Call For Comments: Mask Theory

From Mav: Back when we started the podcast we made a list of stuff we thought we might want to talk about one day. One of the things that was on both my list and Wayne’s was doing a show on “mask theory.” It’s a topic that we both have an interest in because of… well… you know… being superhero addicts and all that. And now here it is… two years later. And we haven’t gotten to it yet. Well, let’s fix that. Masks…. a fundamental part of superhero mythology. So much that we don’t even think about it most of the time… except when we are forced to by something like the scene in Watchmen where Rorschach is unmasked and makes a big deal about losing “his face.” This is maybe one of comic’s most famous and obvious associations of the whole “the mask makes the man” trope in superhero comics (though I would also point to the tagline to Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack, “live fast, love hard, and die with your mask on”). Obviously, as we’ve talked about on previous episodes, Rorschach is “not normal” and the scene in question is supposed to be indicative of his insanity. BUT, in associating the Rorschach self and the Walter self as completely separate beings differentiated by the mask, he is really just taking the common superhero trope to its logical (if insane) conclusion.

Obviously even beyond Rorschach, masks have always been a part of superhero narratives… so much so that “masks” is sometimes a used a synonym for costumed crimefighters. However historically, masks tended to be used for more nefarious purposes. If you go back and look at pulp heroes like Lone Ranger or Zorro, the mask was a signifier that the character was working outside the law, essentially borrowing signifiers from the masked criminal, after all, the in-story rationalization for the mask is to protect the identity of the superhero because he is acting outside of the law. One of the things I found funny about superhero masks as a kid was the number of heroes who wear domino masks. I understood things like the Batman cowl. But if I looked at Robin, Green Lantern or Lone Ranger, it was always obvious that it wouldn’t remotely hide the identity of anyone in the slightest. That’s all the more obvious in superhero movies than it was in the comics. The super mask hides the identity about as well as a pair of sunglasses. But the mask isn’t about hiding the identity. It’s about transformation. The mask doesn’t hide that Dick Grayson is Nightwing. It transforms him into Nightwing.

Because the other place where masks are common historically is the theatre. Masks have been common on the stage since ancient theater. There, masks are used not to disguise the character diegetically, but instead to transform the actor into the character that the mask represents. The mask is therefore part of the performance. It signifies the identity and symbols are important. This extends from theater to professional wrestling and has a strong presence in the world of lucha libra. They’re similarly used in performative rituals from celebrations to religious ceremonies. Masks have power. They serve to identify the persona that the wearier is exhibiting to the world, but they also allow the wearer to embody that personality. Again, looking back at Watchmen, there’s a point in the book when Rorschach is broken out of prison and he refuses to go back into action until he has retrieved his backup mask. He isn’t able to perform as Rorschach while he looks like Walter.

Part of the reason I think I’m thinking about this is that I am working on a chapter for a book about Superman… a character that doesn’t technically “wear a mask” per se, but where the concepts inherent within mask theory are very important to the very idea of what Superman is. Identity mixed with and defined by costume and performance. First of all the identity of Superman is a costume. If you see s character who ISN’T Kal-El in a superman inspired outfit (Superboy, Supergirl, Steele, Krypto) you sort of naturally assume there is a relationship. But also, who is real between Clark Kent and Superman? With the sole exception of maybe Smallville (the thing that I happen to be writing about right now), comics critics and historians tend to think of Superman as the actual person… whereas Clark Kent is a disguise that he puts on. As Bill says in Kill Bill:

“What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

And that’s something pretty well accepted by comic fans. Clark Kent is a mask that Superman puts on… literally! That’s what the glasses are for. He is the disguise. But this logic doesn’t just extend to comic characters. Like the ceremonial masks I mentioned earlier, the argument is that masks are a part of our daily performance. Glasses, makeup, push-up bras, suits and ties. Or even official “work uniforms” that a solider, firefighter or cop wears. The performances that we do with every day with the fashion we wear is part of embodying the character that we present to the world. As a teacher, it feels weird to me to try and teach in the T-shirts and hoodies that I wear when I am sitting at home and writing and vice versa. I’m far more productive as a writer in my casual clothes than I am wearing a shirt and tie. Is that universal? Of course not. Some people certainly teach in play clothes… but for others the mask matters. Just like Luke Cage performs as a superhero standing right next to Spider-man.

So that’s what I want to talk about. How do masks work to set our personas both in fiction and in reality? Do they have power? Are they evidence that the stage… theatrical or wrestling ring… is not really any different than a boardroom or classroom? Are masks about disguising ourselves from others…. or from ourselves? What are your thoughts?

From Wayne: Mav pretty much covered most of what the topic is about. I’m sure that when we record I will talk about rock stars and authenticity and performativity. Bowie’s entire career was built on ever changing identities but I’m not sure that Bruce Springsteen’s onstage persona is any less of a mask than Ziggy Stardust.

I want to talk about the Mask as a metaphor for any role we play in our day to day lives. While Multiple Personality Disorder is a real, if rare, thing it can be argued that all of us house a legion of personas and choose which face to put on depending on where we are and what we’re doing. Our clothes are one part of this, acting as signifiers of our role. I do dress a little differently when I teach than when I’m selling comics. I’m consciously trying to project a different image and part of who I am. Psychologically it makes me feel different as well. How much of this, for any of us, is conscious? How much of it is so folded into our culture that we don’t even realize what we’re doing?

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche says, “Every profound spirit needs a mask.” What does he mean by this? If we accept that everyone wears a mask, which we do, what does that mean for authenticity and genuine identity?

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