An ominous jade mask of obscure provenance transforms the wearer into an an amoral, hyperactive, invincible version of themselves. Those that discover the Mask are at first thrilled with their newfound powers, seeing them as a way to finally get their lives in order. Unfortunately, the Mask's persona controls them as much as — and perhaps more than — they control it, leading to regrettable acts of property damage and even murder.
A bag woman discovers the Mask on the outskirts of Sky City, a decrepit East Coast-y burg that's seen better days. She sells it to Ray Tuttle, a crippled artist and junk shop owner who, still bitter about the faulty merry-go-round that crushed his hands and wife years ago, goes on the requisite Mask rampage, killing the developer who owned the offending amusement park. Though he regrets his actions, Ray also notices that his mute daughter has become a fan of "Big-Head", as the media had previously dubbed what they assumed to be a single green-skinned maniac. On the days leading up to Halloween, warring gangs of neo-Nazis, Yakuza, Mafia and something called the "Iron Triad" all descend on Sky City in search of the Mask.
The Mask was one of my favorite comic lines as a kid. While I rejected the cartoonified Jim Carrey movie — as every Mask fan surely did — I embraced the genuine ink-and-paper article. Written by cartoonist Evan Dorkin and drawn by Peter Gross, The Hunt for Green October was the third or fourth Mask series and probably the darkest, which is saying something, considering that, in the first series, the Mask-wearer immediately sets out to beat the crap out of his first-grade teacher.
I came back to it when I found all four issues while flipping through my old comic book collection. As with anything from childhood to which I return, there's a chance that I'll grasp references I couldn't before, but there's another, even larger chance that I'll discover that what once thrilled me is actually lame-o. The Hunt for Green October turned out to give me a little of both: I caught a couple Clockwork Orange gags, a play on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and a reference to Dorkin's own Milk & Cheese for the first time, but I also realized that there's not all that much to this series.
If you haven't read any Mask comics, you should be apprised of the formula. So first, someone somehow acquires Mask. (That's the genius of the concept: Dark Horse could theoretically spin out series after series forever, able to change absolutely everything about the setting and characters except that one of them has to wear the Mask.) Then, they wreak ultra-violence on nearly everything and everyone around them. When they take the Mask off, they see the consequences of their actions. Regardless, they usually put it back on anyway, causing second- and third-act complications that must usually be resolved with the aid of the Mask, either on the finder's face or someone else's.
Because the Mask-wearer can transform into anything he wants and materialize objects at will, the artist has complete freedom to draw whatever. In one panel, Big-Head might turn into a steamroller and crush some cars. In the next, Big-Head will turn into a green Arnold Schwarzenegger and Terminate some stuff. In the next, Big-Head will suddenly be morbidly obese, crushing all in his path with pure girth. All the while, he will crack corny jokes, usually puns or riffs on famous movie lines.
This lets the writers and artists get creative, but it's maddening for the reader. Because no rules apply to Big-Head — even Big-Head's head doesn't have to be big, though it does have to be green — anything is possible. Because anything is possible, nothing matters, least of all to the reader. Though Big-Head's actions do have repercussions in the world around him, a protean psychopath who's totally invulnerable makes for a rather uninteresting centerpiece.
The one advantage to this device is that it can amplify the underlying character's traits. Receipt of the Mask is a potentially effective analog for sudden windfalls of money, power or influence and how they tend to, for lack of a better term, exaggerate a person, for better or worse: the quixotic become more quixotic, the generous become more generous, the spiteful become more spiteful.
Protagonists of Mask series tend to be spiteful. Stanley Ipkiss, the milquetoast lead of the first series, was spite embodied, quivering with rage at a world he thought had been playing him since childhood. His rampages were strikes at life's nuisances. Ray Tuttle, he of the skeletal hands, dead wife and silent child, has more to complain about, though he does it pretty generically ("Damn that Nelson Hathaway and his shoddy, uninspected merry-go-round!") before the Mask. After the Mask, he's still generic, all about class resentment, sticking it to "yuppies", "fat cats" and what have you. He even materializes a Robin Hood costume for a couple panels.
So, lost opportunity. Ray could have been a more complex incarnation of Big-Head. He could've been more like the brilliantly-written out-of-town lawyer in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, who's utterly convinced that there is someone to blame for the small town's school bus crash: maybe it's the bus manufacturer who skimped on one safety feature too many, maybe it's the bus inspector who slacked off for a day, maybe it's the county government who negligently ignored ice on the road, maybe it's whoever installed a railing that might not have been up to code. But it's someone; of that he's damn sure.
But no, The Hunt for Green October gives a garden-variety "eat the rich" type. When Emily dons the mask, she's a little better defined as she rails loudly and crudely against the thousand indignities of childhood, but it's too little, too late. By the end, I found that the story of the whole series is basically this:
- Ray acquires Mask, rampages
- Ray rampages again
- The gangs swarm into town
- Emily acquires Mask, rampages
- The Nazis capture ray, but Emily gives him the Mask
- Ray rampages, defeating all gangs in the process