DC Comics’ answer to television’s Mission: Impossible had a most novel debut. The cover of the first issue of The Secret Six (Apr.-May, 1968) served as the first three panels of the story inside. As the cover blurb put it, “you’ve already started the first memorable mission of . . . the Secret Six!”
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, 1968 was a watershed year for DC. In fact, it’s the year I use to demark the end of the Silver Age; for one reason, because it is clear that DC was flailing about desperately for the next big trend in comics. The “Bat-craze” had come and gone, and sales on most of DC’s super-hero titles had begun to stagnate. Other magazines, such as Blackhawk and Doom Patrol, had seen such a drop in sales figures that they had been cancelled. And then, there was that upstart Marvel, which was rapidly gaining ground.
Thus begat a flurry of new series, a shotgun approach that tested a wide band of genres. They tried Westerns (Bat Lash), cavemen (Anthro), jungle boys (Bomba), and super-heroes of a more outré stripe (Deadman, the Creeper). Yet another example of this see-what-sticks effort was The Secret Six, the first series about a team of non-super-powered adventurers DC had attempted since 1960.
The parallels between The Secret Six and Mission: Impossible were evident: a group of “ordinary” citizens, all notable in their respective fields, undertake clandestine missions to overthrow otherwise-untouchable foreign dictators and underworld crime figures. Like the Impossible Missions Force, the Secret Six received their assignments from recorded briefings and the success of their efforts depended upon their respective specialties, split-second timing, and clever manipulation of their opponents.
But, for the Secret Six, there were two major differences from their IMF brethren. Where Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney, and Willy acted out of patriotism and duty, the members of the Secret Six were coërced into going on their missions, blackmailed into coöperation by the threat of exposing skeletons that each had in his individual closet. The kind of secrets that, if revealed, would ruin their lives, or end them.
And instead of being led by a Dan Briggs or Jim Phelps, the Secret Sixers were given their marching orders by a mysterious hooded figure known as “Mockingbird”. Mockingbird was the one who had the goods on all of them.
Mike Tempest. A penniless drifter, but once, under the name of Tiger Force, he was a contender for the heavyweight championship. When the title bout came, the Syndicate ordered him to take a dive. Instead, he blew the whistle on them to the authorities. Thanks to his testimony, the racketeers were convicted, but the mob put a price on his head. Now Mike was on the run, but at any time, Mockingbird could put the finger on him for the mob’s hitmen.
Dr. August Durant. A brilliant nuclear physicist working for the U.S. government. Agents of an Iron-Curtain nation infected him with a rare and deadly disease. Only Mockingbird has the cure, and supplies it in daily dosages---so long as Dr. Durant follows orders.
Carlo di Rienzi. World-famous magician and escape artist. After Carlo courageously refused to pay protection money to the Mafia, his home was dynamited, killing his wife and crippling his young son. Mockingbird arranged treatments that would eventually enable Carlo’s son to walk again, but would stop them if the magician refuses to serve as a member of the group.
Lili de Neuve. Owner of an exclusive and opulent beauty spa, but back when she was one of France’s leading theatre stars, she was falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Only a last-minute, and equally false, alibi provided by Mockingbird saved her from the guillotine. One word from Mockingbird could put her head back on the chopping block.
King Savage. The Hollywood stunt man had been a fighter pilot during the Korean War. After having been shot down and captured by the North Koreans, he escaped imprisonment and made it back to his own lines in time to warn U.N. forces of an imminent Chinese ambush. What nobody---except Mockingbird---knows is Savage broke down during interrogation and provided all the information the Reds needed to set up that ambush. If Mockingbird ever talked, it would turn Savage from national hero to reviled traitor.
Crimson Dawn. The only child of a Royal Army officer and raised like the son he never had, the fat, socially awkward Kim Dawn learnt the manly arts of marksmanship, judo, and karate, but not how to spot a gigolo. After the death of Kim’s father, an opportunistic cad married the gullible girl and then dumped her, after making off with the family fortune. Unforgiving relatives mercilessly harassed her, until Mockingbird arranged for Lili de Neuve’s spa to slim her down, glamourise her, and turn her into top fashion model “Crimson” Dawn. Mockingbird secures her services by threatening to tell her lawsuit-happy relatives who she really is.
