What mask are you wearing today?
“What mask?” I hear you asking.
Come on. You know what mask I’m talking about. The one you wear out in public, the one you wear when you’re hanging out with your friends, the one you put on when family comes over for the holidays, the one you wear at work. That mask.
We all wear masks. Rarely do we allow the world to see our true faces. Why we do this is way too complicated and psychological to get into here, but there’s no reason we can’t, as individuals, dwell on our own reasons for wearing our own masks. To help us do just that is The Moon Moth (I bet you were wondering when I’d get to the book. Well, here it is.). Adapted into graphic novel form by Humayoun Ibrahim from the short story by sci-fi author, Jack Vance, The Moon Moth is an examination of masks and the power that they hold over us
The story itself is quite simple: Edwer Thissell is sent as an ambassador from the Home Planets to the planet of Sirene. While serving in that capacity, he is instructed by his government to apprehend a criminal who has escaped to Sirene. Like I said, simple.
The details, however, are anything but. It seems that on Sirene, everyone is required to wear a mask. What mask is up to the individual; however, the mask chosen must represent the person’s place in society, his honor and prestige, and there are different masks worn for different occasions. To an off-worlder, the nuances of this social standard are incomprehensible. To wear a mask above your station is considered an insult, and there is really no way for Edwer Thissel to know for certain which mask is suitable for that station, and, to make matters worse for poor Edwer, no one on Sirene speaks. They communicate through an even more-complicated-than-the-masks system of musical instruments, the misuse of which can easily lead to insult to the listener and death to the offender. Edwer Thissell definitely has his work cut out for him.
That is the gist of Jack Vance’s original short story, which first appeared in the August 1961 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Now, 51 years later, The Moon Moth is coming back to life in a graphic novel adapted by Humayoun Ibrahim.
Unlike most graphic adaptations, Ibrahim’s version is extremely faithful to Vance’s story. Dialogue in the short story becomes a word balloon in the graphic novel. Sentences are not revised; words are not changed. That’s refreshing in and of itself, but the true wonder of Ibrahim’s adaptation is the artwork. His illustrations capture Vance’s work. Ibrahim’s masks are vibrant and distinct; you can tell just by looking that one person holds higher honor than another. The drawings are simple and sparse, but the colors are vivid and contribute to the overall depth of the story.
Even though he sticks to Vance’s version, Ibrahim is able to put his own stamp on the work. We see Edwer Thissell’s face only at the beginning and at the end of the graphic novel. Anytime it is shown otherwise, it is obscured. Edwer Thissell, coming from a maskless world, has become so used to wearing the mask given him by society, he cannot bear to be without that mask. Ibrahim manages to show us Thissell’s discomfort and conformity. This is the startling truth: we enter this world without a mask, but society, over the years, forces us to create and don many different masks until we can no longer bear to be without those masks, nor can we even remember what life was like without our masks. Our existences have become dependent on masks.
But Ibrahim and Vance have given us hope. Through The Moon Moth, they have shown that, while we are dominated by the masks of society, we can learn to use that domination to our benefit. We have two choices: we can conform to fit under a mask that society has chosen for us, or we can force the mask to conform to us. Edwer Thissell shows, through his actions, that he has chosen to force the mask to conform to him. He has used the domination of the mask to defeat the very society that forced that domination.
So, again, I ask you. What mask are you wearing today? Do you become your mask, or does your mask become you?