thehefner: (Default)
[personal profile] thehefner posting in [community profile] scans_daily
If there's one classic* Batman villain I've come to hate over the past ten years, it's Black Mask.

Thanks to his prominent roles in War Games, he dominated the Bat-books for a couple years, getting big parts in Nightwing, Catwoman, and Under the Hood, thus also appearing in the last one's DVD adaptation, as well as Teh Batman. So I really shouldn't be surprised that this one-dimensional, nasty, pointless, generic, hollow non-character actually has fans. Not surprised, but disappointed.

But why? How the hell did this character become a thing, while better gangster-style villains (the Penguin, Harvey, the Ventriloquist and Scarface) got shoved to the side?

So, as I was already writing about a related Two-Face story from 1985, I decided to check out the original Black Mask appearances by Doug Moench. What I was surprised to discover was that Moench's original Mask in no way, shape, or form resembles the version which DC rose to prominence a few years ago.

I'm not saying he's a good character, mind you. But he's a far more interesting (and cracktacular) character. Hell, just look at the cover blurb:

So yes, prepare for the ultra-modern Batman villain who makes all the other villains look like CRAP! At least, according to Doug Moench.

NOTE: The original Black Mask three-part story appeared in Batman #386, Detective Comics #553, and Batman #387.

What really got me interested in this character was his Who's Who entry from 1993:

Unlike most of the other profiles, this one is actually written by the character's creator. This already indicates to me that Moench has a more personal investment in his creation, and I think that comes through in the bio.

Here, just read the first two paragraphs:

You read that right: this arch-villain's secret origin directly involves being dropped as a baby and being bitten by a rabid raccoon. Which is even sillier than it sounds. [personal profile] superfangirl1 was already kind enough to post that scene at my request, but I wanted to include them here for the sake of context. Seriously, see this for yourself.


Seriously, considering that BM is meant to be a dark reflection of Bruce Wayne (another "BM," mind you), and that Roman's "falling" resembles the way little Bruce fell into the literal and metaphorical darkness of the cave, it's a wonder that Roman didn't grow up to be this character:

Instead, he grew up to be a rather distant and bland corporate-climber. Two things I find interesting about him: first is that he's twenty-one in the next page (which means he isn't much older when he becomes Black Mask, which is way younger than I was expecting), and second is how soft his features are. Rather unusual for most supervillains.

Thus we're introduced to Circe, who becomes a recurring character throughout all Black Mask stories by Doug Moench. There's no telling what happened to her since the 90's, but bringing her back would certainly have made modern Black Mask more interesting.

Furthermore, she is constantly referred to as a "witch" and "enchantress" but near as I can tell, she never displays any actual magical powers. Her abilities seem to be rooted in standard femme fatale staples of seduction and manipulation, although the extent to which she really did anything to the already-unstable Roman Sionis is debatable.

Case in point: when Roman's parents expressed disapproval at his relationship with Circe, does anyone really think that she was responsible for what happened next?

At the protest of the Janus executives, the new line of "face paint" makeup is released, and is, of course, a total flop. Facing financial disaster, Roman desperately launches an untested new kind of waterproof makeup on the market, which ends up causing mass facial damage. In effect, it's similar to Roland Daggett's stuff from the Clayface episode of Batman: The Animated Series, only Roman is far less savvy than Daggett when it comes from escaping blame.

By the way, this origin story is entitled, "Losing Face," a phrase which is repeated or paraphrased over the next two parts at least six times. I counted. God love writers who want to beat a motif into the ground.

Out of sentiment for their childhood acquaintanceship, Bruce Wayne bails out Roman Sionis, who feels even more humiliated and ruined. With Circe gone, his reputation in tatters, and his, um... "face, lost," Roman snaps. He breaks into his family's mausoleum, smashes his father's castket, and carves a mask from the ebony coffin lid. Even with the ridiculousness of the rabid raccoon, this is a pretty operatic origin, all told over one single issue.

From this point on, Roman Sionis is dead. Or at least, that's what he wants to believe, as he puts out the call to goons and crooks across Gotham:

I won't lie, that's a pretty good pitch. If I were a Gotham lowlife, I'd be interested in seeing where the crazy guy is going with this.

The False Face Society has seemingly been forgotten in the modern era of skull-face Black Mask, and that's more than a shame. The FFS is easily the most interesting concept of the character, a group which walks a fine line between mob and cult. Some members will actually be swayed by Roman's ideology of losing oneself behind masks, while others will just be in it for the money. But either way, Roman benefits, and the Society thrives as a colorful and almost viral menace. Neat concept!

