I don't like to write about bad comics. My well-publicized and ongoing feud with Jeff Lemire notwithstanding, I would rather focus on the positives of the industry. There's already enough wrong with comics without me making fun of people—writing and drawing and inking and editing a monthly book is really hard work, and the last thing I want to do is diminish the effort of some tremendously talented people. And really, there's the fact that the internet is already saturated by hyenas trying to be Chris Sims or Yahtzee. I don't want to add my voice to the din.
That said, Dynamite's massive pulp hero crossover Masks is terrible.
I was going to say that things started out well enough, but to be honest, the only time anything was going right with this book was when I read the solicits. At the time, it seemed like a sure winner. I loved Ennis' run on The Shadow and still enjoy David Liss' take on The Spider, so seeing those two characters team up with Green Hornet and Zorro seemed like a good idea, or at least an entertaining one. And Alex Ross was going to be providing fully painted interiors, so it would be pretty to look at. Dynamite released some preview art, and all seemed well.
I first got a twinge of doubt when I read some of the overly-stilted dialogue in the first issue. Panels like this…
Made me stop and scratch my head. It's just a nitpicky thing, saying "law" twice in the same sentence. That's a minor thing that's bothered me since…well, always I guess, but definitely college. This is more troubling:
I tell you, I still haven't figured that one out. I mean, I think Roberson is trying to set up a philosophical debate? Maybe? But I think everyone would agree that if the law is unjust, you don't stay on that side of the law. Unless you're unjust. Then you're fine, I guess.
More minor problems like that bogged down the second issue. For example, the New York Bureau of Investigation (the Stormtroopers in this little Star War) have bulletproof armor. That's fine.
But apparently bulletproof doesn't mean kickproof?
Look, I've never been shot. Never want to be. But I've heard that getting shot, even in body armor, sucks. Body armor dissipates the force of the bullet over a wider area so it doesn't cause as much trauma—this means that you're going to get massive bruises, even broken ribs (obviously better than a bullet to the liver, but still, you're on your ass for a second). That's not science fiction, that's how bulletproof vests work. Now, I read comics. I accept Iron Man. I know that super body armor is a thing in these books. I accept that you can wear a vest that will just deflect the round without dissipating the energy. That's fine. What I don't accept is that that same vest will not stand up to a good pistol whipping.
You'll note that those last two pictures were not painted by Alex Ross. This isn't meant to be a crack on Dynamite or Calero—schedules change, you've got to find somebody who can do the job. It's just a good metaphor for the quality of the book, I think.
There are plenty of other things I could address, like why Tony Quinn attacks armed men with a car battery (the answer is, of course, so battery acid could be splashed into his face. I guess there would've been less clumsy ways to do write a guy getting blinded, but I'd have to think about it)…
Or why he has to remind the reader that, don't forget, he's blind, three times in three pages (twice on one page):
Or how some of these faces makes Rags Morales look like a da Vinci…
Or seriously, how bad some of this dialogue is…
But what I want to talk about most is the evil scheme. So bear with me on this, Sleepwalkers. The big, overarching plot of Masks is that crooked politicians have hooked up with gangsters to create the Justice Party, which is a big Fascist/Orwellian/Nazi/It Can't Happen Here-kinda bunch. Lots of jackbooted thugs, lots of fat cats smoking cigars, pretty standard. They've outlawed vigilantes (seems like that sort of thing might have been a holdover from the previous administration, but there you go), they're rounding up vagrants, it's a bad time. You can probably get the vibe. Now, I ask you Sleepwalkers: if you were in charge of this new Justice Party, and you totally controlled New York City, and you had an army of armed enforcers out, well, enforcing, what would you do?
Would you A) slowly tighten your grip on the population using a series of increasingly strict taxes and regulations while at the same time weeding out opposition by maintaining political support through propaganda and psychological warfare or B) openly steal money from every strata of the population in broad daylight and ship them to concentration camps if they don't have enough cash on them?
If you answered A, you're smarter than the Justice Party. Seriously, these are the most short-sighted bad guys I've seen since Batman fought Nearsighted Man (that fight didn't last long). The only thing the JP does "right" is the propaganda—but who the hell is listening to it? They've created dissidents among everybody in the city. They're robbing everyone. That's not an effective business model.
I'll be real—I don't have any sort of political science degree. I was an English major. But, like most people my age, I've thought about how I would take over the world. Let me rap atcha for a few minutes.
Justice Party, you may be made up entirely of criminals, but even criminals know that if you have a goose that lays golden eggs, you don't kill the goose. You've got an entire city at your disposal. That's millions of dollars (at least in pulp-hero days). Now, how does a city get its income? Through taxes, right. This…
…is not a tax. This is a protection racket. And the only thing you're doing is ensuring that these very wealthy people—the people who would pay taxes for years—are not paying those taxes. And on top of that, by openly targeting the people who most likely voted for you, you're creating dissidents among your core of loyal followers.
And by tightening up "vagrancy" statutes, all they've done is ensure that there isn't a scapegoat on the streets. I'm a barista, guys. I'm the bottom of the ladder. You need the bottom of the ladder to get to the top. Without the janitors, and the cab drivers, and the fruit stand operators, and the guys who throw fish at the fish market, the rest of the city grinds to a halt (you might recall this being a plot point in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy), and with it, the jobs that let those rich people pay taxes.
You could come back with, "Well, once they're in jail, the Justice Party can just seize their assets all at once," but that comes back to killing the goose. If you seize everybody's property and money, they're out of the game, which means they can't keep paying you. Remember, they voted for you. They would pay their taxes. But if you chuck them in the hoosegow and confiscate everything they own, that's one less check you're going to get in April. You could keep this going indefinitely, but instead you go for the short term.
Which makes me ask—who's this for? I mean, in the Justice Party. Who benefits? The fat cats and the mobsters, sure. But what about the jackbooted thugs? I mean, it's not like there's some sort of ideology the Justice Party's promoting (aside from the boilerplate "Get tough on crime" line that you get at Fascists-R-Us). How are they recruiting their jackbooted thugs? Did they get them in the mail?
Of course, it turns out in issue three that there is something going on, and that something is concentration camps. Which, of course, does nothing to address any of the concerns about the most short-term planners in the history of pulp comics.
Masks is not very good, which is a shame, because it's at the crest of the pulp renaissance. Spider, Shadow, and soon Green Hornet and Miss Fury at Dynamite, and Black Beetle over at Dark Horse all show that there is no time better than right now to be publishing pulp heroes. Unfortunately, Masks is not the way to do it.