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Bring on the Bad Guys: the Secret Society of Super-Villains

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1976 was a good time to be a bad guy. Because that was the year the Secret Society of Super-Villains was formed, the first genuine super-villain co-operative! It seemed like such a good idea at the time…

The Society first banded together in SSOSV #1, dated June 1976, under the guiding hands of writer Gerry Conway and artist Pablo Marcos. The cover of that issue proudly proclaimed that it featured "ten masters of evil, together in one brain boggling book", but unfortunately this was something of an overstatement. For one thing, there were only nine (Catwoman was omitted from the roster at a late stage, though she is still referred to in the captions). For another, by no stretch of the imagination could the likes of Captain Boomerang, Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Copperhead or the Shadow Thief be described as "masters of evil". Still, at least they had the Wizard, Sinestro and Gorilla Grodd on hand to provide a bit of credibility. And if some of the characters lacked gravitas, if some of them might perhaps be considered just that tiniest bit silly…well, the thing about DC’s bad guys was that they were always fun!

The ninth member of the original line-up was femme fatale Star Sapphire, who provided one of the book's enduring mysteries. The original Star Sapphire had been Carol Ferris, girlfriend of Green Lantern. This woman, though identical, had a French accent and answered to the name Camille. Her identity and origins were not touched on in the first storyline though, which was more concerned with establishing the SSOSV as a group. As it turned out, we would have longer to wait for Camille’s story than Gerry Conway ever intended.

Villain books have always been fan favorites, but the problem with them is that the bad guys can never be allowed to win, at least if they are actually being bad. The short-lived The Joker series from 1975-76 had similar problems due to an editorial edict that the Clown Prince of Crime had to fail every issue. This made him utterly ineffectual in his own book. The first SSOSV storyline got around this by having the group put together, unbeknownst to them, by a hero - a clone of the late Manhunter, who claimed to be a criminal - in order to manipulate them into combating the schemes of the evil Darkseid.

By issue #5 though, Manhunter was dead, Darkseid was gone, and the book had a new direction and a couple of new cast members - the heroic Captain Comet, a minor 1950s character resurrected to be their nemesis, and the idiotic Funky Flashman, a con man who acted as their ‘business manager’. Funky is one of DC’s odder characters. Originally created in Jack Kirby’s Mr. Miracle, he is essentially Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee in a new guise - Kirby’s own brand of payback for his former boss!

The Society went through continual roster changes throughout the book's 15 issues (and one Special), and at one time or another numbered many of DC’s pantheon of bad guys among its members. Hi-Jack (formerly Jack of Clubs of the original Royal Flush Gang), Captain Stingaree and the Trickster were among the less notable, while Lex Luthor was probably something of a coup. But somehow, the book always seemed to lack any real direction. Bob Rozakis being called in to replace Conway as writer (with Rich Buckler and Vince Colletta on the art) halfway through the first story probably didn’t help, since Rozakis seemed to have no clear idea of where the series was heading. Issue #6’s "Captains Cataclysmic", for instance, is something of a throwback to the ludicrous tales of the 50s with Captains Cold, Boomerang and Stingaree attempting to "kidnap captains from land, sea and air" to prove their superiority, while #7, in which Luthor and a Society now including sinister sorcerers Matter Master and Felix Faust attack an actor named Gregory Reed in the belief that he is Superman, is just plain dumb.

Gerry Conway’s return in issue #8 gave a sense of there being a reason for the Society’s existence again, as the Wizard’s long range plans were hinted at, the group gained a new HQ, and the neglected mystery of Star Sapphire finally advanced (in a neat twist, Camille was also Debbie Darnell, girlfriend of Captain Comet). DC began to promote the title a little more with a Society guest appearance in Super-Team Family #s 12-14 and the publication of the previously mentioned SSOSV Special (which introduced Plant Master, Bizarro, Poison Ivy and the Angle Man to their ranks). The ridiculous Flashman was disposed of by the Wizard, himself now kitted out in a brand new - and distinctly Disco-looking - orange and green costume, instead of his customary top hat and tails.

The next few issues were probably the highest point of the series’ run, throwing in characters and concepts from across the DC Universe (the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3, Robin the Boy Wonder, and new members including Blockbuster, the Reverse Flash, Chronos, Quakemaster, Sizematic and Killer Moth among them) but it came as too little, too late. Issue #15 began two new storylines as the Wizard and his faction of the Society prepared to go to war with the Justice Society of America on Earth-2, while Mirror Master’s group headed for a confrontation (and a crossover) with the heroic Freedom Fighters, then fronting a book of their own.

And then both SSOSV and Freedom Fighters were canceled without warning or explanation, both casualties of the now infamous "DC Implosion" which saw a multitude of titles culled to save money, and at least one series dropped before it had gotten beyond the promotional stage. The year 1978 was not a good one to be a DC fan.

While we never did find out what Mirror Master and his mates had in store for the Freedom Fighters at the behest of the Silver Ghost, the Wizard and the rest of his group turned up again in Justice League of America #s 166-168. This was to be the original Society’s last appearance for some time, however. An all-new incarnation of the Society (with only Plant Master as a link to the old) was formed in JLA #s 195-197 by the maniacal Ultra-Humanite, but this group - including Signalman, Cheetah, Killer Frost, Monocle, Rag Doll, Psycho-Pirate, Brain Wave and the Mist - fared no better than their predecessors. Banished to an other-dimensional limbo by the JLA and the Justice Society, half the group resurfaced once more to bedevil the All-Star Squadron in a convoluted time travel adventure, and then went their separate ways.

Following DC’s revisionist Crisis on Infinite Earths series in 1985, the Secret Society appear to have fallen out of favor, and indeed for a time it seemed they had been removed from continuity altogether. In 2005 though, they were resurrected in the limited series Identity Crisis, and subsequently in a follow-up story in JLA, with the Wizard once again at the helm. Admittedly, they haven’t surfaced since, and the fact that many of the membership have been killed off over the years would seem to make a full fledged return unlikely. However, for long time fans of the SSOSV, that brief return to glory in 2005 did provide a kind of closure. After almost thirty years, we finally found out who the mysterious second Star Sapphire was!

They killed her off the following year…

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