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Secret Six: The cult-classic DC title that's all over James Gunn's The Suicide Squad

image of the Secret Six
(Image credit: DC Comics)

James Gunn's The Suicide Squad is now in US theaters and streaming on HBO Max - and the much anticipated DC film lives up not just to the bloody, brutal hype around its body count and R-rating, but the spirit and pacing of writer John Ostrander's Suicide Squad, the run that redefined the team and title in the late '80s.

(Image credit: DC Comics)

Gunn has been upfront about the influence Ostrander's Suicide Squad has on his film - he even gave Ostrander himself a cameo in the film (he's the doctor that implants Savant's explosive failsafe device). But there's another classic DC comic that seems to have its DNA baked right into The Suicide Squad's hardcore violence and raunchy humor - writer Gail Simone's cult-favorite Secret Six.

Like Ostrander's Suicide Squad, Secret Six takes a little-known Silver Age DC team of soldiers and operatives and reinvents the concept into a team of supervillains coerced into working for an unknown conspirator. Unlike the Suicide Squad, the Secret Six don't answer their ruthless employer for long, quickly striking out on their own - off the leash, and often into the path of the worst evils and greatest heroes of the DC Universe.

Secret Six is beloved by fans and its creators alike - in fact, Simone, who was thanked in the credits of The Suicide Squad in part for co-creating some of the film's characters, says that the film made her long to return to the Secret Six someday.

"Dammit, The Suicide Squad makes me want to write more Secret Six," Simone tweeted following the wide release of the film, with fans chiming in on Twitter with their support of a Secret Six revival.

(You can count me among those fans - and among the fans who found their particular itch for the humor and action of a title such as Secret Six being scratched while watching The Suicide Squad).

Secret Six's influence on The Suicide Squad seems to go beyond the general tone of the characters, action, and humor, possibly even foreshadowing what could be next for the lucky few who survived Task Force X's mission in Corto Maltese. 

We'll break down everything you need to know about how the Secret Six relates to The Suicide Squad right now - as well as why their comic book adventures are a must-read in their own right.

Don't worry - Newsarama promises to keep all the movie spoilers light, and warn you well in advance any time you're in danger of being spoiled!

For now, we're gonna talk about comic books - Secret Six comics, to be specific.

Who are the Secret Six?

image of the Secret Six

(Image credit: DC Comics)

The original Secret Six was a Silver Age DC team of espionage agents who answered to a mysterious boss named Mockingbird (think Charlie's Angels meets James Bond). Though the original concept of the team got a brief revival in the '80s, the updated version only had a few appearances and stuck pretty close to the original in terms of tone.

Then in the early '00s, DC launched Villains United, a six-issue limited series from writer Gail Simone and artist Dale Eaglesham that was part of a group of stories meant to introduce concepts that would be central to the reality-altering Infinite Crisis event title to follow. 

Villains United introduced a new Secret Six comprised of B-list DC villains including Deadshot (then at the start of his renaissance of popularity), Catman (an obscure Batman villain who was a self-admitted rip-off of Catwoman), Ragdoll (a successor to the Golden Age villain of the same name), Scandal Savage (daughter of immortal villain Vandal Savage), and a rotating cast of further members who came and went - usually in violent ways.

The new super villain-y Secret Six is also organized and led by Mockingbird - in this case secretly Lex Luthor, who is manipulating the Secret Six as part of a scheme also involving his Secret Society of Supervillains, a veritable army of villains all doing Luthor's bidding.

(Image credit: DC Comics)

Following Infinite Crisis, the Secret Six break away from Luthor and strike out on their own as mercenaries in a new Secret Six title from Simone and artist Brad Walker. With this new series, Simone and Walker bring in Scandal Savage's lover Knockout as the fifth long-term member, with the team's sixth roster spot again filled by, well, fodder (the exception being Harley Quinn, who manages to quit the team without dying).

Throughout Villains United and the Secret Six limited series, Simone establishes a tone of breakneck, unflinching violence the likes of which is usually relegated to Quentin Tarantino movies - all undercut with a current of hysterically prurient humor and frank sexuality that invests readers into even the weirdest (and shortest-lived) members of the Secret Six (sound familiar, The Suicide Squad viewers?).

She also brings her entire cast to the forefront of the DC Universe in a way that belies their humble origins as brand new characters or revamps of generally unused concepts.

