT HIM in the last installment. Either the heroes are incompetent jailers, or he really is as slippery as the proverbial eel.) After the city is taken, Grodd tries to tap Jean Loring’s powers and blackmail the world. His plan is foiled in the end by the combined efforts of the Atom and Wonder Woman. This also marks the end of the “Atom’s Quest” storyline, as Loring’s strange condition is cured and she is reunited with the Atom at last.

A fun story, but alas, we’ve got more continuity headaches here, such as: Why would Saph want to help Grodd after he used his mind powers to cow her in the previous story? Also: the Creeper appears on the cover, but does not appear in the issue. (He should have though—since, as stated earlier, he’s the one who helped kidnap Jean Loring in the first place, he certainly should have pitched in on the effort to free her!)

In any case, SSOSV #11 opens with a quick recap of the events of the special and Super-Team #14. It ends with Grodd in a cell, but hints at something bigger going on.

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Sadly, this is yet another plot thread that was doomed to dangle forever.

Later, we’re treated to the reveal of the Wizard as the mysterious benefactor who paid (sort of) for the Sorcerer’s Treasure. In hindsight, this makes near-perfect sense—the dude was losing his magical powers and now his might is restored by these artifacts. He takes over the society, leaving Funky Flashman flat busted and in skid row by issue’s end.

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This marks a bit of a sea change for the series. Over the course of these final four conventionally-published issues, there are nowhere near as many subplots as those early stories; so it’s not nearly as messy… but it’s also not quite as much fun.

Crisis on Earth-3, Redux

Issue #12 kicks off an enjoyable—if simple—storyline, wherein the Wizard assembles a new team of villains that include himself, Star Sapphire, Plant Master, Reverse Flash, and Blockbuster. This new team then goes off to Earth-2 to battle the Wizard’s old enemies in the Justice Society of America, with Captain Comet hot on their heels. As issue #13 opens, however, we discover that the Wizard missed his mark just a bit, as all relevant parties end up on Earth-3, the Earth of the “evil” Justice League known as the Crime Syndicate of America.

As I said, it’s an enjoyable and entertaining story, but lacks the nuances of earlier issues where we had a bunch of subplots and ongoing mysteries to go along with a much larger, more sprawling cast. Basically, the Society beats the Syndicate and is quickly on their way to their original Earth-2 destination, leaving Captain Comet to face off against the Syndicate by himself if he has any hopes of following them.

There is one exceptional bit of business, however, involving the Earth-3 Lois Lane. Keeping in mind that this version of Lois was born into a world without superheroes, a world where every super-powered being is a villain and a menace, you can imagine how she might react upon meeting Captain Comet. “There’s something about the idea of a super-hero that just turns me on!” she thinks to herself at one point. She expresses a similar sentiment after Comet sets off to finish the syndicate once and for all.

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Ultimately, of course, Comet whups the local baddies and is back on the Society’s trail by the end of issue #14.

Re-enter Rozakis

Bob Rozakis returns with issue #15, the final published issue. (Rozakis is also the writer of the aborted issues 16 & 17, printed in the Cavalcade). It opens with Star Sapphire in a bad mood. Although she was open to the idea of the Wizard leading the society at first, that was before he basically shanghaied her into this Earth-2 operation back in issue #12. Thus she asserts herself only to find her assault on the Wizard reflected back on her due to his Power Prism. This is yet another inconsistency, as she was able to bypass the defenses of the Power Prism back in issue #8. I realize that issue was written by Conway, not Rozakis, but still… either the writer or editor needs to keep track of what came before so we can avoid these things.

We then begin two parallel plots: one on Earth-2 and the other on Earth-1. On Earth-2, the Wizard begins his campaign against the JSA by capturing the Golden Age Atom and Doctor Mid-Nite. On Earth-1, Mirror Master returns (after ten issues and fifteen months) to head his own branch of the society. This branch takes on the Silver Ghost as a client, agreeing to help him destroy the Freedom Fighters (whose own title was cancelled mere months earlier).

For those of you who never caught a glimpse of Cancelled Comic Cavalcade #2 (or the second volume of the Secret Society of Super-Villains TPB), you’re not missing much. While the narrative does get a bit more complex in issue #16 (with the two storylines continuing on two different Earths), issue # 17 is all Earth-1, and neither of the storylines reaches any form of conclusion before the axe falls. On Earth-1, Silver Ghost begins his efforts with the society to take out the Freedom Fighters, while on Earth-2 the Wizard continues his war against the JSA, adding Mr. Terrific to his collection of captured JSAers. And there is no Captain Comet in either story.

