Black Mask Studios is the ambitiously game-changing publishing company founded to bring out OCCUPY COMICS and much more, headed by Matt Pizzolo (GODKILLER, HALO-8), Steve Niles (30 DAYS OF NIGHT and much more), and Brett Gurewitz (Epitaph Records). In interviews when the company formally announced itself, they touted a new structural framework for comic book creators and also a welcoming venue for works that went beyond the status quo and ventured into the realm of “transgressive art”. Pizzolo explained early on that Black Mask had been founded upon “integrity, respect, and a team effort” and had an abiding concern for the treatment of comic creators in the face of a long history of industry indifference or even abuse. Black Mask trace their origins to a Punk Rock ethos, and seek to actively embrace activism, politics, and counterculture in their work. Though initially founded with the ostensible purpose of publishing OCCUPY COMICS (#1 will see print very shortly on May 22nd), their first raft of titles is poised to launch, heralded by their first print issue in TWELVE REASONS TO DIE #1 which has received some resounding reviews this week in various internet forums. TWELVE REASONS will be joined by two new series, LIBERATOR and BALLISTIC, in June.
There are many reasons why TWELVE REASONS TO DIE is a comic to pick up and keep an eye on. For one thing, it confirms the intentions of Black Mask to present work that has cross-media elements in keeping with Gurewitz’ record label expertise, but it also introduces a rotating team of artists, another feature Black Mask set forth as one of their founding features. The teamwork approach is also apparent in the storytelling. Here Ghostface Killah drafts the concept for the comic with Adrian Younge while Younge, Ce Garcia, and Matthew Rosenberg (who’s also the “Bookrunner”) craft the story and Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon fully flesh out the script. This is a fresh approach to a virtual studio system suggested in the Black Mask label. Two illustrators join in issue #1’s main narrative, Breno Tamura, and Gus Storms, but they are also supported by two “guest illustrators” for flashback sequences, Kyle Strahm and Joe Infurnari, as well as a splash-feature by Dave Murdoch. It’s a sizeable team, and Black Mask makes a point of creating something that works in numbers rather than devolving into collage-like disorder, the Achilles’ heel of projects that don’t have enough centrifugal force to pull off communal concepts. The fact that TWELVE REASONS not only makes sense, but contains the energy and artistic verve to surprise readers shows that something is holding all these elements together with a firm grip, and the principles behind Black Mask Studios may well be that elusive element.
[*Only mild spoilers below]
But TWELVE REASONS wants to push the envelope on visual storytelling; that’s clear from its structure. Rather than relying on simple chronological narrative, it introduces a strong element of reader involvement by asking you to assemble the clues of narrative laid out for you. Issue #1 needs to set up the all important background to the tale of 12 “most powerful crime lords in the world”, piquing your interest while not crafting an issue 0 that simply lays the ground work. It also has to sidestep the “romantic gangster bullshit” that is fairly common in genre comics dealing with criminal organizations these days, bucking the trend and setting up a highly original gangster story. In the same way that The Sopranos acted as a reset button for expectations of insider view of organized crime, TWELVE REASONS erupts with extreme violence made meaningful by focusing on key characters and their potential for a fall from the glory of their gory achievements. An unnamed narrator contributes to the success of this strategy by providing blunt rationalizations for this band of mobsters, “improving life” for themselves and others. But what would a gangster story be without disruption and competition? Issue #1’s main storyline sets the stage and brings readers to the point of drastic disruption, depicting the halcyon rise in the late 60’s of a gangster golden-age followed by an abrupt transition that drives the series forward.
The “flashback” sequences provided also hint at things to come, fragmenting the narrative and giving glimpses of an unfolding plot at different points in time that gel with the narrator’s own multi-temporal perspective, recalling experiences from a much later date. But they also refuse to reveal too much detail that would render the narrative too simplistic. Mysterious incidents seem to turn on a defunct radio-station’s auction and a prize item connected in some way to this gangster chronicle brought up to date. It’s enough to keep you guessing but not enough to confound interest in how these pieces all fit together. The artwork on the issue is particularly crucial to piquing interest because this comic is operating in different historical periods while trying to maintain an intrinsically active, brash, and sudden feel in its episodic violence. The artists working on the comic each have their own methods for achieving that, from sharp, angular takes on character altercations to innovative angles and messier style inking to contribute to a sense of apprehension.There’s plenty of homage and style in the comic’s initial 60’s settings, but it’s not a romantic homage comic by a long shot, as the variety of styles helps ensure.
As the narrative jumps in time, one of the strongest elements tying the narrative together is the work of colorist Jean-Paul Csuka. In a comic that sets out to be different, the series needs a different look and feel than other gangster narratives out there, and Csuka’s light touch in 60’s settings, blending earth tones with dusty pastels which seem to hint at film posters of the era, is really compelling. More contrast is brought in for particular close-ups on violence, and the different eras represented each have signature tones while forming a kind of play on continuity. It’s this kind of overarching planning and attention to detail that suggests just how fully contributors on TWELVE REASONS are acting as a creative team, and it’s a landmark result for this kind of experiment.
TWELVE REASONS TO DIE is a comic that, true to Black Mask’s founding principles, attempts to bring together strong writing and equally strong artwork from highly original creators interested in rocking the boat on the potentially stultifying elements of main stream comics publication. Since this is the first print publication from Black Mask to hit the stands, it bears the responsibility of hinting about things to come and what to expect from Black Mask in the near future but it encompasses so many of the ideals and the attitudes of the company in such an overt way that it may surprise readers by displaying even higher ideals than they expected to find. It’s even got a soundtrack, true to the punk roots of the Studio, a “music companion to the comic”, presented by Adrian Younge and Soul Temple Music. Who knew idealism could be so entertaining? Apparently Black Mask suspected that was possible and decided to show the industry how it’s done.
Title: TWELVE REASONS TO DIE #1
Publisher: Black Mask Studios with Soul Temple Music
Creative Team: Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge, creators/Adrian Younge, Ce Garcia, Matthew Rosenberg, story/Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon, writers/Breno Tamura and Gus Storms, illustrators/Kyle Strahm, Joe Infurnari, Dave Murdoch, guest illustrators/Jean-Paul Csuka, colors/Frank Barbiere, letters.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.