Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Now With More Pulp

Posted by Don MacPherson on December 1st, 2012

Masks #1
Writer: Chris Roberson
Artist: Alex Ross
Letters: Simon Bowland
Cover artists: Ross, Jae Lee, Francesco Francavilla & Ardian Syaf
Editor: Joe Rybandt
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Price: $3.99 US

Dynamite Entertainment has slowly been resurrecting classic pulp/adventure heroes that pre-date the super-hero genre, and it’s built a decent stable of titles in that niche. With Masks, their go-to guy Alex Ross brings them together in what’s a fairly typical super-hero team book, penned by Chris Roberson (which took me by surprise, given his declaration about creator ownership some time ago). The first issue looks great; it was fun to delve back into Ross’s painted artwork, which we don’t see gracing the interiors of comics that much these days. While it was fun seeing these like characters interacting with and reacting to one another, it’s a fairly ordinary, formulaic story about a group of heroes meeting and joining forces. Unfortunately, the plot that sees them come together is ridiculously over the top, ham-fisted and rather difficult to accept as a premise.

Decades ago in New York City, leaders in the world of organized crime realize the path to power and wealth lies not only in criminal rackets, but in politics. Thus is born the Justice Party, which sweeps into office in a number of landslides in a recent election. Men of conviction and great skill feel compelled to fight back against the corruption of thuggery and unjust taxation of the ironically named political movement, and they converge on the Big Apple to do so. It’s not long before the Green Hornet and his colleague Kato encounter a native New York masked protector, the Shadow, who fills him in on the depths of the problem and the lengths to which he’ll go to stamp it out.

It’s been quite a while since I took in some Alex Ross artwork (other than covers), and there’s a world of difference between the pinup/poster approach he employs for a cover and the movement and atmosphere of interiors. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed his work on Marvels and Kingdom Come more than a decade ago (almost two!). I also think he does justice to the period here, especially when it comes to the mode of dress/fashion of characters in plainclothes. Some might deem the prominence of the Shadow’s nose throughout this issue to be a bit much, but I rather enjoyed the exaggeration. it’s always refreshing to see a hero that’s not portrayed as an Adonis, and the long, angular schnozz is definitely in keeping with the character’s original look (unlike some later depictions).

The one qualm I had with the art was, unfortunately, with the first page, which was a bit confusing. An unconventional choice for panel layout and placement of figures makes it difficult to discern how the Hornet and Kato dispatch a group of thugs in an alleyway. Fortunately, it proved to be an isolated misstep in an otherwise attractive offering by Ross.

I get what the creators are going for here with the conflict. They’ve set up a corrupt political party as the bad guy, driving the heroes to fight back against social injustice and authority running amok without checks and balances. In theory, it’s a topical notion. Unfortunately, I just found it all to hard to accept, perhaps because the reader isn’t shown the gradual rise to power and shift in public policy so as to give the idea some credibility. Still, what also makes it hard to swallow is the localization of the corrupt politics. It seems to be New York-specific, and it’s such an anti-American notion (especially the arbitrary taxation concept) I find it hard to accept there wouldn’t be pressure from the outside to set things right (or at least an effort from within to hide the corruption more easily). Maybe history could indicate it’s a more plausible development that I think, but nevertheless, I found it hard to commit to it and fully immerse myself in the story.

Though I enjoyed seeing these classic characters come together, the result is a story that’s more in keeping with traditional super-hero comics than the noir pulp genre from which they originated. I know the two genres are closely linked and the lines blur, but the overall tone of the plot and dialogue seems more like a retcon story written by Roy (All-Star Squadron) Thomas featuring Golden Age mystery men. Mind you, I really liked Roy Thomas’s work in that vein. Nevertheless, the plotting here seems rather familiar; one could argue it’s a bit clich├ęd. It’s solid, I suppose, and it’s diverting. But it doesn’t feel particularly special either. 6/10

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One Response to “Now With More Pulp”

  1. Dan Says:

    Just so you know Don, Masks is based on three issues of The Spider pulp magazine from 1938, reprinted as “The Spider vs. The Empire State.” The idea of a fascist takeover of New York state is pretty ridiculous in modern times, but it’s exactly the type of over-the-top adventure the Spider had in every issue of his pulp back in the ’30s.