Last week I went over the Silver-Age history of the Secret Six, DC’s version of Mission: Impossible, about a team of clandestine operatives that undertakes missions to overthrow foreign dictators and untouchable crime bosses. In a novel twist, each member of the Secret Six is compelled to serve on the team under the threat of blackmail by the mysterious, hooded figure known as Mockingbird. Over the course of the seven-issue run of The Secret Six, Mockingbird’s identity was never revealed. Supposedly, he---or she---was actually one of the six members of the team, and the readers were told that each story carried clues pointing to the identity of the masked controller.
This is the story of how I solved that mystery. Sort of.
In 1976, I was moving my comic-book collexion from one storage facility to another, and in the process, rediscovered my seven issues of The Secret Six. I took the occasion to re-read them. Back in 1968, when I read them the first time, I had not given much thought to solving the secret of Mockingbird’s identity; I was content to merely go with the flow of the stories and let that mystery work itself out.
But after going through them again, I noticed a couple of key scenes. That triggered my interest in seeing if I could deduce the answer with only seven stories to work with. I set down to scrutinising each page of every issue. Very quickly, I figured out that the answer to which of the Secret Six was Mockingbird was not going to be uncovered by an overt act, from which I could say “Aha! That proves that so-and-so is Mockingbird!” Even if such a scene was there, I wasn’t smart enough to know it when I saw it. If I was going to figure it out, it was going to have to be through the process of elimination.
I began with one assumption: that Mockingbird was, indeed, one of the Secret Six. The only in-story reason to believe he was came from the suggestion of Dr. August Durant, one of the six. Doctor Durant asserted that Mockingbird was one of them when the group came together for their first mission, in issue # 1 (Apr.-May, 1968), and the rest of the team instantly accepted that as fact.
Obviously, there was no certainty in this; Mockingbird could well have been an unknown seventh party. But there were no other regular characters outside of the Secret Six, and the idea that Mockingbird was one of them was the major sub-plot of the series. It would have been a definite rug-pulling on the part of writers E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Gill to, at some point, expose Mockingbird as some hitherto-unseen person.
That would have been tantamount to having Dallas’ “Who shot J.R.?” turn out to be an irate elevator operator who had never been seen on the show before. The fans would be crying “Foul!” in bloodthirsty tones.
So, taking the notion that Mockingbird was one of the six as fact, I perused each of the seven stories, looking for anything which would clearly eliminate any of the six as suspects. I struck my first vein of gold in the second offering, “Plunder the Pentagon”, from issue # 2 (Jun.-Jul., 1968).
And I owe that discovery to a long-standing comic-book convention: thought balloons. Thought balloons allow the reader to know what a character is thinking at a particular moment, and by their very nature, those thoughts are considered to be true. (I suppose if a character were delusional, then he might have thoughts that were, while true to him, empirically untrue. But there was no way DC was going to go that route in 1968.)
In “Plunder the Pentagon”, while in the midst of staging a theft at the Pentagon, a disguised Carlo di Rienzi decks Dr. Durant, thinking: If Doc is Mockingbird, I had to make this look good!
Obviously, if Carlo thinks that Dr. Durant might be Mockingbird, then he, Carlo, cannot be.
Nor was I the only one to spot that. ‘Way back when, frequent letter-writer Gordon Flagg, Jr., of Atlanta, Georgia, pointed it out, too. In his response, editor Dick Giordano tried to excuse it away as a goof that escaped his proofreading.
But that doesn’t hold water---because of the story that appeared in the issue coming right after the one which published Giordano’s reply.
I stated last week that, in the stories which showcased elements from an individual Secret Sixer’s past, the team member himself related to the others the story of his hidden sin. Obviously, a told tale is unreliable, since the member who was secretly Mockingbird would be lying. However, the adventure “Eye for an Eye”, from The Secret Six # 7 (Apr.-May, 1969), contains a three-page flashback to the circumstances which put Carlo in Mockingbird’s thrall. This flashback comes from Carlo’s thoughts, and not from anything he is telling anyone else. Again, thoughts must be true, and thus, Carlo’s back-story must be true. Therefore, he cannot be Mockingbird.
Armed with that discovery, I went through the stories with particular attention to thought balloons. On only one other occasion did I find one as telling---in issue # 3’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. While Mike Tempest is astutely providing the wind-up to the mission at hand, King Savage listens and thinks: Until now, I just didn’t believe Mike could be Mockingbird . . . But he might fit in M’s cage.
If King suspects Mike of being Mockingbird, then he cannot be Mockingbird himself. Now I knew that neither King, nor Carlo, was Mockingbird.
More important, that knowledge provided me with the ground work upon which to base further deductions. That they weren’t Mockingbird meant that the back-stories of King and Carlo were true, and I could extrapolate further that any private statements they made among the others were also true. And that’s where the pieces began to fall.
