While reading my monthly Bento Box shipment, I found a reprint of a 90s mini-series of the Dark Horse character The Mask. Now, everyone of a certain age knows that character best from a movie starring Jim Carrey that had the comedian putting on a mystical mask that made him into an incredibly silly, limber, living cartoon character that allowed him to shrug off bullets and romance Cameron Diaz in her film debut. Carrey was playing one Stanley Ipkiss, a pathetic loser who found a mask that, at night at least, made him into the closet romantic with a mild vindictive streak, but ultimately harmless. A crime lord who also wore the mask during the course of the movie had his own worst traits amplified. The idea was the mask was influenced by whatever was inside the wearer, so the better a person the wearer was, the better it was for all concerned.
Yeah, that’s not really what the character was all about.
The Mask was the creation of Dark Horse Comics founder Mike Richardson. Richardson pitched the idea around to various other writers and artists, and the character, in one form or another, appeared in any number of Dark Horse anthologies and publications. It’s when he finally graduated to a mini-series of his own that the character perhaps really took off.
That mini-series, written by John Arcudi with art from Doug Mahnke, introduced the world to Stanley Ipkiss. Stanley is a wimpy neurotic who finds this weird mask in an antiques shop. He buys it as a gift to his girlfriend Kathy. The mask, made of jade, speaks to Stanley, and when he puts it on, he is transformed into, well, the Mask. He becomes known around the city he called home as “Big Head,” and he caused all manner of trouble.
That more or less sounds a lot like the movie version. Here’s the big difference: Big Head murdered people. The basic concept for the character was to cross a 1940s cartoon character from someone like legendary animator Tex Avery with a more modern character, namely the Terminator. So, while Jim Carrey’s Mask may cause a number of weird and embarrassing problems for his tormentors, he leaves them all alive. That wasn’t the case in the source material, and it’s easy to see why: the sort of abuse a character like Droopy or Big Head could take would easily kill a normal person. And that’s more or less what happened.
And then, you’d think Stanley would be around for a while since he was the character the movie was based around…and again you’d be wrong. The aforementioned Kathy ended up shooting and killing Stanley one night while the mask was off out of fear. See, the mask had a corruptive power that made anyone who wore it more and more inclined to violence. Kathy would pass the mask off to police Lieutenant Kellaway for safe keeping. Then Kellaway (another character from the movie) would don the mask to try to take out a number of high-ranking organized crime figures, but most people just assumed Big Head had changed targets and was still the same guy.
It was also during this period that Big Head got himself an archenemy. That would be Walter. Walter is big, strong, mute, seems to ignore pain, and works as hired muscle for the local mafia. Anytime Big Head would appear, chances are Walter would show up looking for revenge as the one person whom Big Head seemed unable to take out, and who could cause Big Head any actual pain at all.
But the mask itself would be passed around. Kathy herself wore it for a period. About the only person that couldn’t use it was Walter, who tried it on in Arcudi and Mahnke’s last Mask mini-series only to see nothing happen.
Now, the success of the Jim Carrey’s movie meant Big Head’s antics were toned down a bit. The cartoon aspects were played up while the homicidal tendencies were played down. That would be the same mini-series that saw Walter try the mask on, and while Arcudi and Mahnke would actually give Walter his own mini-series where he somehow ran for mayor, most the various appearances of The Mask itself would be in the form of random one-shots and mini-series with the occasional crossovers that saw characters like Lobo or the Joker try the mask on to cause even more problems. Yes, the Joker wore the mask, and yes, Batman stopped him all the same. Because he’s Batman.
But the fact that the Mask appeared in a fairly family-friendly superhero-ish comedy means whatever violent edge the character had was gradually stripped away into a more family-friendly version. That sort of thing does happen. Both Batman and Superman were notably rougher in their earliest appearances; I am not sure it ever went to such an extreme degree as it did with the Mask, particularly since the best known version to people who don’t actually read the comic books actually didn’t last that long.
Then again, who knows who will wear that thing next?