Half-term's over! So, at the risk of sounding like I’m the kind of guy who smells like wet newspaper and breathes like his nose doesn’t work, I took a look into Archie’s Dark Circle. Putting my trademark amusingly poor intimations that I am talking about peering up a man called Archie’s arse aside for the moment let's consider that Black Mask comic that came out not an incredibly long time ago. THE BLACK HOOD by Gaydos, Swierczynski, Deering & Fitzpatrick
Anyway, this... REVIEW: SWIERCYZNSKI & GAYDOS’ BLACK MASK IS “NOT GUILTY OF ANY CRIMES INVOLVING CONGESS WITH DOMESTICATED FOWL ,AS FAR AS WE CAN TELL”: THREE STARS!!!!
BLACK MASK #1-2 Art by Michael “Gay Deer” Gaydos Written by Duane “Scrabble” Swierczynski Lettered by Rachel “One Shot” Deering Coloured by Kelly “Irish Pants” FitzPatrick Cover by Howard Victor “Flashdance” Chaykin and Jesus “Wept” Arbuto Archie Comic publications, $3.99 each (2015) Black Hood created by Harry “Mama's Little Baby Loves” Shorten in Nineteen Goddamn Forty
I guess my LCS sent this because Howard Victor Chaykin did the covers; it certainly isn’t because I’m a fan of Archie Comics. In fact I’m not even going to pretend I know anything about Archie Comics and, frankly, while I am paid a King’s ransom (a really unpopular king judging by the ransom) to do this I’m not paid enough for me to bother doing any research. It seems though that until recently Archie Comics survived far longer than anyone had any right to expect by producing amiable exercises in non-threatening nostalgia. This nostalgia was of a very American stripe and centred largely around milkshakes, paper crowns and perpetually deferred troilism. However, a few years back someone at Archie (hopefully someone actually called “Archie”.) realised Eisenhower was dead, Korea was never going to actually officially surrender and people of all colours could now use the drinking fountains. Basically, it was time to move with the times and, without ever actually having read any of their stuff, it seems they’ve done a pretty decent job. Archie Comics proper continue on but now with gay people and gun crime, and for the teen crowd there’s Archie versus zombies (with added patricide and pet sadness) and Sabrina versus Leatherface, Pumpkinhead and Cthulhu. Well, maybe something like that, because as I say I haven’t actually bothered to read any of that stuff. Despite Archie Comics taking the absurd approach of putting some thought into what they’ve done and employing talented, creative people this seems to have paid off for them with success both in sales terms and critical reception. I certainly hope no one learns from their example!
So, Black Mask is produced under Archie’s Dark Circle imprint. Archie’s Dark Circle is, as I just said, part of Archie Comics’ ongoing revelation that Zap! Pap! Pap! comics aren’t just for people who eat mashed beets anymore! Yeah! Fuck the fucking fuck off, Pops, because Dark Circle is for slightly older teens - being basically Archie’s version of Marvel’s MAX. Here, within Archie’s Dark Circle (hurr!), people are free to do what they want to do; provided what people want to do is say “fuck a doodle doo” and get shot in the face. Black Mask is a character I have no history with (e.g. I was unaware until 30 seconds ago that Rick Burchett did some pretty sweet work on the character back in the ‘90s) so I just read this comic like any other jackass. Is it true to the character? I don’t know. There it is -the kind of quality reviewing that keeps you coming back.
Physically these issues are pretty unpleasant things with the cover stock being disagreeably tactile; like the scratch pad on the side of a box of matches. Ugh! Nice art though by Howard Victor Chaykin on my covers. Inside it’s Michael Gaydos doing his very best “Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Alex Maleev…!” In fact someone should go check on Alex Maleev to see if he's okay. Michael Gaydos' art here is so much “Alex Maleev” it's not entirely beyond possibility that he fried Maleev up with some onions to ingest his essence. Y'know, like they used to do in primitive cultures, mostly around Brighouse. Look, cards, table and all that; Gaydos’ art isn’t a style I like, which doesn’t mean it isn’t any good, it just means I don’t like it. Here it’s basically the same style as Alex Maleev - all photo references and digital manipulation. To my eyes it all looks like a collage where the elements don’t sit quite right, locations are sparsely peopled, the acting veers from corpse-like to boggle eyed mania and inertia constantly presses a pillow over the face of any sense of motion. It's kind of like fumetti but with scribbling on top. (In Italy (Ay! Caramba!) I hear fumetti means all comics but I’m not in Italy, so here I just mean photographic comics. I’m very popular in Italy so I wanted to avoid any confusion amongst my Italian fans. Auf Wiedersehen, mes amis!) Unluckily for Gaydos I was reared on the revived Eagle with its Doomlord fumetti and, y’know, Alex Maleev & Michael Gaydos aren’t fit to touch the hem of Doomlord’s spangly space gown. Scribble on Doomlord and he'd take you down with a hot blast from his ring. Honestly, the art’s fine; I’m just old. Sometimes you’re just old, and shouting “Just try fucking drawing!” says more about your ossified tastes than the work at hand, so you're probably as well just waving it through and keeping schtumm. The style wasn't to my taste but it was well executed. Man, this is some even handed shit I’m doling out today. Take a picture!
