Thursday, January 12, 2012

How Dangerous a Mask Can Be -- The Fascination with the Masked Hero in Pulps

“You be careful. People in masks cannot be trusted.” -- Fezzik, The Princess Bride

“We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.” -- Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

“All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.” -- Friedrich Nietzsche

"As we ascend the social ladder, viciousness wears a thicker mask." -- Erich Fromm

No matter how often we writers use them metaphorically, when it comes to pulp fiction, the masks are often more real than symbolic. Sure, I'll admit they can be both, but regardless of any symbolism they might have in the story, the mask itself has found a regular address in pulp stories, but old and new.

What is so fascinating about writing the exploits of a masked hero? Why are pulp and comics so full of them? Does the mask mean anything anymore outside of a mere set-piece for a type or genre of story? And if it's only window dressing, then what makes  the masked hero so darn compelling to both writers and readers?

Once again, I turned to the writers of new pulp and comics for answers.

Where did your interest (as a reader) in the masked heroes of pulp originate?

Lee Houston, Jr.:
I was just starting to venture into reading comic books when Batman teamed up with The Shadow back in the 1970s. (Yes, I'm that old.) After I read a few issues of the DC produced Shadow comic book with Denny O'Neil writing and Michael Wm. Kalutaa art, I finally found a couple of the paperback Shadow reprints and was hooked, although this was after I had already read A Princess of Mars. But before the comic books, I was already familiar with the concept of masked hero between characters like Space Ghost and the Lone Ranger on television.

John Morgan Neal: Comics and paperbacks. Specially DC's adaptation of Justice Inc. and The Shadow in the '70s and while he isn't masked

Marvel's Doc Savage comic and magazine in the '70s. And the paperbacks reprints of the original pulp stories of Doc, The Shadow, the Avenger and others in my favorite used book store David's Books. This is also when I devoured Tarzan and Jon Carter and Pellucidar . And the Star Trek novels. Good ol' Bantam books.

Erwin K. Roberts: Who needed to read? At age four I had the greatest all-ages "gateway drug" imaginable. Three nights a week WXYZ Radio gave us Brace Beemer as "The Lone Ranger." Top that! Plus, my family believed in reading aloud. This, too, was action packed fair. Robin Hood and Thor illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Kipling, "The Swiss Family Robinson," even Carl Barks' ducks. When I did find the new Shadow paperbacks the radio show had been revived. Plus I found odd issues of "The Phantom Detective" & "Masked Rider Western." Finally I began picking up both reprints and, at conventions, hero pulps.

Scott McCullar: As a kid, I was first drawn to super-heroes through cartoons and comics at a very, very young age. When I was about 12, I was sucked into the world of James Bond with Ian Fleming’s novels and later read the World War III series called THE GUARDIANS in the mid-1980’s.

I really didn’t get into true pulp novels until the late 1990’s when I think actually segued into them courtesy of THE GREEN LAMA. I had actually picked up a few genuine Golden Age comics drawn by Mac Raboy from the 1940’s and had discovered some of the golden time radio shows of the GREEN LAMA’s adventures along with the original BLUE BEETLE that I loved. Being curious, I picked up a reprint of a GREEN LAMA pulp fiction novel. "Om mani padme hum!”

From there, I picked up a few art books on pulp fiction covers that just filled my imagination as an artist. I would then pick up and read some reprints or any that I might find in used book stores.

Andrea Judy: Okay, so my love of masked heros actually started with court jesters. I was amazed by their masks and costumes (I was an odd child…) and that led to a love of superheroes through Harley Quin and the Joker. As far as pulp masked heros I'm still very new and exploring the genre. It's a very recent interest and I'm always cautious and slow to jump into new things, but so far it seems very promising.

As a writer, what is it about masked pulp heroes that drives you to write them?

Lee Houston, Jr.: Well, I've only just started writing about them with my forthcoming contributions to the Pulp Obscura project, but as stated above, I have definitely been interested in them for years. Regardless of how I came into the genre, it is the longing to always want to do right and help those in need that keeps me coming back as a reader.

John Morgan Neal: I think they are one of the most primal and one of the most Americanized art forms in the world and like most Americanized art forms have been retaken by others and given new life and new vistas by the Europeans and Japanese. For me it's just plain fun. And the formula still provides plenty of punch and room for experimentation and excitement. Ironically I don't have any masked pulp/comic hero characters that I have published but they are a huge part of who and what I am as a writer/reader and I need to get on that horse soon. The masked hero of mystery just works. For those whom it doesn't work for I pity them.