And when the mask is later removed... well, it ain't pretty, let's just go with that. Thus Black Mask continues his campaign of vengeance against Wayne executives, as well as others he's blamed for causing him to... well, I'll let him say actually say it:

I'm telling you, a whole drinking game could be played in Moench's Black Mask stories every time somebody says "lose face."

As I said before, Circe becomes a recurring character, but her next appearance after this story isn't with the Black Mask, but with Two-Face! While that establishes a tenuous link between Roman and Harvey as characters, I feel like there's much obvious potential that went unexplored between the two characters.

For one thing, the use of "Janus" applies far more to Harvey than Roman, with two faces existing at once rather than one face covering another face. Also, there is no character better suited for exploring themes about "losing face" than Golden Age Two-Face, whose motivations were entirely rooted in superficial beauty. And then, there's this entire sequence from the third and final part of the original Black Mask storyline:

As if it weren't already screamingly obvious that BM is meant to be a reflection of Bruce himself, check out what Roman says when he finally attacks Bruce at the party:

And when Roman escapes, Moench hammers home the theme with Bruce himself:

What sets Roman apart from Bruce as a character is what the mask actually means. It's a commonly held belief in both fandom and much of canon that Bruce Wayne is the mask, while Batman is the reality. What I like about Black Mask's first story here is how Roman can't quite pull that off himself. Even with Batman and Robin on his tail, he's wrapped up in his own self-loathing, convinced that the only thing holding him back is... well, himself.

More than anything else, I think what temporarily made Black Mask compelling was the aspect that he desperately wants (and is unable) to truly become something bigger than himself. He's a weak, pathetic little sociopath who plays at being an untouchable monster, but even as his childhood burns away, he cannot escape who he really is.

Just look what happens when he steps out of the flaming room, only to find Batman and Robin standing over a dozen of unconscious False Facers:

Which has the effect of burning the imprint of the mask onto his face, making permanently leaving Roman branded as Black Mask. This, I must point out, makes no frickin' sense, unless he managed to carve another face on the inside of the mask, or something. I think the effect is similar to the ending of The Twilight Zone episode about masks, but the logistics are lost under the weight of Moench's themes and symbolism.

Either way, the message is clear: Roman Sionis has truly been burned away, and he's now Black Mask forever.

When Circe returns in Moench's silly four-part Two-Face story, she's still wearing the mask. I guess Moench either forgot his own ending, or liked the image of masked Circe too much to lose.

Over the next ten years, Black Mask made only a handful of featured appearances, most of which were written by Moench. He also brought back Circe, who had somehow become a broken and near-silent character, possibly after what happened between her and Harvey.

Black Mask himself didn't actually do much. In one storyline, he essentially continues his vendetta against Wayne, trying to kill Lucius Fox. In the other storyline, he pretty much just ranted to a catatonic Circe while False Facers tried to kill Batman. In both stories, Black Mask escaped and Batman seethed at his failure to capture Sionis. The implication in Moench's stories, along with the Who's Who file above, was clear: Black Mask may--potentially, possibly, someday--be the biggest threat in Gotham.

Funny how that only happened once writers abandoned everything that made the character interesting.

The first major change for BM happened in Batman #565, right in the middle of No Man's Land. Someone (either an editor or Greg Rucka himself) had the clever and logical idea to have Roman become a full-blown cult leader in the wake of NML, shunning all masks, forcing the False Facers to disfigure themselves, and declaring himself the true faceless face of post-earthquake Gotham:

How Roman's burned face ended up looking like that is beyond me, when it's established that--against all logic--the black mask worn by Black Mask IS his actual face now. But whatever, it worked wonderfully in that story, the first major use of the character by someone other than Moench.

The next time he appeared was in the pages of Ed Brubaker's Catwoman #9, where he was revealed as the big boss that Selina unwittingly screwed over. By this point, Brubaker abandoned the entire False Face Society, making Black Mask a typical mob boss, essentially the Kingpin to Selina's Daredevil. But at least artist Brad Rader drew Black Mask looking like his classic self:

So when it was finally time for Roman to make his move in Catwoman #14, why the hell did subsequent Catwoman artist Cameron Stewart draw Black Mask looking like this?

Is that meant to be his own face, a new mask, or what? It's never explained.

Combined with Ed Brubaker's dialogue and characterization, this Black Mask is entirely unrecognizable. Hell, he even owns the Roman Sionis identity, putting the "Black Mask" identity on what others call him now. To top it off, he's now a sadistic torturer, which he never was under Moench's pen.