Picking Up the Pieces

The next time we see the Wizard is in Adventure Comics #460, though he’s not live, he’s Memorex. Basically, he sets a trap for the Golden Age Flash with a pre-recorded, mystical message taunting him at the end of it. Only problem is that it’s the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, who inadvertently sets off the trap and eventually escapes from it. It’s a rather straightforward extrapolation from this point to presume that Barry would give the Golden Age Flash a heads-up that the Wizard was gunning for him, which would then set the whole JSA on the Wizard’s tail, thereby ruining his plans to pick them off one at a time.

Gerry Conway then tries to wrap up the story of the Secret Society in Justice League of America 166-168 (May-July 1979). First, the Wizard recaps the JSA running the society off of Earth-2.

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From here, we then get into the story that would one day inspire the infamously god-awful Identity Crisis storyline, as the Wizard manages to pull a body switch between several high-profile JLAers and his society crew. At one point, the body-swapped JLAers tries to figure out the Wizard’s plans by catching up with an imprisoned ex-society member: Hi-Jack.

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Hal Jordan/Green Lantern (in the body of the Reverse Flash) questions Hi-Jack in his prison cell. (From the pages of JLA #167.)

…Okay, so let’s review everything that’s wrong here. First off, the last time we saw Hi-Jack was when the Wizard was banishing him to limbo waaaay back in SSOSV #4, so how did he end up back on Earth & in jail? I suppose you could chalk it up to some unpublished tale, but there’s a lot of ground to cover from Point A to Point B, here! The simplest solution is that (given what we learned shortly afterward) the Wizard’s powers were already weakening when he zapped Hi-Jack, so the guy never made it to limbo, but was transported somewhere else on Earth instead. From there, he got picked off by another superhero somewhere, or maybe even the cops, and was shipped off to the big house.

Then he says, “So I heard you’ve got the Wizard for a boss now, huh? Good idea.”

Wiz is the guy who shipped him off to limbo (or tried to, anyway), so there’s no way Hi-Jack would be pleased with the idea of him being in charge of the society.

Then: “I never trusted that Funky Flashman creep.”

Hi-Jack never even met Funky, let alone operated under him. Funky doesn’t pop up in the strip until several pages after the Wizard’s magic whisked him away.

This is mostly nit-picking of course; I’m not really complaining—I’m just pointing this out for any and all newbies looking to wade into these stories for the first time. Looking back now, I actually get a nostalgic kick out of it, quite honestly. (I’m talking about these smaller continuity errors. The dropped & forgotten/unresolved plot threads are a bit more frustrating.)

Anyway, the heroes eventually beat the villains and everyone ends up back in their proper bodies. It was a fun little tale until 2004, when Brad Meltzer used much of it as a springboard for the blasphemous and stomach-turning Identity Crisis. Did I mention how much I despise that story?

The Good & Bad of the Good Ol’ Days

This series was tremendous fun, but also had more than its share of bloopers and blunders, not to mention a ton of dangling plot threads and unanswered questions. Most of the missteps are forgettable and/or forgivable (even humorous at times), but there are a few open plot threads that are just begging for address. Chiefly, they are: What was Grodd’s master plan? How did Captain Comet figure into it? And who was the new Star Sapphire and how did she come to be? Also, why was she romancing Comet/Adam Blake under the guise of a girl named Debbie Darnell?

Unfortunately, these questions will likely never be answered—unless DC was to ask me to write it for them. And why would they do that, when I’m probably the only person on Earth who would be interested in reading such a story, anyway?

For anyone out there wondering how things could get so crazy that all these errors could have happened, all I can say is: you had to be there. These were comics in the Bronze Age, folks—publishers were putting out mountains of material at a breakneck pace to push each other off the stands. It was far too much work placed on the shoulders of far too few, which led to an inordinate number of stories both good and bad. And even in the really good stories, errors would creep in under such circumstances.

This is particularly true with Gerry Conway’s DC work during this era; perhaps even moreso with the Society title, specifically. He started out as the book’s writer/editor; then handed it off to Dave Kraft; then took the EIC position at Marvel for three weeks in the late spring of ’76 before jumping back to DC and re-taking the writing reins of SSOSV from Bob Rozakis; then turned the book back over to Rozakis with issue #15. These are some chaotic circumstances. As Conway told Back Issue in 2008, “I was on and off the book so quickly I never had much of a chance to plan a long-term strategy. Truth to tell, I was writing too much at the time, and some of the books I worked on—like SSOSV—didn’t get as much of my attention as they should have. Had I to do it over again… who knows?” (BI #29, p. 54)

Under such circumstances, it’s rather amazing that this series was as good as it turned out to be. Outside of the tragedy of the ending—which left a few essential mysteries forever unsolved—the original saga of The Secret Society of Super-Villains was a joy to read and one of the great favorites of my childhood. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading it yourself, you can probably find the trades on eBay for cheap; I suggest you give ‘em a try.

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