And the kicker---Mockingbird is actually one of the six!
Another source of inspiration for the Secret Six, most likely, was the pulp adventures of a group of the same name. Popular Publications’ The Secret Six ran for four issues in 1934-5, and concerned a group of six men, all wanted for crimes they did not commit, engaged in a clandestine war against the underworld. The group consisted of King, their leader, and his servant, Luga, along with the Key, the Doctor, the Bishop, and Shakespeare, each of whom was the master of a special talent.
But clearly, Mission: Impossible was the spiritual father of the Secret Six, as is evident in the complicated scripts co-written by E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Gill. There is very little typical hero derring-do. Instead, the adventures are tightly plotted dramas of manipulation and deception, as the villains are manœvered into bringing about their own undoings. There isn’t the slightest hint of science fiction or super-hero-type elements in these stories. As long as one can accept the convention of make-up jobs that make one person look exactly like another, one would be hard-pressed to find any element in The Secret Six that did not exist in real life. Even the magic tricks performed by Carlo di Rienzi are explained and documented as having been performed by Houdini or some other real-life illusionist.
Besides the major change in the characters’ motivations, there were some other minor differences which separated The Secret Six from Mission: Impossible. In a nod to comic-book convention, nearly every adventure carried at least one scene where the Secret Sixers engaged the bad guys in a knock-down, drag-out fight. Obviously, King, Mike, and even Carlo could be expected to easily hold their own in combat, but in a very nice and ahead-of-its-time touch, Crimson did more than her share, slugging gangsters and tossing henchmen with the best of them.
Decidedly unconventional for comics at the time was that The Secret Six was a deadly series. Very deadly. The Secret Sixers did not just settle for manipulating the chief villain into his own end; they often killed as a matter of course. Most of the team killed at least once, but again flying in the face of the convention of the time, Crimson was the most lethal of the group. In issue # 3, she shoots and kills a mob boss before he can machine-gun Mike, and then in the next issue, she takes out three Communist Chinese officials with a sniper rifle, so she and Durant and Lili can assume their places. If the series were done to-day, such a character would probably be depicted as an icy, remorseless soul who can barely restrain a thirst to kill. However, Crimson was anything but. She was witty and fun-loving and winsome---but grimly serious when the situation required it.
One thing I wasn’t going to mention, but on second thought, felt I might be called for its omission, was the fact that Doctor Durant, easily the most intellectual of the group, was a black man. At the time, Durant’s skin colour made no more impression on me than the fact that Mike Tempest had red hair. But it occurs to me, viewing it in the larger perspective, that it has significance in that this was the first time that DC had ever made a black man a lead character in any of its titles. None of the Secret Six stories ever made an especial point of this, though---Durant was simply one of the group---as it should be.
The fact that each member of the Secret Six resented being blackmailed into participating and that they suspected that Mockingbird was actually one of their number added an edge to the characterisation. They worked together and trusted each other because they had to, not because they wanted to. It was clear that certain members of the group would not have stayed in the same room with certain others, had they not been forced to work together. And the slightest provocation would cause one to accuse another of being Mockingbird.
This added a frisson to the team. Occasionally, tempers would boil over, and squabbles escalated into scuffles. And if Dr. Durant took too much of a leadership rôle, then everyone suspected him of being Mockingbird. If Mike displayed too much brainpower for a punch-drunk boxer, then he was Mockingbird. Crimson figures out where the crown jewels are hidden; wait a minute, she’s Mockingbird!
All of which were put aside for the sake of the mission. But the grudges and suspicions never faded completely.
The readers were told that hints to the identity of Mockingbird were there to be found in each story. And Bridwell and Gill certainly whetted the clue-hunter’s appetite. Each member of the team was showcased in a story that went back to the circumstances which set him up for Mockingbird’s blackmail. This permitted the reader to examine closely the details of each Secret Sixer’s transgression. But the reader had to be careful; in most cases, each member of the team told the others of the events behind his secret shame, and nothing a Secret Sixer said could be taken as gospel.
The Secret Six was cancelled after issue # 7 (Apr.-May, 1969) without the identity of Mockingbird being revealed. It would take nineteen years for DC to finally tell us who Mockingbird was. But was it possible for the reader to have pieced it all together ‘way back when?
I’ll talk about that anon.