The Collapse of False-Face

“This is a fondly teasing spotlight on the life of a colourful super-villain, with the main strip depicting him in a number of his trademark disguises commenting on his criminal schemes of the moment. This is sequential storytelling that asks readers not simply to fill in the spaces between panels but also entire possible narratives that sit there just out of sight. It’s a short love letter to the silliness and wonderfully ludicrous standards of a long gone era of the super-hero genre; before the grimness and the grittiness replaced the pantomime and the spectacle. As ever with this series of zines, this is also a publication that will hopefully lead to a new appreciation of the work of a UK indie mainstay from another generation of comics self-publishing fans.”
From a review by Andy Oliver, 12 Jan 2024, Broken Frontier

This is my second production for Colossive Press in their Colossive Cartographies series.

False-Face was not one of Batman’s more enduring villains – in fact I believe he only appeared in print once, in a story called ‘The Menace of False-Face’ probably written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff with inks by Charles Paris. This was printed in Batman #113, but I would probably have seen it in a later 1968 reprint. Two things I remember from childhood reading: the odd schematic way in which his disguised face was drawn, and Commissioner Gordon using the word “what-not” as he tried to summarise the back-story career of this criminal. A nice quaint word in Finger’s dialogue, then; now Whatnot is an online social marketplace.

Apart from wearing disguises, what was False-Face’s shtick? I can’t recall this villain being particularly effective or memorable. My theory about the early Batman stories is that they emulated Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, whose criminals were all so warped and twisted that their very physiognomy was strange, their ugliness an outward manifestation of criminality. Harvey Dent / Two-Face is one Batman villain that came close to that same trope, but that was in the early 1940s. By 1957 – the date of False-Face’s first (and only?) appearance – the DC Comics house policy seemed to be in favour of toning down any extremes. Moldoff’s drawings just made the character look odd.

The character fared slightly better in the 1966 TV series with Adam West, although he only appeared in one storyline. He was portrayed by character actor Malachi Throne – whom you may have seen (or heard) in early episodes of Star Trek. For some reason Malachi Throne’s name was kept off the credits of the TV show, and replaced with a “?”, suggesting that False-Face’s identity was completely unknown; even the actor playing him was a mystery.

In ruminating on the above, I decided I wanted a short story that implied if you pulled away the wig, false nose and eyeglasses there would be nothing underneath. Not an especially original idea, that; TV Tropes have collected numerous examples of it on their wiki. Next I wanted to emulate Sheldon Moldoff, but without copying him directly. I had two other things in mind. One was the drawings of Karl Wirsum, member of the Chicago Imagists (also called The Hairy Who), who drew a splendid rendition of Dick Tracy in 1978. The other was a board game called Wanted, issued by Spear’s Games in 1972. The players would use stencils to draw a Wanted poster of a criminal – it was a simple memory game, but I liked the stencils. At one point I considered making my own stencil to draw my nine images of False-Face.

Source: VintageToysForAll on

A number of short, disconnected phrases flowed from my writing pen. Initially, this was going to be Commissioner Gordon lecturing Batman about the criminal, but instead I just applied the texts as “voice overs”. In the end the texts seem to be telling a totally different story, totally unconnected to the faces. The words – and  their order – are just as interchangeable as the false noses and rubber ears. I love doing this “disjunctive” thing in my comics, and I’ve done it since 1983 and a story called Alien Nation. My ideal would be a cine-film with a completely mismatched soundtrack, full of splices and edits, conveying fragments in a confusing way. Publisher Tom Murphy instantly picked up on this; “I find it hard to read it without lapsing (mentally) into Mark E Smith for some reason…”

Pencil artwork

I now had to fill the second side of the page. Any texts I had left over became four small panels of seemingly random events. One of them was from a news headline that was floating around when I did this story in July 2023 (it turned out to be fake news). Another continues the idea of “falsity” in art forgery, and a third panel is a small sideswipe at Bitcoin. There’s other worries about AI and computerisation in the comic, too. The worry is that we now all behave in ways dictated to us by smartphones and the internet; False-Face may actually be a villain from the future, who’s already completely signed himself over to this way of living, manufacturing his identity with a 3D printer. Hence, “one day all humans will be like this”.

Photo of the comic for this post is by Tom Murphy. Once again my thanks to Tom and Jane for continuing to publish my work.