Black Mask: The Other Face of Comics

Why Black Mask Studios is the comics publisher you need to read.

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here.

From the very start, Black Mask Studios wanted to be different. Founded in 2012 by Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), Matt Pizzolo (Godkiller), and Brett Gurewitz (guitarist and songwriter for Bad Religion), Black Mask was created as a small, transmedia press company that would disrupt traditional comic distribution models. The publisher would connect readers directly to their books in any way they could, be it through trade paperbacks or the rapidly growing digital market.

Somewhere along the way, though, the distribution model stopped being the story and the actual content caught fire. Black Mask stayed on the front lines of digital distribution, but they also published the types of comics other companies wouldn’t put in their schedules while fostering talent their competition couldn’t be bothered to develop.

Every publisher, whether they like it or not, has their niche. Marvel and DC have their superhero comics; BOOM! is all about all-ages books; IDW has its licenses; even Image is the prestige “HBO” of the industry. These characterizations are usually unfair, but more than anyone else, Black Mask has been willing to subvert its own identity as a publisher in favor of promoting the books and their creators.

Ad – content continues below

That trend started with their 2015 slate. Young Terrorists was Matt Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan’s grimy story about globalization, the financial system, and militarization — the kind of book you’d expect from the company who published Occupy Comics. Space Riders, from Alexis Ziritt and Fabian Rangel Jr., asked the question: “What if Jack Kirby wrote psychedelic stories for Heavy Metal?” We Can Never Go Home was Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, and Josh Hood’s raw coming-of-age tale that only happened to include super powers. There is a punk tone to all of these — which makes sense coming from a company founded by a punk guitarist — but that is just about the only common ideological underpinning they had. Young Terrorists is broad and aggressively political; We Can Never Go Home is quiet and personal; and Space Riders is like falling asleep reading the work of cartoonist R. Crumb, listening to prog rock, and having a fever. Seriously, Space Riders is great.

Black Mask’s 2016 slate is even more diverse: Jade Street Protection Services by Katy Rex and Fabian Lelay is about a group of magical girl warrior misfits getting in trouble at their magical girl warrior school, and discovering something sinister about their teachers. Tyler Boss and Matthew Rosenberg’s hilarious 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank is an immediate classic — the first issue hooks readers with its note-perfect depiction of suburban adolescence. The Skeptics from Tini Howard and Devaki Neogi is about the U.S. government trying to bullshit their way through a superhero arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s. A trans and a bi woman team up as space bounty hunters in Kim and Kim from Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, and Claudia Aguirre.

Black Mask is also publishing Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, and Khary Randolph’s overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter comic (it tripled its goal) BLACK. It’s a story that explores what would happen if only black people had superpowers.

Aside from BLACK’s creative team, with their exceptional resumés, the unifying concept behind these books is that they’re all from fairly new creators breaking in from webcomics or Deviantart, with a handful of published works behind them. The diversity of experience and background that informs the stories they’re telling helps add depth to the worlds they build. Visaggio is herself trans. BLACK is expressly political, opening on a young black man being shot to death by police. There is no shortage of women on the company’s creative roster.

Black Mask’s rapid rise is due to nothing more than the quality of the comics they’re publishing right now, but the diversity of its creators — the variety of backgrounds and experiences — bears a large responsibility for that quality.