And even though BM was killed off at the end of this storyline, somebody at DC decided they liked this story so much that they brought him back for War Games to do everything he does here, but moreso. Skull-face look? Check. Loves torture? Check. Big boss of everything in Gotham? Check. Anything that resembles the original character? Nada.

When Selina killed Roman a second time, I reacted with a weary "finally." But now, after reading Moench's originally stories, I feel disappointed for Ed Brubaker and subsequent writers for wasting what little potential there was for this character, and further distaste for anyone who actually likes the skull-faced version of Black Mask.

Finally, a question: anyone else think that Jeph Loeb ripped off Black Mask when he created Hush? Really, everything that Loeb tried to say with Tommy Elliot, I feel like Moench already said better with Roman Sionis. Just another little way that Moench's original creation has been swept under the rug by DC.

*I hate Hush and Dr. Hurt more, but they ain't "classic" just yet.

Date: 2011-02-06 08:36 am (UTC)
khamelea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] khamelea
"But why? How the hell did this character become a thing, while better gangster-style villains (the Penguin, Harvey, the Ventriloquist and Scarface) got shoved to the side? "

Blame the artists who pulled the "Red Skull recolour" look off.

Date: 2011-02-06 09:02 am (UTC)
damianwayne: (Default)
From: [personal profile] damianwayne
I understand your grievances but in theory they could be waved away...

- The mask face burned onto his, and still he managed to accomplish nothing. So he cut that face off, or burned it off, given the blackness of the skull, and gave himself a "new mask."

- Catwoman issue can then be explained as him wearing a mask not unlike his old one, over burny mcskullface.

- The torture thing... it was stated as a child that he liked to start fires and was fascinated by animals. He probably caught them and mutilated them. Fits the "neglected pyro kid" psychological profile. He probably enjoyed this on up through adulthood. He seems to be reveling in the theatrics of the first few people whose faces he peels off, no?

- False Face Society was proven to be worthless in fighting Batman or gaining him power. So he kept the schpiel, minus the masks. The initial argument he makes would be, as you say, pretty compelling - so you could see how he could talk his way up a mob ladder. That's actually *why* the current version has fans. I don't count myself among them, but I see the simplification here - he's now Gotham's "Scarface."

I agree that he's become very bland and generic. All the same, he's more effective as "mob boss with creepy mask" than he ever was as "dimestore Two-face who got bit by a raccoon and lost his lipstick empire." People like reading about tangible threats more than they do morts.

Read those early stories and ask yourself if there's really any other way this is ending besides Batman kicking the shit out of this whiny weirdo. You can't say there is.

Date: 2011-02-06 09:11 am (UTC)
rainspirit: (what the hell)
From: [personal profile] rainspirit
In response to laughing at the "raccoon" origin...

Hey, shut up! SHUT UP! Raccoons can be freaking terrifying, man. Growing up on an island, all my pet animals had some kind of war wound from battling with one of them. And have you ever walked around a wilderness and heard them GROWLING AT YOU invisibly from behind a bush, because you were too close to their younglings? Gives you the chills.

Not to mention that they're fearless and as belligerent as fuck.

It's almost enough to feel sympathetic to Black Mask for his childhood. :(

Date: 2011-02-06 09:25 am (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk

Date: 2011-02-06 09:55 am (UTC)
espanolbot: (Default)
From: [personal profile] espanolbot
A doctor dropped him on his head as a baby too.

No, seriously, they did.

Talkin' Black Mask

Date: 2011-02-06 09:55 am (UTC)
espanolbot: (Default)
From: [personal profile] espanolbot
*raises hand* Actually the NML etc. versions of Black Mask actually do make sense storywise.

Following the destruction of Gotham following the outbreak or plague and the earthquake, Roman's already shakey grasp on sanity left him, and he came to believe that the now ruined version of Gotham was its true self, the version prior to the plague etc. was just a mask that hid "True Gotham" from view.

Thus in order to reflect this, Roman cut his mask off, leaving himself disfigured. With some additional disfigurements and scars that, according to Rucka's novelisation of No Man's Land, symbolise the soul of the False Facer wearing them.

Having no "found religion", the people skills that enabled Roman to become an extremely good gangster were moved sideways into becoming an extremely effective cult leader, with enough people driven drazy by NML to actually believe his ideas and join him.

