The lights are on
Few comic and game fans had trouble recognizing characters like the Joker and the Riddler in previous Arkham games. These are villains long established in the popular Batman mythology of films, cartoons, and comics. Arkham Origins pushes a lesser-known rogue into the limelight, but serious Batman comic fans will be the first to tell you that Black Mask is an exciting choice. Who is Black Mask, and what is his role in the upcoming game? Here’s your primer, both for understanding Black Mask in the wider Batman fiction, as well as how he fits into the Arkhamverse.
Black Mask has a long and sordid history within the Batman comics; the moniker has even applied to two separate individuals over the years. The Black Mask presented in Arkham Origins is the original character, an evil, sadistic individual by the name of Roman Sionis. In the original comic fiction, Sionis showed up as Black Mask in 1985. Sionis was the son of a wealthy socialite couple in Gotham, much like Bruce Wayne. Unlike Wayne, Sionis’ parents were angry, treacherous, and controlling, and they passed some of their worst traits onto their son. Sionis would end up murdering his parents, later donning an ebony mask fashioned from his father’s casket – symbolizing his new identity – while simultaneously taking over as head of his father’s business, Janus Cosmetics.
Black Mask remained a fixture of the Batman comics in the coming years. In one of the more striking and memorable moments of the history between the characters, Black Mask returns to his family home to wipe out any traces of his old life as Roman Sionis. As he sets a fire in his old bedroom, Batman’s attempts to save him from the fire send the villain tumbling into the flames, where his black mask is permanently scorched onto his face. Over the years, Black Mask establishes himself as one of the most ruthless and outright evil Batman rogues, disfiguring faces, torturing and murdering those close to his enemies, and for a time, leading the forces of organized crime in Gotham. In a final brutal conflict, Catwoman ends up killing Sionis, setting the stage for a new character to take up the mantle of Black Mask.
Though little is known about the plot points at play in Batman: Arkham Origins, it’s clear that Warner Bros. Games Montreal has taken a lot of the original fiction into account and is eager to introduce him to gaming audiences that might not recognize him. “We realize that Black Mask is not necessarily as prominent in people’s minds as some other classic Batman villains, so we realize we also need to do work to explain why he’s really cool and make him felt in the game,” says creative director Eric Holmes. “It’s not something people bring a lot of baggage to when you see the Black Mask, so we have to do the work to make him scary.”
In the upcoming game, Roman Sionis is publicly the head of Janus Cosmetics, but secretly is the up and coming head of the Gotham mob. “Black Mask is new money. He’s rich. He’s very, very powerful. He’s made it,” explains Holmes. “He’s known for being brutal and sadistic. And particularly at this point in the Arkham franchise he has enormous resources. He is the number one gang leader in Gotham. And has easily the most power in the city.” He is slowly but surely taking out his competitors within the organized crime world, and as the game begins he’s solidifying his power in the city. In the Arkham universe, the masks that Black Mask and his cronies wear act as a shield for their far more public personas. No one knows that Roman Sionis is Black Mask, and Sionis is able to maintain power within the city by exploiting both identities. “Roman Sionis is suspected for a lot of things, but nothing’s pinned on him,” says Holmes. “The Janus Cosmetics company is his background. He inherited a family business related to cosmetic chemicals and ran it into the ground, and then turned it around into a huge criminal enterprise selling drugs. You see Sionis branding even in Arkham City. The steel mills are Sionis facilities. His money primarily comes from the drug trade.” Black Mask takes a perverse enjoyment from the pain he inflicts on the people of Gotham. “His thing is torture. That is what gets his rocks off,” Holmes continues. “And he’s really good at it.”
Black Mask stands out from the Dark Knight’s gallery of villains for his purely malicious sensibilities and attitude toward Batman. “The sadistic nature of Black Mask is a fun thing for us to play with – the lengths to which he’s willing to go to get what he wants,” says senior producer Ben Mattes. While Black Mask’s motivations may eventually reveal themselves to be even deeper, it’s clear from our early glimpse of the game that Batman’s death is high on his list of priorities. Arkham Origins’ Black Mask carries a deep hatred for Batman, and that manifests as the central threat facing Batman in the game. Black Mask seeks out a cadre of the world’s best killers, and promises each a reward for bringing down Batman. “It’s basically Batman’s worst nightmare,” says narrative director Dooma Wendschuh. “We have eight of the best assassins in the world who’ve come together to Gotham City for one night, Christmas Eve of all nights, to kill the Bat.”
Black Mask may not as well known as Penguin or Mr. Freeze, but the dark tone of the character and his connections to the Gotham underworld fit perfectly with what we’ve seen of Batman: Arkham Origins. While the original comic version of the character has plenty of reasons to hate Batman, those details remain shrouded within the Arkham storyline. Why has Black Mask suddenly taken such an interest in the death of the Dark Knight? We’ll have to wait for the game’s release to find out for sure.
Want to know more about Black Mask? Here’s our recommended comics reading list: Batman #386, #485-486, #518, #688-697, and Detective Comics #553.
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Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Game Informer.