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Chris Roberson Sheds “Masks” For “The Shadow”

by  in Comic News Comment
Chris Roberson Sheds “Masks” For “The Shadow”

Since hooking up with Dynamite Entrainment, writer Chris Roberson has spent a lot of time in the past, and it looks like he’ll stay there for a while.

Last week saw the simultaneous release of “Masks” #7 — the penultimate chapter of Roberson’s pulp character mega crossover with artists Alex Ross and Dennis Calero — and “The Shadow” #13 — the first issue of Roberson’s run with artist Giovanni Timpano introducing a new threat to the vigilante known as The Light. In the former story [SPOILER WARNING], the man behind the villainous Justice Party that’s been attacking everyone from the Green Hornet to Zorro and beyond was revealed to be none other than The Clock — comics’ first masked crime fighter. Meanwhile, the new Shadow story introduced The Light as a pious woman dressed all in white… except for the sinners’ blood she gathers with the help of two massive katana blades.

Both series offer up some new twists on the classic pulp archetypes driving their series while also remaining firmly in their period trappings. CBR News spoke to Roberson about his plans for both titles, and below the writer reveals the origin of the Clock’s turn to villainy, his role in the continued expansion of Dynamite’s pulp hero initiative, his connection to The Shadow’s long history and how creating a new counterpoint for the vigilante helps define who he is.

CBR News: Chris, “Masks” #7 hit stands last week and revealed Golden Age comic hero The Clock as the big villain behind the Justice Party takeover of New York. That’s a twist that will have some resonance for longtime pulp and comic fans, but it’s also a character you seeded earlier in the series for newer readers. What was the draw to this character, and was it challenging to make that third act reveal convincing?

Chris Roberson: Yeah. With all of it, it’s been that kind of challenge. You’re riding that line of not being too repetitive for veteran readers who are familiar with the characters but also making it intelligible for newcomers. With the Clock reveal, I didn’t want to telegraph it too much, but we needed to salt him in in the first third or so of the story. If we’ve got that three-act structure, he had to be name checked and seen a few times on panel in the first act. It wasn’t set up so much as a mystery of who was behind the scenes, but we let that question hang out there.

Most readers who are familiar with the Clock, if they’re familiar with him at all, know him from his place in comic book history. He’s arguably the first masked hero in American comics. I don’t think many people have read his early stories, though, so he’s pretty much an unknown quantity to most readers. They might know the name but not much else.

Some readers may have seen his reappearance in Image Comics’ “Next Issue Project” as drawn by your “iZombie” collaborator Mike Allred too. But was it mostly that thematic return of the original masked vigilante that made you want to use him?

That was actually one of Alex Ross’ contributions to the development of this series. It was an idea he had very early on, and it slotted in nicely with what I wanted to accomplish, so I had no objections.

The continuing theme of the story as a whole has been this idea of justice outside the law, which probably has been most clearly argued for by The Shadow. How did that pro-vigilanteism idea grow out of this pulp story of a corrupt government?

There’s elements of that, certainly. I think the motivating idea at the beginning for me was to get to the heart of what all these characters had in common — starting with The Shadow and Zorro going forward. And that idea was that they operate outside the law, but they don’t necessarily operate in opposition to the law very often. So the idea here was to force them into an extreme circumstance that painted a contrast between what it means to uphold justice versus what it means to uphold the law. If the law is unjust, where does justice reside?

But it’s also just guys in slouch hats with semi-automatic weapons running around having adventures. [Laughs] So I think you start with certain thematic ideas to set things in motion, and then the characters and the plot take it from there. I don’t think as the writer I’m arguing necessarily that vigilanteism is a good idea, but in the back of my head, I do think there’s certainly instances where justice and law don’t correspond. There are plenty of cases where the law is in the wrong.

Tell me a little bit about how all these characters got drawn into the story. I’ll admit that I was surprised to see the Black Terror in there at first because I think of him more as a straight superhero rather than a masked adventurer, but it feels like you’re playing him more in line with the rest of the cast in that respect. Did you have ground rules for what would and wouldn’t work overall with the cast?

By and large, the cast was driven by Dynamite. The origins of this project date back years before my involvement. It was an idea that [Dynamite Publisher] Nick Barrucci and [Editor] Joe Rybant and Alex Ross really wanted to pursue this crossover event with all these characters. When I was brought on board, the structure and the framework of the plot was something I brought to the table, but the cast of characters largely had been worked out by that time. There were a lot of licensing deals and approvals in the works. So I was given the cast list, and they said, “Here’s who we’d like to have in it.” Black Terror was one of those, and there were one or two characters left more up to me. For example, we knew we wanted Zorro in the mix, and it was my suggestion to have it be a generational/legacy version of Zorro rather than doing flashbacks to the original. Black Terror is just someone I think the Dynamite guys really love. He’s got a cool look to him, and while he did sit a little awkwardly with his powers, I tried to make creative use of bumping him up against the others to see how they were different.

