Even by the standards of 1980’s children’s programming, MASK was an odd franchise. Equal parts Transformers and G.I. Joe, the series focused upon the titular organization, whose agents employed shape-shifting vehicles and special helmets that granted superpowers to fight VENOM – a similarly empowered terrorist organization.
Despite lasting two seasons, MASK never achieved the kind of lasting popularity that He-Man or even Thundercats enjoyed. Today, it is mostly remembered for its awesome (if nonsensical) theme song and for featuring the one small annoying comic-relief creature more irritating than Snarf.
The good news is that there’s no sign of the pun-loving T-Bob or spoiled Jonny Quest wannabe Scott Trakker in IDW’s 21st century update of MASK: Mobile Armored Strike Kommand. The bad news is that this “first issue” requires you to have read IDW’s Revolution event from earlier this year. This proved a vexing point, since Revolution completely passed me by and the first I heard of the return of MASK was when I saw the solicitation for this book on PreviewsWorld.com.
Here’s the short version. Revolution is a story that establishes various properties owned by toy company Hasbro as existing in the same shared universe. These properties include MASK, ROM: Space Knight, G.I. Joe and Transformers.
In this new reality, MASK was a US government agency created by General Miles “Mayhem” Manheim to combat the threat posed by the race of robots known as The Cybertronians. With Optimus Prime – leader of the peace-loving Transformers known as the Autobots – having established peace between The Autobots and the U.S. Government, General Mayhem has gone rogue, taking a select group of agents and their MASK technology to form a splinter group dedicated to two goals – destroying all Cybertronian life on Earth and world domination! This leaves MASK agent Matt Trakker to lead the remaining agents and bring General Mayhem to justice, despite their own outlaw status in the wake of the general’s treachery.
To this comic’s credit, it does try to bring new readers up to speed, but the effort is half-hearted. A “Previously” page shows some panels from Revolution: M.A.S.K. but the selection is seemingly random. None of the flashback scenes reveal any story details that aren’t related later in this comic. They also don’t offer any insight into the personalities of any of the characters apart from Vanessa Warfield… who doesn’t appear in this issue!
There’s also a page detailing some of the cast of characters, but half of the listed characters – like Vanessa – don’t appear in this issue, while characters who do appear in this issue aren’t profiled at all! Distressingly, some of these profiles amount to little more than a blurb describing the character’s skill-set. MASK agent Brad Turner, for instance, is only defined as “an infiltration specialist” who is “a strong fighter and skilled in hand-to-hand combat” and “discovering truth is his prime directive.”
I’ll admit this is an odd point to get hung-up on. It’s not like the original MASK cartoon was full of complex characterization or intricate multi-season stories. Yet this issue is indicative of the key problem with this new MASK series. Put plainly, MASK can’t decide if it’s updating itself as a 21st century children’s series or as a more complex reboot aimed at adults.
The world of MASK proves more complex than ever, with twists such as G.I. Joe villain Doctor Mindbender (originally a C.I.A. psychologist named Dr. Verstal Bender, it turns out) now assisting General Mayhem with the psychological warfare aspects of his new crusade. Unfortunately, while the plotting, world-building and continuity are more complex, the characters are as shallow as they were back in MASK‘s glory days.
This would be fine in a series aimed at younger readers, but there’s enough curse words in Brandon Easton’s script to make this unsuitable for a Y7 or E10 rating. General Mayhem even admonishes one character for taking The Lord’s name in vain! I suppose this could be meant to be ironic, but given that the cheesy humor is played straight elsewhere in the book, I doubt it.
In this regard, Easton does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original cartoon. The action sequences are good, mindless fun, with our noble heroes blundering into obvious traps that they know are obvious traps because the story requires them to get trapped. This proves jarring given the darker material going into developing VENOM into a serious terrorist organization. On a positive note, much as the original cartoon was revolutionary in presenting a diverse cast, the main cast is further diversified here, with Matt Trakker now being of African-American ancestry and agent Gloria “Aura” Baker now being of Indian descent.
The artwork for the issue suffers from a similar identity crisis. Tony Vargas does a fantastic job drawing the various vehicles and helmets utilized by MASK and rendering them in a realistic fashion. His actual characters, however, are as lifeless and static as parked cars. The colors by Jordi Escuin are bright and stimulating, which looks fantastic during the action sequences but don’t suit the more subdued scenes at all.
MASK: Mobile Armored Strike Kommand #1 is proof that some things are best left in the past. There’s a wonderful idea at the heart of this book and the artwork is good from a technical viewpoint. Unfortunately, the constant tonal shifts in both the writing and the artwork coupled with the inaccessibility of the material to new readers make this book one trip down memory lane best forgotten.