Erwin K. Roberts: Some have been assignments. Like the Moon Man for Airship-27. But I jumped at the chance to write the Masked Rider and the Phantom (Detective). And probably would again. Creating new adventures for heroes that have entertained me provides me with great satisfaction. And I will respect their history. Strangely, my own characters tend not to wear masks. Like Secret Agent-X and others, the Voice  spends almost all of his working hours in disguise. He mostly puts on a mask to conceal the face he's wearing.

Scott McCullar: I love the gritty, unforgiving brutality of the genre. I love unapologetic titillation of the temptresses in these tales. I love being whisked away in my mind to exotic lands, dank drenched back alleys, and looking at the character flaws that these protagonists carry around with them like a ball and chain.

Andrea Judy: I love the concept of the masked hero! I always have. I have an obsession with masks in particular so the hero who hides his/her face from the world is a huge temptation. I enjoy the fact that the mask can become and represent so many things. The reasons behind wearing the mask are as important as what the mask looks like. It adds another layer to the character.

Do you see the masked hero as a timeless tradition for pulps, or did it evolve to comics while pulps evolved into 50's Noir, 60's spy thrillers, and so on?

Lee Houston, Jr.: Considering my personal background, that's kind of hard for me to say. If anything, the concept might have grown too big to be contained just within the pulps. But I will definitely agree with the timelessness of the characters.

John Morgan Neal: That's poppycock. Pulp is what it is. Pulp hasn't changed or evolved one bit. It has expanded and grown and in some ways grown more 'sophisticated'. But deep down pulp is pulp and still covers many genres. Now, if we're talking actual major publishing then yes I suppose pulp has leaned in that direction but that is the publisher's -- not the genre's -- doing. Pulp is a style as much or more than what genres it covers (indeed, I think steampunk is pulp) and the masked hero can and always will be able to be told in that style. As long as The Shadow and The Spider and The Avenger live so will masked hero pulp.

Erwin K. Roberts: Mystery men are a long held tradition. But the masked avenger is relatively new. As far as I know the first "Masked Rider of the Plains" was Deadwood Dick in Dime Novels beginning about 1880. The irony here is that the pulp paper hero had frontier women swooning in all directions. But the historical Deadwood Dick was a rowdy former slave turned cowboy.

Pulp style action did migrate in a lot of directions. To paperbacks. To TV. To films. But the masked hero tradition mostly faded away, except for comics. (Disney's Zorro TV series being a major exception. But the less said about the Batman series, the better.) Mack Bolan and his platoon of imitators, brought paul style action roaring back. But not the masked/mystery man part.

Scott McCullar: In my mind, yes it is all connected like the spokes to an oscillating desk fan that you would see on Philip Marlowe’s desk.

Andrea Judy: I think pulp has evolved in a number of different directions while still retaining it's heart. It branches outwards but the origin of the movement is still there as well.


Look for these creators on the links to the right to check out more of their work:

Lee Houston Jr. is a freelance writer and editor. He is the author of HUGH MONN and is writing for the forthcoming THE NEW ADVENTURES OF THE EAGLE VOLUME ONE from Pulp Obscura.

J. Morgan Neal is co-creator (along with Todd Fox) of AYM GERONIMO AND THE POSTMODERN PIONEERS, and he was a founder, partner, editor and writer at Shooting Star Comics. He was the co-creator and co-writer of GONE TO TEXAS and REX SOLOMON along with Gregg Noon and the soon to debut THEM! along with artist and co-creator Rob Bavington.

Erwin K. Roberts is the author of PLUTONIUM NIGHTMARES, featuring his second generation pulp hero The Voice, and a contributor to JIM ANTHONY - SUPER DETECTIVE. Erwin is also wries regularly for the on-line Pulp Spirit magazine at His "cousin" Bob Kennedy is an Assistant Editor for the site.

Scott McCullar is a comic book writer and artist who has written and drawn for various comic book publishers such as DC Comics, Shooting Star Comics, West End Games, Campfire Comics and IDW Publishing. Scott is also the creator of Thrill Seeker Comics™ Featuring The Yellow Jacket Man of Mystery™ that he writes and illustrates.

Andrea Judy is far too cute, too sweet and too girly to possibly write anything as dark and twisted as she does, or so she is told. She is new to pulp, but is looking to make a splash this year in several anthologies that are in the works from publishers ranging from New Babel Books to Pro Se Productions’ Pulp Obscura imprint.