“The Victim is a Killer”, from The Secret Six # 6 (Feb.-Mar., 1969), is a showcase for team member Lili de Neuve. As was told briefly in each previous story, Mockingbird’s control of Lili comes from the fact that, after she was framed for murder, convicted, and sentenced to death, he arranged for two peasants to provide a phoney alibi, clearing Lili and setting her free. In this tale, Lili herself tells the other Secret Sixers of those events, supplying more details.
King Savage adds a significant coda to her account. “It was I who bribed the witnesses, Lili . . . This was the first task I performed for our mysterious master, Mockingbird. A letter containing instructions and the money arrived and I obeyed!”
And then I knew that Lili was not Mockingbird. Like a logic puzzle, knowing one or two incontrovertible facts enables one to sort out the rest. King wasn’t Mockingbird, so he had no reason to lie. Therefore, he was telling the truth when he told Lili that he was the one who bribed the witnesses under orders from Mockingbird. From death row, Lili could not have sent King the letter or the money, so somebody else sent it, and that somebody else was Mockingbird.
Three suspects eliminated; two to go.
Time itself removed one more Secret Sixer from consideration. “Escape for an Enemy”, from The Secret Six # 4 (Oct.-Nov., 1968), was King’s personal story. The war hero tells his teammates about being shot down during the Korean War, and of being captured by the North Koreans, and how, under torture, revealed valuable information about the American forces. As King relates, it was Mockingbird who provided him the tools and weapons to enable him to escape the prison camp in time to warn the U.N. troops of the North Korean ambush prepared from what King had revealed.
I could assume King’s story to be true, because he wasn’t Mockingbird, but there was more. The team’s mission here was to rescue a North Korean general from the Red Chinese, before he could be executed as a traitor, and turn him over to U.S. authorities for interrogation. This particular North Korean general had been the commandant of the prison camp where King was held during the war. He was the one who forced Savage to betray his country. Conversations between King and the general corroborate Savage’s back-story.
Therefore, I could also take it as factual when King tells the others that he did some checking and found out that during the time of the Korean conflict---1950 to 1953---four other members of the Secret Six were also in Korea: Carlo and Lili, entertaining troops with the U.S.O.; Dr. Durant, on a U.N. scientific team in theatre; and Mike, who was a foot soldier.
But Crimson Dawn was only a child at the time, back home in England.
So, I scratched Crimson off my list of suspects.
That left Mike Tempest and Dr. Durant.
As you will recall, Mike had been heavyweight contender Tiger Force who, after refusing to take a Syndicate-ordered dive, testified against the mobsters, resulting in their conviction. In revenge, the mob beat him savagely, leaving him for dead. Mockingbird saved his life by getting him to a private hospital, then set up his identity as Mike Tempest. As for Dr. Durant, according to his back-story, agents of an enemy government managed to infect him with a deadly virus, the only remedy for which is supplied by Mockingbird.
So whose story is true?
Mike’s situation arises in several Secret Six stories. On that first mission, in a chance encounter, one of the thugs who almost killed Mike recognises him. That mobster, “Blackjack” Hanrahan, reports to the Syndicate that Tempest is still alive, which forms the basis for the story in The Secret Six # 3. (Mike manages to wreak a very satisfying revenge on Hanrahan.) And the events of The Secret Six # 7 also are put into motion by another mob plan to kill Mike.
Clearly, there was enough independent information presented in the seven issues to establish that, whether or not Mike was Mockingbird, at least his situation of being on the run from the Syndicate was true.
But what about Durant? During the course of the series, the other five members of the team found themselves encountering people responsible for the situations which gave Mockingbird his hold over them. In fact, they had stories centered on them.
But not Durant. He tells his story to Lili de Neuve in “Plunder the Pentagon”, when Lili asks him why he is so motivated to thwart an enemy agent attempting to purloin valuable Pentagon documents. “Perhaps I am more strongly motivated,” replies Durant. “But not against him . . . but against his country!” At no time, do the readers meet anyone who was directly involved with Durant’s back-story. There is nothing to corroborate it---except for his own account and the pills we see him take.
Furthermore, an examination of Mike’s and Durant’s respective backgrounds---the public histories which would have to be legitimate---that Mike had been a heavyweight contender and was now on the run from the mob, and that Dr. Durant was a respected physicist with high-level government clearance, led to one conclusion. While it wouldn’t be impossible for him to be Mockingbird, Mike was in much less of a position, in terms of finances, information, networking, or just plain time, to establish the Secret Six set-up. Meanwhile, Dr. Durant had all of the above.
It was indicative, enough for a good guess. But I wanted more, something which confirmed or eliminated one or the other. So I went over all seven Secret Six issues again, panel by panel. This time with especial attention to Mike and the doc.
I’ll admit, I missed it a couple of times. Mainly because I assumed the clue-seeding didn’t start until a few pages into the first issue. If I hadn’t been so close to solving it, I probably would have quit.
And then I found it! The last piece of information to snap the trap shut on the identity of Mockingbird!
