There's been quite a lot written about the rise to prominence of DC Comics character and Batman villain Black Mask in recent years — and for good reason. The character's rise from relative obscurity in 1980s DC Comics to major fixture of the DCEU across comics, games, TV, and film is impressive indeed. Created by Doug Moench and Tom Mandrake, the character debuted in Batman #386 (cover-dated August 1985) with a cover appearance that trumpeted "Introducing a villain for the '80s!". There is a Batman #386 CGC 9.8 in today's session of the Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction from Heritage Auctions.
Much has been made of the notion that Black Mask and his alter ego Roman Sionis are a sort of distorted reflection of Batman and Bruce Wayne due to the way their origin stories and backgrounds track. Certainly true, but I think that points to inspirations from history rather than a modernized Luthor-as-corporate-villain style of character. Little about the character as originally depicted says "villain for the '80s!" (and now well beyond). Sionis is a classic pulp-style villain in almost every conceivable way.
A suit, hat, and almost featureless full-face mask is not exactly a modern hero or villain uniform — but it was a quite familiar style of dress for such characters in the pulp era (and well before). Indeed, there was even a pulp series named Black Mask full of such characters — and this was not just any pulp title. One of the most important series in crime fiction history, the series included work from the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and countless other giants of the era, and perhaps most notably featured the first published appearance of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Along with pulps like The Shadow, Black Mask helped define our ideas about hard-boiled detective fiction for decades. And notably, a high-profile collection of stories from the pulp, The Black Mask Boys, was published a few months before the release of Batman #386.
Perhaps a coincidence, but it's hard not to wonder if writer Doug Moench reached all the way back to the pulps themselves for his villainous reflection of the pulp-inspired Batman. It wouldn't be the only time that the talented and prolific Moench tapped into pulp inspirations. His impressive resume includes a critically acclaimed run on Master of Kung Fu (1974-1977), a title with lengthy pulp roots itself. And of course, he also wrote Marvel's take on pulp hero Doc Savage in 1975-77, among other pulpy titles scattered through his bibliography.
Still, perhaps this all means that Black Mask is a villain for the 80s and beyond after all. As editor of 1985's The Black Mask Boys noted, "The Black Mask boys wrote it as it happened. Their fiction captured the cynicism, bitterness, disillusionment and anger of a country fighting to survive the evils of Prohibition and the economic hardships of the Depression. The stories in Black Mask were born of adversity, written to dramatize and delineate a nation in flux."
As everyone reading this knows, most of such concerns are not unique to the 1920s and 1930s pulp era. They are eternal, and that's probably why characters like Black Mask have endured long beyond their pulpy origins. There is a Batman #386 CGC 9.8 in today's session of the Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction from Heritage Auctions.
Batman #386 (DC, 1985) CGC NM/MT 9.8 White pages. Origin and first appearance of Black Mask. Overstreet 2020 NM- 9.2 value = $90. CGC census 1/21: 298 in 9.8, none higher.