The pulp heroes of yesteryear are gathering to battle crime and the fascist forces of evil in Dynamite Entertainment's "Masks," a new series written by Chris Roberson with cover illustrations and the first issue's interior artwork done by acclaimed painter Alex Ross.
Beginning with this week's release of the first chapter of the eight issue miniseries, "Masks" sees pulp heroes the Shadow, Green Hornet and Kato, Miss Fury, The Spider and others cross paths when 1930s New York is taken over by American fascists. As the villains, known ironically as the Party of Justice, ascend to power and institute a police state, the masked heroes and anti-heroes converge on the city to fight for justice and take down the corrupted mockery of law and order.
Ross spoke with CBR about his work on the project, including how he changed his typical artistic process for the series, the historical connection between pulp art and comic art and his own love for the characters.
CBR News: You did the interior artwork for the first issue of "Masks" as well as the cover. Moving forward, will you continue to provide any interior art for the series?
Alex Ross: My only commitment was to have done the first issue, so this is what you get of me. But I am, of course, on all the other covers and will maintain involvement in that and with other books that are going to be launching based upon characters from "Masks."
What drew you to doing the interiors for this very first issue of "Mask?"
Just the excitement of wanting to make sure that it could be as strongly embraced as possible! We all thought this was a big deal to have these characters meet in this story; in all crossovers that have happened in the last twenty years, this would be the very oldest concepts finally meeting and connecting. Since we could do it under this one company, we thought that was a very unique opportunity to pursue and wanted to make sure it's seen as big of an event as we can make it be.
You've done a ton of other covers and work with Dynamite with these pulp characters. Were you a fan of the "Masks" heroes as a kid, or were they something you got into as an adult?
Well, the art history of comics has strong roots in the world of pulps where a lot of these characters were featured prominently, mainly the Shadow. I have a childhood connection to him from looking at his artwork from that era as well as listening to the radio show, so I was always fascinated with the Shadow and always wanted to connect with him in particular. The roots of where comics came from is very important, to my perception, of what is important in comics. It's always something I want to go back to, especially when I often feel as a contemporary fan that things get so far removed from their origins. I want to be a force pointing back, looking at those origins again, looking back at the way things started.
You're well suited for that role, as so many of those pulp magazine covers had a similar painterly, realistic style to what you're known for.
Ultimately, as an artist, I'm just a continuation of that legacy, of that style of work. A lot of those paintings were done in the exact same media that I work in, so it's a connection that I brought, along with other painters, into comic books as far as interior illustration. Everything that I do is the way artists worked seventy, eighty years ago.
For this first issue, what was your art process? What medium did you use?
I used gouache, which is an opaque form of watercolor. That's my primary media, so there's a little bit of airbrushing mixed in, but for the most part it's hand-painted gouache, and that's essentially what was done years ago. There's no different thing that I bring in -- again, photography made an enormous impact as a reference source for working on American illustration in the mid-twentieth century, so around the time these things were coming to be, these pulp magazines, is when you get much bigger photo impact into illustration. I use live models and collected a bunch of my friends together to shoot, or for the purposes of the story, to cast as different characters!
Did you do any other research into the time period, such as referencing old propaganda posters or covers with specific characters?
Certainly, there's a lot of different interpretations here at play. My version of Spider that Dynamite accepted a year ago to use on the contemporary version of the Golden Age version of the character is inspired from the movie serials. The look the character had in his stories was something that I was never even aware of as a kid. I only knew about the images of this guy wearing a hat, cape and covered in spider webs [from the serials]. To me, it seemed obvious that a character named Spider would have this look connected to spiders! I always thought of him as a very interesting precursor to Spider-Man, obviously. But that interpretation is one thing.
