In a few short weeks, Harley Quinn will assemble some Birds of Prey to take on Roman Sionis, alias Black Mask, in the major motion picture Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Sionis will be played by Ewan McGregor, so yeah, they already have my ticket, and his performance looks absolutely, positively, gleefully campy.
But who exactly is Black Mask? While he’s known well enough among comic fans, he isn’t the household name that you’d expect for a movie, like a villain such as the Joker, the Riddler, or the Penguin would be. The fact that he was chosen to be the antagonist that Harley, the Huntress, Black Canary, and Renee Montoya would go up against makes the movie all the more intriguing, and it made me want to dive into some Black Mask comics to prepare.
Even in the comic world, Black Mask is interesting, because he’s been around for quite some time (he was first introduced in 1985), and while he’s always had a fairly consistent presence in Batman stories, he’s not quite in the A- or B-list. That’s weird to say, because he’s featured fairly heavily in some major storylines (he’s all over War Games, for one), yet he’s juuuuust shy of being in the big leagues.
So, before his big screen debut, check out a few noteworthy stories featuring Black Mask, so you can get a good handle on the character.
Oh, and every single one of these issues can be found on DC Universe, so make good use of your subscription to learn more about this unique villain.
Batman #386: “Black Mask: Losing Face”
There’s no better place to start at than the very beginning, so of course, the introduction of Black Mask will be my first choice.
Written by Doug Moench, illustrated by Tom Mandrake and Adrienne Roy, and lettered by John Costanza, this issue is remarkably sad. It’s almost entirely taken up by Roman Sionis’ life story, starting with his birth and childhood and eventually detailing his descent into madness. Roman was born into wealth, yes, with his father owning a successful cosmetics company called Janus Cosmetics. At his parents’ prodding, young Roman meets a young Bruce Wayne, though the former never cares for his childhood companion’s company. Instead, he put on a “mask” of civility and respectability, a practice he would carry on into adulthood.
Ultimately, Roman goes kind of bananas after being forced from his position as president of Janus, so he does what any normal person would and swears vengeance on those who wronged him.
Oh, and he carves a creepy mask out of his father’s coffin and assembles a group that he dubs the False Face Society.
There are quite a few interesting themes here, though they’re kind of heavy-handed. It’s also mentioned that Roman was dropped on his head right after he was born, causing him to become “different” and to have haunted eyes, but I didn’t think this detail really went anywhere.
I mean, other than Roman growing to be a vindictive psychopath, that is.
Still, it’s an interesting story that reads really well, and it’s a great example of a Batman issue that utilizes all of Gotham to tell its story, rather than just having Batman be in his suit the entire time. In fact, Batman hardly appears in this issue at all, with most of the story taking place in flashback. Bruce Wayne, the Wayne Foundation, Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Bullock all have large roles to play, which ultimately makes the world of Gotham feel that much bigger. In turn, it makes Black Mask all the more interesting as a villain, because his mission isn’t to take out the Batman, but to regain the respect of which he was robbed.
Detective Comics #553/Batman #387: “The False Face Society of Gotham/Ebon Masquery”
So I’m kind of mayyyybe cheating with these two, as they’re parts two and three of the story that began in Batman #386, but I actually think the earlier issue stands on its own well enough with these two issues forming their own complete story, so I’ll let myself slide.
Now that we’ve been introduced to Black Mask, he begins forming his False Face Society of lackies so that he can take revenge on those who wronged him. What’s really interesting about this story is that, in a way, Sionis is more of a Bruce Wayne villain than he is an adversary for Batman, since he sets his sights on shareholders who wrested control of his company away from him. Bruce put in the order to bail Janus Cosmetics out of bankruptcy, so he’s one of the people who need to be killed so that Sionis can “save face.”
Subtle, I know.
It’s a really entertaining story to read, with Batman and Robin putting together a masquerade ball to catch Black Mask and his Society in the act. Jason is Robin, not Dick, but it’s during that time when he was pretty much a clone of Grayson and not, you know, the little turd we would all come to know and tolerate.
