Smokin’: How A Warped Underground Comic Book Became ‘The Mask’

Senior Contributor
07.29.14 9 Comments

New Line Cinema

Twenty years ago today, The Mask hit theaters. Cementing the career of Jim Carrey and launching the career of Cameron Diaz, it was a bizarre, CGI-heavy spectacle that was a seeming mashup between a superhero movie, a noir, and a Tex Avery cartoon. Which is a bit of a switch from the serial-killing monster the movie was based on.

Dark Horse, Dark Comedy

Not many people realize The Mask was based on a comic book, but it was. In fact, it was one of the early successes of comics publisher Dark Horse, founded in 1986. The first Mask strip ran in Dark Horse Presents in 1987, written by John Arcudi and drawn by Doug Mahnke, both virtually unknown at the time.

The strip stood out because even by the standards of underground comics in the late 1980s, it was disturbing. All the elements you remember for the film are there: Stanley the nebbish pushover, the magical mask that removes his inhibitions, the anti-heroic aspects… with one rather large exception: The Mask is a homicidal maniac known, in universe, as the Big Head Killer.

Just as an example of how different the book is, you might remember this scene from the movie:

That’s also in the comic book… except the Mask tortures them to death with the mufflers. You don’t want to know how.

So… what happened? How did a gory, violent dark comedy strip in a relatively obscure anthology comic become one of the biggest kid-friendly hits of 1994?

Somebody Stop Them! No, Seriously.

In truth, The Mask was originally going to be a replacement for the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise. New Line Cinema had made its bones in horror and it was Freddy that kept the doors open, and they thought they had another Freddy in The Mask.

But, as Mike Richardson pointed out repeatedly, the script only really worked when it resorted to slapstick instead of dark comedy, ultimately leading to substantial changes in the movie. Still, there are hints of the comic’s darker side, if you know where to look. For example, you might remember Stanley gets betrayed by the adorable redhead reporter, and she promptly disappears from the movie. Originally, though, her departure was a bit… messier:

Those elements were trimmed back, though, and the movie grossed $300 million worldwide on a $23 million budget.

The Green Isn’t Just From The Mask

In a lot of ways, The Mask had influence you wouldn’t expect from a movie that’s more remembered than loved at this point. There’s Carrey and Diaz, of course, but Dark Horse spun their success into an animated series, slightly-more kid-friendly comics, and a whole host of movie adaptations, although many of those were… not quite as successful.

But it gave the company the money to keep publishing comics, which in turn laid the groundwork for both the speculator boom in the ’90s and the modern comics industry. It was also one of the key reasons that there were so many comics adaptations in the mid-’90s; after all, if an obscure comic could deliver a movie that made more than ten times its budget, what other gems might be hiding in the panels?

In other words, you can kinda blame Dark Horse for movies like Barb Wire and Steel. But, hey, you can’t win them all.

Shedding The Mask

These days, there’s not much talk of The Mask. He last saw print in an original story at the turn of the millenium, when the Joker got his hands on it. Carrey promptly ditched the franchise, and New Line’s attempt to revive it eleven years later failed miserably. Not even Dark Horse, who owns the character, has bothered acknowledging the movie’s 20th anniversary.

Still, it remains a curious part of pop culture history, a movie that laid groundwork for much more to come. But at least we’re being spared a gritty reboot… although Loki’s mask has a way of turning up.

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