DC's Year of the Villain specials have appropriately highlighted various antagonists within the DC Universe, providing a showcase of what has made them so effectively evil for years while giving them a bit of a power boost in the process. The latest special focuses on the longtime Batman villain Black Mask, with the creative team of Tom Taylor and Cully Hamner revisiting the insidious enemy's origins before giving him a startling new direction that seems wholly within his sinister wheelhouse.
Back on the streets after a recent prison break, Black Mask immediately goes about rebuilding his criminal empire with a quick heist where he recounts his history to a hapless hostage. Confronted by a newly omnipotent Lex Luthor, Black Mask is given an offer he can't refuse, leading Renee Montoya and Batwoman to team up and learn what the fearsome villain is up to next in his latest bid to regain the power he had lost after his incarceration.
Black Mask has always been one of the more twisted, horrific antagonists in Batman's extensive rogues' gallery, and Taylor leans into this with his take on the character. The first act of the issue is largely dedicated to showing Black Mask's civilian alter ego of Roman Sionis as a sort of dark reflection of Bruce Wayne, a wealthy son of Gotham City heavily influenced by his parents. Taylor's revisited origin story for the villain really sets the mood for the whole issue moving forward.
The remainder of the story, set firmly in the present day DC Universe, replaces tragic, unhappy childhoods by reimagining Black Mask as more of a horror villain than a mob boss with an especially macabre sense of fashion. The departure is one of the more drastic ones than ones previously seen within DC Comics' overarching Year of the Villain initiative spiraling out of the pages of Justice League but, given Roman Sionis' history both before and after his evil turn, certainly fits within the character. The shift in perspective from Black Mask to Montoya and Batwoman is a little jarring, but Taylor has a firm grasp on both heroic characters' voices and it does serve to build the mystery behind the nature of Black Mask's power upgrade from Luthor.
Cully Hamner, joined by colorist Dave Stewart, has been delivering gritty, street-level stories for years to well-deserved acclaim and the art team's work here is similarly gorgeously rendered. Black Mask's origins have an appropriately gothic, creepy atmosphere which gives way to more traditionally superhero-tinged visuals as the story moves into the present. First seen in the shadows, the newly augmented Black Mask has the book's artwork transition more to horror and Hamner knows how to frame the creeping dread lurking within darkness effectively. There is one scene transition towards the end of the book that comes off as a bit confusing but, overall, Hamner and Stewart deliver the horror-tinged thrills with visual aplomb.
So far DC's Year of the Villain specials have really taken advantage of the various genres in which their eponymous antagonists are nominally linked to. The earlier Sinestro special had veered heavily into high concept, bombastic space opera whereas the latest special focusing on Black Mask blends street-level superhero action with atmospheric, creepy flourishes of horror. Setting the mood with a look back at Roman Sionis' criminal origins, Tom Taylor and Cully Hamner have created a bold, new direction for the longtime villain that feels perfectly within the character's nature, setting the stage for darker, more horrific things to come.