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Behind ‘The Mask’

Twenty-five years ago, Jim Carrey cemented his status as a comedy god by playing a down-on-his-luck nice guy who’s empowered by a magical, snot-colored mask. But the origins of this story are no laughing matter.

Alycea Tinoyan

Here’s a scene that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Mask: Inside of a garage, two dirtbag mechanics are yucking it up, kidding about the various ways they’ve screwed over their customers—puncturing somebody’s brake lines, ignoring a cracked gasket to make sure the chump has to come back. Then, suddenly, a guy wearing a snot-green mask, a garish jacket, and a toothy grin shows up in their shop, holding a muffler and sounding like one of those hapless clients out for revenge. “I’m not going to pay a lot for this muffler,” he says in a menacing tone.

What happens next is probably less familiar. When we see the garage later, police are there surveying a murder scene—the mechanics have been savagely slain. One of them is hanging from the ceiling, tangled up in a chain with tools sticking out of his head, blood oozing from the wounds; the other has had an entire muffler stuffed into his mouth, his head cartoonishly warped into the shape of the car part, his eyes bulging and bloodshot.

Leaving behind a trail of corpses is how the Mask gets his laughs in Mayhem, a short-lived anthology series published by Dark Horse Comics back in 1989. Longtime fans of Jim Carrey’s movies know a different, more sanitized resolution, in which the mechanics get roughed up but survive. (They’re in need of the best proctologist in town, but still alive.) That’s of course what happens in the 1994 big-screen adaptation of The Mask, starring Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss, a pushover who comes across a magical mask that lets him unleash his id and become a living Looney Tune. But years before the Mask was synonymous with Carrey’s shape-shifting mug and that yellow zoot suit, the green-headed troublemaker was envisioned as an ultraviolent maniac, quick with a trigger and eager to cross names off his (literal!) list of enemies.

What does the comic book incarnation of Stanley Ipkiss do with his superpowered fashion accessory? He kills those two cheat mechanics; he slaughters a biker gang that beat him up earlier, splashing one of the members with gasoline and then tossing a lit match in his direction; he finds an old elementary school teacher who embarrassed him when he was a kid and stomps her face in, right in front of her students. Wearing the mask allows Ipkiss to lash out in horrifying ways against the people he thinks have humiliated and emasculated him. It grants him boundless powers, but it actually amplifies—rather than changes—who he is and brings out his essential nature. “You see a guy who’s downtrodden, he’s got issues, he feels like the world has kicked him a bunch,” says comic book artist Doug Mahnke, who worked on Mayhem and several other miniseries featuring the Mask. “All of a sudden he has this chance to get away with a bunch of shit.”

Still, despite the character’s bloody origins, convoluted publishing history, and years-long journey to the screen, The Mask ended up transforming into a bona fide blockbuster. Released on July 29, 1994, the movie made off with $120 million domestically, inspired an animated series, ushered a couple of catchphrases into the lexicon (along with one hall-of-fame meme, a little further down the line), introduced audiences to a young actress named Cameron Diaz, and helped anoint Carrey as the most exciting comedy talent in the movie business at the time. What’s more impressive is that all of this success came long before superhero movies were regularly setting and smashing box office records. In fact, many of them were duds. It may sound bizarre, but The Mask became a sensation in spite of its association with comics, not because of it. Today, the movie is a relic of a completely unrecognizable time in Hollywood, when a comic book adaptation was better off divorced from its source material and not linked to any larger continuity—especially a comic book movie based on a cult title about a Travis Bickle type who dons a magic mask.

“If anybody tells you that they were sure it was going to be that kind of a hit,” says screenwriter Mark Verheiden, who has a story credit on the film, “they’re crazy.”

Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz
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The Mask dates back further than that auto shop bloodbath in the pages of Mayhem. Mike Richardson, the eventual founder of Dark Horse Comics, came up with the concept in 1982 and later debuted it in an amateur press publication called APA-5. (Established by Verheiden, APA-5 featured material from several artists and writers who’d go on to work in comics professionally, including Richardson, as well as Sin City auteur Frank Miller.) In Richardson’s mind, the Mask was some kind of cross between the Joker and Steve Ditko’s the Creeper, a deranged vigilante immediately recognizable for his green hair and electric-yellow skin.

“The idea was about human nature,” Richardson says. “We all say, ‘If only I could do this, if only I could do that.’ And then somebody who gets the power to do it has these personal vendettas that have to be taken care of first.”

