Friday, May 27, 2011

Man of Many Masks


I’m not sure when I became infatuated with masks. Perhaps all the way back when the masks were made of plastic and print painted to look like Spock, Superman, Batman, or whomever your hero of choice.

Those early 70’s masks had elastic drawstrings stapled to either inside edge of the face bowl, holes for the eyes to peek though allowing your eyes weren’t too close together or low brow to misalign, and a mouth slit sharp enough to slice open an unwarily jutting tongue. They were sold tucked inside flimsy paper boxes with colorful, slip off tops, often with a cellophane window to see the mask and folded costume inside. The costumes were plastic or cloth pajamas printed or patterned to approximate the license, intellectual property, or franchise they represented.

There’s a whole series of disconcerting Burger King television ads employing a mask that’s an homage to those bygone era of plastic masks, and even more parodies that highlight just how creepy a lot of the masks actually were. There’s just something inherently unsettling about those deliriously happy, fixed expressions held on with a rubber band, a theme so many alternative designer toys and assorted horror films have also explored. 

The elastic band masks, a family favorite, were used to great effect around the schoolhouse portion of the Universal Haunted Theme Park, where mute children wearing the masks would materialize from the mist or woodwork to stand near you, head cocked this way and that, perhaps follow you a little while, or drift away as soon as you looked nervously around to check if you were alone. 

Try to talk to them or take a picture, they’d move away, and you’d turn to find another one standing right behind you. Deeply unsettling, particularly the animal masks.

Vintage hockey masks, the sort Jason Voorhees wears, have held a longstanding appeal to me, the clean design is iconic and something I liked to draw and felt drawn too due to an issue of Heavy Metal I read in 7th grade. Jason’s initial mask from the third film installment is based on the mask the Detroit Red Wings once wore, though according to Wiki enlarged some, with added holes and red pips for personalization. Having looked through a few of the sites dedicated to the history of hockey masks, from the first leather and wire basket ones to the high tech ones worn today, I have to admit they’re all pretty cool, and depending on the context off the ice, fairly intimidating.

One day while I worked as the part time toy guy running the toy counter for Nostalgia Comics in downtown Eugene, Oregon, the owner Daryl pointed out a listing in the latest Previews catalog for an opportunity to purchase one of Sideshow’s limited edition shadowboxed autographed replica of Jason’s mask from the 5th film. I thought about it for about two minutes before committing a couple week’s salary to the thing. To expensive to ever consider wearing for Halloween or valentine’s Day, though looks great on the wall in the glossy wooden shadowbox.

Couple years later I discovered a fellow on EBay making authorized fiberglass replica masks for sale at a modest price. He crafted masks matching most of the films, as well as different degrees of weathering and detailing. The more weathered and detailed, the higher the price. I passed far too many days revisiting the listings before finally settling on a single mask that spoke most to me. Clean, without the trademark machete slice on the temple. I should have dropped for the leather straps, however the snap on black elastic bands aren’t bad.  
Through art school, museum exhibits, and bookstore shelves I would learn about Noh masks, and ceramic casts, and French circus masks like the sorts you’d see in Cirque du Soleil or Mardi Gras, aboriginal scowls, decorative shells, discombobulated machinery, and the sorts of things that show up in Michael Parks paintings. I drew variations of masks and costumes, explored fashion and fetish magazines for inspiration, and my sketchbooks filled with page after page of clippings, doodles, sketches, penciled, inked, paint smeared variations on masks, goggles, tubes, ribbons, bones, braids, pipes, metal, latex, silicon, rubber, Teflon, glass, Plexiglas, mirrors, buttons, snaps, mesh, scales, chain link, plush fur of animal, toy, and Muppet. 

When given the opportunity to design some toys for Toy2R, a designer toy company operating out of Hong Kong, I paid homage to some of my favorite masks, Jason’s and Mexican Wrestling superstar Blue Demon. I feel toys should be an extension of the artist behind them, a reflection at least, something that makes an statement about that interests the artist, bemuses, draws their curiosity. Just as video game workstations reflect their occupants through the toys and images propped, pinned, and post-it around their designated spots, the design of and / or on an art centric toy is a manifestation of one of the myriad flavors and stylistic dispositions of the artist whose handiwork is the end product.

I learned about the Lucha Libre from Charles Burns comics, however didn’t understand the sheer breadth and energy of the genre until my friends from Headquarters in the West End of Vancouver brought me a couple films back with them from one of their trips home to see their families back in Mexico City. Blue Demon, Santos, the Masquerade, Satanos, so many incredible characters, and the best part: they never take off their masks. 

True, some of the burly titans have variations to their masks they switch to between takes, though their characters reflect that special ability somehow, changing appearance is some part of their modus operandi. Blue Demon never changes his mask, or takes it off, and whether he’s fighting devilish minions in the ring or vampire women from Venus in the abbey or leaping car to car as the racers careen down a mountain cliff face, whether he’s dressed to kill or dressed for a late dinner and cocktails, he has his iconic mask on. Over the years I've found or been given by friends a number of wonderful Mexican Wrestling masks, and most recently Alex & David brought back from their trip to Mexico not only a new mask for me, but a stunning cape and helm combo for Otis. Now all we'll need is a backyard to put up a ring in.

