Friday, December 31, 2010

I wish I could tell you ...

And now, a personal confession.

I don’t think of myself as someone with many friends. I had to pinch myself the first time I realized I had to choose which friends to invite to a social event—I was amazed that I had so many friends that their interests no longer overlapped closely. (Translation: I had three friends at once!) Even now, I deeply distrust Facebook’s assessment of my social life—how can I possibly have more than 100 friends? Most are mere acquaintances.

For a long time, Masks has been my friend. I got to know Rae’s wry humor and her penchant for complaining about her life even as she did amazing things with it. It took me a while to get past Trevor’s stoicism (does that boy ever talk?), but one day I realized that he wanted a place to belong just as badly as I did, and since then we’ve been pretty tight. The rest of the cast is in there, too—John Lawrence’s idealism, Captain Catastrophe’s lust to prove himself, the Masked Rider’s bittersweet mixture of pride and grief. I wouldn’t have written so much about these characters if I didn’t love them as my friends.

And now, particularly in the year since I started this blog, I realize that I’ve come to consider all of you my friends, too. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never so much as exchanged two words with most of you—your support for the characters I love makes you part of my family.

I regret that I haven’t been able to tell you guys everything that’s been going on with the book this year. (In fact, it seems like most of my messages about what’s been going on with the book begin with some variant of the phrase, “I can’t tell you the details.”) There are some complications involved, mostly having to do with the nature of the publishing industry and my desire to prove myself a mature, reliable person who doesn’t blab personal business all over the internet. (Why I started a blog just to not blab personal business all over the internet I’ll never know.) So instead of the year-in-review entry you were probably expecting, I’ll give you what few specifics I can offer and a lot of generalities to try to give you the big picture.

There has been a lot of movement on the book in the last 12 months. Some of it has been encouraging. Some of it has not. There has been quite a bit of shrieking and punching the air, and a fair amount of sniffling miserably into a stuffed animal’s fur. People who know me tell me I’m unusually good at waiting (actually, the phrase they use is “I would’ve killed someone by now”), but this has been a stressful year even so. Even if I hadn’t had the book to worry about, I had enough personal crises to deal with even before I accidentally stabbed myself in the leg in November. (Actually, that was sort of a fun crisis, because the humor of the situation immediately presented itself.) I pride myself on being the sort of person who slogs through crises—I have been known to meet writing deadlines even while running a brain-cooking fever—but this year required a really ridiculous amount of slogging.

And it’s mostly thanks to you guys that I made it through the slog.

Your comments on the blog and the Facebook page, your enthusiastic participation in the contests, your somewhat cultish recruitment of all your friends and loved ones to support the book (Mr. Olson’s minions, I’m a little scared of you) … it’s meant the world to me.

I used to believe that I would happily keep writing only as long as I was amusing myself, but now I find I’m writing just as much for you, my unlikely, widely scattered family. You believed in my characters even when I didn’t, and so far you’ve been consistently right.

So thank you. Thank you for helping me survive the year from hell, thank you for supporting this book even when it felt insane to ask you to do so, and thank you for reminding me over and over again that storytelling is a collaborative act—and that I have some of the best collaborators I could ask for.

May you all be abundantly blessed in the coming year (and may we all go a full annum without getting stabbed this time).

Until next year, remember to always run toward the screaming …

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas in the hideout

Christmas has always been a complicated holiday for me. For one thing, I suspect my childhood Christmases were more overtly religious than many people’s, in the way that only Christmas in a Sunday School teacher’s household can be. (Christmas Eve services were not optional.) I was always pretty much okay with that, though, and I didn’t usually insist that everyone else I knew celebrate Christmas precisely as I did—I felt that was only fair, considering that I didn’t celebrate Christmas exactly the way they did.

More troublingly, Christmas in my family was almost always, to some extent, about death. My family had lost several beloved members around November and December over the years, for various reasons, and their ghosts tended to come visiting when the holidays rolled around. I saw them in the shadows in the grownups’ eyes, whenever certain names were mentioned … or avoided. I hadn’t known most of these casualties of winter myself—they had died before I was born, or before I was old enough to remember them. But at least one of them had looked enough like me that I used to get our old school photos mixed up—we had the same haircut one year, and the same shirt, and almost the same eyeglasses. It was a complete accident, but an eerie one. So I was a ghost, too, in my way, whenever someone called me by the wrong name.

