Black Mask: Year of the Villain provides a tutorial on this lesser known Batman villain for any readers looking to understand his appeal (or how he may factor into “Year of the Villain”). It’s a story with multiple modes, each delivering something slightly different in both effects and quality. There’s the tragic origin, the modern madman, and a brief detour with the heroes seeking to stop him. It’s the middle part of those three that delivers the biggest thrills and best moments, but there’s no single part of this issue that is without merit, largely due to artist Cully Hamner’s macabre depiction of Roman Sionis’ childhood and his modern exploits as Black Mask. While the overall effort may be uneven, it certainly delivers more good than bad in a one-shot brimming with evil intent.
The first section of the comic reestablishes Roman’s childhood traumas and villainous origin. While this raises themes of superficiality, it ironically engages in a superficial skimming of Roman’s own story. There’s little to the young boy who will soon choose the face of a monster. He delivers a monologue about the importance of appearance and his own obsession with crafting a perfect exterior, but the content is somewhat generic. The same could be applied to the familial arrangement of an abusive father and neglectful mother presented in the broadest of strokes. It’s unclear whether Roman is a sociopath cultivating his modus operandi or a victim internalizing hatred. Even with that somewhat bland retelling, the look of Roman’s scowl and final moments of his parent’s lives are depicted in a frightening fashion, one that makes it clear this story has a great deal of potential whether or not it’s fully realized.
Once the story leaps forward to modern DC Comics’ continuity, Black Mask becomes a better defined character, albeit one with a total absence where a conscience ought to be. He projects the feeling of Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, a strangely charming criminal with no ethics to speak of. His conversation with a single surviving hostage walks a line between fascinating and chilling, building tension as readers are tempted to chuckle before anything too terrible happens. Hamner’s conception of the actual mask is perfectly designed. Sharp lines manage to make this absurd carving of a parent’s costume seem almost charming. A strong jawline and sharp cheekbones form a strange facsimile of forced beauty, something sleek and well-crafted, yet entirely inhuman (or, perhaps, inhumane).
The inclusion of several familiar heroes from the Batman mythos help to shape a new style of operation for Black Mask, one enhanced with superpowers that fit the character very well. Unlike the origin story, changes to identity here seem more significant. They point to how wealth allows some people to define their way out of trouble, developing new careers and selves no matter what they have done in the past. Black Mask moves from a bank robber to a boogeyman of the elite—a concept that should bear more fruit in the future. Hamner develops this image wonderfully as he calls back to Sionis’ eyes on multiple occasions, reminding readers that no matter how much one might change their appearance, it’s what lies beneath that really makes a man (something Roman clearly never understood).
Black Mask: Year of the Villain makes a case for why Black Mask ought to be a more memorable villain (no matter which heroes he might fight) and adds a thematically potent new element to his style that opens many future doors. While the story of this one issue is fractured, individual elements and a gripping robbery sequence provide more than enough quality to balance any surrounding mediocrity. This may not be the best Black Mask story, but it’s one that generally exceeds expectations and gets more right than it does wrong. With more space and time, there’s a possibility that Black Mask could become as iconic as Hamner’s depiction of his vicious facade.
Published by DC Comics
On August 21, 2019
Written by Tom Taylor
Art by Cully Hamner
Colors by Dave Stewart0comments
Letters by Wes Abbott
Cover by Mitch Gerads