By Will Barber – Taylor
Following on from the previous edition’s look at The Many Deaths of Batman, in this instalment we look at the origin of one of Batman’s greatest foes: Black Mask in The Origin of Black Mask (Batman 386 – 387)
Roman Sionis, the young owner of Janus Cosmetics has bankrupted his company after several financial disasters causing him to give control of his company to the Wayne Foundation. Driven nearly insane by his failure and childhood traumas, Sionis becomes Black Mask – a crime lord bent on the destruction of the Wayne Foundation and of its owner, Bruce Wayne.
Rather like the previous story that we looked at, The Origin of Black Mask is typical in that it follows the basic Batman format: mad criminal decides to wreck revenge on Gotham and Batman must stop him. However, from the outset The Origin of Black Mask looks at something more meaningful and implies something more profound, that, deep down we all wear masks.
The story centres on Roman Sionis, a young man tormented by the fact the he must always wear a mask and not even a mask of his own creation. He follows his parents’ example, putting on masks of joy when they see the Wayne family who in truth they despise. Roman is taught to hide his emotions and creates a mask for himself, as by hiding his emotions he can truly master those of others.
The theme of masks plays throughout the story. We see the mask that Roman hides from throughout his life, the masks of the people of Gotham and ultimately the mask that Bruce Wayne puts on every night to become Batman.
The idea of using masks as a theme is not only very clever because it anchors the story down but it is also clever because it is a way of making a direct comparison between our hero and villain. While Roman wears a mask to commit crimes, Bruce Wayne dons the mask of Batman to stop crimes. While they may have completely different motives for why they wear masks, both of them have a root cause as to why they want to don a mask: a traumatic childhood.
While Bruce suffered the tragedy of his parents being murdered in front of him, Roman suffered several traumas such as being bitten by a feral fox, dropped on his head as a baby and being denied the ability to express emotion. Both protagonist and antagonist released their bottled up fears and emotions via taking on a different persona but because Bruce was brought up in a loving household and Roman was not they tackled their different problems in different ways; Bruce expressed his trauma in not only a therapeutic but helpful way while Roman expressed his trauma in a detrimental and violent way. The two are almost reflections of their parents and the masks that they wore. Bruce reflects his loving, caring and socially conscious parents by spending most of his time both as Batman and as Bruce Wayne continuing his parents work, Roman Sionis reflects his parents by bottling up his emotions and hiding behind a mask, first as a playboy business man and then as a masked criminal.
The artwork throughout the story is wonderfully done by Tom Mandrake. Mandrake manages to inject a real sense of energy into the story with particular detail being shown on his depictions of Batman and Black Mask. The most striking piece is from the first issue and shows Black Mask during his childhood being attacked by a rabid fox. The images in the panel slowly bleed and bend together creating a truly fitting portrait of Black Mask’s loss of sanity.
Overall, The Origin of Black Mask is a truly cracking story and certainly deserves more fame for its wonderful plot, exquisite psychological study of the two main characters and some amazing artwork.
In the next instalment we look at an early Batman Christmas adventure in “A Parole For Christmas”.