As an adult, I like the symmetry of that—of taking a holiday that is, at least in concept, about a birth, and making it a little bit about death, too. As a kid, though, it just made the holiday season weird and slightly ghoulish, and I always felt I had to be freakishly cheerful lest I set someone off crying. I was not a naturally cheerful kid; I even refused to smile for photographs for about five years straight. So some of my most cherished Christmas memories are of the times I spent alone—hunting through used bookstores to avoid the crowds in the mall, playing in a deserted park while the rest of the neighborhood gathered indoors to drink eggnog and sing tidings of comfort and joy. They had their Christmases, and I had mine—darker, more bittersweet, but somehow more authentic, too, more in the spirit of a frightened teenager giving birth in a barn in a strange town where no one could spare her so much as a bed.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that most masks would have a Christmas a bit like that. Trevor, for example, is an orphan—twice over, if you count both his parents dying in a car wreck and his mentor vanishing in a pool of blood. Rae, too, is haunted by someone she lost, and I suspect she feels it a little more keenly when the world starts playing Jingle Bells. Throw in the fact that superheroes pretty much always seem to spend the holiday working—I have lost count of the number of comic-book stories about the spandex crowd fighting to save Christmas from supervillains or evil elves—and you’ve got a recipe for a less-than-jolly holiday.

But the thing about these—shall we call them dark Christmases?—is that there’s always a little light in there, too. For every awkward, ghostly moment when someone called me by a name that wasn’t mine, there was the fact that my paternal grandmother did genuinely love me to bits and had her birthday on the day after Christmas, so it was impossible to be too dour as long as you remembered to get her something for each holiday. (She was very particular about that, but not too picky about exactly what you got her and very forgiving if you forgot entirely.) For every family squabble that sent me ducking out the back door and through the streets to the park, there was a cozy “hooky day” with friends where we watched stupid movies and drank hot chocolate and laughed at how dysfunctional our families were.

So I suspect Rae and Trevor would spend their Christmas together. Rae’s parents would be out of town, as usual (her father’s work really picks up around the holidays), and Trevor is an orphan the whole year ‘round, so I imagine them gathering blankets and pillows from all over the hideout and piling them into a nest in the corner, deploying space heaters (a concrete hideout built into a storm drain gets COLD in the winter rainy season), and curling up together to stay warm. Maybe they’ll watch a movie on Trevor’s crazy Frankenstein laptop. Maybe they’ll drink hot chocolate. Maybe they’ll see a few ghosts. Probably they’ll laugh a lot, to keep the dark away. And that’ll be Christmas.

Best Christmas ever, if you ask me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Make your own Pocket Coyote!

Enjoy, crafting superheroes! All that stands between you and your very own Pocket Coyote is a couple of hours of sewing ...
Pocket Coyote Pattern

Monday, December 6, 2010

Comic books you should be gifting

It’s the most wonderful tiiiiiiime of the shopping year, and I’ll bet you’ve run out of easy gift ideas. Well, when you’ve come back from your frantic run to the craft store to buy supplies for making your own Pocket Coyote (the pattern goes up this week!), take a gander at this year’s list of comics that make great gifts—even for the people on your list who don’t read comics.

The Big Two comic companies have been mostly a wash this year. Don’t get me wrong, I still loves me some old-school superhero slugfests, but everyone’s been so wrapped up in the mega-crossover storyline of the moment (as they have been for the past five or ten years, really) that it hasn’t been a good year for new fans to try to get to know the medium. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of goodness out there, though—you just have to know where to look. Here are ten excellent starting points.

