Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dynamite Comics' Masks 1 + 2

This is one of those comics that should come as a no-brainer for me. The Shadow. The Spider. The Green Hornet and Kato. Chris Roberson writing a neo-pulp story based around these characters and set in the classic pulp era of the late 1930s.

Masks is an eight issue mini-series from Dynamite Entertainment that teams up their licensed pulp characters: The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Hornet and Zorro (Zorro in the 1930s?) with golden age heroes like The Black Terror, Green Lama and Miss Fury. This is a recipe for success...or great failure. I'm hoping for success.

Roberson's story is based around the classic Empire State stories from The Spider Magazine, three novel-length interlinked adventures from 1928. The Empire State stories were a thinly veiled analogy of Nazism, and how it could take root in the United States. Historically, these stories are interesting because they are some of the few pulp stories to tackle the evils of Nazis. In a nutshell, the original plot of the Empire State stories was that a cabal of criminals and corrupt politicians were able to push laws into effect and voted their Justice Party into power in the state of New York. Eventually this Justice Party took over the state and, using their Black Police were able to strong arm everyone into following them. Of course one man stood up to them, The Spider, and led a revolution against their oppression.

Chris Roberson takes the seeds of the Empire State stories, having the Justice Party rise to power in this shared universe of pulp and comic book hero greats. Now, instead of just The Spider fighting against the Justice Party and its Black Legions, a team of great heroes rise up to fight against these villains. Despite the Empire State stories predating it by decades, this story so far reminds me of The Dark Knight Rises, but maybe that is just because I finally watched the movie recently. The parallels are there: criminals and terrorists take over the city in an apocalyptic manner, rout the police forces and institute a near lawless regime where their words are taken as law. I think that these similarities come from the long lasting influence of the pulps on the comic books of today, and their cinematic offshoots.

Unfortunately, the story of these two issues is a bit disjointed. I honestly expected better from Roberson, after his work at DC Comics (I will admit that I haven't read any of his recent creator-owned works from Monkey Brain). These first two issues are a bit disjointed, and for a comic that is supposed to be only eight issues, I honestly expected more story in these comics. The first issue puts most of its efforts into building the connection between The Shadow and the Green Hornet, only to throw in The Spider in an almost random manner near the end of the issue. I am assuming that an Hispanic character introduced in passing in the first issue will eventually be revealed to be the pulp Zorro. To be honest, even though I love the character I think that his inclusion in this story seems to be a bit of a stretch, but I am hoping that Roberson pulls it off.

The art in these issues is a bit disjointed. Alex Ross does the first issue in his painted style, while the second issue is done by Dennis Calero. This is a bit disappointing. After Ross' great renditions of the characters in issue one (I love his Shadow and Lamont Cranston portrayals), seeing Calero's style in the second issue is jarring. Is that the secret origin of the Black Bat we are witnessing? For me, the art of the second issue was disappointing, mostly because in a mini-series I want to see a consistent art style throughout the book, and if you have to mix artists at least pick ones that have similar styles. Calero's style in the second issue does not appeal to me. It comes across as rushed and unfinished in places, particularly after the set up of Ross' photorealistic style in the first issue. However, Calero could very well just be suffering in comparison rather than due to the actual quality of his art.

I will stick with this book, because I think it has potential. I am looking forward to the re-re-introduction of the Green Lama and the Black Terror. I have loved these characters for a long time, and I really enjoyed their last use from Dynamite in the Project Superpowers books. I just hope that the characters aren't just abandoned this time around like they were before.

Overall, I liked these two issues despite the flaws.  Roberson's dialogue in the issues is superb and gives each of the characters their own unique voice. The story could have a faster pace, but that could be because I am comparing them to the source material, and Spider pulps were some of the fastest paced pulps written in the day. If these books suffer, it is not because of Roberson's writing on them. I do hope that the pace picks up a bit with the next issue, and they settle on a single artist for the rest of the story.

My main concern is that Masks is intended primarily as a world-building tool, much in the same vein as the First Wave comics that DC Comics put out, featuring Doc Savage, The Spirit, Batman and The Avenger. First Wave was a cool idea that ended up not living up to it's potential because I felt that the writer just didn't get writing characters like Doc Savage. Chris Roberson does not have this disadvantage. He gets these pulp characters and knows how to write them, clearly and with distinct voices. I just hope that he is allowed to write a story on its own merits, rather than one conceived to sell other merchandise and spin off new comics. Masks has the potential to be so much more than that, if the powers that be at Dynamite let it happen.

Below are some sample pages from the issues.  The first two pages are Ross' art from issue one and the next three are Calero's art from issue two. I think that the sample pages demonstrate the jarring differences between the issues, art-wise.

Do I recommend purchasing these comics? I will have to say that my answer is a qualified yes.  They are definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of the pulps, the neo-pulps or the golden age of comics. I would not suggest having too high of expectations from them, however. They make for a good yarn, but I am not entirely sold on their long term readability. I think that $3.99 an issue is asking a lot for the content you get, in places. I still have high hopes for Chris Roberson's capabilities as a writer to pull all of this together and deliver a stronger story than these issues have so far demonstrated. Hopefully, I won't be disappointed.