Saturday, May 16, 2015
Early Black Comic Book Heroes: The Red Mask
You'll have to forgive my ignorance but it is only just recently that I learned of the character that appears, by some accounts, to have been the first Black hero in comics. He was created by someone who signed his name as George West, and originally appeared in newspapers running Syndicated Features comics strips in 1936. These strips were subsequently collected and reprinted in Best Comics published by Pines (Standard) beginning in November 1939, and lasting for only four issues. Note the landscape format, very unusual in comics.
That hero was the enigmatic Red Mask. Now if you have never encountered The Red Mask, as I hadn't until a few days ago, you may well be puzzled by the above cover of Best Comics #2. This is the only issue available online in the Digital Comic Museum, but considering its rarity, we should consider ourselves very fortunate that the DCM has even one. According to the Gerber Comics Photojournal scarcity index, between 21 and 50 copies are estimated to exist of issues #1 and #4, and there are no more than between 11 and 20 copies of #2 or #3 (these figures obtained from Michelle Nolan's 'Niche' on the CGC website and also from eBay).What you see on this cover of #2 above is The Red Mask depicted as a white person protecting a white female (Nina) and a young white male (Danny) from hostile native tribesmen. However, the character is most definitely intended to be Black, as evidenced by the cover of Best Comics #1 and by the strips themselves. Unfortunately there is some visual racist stereotyping of the Black native people in this comic.
The cover of Best Comics #1 is featured on Comic Vine and the Grand Comics Database, and if you go to either of those websites using the links provided, you will see that The Red Mask is most definitely a Black person. A complete understanding of this important comic is elusive, however, not just because of its rarity. The fact is that some of the pages have panels in which The Red Mask is colored white, sometimes as sort of half black, and in the majority that I can find he looks Black. As comic strip expert Allan Holtz points out, The Red Mask has wavy, non-African hair. Only 26 episodes of the strip were ever published, with the story left hanging, so we'll never know for sure what was going to be the eventual outcome. Holtz thinks that The Red Mask was most likely the white guy, Jason Armitage, who went missing a year previously, and whom the other white people in the story are searching for. Holtz's explanation for The Red Mask being black is that he has been in the jungle for a while and developed a deep tan.
However, I am inclined to believe that The Red Mask was intended to be the Black person he was portrayed as. The story is not necessarily set in Africa. We are told the setting is "the South Seas," and the action seems to be taking place initially on an island, Kaukura. So the fact that The Red Mask's hair is not African-looking isn't necessarily a problem. I also think that the explanation for the change in coloration of The Red Mask's skin on the covers of Best Comics #2, #3, & #4, and on the interior pages, were down to an inexperienced and/or uninformed colorist. After all, over 20 years later the same kind of error happened with the cover of Marvel's Sgt. Fury #1 - Gabriel Jones, the African American Howling Commando was depicted with white skin on that cover by mistake. Racist reactions to Best Comics could also have been the reason why a deliberate change in the Red Mask's color was made on the covers of the books after issue #1, and also on some interior pages.
The earliest episode of The Red Mask newspaper strip that's available in color on the internet is #6, which is posted on Allan Holtz's blog, The Stripper's Guide. This would have been reprinted in Best Comics #1, which had episodes 1 through 7. Best Comics #2 has episodes 8 through 13, and one can speculate that the remaining 13 episodes were split between issues #3 (probably episodes 14 through 20) and #4 (probably episodes 21 through 26). Since The Red Mask was the main feature in Best Comics, and the strip had ceased publication in newspapers prior to Best Comics reprinting them, one has to conclude that Pines/Standard had no intention of publishing more than 4 issues, that is, unless they had another main feature ready to take its place but the sales weren't good enough to justify continuing. Allan Holtz has the last episode, #26, on his blog, along with black and white microfiche images of episodes #1 and #2, as well as a color image of episode #20. Episodes 8 through 13 are as follows:
The story seems to be that Colonel Trent, along with Robert Fear and some other men, as well as Nina and Danny, came on the Colonel's yacht in search of Jason Armitage, who disappeared in the area a year before. The Red Mask is really Maui, chief of a native tribe. I can see why Allan Holtz thinks that ultimately we would have found out that Maui/The Red Mask is in fact Jason Armitage. Then there's the mysterious Grotto of Jewels, lair of the Sacred Monster. The action in the above pages seems to be occurring on two fronts: inland with The Red Mask's tribe, and with the 'Coastal Tribe,' who have captured the Colonel and the others.
Similarities with The Phantom, which also debuted in newspapers in 1936, have been noted, but of course The Phantom is still going strong today, and he is most definitely a white man. The Red Mask has slipped into obscurity until recently. We'll likely never know the truth behind the story of The Red Mask, but there is certainly a case for him being the first Black hero in comics!