1. The Walking Dead. Whether you’re a fan of the AMC TV series or you just like a little brain-gobbling action in your literary life, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead has a lot going for it. I’m not a great fan of the zombies myself, but this comic stopped me in my tracks with the power of its writing. Months after I first read the story, I would still catch myself thinking in my off moments about the doctor on the isolated farm who caught zombies and kept them in his barn as he worked to find a cure for zombieism … because his son was in the barn. You’ll believe a zombie can make you cry. Start with Volume 1, “Days Gone Bye.” Rated R for blood, gore, and ruthless yanking on the old heartstrings. Perfect for: horror fans, gorehounds, zombie aficionados, and anyone with a taste for a good story and a willingness to go beyond the usual.

2. The Unwritten. I’ve hyped this series before, but it still deserves it. A massive headrush of a comic about the secret goings-on behind our most enduring stories (and, consequently, our reality), The Unwritten has consistently delivered top-notch mystery, action, character, and big ideas. It begins when Tom Taylor, the namesake of a Harry Potter-esque boy wizard and the son of the missing author who created the character, discovers that his identity may be a forgery and that he may have more in common with the fictional Tommy Taylor than he thought. Guest appearances by Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, and other literary giants—but do watch out for Beatrix Potter, because she’s downright scary. Start with Volume 1, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.” R for violence, language, and mind-blowing twists. Perfect for: voracious readers, pop-culture junkies, Harry Potter fans with a taste for the dark, and anyone who’s ever suspected their English teacher wasn’t telling the whole story.

3. The Saga of Rex. This is the all-ages offering this time around—a heartbreakingly beautiful, almost wordless comic about a little fox named Rex who gets kidnapped by a spaceship and befriends an alien shapeshifter named Aven. Neither Rex nor Aven speaks; there’s only a little narration to explain that Rex has found himself in the midst of some kind of enigmatic trial, and that Aven somehow needs him to win through. Rex’s boundless curiosity and indomitable spirit—and artist Michel Gagné’s breathtaking visuals—carry the story from there. (Gagné is perhaps best-known for his work in movies, including The Iron Giant and Ratatouille.) There are some scary moments when Rex is pitted against a giant bug-monster and some outright weird moments when he gets transformed into an alien unicorn-fox, but The Saga of Rex never runs out of wonders to share. Available in one volume. Rated G, but watch out for the bug-monster if the recipient is very young. Perfect for: kids who love fantasy and sci-fi, anyone who loves animal heroes, anyone who loves cute stuff, anyone who loves whimsical artwork.

4. PS238. Oh, PS238, how do I love thee! One of the best comics out there right now, and I’m not just saying that because creator Aaron Williams has commented on this blog. PS238 is a comic about a school for superpowered kids—who, unlike most children in fiction, act like real kids. In between figuring out their first team-ups and how to save the world from alien invasions and grade-school mad science, they struggle mightily with things like parental divorce and sibling rivalry—in this case, made all the more complicated because the sibling is a newly created clone who’s everything your parents always wanted in a son. And the thing that never fails to surprise me about PS238 is that a comic with this much heart and this much brain can also make me laugh until milk squirts out my nose. Just take poor Tyler Marlocke, the one un-super kid in the school, who’s forced to take hero lessons from a mere-mortal vigilante, the Revenant, who says things like, “Ah, you lucky kid. When I was your age, I could only dream of going a hundred and thirty-five miles per hour on city streets!” Start with Volume One, “With Liberty and Recess For All”, or jump right into the recently released Volume 8, “When Worlds Go Splat!” Rated PG for mild violence, a few grown-up concepts, and nerdy pop-culture references including Zork. Perfect for: superhero fans of all ages and anyone who enjoys a good laugh.

5. Buffy Season 8. I’m of two minds of this one, honestly, but decided to include it on points. Joss Whedon’s snarky opus remains a watershed in the history of fantasy and sci-fi television (to say nothing of its importance in the development of a certain snarky girl mask), and Dark Horse Comics’ continuation of the adventures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has most of the old magic intact. Written mostly by Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan, Buffy Season 8 updates some of the classic plotlines and addresses more recent twists like our culture’s growing fascination with sexy vampires (the Slayer and her friends are justifiably creeped out by this, even though Buffy’s romance with the vampire Angel set the standard in many ways). Throw in the interesting complexity of a villain named Twilight created before Stephenie Meyer’s book series hit it big, blend with plenty of Joss Whedon snark, and you’ve got a nice little ride. Start with Volume 1, “The Long Way Home.” Rated PG-13 for sex, violence, and classic Buffy angst. Perfect for: the superhero, vampire, and Joss Whedon fans in your life—you know you have them.