We have embraced a certain revision of the Green Hornet character as designed by John Cassaday for the "Green Hornet: Year One" series, where his inspiration was also from the movie serial version of the character, in contrast with what he was in the pulps. With somebody like the Shadow, as much as I look back at the art of the original pulp style of drawing his face and, really, a lot of the presence of the character, it's the costume he was given by later artists for the DC Comics series -- Michael Kaluta -- that gave him this refined coat version of his costume instead of just a pure cape. I'm bringing in that element just because it's become more identifiable with the look of the character.
Talking about aesthetic, a big part of the recognizable "Ross style" is how you play with light and illumination. This first issue and the covers we've seen seem a lot softer and darker than your superhero work. Is this something that you were deliberately going for in this story?
I was trying to do something slightly different -- it's all an experiment. I worked with color as a base, first, instead of pure black and white. People assume that my process would be the same as it always is, where I often use a black and white base I just fill with color: This was the reverse. Pretty much all the pages you see, I laid in broad areas of bright color across scenes, like green over the area of Green Hornet and Kato and bright red over the area of the Shadow, to sort of differentiate the two. Then, I painted broad areas of washes of black over the darkness and over that area so there's still color underlying everything, almost denying the idea that if I'm going to do a '30s-era image of something that I would veer towards black and white instead of color! Going back to those pulp magazine covers, they were very lively with color. There was no subduing of color for the sake of the time period -- they were trying to achieve the brightness that they could. Of course, these characters themselves are so garbed in black, most of them, that I have to try and transplant color where I can.
While you've obviously painted the character before, as a childhood fan, do you still get a little thrill painting the Shadow?
Oh, yeah! It was very important for me to get a chance to do his alter-ego, because I wanted to show how I perceived this man's face as distinctive without the hood and scarf on. When you see that face, you go, "Oh boy, that guy's the Shadow!" There's some inspiration also taken from how he was handled by Dave Stevens when Dave had written him into the "Rocketeer" series back in the day -- he did so without any kind of corporate approval, because the character was not identified by the name you would know. But you could see by the look of his features that he was clearly the Shadow! [Laughs] I basically have him wearing the same white tuxedo with the red carnation that Stevens did because I'm paying homage to that, in part.
Chris Roberson is the writer for "Masks" -- what was it like collaborating with him on these pulp characters?
Well, they kept me completely removed from Chris the entire time I worked on this project! [Laughs] Any of the notes that I had regarding what I would have liked to have done with some of the pacing for the issue I drew, he incorporated. I just shot over a direction of different things I'd like to achieve, everything from how I'd like the issue to open with a certain amount of action to my wanting to get to the crossovers immediately. I did not want a reader to have to go through several pages or the whole issue before you understand that these characters are here to cross over. That that's the selling point. I wanted to get that right up front and center in the project, and he was nice enough to oblige.
I'm perfectly happy with the amount of characters that did come forth in the issue; there's a couple we're planting the seeds for, heroes who haven't even found themselves yet, but will become the heroes they are going to be, and I got a chance to establish them to a certain extent. Again, I'm very satisfied I got to draw at least a good bulk of these heroes crossing over right away, getting them together in one scene. I can say Miss Fury is front and center in the next issue, along with the Green Lama. They get their part established right away. Margo Lane [the Shadow's girlfriend and character in issue #1] is a classic pulp and radio and cinema character, so it was a big deal to get the chance to do her because she is someone from prior fiction.
You mentioned that there's an idea to launch characters and comics off of "Masks." Is there anything you can tell us about that at this time?
I'll just say that some of these characters who have not gotten comics in the past several years are getting their own right away on the heels of "Masks," using "Masks" as a springboard. But we're not doing a series where you have to read ten others just to understand [the story]; these things will be entirely of their own storyline, spinning off into different directions. This is more just trying to give life to another group of characters that deserve that presence,. Some of the characters -- Miss Fury had been one of the first female superheroes, as well as done by one of the predominant female creators in comics history, and the fact that character happened when it happened is quite a unique part of comics!
"Masks" #1 is available now in print and digitally.