“Masks” has become the latest of Dynamite’s projects to build its own mini line out of the initial series with “Black Bat” and “Miss Fury” following in their own books. What’s your plan for the franchise long term? Is there more work you’d like to do in this world?

I probably can’t say too much. Initially I signed on to do this one, and I wanted to work with Dynamite for a long time because they control a lot of licenses that I’d like to work on. My run on “The Shadow” came about, I think, because they were happy with the work I was doing on “Masks,” and there is another follow up we’re doing after that. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but that should be coming soon. It’s not a direct sequel like “Masks 2” or anything, but it does have a similar kind of structure with overlapping groups of characters, but it’s set in a different time period and has a different kind of vibe to it.

Speaking of your “Shadow” run which just started with issue #13, I get the feeling from reading your Tumblr that you’re an old school pulp head. Is The Shadow someone you’ve had an itch to write forever?

Not quite. Probably my favorite of all the pulp characters is Doc Savage. I relate more to Doc Savage because he refuses to kill, and he’s a smart dude who knows his science. But growing up in the ’70s at the tail end of the big pulp revival of the ’60s and ’70s, I was exposed to The Shadow early on. I was obsessed with his look, and I’ve always liked the character’s hook — the idea that he’s got this network of agents and that you never really got to see the real guy. All our exposure to him is this guise he puts on.

So The Shadow and characters like him have showed up in my stories, novels and comics over the years. I’ve just been obsessed with that character type that The Shadow is probably the best example of. One crops up towards the end of my Vertigo series “iZombie.” That was an actual ghost, but he was the ghost of a Shadow-type figure. And I did an entire novel that was those kinds of characters running around having adventures.

But it’s been an interesting process because writing “Masks” was somewhat daunting in those terms, but it was just a story that had The Shadow in it. When Dynamite called me and asked if I’d write “The Shadow” ongoing, it was an entirely different experience. I couldn’t just write another story where the Shadow showed up and acted mysterious and menacing for a few pages before passing the spotlight onto someone else. I had to take on the responsibility of adequately representing that character, his cast and his whole world. It was really fun, though, because I got to go back and re-read a bunch of the old pulps and listen to the Orson Welles radio shows and read all the old Shadow comics. So I do have some innate affinity for the character.

How did you approach this story? The elevator pitch is that you’re building up a counterpoint to The Shadow with this character called The Light. I feel like the distinction between the two is that The Shadow goes after anyone who acts criminally while The Light goes after anyone who sins in any sense of the word. What was the draw in making those distinctions between what constitutes a “wrong” act?

That’s exactly it. It’s the difference between crime — interpreted as your actions impinging on others — and sin, which is the way that your actions affect yourself. The Light is very much the opposite of The Shadow, even in terms of her background and history. The Shadow and the characters who eventually followed him were usually Westerners who end up learning mystic arts in the Himalayas or “The Mysterious Orient.” I wanted to flip that formulation in The Light so that she’s a woman from the East who is trained in the mystic ways of the West. As the story progresses, you’ll get glimpses of her background. She’s a woman from southeast Asia who was adopted by a secret order of Knights Templar-like monks in France and raised in that mystic tradition. But I really wanted to draw a contrast between The Shadow who is an agent of justice and The Light who’s an agent of judgement. She is someone who punishes sin rather than evildoers.

From Garth Ennis’ early issues of this “Shadow” series, the character has been set in an earlier part of his career in the 1930s which very much has played up the period trappings of the character. How do you view that piece of this world? Is there one place you feel a character like this works best? Personally, my favorite Shadow series has always been the Howard Chaykin to Andy Helfer run which recast him in the modern day.

I think it all depends on the circumstance. Howard Chaykin’s “Blood and Judgement” works really well because it’s a contrast between The Shadow’s original setting and the world he finds himself in in the mid ’80s. It got a lot of mileage out of taking the character out of his original context and placing him in a new one to show the contrast. He also kind of reconfigured the way the character worked. He had a pair of Uzis instead of 45s, and the outfit is slightly different.

I think The Shadow as he was originally presented with the scarf and the hat, the guns and the autogyro tends to work best in his original setting. That’s much in the same way that a lot of characters work. You can do Sherlock Holmes stories that aren’t set in Victorian England, but you have to substantially change the character to make him work there. If you’re going to take The Shadow out of the Depression-era setting, you have to tweak the way he works and looks to make him function in a different setting.

Part of this is just a very fannish impulse on my part to tell the kinds of Shadow stories I would have liked to read when I was a kid meeting the character for the first time. I think a lot of what has been done with the character before, while effective, has been a reaction to “Well, these are the kinds of Shadow stories we always see, so let’s do something different.” But for me, I want to do the kind of Shadow story that I would read but do it the way I would do it. So I was happy to return him to a New York setting in the ’30s and do all the cool stuff I’ve seen in him over the years. Maybe I’m more conservative in my creative impulses.

“Masks” #7 and “The Shadow” #13 are on sale now from Dynamite Entertainment.

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