Masks #1

Written by Chris Roberson

Painted by Alex Ross

Review by: Bob Reyer

It was a dark and stormy night, and we were gathered around our Philco console radio when we heard a spectral voice intone “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…”

Sorry for having my “announcer” go on a bit, but there really wasn’t any other way to begin this piece. I’ve been a fan of old-time radio adventure characters and their pulp magazine counterparts for many years, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Dynamite Entertainment’s Masks, which brings together The Shadow, The Green Hornet & Kato, The Spider (“Master of Men”!), and Zorro for a once-in-a-lifetime gathering against a foe that requires all their skills to overcome.

Chris Roberson’s story opens on the Green Hornet and Kato rousting a hoodlum for leads on his boss, when they are interrupted by the Shadow, who dispatches the murderous thug with his twin .45s. Promising the Hornet that more information awaits him at the Cobalt Club, the mysterious figure vanishes amid a torrent of eerie laughter. This 5-page sequence literally gave me goose-bumps, as I could hear Orson Welles, the radio voice of the Shadow, as I was reading it. Mr. Roberson understands the essence of these iconic characters and delivers it quickly and without fuss or artifice, in a most entertaining and slam-bang way.

Our back-story and plot, told in newsreel form, revolves around the new “Justice Party”, which has taken control of the New York state government, imposing Draconian penalties and taxes, and dispensing “justice” via their “Black Police” and a corrupt judicial system. This story is apparently based on Norvell Page’s “The Spider vs. the Empire State” trilogy of pulp novels from 1938, which were meant to be analogous to the growing Nazi oppression in Germany and Europe. It’s a masterful stroke by Mr. Roberson, as this setting is in keeping with the characters usual bill-of-fare of political and ground-level villainy, but the stakes are set much, much higher.

As to the art, what more need be said but “Alex Ross”? Most are familiar with his amazing cover paintings on various titles, but his sequential work is always interesting, with panel lay-outs in some ways very reminiscent of a series of old movie studio promotional stills, with “jump cuts” from one angle to the next creating a powerful forward momentum that is quite involving. Per usual from Mr. Ross, the attention to detail and mood is stunning; you can “hear” the tinkling of glasses at the Cobalt Club and “feel” the weight of the gathering crowd of oppressed citizenry.

For many, Alex Ross’ artwork is the sole reason to purchase Masks, but it’s Chris Roberson’s story that allows the art to flourish as more than just a series of beautiful paintings, but to function instead as an engrossing entry into a long-ago world of snap-brim fedoras, powerful sedans, and the growing threat of fascism. This combination of words and images has me waiting impatiently for the next installment…which may also feature The Black Bat and Miss Fury!

VERDICTEven if you are only vaguely familiar with these characters from their movie adaptations, Masks is worth your entertainment dollar. If you are a fan as I am, it’s a welcome return to those “thrilling days of yesteryear”, and is highly recommended!

FURTHER READING:

The Spider vs. the Empire State

Norvell Page (1938/recently reprinted by Ages of Aces)

SOURCES:

An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines Ron Goulart(1972/Ace)

The Great Radio Heroes Jim Harmon (1967/Ace)

The History of Comics (Vol.1) Jim Steranko (1970/Supergraphics)

Addenda:

Zorro: Created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley

The Shadow: Created in 1931 by Walter Gibson

The Spider: Created in 1933 by Harry Steeger

Green Hornet & Kato: Created in 1936 by George Trendle/Fran Striker

SoundtrackThis piece was written whilst listening to Benny Goodman’s “Trio and Quartet Sessions” and the Mercury Theatre “War of the Worlds” broadcast of October 30, 1938 starring Orson Welles.

 

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About The Author

Ghost. Cat lover. Pajama enthusiast. Pancake King. Comic whore. Columnist for Joblo.com and Executive Editor of http://talkingcomicbooks.com/

2 Responses

  1. RepStones

    Great review Bob. Been eagerly anticipating this title since it was announced. Love me some pulpy noir goodness and this first issue delivered that in spades. Must admit I was a little apprehensive about Ross on art duties as his beautiful style can sometimes overwhelm everything else. He really is an ‘artiste’ as every panel in this book belongs on a wall in the Louvre.
    However, Roberson’s story is just as weighty as Ross’ art and so the two combine beautifully to bring us this tale of a city descending towards a Dantean destination.
    What I love about these characters (The Shadow in particular – thinking man’s Batman) is that they are very much men of their of their time. The rendering of the period is so good that you could imagine one of Hammett or Chandler’s creations sauntering up to offer their services. How good does a The Shadow and Sam Spade team-up sound?
    Are any of these characters public domain properties, say like the Clock is? Is it true he was first masked hero in comics?
    Many thanks for the reading recommendations, that Goulart book sounds particularly interesting.

    Best regards

  2. Bob Reyer

    Patrick,

    Thanks as always for checking in, and for the kind words!

    As you can tell from the review, I’m a big fan of the heroes in that pre-comic era, so I was psyched for this one, and it was everything I wanted it to be…and more! Alex Ross will be doing the covers, but not the interiors moving forward, but I’m sure that new artist Dennis Calero (X-Men: Noir) will be more than servicable.

    If Overstreet says The Clock is the “first masked hero”, who am I to argue? At the core, it’s a matter of definition; if pulp magazines count as comics, then The Shadow’s 1931 debut takes the title (unless you count Zorro), but if we’re talking specifically half-tab comics, The Clock is “The Man”! (By the way, Masks #2 will feature Miss Fury, who was the first costumed heroine in comics, her strip having debuted before Wonder Woman’s first appearance in All Star Comics #8! For more info, please check out my piece “The Golden Age Girls”!)

    The Ron Goulart book is very informative, and probably available quite cheaply. I strongly urge that you also pick up the Steranko “History…” (both 1 & 2), as they are invaluable!

    Thanks again,
    Bob
    ps) Robert, you didn’t answer his question about “public domain”. As far as I know, the rights to the characters in “Masks” are still held by their original publishers or their successor companies. I hope that helped, Patrick. Sadly, Robert is just getting so forgetful in his dotage, darlings.(Audrey)

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