By Steve Morris
The Shiny Whatsit is a staple of superhero comics storytelling. There’s always some glowing orb or axe or whatever which gifts its owner with unlimited power. And there’s always somebody who wants to use it to save/end the world. From King Arthur’s Excalibur through to the Infinity Stones, it turns out that there really is a whole world of magical trinkets out there just waiting to be collected. My favourite of all of them, however, is an item which doesn’t give any kind of godhood to the owner, and didn’t guarantee them a chance to finally slay the Justice League for good, bahahaha etc. Instead, it’s a mystic coupon, a voucher good for one use:
Introduced in Secret Six #3 by Gail Simone, the card is a one-in-a-million great idea, and one I’m amazed DC haven’t used since, because it carries a hundred different kinds of potential. The idea is so simple, but can fit seamlessly into the plans of any DC hero or villain. The card allows them to escape punishment when they die and go to hell, and warp themselves back into the world of the living. Or, they can use it to bring a friend or family member back to life. It guarantees the owner the last laugh. Who wouldn’t want that?
Understandably, as soon as it’s introduced, every character starts backstabbing and lying their way into taking possession of it.
The card is also a uniquely comic-book concept, and one which works best in a never-ending universe of reboots and middle-era. It doesn’t actually ever need to be redeemed to be of value: it’s the struggle to claim it which makes things so entertaining. It’s a McGuffin which actively benefits from never falling into one person’s sole possession. The fight to attain it is the fun for readers; nobody ever actually needs to see it get redeemed. It’s all entertaining middle with no need for a definitive end, just like superhero comics as a whole.
In the superhero genre we know that battles will never end. The serialised format of comics requires reversion to the status quo, and cycling of the same stories in different forms. But that same format means that an item like the card actually plays into the endless repetition which makes up superhero storytelling. Unlike a cosmic weapon which has to be fired once it’s introduced, the existence of the card celebrates the fact that these heroes and villains are fighting for a definitive win which will never come. Every time a new owner picks up the card from the last one, its power grows – alongside its own mythology.
And all the while it simply sits there: innocuous, inoffensive, but the most desirable object anybody in the DC Universe could ever dream of. Surely it has to come back sometime soon?
Secret Six #3 “A Run of Misfortune”
Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Nicola Scott
Inker: Doug Hazlewood
Colourist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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