Masks in comics are very common. They are an essential part of the superhero’s equipment, protecting their identity so they can lead ‘normal’ lives. The mask is so intrinsically linked to heroism that the hero rarely uses their powers without it. Although it’s never taken that far (that I’ve seen, anyway) it’s almost a direct link between mask and power. Without the mask there is no hero.
Conversely the villain hardly ever wears one. Granted, I’m not that well versed in comics, but the only masked villain I can think of off the top of my head is the Joker in Batman and, by the time he starts wearing one, there’s no private identity left to protect. Oh, and Spiderman‘s Green Goblin, where the evil personality (at least in the film) is portrayed as being IN the mask.
I’ve been trying to think of reasons for this division. Do we believe that people have the ability to be villainous at any time, with no need for assistance from a magical mask? Or is it simply that we want them to be caught and so never hide their faces?
If you turn the question on its head, you come up with a much more interesting answer. Why are most heroes portrayed with masks? The protected identity thing is a narrative convention. I think the real reason is that it makes them more relatable. Bear with me on this. By making superheros anonymous, they become a kind of Everyman. Regardless of who is actually under the mask, it has the potential to be anyone, even the reader. The mask enables us to project our own faces onto the hero.
By keeping villains bare faced, we define them as that specific individual. We cannot therefore be the villain, because we don’t look like that.
In comics, this need to define the villain as ‘not me’ can result in extreme caricaturing. This makes us feel safer – after all, we will never risk meeting such absurd people in real life. The really scary ones are those that aren’t that different. The Everymans who think at only 10° from us. It is all too easy to believe that we will meet them or, worse, could be them. When you’re playing the ‘what superpower would you like’ game no one ever says a villain, because you don’t want to be associated with that kind of behaviour. But let’s be honest – Dr. Octopus was cool.
This division of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is an important key to understanding, well, rather a lot of things. International politics for a start, but I’m not going to go there. In writing, it is vital to give your readers a villain. Your hero has to be someone that the audience can relate to in some way – without empathy, there is no interest. That means your villain must be ‘other’, and that delineation usually needs to be fairly obvious. Otherwise there’s a risk the reader will go off piste and decide on an antipathetic character for themselves. You don’t want to lose control of the reader that much – there’s no telling what else they might do.
But how do you define ‘other’? Well, an excellent place to start is by making sure you have properly defined ‘self’, aka the hero. And this brings to light another point that should not be neglected – heros and villains exist symbiotically. Without one, the other is meaningless. Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable put this rather well:
Now that we know who you are, I know who I am.