Richardson started the Oregon-based Dark Horse Comics in 1986, under the principle that creators could own their work and, as he puts it, “work with Dark Horse, instead of for Dark Horse.” One of the company’s launch titles was Dark Horse Presents, an anthology series following a host of different characters and story lines. Beginning with the book’s 10th issue, published in 1987, Richardson hired writer-artist Mark Badger to dust off his old APA-5 creation. “He wanted to add his own touch to it, so he spelled ‘Mask’ M-a-s-q-u-e,” Richardson says. “It bugged me a little bit, but I let him do it.”

Badger’s take on “the Masque” ran for about a year, but was discontinued, Richardson says, because he felt the story had veered too far into political territory. “It had nothing to do with left, right, or Democrat or Republican—it was a whole different area,” Richardson says, clearly uninterested in elaborating any further. “It wasn’t where the character was going in my head.” In the strip’s final installment, he apologized to readers for the narrative not being coherent enough.

Badger explains that he cast the Masque as a sort of “protector-demon” looking out for a priest from Central America who was on the run from the CIA. And for his part, Badger insists his run ended because he finished his story, not because anyone at Dark Horse came down on him. “I came up with an ending. I got my CIA guy killed,” Badger says. “I don’t remember getting any sense of, ‘You’ve gotta end this story because it’s not what we want.’”

To reboot the Mask for a new anthology series, Dark Horse tapped Mahnke and “Homicide” writer John Arcudi. With their initial four-issue arc, the duo corrected the spelling of the character’s name and portrayed the Mask as the personification of one man’s innermost violent and toxic impulses. Arcudi’s version of Stanley Ipkiss has a receding hairline, wears glasses and a sweater vest, and appears to be nursing an anger problem; he’s the kind of guy who’s had his lunch tray knocked down a few too many times. The Mask’s segment of Mayhem no. 1 opens on Ipkiss as he’s purchasing a green, decorative-looking mask from an antique shop, as a makeup gift for his girlfriend. Almost immediately after he leaves the store, he’s beaten up by some bikers; on the way to his better half’s apartment, Ipkiss daydreams about using a few items (a baseball bat, a wrench, a flamethrower) to return the favor. Once he tries on the artifact in the middle of the night, he’s able to act out those R-rated revenge fantasies.

“John and I were just unleashed to do what we wanted,” says Mahnke, whose black-and-white imagining of the Mask was styled after the character’s look on the first Mayhem cover, designed by artist Chris Warner. “Dark Horse is very hands-off. They thought it was cool, they liked what it was, and we just kept going with it. So, flaws and all ended up in the book.”

The source of the mask’s powers is never explained in Mayhem, but when Ipkiss puts it on, he turns into something beyond reality. He’s suddenly a wisecracking murderer who can pull any weapon he’d like out of thin air, who can survive a double-barrel shotgun blast to the torso, and who has a soft spot for absolutely hideous suits. When he’s the Mask, Ipkiss can do pretty much anything; true to Richardson’s original concept, he uses those abilities to settle some scores.

Arcudi and Mahnke “really captured the essence of the character that I had envisioned,” Richardson says. “A little more violent than I would have anticipated, but it was a lot of fun.”

As the Mayhem story line goes on, Ipkiss becomes more unhinged, even when he’s not wearing the headpiece. He trades his sweater vest and slacks in for army fatigues and is suddenly snapping at his girlfriend, Katherine; on one page, he raises his hand as if he’s going to smack her, but stops himself. When he’s got the mask on, that extra aggression results in a higher body count. In the comic’s third and fourth issues, the Mask guns down scores of police officers and runs people over with a stolen cop car, spitting jokes the whole way through. A recently released omnibus collecting early Mask stories includes full-color editions of the Mayhem comics, and some pages are overflowing with blood—splashes of red decorate the white space beyond the panels.

Tempting as it may be to reach for the tired label of “antihero,” that really isn’t a strong enough word for Arcudi and Mahnke’s interpretation of Ipkiss. Their character is a radicalized mass murderer, not someone readers should root for or with whom they should identify. “Being jerked around by some guys in their shifty muffler shop, that’s not worth killing somebody over. You just don’t give them your business,” Mahnke says. “Most of us should be able to walk away from a situation like that and not feel ultimately wronged. But in Stanley’s mind, it was worth killing them over—at least as the Mask.”

