This November, Dynamite Entertainment and writer Chris Roberson are teaming up to bring comic book readers “Masks,” the first Dynamite crossover featuring the publisher’s lineup of famous pulp heroes of yesteryear: Green Hornet, Kato, The Shadow, Miss Fury, Black Bat, Zorro, The Spider and others.
While the entire series will be written by Roberson, the debut issue of “Masks” also features the art of Alex Ross — and not just on covers. Ross is painting the entire issue, interiors and all, marking his first interiors since DC Comics’ “Justice.” Roberson gladly spoke with CBR News in detail following the book’s announcement about all things from his love of the pulp crime genre, his plans for getting all the heroes in one place, and why, after his parting with DC over creators’ rights, he is still willing to do some special work for hire.
CBR News: How did this come about? When did you get hooked up with Dynamite?
Chris Roberson: Pretty late in the process I imagine. I think this is something they’ve been talking about for a while. I had been talking to Dynamite since last year about possibly doing something because I really am an admirer of a lot of their titles. We talked about something that didn’t work out and then they asked me if I would be interested in doing this or proposing ideas for this. This was very much in my wheelhouse having been a big fan of these characters since I was a kid since the ’70s, so I leapt at the chance!
All of the characters involved are pulp characters, but within comics some have been modernized and some have been left in the ’40s. How do you go about actively getting them all in the same place?
Well, it’s set in 1938, so it’s kind of set in the original milieu that most of these characters first appeared in. With a lot of the characters that have been, through Dynamite or elsewhere, more modernized and made contemporary we’ve just kind of returned to the more classic versions. This will be the characters as best recognized from their original appearances.
In that case will the tone of “Masks” match that classic pulp feel the originals had?
In terms of setting and set dressing, it’s definitely a pulp story. It takes place in New York and surrounding environs in 1938 and it’s guys in slouch hats with twin .35s. It’s pretty hard when you have all those ingredients in the mix for it not to feel like pulp stories, so we do not have to work too hard to capture the flavor. I’m sure other bits will creep in as things go along, but on the outset it’s very much a traditional pulp story.
What is the story about? How are we meeting all of these characters?
That was one of the first questions I had to answer: if we’re going to have all of these characters in the same story, what are they doing? Why did they meet? Most of these were published by different companies, in some cases in different media whether in pulp or radio, what have you. I struck very quickly the idea of expanding an existing pulp story; there was a three-part series of Spider novels in the Spider magazine about Richard Wentworth, the Spider, dealing with the rise of an American fascist movement. It was very much intended by the writer, Norvell Page, to be an allegory for what was happening in Europe at the time. An organization calling itself the Party of Justice rises to power in New York state and very quickly institutes a fascist police state, and the Spider is forced to go from being a vigilante who operates outside the law fighting crime to a guerilla freedom fighter leading normal citizenry in a fight against the now corrupted officials.
My first thought was, if that’s all happening in New York, what are the other masked heroes in New York doing while that’s going on? “Masks” is the story that spread out of that. If the law becomes corrupted, if the law is unjust, what do people who operate outside the law but fight for justice end up doing?
Besides using the big pulp heroes like the Shadow, Green Hornet and Kato, Miss Fury, Black Bat, you’re also using Zorro, which is not someone I would immediately group in with the others. How does he fit in?
Well, thematically all these characters are individuals, men and women, who have put on masks to operate in the name of justice outside the law. Certainly in that formulation Zorro is one of the first. You could argue that the Scarlet Pimpernel came earlier, but that guy was a fop and never wore a mask, so I don’t count him! But Zorro clearly is set in a different time and place, so we won’t be seeing Don Diego de la Vega, he won’t be making an appearance, but there will be some sort of Zorro-like character who will be making the scene.
One of the character pairings people have seen most recently updated from this group are the Green Hornet and Kato — there have been multiple titles featuring some version of them of late, as well as last year’s movie. What’s your take on Kato and Green Hornet’s relationship? Is it a crime fighter and his valet like the original?
I’m very much drawing inspiration from Matt Wagner’s interpretation in the pages of “Green Hornet: Year One.” I felt it very neatly encapsulated everything I liked about the original version of the character, so the version we’ll be seeing here is very much inspired by that interpretation.
With some of these characters did you go back and read their source material in order to write them in “Masks?”
It’s a mix of the original pulps, the original radio plays and then those characters that had been published by Dynamite, I took a look at a lot of those. I particularly like what Garth Ennis is doing with The Shadow for the moment. As with many of the franchise jobs I get to take on that are things that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a kid I didn’t have to do any research but it was a nice excuse to go back and read these things anyway!
What were your favorite pulp heroes or stories as a kid?
I was really lucky because I was born in the 1970s and for someone that likes those kinds of stories the late ’60s and ’70s were really a golden age because there was this weird kind of nostalgia that happened for them starting in the ’60s. A lot of things that had been children’s entertainment in the ’30s and ’40s had been repackaged and republished for those same kids where were then middle aged. So a lot of people my age have a second-hand nostalgia for that stuff because we encountered it as children for the first time. I guess my entree were The Shadow pulps and the Doc Savage pulps. But it was also all over comics at the time, Mike Kaluta was doing “The Shadow,” the “Indiana Jones” movie is inarguably a close cousin to pulps and film serials. I could tune into radio plays going on in Dallas in the late ’70s. So my points of entry were the best known, but then I quickly became obsessed with things like The Avenger or The Spider and just stuck with it.
