about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Behind the (Black) Mask: the Rise of Roman Sionis

I've been meaning to look at Doug Moench's infamous handful of Two-Face stories, but his first one directly follows events and characters from an earlier storyline: the first appearance of Black Mask. Even still, I never wanted to actually read that story, because if there's one classic* Batman villain I've come to hate over the past ten years, it's Black Fucking 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. Here, see 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.

**The seven scans from the first issue are generously provided by superfan1, as the first issue is impossible to find. Because apparently the first appearance of Black Mask is SUCH a collector's item, ZOMG!
Tags: black mask, doug moench, klaus janson, non-two-face-related-ness, robin(s), rogues gallery

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