Really, old man carping aside, the photographic realism underlaying it all is a good choice because I get what they are after. Yeah, I get what they are after; they are after communicating a real sense of place, that place being Philadelphia. Grounding the somewhat outré events in a hyper mundane setting isn’t a bad idea at all. Because these are some seriously outré (French for “out there”) events. Usually I get my wattles flapping over the, uh, “languorous” pacing of modern comics but here I think maybe Black Mask goes a bit too fast. Sure the hustle helps you crest the speed bumps of disbelief but the brisk pace tends to rush past stuff better dwelt on. It feels like Swierczynski is trying to get to a place where he can start his story proper, but I think he’s got enough of a proper story here already. Hopefully he’ll develop some of the stuff he’s touched on because faceache’s partner is just there, the lady is too nice, faceache’s back at work a bit quick (would you even go back to work in that state?), the drug habit is a bit “comic booky” (it only has consequences when narratively required) but, but, but, you know, shit’s happening. I mean, we’re two issues in and more has happened than in a year of most books. In the second issue the bad guys have already framed our protagonist with a combination of cat burglary and Unknown Soldier level mimicry. These pivotal bad guys just appear and do their job and while I don't want to see them quipping at each other for six bloody issues before they actually do something it's all, y'know, a bit sudden. The book goes for an odd tone – a little bit grounded but with plenty of pulp daftness. Our hero is one unlucky sumbitch and while I'm not going into it much to avoid spoilers, well, I’m not saying they lay it on a bit thick but I was waiting for a scene where he caught his balls in a drawer while looking for his socks. And it...works. I'll give it that. Beyond his plotting and tone (which is due to Gaydos in great part) I liked Swierczynski's writing. By which I mean his writing writing – the words. Not so much the dialogue, which is okay in that real-people-don't-talk-like-this-except-in-movies-but-let's-pretend-they-do way, but rather the narration. This is in that flat style crime books favour but Swierczynski doesn’t pare it back so much it’s like the narrator’s got neurological damage (“I pulled the trigger. And I didn’t stop until the fast things stopped coming out. My shoes are brown. Cake is nice.” (Brubaking as it’s called; it’s a joke! Lighten up, or you’ll get lines on your face!)) (Hard) boiled down as it is Swiercynski, retains a sense of character, and that's no small writing trick to pull.
Oh yeah, so going back a bit, the creators are clearly all about a convincing real world setting. Philadelphia is, apparently, real. (I know! You come for the scans but you stay for the facts!) In the letters column Duane Swierczynski says that apparently some people call it ‘Killadelphia’. Having endured certain other people’s backmatter in the past I suspected a bit of, um,over dramatizing there but, because I am a fair man, I googled it and, yes, Philadelphia is apparently “the murder capital of the USA”, which is some kind of achievement. With, no doubt, a heavy heart indeed Duane Swierczynski makes the place look even worse. People love that don’t they? There are going to be letters galore for this book, and I bet you a night down the Bingo not one (Not. A. Single. Solitary. One.) will say “Actually, there are some very nice bits of Philadelphia, and to be honest I don’t think you’re doing the place any favours at all.” No, it’ll all be about how the letter writer had to kick their way through piles of burning dogs to get to their LCS and how they were stabbed ninety seven times just cleaning the oven and ,damn, if Black Hood hasn’t just captured to a tee the filthy depravity that is every square Hellish inch of Philadelphia (motto: “Stay the fuck away!”) Bunch of lightweights, I say. Check Basingstoke out sometime: everyone there uses each others faces as toilets – out of choice! So, yeah, people are weird; people’s pride manifests in strange ways, but it always manifests in some way. I think it would be a mite healthier if the creatives involved took pride in having made an enjoyable and decent comic. If you enjoyed Alex Maleev’s work on Daredevil but wished it was better written Black Mask might well be the book for you. Black Mask is GOOD! I'll probably keep getting it – result!