Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. This was supposed to be a Halloween celebration, featuring Heroes Who Are Monsters. Isn’t The Mask the nerd who turns into a cartoon character in that goofy Jim Carrey movie? What’s monstrous about him?
Well, here’s the thing: you’re thinking about the movie. But the movie was based on a comic book, and the comic book was a vastly different animal.
Written by John Arcudi and drawn by Doug Mahnke (at least in its first few incarnations), The Mask followed the adventures of a series of characters who come into possession of a magical mask which transforms the wearer into what is basically a Warner Brothers-style cartoon character, with two major differences.
Number one, the mask corrupts the characters and drives them crazy over time. And number two, although the person wearing the mask can suffer incredible damage and bounce back instantly like Wile E. Coyote, nobody else is so lucky.
The story got its start as a series of black-and-white shorts in the anthology title Dark Horse Presents. Schlemiel Stanley Ipkiss, played by Jim Carrey in the movie, is a down-on-his-luck nerd who gets bullied by everybody and dreams of revenge.
In an attempt to keep his inexplicably hot girlfriend Kathy, he buys her a present, an antique mask she had admired in the shop. But it seems as if the mask is following him, calling to him, so he tries it on.
The mask gives Stanley the ability to shake off virtually any injury, as well making him able to basically rewrite the rules of physics for anything in his immediate vicinity. The first thing he does is take revenge on a motorcycle gang that beat him up. Then he makes up a list of everyone he has sworn revenge on, including the mechanics who ripped him off on car repairs (a scene recalled in the movie) and his kindly old first grade teacher. However, Kath, his girlfriend, is not thrilled with the new vengeful Stanley.
Stanley is frightened at what he has become and decides to stop using the mask. But then he remembers that there’s one more guy on his revenge list, so Stanley tries to break in to Kathy’s apartment to steal the mask. Problem is, Kathy hears him and calls the cops, saying there’s an intruder. Trapped by cops, Stanley puts on the mask, with deadly consequences for the cops, especially once the mask fully takes hold.
Yeah, that’s a cop being basically liquefied by gunfire in the middle panel. Finally Stanley decides to get rid of it. However, Kathy, who has finally figured out the secret of the mask, doesn’t trust him to do it. So she shoots him after he takes it off and claims the mask for herself.
The story continued in The Mask, a color four-issue miniseries. Kathy brings the mask to Detective Lt. Kellaway, the man who investigated the Big Head murders (“Big Head” being the name by which Stanley was known when wearing the mask). Kellaway is skeptical despite Kathy’s dire warnings.
Kellaway ends up trying the mask on and using both its power and its anonymity to kill powerful mob figures who seem beyond the reach of the police. One of the guys he ends up running afoul of is Walter, a gigantic mute brute who is a combination of Michael Myers from Halloween and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, only in a nicer suit. Walter later got his own miniseries, discussed here.
In one of Kellaway’s first forays with the mask, he has this classic scene which ended up being referenced in the movie.
Try though he might to remain a good cop, though, Kellaway also succumbs to the mask’s evil. Every time he tries to use the mask’s power to redeem himself, it backfires and he is drawn further into its web, until he too has a violent showdown with the cops and nearly kills his own partner.
Kellaway rushes home and buries the mask in his basement under cement, hoping to keep its evil from corrupting anyone else. In the next miniseries, The Mask Returns, mob hit men attack Kellaway in his home. Desperate, he locks himself in the basement and tries to dig up the mask, but the hoods shoot him before he can put it on. As they are making their getaway, one of the thugs puts the mask on getaway driver Nunzio, a nebbishy loser, as a joke. The joke is on him, though. Big Head crashes the car, killing all the occupants except himself, then goes on a spree.
So Nunzio, as Big Head, kills the boss of his outfit and takes over, starting wars with other rival mobs. Meanwhile, Kelleway is in a coma, so Kathy decides on a plan to get the mask back herself. Step one:
She becomes Big Head’s girlfriend, and finally convinces him to take the mask off so they can have sex.
Nunzio can’t bear to give up the mask, so Kathy is forced to kill him. As she flees with the mask, she is forced to put it on to avoid being killed. But she is grounded and skeptical enough that she actually questions what the others have taken for granted.
She tries to destroy the mask, but it is indestructible. And meanwhile, the mob war started by Nunzio continues to escalate, until Kathy feels compelled to don the mask just to try to bring a little peace. Which is when she runs afoul of Walter, newly released from prison.
Kathy and Walter have a nasty two-issue fight. Kathy may be indestructible while wearing the mask, but Walter is implacably brutal, until finally…
Kathy offers the mask to Walter, but he hesitates to take it. And then Kellaway, lately returned from his coma, knocks Walter into the ocean with his car along with the mask, which seems lost forever.
And that was it for a couple of years, until the release of the movie made the character hot again. Arcudi and Mahnke did another miniseries titled The Mask Strikes Back, which toned down the brutality, blood and body count to bring it more in line with the movie, which subsequent writer/artist teams watered down even more, while taking the character further and further from his roots. By the time of The Mask: World Tour, the character had completed a 360 by circling back to the cartoony nonsense of the first few black-and-white stories.
For me, though, the series really ended with the conclusion of The Mask Returns, when the Mask stopped making people into monsters.