Unfortunately for society at large, Mayhem’s Ipkiss has aged frighteningly well. A self-pitying misanthrope who schemes against the forces that’ve apparently screwed him over while he’s watching the news—not the most difficult image to conjure. Perhaps a 2019 update would feature Ipkiss logging hours on the dark web or sharing some sort of social media manifesto, but those kinds of touch-ups are unnecessary. He’s an enduring archetype, which makes reading The Mask Omnibus today unsettling. “It’s not that far-fetched of an idea of some dude with a chip on his shoulder, who thinks the world is against him,” Mahnke says. “Our culture is filled with it these days.”

There is a twisted bit of moral justice buried at the end of Mayhem, though. The monster who’s felt overlooked and bullied his whole life—who doesn’t hesitate to dole out punishment when given the first opportunity—is disposed of by someone who he himself has overlooked and bullied. After Ipkiss is done wreaking havoc, he heads back to his apartment and takes off the mask so he can start packing to leave town. On the story’s final page, as he’s getting some clothes together, we spy a hand reaching over to grab the mask from its place on his bed. Then, we see the barrel of a gun aimed at Ipkiss’ back. Two shots are fired—krak, krak!—except this time, the hits to the torso kill him. The closing panel reveals who snatched the magical antique and then pulled the trigger: It’s Katherine, standing over Ipkiss’s dead body with a green head and giant smile, smoking gun in hand.

Jim Carrey
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At some point in the late ’80s—it was so long ago that none of the principals involved can remember exactly when—Dark Horse got word that New Line Cinema was interested in developing The Mask as a feature. The studio previously made a decent bundle by rereleasing the antimarijuana propaganda piece Reefer Madness and had distributed several films by John Waters, but was most closely associated with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The connection to Freddy Krueger—so strong that the company was known as “The House That Freddy Built”—partly explains why some of the initial discussions about a Mask adaptation focused on it being a horror film. “In the early days, it was definitely hardcore horror being pitched at me, and I was saying no,” Richardson says. “I think one of the early versions was that a mask maker on the edge of town was putting masks on teenagers and turning them into mindless zombies, which had nothing to do with the character that I brought to New Line.”

In time, producers put the visions of a possible Elm Street successor to rest. They still had to figure out, though, how to make a gratuitously violent and mean-spirited comic into something palatable for mainstream moviegoing crowds. That meant scrubbing the bloodstains out of the story, finding a director who could balance superheroics with comedy, and lucking into a star who could harness the lead character’s livewire energy, all part of what Richardson calls “sort of a tortuous process” that took several years. And as difficult as it is to get any movie made, getting a comic book movie off the ground in the late ’80s and early ’90s that didn’t have the words “bat” and “man” in the title was particularly challenging. Long before the Joker’s social experiments and Thanos’s Blip, comics were not taken seriously in Hollywood; Richard Donner’s sublime Superman was an exception, but that franchise sputtered as the ’80s wore on, culminating in a misbegotten Quest for Peace.

“Comic people weren’t treated very well by film companies at the time,” says Richardson, who has a producing credit on The Mask. “One of the directors [that fellow producer Michael De Luca] and I met with, we sat there through the lunch and he never looked at me. And, finally, De Luca said, ‘You oughta talk to Mike over here.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Well, here’s what you should do: Movie people should do movies, and comic book people should stay in Portland and do comics.’ Needless to say, he didn’t direct the movie.”

Verheiden—who, again, knew Richardson back from their APA-5 days and who had written several comics for Dark Horse by the end of the ’80s—had similar experiences in show business. “Frankly, I can recall meetings where that was a detriment on my résumé,” he says. “That changed.”

Tim Burton’s 1989 gothic-blockbuster Batman acted as a kind of demarcation line; Bat-sequels followed and a few one-off pictures hit theaters with high expectations, among them Warren Beatty’s colorful rendering of Dick Tracy and Joe Johnston’s underwhelming The Rocketeer. But the evolution was still slow-going; comics didn’t quite establish a solid foothold at the box office until Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man arrived at the start of the 21st century. “I absolutely had those meetings with very important producers,” Verheiden says, “where they kind of rolled their eyes: ‘Only idiots want this garbage.’”

