Batman: Arkham Origins, the much anticipated prequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, has a lot of sweet villains. You’ve got Deathstroke, Firefly, the new Copperhead, Deadshot, the Mad Hatter, the Riddler, Lady Shiva, and of course, the Joker. But there’s one baddy at the heart of the game, the one responsible for the million dollar bounty on Batman’s head which is attracting all of these villains to Gotham City. That evil and illustrious villain is none other than…Black Mask?
For those of you who read my review on Batman: Scare Tactics, Black Mask has sunk down to a decidedly low point these days. He’s running with a criminal circus, for Pete’s sake. But he wasn’t always like that. In the past, the Black Mask was a major adversary of the Batman, existing in two incarnations, both of whom were dangerous villains who, at different points, became the premier crime lords of Gotham City.
The first Black Mask, Roman Sionis, became best known as Catwoman’s archenemy, the fearless feline eventually facilitating his untimely demise. The second Black Mask, revealed to be Dr. Jeremiah Arkham in Batman #697, was decidedly more deranged than Roman Sionis, but had the same the-one-you-love-to-hate vibe going for him. Sionis’ Black Mask was involved in major storylines like Knightfall, No Man’s Land, War Games, Under the Hood, War Crimes, and he most recently appeared in the New 52 in Scare Tactics, and the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series. Jeremiah Arkham’s Black Mask was either the main antagonist or a major player during Battle for the Cowl, Batman Reborn, Life After Death, and Arkham Reborn. Understandably, Roman Sionis’ Black Mask has a lot more history to him, having been Black Mask for 20-plus years, whereas Jeremiah Arkham was active as Black Mask for only one year, from March 2009 to March 2010.
And now, a history lesson…
The first Black Mask, Roman Sionis, first appeared in Batman #386, in August of 1985. Sionis had been raised by ludicrously neglectful parents (they barely cared about his well being when he was dropped on his head as a newborn), and his forced friendship with a young Bruce Wayne, whose parents were secretly despised by father and mother Sionis, led young Roman to develop a hatred for Bruce. After graduating from High School, Roman met and fell in love with a secretary named Circe while working at his father’s company, Janus Cosmetics. However, his parents did not approve of the relationship, resulting in an infuriated Sionis burning down his parents’ mansion, killing them both. As the heir to their assets, Sionis tried to run Janus Cosmetics, but was a poor businessman compared to his father. What followed was a torrid attempt to save his failing company by marketing a line of waterproof face paint, which turned out to be toxic. This resulted in the disfigurement of several hundred women.
Finally, Sionis reached his breaking point when Circe, now his fiancée, broke up with him in front of their entire staff. This was followed by Bruce Wayne buying out the company and reducing Sionis to a figurehead leader. Utterly humiliated, and driven to the brink of madness, Roman Sionis broke into his father’s crypt, Lord knows what he was planning to do. But then, a lightning bolt struck near him, sending him flying. Convinced that this was an “omen” directing him to be “reborn,” Sionis snapped completely, carving a shattered fragment of his father’s coffin into a mask, which he donned as crime boss and cult leader Black Mask. He led the False Face Society, a crime ring and cult who wore masks. To cut a long story short, his first conflict against Batman ended with his mask being melted onto his face. This is all pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths, mind you.
Following Crisis, a massive comic book crossover which totally changed fictional comic book history as we know it, Black Mask’s origins and backstory remained unchanged. He was committed to Arkham Asylum, as that’s where most of Batman’s rogues go. I’m not going to go into this very much, but I’m pretty sure Black Mask, like many of Batman’s foes, isn’t really mentally ill. He may be psychopathic, in that he’s totally devoid of empathy, but he’s not psychotic, in that he knows that stealing is stealing and murder is murder, and can indeed comprehend the criminality of his actions.
Black Mask kept himself busy over the years, running the False Face Society through Knightfall, Zero Hour, and No Man’s Land. During No Man’s Land, he briefly ditched his mask, believing that the new status quo of the city required him to begin anew as well. He was a major player during No Man’s Land, allying with the Penguin and dropping his beef with Bruce Wayne. But eventually, the mask came back.
Roman Sionis’ Black Mask as we know him in the decade predating Flashpoint arrived in the pages of Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman in December 2002. With the help of white collar stooge Xavier Dylan, Black Mask took over organized crime in Gotham City’s East End, Catwoman’s turf. He was once again resplendent in his mask and a nice suit. After Catwoman destroyed his drug operation and exposed his crooked police officers, Black Mask vowed to destroy Catwoman, armed with his new hobby of torturing people. Specifically, he manipulated an old friend of Catowoman’s into telling him Catwoman’s secret identity, before kidnapping Catwoman’s sister Maggie and Maggie’s husband. After torturing the husband to death, Black Mask did a very terribly disgusting thing which I think best remains unspoken here. If you really want to know what happened, check out Catwoman: Relentless. If you’re particularly adventurous, Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns. Black Mask seemingly fell to his death at the end of Relentless after a confrontation with Catwoman. But as we all know, the only comic book characters who stay dead are Jean-Paul Valley, Gwen Stacy, and Ultimate Peter Parker…right?
Black Mask returned during War Games, pulling strings and moving people around like pawns on a chessboard. He became a sort of hero killer, becoming notable as one of the few supervillains to have actually killed a superhero. He killed Orpheus, an agent of Batman. Note, however, that simply killing a hero does not a good villain make. Following his penchant for masks and disguises, Sionis disguised himself as Orpheus, fooling even Batman and Bat-family third-stringer Onyx. He emerged from the frenetic chaos of War Games as the supreme criminal power in Gotham City, allying with Hush and other villains such as the Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter, and Firefly. He also seemingly tortured Spoiler to death (though her death was later revealed to be a ruse).