It’s almost at the very beginning. On page 3 of the first issue, there is a brief scene of Mike Tempest being tossed out of a waterfront dive. Moments later, he is alone on the wharf, when he gets a signal from his wristwatch. Mike flips back the cover to reveal a tiny monitor screen with the cowled image of Mockingbird looking at him.
“Mockingbird calling!” radios the hooded figure. “We are ready for our first job. I will meet you at rendezvous point SF-2!”
It hit me. If Mike Tempest were Mockingbird, why would he send such a broadcast to himself? There was no-one around to confirm or deny he had received it, and if asked, he simply could have said he gotten the same message as the others.
None of the other five Secret Sixers are introduced in this fashion. They are shown breaking off from their respective engagements to answer the call. We never see them flipping back the cover of their watch dials, but a caption---“ . . . as do the other five . . . “---assures us they do. Of course, they would have done so away from on-lookers, as Tempest did. Which makes the scene with Mike appear less definitive.
But the coy wording of the phrase “as do the other five” is the sneaky part. Nothing else in the caption establishes that his other teammates opened their wristwatch monitor screens for the same reason as Tempest. Later, we learn that the distinctive wristwatches can both receive and transmit. So what that caption phrase really meant is four of others also lifted their watch dials to receive Mockingbird’s message, and the fifth one---the one who was really Mockingbird---did so to broadcast it!
Mike Tempest is the only team member we actually see looking at his monitor screen, and he is receiving their hooded leader’s call. That eliminates him as being Mockingbird.
And it meant Dr. Durant was!
Now, the problem with making such a deduction in 1976 is kind of like my MENSA membership---it might be impressive, but it’s tough to work into casual conversation.
By ’76, The Secret Six was a forgotten series, and fandom wasn’t as linked as it is to-day. What few comic-book fans I associated with then barely remembered the Secret Six. Imagine walking up to a Tibetan villager and saying, “I know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa!” and then imagine his reaction, and you have a pretty good idea of the looks I got back then whenever I mentioned that I had figured out who Mockingbird was.
That’s why there was probably no-one more excited than I was when, in DC introduced a new Secret Six series in Action Comics Weekly # 601 (24 May 1988). This wasn’t the original Secret Six; in fact, they were killed off in the first story. These were six new characters. But it seemed to be the old Mockingbird up to his old tricks. In this case, he wasn’t relying on blackmail; he was using coërcion to keep his new operatives in line---by providing them with cybernetic prostheses for their individual handicaps, then threatening to take them away.
Frankly, the new Secret Six series, as written by Martin Pasko, lacked the panache of the earlier one. It was probably due to the new group’s heavier reliance on fanciful technology and the intimations of “evil government machinations”. The original six had relied on their own talents and operated truly independently. But I stuck with the series in hopes that the identity of Mockingbird would eventually be revealed.
Then it came. In Action Comics Weekly # 629 (06 Dec. 1988), in the tale “Beginning of the End”, the face under the hood of Mockingbird---the original, 1968 Mockingbird---was revealed.
Dr. August Durant.
According to “Beginning of the End”, Durant genuinely had been poisoned by Communist agents. There was some fol-de-rol about his cure coming from a secret, black-ops U.S. agency, and how that agency was blackmailing him into posing as Mockingbird and forming the Secret Six to perform its dirty work. That was all too much “government is evil” nonsense for me and I pretty much ignored it. The important thing was I had figured it right: Durant was Mockingbird.
Or had I?
As much as I’d love to sit back and bask in the admiration of you, my fellow comics mavens, I have to point out some caveats, which make me look much less brilliant.
First, the revelation that Mockingbird was Durant did not come from the writers of the original Secret Six series---Nelson Bridwell and Joe Gill. So there is no way to know if I accurately followed the clues I found in the original series. Without validation from Bridwell or Gill, I just made a lucky guess, for all I know.
For that matter, it’s arguable that Bridwell intended for Mockingbird to be someone other than Durant. Comic-book letterer Clem Robins has gone on record as insisting that Bridwell did not have Durant in mind as Mockingbird. In a 14 July 2004 post on the Komics.dk 2006 message board, Robins stated:
You're going to have to take my word for this, but my source is impeccable: Durant was not Mockingbird.
When I first began freelancing for DC in 1977, I was introduced to E. Nelson Bridwell, who wrote every Secret Six story and originated the concept. I took him aside and asked him point-blank who Mockingbird actually was, since the book was cancelled before the issue could ever be resolved. Bridwell told me who Mockingbird was, and explained his logic in choosing that particular character.
Shortly after I originally posted this article, three years ago, I received an e-mail from Mr. Robins in which he elabourated on what Bridwell told him. I won’t reveal who he said Bridwell named as Mockingbird, but it wasn’t Durant. Robins also directed me to the panel which supposedly provided the tip-off to Mockingbird’s identity.
I’ve studied that panel. It’s a classic mystery-writer’s trick, but in my opinion, Bridwell and Gill employed it too loosely. Because of that, it doesn’t necessarily indict or eliminate any of the six as Mockingbird.
Durant or not? I’ll leave that up to you, my fellow comics fans.