While in film school I collaborated with Jason Bisschop, his girlfriend, and Shotaro Hirai to design the antagonists for our student film, and one of those characters, the Black Queen, needed a mask to add to her visual intimidation factor. I drew a pattern I felt would work, however was at a loss of how to make the actual piece. Jason’s girlfriend, also our make-up artist, saved the day with a blank mask likely intended for use around Mardi Gras, a white feminine face, blank expression, Noh mask style feline eye sockets. Taking my pattern, she painted it as well as creating a wonderful heart pumping prop for our actress, Axaxa, to utilize. Say what you might about the film, at least the Ghost Queens looked stunning on camera, a group effort for sure, and I’m glad to have had a chance to contribute. Little known secret, I would love to do costume design, and have a real weakness for any country’s version of Project Runway.

I discovered the television version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first way back on one fine Sunday in 1982, just before seventh grade would begin for me at Washington College Academy. My family had just relocated there from Telford, my parents taking and sharing a job running the school’s kitchen while they chipped away at school, my Dad for his Masters, my Mom for her degree. I had no friends, a trend that would largely continue, and there was an impressive ivory color mushroom growing from the tiny, moldy yellow tiles in the small house’s one windowless bathroom. 

 Almost immediately after I discovered Tom Baker as Doctor Who and knew I’d found something to indeed be a diehard devote fan of. K9 and Louise Jameson  with the fluted leather bustier I prayed would have a wardrobe malfunction pretty much every episode, and Elisabeth Sladen, the good Doctor’s other wonderful eye-magnet sidekick lady who recently, sadly, passed away. The Daleks were cool, but the Cyber-Men captured my heart. Like a second generation of the cowboy robots I’d enjoyed so much on the PBS Saturday morning retro lineup, the ones that lived beneath Gene Autry’s ranch, the Cyber-Men cheered me up simply stumbling around the foam and plywood sets, or equally, the quaint and quiet English countryside. I have a similar affinity for the vintage Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, those poor repurposed offseason NFL defensemen and linebackers trying to move around blind in cumbersome foil and rubber costumes. The Robot Chicken skit about the plight of the Cylon actors sums that experience up nicely, I think.

From the first time I saw Star Wars in theater I knew the Stormtroopers rocked. Sure, they prat fall a lot for the Rebels a lot, perhaps their fallibility is part of the charm. I pretended to be one as a kid with the vintage Air Force helmet from his Brando-father’s green trunk, despite the helmet looking more like what the X-Wing pilots preferred. I frankly like all the Imperial helmets, the black egg shaped one with the tiny circles on top and chin strap that the sub-officers wore, or the wicked full enclosure clamshell ones the Imperial Gunners wore. Of all of them strangely, Vader’s was my least favorite. Perhaps because that’s the one everyone else liked, I don’t know really.  

When I first attended a San Diego Comicon, and laid eyes on the 501st, a Lucas sanctioned charity group of cosplayers that muster and march for a variety of causes and events, I nearly swooned. I’ve wanted to join in every since, though frankly doubt I’d ever be tall or buff enough. Respect to the troopers that go through all the effort to get their suits looking better and more viable than the on screen equivalents. One thing you learn when you study props and travelling memorabilia exhibits, the stuff that looked amazing on screen often seems underwhelming when seen in person, too flimsy somehow, smoke and mirrors. Not everything, I don’t mean miniatures work for example, or stop motion props. I mean things like armor, capes, costumes, accessories. 

Especially if the gear isn’t the “hero” gear, instead stuff meant to look right from a distance on the background characters or set. The armor the 501st and fellow recreationists put together has to transcend the realities of the plastic stuff the filmmakers might have gotten away with, and look as good up close and in person as the content being recreated looked on the silver screen, a challenge to be sure. Weight has to be added, density, different materials, and often problems solved for bindings and structure that could have been glue gunned or taped up for a film set. 

Lasting through a few takes with a wardrobe crew at the ready is not the same thing as parading around a convention floor for eight hours trying to look your best. And I doubt the film actor troopers has fans installed in their helmets, or voice modulators, or speakers connected to iPod Nanos loaded up with sound FX and quotes controlled by a remote redressed to look like the mike communicator from the film, all the better to crowd please with.

So while I haven’t yet gotten a suit of Trooper gear and enlisted in the local garrison of the 501st, I have gotten a couple halfway decent looking helmets, good enough for snapshots, and inspired by a photo blog by a couple called Red & Johnny, when we got married, my wife and I brought the helmets along to use for one of our dances on the evening, a nod both to Red & Johnny’s example of sharing with your betrothed your interests and passions, and to likewise share our own love of geek, as we also did with all our Lego items at the proceedings. 

We were delighted when the helmets began getting passed around guests at our reception, incidentally symbolic of people accepting, embracing, even encouraging us to continue together on our journey, the one that has lead us to amazing travels and a son that I hope someday enjoys all the fun there is to be had from masks, and from make believe, because the masks are at best a tool, it’s the stories you empower them with that matters.

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