Is there a character you were especially excited to write?
It was exciting and a little intimidating with all of these characters because these are characters that — more than any other I’ve done, and even my brief run on Superman — have been around for a long time. The Shadow in particular, being one of the firsts. I think there’s a couple — the Zorro character is pretty fun, because it’s a new formulation of the character, and the Black Bat who has been in the public domain and has popped in a few different places but is not as well known as a result, so that’s one where it became really start from scratch.
Artist Alex Ross will be painting the first issue — after the first issue, will Alex Ross continue to do the art?
I have no idea! I would be surprised if he wasn’t doing more than that, but all I know is that he’s doing covers and interiors on the first. I think that’s enough psychic trauma for me to take on!
What is it like working with him? How does the partnership work with you two?
Well, I don’t kid myself that this is a partnership, this is Alex Ross after all! I turned in the script for the first issue and within a week my inbox filled with his penciled layouts and they are gorgeous. So the collaboration is me trying really hard not to screw up and seeing what he’s done with the words that I’ve written!
There are some famous and distinct pulp covers associated with these characters; is Ross trying to recreate that painted pulp cover look, or is this his normal, realistic style?
Again, all I’ve seen so far are pencils, but I would argue that a lot of those early pulp covers and even some interior illustration in many cases were very representational. It’s not a million miles from some of the classic Shadow covers, for example, and the covers Alex has been doing for Garth Ennis’ “Shadow.” If anything, Alex is working in an established tradition of doing these characters in a way that is both realistic and somewhat stylized, hyper-realistic and dramatic. So I think any fan of the pulps looking at Alex’s rendition would very quickly recognize it as something they knew.
When we talked about your decision to leave DC Comics you said you were swearing off work for hire with them because of their practices. While some of the characters in “Masks” are in the public domain, many are also legacy characters — how is working on this a different situation than what you were doing with the work for hire stuff at DC?
It’s a completely fair question! The difference is — and understand that I’m not a historian, I’m an avid amateur — but from my understanding and the research I’ve been able to do, the pulp characters involved were created under very clear work for hire scenarios. The Shadow was an idea had by higher-ups who wanted the character and came up with what they thought the character should be and hired Walter Gibson to come in and do it. I’m hesitant to cite too many examples because I’m not an expert, but I don’t know of many instances of pulp characters where they were created by a writer or writer and artist and then were sold to a publisher, as was the case with Superman and Captain America and things like that. So as I’ve said before, I don’t object to the concept of work for hire, I’m uncomfortable doing work for hire under circumstances that I think are in any way kind of ethically compromised, and I could not find anything in the background of these characters that gave me pause.
Outside of this being a draw for you because you love the characters, did you want to do this because you could write with a clear moral conscious?
Absolutely. I don’t know if it was something that compelled me to want to do it; it was satisfying to discover there was no imperative not to do it, at least that I could find.
While a lot of these masked men and women are pointed to as proto-superheroes, they really do inhabit their own world and are very much a separate thing from what superheroes have become. Is that difference in comics also an appeal?
Yeah, I think that is part of the appeal. They have been updated, many of them, to contemporary settings and things like that, but I think that most of the pulp characters are urban characters. They might work outside of an urban environment, but it’s kind of a stretch. Outside of characters like Zorro, who exists in a very particular time and space geographically and historically, the vast majority of them exist in this post-industrial environment. They are a thing that fed into becoming the superhero genre, and in fact I think you could argue that they are one of a couple of main sources of story DNA for superheroes, the other being the strongman that came from a lot of the science fiction pulps. It’s something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time. I think one of the first novels I wrote, it was published eventually as “Book of Secrets,” is entirely about that kind of character and what it does and I kind of spoil by giving it a much bigger supernatural background, but at the forefront it’s men and women who put on masks and fight bad guys. But yeah, fedoras and .45s are a cool look too! [Laughs]
In recent years people have had a hard time getting many of these characters to stick, like the recent “Green Hornet” movie. Why do you think in the last decade or so we’ve been culturally resistant to putting these pulp figures back in the spotlight the way they used to be?
I think that historically there’s a reason these characters weren’t continually published since the 1930s. I think they are the product of a certain time and place, and there have been some successes with some of them but that by and large they work best in that milieu. The farther and farther away you get from the type of setting that these characters work best the less appeal they have. One of the things I was really keen on is to make as many of these characters work as possible, it really should be set in the ’30s, in the Great Depression, because that’s where they work best. Frankly I think that a lot of audiences don’t really want to go see movies set in the depression! But I don’t know; if I knew how to influence the taste of the public at large I’d be much more successful at everything I’ve done! [Laughs]
Because we’re in the Great Recession, do you think now is the time for those characters to really hit the mainstream?
I think certainly in terms of economics you can draw some parallels. I think socially and politically you can draw a lot of parallels, and that was certainly one of the appeals for me, looking at the inspiration for this three-part series of Spider novels, revisiting that from our vantage point and asking what kind of stories could you tell?
Finally, why should pulp fans and new readers pick up “Masks?”
I think the answer to the question, at least for those people who are already fans of any of these characters, is that the question of what would happen when they met? Hopefully it’s one that they will want to see answered! Also the first issue is done by Alex Ross and he hasn’t done a whole lot of interiors, so I’m really keen to see what that looks like. And hopefully it’ll be good! [Laughs]
“Masks” #1 by Chris Roberson and Alex Ross goes on sale in November.