Superheroes continue to dominate pop culture. And not just on the printed page, but on the big and small screens as well. Readers of Balladeer’s Blog are always quick to ask for more superhero entries whenever I go too long without one.
Most recently I finished up my examination of the Killraven stories at Marvel Comics. Prior to that I had looked at the Celestial Madonna Saga, the Kree-Skrull War, Panther’s Rage and the original Magus storyline with Adam Warlock. From DC Comics I reviewed the World War Two-era Justice Society stories.
This time around I’ll do a story-by-story examination of B.C. Boyer’s neglected superhero called the Masked Man. Boyer wrote AND drew the character at Eclipse Comics in the 1980s. Back then Eclipse represented the kind of bold and visionary storytelling that comic book readers of today look for with artistic mavericks like Ethan Van Sciver, Richard C Meyer, Jon Malin and others.
Just as Van Sciver, Meyer and Malin (NOT a law firm) blaze new creative trails today, Eclipse Comics did decades ago, supporting both established names AND new talent, all producing work that the Big Two publishers would have been too corporate-minded to publish.
All of which brings us back to the Masked Man aka Dick Carstairs. This creation of B.C. Boyer, who also illustrated and wrote all the character’s adventures, debuted in Eclipse Magazine in November of 1982.
By the summer of 1983 the Masked Man joined several other Eclipse figures over at Eclipse Monthly, becoming the most popular character in that magazine. From there the quirky superhero graduated to his own title in late 1984.
Like many offbeat creative ventures The Masked Man comic book failed to attract a large enough audience to keep going and was canceled with its 9th issue. Over a year later issues 10-12 were published, with color covers but the interior art limited to black & white to save money much like the notorious “Canadian Whites” of long ago. After that the series was canceled again and that was the end of the Masked Man’s adventures.
ECLIPSE MAGAZINE Vol 1 #7 (November 1982)
Title: The Masked Man
Synopsis: Years before The Watchmen, B.C. Boyer’s Masked Man stories explored the potential real-world implications and motives of costumed heroics. Boyer did the concept at least as much justice as Marvel Comics had been doing for decades. (I’ve always wondered why so many people seem to think Alan Moore pioneered the concept of deconstructing the superhero mythos.)
Indeed, Dick Carstairs’ background and motivation for donning a mask to fight crime read like a much earlier – and better written – version of the original Nite Owl’s tale in The Watchmen.
At any rate this origin tale of the Masked Man is told from the point of view of Dick Carstairs’ best friend, reporter Barney McAlister. Barney and Dick had been best friends since they were children, when Dick would lose himself in superhero comic books. To Barney the superheroes were no more realistic than the comics he liked, such as Richie Rich.
Dick felt otherwise, and while Barney dreamed of one day being a famous comic book writer, Carstairs dreamed of one day gaining superpowers and becoming a real-life superhero.
As adulthood came around, McAlister tried his hand as a comic book writer but was fired because his writing wasn’t good enough. It WAS good enough to be a news reporter, however, so he took a job with a newspaper. (I love that sardonic joke about reporters, especially given what hacks they are now.)
Dick Carstairs, on the other hand, retained his belief in heroism and felt that all conflicts in the world boiled down to the fact that the bad guys were clobbering the good guys, so the good guys needed all the help they could get. Carstairs dropped out of the police academy for refusing to follow the rules. He became a private detective, but found no fulfillment in the realities of the P.I. business.
One night, while Dick and Barney were walking the streets, they saw armed robbers trying to crack the safe at a costume shop. Carstairs grabbed a mask from the shop and attacked the robbers, seeing a chance to at last employ all the fitness and fighting skills he’d acquired rather than have them atrophy from the boredom of real-life detective work.
As McAlister described it Dick finally got to unleash the heroic dreams that had built up over the years and went into action “with adrenalin in his limbs and insanity in his soul.”
The masked hero was more than holding his own against the quartet of armed men when the police showed up and ruined it all. They mistook Dick for the crook, since he was wearing a mask. Carstairs and McAlister got away, but the media labeled him the Masked Man and turned him into an object of ridicule, as if he had tried to rob the costume shop but failed.
Barney’s attempts to present the supposedly “unknown” Masked Man as a hero were rejected as the ridicule of the figure “went viral” as we would say today. The Masked Man was even mocked for supposedly trying to “rob from the rich and keep it for himself.”
Dick was dispirited but Barney encouraged him not to give up on his dream. It was an inspired writing decision for B.C. Boyer to pursue this angle. Persevering in the face of the ridicule he received is tougher for Carstairs than being mistaken for a criminal.
It adds a real-life angle that is VERY relevant. Plenty of people make noise about being “willing to die” for what they believe is right, but very few are willing to endure ridicule and humiliation “for what they believe is right.”
At any rate, Dick listens to Barney and soon has another chance to prove himself when some crooks (their crime unspecified) have been surrounded by the cops and are holed up inside an office building with seven hostages.
Donning his mask again, our hero goes into action, beating up the five armed crooks while the hostages get to safety. The last gang member standing pushes a detonator, unleashing the explosives he and his cronies wired the building with.
Amid the resulting fire and the imminent collapse of the building, the Masked Man proves willing to engage in heroics beyond just punching and kicking people. He risks his life to get all the hostages AND the occupants of the other offices in the skyscraper to safety.
The rescued bystanders congregate on the street below, watching as the Masked Man gets the last person in the building – a little girl – to safety. They tell the police and reporters that the man is a hero, not a criminal, then react with horror when the figure seems to die amid the ruins of the now-collapsed building.
Barney himself becomes teary-eyed hearing the survivors describe Dick as the hero he always wanted to be. Believing the Masked Man to be dead himself, McAlister walks away, but on the other side of the fire trucks and confusion he encounters Dick, still wearing his mask, shirt and tie.
He’s clearly suffering from smoke inhalation and as Barney observes that maybe “you don’t need powers beyond those of mortal men to be a superhero …” but as the final panel of the story shows Dick collapsing a poignant ” … but it helps.” from McAlister brings the story to a close.
As presented, this could have been a one-shot story with the Masked Man being dead from all the smoke he inhaled. A very touching finale reminiscent of some of Will Eisner’s more melancholy Spirit stories.
Luckily, the editors at Eclipse AND the readers loved the story so much that B.C. Boyer was able to make an entire series out of the Masked Man’s adventures. The hero turned out to have just been unconscious instead of dead.
I cannot believe how neglected Boyer’s work on this series has been. A deceptively simple story on the surface winds up having hidden depths the more it swims around in your mind after reading it.
A very old saying goes that it is no accomplishment to make the simple seem complex, but making the complex seem simple IS an accomplishment.
NOTE: Assorted online entries about the Masked Man say that he performs his superheroics just to give his reporter friend Barney some news to write, but that is not true. Not only is there NOTHING like that in the actual story but it would defeat the whole purpose of the tale if it was true.
FOR THE SECOND MASKED MAN STORY CLICK HERE
FOR MY LOOK AT HOMBRE, SPAIN’S POST-APOCALYPTIC COMIC BOOK FROM THE 1980s, CLICK HERE .
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