Since Gerry Conway has been getting a lot of harsh criticism over on this thread, I thought it worth reminding everyone that he was a very talented writer when not writing the Legion--which, it must be admitted, was outside his forte of straight super-hero tales.
One of Conway’s most interesting creations, to me, was Secret Society of Super-Villains, which lasted 15 issues between 1976 and 1978. The SSOSV name has since recurred in various DC titles but often with tenuous connections to the original series. Futhermore, the series itself did not survive with its original vision intact for very long. I suspect that DC became skittish about publishing a comic book consisting solely of villains (and one ambiguous anti-hero, Manhunter), which may explain why Captain Comet was thrust into the series early on as a member of the team, and why the book subsequently focussed on his attempts to capture his former super-villain colleagues. By the end of its short run, SSOSV had become a “round-robin” book with readers writing in to request which villains they wanted to see on the team and no characters who had consistently been the focus of the book since the beginning.
However, SSOSV was at the time of its inception one of the “darker” books DC published (though positively tame compared to today’s concept of “dark” comic books). It challenged the reader’s conception of what a “team” was supposed to be like and the behavior of the individuals who made up that team. What follows are my recollections of SSOSV (all issues of which I still possess, but they are locked away in storage, alas.)
SSOSV #1 began with veteran Flash rogues Mirror Master and Captain Cold completing a robbery and quarrelling over their shares of the loot when a rock is thrown through their hideout window. Wrapped around the rock is an invitation for both of them to attend the first meeting of something called “The Secret Society of Super-Villains.” (“Attend or die,” the invitation shown on the splash page reads.) Intrigued, the two villains show up at a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, where Camille, a beautiful woman with a French accent, ushers them in. There, they meet other villains who have received the same invitation: fellow Flash rogues Captain Boomerang and Gorilla Grodd, renegade Green Lantern Sinestro, Batman foe Copperhead, and the Wizard, an enemy of the Justice Society of America (then located on Earth-2). Furthermore, Camille, the French usherette, transforms herself into Star Sapphire – a new version of an old Green Lantern enemy. (Gotta have one token female villain, and Catwoman – who is erroneously listed in one caption – was unavailable.)
Introductions are barely underway when the villains are attacked by the Justice League of America, who act slugglishly out of character. The villains soon realize that they are fighting robots and easily trash them. At last, their host—Manhunter—makes his appearance.
A martial arts-type character who starred in his own backup series in Detective Comics, Manhunter entices the villains into joining the secret organization by appealing to their own “enlightened self-interest.” In exchange, they’ll have fellowship and access to the skyscraper, which contains private quarters, a swimming pool, and all the modern conveniences of any other super-team. The organization, he says, is supported by a secret backer who, for the moment, prefers to remain anonymous. Intrigued, the villains agree to play along, at least for now. Satisfied, Manhunter selects two “members”—Grodd and Copperhead—to perform a little initiation test.
The two villains are dispatched to steal a golden globe of some import from its hiding place in a lighthouse. I don’t remember what the globe was or if we were even told its purpose, but it doesn’t matter. Copperhead is shot by one of the guards while retrieving the globe and drops it into the water. Disgusted, Grodd abandons him and returns to the SSOSV alone. There, Manhunter remains mute when asked for more information about the team’s secret backer.
Several things have always stood out to me about this issue. First, the SSOSV is set up to be a “bad guy” version of the JLA, complete with a headquarters that would make Donald Trump envious, a membership consisting of familiar characters, and initiation tests. We are set up to think that these characters—who are portrayed as loners and losers in the books in which they regularly appear—are going find that which all super-teams implicitly promise: a sense of belonging.
Yet the last two scenes undercut that expectation by having Grodd callously abandon the wounded Copperhead, and then by having Manhunter and the rest accept without question Grodd’s version of the incident (which involves Copperhead betraying the SSOSV). These protagonists, we are reminded, are villains: selfish, greedy, and manipulative. They aren’t going to change just because they are now part of a “team.”
Another aspect that stands out is the over-reliance on Flash villains, who comprise half of the initial eight-member lineup. The Flash’s Rogues Gallery was extremely popular in those days, and understandably so, as its members were easily indentifed by simple gimmick powers or devices. (In addition to the four mentioned, other rogues included Weather Wizard, Trickster, Pied Piper, and Heatwave.) Also, many of them had worked together before as an unoffical team, and had built-in camaraderie. They provided, I suspect, a credibile core for an official team--more so than, say, Luthor or the Joker might (though Luthor would eventually put in an appearance with the SSOSV, and the Joker--later the villain most requested by fans--was scheduled to make an appearance before the book’s untimely demise.)