Screenwriter Michael Fallon had finished a first draft of a Mask script by around 1991, when Richardson brought Verheiden aboard to do a pass. Fallon’s early version, Verheiden says, was closer in spirit to the Mayhem comics. “I think there was a scene where the Mask shoved a machine gun down a guy’s pants and opened fire, which I think is right out of the comics,” he remembers. “But there’s a difference between seeing that as a comic book panel and portraying that in live action.” Tasked with lightening the story’s tone, Verheiden says he introduced some comedic flourishes, including Milo the dog, Stanley Ipkiss’s four-legged sidekick, and the musical number where the Mask escapes a police ambush by performing, of all things, “Cuban Pete.” In the latter sequence, the main character spontaneously bursts into song and charms the police force into playing along with the bit, getting them to sing and dance to the old tune once popularized by Desi Arnaz. (Jim Carrey’s rendition was released as a single in 1994, but didn’t catch on, peaking at no. 42 on the Dance Club Songs chart.)

While the script was beginning to come together, New Line was still searching for its lead. For all the setbacks and false starts, though, The Mask’s stint in development hell turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As Richardson told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, if the production stuck to its original two-year schedule, beginning when the rights were sold in 1989, then the movie wouldn’t have featured the two components most crucial to its success: the visual effects of both Industrial Light & Magic and Jim Carrey.

A couple of people want the credit for translating The Mask from a grisly little comic book into a ’90s megahit starring Jim Carrey. The director hired to helm the film, Chuck Russell, has said that he was the one originally insisting it be a comedy with Carrey at the center. “I just felt it should be Jim putting the mask on, and if Jim’s putting the mask on, it shouldn’t be a horror film,” says Russell, who directed two films before The Mask, 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, for New Line, and the 1988 remake of The Blob. Coming off of those pictures, Russell was more interested in doing a comedy and became a fan of Carrey’s after seeing him perform at the Comedy Store in L.A. “I just knew he was going to blow up. I’d seen his stand-up, and it blew my mind.”

Richardson doesn’t outright refute Russell’s recollection; he simply counters that, as the script evolved, he came to think the movie should resemble the cartoons of Tex Avery, the legendary Looney Tunes and MGM animator. Todd Moyer, the ex-agent who says he arranged the deals over the film rights to The Mask, mentions almost in passing that De Luca was the person “spearheading” the changes in tone and character. (Through a representative, De Luca declined to be interviewed for this article.) Moyer—who, in the ’90s, served as executive vice president for Dark Horse Entertainment, the production arm of the comics publisher—offers another, more succinct summary as to how the comic became the movie. “That’s me,” he says, “selling rights.”

Dark House Comics

By the time Carrey was cast in The Mask, he had been on the stand-up scene and had appeared in a few films (a starring role in the 1985 teen-vampire comedy Once Bitten, supporting parts in things like Peggy Sue Got Married and Earth Girls Are Easy). But he was best known as the white guy on In Living Color, the early-’90s sketch show created by Keenan Ivory Wayans. During Carrey’s five-season tenure on the show, his most recognizable character was Fire Marshall Bill, a not-at-all-safety-conscious pyromaniac with a horrifying overbite and high pain threshold; as singular as that recurring bit was, Richardson says it was a different sketch that really caught his eye—“My Left Foot of Fury,” a not-not-problematic parody that imagines Daniel Day-Lewis’s Christy Brown as a brawler. “I called De Luca right away and said, ‘That’s the Mask.’”

The production scored a generational talent in Carrey, a rubber-faced ham who’d contort his body into any position necessary for a laugh. And Carrey found the ideal vehicle to flaunt his physical and winking style of comedy. Across its 101-minute runtime, The Mask gives Carrey room to slide in and out of scenes, flex his Clint Eastwood impression, show off a French accent that would force even Pepé Le Pew to cry foul, and break the fourth wall to collect an award for his performance. (In the real world, Carrey earned Golden Globe and Razzie nominations for his work, a rare feat.) Watching The Mask now, it feels as though the rest of the movie clears out for the segments when Carrey’s head is green and just lets him put on a one-man show powered by his sketch chops, uncanny pep, and Silly Putty facial expressions. Smart tactic, considering Carrey’s natural talent and screen presence; for his part, Russell claims he did a number of uncredited rewrites on the script with the comedian in mind. (The script was credited to screenwriter Mike Werb, who told the L.A. Times in 1994 that he at least partially based the movie’s meeker characterization of Stanley Ipkiss on himself.)

