The Mask of the Red Panda
Gregg Taylor, Dean Kotz
The Mask of the Red Panda, the new comic from IDW (written by Gregg Taylor and art by Dean Kotz) has had a peculiar journey on its way to your local comic book store. The Red Panda first appeared in a radio drama in 2005, with Gregg Taylor masterminding the titular heroes adventures. Since then, Taylor has written several Red Panda novels and now has published this three chapter graphic novel. And as one of the most exciting adventure books I’ve read in a while, The Mask of the Red Panda deserves as many incarnations as Taylor is willing to produce.
The Mask of the Red Panda isn’t a particularly novel idea; its most obvious arcs and plot points owe a great debt to things like Batman (The Red Panda is a vigilante hero who wants only to protect the metropolis he’s grown up in) and Indiana Jones (the Red Panda’s many adventures usually include doing battle with a battalion of supernatural entities, doing the Nazi’s bidding). But where as Batman stories are often rendered joyless by the character’s somber nature and Indiana Jones’ adventures have been picked apart and rehashed again and again, The Mask of the Red Panda is a refreshing take on the adventure genre.
The Red Panda is August Fenwick, a wealthy “gad-about-town” in the 1930s, who spends his nights as a vigilante with the help of Kit Baxter, AKA the Red Squirrel, his driver-by-day and sidekick-by-night. When a mysterious local named Bolt disappears while digging up a magical Aztec relic, the Red Panda must uncover the mystery and do battle with a particularly nasty (and magical) arm of the nazi party.
The Mask of the Red Panda’s greatest strength is its two central characters. The Panda is a pretty straight forward vigilante character and the Flying Squirrel is a pretty standard sidekick. But Taylor has such a firm understanding of what makes the hero/sidekick relationship work and the dynamic between the two is as funny as it is exciting. In addition, the Flying Squirrel is something that is often lacking in comic books, especially crime and adventure stories: she’s a woman. And a strong one at that. Not only has Taylor written a really strong female character, but he allows her to exist in a way that makes her three-dimensional, instead of existing solely to serve her male counterparts.
Dean Kotz’s art is often great, but occasionally distracting. He changes the color pallet from panel-to-panel. Wherein panel one, the Red Panda may be drawn entirely in yellow and in the next panel, Kotz has transitioned to an entirely grey scale color pallet. The change in color schemes often compliments the story, and gives it the feel of an old noir film, but Kotz does this pallet change so often that it becomes bothersome, when its not used to its fullest effect.
On the surface, The Mask of the Red Panda seems like a trite reproduction of stories we’ve seen time and time again. But Gregg Taylor knows what he’s doing. He’s created a world that is unique, and in that world he adds a fresh perspective to familiar archetypes. The Mask of the Red Panda has a storied and strange past; going from radio play to novel to comic. And after reading it, I can only hope the Red Panda lives on, and gets even stranger.