If Phil Hester has his way, the next female superhero to hit comics shops will feature a considerably smaller amount of "Va Va Voom" and a higher quantity of valiant villain-smashing. Digging into the pulpy roots of superheroes, the acclaimed writer and artist serves as the latest mainstream talent to team with illustrator Alex Ross on a spinoff of Dynamite Entertainment's "Project Superpowers" series. This time, Hester teams up to write "Masquerade" with art by original "Project Superpowers" penciler Carlos Paul.
"She definitely fell into the cheesecake-with-a-gun stereotype as represented by the likes of Lady Luck and Blonde Phantom," Hester told CBR of adventurer Diana Adams' Golden Age days as the Nedor Comics heroine Miss Masque. "The great thing about her past stories is that they never really bothered with an origin, so it gave me some room to back up and give her a reason for being a super heroine in the first place. It's stretches credulity for a bright, pretty, rich young lady to pick up a gun and fight crime without some motivating tragedy behind that decision, especially since she has no powers. So giving Diana Adams a proper origin was one of the most enticing parts of the project."
Hester believes origins involve more than murdered parents and radioactive accidents, and "Masquerade" specifically sets out to develop the character's role asÂ a detective, an asset less seen in the "Project Superpowers" male characters like The Black Terror and The Fighting Yank. "Unlike all those big guns, she has no powers. Nothing," Hester explained. "She must rely on her wits because even her pistols are pretty small potatoes when faced with something like The Claw. I tried to make her special by describing her intellect as almost super human in that she's able, due to a childhood trauma, to imagine herself outside her body. This perspective allows her to observe any dilemma dispassionately and solve problems that go beyond linear logic. She's the brains of the outfit! In issue #1, Black Terror is almost patronizing with her until she puzzles out how to save the day."
Like his leading lady, Hester holds plenty of perspective on the comics industry and comics history. With writing work that stretches back to his breakout hit "The Coffin" to a current stint on "The Darkness" and an even greater variety of pencil work that includes "Green Arrow" and the recent "El Diablo," Hester holds a reputation for utilizing classic pulp concepts mixed with modern storytelling sensibilities. Of course, his start on "Masquerade" stretches back to one of his earliest pulp-heavy art gigs -- drawing the cult series "Footsoldiers" for "Project Superpowers" co-writer and co-mastermindÂ Jim Krueger.Â
"I think everyone knows Jim is a 'big idea' guy," Hester said. "He's all about the high concept. Just like 'Earth X,' 'Footsoldiers,' and any number of Jim's concepts, 'Project Superpowers' comes at you like an old Kirby comic, overflowing with new ideas. When you toss in Alex's respect for the source material and his always amazing concept designs the project becomes irresistible for a guy like me.
"What appealed to me as a writer was the task of putting a human face on these larger than life characters," Hester continued. "I mean, Jim writes them like real people, but the pace of the original series is so breakneck that the story functions more like a myth in widescreen. I've been allowed to slow things down and deal with more intimate stuff on Masquerade. I hope the story is just as compelling, but I will definitely be tackling it from a street level as opposed to the pantheon level we saw in 'PS.'
"Like a lot of guys my age, I read the covers off of Steranko's 'History of Comics.' There was no way I was ever going to afford a Jack Cole Plastic Man in junior high, but I could read Jim Steranko's breathless condensed summaries of them all day. Remember how excited you were as a kid when you figured out The Human Torch and The Hulk were functioning in the same universe? Well, reading about these old characters was that same sense of discovery all over again. There are dozens and dozens of rich, under-explored comic book universes out there, and 'PS' is reintroducing one of them to everyone."
The introduction of a brand new superhero universe doesn't come without a fair amount of characters, and in the case of "Project Superpowers," the launch of the first series didn't leave much time for in-depth character sketching, which is where Hester comes in. "That's my goal. The larger series is so epic and sprawling that I wanted to step back, focus, and tell one of these character's stories from start to finish. That said, we do have some flashbacks to Diana Adams' childhood that reveal the event that drove her to become Miss Masque in the first place.
"She's almost a blank slate, so I could give her all sorts of back story that didn't conflict with established continuity. The real joy came in writing one character at several distinct ages and finding the similarities between those different voices that made it clear she was undergoing some kind of progression from 1936 to 2009. It's rare that you get to cover the entire breadth of a sixty-plus-year-old character's career in one story."
But even with a singular focus on Masquerade, Hester promised that the character won't be alone in her debut miniseries, and fans can keep their eyes peeled for both villains and heroes to drop in. "Miss Masque had nothing in the way of a rogue's gallery, and all the cool Nedor and Gleason villains are spoken for, so I was forced to make up some bad guys, which is always fun," he said. "In our first issue, Masquerade runs afoul of a Nazi death cult and a spirit-powered giant robot. In the second issue, she tangles with a race of lizard men with the help of Pyroman. And in the third issue, she meets the big bad guy of the whole series, who I'm sure readers of the original series know, but I don't want to spoil here."
Readers of the first "Project Superpowers" series doubtlessly know the art of Carlos Paul inside and out, but Hester explained that the penciler's greatest strength remains his ability to stay in step with Ross' vision. "Alex's versions of all these characters is so spot-on that I can't imagine anyone wanting to deviate from them," remarked Hester. "Carlos brings a very fluid, clean, yet organic look to 'Masquerade.' It's fun to watch him manage to turn even talking heads pages into cascades of lavishly drawn figures and machines. He's the real star of the book. I guess my goal should have been to make sure the word balloons weren't too big so you could see more of his artwork."
When all is said and done, building on the base Alex Ross and Jim Krueger have set is Phil Hester's ultimate goal, with hopes that the iconic roots of the characters will feel fresh rather than dated. "The cool part about the 'PS' heroes specifically is that they were more or less untouched since the Golden Age," Hester said. "Batman is waterlogged with nearly seventy years of continuity, but Black Terror is relatively fresh since his books ran out of steam at the end of the Golden Age. What's neat about Alex's take is that he insists all these Golden Age tales took place in our continuity, and that when the original books ceased the characters went into limbo until we see them today. So it's almost like we went back in time, scooped these heroes out of the past from the moment they ceased publication and dropped them into modern comics.
"The fun of that comes not only with dealing with fresh concepts, but using the language and mannerisms of the day. It's fun to write a character that says 'Gosh!' and means it."
"Masquerade" #1 goes on sale in February from Dynamite Entertainment.