Twenty-four years before Batman — who is this 1915 masked man?

Aug. 14, 2009 | 10:46 p.m.

Here’s something I dug out of the vault at home. I was in an antique store in Orange County about a decade ago when I came across this ancient magazine cover plucked from the front of Collier’s, the grand old national weekly. I paid $10 for just the cover — the rest of the magazine, which was published 94 years ago this month, was long-gone. I remember being a bit startled when I saw the image for the simple fact that it was a comic book-style hero more than two decades before Superman and Batman.

Grey Mask


This character (is he a hero? a villain?) also predates The Shadow, that classic hero of radio and pulps, by 15 years. What about Zorro? Nope, the Gray Mask came first, beating Johnston McCulley’s masked hero of Spanish Colonial California by four years. However, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the disguised adventurer of London created by Baroness Emma Orczy, did come first, appearing on the British stage in 1903 and on the printed page in a novel that became a sensation two years later. Still, the mysterious character that appears above seems to have more in common with urban-prowler alter egos of Bruce Wayne and Lamont Cranston than the floridly named British hero of antiquity. (He also reminds me a bit of The Sandman or The Spirit, two other vigilante who favored fedoras with their facemasks.) 

Side note: I remember the owner of the store told me that the old magazines are worth more sliced into individual pages because of the vintage ads that some people like to frame and hang on the wall for their retro charm. That’s pretty sad considering that Collier’s was home to articles and essays by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Willa Cather and Zane Grey, to name just a few.

Anyway, I haven’t been able to track down any information on this mystery man and I’m hoping one of you can help fill in the blanks. Could he be the first superhero-style mystery-man?

— Geoff Boucher



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6 Responses to Twenty-four years before Batman — who is this 1915 masked man?

  1. That is a very cool image.
    Written by Charles Wadsworth Camp, father of Madeline L'Engle
    Source for 1915 film of the same name
    Full text here
    Quick read: a detective wears the gray mask of a horribly scarred scientist as a disguise to infiltrate a criminal syndicate. Not exactly a costumed hero, but not too far off, either.

  2. Shadowmagician says:

    For what it's worth, "The Gray Mask" (with a 1920 publication date ) can be found at <a href="; rel="nofollow"&gt <a href="http:// <a href="http://;"” target=”_blank”>;" target="_blank"> <a href="http://;” target=”_blank”>; Perhaps the country demanded a hardback version of the magazine article.

  3. David says:

    Just look up the artists name in the lower right hand corner. Looks like "Steele" to me. Made in 1915. Shouldn't be hard to track down. Maybe the rights might be at a nice price then you can determine all the cool stuff about this character in the remake you will make. Right?

  4. Michael Ward says:

    The artist is Frederic Dorr Steele, who did a lot of covers for COLLIER'S in this period, including a very famous series of Sherlock Holmes.
    Here are some more COLLIER'S covers (and plenty of others if you poke around):

  5. Steven Rowe says:

    The story was written by Charles Wadsworth Camp to tie-in with his screenplay (which was filmed by American) that same year. I believe it's a lost film.
    A novel came out by Camp in 1920 – and has been recently reprinted by various print-on-demand publishers.

  6. Ray says:

    Found this on IMDB. Cae out the same year as the issue posted above.

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