Year of the Villain: Black Mask #1 review

When DC’s Year of the Villain was first announced I found a great deal of promise in the idea, but wasn’t sure exactly what the vision and end goal was. With Tom Taylor and Cully Hamner’s Black Mask: Year of the Villain, I hoped to gain a better idea of what DC’s vision is for this storyline besides just having Lex Luthor crossover into every book. Unfortunately, due to a by the numbers script and some uninspiring art, Black Mask: Year of the Villain fails to justify its existence as both a one-shot story and as a piece or a larger event.

To start things off, the comic opens with a well done recap of Black Mask’s origin. Taylor is a very efficient writer and he knows how to inject a lot of emotion and exposition into just a few pages. We see Roman Sionis as a child try to show his mother an animal skull he found in the yard, only to be rebuked by her and then struck by his father. It’s an unpleasant scene to read, though effective, as we understand Roman’s obsession with masks and his sense of self loathing. These feelings are only enhanced when the Wayne family visits the household. Hamner’s art shines the most in this brief scene. Roman’s face is adequately awkward, especially in comparison to young Bruce’s traditionally handsome looks. Additionally, the way he draws young Bruce’s smile is filled with a lot of conflicting emotions as it looks simultaneously warm yet rehearsed. Through Roman’s eyes, Bruce’s smile can be seen as an unassuming jab at how better looking he is. Ironically, the Wayne family murders inspire Roman to burn his own parents alive and inherit their fortune. This does make Roman’s origin similar to Hush’s, but whether or not this is truly detrimental will depend on how much subsequent writers differentiate the two characters. It’s a risky path to take, but Roman being a dark mirror version of Bruce can be a good foundation for Black Mask to further grow.

Credit: Cully Hamner, Dave Stewart, Wes Abbott

Despite an effective origin recap, most people are interested in seeing what exactly Lex Luthor will offer Black Mask to help him gain power. After helping him escape a hostage standoff situation, Luthor offers Black Mask a new face and a plan to takeover a rival company from the inside. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that offer, I find it to be relatively uninspired. When the concept of Lex Luthor’s offers was first introduced, I found it very intriguing and saw it as a way to potentially turn the DC Universe upside down as the villains would finally have what they need to win once and for all. But to be blunt, Luthor’s offer to Black Mask does not feel like a game changer. The scene itself is unimpressive with Hamner’s rougher style of art doing no favors to enhance the dialogue. Hamner’s style works better in close ups and detailed backgrounds as his rough style lends texture to both. Here, Luthor and Black Mask talk atop a roof top with more wide shots, not allowing Hamner or colorist Dave Stewart to lean into that strength. Stewart’s colors overall do a great job of softening Hamner’s pencils, but the palette in this scene is also off-putting, with a strangely beige sky dominating most panels. I’d guess that color of sky was chosen since Luthor himself is blue. It doesn’t work.

With an underwhelming offer from Luthor to Black Mask, I thought the issue was completely doomed, but Taylor’s switch to focus on Renee Montoya and Kate Kane in Atlanta does wonders. I like Batwoman, but found some of her recent story lines to be mired in sadness and angst so it’s nice to see a quieter moment between her and Renee. Renee was present to see Black Mask escape the hostage situation from earlier and asks Kate to help take him down. Having seen that many of Black Mask’s former thugs have been employed by a pharmaceutical company, Renee and Kate investigate, thinking the CEO is under duress. There are a few good moments in this investigation scene. One is when a panel reveals that this company is the same one that Luthor ordered Black Mask to take over and the other is when they see the CEO is the man Black Mask is impersonating. Renee is unaware that the CEO is Black Mask in disguise, so there’s a good amount of tension in knowing Renee and Kate are attempting to rescue Black Mask from…himself. This stake out scene is another highlight of the book. Seeing Renee and Kate work together is something I’d like to see more. The art also takes a step up as Hamner’s style works well with Batwoman’s costume. The scene is lively, the panels create tension and twist the narrative in unison with the dialogue, and Hamner gets to draw some close ups. Also, the sky is blue in this scene. That helps.

Credit: Cully Hamner, Dave Stewart, Wes Abbott

With the stakes finally established, Renee and Kate head down to intercept the CEO as he gets into his limo. Hamner gets to flex his action sequence muscles to their fullest extent as the disguised Black Mask almost gets the jump on Renee. The shot of Batwoman crashing through the limo window is Hamner at his best. It’s dramatic, well rendered, and most importantly incredibly clear what’s going on. Hamner’s sense of movement doesn’t always translate for me, but here you can practically hear the glass shatter as Batwoman kicks through it.

Credit: Cully Hamner, Dave Stewart, Wes Abbott

It’s a shame that this great panel is immediately followed up with an incredibly unclear sequence showing Black Mask apparently lose his CEO disguise. I cannot tell what’s going on here. Does any amount of force get rid of Roman’s fake face?  And what’s going on in the second panel? Did he fire off another round? It feels like it’s only there to bridge the unclear gap of how Black Mask loses his disguise. Kate does get to lay down another blow to Black Mask before he escapes, but it is frustrating to have Kate let him get away, though her making sure Renee is okay is a good enough excuse. The wrap up is also mildly underwhelming as Black Mask sets his sights on stealing another CEO’s identity to take over the company. This type of circular storytelling tries to end the issue on an ominous note, but it just makes me feel like nothing substantial happened.

Year of the Villain has great potential as a concept. It started off with a bang when Luthor apparently killed himself and divulged his vast fortune to his fellow villains. Unfortunately, I’ve felt that most of his subsequent offers have not been game-changing enough to justify crossing over into other main titles and especially not enough to justify an entire one-shot. Taylor is a good writer, his rendition of Kate and Renee’s relationship is extremely well done, but he’s shackled by working within a premise that promises huge changes despite not delivering any. This issue didn’t leave me wanting to see more Year of the Villain, but instead made me want to see Taylor on a Batwoman title.

Recommended if:

  • You want to see more of Luthor’s offers.
  • You’re a fan of Kate Kane and Renee Montoya.
  • You believe in Year of the Villain’s potential as a storyline.

Overall: Black Mask: Year of the Villain is not a bad comic book, but it is one that I feel I’ll forget soon after reading it. It manages to tick all of the boxes required of a one shot like this, but does little to add to the bigger story at play. There is good character work with Kate and Renee and the promise of more Black Mask villainy to come, but the issue has not done a good job of making me want more. If Year of the Villain is going to work, it needs to up the stakes monumentally. In my opinion, this event is failing to deliver the game-changing narratives it promised.

Score: 5/10