6. Nightschool. This manga series from Yen Press recently published its fourth and last (for a while, anyway) volume, and the story and art held up the whole way through. Although it started out being mostly about a teenage witch searching for her missing sister in a public school for supernatural creatures, it grew into more of a braided narrative with a rich cast of characters on all sides of the main conflict (the snarky, dangerous Hunters are particularly intriguing) and a whopping supernatural threat to fight for the grand finale. Writer-artist Svetlana Chmakova (best known for the romantic-comedy manga Dramacon) keeps up her characteristic raucous humor the whole way through, and her moody, elegant art is a real treat. Start with Volume 1. Rated PG-13 for violence and that bit with the mermaid. Perfect for: manga fans, urban-fantasy and YA fantasy junkies, and anyone who likes to laugh while they’re shrieking.

7. Green Hornet: Year One. Okay, I admit, this one made the list only because I really wanted to include The Green Hornet Strikes! and the first collection won’t be out in time for Christmas. But it’s a close second in the race for best Green Hornet title to come out of this year’s relaunch of the character, and it’s an amazing read all by itself. For those of you not up on the premise of the Green Hornet, he’s a newspaper publisher in a trenchcoat and mask who pretends to be a gangster so he can take out all the other local hoods, protecting his city under the guise of a turf war. He’s assisted in this by Kato, originally Asian Sidekick Type 2A (sometimes Korean, sometimes Filipino, sometimes Japanese, and memorably played on television by Bruce Lee) and now more of a mentor and confidante. Green Hornet: Year One follows Britt’s globetrotting odyssey as he starts to get the idea to become the Hornet, paralleling Kato’s training as a ninja and his opposition to the Japanese government’s expansionist policies in the 1930s (he takes on his fellow soldiers during the Nanking Massacre). What follows is an intriguing mix of period adventure, gangster movie, and character-driven epic as Britt and Kato, bound by mutual obligation and fascination, learn to work together and figure out just what their goals as heroes will be. Rated PG-13 for violence and some language. Start with Volume One, "The Sting of Justice." Perfect for: fans of 1930s adventure, pulp fanatics, and anyone who wants to see ninjas done right.

8. The Lone Ranger. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Brett Matthews’ Lone Ranger series may have a spotty publishing schedule, but it’s worth the wait, every time. It offers a richly drawn period adventure, packed with heartstopping action and drama, without losing the key elements that made the original property great. The Lone Ranger, for those of you living under rocks, is the story of John Reid, a Texas Ranger mortally wounded in the ambush that kills his Ranger father and brother. He survives his wounds thanks to the timely intervention of Tonto, an exiled member of a local native tribe, and goes on to become a masked vigilante. As the best-known cowboy superhero, the Ranger is a tricky character to write—not least because of the frankly racist portrayals of Tonto in previous incarnations—but Matthews walks the tightrope beautifully, giving both characters powerful but complex inner lives and pitting them against a genuinely frightening psychopath of a villain. The most familiar moments—the first meeting with the horse Silver, the digging of the six graves, John’s awkward first contact with his brother’s son—have the power of myth. Rated PG-13 for gunplay and, in a later volume, an attempted sexual assault. Start with Volume One, “Now and Forever.” Perfect for: Western fans, pulp-adventure buffs, and anyone who listens for the hoofbeats of a fiery horse with the speed of light.