The new False Facers were the largest group in No Man's Land, right up until Huntress/Batgirl (she was pretending to be a new Batgirl as a sideproject) abducted him in plain view of all his followers, causing them to break up, with the occasional appearence from former False Facers later on. Like in the post-NML storyline Batman: Evolution.

At this point, Roman was imprisoned on Blackgate Island, which was being run by Lock-Up, KGBeast and the "Trigger Twins", I think that was their name, on the basis that Batman will allow them to rule their island as long as they don't step over the line. Batman did send Nightwing to liberate the island prison later on, but Two-Face (for a long time the biggest, most powerful gang leader in the city) had Roman assassinated on the basis that if he escaped, he could reform his cult and threaten his powerbase.

Skipping onwards, we get to the Brubaker/Stewart version of Catwoman, which is an awesome comic I'll have you know *glares at all who disagree*. Brubaker was told by the editorial that in the series he could use no what he liked with characters with characters that weren't in comics at the time, so he was effectively allowed a blank slate to rebuild some of them.

For example, Holly Robinson hadn't been used for years, so he was allowed to bring her back and use her. Admittedly no one told Brubaker that she had apparently died in an issue of Action Comics, but he did a good job with her so it's okay. Same reasoning with Maggie Kyle, Slam Bradley and Roman.

Now, with Roman if you look at character in context of where he'd been in regards to his origins, his time in No Man's Land and his many, MANY assassination attempts, the Brubaker version both makes sense and explains his newfound sadism philosophy in the books themselves.

Namely: the face - the result of his cutting the mask off his face in No Man's Land. He looks somewhat more like an severe burn victim in the Cameron Stewart art, albeit with black skin, though that devolved into him looking flat out like Johan Schmitt with later artists. Actually, if you were to have the Ultimate version of the Red Skull and colour his head in black you'd get an idea what they were going for.

the torture and pain motiff - Again, another layover from his cult days, Roman had come to the conclusion that scars show that you've survived something painful, and that surviving pain makes you stronger. He'd survived getting left in a fire in his origin story, he'd survived disfiguring himself, heck, he'd even survived getting shot by a henchman of Two-Face's that look liked a Dr Seus character. If he survived all of that, whose to say that that wouldn't make him a stronger person.

Admittedly that's crazy person logic, but Roman IS insane so there's that.

Roman's rise, first to the head druglord of Gotham's East End and then on to become the city's kingpin of crime was actually done in a very clever way.

Rather than the standard Gotham tactic of loudly proclaiming who you were, why and how you wer going to take over the City, he did it quietly, doing nothing extravagant that would attract the attentions of the Batman and his friends.

Need a lot of income fast? Don't rob a bank, turn your organising skills to smuggling heroin into the city from South America. Police interested in your business? Bribe 'em, bribe 'em hard and if that doesn't work have the more loyal corrupt cops gun them down in an alley somewhere.

What's the point of this ramble? I'm saying that the version of Black Mask that ran up until the second time Selina Kyle killed him actually worked, and though we was a different character in the end then he was when he was conceived, all the changes were due to character development.

You'd hardly expect the Joker, Tim Drake or Stephanie Brown to all be exactly the same was their debut, years and dozens if not hundreds of writers later?

Re: Talkin' Black Mask

Date: 2011-02-06 10:56 am (UTC)
espanolbot: (Default)
From: [personal profile] espanolbot
He does bring up the philosophy though... at least twice. Will get scans.

And there is continuity between the final version and the 80s one, though it requires reading everything in order for it to make sense.

Not that all of it was GOOD characterisation though. Black Mask in War Crimes sucked, though his idea of getting a "pet" journalist to spin the news in the direction he wanted was actually pretty smart.

Re: Talkin' Black Mask

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Re: Talkin' Black Mask

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Date: 2011-02-06 10:02 am (UTC)
jlroberson: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jlroberson
To claim you as one of its good or bad sons, Gotham must first kill your parents.

Date: 2011-02-06 11:04 am (UTC)
feyandstrange: "I know ten different ways to kill you with this cane, boy" comic with cane in fist (killyouwiththiscane)
From: [personal profile] feyandstrange
Man, the old guy is ten times more interesting than the new one. Even if he does sort of scream "Mask: The Jim Carrey Movie" in spots (which he predates anyhow).

And motto to Hush and Hurt. Who comes up with these losers?

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Date: 2011-02-06 03:09 pm (UTC)
damianwayne: (Default)
From: [personal profile] damianwayne
I didn't mind Hush as much, if only for the fact that the characters he was derivative of like original!Roman here were characters I hadn't actually read much of as a child, and who had faded into obscurity by the time of my late teens bat-renaissance.

