Review – Masks (2012)

MasksWhat is to follow will be full of spoilers, read at your own risk.

In 2012 writer Chris Roberson, and artist Alex Ross, brought together a rather unique crossover decades in the making.   The story, Masks, brought together the Shadow, Margo Lane, the Spider, the Green Hornet & Kato, Zorro, the Green Lama, Miss Fury, Black Bat,  and the Black Terror.   Some of these characters are so obscure that the average fan might not even know who they are, but for those of us in the know, it’s a treat to see some of these things get brought back to life in such style.

The premise- In an altered version of a story from the Spider; The Justice Party has come to power in New York State.  So much so, that the newly elected governor and mayor are a part of the new system.  Laws are being passed to arrest vagrants, new arrivals in town, people of different race, among many others.  Taxes are being collected from the rich and affluent,  Former criminals and other thugs are being put into stormtrooper outfits as the new police force, known as the Black Legion.  The newly arrested are also being forced into camps to keep them away from society, as the “Master” of the Justice Party attends to getting the nation ready for his brand of Law, Justice, and Order.   The only thing standing in his way of completing this task is a group of famous vigilantes who start to systematically shut down the operation from the very beginning of the book.

The group must fight through the Black Legion, find the head of the organization, and bring New York back into the hands of real law and order before the the Master seizes the rest of the country.

The Good – Like I said, from the outset of the book, we’re introduced to the Green Hornet, Kato, and the Shadow.  They’re busting heads of the Black Legion, despite the overwhelming odds and in true form of the Shadow, he takes command and gives the opposition the worst day of their lives.    That’s one thing I can say for certainty, the characters are played up really well here.  They stay rather true to form in most instances, there are some slips here and there.

The story plays itself like a pulp, just as it should.  Had this come out in the 40s (when I believe the last of the characters that appear in the book would have been created, such as Black Terror and the Green Lama) this would have been a great black & white serial.   It has shades of the books and the radio broadcasts of the day.  Even down to the cliches that the Shadow utters.

“The Weed of Crime Bears Bitter Fruit…”

I can tell Roberson had a lot of fun writing this story out.  Who wouldn’t?  The love of pulp characters is one that runs deep with fandom, but the problem I’ve found over the years is that the deeper you go with it, the more you have to keep digging down to get to the well.  More people don’t seem to know who these guys are or what their motives might be.   Once in awhile these characters pop out of nowhere, and make me realize just how appreciative that the 30s and 40s characters can still live with new stories vs. just sitting in the back of a bin somewhere rotting.   Zorro will always find a way to get into films.  The Shadow and Doc Savage, will have their stories reprinted time and again.  They were the hard hitters of their age, and for good reason, but as they lead the charge of the pulp brigade, so should they bring others with them into this age.  People should appreciate just who these characters are and were.

I was also thrilled by the artwork.  The first issues was fully done by Ross, which is a treat these days.  The rest of the art was done by Dennis Calero.   I like a great deal of his stuff.   There were a couple spots were the Shadow looked more insane than he did menacing, but it certainly didn’t last very long.   The movements of the characters looked fluid enough to make me appreciate the art style, and hope to see more of his stuff in future.

The Bad –  As I said, I enjoyed the story.  However, this story does suffer from some little points that I found myself asking.   I realize I have to give certain conceits to the writers, but I still have to ask.   The first point is how did the Justice Party come to fruition in a world with the Shadow?   If they took over another state and started to work outwards from there, I might have actually bought it.  They used the Empire State Building (which I will be getting back to in a moment), so this puts the Party right into Shadow country.   He would have been all over this like Batman on the Joker.  He would has sussed out what the situation was and cut the head off the Master as soon as he arose.   Again, I give the conceit that this needed to be in place to make sure that we had a story to tell.  Their are many threats the Shadow has to face, and this one just came into prominence while he was busy dealing with around 100 others.

Justice IncConspicuous by his absence is Doc Savage.   I know that Dynamite didn’t have the rights to the character at the time they did this book, which is what makes their latest pulp crossover, Justice Inc., so important.  This books teams Doc with the Shadow and the Avenger. However, seeing the Empire State Building being used, and the reference the Shadow gave in the book, made it scream out that they needed him all the more.

The other thing that I point is that another old hero is used as the villain in this story.  The Clock is an old time mask. The Clock The first in a mask, but no superpowers to hit comics back in the day.  This, much like other things, is a minor complaint.   I’ve just seen hero-turned-villain so many times that it seems to me that there could have been someone from the pulp past that could have served the story better.   The Clock’s story was at least understandable.   It also set up an interesting twist to the Black Bat origin story, as they decided to use it here.   However, the reveal really wasn’t that shocking, and it turned a hero who’s been given the shaft a few different times another stab in the ribs.

The eight issues of this book also seemed to fly by.  I mean there was not a great deal of meat put behind these things.  I would have loved to see a few things progress a little more naturally than on fast forward.  Issue 2 with the unmasking seemed so out of place, because even despite the odds they were against, it seemed like it was a given that it would happen then.   This should have been an earned moment, not just something haphazardly handed to us.    The best part of that is the Shadow telling the Spider and Hornet that he was simply the Shadow.  You do get to see the Shadow’s alter ego, Lamont Cranston, at the Cobalt Club, which is a great treat, but from that point on it’s all Shadow.  What this screams to me is that each issue should have been anywhere from 48 to 64 pages each.  I know the expense of a series like that, especially when it came to collecting it into trades, but what we have here is something so long in the making that it’s worth it in every respect.

The other thing is that the Shadow could have used a bit more exposition without having to completely speak in cliches.  Yes, the rhetoric is down, he’s  also a mysterious figure, but he’s also got the ability to talk, especially when it gives him the chance to set up that creepy laugh of his.

The Overall – This book is a definite recommend, despite my list of bad stuff.  It just doesn’t outweigh the sheer fun of this series.   It’Masks 1s not the Justice League or the Avengers.   It’s a group of violent heroes, each with their own codes coming together to dole out the 1930s ideas of justice.   There is a heart and soul to the story that just makes me beg to see what else the Dynamite Universe can offer these characters in future.  Perhaps you might agree after you give it a read.

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