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‘Red Panda: Mask of the Red Panda’ – Advance TPB Review

Yet another quality Monkeybrain Comics digital title makes its way to the world of print by way of IDW, and, this time, it is The Mask of the Red Panda, a rousing, urban adventure in the grand tradition of pulp novels and Saturday morning serials.  Originally created as a thrilling 1920s-style radio drama called The Red Panda Adventures, creator Gregg Taylor’s Red Panda has taken on a life of its own, moving Taylor from the realm of radio to novels and then to comics, where the Toronto-based Red Panda found a new home with Monkeybrain Comics.  This collection brings together the first three-part adventure, or serial, of the Red Panda’s comic debut, and the results are a great deal of old-time-infused-with-new-life fun.

Pulp tales often come in a variety of forms, from fantasy to crime to adventure, and The Mask of the Red Panda tells the tale of August Fenwick, a masked millionaire who prowls the streets of Toronto to keep the city safe from criminals and other unsavory sorts who may endanger the city’s innocents.  Taylor’s Red Panda is reminiscent of pulp heroes such as The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and his affinity for smart and sensible storytelling perfectly balances the pace of action and plot twists and cliffhangers familiar to pulp tales.  The start of each issue gives us a brief dossier on The Red Panda, much like the narration you would find in the opening credits of a serial that reminds the viewer of the hero’s bold choice to fight crime and his preternatural abilities.  Uniquely his own, though, is Taylor’s clever and nuanced sense of humor, displayed the most through The Red Panda’s trusty and outspoken sidekick The Squirrel, who also happens to be his driver Kit Baxter.  The two of them have a bit of a mentor/mentee relationship, and Fenwick is Baxter’s boss, but as we get to know the characters, it becomes apparent there may be more to their relationship under the surface, though neither one may be fully aware of it, or ready to admit it.  This often gives the dialogue between the two an added level of depth, adding to their already entertaining banter.  Also, Taylor makes The Squirrel the hero who especially enjoys fisticuffs, while The Red Panda is more inclined to use science, cunning, and when necessary, his mysterious powers of mind control.  Not much is revealed about The Red Panda’s past or even his powers, as Taylor and artist Dean Kotz refreshingly steer clear of an origin story, instead introducing us to the heroes after they’ve been saving the city for quite some time.  By doing so, The Mask of the Red Panda brings a palpable sense of history to it: past cases are referenced throughout the story, they visit past and present compatriots in the battle against evil, and the heroes’ relationship has been established, at least beyond its origins.

Dean Kotz’s art captures the breezy, plot-centric pace that serials and pulp novels often move at, and he brings Taylor’s characters to life with a wonderful balance of full-body and close-up panels which wonderfully display their surroundings and the way they fit in with the action.  Using small, pivotal moments in Taylor’s intelligent script, Kotz fleshes out Panda and Squirrel through their body language and facial expressions, and as Taylor intended, small asides or rebuttals carry a subtext that makes you think about what the characters are actually thinking beyond what they are saying, or not saying.  Kotz, who also provides the colors, fluctuates from drab, urban grays to harsh yellows and mystical blues and purples for his backgrounds, depending on the scene, and the consistent changes keep the panels lively, even between action scenes where The Red Panda is working out the intricacies of the case.  One of the most rewarding aspects for me of Mask of the Red Panda is the collaborators that The Panda calls upon to help him solve the case.  They, just like The Panda himself, could have stepped straight out of the pulps of the past, yet because they are side characters, Taylor was able to be more broad with them, their appearances bringing in some common and welcome pulp tropes and painting a larger picture of the universe in which The Red Panda and The Squirrel exist, and it is a fun, dangerous universe, with new mysteries, surprises, and inventions around every street corner or behind every closed door.

Thankfully, Taylor creates a captivating, pulp, serial-style story and characters, while still retaining a more modern storytelling pace, so that the action and dialogue flow smoothly and made up by more than just plot necessities.  There is a spark to the story as a whole, which provides the heroes with emotional depth and complexity.  This allows Taylor, instead of being completely beholden to and making nothing more than a pulp replica, to pay homage and have fun with the style, to bring out the elements that especially intrigue him, such as nifty gadgets and witty banter, and to leave out things that would have simply bogged the story down.  All in all, The Mask of the Red Panda, with its mix of nostalgic sci-fi science and ancient magic, gumshoe detective work, and rowdy brawls, is a compelling and robust adventure, and I gladly await the further exploits of its titular hero, The Red Panda.