Lastly, the book was off to a very good and ominous start. Who would back a team of super-villains and why? Unfortunately, the answer to this question would thrust the book into a completely different and less-than-satisfying direction, but–for awhile, at least—SSOSV promised something new, exciting, and radically different from standard super-hero fare.
As time allows, and if there is interest in this thread, I’ll post more reflections.
Conway did good with Firestorm, his own creation, and his JLA had its good points as well.
I just think he wasn't that well suited, or interested, in Legion, but I also think he was stretched too thin at the time (writing 5+ books), and that the editor of the time (Jack C Harris, I think) was ill-suited to being captain of what should have been DC's cutting edge team book of the time.
From: Vancouver, BC, Canada | Registered: Dec 2003
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quote:Originally posted by Kent Shakespeare: his JLA had its good points
I agree. But I think Conway's JLA would be a lot more fondly remembered if he had ended his run with the excellent story where they track the missing Atom to a microscopic universe. That was his original intention, as he spelled out in the last page of that story, saying farewell to JLA readers and saying it was time to move on. I don't know what went on behind the scenes that caused him to return to JLA, but it was a terrible mistake -- he did a really bad arc about animal-people and then he did the Martian Manhunter arc that laid the groundwork for the dreadful JL Detroit. I'm sure that the editors are more at fault than Conway for that debacle, but he could have chosen not to return to JLA. What could Conway have been thinking?
Actually, I found even the "microcosm" story (I think that's what it was called) to have already shown Conway was worn out on JLA; I didn't even follow the story to its end.
The JLA annual (#2 I think) that intro'd the Detroit league wasn't bad in and of itself, but everything that followed was.
From: Vancouver, BC, Canada | Registered: Dec 2003
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There's not a word yet, for old friends who've just met.
I loved SSOSV back in the day, and both Manhunter and Captain Comet quickly became favorite characters. The villains themselves often suffered in their comic-book appearances from undercharacterization (since they were usually only seen ranting at their archnemesis), and so this book got to open up the view of some of them, showing them interacting with people other than, say, the Flash.
Registered: Aug 2006
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quote:Originally posted by Set: The villains themselves often suffered in their comic-book appearances from undercharacterization (since they were usually only seen ranting at their archnemesis), and so this book got to open up the view of some of them, showing them interacting with people other than, say, the Flash.
That's one reason why I loved it, too, Set. There's a scene in # 3 or 4, I think, where some of the villains are sitting around the pool, and Captain Boomerang poses a question to Wizard, who replies with a rude mind-your-own-business remark. Boomerang responds with something like, "I was just trying to be sociable, mate. You don't have to bite my bloody head off."
It was very interesting to see "ranting and raving" super-villains behaving like normal joes.
SSOSV was a book in transition from even before it was born. Some time after the series was well underway, DC printed the original, unpublished version of issue #1 in an issue of Amazing World of DC Comics, the house organ available only by subscription or special order. This version of the SSOSV contained a smaller cast, comprising (as I recall) Manhunter, Mirror Master, Captains Cold and Boomerang, Star Sapphire – and Clayface (a Batman villain). This version ended with the villains discovering the identity of their mysterious backer—Darkseid—and pledging to work together to prevent his conquest of earth.
For some reason, the writer’s vision of the SSOSV differed from that of the editor’s (I can’t recall if Conway was involved at this point or not), so the issue was re-written and re-drawn as it appears in SSOSV #1. It’s just as well; the unpublished version reads a little too similar to standard super-hero comics of the time: Even villains unanimously band together and become de facto heroes once their common world is threatened. The revised SSOSV featured a larger cast with more unpredictable character dynamics (as we shall see), and effectively built the suspense by withholding Darkseid’s identity until later.
But SSOSV didn’t stop transitioning even after it hit the stands. The second issue thrusts the book into an unexpected direction by adding to the already crowded lineup a token super-hero: Captain Comet.
From the cover, it isn’t obvious that Captain Comet is, in fact, a hero, as he is shown planting a fist across the jaw of the issue’s guest star, Green Lantern, while other SSOSV members cheer him on from the street below. The scene is duplicated inside the issue, where it is given a clever twist originating in the fact that few fans in 1976 had heard of Captain Comet.
The esteemed captain had, in fact, starred in his own series in Strange Adventures in 1950-51, before disappearing from comics. He was a “man of the future,” born when a comet happened to pass by earth, granting him--it was believed--abilities such as super-strength, flight, and clairvoyance. He became a hero for a time, but eventually grew bored with being so far advanced from the rest of humanity. He left earth to explore the galaxy and now, after 25 years, he returns home clueless about modern heroes and villains. When he sees Green Lantern chasing after Gorilla Grodd and the SSOSV’s newest recruit, Hi-Jack (also a member of the card-themed Royal Flush Gang, villains of the JLA), he figures he knows who the oppressor is, so he lays into Green Lantern. So powerful is Captain Comet that he knocks GL out (despite the latter’s protection from physical harm by his power ring), and flies the startled villains away.
