It Came From the 1990s: Masada of Youngblood

Masada is one of the dozens of characters created by Rob Liefeld who populated the various comic books put out by his Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in the 1990s. If you were not someone who followed Youngblood and the other Extreme titles regularly, you can be forgiven for not knowing offhand who Masada was. However, the character always stood out for me because she was Jewish.

Masada’s first published appearance was a pin-up drawn by penciler Chap Yaep and inker Norm Rapmund in Supreme #4 (July 1993). Her first actual in-story appearance came just a few months later in Team Youngblood #1 (Sept 1993) which was plotted by Liefeld, penciled by Yaep, inked by Rapmund, scripted by Eric Stephenson, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Bryan Talman. The terrorist Geiger and his cyborg army invade the space station Liberty II, giving them control over the Earth’s satellite network. Israeli crimefighter Masada is recruited to join the government-run super-team Youngblood to help them liberate the orbiting facility.

In his text piece for Team Youngblood #1 Liefeld explained how the latest addition to Youngblood came about:

“Masada was a character that had been collecting dust in my files for years until she was pulled out for new assignment alongside the Away Team. For the record, Masada means ‘fortress’ and is the name of the historic site in Israel where the Israelites found refuge from the Roman empire before electing to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans, an event which plays a large part in Masada’s origin.”

Historians are divided over whether or not the Siege of Masada in 74 AD, and the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada, actually occurred. Nevertheless, the story of a band of freedom fighters who chose death over slavery is often revered by modern Israelis as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.”

Deborah Konigsberg’s power is to grow to giant size. The source of her fantastic abilities is elaborated upon in Team Youngblood #2 (Oct 1993):

“Masada — Israeli super-woman empowered by the souls of her countrymen who died in the battle from which she took her name!”

Masada and her new Youngblood teammates eventually succeed in defeating Geiger’s forces. Returning to Earth and a heroes’ welcome, issue #4 (Dec 1993) is a “day in the life” issue following the various team members in the aftermath of the battle. Masada is moving into her new apartment in the Washington DC area when we first learn that her powers are as much a curse as they are a blessing. Overwhelmed by countless disembodied voices calling her name, Masada reflects on her difficult charge:

“Oy gevalt! All those voices… all that pain. I can never forget the burden I carry… the souls of all those who gave their lives in the name of Judaism…

“…but sometimes I wish… just for the slightest moment… I wish I could be alone.”

I found Yaep & Rapmund to be an effective art team, and this sequence demonstrates the more subtle side of their work. Their art, as well as the coloring by Byron Talman & Karen Jaikowski, in that bottom panel really brings across Deborah’s anguish.

All things considered, I think Liefeld & Stephenson did a fairly decent job developing Masada within the crowded confines of the Team Youngblood series. One of the subplots they set up was the friendship that developed between Deborah and the Away Team’s other female member, the water-manipulating Riptide, real name Leanna Creel. It was an interesting idea to pair up the reserved, conservative Masada with the wild, outgoing Riptide.

Riptide is fired from Youngblood after she poses for a nude pictorial in Pussycat Magazine. Despite disagreeing with Riptide’s decision, Masada nevertheless remains her close friend. Later on, when Riptode is framed for murder, Masada is one of the people to stand by her, ultimately helping her friend to clear her name.

As with many of the characters that Liefeld created for his Extreme titles, Masada unfortunately often ends up getting lost in the crowd. However, she did finally get the spotlight in Youngblood Strikefile #6 (Aug 1994). That series was conceived to spotlight the solo adventures of the numerous members of Youngblood, and it often featured writers & artists of a high caliber. That was certainly the case with “From the Same Cloth” which was written by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by John Beatty, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Linda Medley.