Moreover, while people love the Hush story, I hold that it's due to Jim Lee's awesome art and a good old fashioned villainous gambit. Note that Hush himself didn't build any sort of huge fandom and become a persistent threat, so all's right with the world.

Dr. Hurt was just terrible. Terribly bland, and as has been pointed out here beautiful, a boring Hugo Strange knockoff.

Date: 2011-02-06 05:17 pm (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk
A lot of them are like that though

Hugo Strange > Dr. Hurt
Black Mask > Hush
Killer Croc (original version) > Bane

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Date: 2011-02-07 05:18 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] omgwtflolbbqbye
I think that Loeb similarly got a lot of fan mileage out of Long Halloween and it's sequels because of Tim Sale's collaboration; that art effortlessly classes up any stinky writing.

As for Hush, I regularly saw people on the net clamoring for Hush to be the new villain for Nolan's Batman movie to no end. And I remember when it was rumored a few months ago that Dr. Strange might be the new villain, I swear to shit I read some people say that HE sounded like a lame rip-off of Hush.

Date: 2011-02-06 05:46 pm (UTC)
benicio127: (Damian)
From: [personal profile] benicio127
You know, I actually really liked Black Mask in Under the Hood.

But I'm definitely with you on the whole Dr. Hurt thing. I can't stand him. :/ Love Damian, but there are so many Morrison creations that can just go away forever.

Date: 2011-02-06 07:35 pm (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk
And ironically, Damian was the one character Morrison intended TO kill.

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Date: 2011-02-07 05:25 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] psychopathicus_rex
Actually, I kinda like the skull-face Black Mask, but mainly when he's used outside of comics. The version of him in 'The Batman', for instance, was pretty cool, from what I've heard of it. There, he was more of a super-gangster who inspired intense loyalty in his men, despite the fact that he killed them off pretty regularly - sounds cult-like to me. And the skull WAS a mask, but one that was bolted on and impossible to remove - no one knew who he really was, he was just Black Mask, and he'd taken pains to ensure that he'd ALWAYS be that way. That guy was pretty cool - the comics version, I agree, was not.
And yeah, the original version of him was better not simply because of the lack of him being a murderous torturing bastard, but because there were a million different directions for the character to have gone in. Forget all the stuff with the toys and the raccoon and the makeup - he'd burned that and started afresh. He was literally a man who'd destroyed his own past and yet was defined by it - there were all sorts of themes to be explored that unfortunately never were. Identity, for example, and religion, and fanaticism, and the shifting of blame for one's faults. Black Mask could have been DEEP - instead, he ultimately became one of the shallower villains around. A shame, really.

Date: 2011-02-07 11:49 am (UTC)
icon_uk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] icon_uk
Yeah, "The Batman" Black Mask was a fun character, a villain who it was pretty much impossible to panic because he planned for everything and took things in his stride. His gang was more of a team who were loyal to him because he was the Boss, though a healthy dose of fear was certainly a contributing factor.

Different origin though, no one knew who he was, he'd had his fingerprints removed and the skull mask COULDN'T be removed either, by any means the Police could find.

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Date: 2011-02-07 12:00 pm (UTC)
sadoeuphemist: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sadoeuphemist
Man, what's with all the Dr. Hurt hate? I liked him. He was transparently a plot device, he filled his role in the plot, and he filled it well.

Date: 2011-02-07 03:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
...because Hugo Strange would have worked better than some cardboard cut out, and would have given the story greater depth?

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Date: 2011-02-07 04:27 pm (UTC)
junipepper: (jumplines)
From: [personal profile] junipepper
I'm kind of stuck on the part where Black Mask actually says, "My parents are DEEAAAADD!" -- to Bruce, who pretty much doesn't react. I mean, OK, he kicks him, but I think that's mostly a reaction to Black Mask's attempt to kill him.

That thing where he disfigures his girlfriend's face and then makes her wear a mask -- didn't Joker do something just like that in the first Batman movie?


scans_daily: (Default)
Scans Daily


Founded by girl geeks and members of the slash fandom, [community profile] scans_daily strives to provide an atmosphere which is LGBTQ-friendly, anti-racist, anti-ableist, woman-friendly and otherwise discrimination and harassment free.

Bottom line: If slash, feminism or anti-oppressive practice makes you react negatively, [community profile] scans_daily is probably not for you.

Please read the community ethos and rules before posting or commenting.

May 2016

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