Back at the SSOSV’s skyscraper, Grodd and Hi-Jack relate the incident to the others out the captain’s earshot. They agree to play along with his ignorance of their status and welcome him into their organization. Lonely after his years in space, Captain Comet gratefully accepts. (This, strangely enough, makes Comet the third “Captain” on the team, behind Cold and Boomerang.)
Later, while Comet visits the grave of his former mentor, he realizes he has eavesdropper—Manhunter. The two chat, and Comet lets it slip that he knows his new comrades are villains. (You can’t pull the wool over someone who is clairvoyant, one might suppose.) Before the conversation can proceed any further, they are attacked by Mantis—no, not the scantily clad Avenger, but Darkseid’s minion of the same name.
We subsequently learn that Darkseid is, in fact, the SSOSV’s secret backer. He had sought to use the villains to further his conquest of earth and eternal search for the anti-life equation. But Manhunter had his own agenda and was secretly planning to foment a rebellion of the SSOSV against the dark lord. He was about to confide his intentions to Captain Comet when Mantis became alerted to his betrayal and attacked.
When issue # 2 was published, I had mixed feelings about Captain Comet’s addition. In some ways, introducing a hero into the book undercut the very concept of a team of super-villains. As I suspected, Comet soon became the star of the book, taking the focus away from Mirror Master, Captain Cold, and the others. This was disappointing, as SSOSV was really the only place to see other sides of these villains, as mentioned in a previous post. There was a chance here to do more than portray them as one-dimensional bad guys bent on conquering the world or robbing banks. Much more about their motivations could have been explored, but such opportunities were lost once the focus of the book shifted to Captain Comet and Darkseid.
On the other hand, Captain Comet was a fairly unconventional hero for the time. His super-hero career was now 25 years old; that meant he was well into middle age and was drawn as such, at least in the early days. He also represented a somewhat old-fashioned view of heroism that put him out of synch with the rapidly changing world of the 1970s; he was a throwback to a gentler time when it was easier to tell the heroes from the villains.
Yet Cap was not a buffoon, and his naïveté was quickly resolved. Fortunately for him (and us), Mantis’s interference gave him a reason for sticking with the SSOSV a bit longer: not knowing who the real heroes were, he had no choice but to aid the team in opposing Darkseid.
As for Darkseid, I had only recently encountered this villain through the short-lived Return of the New Gods series. I never quite bought into the Kirby-created mythology surrounding Apokolips and New Genesis, so I wasn’t thrilled at Darkseid’s presence in SSOSV and, subsequently, JLA. However, he did make a credible threat that forced the SSOSV (or most of it) to band together.
But how do villains become heroes overnight, even when their homeworld is threatened? The answer is they don’t—or at least not all of them, as the next few issues would demonstrate.
HWW, please keep these thoughts and reviews coming! SSOSV is a series sorely lacking in my (and my father's) colletion and I've only ever read a handful of issues. I'm generally a fan of the concept, the villains included and Captain Comet, so I'm interested in your ongoing analysis.
From: If you don't want my peaches, honey... | Registered: Sep 2003
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The Darkseid storyline continued in issues # 3-4, wherein Manhunter and Captain Comet persuade the rest of the SSOSV to join their rebellion—or, rather, most of the SSOSV. Sinestro and the Wizard, neither native to this earth (Earth-One in the old continuity), secretly agree to hang back and see which way the battle goes. Meanwhile, the other villains join the fray against Darkseid’s minions, including Mantis, Kaliban, and the Black Racer (a rather silly looking character who flies on skis and who doesn’t actually do anything in this battle; Darkseid sends him away before he can contribute).
In one memorable scene, Grodd’s fight with the Neanderthal-like Kaliban spills out onto the streets of Manhattan. Outmatched, Grodd pretends to surrender and then, while Kaliban is off guard, delivers a shattering blow that renders his opponent unconscious. Grodd then reminds the reader that there is “no honor . . . among thieves” before passing out.
