Years before Superman and Batman and decades before Spider-Man or the X-Men, a different kind of hero ruled supreme in fiction: the pulp heroes. Now in an era where massive superhero crossovers are commonplace, some of these original pulp heroes are doing the same in an all-new crossover series titled Masks.
Published by Dynamite Entertainment, this eight-issue event book features a who’s who of pulp icons – the Shadow, the Spider, Zorro, the Green Hornet and more – united to rebel against an upstart political party that sweeps into office in New York State with plans to put the entire country under their thumb.
Scheduled to launch later this year, Masks is being helmed by writer Chris Roberson with the first issue painted by Alex Ross. Roberson has become a roguish hero himself recently, bucking the Big Two work-for-hire system to begin a new stage of his career outside focusing on his own comics like Monkeybrain as well as other projects with smaller publisher like this.
For Alex Ross, this is the first full comic issue he’s painted since the conclusion of 2007’s Justice series for DC and Ross reportedly only committed to the book after seeing the strength of Roberson’s story and the potential being this first-ever pulp crossover.
Newsarama spoke with Roberson here on the eve of Comic-Con International about this one-of-a-kind series, the potential chemistry between this disparate heroes, and how Roberson’s views on creator’s rights works with this project.
Newsarama: What is Masks about, Chris?
Chris Roberson: In Masks, a newly formed political organization, the Justice Party, has swept into office in New York State, taking the governorship and many key seats in the state house, elected by a landslide on a campaign of restoring traditional values and the rule of law and order. In short order, the Black Legion, the agents of the newly formed New York Bureau of Investigation, hold the populace in a steel grip. Concentration camps are filled with “public enemies,” a list which includes those who fail to pay the punishingly-high taxes levied by the new governor, or who speak out against his new laws, or who have past associations with “anti-American organizations” or who engage in “proscribed behaviors.” With the Justice Party in complete control of the media, few outside the state know the truth about what is going on.
The Justice Party and its private army have plans to extend their reach to other states, and eventually the entire country. But with the authority of law on their side, the only ones who have a hope of standing against them are those who operate OUTSIDE the law…
Nrama: Who’s responsible for this -- who’s at head of the Justice Party and the Black Legion?
Roberson: That would be telling!
Nrama: We’ll let you slide on that, but can you give us a run-down of the major heroes in this?
Roberson: The heavy hitters are the Spider, the Shadow, Green Hornet & Kato, Miss Fury, The Black Bat, the Green Lama, and Black Terror, but we’ll also be introducing a couple of surprise characters along the way.
Nrama: With that kind of line-up, who would you say are the most unlikely of teammates in terms of getting along?
Roberson: That's an interesting question, and I don't know that I have a good answer for it yet. These are all very different characters, beneath their masks, and they all have very different views about what it is that they do. I tend to despise the hoary old cliché that "characters write themselves," but in this instance I really am letting the characters (and their histories) dictate how they'll act and respond in different circumstances. So I guess we'll just have to wait and see who gets along (and who doesn't)!
Nrama: The idea of bringing together the cream of the crop in terms of pulp heroes seems like a no-brainer, but Dynamite’s publisher Nick Barrucci tells me this story is rooted in some deep history. What can you tell us about that?
Roberson: The genesis of the idea was a well-known storyline that ran in The Spider pulp magazines in the 1930s, over the course of three novels: The City That Paid To Die, The Spider At Bay, and Scourge of the Black Legions. In the original story, written by Norvell Page (as Grant Stockbridge), a political organization called the Party of Justice takes over New York State, and quickly institutes a fascist police state. It was an allegory for what was happening in Europe at the time, and saw the Spider go from being a vigilante who fought crime to being a full-blown freedom-fighter protecting the citizenry from an oppressive government.
In Masks, we ask the question: If fascists took over New York, as in the Spider novels, how would all of the other masked vigilantes we know from the pulps react? What would happen when characters who typically work outside the law are forced to act against the law?
Nrama: Since this is inspired by an old Spider story, would you say he’s the lead in this ensemble story?
Roberson: The way I'm approaching the story, there really isn't a single lead character. In the first issue, the Shadow, Green Hornet, and Kato are the focus of a lot of attention, but in subsequent issues we'll be focusing to greater and lesser degrees on the other characters, the Spider included. It's only fair to give all of them their moment to shine!
Nrama: Although the allegory works when those original Spider novels were first published, they also work today in our current modern landscape. Can you talk about the cultural things you’re bringing in this from today’s world?
Roberson: There are certainly similarities that can be drawn between the kinds of things that concerned Norvell Page in the 1930s and issues that concern us today, and I can't say that I'm not influenced by those. I prefer to let the story speak for itself, though, than to distract readers too much with what I “think” the story is about.
Nrama: How’d you come to work with Dynamite and Alex Ross on this project?
Roberson: I’ve been an admirer of Dynamite’s comic line for some time, and was lucky enough to meet publisher Nick Barrucci and editor Joseph Rybandt at Baltimore Comic Con last year. After I lavished praise on their line for a good long while, I let them know if there was ever a project that they thought I might be a good fit for, that I’d love to give it a shot. A few months later they came to me with the idea of doing a crossover between the various pulp avengers, and Masks is the result! And then they told me that Alex Ross would be painting the first issue! How awesome is that?
Nrama: For some people, they thought that when you quit working for DC you were quitting doing any kind of work-for-hire books like this. Can you clarify your stance in relation to Masks?
Roberson: I don’t object to work-for-hire as a concept, actually. Some of my favorite comics, TV shows, and movies wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for work-for-hire. My objections had more to do with the way that creators have been and continue to be treated, and with the imposition of work-for-hire standards on works that weren't work-for-hire, as it’s commonly and legally defined.
The difference with Masks, specifically, is that, to my knowledge, the pulp characters were clearly work-for-hire from the beginning. I am hardly an expert on the history of the pulps, to be fair, but from what I’ve been able to learn from my research, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the characters and the stories were different than in comics. As opposed to the golden age comic characters, who were often created by writers and artists and then shopped from publisher to publisher, most of the classic pulp characters originated with concepts and characters created by the publishers, who then assigned them to various writers to produce novels.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!