Sionis’ grip on the criminal underworld proved tenuous following War Games. In War Crimes, the immediate aftermath of War Games, he resorted to dressing up as Batman and attacking people such as Crystal Brown, Stephanie Brown/Spoiler’s mother. He eventually learned to quit while he was ahead when he was shot by the Joker. During Under the Hood, he attempted to stay top dog in Gotham City’s criminal underworld, but was soon put in a bad position by the new Red Hood, who was really a resurrected Jason Todd.
In due course, after Batman ended the masked mobster’s efforts to join the Secret Society of Supervillains, Black Mask was killed by a gunshot to the jaw by Catwoman in Catwoman #52. He had attempted to bring himself upward by once again trying to destroy Catwoman’s life. Needless to say, he died. Again. He did later show up during Blackest Night, where he was defeated by an extremely willful Catwoman, who drove him into Slaughter Swamp.
I’m not exactly sure where Sionis picked up his fascination with masks, as he heavily resented the “masks” that his parents wore to maintain their social status, but he’s nevertheless a pretty cool villain. He’s apparently a good organizer, but a terrible businessman, and is also a charismatic leader. He’s a villain you love to hate. He’s definitely a B-Lister at best, but he’s still a notch over other villains in that he’s a schemer, a planner, a mastermind. He’s got drive and ambition, and he knows how to satisfy both. I’d say that he’s a little higher than Zsasz, but a notch below the Penguin, being a combination of the two. He lacks Penguin’s classic roots, but he’s got the relatively young publication history and vigor of Zsasz.
It is plainly evident that the first Black Mask, Roman Sionis, has a lot of history, chiefly because he’s had a longer tenure as a villain than his “successor,” Dr. Jeremiah Arkham. Driven mad by the machinations of the Joker and Professor Hugo Strange, and proving himself to be the world’s worst psychiatrist, Dr. Arkham became the second Black Mask shortly after being expelled from Arkham Asylum by the Black Glove during Batman R.I.P. Donning a long black coat and recruiting the inmates of Arkham Asylum, Black Mask II (First appearing in Batman: Battle for the Cowl #1) blew up that accursed asylum and led the villains in a new gang war which nearly brought Gotham to its knees. He drove out Two-Face, he reduced the Penguin to a subordinate, and he funded the activities of various other villains, including Firefly, Zsasz, and the Scarecrow.
However, Black Mask II’s reign of terror during Battle for the Cowl, Batman Reborn, and Life After Death was not to last. Rallying the extended Bat-family in the wake of Battle for the Cowl and Batman R.I.P., Dick Grayson assumed the mantle of the Batman and led them (now christened as “the Network”) to defeat Black Mask in a decidedly average story, where he was in a gang war with the resurgent Falcone crime family. Black Mask II’s attempts to start his own False Face Society failed miserably, to say the least. When finally committed to Arkham Asylum himself, he quickly showed himself to be just as much a merciless psychopath as some of the other villains housed there. It didn’t help that the newly rebuilt Arkham Asylum was co-directed by a mass murderer named Alyce Sinner.
Jeremiah Arkham’s Black Mask was less interested in money and power than he was in causing as much death and destruction as possible. He once went so far as to steal invisibility technology and give it to an underling who would then pretend to be God in an effort to cause a priest with a shotgun to murder Huntress and Man-Bat. He also gave funds to Zsasz to help the B-List serial killer systematically force young boys to murder each other in gladiatorial matches. Prior to his secret identity being exposed, he did not cease to act as Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, running Arkham Asylum as a new improved institution. Though he was still the world’s worst psychiatrist.
In the New 52, Roman Sionis is still alive, committed to Arkham Asylum again, and Dr. Arkham is again running Arkham Asylum. It is implied that Arkham’s short career as Black Mask II actually still happened, but I’m not sure how all of that could have been crammed into five years without deleting Knightfall, and No Man’s Land altogether. Roman Sionis is now back to his cult leader beginnings. He’s little more than a glorified bank robber with mind control powers. He’s no longer the savvy, sadistic, sarcastic crime boss that once graced the pages of the 1990’s and early 2000s Bat-books. No, that version of Sionis is sadly no longer with us, unless they can get a decent writer on Detective Comics.
Which Black Mask was the better one, you may ask? It’s not really a fair question. Roman Sionis’ Black Mask had 20-odd years to make an impact, and he made a huge impact as a veteran Bat-villain, especially in his later years, significantly altering the Batman status quo for quite a while. Dr. Jeremiah Arkham’s hot minute as the Black Mask, on the other hand, managed to make a big impression in just one year. He established himself as a cool, creepy, despicably evil villain that you love to hate, all thanks to the devilishly disturbed writing of David Hine. I like them both, but Sionis’ track record and seniority win out every time. He is the Black Mask. Arkham is merely a caricature of a naïve doctor who seems to simply not understand that insanity is a legal term, not a medical one. I would guess that Dr. Arkham is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, not being trained to practice psychiatric medicine. We’ve also seen a bit of the new Roman Sionis Black Mask in the non-canon Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. He was also a primary antagonist in the animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood.
Bottom line, Black Mask isn’t the greatest Batman villain out there, but look what they did with the Penguin in Batman: Arkham City. If they could do something like that with Roman Sionis’ Black Mask, then we could have a real gem in Arkham Origins.
Front page image from gameinformer.com. Image 1 from gametrailers.com. Image 3 from hcof.blogspot.com. Image 4 from plus4chan.com. Image 5 from comicbookrealm.com. Image 6 from comicvine.com.