“When I first gave the script to Jim Carrey, he said, ‘Oh my God, it’s like it was written for me,’” Russell remembers. “And I said, ‘It was.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t do it, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do.’ And then Jim says, and I’ll never forget this, ‘I’ll be doing this role at supermarket openings when I’m in my 70s.’” (Through a representative, Jim Carrey declined to be interviewed for this article.)

For a female lead to pair with Carrey, the studio landed on Cameron Diaz, then a young model looking to cross over into acting. While she initially auditioned for a two-line part, according to a 1994 Entertainment Weekly story, Diaz left enough of an impression to contend for the character of Tina Carlyle, love interest to both the Mask and the film’s gangster villain. She eventually earned the role—after a six-week tryout period in which she read opposite Carrey a dozen times. “I was ready to have a nervous breakdown,” Diaz told EW of the process. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I got an ulcer.”

In August 1993, after years of waiting like the suckers outside the Coco Bongo nightclub, shooting finally began on The Mask. Rather than a blood-splattered piece of pulp about an angry beta who goes on a string of murder sprees, Russell filmed a relatively kid-friendly story of a guy who goes “from zero to hero,” per the tagline. The final result plays like a hodgepodge of styles and genres, as wild and eager to please as the performance at the heart of the whole thing. Adding to the frenzy are the Oscar-nominated effects from Industrial Light & Magic, which bring the Mask’s powers to life and stretch Carrey’s own cartoon sensibilities to their logical conclusion. Thanks to ILM’s then-knockout technology, the star’s able to go full Big Bad Wolf in the club and make like roadkill in the streets. It all adds up to something that’s part musical romantic comedy, part comic book crime flick and special effects showcase. There’s juvenile humor and nods to Tex Avery, literal eye-popping visuals, swing music and “Cuban Pete,” a subplot about crooks making their play to take over a city, and a very smart Jack Russell terrier.

That sounds like a multimillion-dollar mess—like if the Tasmanian Devil were set loose on a writers’ room whiteboard—but it works because Carrey’s in the spotlight. He’s a joke roulette when he’s the Mask, and his Ipkiss is a “nice guy” who just can’t catch a break—still a beta, except he fancies himself a repressed romantic, instead of a sleeper cell. (Whether he actually is a romantic … well, check out the scene where the Mask is crawling on top of Diaz’s character in a park and decide for yourself.) If there’s anything that everyone involved with this film can agree upon, it’s that there was no better actor to slip on the mask.

Jim Carrey
Getty Images

Carrey’s 1994 remains an all-time great movie-star year. He toplined three major comedies, a streak that kicked off with February’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and ended with December’s Dumb and Dumber. In the middle was The Mask, hitting theaters in July and leading the box office in its opening weekend; the movie would go on to earn $352 million worldwide, a figure that made it the second-highest-grossing comic book movie up to that point, after Batman. “It shattered every expectation that New Line had at the time,” Richardson says. The total haul helped Carrey secure a historic pay raise soon afterward: He went from a reported $450,000 salary for The Mask to netting $20 million for 1996’s The Cable Guy.

Dark Horse Entertainment didn’t have a bad year, either. The company quickly followed its first no. 1 movie with another: Timecop, written by Verheiden, topped the box office when it opened in September 1994, and pulled down a worldwide sum of $102 million. That sort of immediate, back-to-back triumph with comic book movies was essentially unheard of, but it proved to be more of a fluke and less the start of a true trend. “By the mid-’90s, there were some popular, comic-based animated shows—Batman: The Animated Series, of course, X-Men, The Tick—that all started to break through, but there was still kind of this reluctance to make movies based on comics,” says Jason Sacks, co-author of American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s. “The Mask and Timecop both are just anomalies.”

Sacks is able to rattle off a quick list of would-be comic book blockbusters from that period that didn’t come close to replicating what The Mask accomplished: “There was Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel movie, the Spawn movie didn’t do well, obviously [Dark Horse’s] Barb Wire was a catastrophe.” Of course, The Mask clearly benefited from sophisticated-for-the-time special effects and having Jim Carrey right when he was fresh off a big box office win with Ace Ventura; it was also genuinely entertaining. (Steel, Spawn, and Barb Wire were not.)