Catman goes from being a Z-list '50s Batman villain to DC's most gifted hunter - something akin to DC's version of Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter. Deadshot becomes the DC Universe's unlikely straight man with a kind of brutalist everyman take on all the weirdness around him. Scandal Savage becomes one of the most effective and interesting anti-heroes in the DC Universe, as well as one of DC's first openly queer lead characters. And Ragdoll - well, Ragdoll is maybe one of the weirdest, most bizarre characters DC's ever put on the page.

Secret Suicide Squad Six

image of the Secret Six

(Image credit: DC Comics)

Following the Secret Six limited series, Simone went on to write a long-running Secret Six ongoing title, primarily drawn by artists Nicola Scott and Jim Calafiore, which reunited Catman, Deadshot, Scandal, and Ragdoll - this time with rounding out the team with Batman nemesis Bane and a new character named Jeanette - a literal banshee who is also Scandal Savage's on-again-off-again paramour (one of a few from her storied past). 

Throughout this time, the Suicide Squad is largely unseen in the DC Universe, though Deadshot is shown returning to work for Amanda Waller a few times in between stints with the Secret Six, and the connections between the teams only grow over the course of the ongoing title.

For one thing, writer John Ostrander, who revamped the Suicide Squad and added Deadshot to the team in the '80s, wrote two guest stories focusing on Deadshot (Secret Six #15 and Secret Six #23). Ostrander's classic Suicide Squad title was also revived for a single one-off issue, Suicide Squad #67, which crossed over with Secret Six.

Early in the ongoing title, the team discovers a literal 'Get Out of Hell Free' card which will save the bearer from a life of eternal damnation with the demon Neron, which puts the team in the crosshairs of dozens of super villains who all want the prize that will save them from their inevitable, grisly fate (remember that bit perhaps...hint hint).

(Image credit: DC Comics)

Shortly thereafter, the team fractures, with Bane taking over as leader, and Scandal, Deadshot, Catman, and Ragdoll finally departing and going their separate ways. Chief among Bane's new recruits to the team is King Shark, who goes from being a seldom-used Superboy villain and Suicide Squad also-ran to the Secret Six's comic relief as a "shark, not a… talking guy," with his tenure on the team kicked off with the now-infamous "I'M A *&^%$#@ SHARK!" page.

The Secret Six's final story takes Bane back to Gotham City, with his team on a mission to kill a bunch of Batman's friends including Catwoman, Tim Drake, and Azrael - only to get their entire asses kicked in by an army of superheroes.

After that, the DC Universe rebooted following the story Flashpoint, with Gail Simone once again bringing together a version of the Secret Six for a short-lived title in the 'New 52' era, which kicked off by reviving the Suicide Squad with some elements of the tone and characters taken from Simone's Secret Six. 

Most recently, the name Secret Six was used for a group of six heroes who were subverted by the villainous Batman Who Laughs in a relaunched Batman/Superman title, who had no connection to the preceding version of the team.

Here's where you should turn away if you want to stay totally, 100% unspoiled for The Suicide Squad.

still from The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Last chance, for real - we're about to spoil an element of the movie, so don't read any further if you want to go in absolutely fresh. Don't say we didn't warn you.

By the end of The Suicide Squad, the remaining team members have formed a bond of apparently real friendship and camaraderie through their shared fight with Starro. The survivors, seen by the public as heroes for defeating the alien menace, escape from Amanda Waller's control by stealing secret data about Starro which they promise to release if she comes after them. Her interests secured, Waller agrees to the survivors' terms.

That sounds a lot like the way the Secret Six manage to escape from Mockingbird/Lex Luthor in their first comic book story - and how they scored a 'Get Out of Hell Free' card, only to put themselves in the crosshairs of the worst villains of the DC Universe.

If James Gunn and Warner Bros. are looking for a place to take the survivors of The Suicide Squad next, leaving Task Force X's nickname to Amanda Waller and striking out on their own as the Secret Six (give or take some folks, we won't spoil who actually makes it through), possibly on the run as everyone on Waller's list tries to retrieve the collateral that won them their freedom, maybe even culminating in a huge throwdown with a massive collection of superheroes - well, it could be a perfect direction to go.

In the meantime, Gail Simone's Secret Six saga remains one of the best representations of The Suicide Squad's action and tone in DC comics, seemingly informing the movie perhaps as much as the comics that actually bear its name.

Here's what director James Gunn says about what an official sequel to The Suicide Squad could look like.

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)