“Too many comics have forgotten to be fun” Josh Williamson and Mike Henderson talk about film noir superhero crossover Masks and Mobsters from MonkeyBrain

One of our favourite titles from the recent MonkeyBrain launch was the brilliant crime noir superhero adventure Masks and Mobsters from Josh Williamson and Mike Henderson. With it’s stunning black and white artwork and it’s enthralling mix of golden age superheroes, mad scientists and 30s style gangsters it stood out as something really intresting and exciting – plus it had a fantastic twist to end the final issue. Reminding us of everything from Ed Brubaker’s Incognito to Will Eisner’s legendary Spirit we wanted to find out more about where the inspiration came from so we got in touch with both Josh and Mike to find out just what it’s like bringing Masks and Mobsters to MonkeyBrain .What inspired you to create Mask and Mobsters? Did you set out to make a noir superhero book or was it one of those ‘What If’ moment where you wondered what would happen if mobsters got one over on the capes!
JH: One of my biggest influences is James Robinson’s Starman and from that I acquired my love all things retro and pulp heroes. With that came an affection of the Golden Age Heroes and that time period. Now I’ve always wanted to do a book from the criminal’s perspective, and what better time period than the 30s! Originally the plan was to do a story about the world’s first super villain created to distract the heroes from the mobster’s plans, but then it just lead to this comic about the mob. How the emergence of heroes affected their business. When I was in Brian Michael Bendis’s writing class at PSU I started to write the book as shorts featuring the mobsters in this noir setting trying to deal with all the new “masks” in their territories. That gave birth to Masks and Mobsters. Really the look and tone of the book came together once Mike got involved.

MH: I’ve always been a huge Will Eisner fan, as I think Josh is, obviously had the soft spot for the Spirit that comes with it, and that informed the somewhat cartoony nature of my art through the years. When Josh approached me the idea for Masks and Mobsters, it only felt natural that I’d try my own hand at it. I think we had noir in mind; at least I did, but there was certainly a “What if?” element that I think all fans (and therefore creators) have at times. When I picked that up in my first conversation with Josh, I was in.

There are a lot of superhero mash-up books at the moment, as well as plenty of self aware superhero books so what do you think Masks and Mobsters brings to the table that other books don’t?
For my part, I try not to look too much at other books of the same genre that are being done at the time, if only to keep myself uninfluenced and in my own headspace. I’m very much aware of the natural grittiness that seems to run through many of the other noir books that are out and even if Masks and Mobsters isn’t exactly a Disney experience, I try not to let it get too heavy. Fortunately, each script seems to be peppered with enough funny bits to keep me chuckling while I’m drawing, and I think that shows in the finished art.

JH: I won’t lie. A lot of what Brubaker has done with Gotham Central, Criminal, Incognito and Fatale have influenced my writing and in turn this book. That being said, we are in no way copying what they are doing. We just do what we want to do. I try to work around what the artist wants to draw and then I write a comic I’d want to read. For me I just try to do stuff I haven’t seen before. Things I think are missing from a lot of comics. Look at films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or 7 Psychopaths. No one is telling stories like that in comics. You’ll see a lot of that in Chapter 3.

Too many comics have forgotten to be fun. In an effort to be dark and gritty they’ve forgotten the dark humor. That’s what we bring to the table. Just a little bit of fun.

Are you both keen fans of crime books or did you have to do lots of research? What were the key titles you used as inspiration?
I’ve always loved crime books, myself. They’re a welcome break from the hordes of other genres and sub-genres and in a way are, like crime films, more relatable to a reader. Ours just happens to have the giant robots and costumed lunatics that Josh writes so well, thrown in for good measure. I suppose Eisner’s Spirit may be the most obvious visual influence on M&M but, as I said, I try to avoid work that I could soak up subconsciously.

JH: I’ve already brought up Brubaker, but a lot of James Robinson’s Starman is in there. Will Eisner’s innovativeness is HUGE for us both. That guy was way ahead of his time and really knew how to tell a story. Most of my crime research came from experience. Kidding. Kind of.

Who’s decision was it to work in black and white or was it just a natural fit?
MH: After a bit of back and forth, the decision to go black and white was mutual. On a personal level, it’s a test of my own storytelling abilities. I love a beautifully colored book as much as the next guy, but there is always that temptation to lean on it as a crutch instead of a tool, and making a black and white book keeps me sharp and continuing to question myself. We have discussed some subtle colors, but seeing as we’re on a pretty nice roll, maybe we’ll save that for a collected edition somewhere down the line.

JH: Yeah, we tried to color a page or two and it just wasn’t working. It looked great in color, but it wasn’t the same feel we wanted. I’m a big fan of black and white comics, and Mike’s greys tones… its hard to explain, but they are almost like a level of color, yknow? It just really helps set the tone in a way that colors couldn’t. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see the book in color, unless someone blows our minds.

How did you get in touch with MonkeyBrain, did they approach you or did you pitch to them? What does the association bring and what do you think of their plan to create a digital specific publishing imprint?
I’ve known Allison and Chris Roberson for a bit now and we’d talked about their plans for a few times. Mike and I were looking for a home for the book and then one day Allison told me their plans at a bar here in Portland. Even after one too many beers that night I knew I was already sold on their plans. For me I love working with people who know what they are doing and have plans. That’s MonkeyBrain.

I love digital comics. Listen… nothing beats the smell of a freshly printed hardcover, but digital is the future. I wanted to be a part of that. Try something different.

Are either of you iPad or tablet users and what do you think of them as a means for consuming and/or creating comics with? Any titles of publishers you are particularly excited by?
 I keep abreast of what books are coming out and by whom, but I am admittedly not a tablet user. That being said, it’s a big, big part of our industry and constantly getting bigger. And companies like MonkeyBrain and now Madefire are assembling some of the best talent out there to break new ground. It’s exciting stuff!

JH: I’m an iPad junkie. Love my iPad. I sleep with it under my pillow. When I’m on an airplane I have tons of comics at my disposal. Having the backlight really makes the art sing. I still get hardcovers, a few single issues but a lot of what I get is on ComiXology. I read all the MonkeyBrain books, DC’s digital first offerings and I’m really excited about Madefire and ONI Press‘ online endeavors.

Finally, what’s next for both of you and how long have you mapped out Masks and Mobsters for? Will it be an on going thing, or does it have a finite life span?
 We currently have no endgame in sight for Masks and Mobsters (unless my partner in crime is hiding something from me), so I hope to keep doing it (with the occasional fill in artist) as long as it stays fun and fresh and rewarding!

JH: I could write Masks and Mobsters forever. I have a sort of rough plan laid out that could take a bit to get show. Right now we’re just having fun building the world. Creating the characters and how they relate to each other. You’ll start to notice a bit of a “Pulp Fiction” level of connection between all the shorts that is building to something bigger. The priority right now is to keep up the level of quality and have fun.

Masks and Mobsters is available from MonkeyBrain comics via ComiXology with the first 3 issues now available for just £0.69