During a respite, the other SSOSV members confront Sinestro and the Wizard over their refusal to lift a finger during the fight. The two otherworldly villains rebuff their teammates and a fight breaks out, during which the Wizard transports Hi-Jack into another dimension (from which he returns without explanation in a subsequent issue of JLA!). Sinestro and the Wizard then take off, leaving the SSOSV very short-handed during the final confrontation with Darkseid. Nevertheless, the villains put up enough of a fight that Darkseid grows weary of the battle and seeks to retreat in a boom tube. Knowing that if Darkseid returns with more underlings the cause will truly be lost, Manhunter leaps into the boom tube after him and sets off a bomb—killing himself in the process.
The abrupt resolution of this storyline brought about significant changes in the direction of SSOSV. Manhunter’s sudden demise removed the book’s most sympathetic character and the one who held the SSOSV together as a team. It was Manhunter’s powers of persuasion that convinced the villains to go along with the idea of a team in the first place. It was he who reached out to Captain Comet in friendship. And it was he who straddled the line between hero and villain in a way that the latter could not. Manhunter was portrayed as a mysterious character who could manipulate others for his own agenda, yet whose motives were (or at least we were led to believe) noble. More than any other character, Manhunter became the central focus of the first few issues of SSOSV, and his absence significantly diminished the book for the remainder of its run.
It is interesting to note, however, that this Manhunter’s demise did not have to be the end of the character. Manhunter, after all, was a clone (his complicated back story was revealed in Detective Comics), so a new clone could easily have been brought in to take his place. But this did not happen; Manhunter’s role in the SSOSV ended—as did Darkseid’s. Naturally, the dark lord survived the bomb and would next show up in the pages of JLA. But his interest in conquering the earth through the villains or even in punishing them for their rebellion was conveniently forgotten.
Instead, the book abruptly shifted direction as the remaining villains scattered and reverted to their criminal ways.
Issue # 5 followed the exploits of Sinestro and the Wizard as they encountered a new “partner,” one con artist extraordinaire named Funky Flashman. A thinly veiled version of Marvel honcho Stan Lee, Flashman regaled the two villains with his blustery sales pitch and lofty plans. The Wizard seemed more taken in by this than Sinestro; in fact, the latter’s patience ran out after the cigar-chomping Flashman blew smoke in his face. Enraged, Sinestro left and vowed to raze the Sinister Citadel (the SSOSV’s skyscraper headquarters) to the ground. He was prevented from doing so and captured by Captain Comet and (if I recall) Green Lantern (who had forgiven the good Captain for his earlier assault).
After Darkseid’s defeat, Captain Comet had at last been “found” by the JLA, who agreed that they and their hero colleagues should mentor him until he was absolutely certain who the heroes and villains were these days. This convenient setup allowed Cap to be paired with guest-stars such as Hawkgirl, Kid Flash, and Green Arrow and Black Canary during the next few issues. These heroes aided Cap as he tracked down and captured his former SSOSV teammates. (It seems he felt responsible for the villains getting away.) In issue # 6, for example, Cap fought the other two “captains” on the team, Cold and Boomerang, plus the pirate-like Captain Stingaree, in a tale called “Captains Cataclysmic.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to conclude that the book was struggling, as such radical changes in direction are rarely necessary for a book with healthy sales. In addition to the guest-heroes, guest-villains were also utilized, including Trickster, to allow for different combinations of villains and an ever-changing line-up. This approach also allowed DC to resurrect and reinvent some truly obscure villains, such as ex-Wonder Woman foe Angle Man, who joined in SSOSV Special #1 (an extra-thick, annual-sized format).
But to the credit of Conway (or whoever may have succeeded him as writer), the book was more than just a hero/villain-of-the-month team-up. An attempt was made to develop Captain Comet as a character by giving him a romance with a new female character, who turned out to be Star Sapphire in disguise. (This rather trite plotline was salvaged by at least one scene in which Star Sapphire, in her other identity, told Cap that, unlike most men, he truly listened to her. This suggested the possibility of real feelings developing between them. Unfortunately, nothing came of it.)
Although the original Darkseid storyline was quickly terminated with issue # 4, the remaining issues did have a lot to offer, not only in terms of who might show up, but also in the twists and turns the story would take as various villains vied for control over the Secret Society of Super-Villains.
Ah, SSoSV... along with TEEN TITANS, ALL-STAR COMICS and FREEDOM FIGHTERS... some of my favorite 70s DC books.
They were weird, different and offbeat.
I can remember being horrified that Grodd would abandon Copperhead... that the Wizard seemingly destroyed Hi-Jack... and that Manhunter died so early on (he was an early fave).
I too have all these issues, though the first 3 or so are near-to-tatters. I's *REALLY* like to see a color trade issued (ala the recent Paul Levitz ALL-STAR run, which I bought despite having all the issues in fairly good condition). I'd buy trades of the 70s SSoSV, TT and FF in a heartbeat.