Black Mask is a pretty fascinating figure as well, going from pretty deranged gang leader to a man who slowly loses his last shreds of sanity. Both parts were written by Doug Moench, with the ‘Tec issue illustrated by Klaus Janson, Adrienne Roy, and John Workman, whereas Batman was illustrated by the team of Mandrake, Roy, and Costanza. Based on that pedigree alone, you can tell this was a great time for Batman comics, and this story here certainly fits the bill.
Red Hood and the Outlaws: Dark Trinity
Never in my life did I think I’d enjoy a book starring Jason Todd, and yet, here we are. Red Hood and the Outlaws came out of the Rebirth gate strong, with an intriguing “Dark Trinity” lineup of Red Hood, Artemis, and Bizzaro. For their first mission in issue 1-6, the Outlaws set out to foil Black Mask’s plan to gentrify the neighborhood containing the boarding home where Jason grew up.
And by “gentrify,” of course, I mean “explode.”
There’s a lot of really great character work in this story, with the stubborn Jason leading the fairly hot-headed Artemis and the… well, you know how Bizarro be. Scott Lobdell writes a really compelling arc that has its fair share of action set-pieces, while also containing some strong character moments. Jason’s relationship with Ma Gunn– his surrogate mother, in effect– is complex and engaging: she was harsh and gruff, using the boys in her charge to commit crimes for her, yet Jason can’t help but feel affection toward her.
This was also a time where Black Mask was wearing a gimp mask instead of the familiar ebony skull, which was a… controversial look, to say the least. There’s one point in the story where this is addressed, though, and it was as shocking as it was rewarding.
The creative team is rounded out by Dexter Soy on pencils, Veronica Gandini on colors, and Taylor Esposito on letters. It was this arc that made Red Hood and the Outlaws one of the surprising gems of DC’s Rebirth era, and it had some good Black Mask action in it to boot.
You can read Brian’s reviews of this series by starting here.
Batman Adventures #5-8
This series is– and I am not kidding in the least– possibly my favorite run of Batman comics.
Of all time.
If not the top, it’s right up there, and this arc is a great example as to why: it’s based on the Batman animated series of the Nineties, goes for long-form storytelling while still managing to have engaging one-and-done issues, and uses a ton of interesting characters in just as interesting ways. To give you an idea just how interesting the cast of characters is, these four issues feature Bruce Wayne going undercover as Matches Malone for an extended period of time, where he teams up with Eel O’Brian to infiltrate Black Mask’s False Face Society. The ranks of this Society include such colorful characters as Black Mask, of course, Deadshot, Phantasm, Gorilla Boss, and Sportsmaster.
And yes, that is the Eel O’Brian who will someday become Plastic Man.
The creative team contains names like Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Rick Burchett, Terry Beatty, Lee Loughridge, Phil Felix, and Rob Leigh, and like the previous volumes of the various Batman: The Animated Series tie-in comics, had some of the best character work and storytelling of any Batman comics at the time. If you’re looking for some great Black Mask material, then try this arc for sure, but really, I’d suggest that you just go ahead and start right at the beginning and read the whole thing. It was an all-too-brief 17 issue run of some of the best Batman stories you’ll ever find.
Under the Red Hood
Look, we all love this movie. You, me, your friends, your dog. This is one of the best animated films that Warner Bros. Home Entertainment have ever put out, and one of the strongest Batman movies in general. It took a well-known comic book story, made it even better in the adaptation, and has one of the biggest gut-punches of an ending that you’ll ever see.
And it has Wade Williams voicing Black Mask as an unhinged, spoiled wiener which is a. Maz. Ing.
Is it completely comics accurate? No. Is it an absolutely delightful portrayal? Oh yes.
I’m not going to lie: this movie colored my perception of Sionis so now, when reading him on the printed page, this is how I imagine him acting. It’s fun.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold: “The Plague of the Prototypes!”
Real talk: I had forgotten about this until I started writing this piece. This show absolutely rules in every imaginable way, though, so I’m not going to not mention it.
There you go, friends: some solid Black Mask stories. Like the Riddler list from before, this is by no means exhaustive, so sound if with your favorites and recommendations below.