Deborah is approached by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. She is informed that her old colleague Rimon Sibechai has set out to assassinate the African American militant Hassim, who in his fiery sermons denounces Jews as the enemy of the black community. Sibechai believes Hassan is dangerous, telling Deborah “We will not be led meekly to the slaughter by racist demagogues. And if you’re still a Jew, you won’t try to stop me.”  Masada finds herself reluctantly having to stop her old friend, for as much as she dislikes Hassan and what he stands for, she cannot allow a cold-blooded murder to take place.  Masada’s dilemma is made all the more torturous by the voices of the spirits who empower her, as they are violently split between letting Hassan die and saving him.

Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s story was undoubtedly inspired by the rhetoric of controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has frequently made anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Farrakhan and his anti-Jewish sentiments were very much in the spotlight in the early to mid 1990s.

The artwork on “From the Same Cloth” is definitely well-rendered by the team of Chris Sprouse & John Beatty. Sprouse had previously worked on Legion of Super-Heroes with the Bierbaums, and a few years later would do stunning work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series. Beatty previously provided effective inking for Mike Zeck and Kelley Jones.

I thought Youngblood Strikefile was a good idea, as it presented some good, interesting stories such as this one. It’s unfortunate that it only ran for 11 issues.

“Slow Emotion Replay” in Team Youngblood #16 (Dec 1994) is written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by John Stinsman, inked by Jaime Mendoza, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Laura Rhoade.  The story is told from the perspective of Youngblood Away Team field leader Sentinel, aka Marcus Langston, after he is “kicked upstairs” to an administrative position. Sentinel reflects on the recent events that led to his unwanted promotion, as well as on his colleagues & teammates, among them Masada, who he regards in a very positive light.

Masada also plasd a role in the bizarre gender-bending crossover “Babewatch” that ran through the Extreme titles in late 1995. Masada joins up with Riptide, Vogue and Glory to fight against the members of Youngblood who had been transformed into women by the evil sorceress Diabolique.

One other occasion when Masada had some time in the spotlight was in the Youngblood Super Special (Winter 1997) published by Maximum Press. “Good Enough” was written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon & Danny Miki, lettered by Kurt Hathaway & Steve Dutro and colored by Laura Penton & Christian Lichtmer.

Borrowing from one of Star Trek’s favorite tropes, “Good Enough” sees a group of godlike alien beings putting humanity on trial by testing the members of Youngblood’s worthiness to possess their powers & abilities. In Masada’s case she is subjected to a vision of the souls of Judaism accusing her of squandering her power to “play superhero” rather than defending her religion. Masada overcomes her doubts, arguing that she is indeed worthy of the gifts the spirits have endowed her with:

“You gave me this power to further the cause of good over evil! How can I restrict my deeds to simply upholding the Jewish faith?”

One highlight of the Super Special was seeing Masada penciled again by Chris Sprouse. He definitely did a good rendition of the character. Sprouse also penciled Masada’s profile pic in Youngblood Battlezone #2 (July 1994) making him, along with Yaep, the definitive artist of the character.

Since the late 1990s Youngblood has only been published sporadically. As a result the majority of the characters, Masada among them, have been limited to a handful of cameos & crowd scenes over the past two decades. Still, despite Masada’s absence from the spotlight, I look back fondly on the character’s appearances.

So why exactly did Masada become significant to me as a reader? Back in the early 1990s there were relatively few Jewish characters in mainstream comic books. Offhand I think the only noteworthy ones were Shadowcat, Doc Samson, Sabra and Vance Astrovik. At that point in time Magneto had been retconned to be a gypsy (a change not explicitly undone until 2009), Moon Knight’s Jewish heritage was something that no one talked about, The Thing / Ben Grimm,  Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Harley Quinn had all yet to be revealed to be Jewish, Wiccan and the Kate Kane version of Batwoman were both over a decade away from being introduced, and I hadn’t yet discovered American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: representation matters. It was important for me as a teenage Jewish reader to see characters who had similar backgrounds to me, to whom I could identify. Masada helped fulfill that crucial role.

And that is why I will always argue in favor of representation, because I know full well how much it meant to me as a young fan when there where characters with whom I could identify.

It’s the Jewish holiday of Chanukah this week, so I felt this was a good time to look back on Masada, and to explain her personal significance.