The Mask might have had another advantage as well: It wasn’t clearly identifiable as a comic book movie. Because it was loosely based on a smaller title, most people who caught The Mask in the summer of ’94 very likely had no idea they were paying to see something affiliated with a comic book; odds are, they just wanted to see the new Jim Carrey movie. That’s not to say crowds wouldn’t have turned out if they knew it was inspired by a comic—just that The Mask was better served to be thought of as a comedy and a star vehicle, not some off-brand superhero movie.

Dark Horse published Mask comics throughout the ’90s, but they didn’t make a real cultural footprint before the film, and moviegoer enthusiasm never seemed to translate to the comics after the film, either. Mayhem, the anthology that contained the Stanley Ipkiss story line, was canceled after four issues in 1989. The Mask was popular enough, however, for Arcudi and Mahnke to spin the character off into its own proper miniseries, simply titled The Mask, in 1991. That five-issue arc—which includes the Mayhem story, repackaged as The Mask no. 0—focuses on Lieutenant Kellaway, who’s played in the film by Peter Riegert; in the comics, Kellaway gets the mask from Katherine and uses it to fight crime. As the Mask, Kellaway’s methods are, uh, a tad extreme: He distracts a couple of armed robbers with a balloon animal show, then magically fashions one of the balloons into a machine gun and blows the crooks away. (A toned-down version of that sequence, with Carrey’s Ipkiss behind the green, made it into the movie.)

Following that miniseries, Arcudi and Mahnke teamed up for a few more limited runs—most notably 1992’s The Mask Returns and 1995’s The Mask Strikes Back—in which the otherworldly item changes hands among an array of characters. In those two aforementioned series, each new wearer engages in over-the-top violence, yet none of them are as purely sadistic as Ipkiss. The Mask (whether it’s Katherine, Kellaway, or someone else underneath) is more preoccupied with trading blows with the villain Walter, a silent, hulking mob enforcer whose tolerance for pain would make Fire Marshall Bill blush. The comics are still gory and disturbing—at one point in Returns, Walter carves up his own face with a switchblade—but the Mask itself is toned down a touch and not as much of a threat to innocent people.

Other creative teams took their crack at the concept as well, in various miniseries, crossovers, and one-shots, but Mahnke says he feels that no other writer understood the property in quite the same way. “I think the best success that will ever happen for the Mask was John Arcudi writing those stories,” he says. “And I sound, I suppose, terribly biased, but they were great stories.”

As big as the movie was, and as iconic as the Mask’s look has become, the character and brand have been largely dormant for this century thus far. 2000’s Joker/Mask team-up didn’t necessarily send people rushing to their local comic shops, and the less said about 2005’s big-screen sequel Son of the Mask, the better. A quarter-century later, The Mask appears to be exactly what Sacks described: an anomaly, the success of which was mostly self-contained and didn’t ripple too far out into the film or comic industries. “I’ll put it this way,” Sacks says. “My book was somewhere around 180,000 [words] all in, when I turned in that manuscript, and the movie got 250 words.”

The mask always seems to resurface, though, and a comeback is indeed underway. In October, the character will return to comic stands with the first issue of a four-part series called The Mask: I Pledge Allegiance to the Mask!, written by Christopher Cantwell, cocreator of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. If the name isn’t already enough of a hint, the new miniseries will be a political satire, in which the wearer of the mask is both running amok and a presidential campaign. A quick warning about the slogan: Judging from the upcoming book’s cover art, it looks like it’s going to be—deep breath—“Make America Green Again.”

But regardless of how this latest revamp is received, The Mask does have squatter’s rights over a messy little portion of comic book history. How many other niche, ultraviolent comics would survive being overhauled for a big-screen adaptation, being turned from a mostly nihilistic character study about a superpowered psychopath into a PG-13 comedy where a good number of the gags rely on a cute dog? And how many of those adaptations would clear hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office? Anomaly or not, the movie is a fascinating artifact—not only because it captures one of the biggest movie stars of a decade just as he’s meeting his destiny, but because it’s a reminder of what comic book movies once looked like and how much Hollywood has changed in the past 25 years. If anything, it’s intriguing precisely because it’s a one-of-a-kind curio. Just like Ipkiss in the antique shop—or the river, as it happens in the film—the people behind this comic and this movie stumbled onto a rare find with a surprising bit of power.

Kyle McGovern is a writer and editor living—get this—in Brooklyn, whose work has appeared in Vulture, GQ, and SPIN.

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