9. Mouse Guard. How to explain Mouse Guard? It’s a lavish historical adventure … that just happens to star a bunch of mice. David Petersen’s Eisner-Award-winning saga of a colony of intelligent medieval-era mice departs from the typical talking-animal story by taking its furry characters as seriously as any human. The mice don’t live thinly disguised parallels of human history, secreted in the baseboards of some palace—they have their own cities deep in the woods, and fight desperate battles with weasels, owls, and other creatures. As the title suggests, the series follows the adventures of the Mouse Guard, a combination military and expeditionary force, as they go about their duties—fighting dangerous beasts, escorting travelers, scouting, and acting as guides and guardians to common mice. The characters are richly complex, the art is breathtakingly beautiful, and the ongoing storyline about a fallen hero called the Black Axe will intrigue anyone who likes a good sword-swinging adventure. Rated PG-13 for violence. Perfect for: Tolkien buffs, anyone who enjoys historical fiction, fans of Brian Jacques’ Redwall, and anyone who looks at the cover and says “Ooh!”

10. Fables. A perennial favorite at the Eisner Awards, this series about fairytale characters living secretly in the modern world has become an unparalleled hit (around 100 issues, 15 volumes, and no signs of stopping). Reinterpreted characters such as Snow White (divorced from Prince Charming, effectively running the community in exile), the Big Bad Wolf (grudgingly turned human, acting as Fabletown’s sheriff and secretly in love with Snow White), and Little Boy Blue (jazz trumpeter, office assistant, and occasional sword-swinging hero) live out their adventures after fleeing their respective fairy-tale lands just ahead of the grim, world-conquering Adversary (another fabled character whose identity I won’t spoil here). Fables runs the gamut, genre-wise, from the murder mystery in its first volume to later detours through areas including romance stories, war epics, and a truly hair-raising take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The series has become writer-creator Bill Willingham’s calling card, and with good reason—no matter who’s providing its lush interior art, Fables delivers the surprising storytelling goods. Rated R for sex, violence, and occasional heartbreak. Start with Volume One, “Legends in Exile,” although I’m personally quite partial to Volume Four, “Storybook Love” and Volume Six, “Homelands.” Perfect for: fairytale fanatics, folklore and mythology buffs, and anyone who likes a little subversion in their bedtime stories.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Life's a jest and all things show it ... and this title will not rhyme

I have a complicated relationship with poetry.

It started out well enough. Doctor Seuss, how I loved thee! Say what you will about them, I loved green eggs and ham. And Shel Silverstein could do no wrong, of course. I was secretly convinced that I did not have wavy hair—I had straight hair and a wavy head. (In fact, I do … but that’s another story.)

I think it was around the time I first heard “The Cremation of Sam McGee” that I figured out something was wrong. Or rather, when I tried to show it to my friends.

For those of you who are neither Canadian nor blessed with clever teachers, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a poem by the Canadian poet Robert W. Service, published in his book The Spell of the Yukon in 1916. (You can read the full text of it here.) The poem is a dark little affair. Two gold prospectors are mushing their way through the Yukon Territory on their dogsled, and Sam McGee (who was “from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows—why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows”) announces to his unnamed partner that he is about to die, and that he has one last request. Being a native of a warm climate, he really hates the chill of the Canadian wilderness, and he begs his friend to cremate his body rather than burying it in the frozen ground.

Sam then dies … and the horror show starts.

The poem’s narrator lashes the corpse to his sled and sets off in search of a crematorium. As he travels farther and farther afield, as the rations get lower and lower and the dogs begin howling eerily, the narrator begins losing his tenuous grip on reality. He talks and sings to Sam’s corpse, and hallucinates that it “hearkened with a grin.” Finally, he finds the wreck of a steamboat jammed in the ice of a frozen lake, and decides that he can cremate the body in the boiler. In a frenzy of activity, he tears up planks from the cabin floor and sets the boiler burning. When the fire is high enough, he stuffs the corpse into the makeshift oven and goes for a walk to avoid the sizzle of cooking flesh.

SPOILER ALERT—if you don’t want to know what happens, skip the next paragraph.

When the narrator returns to the ship, he opens the boiler door to check the progress of the cremation—and finds Sam sitting there, “cool and calm,” smiling broadly and asking him to close the door. It is, he says, the first time he’s been warm since he left Tennessee.

My father owns a first-edition copy of The Spell of the Yukon. Having been born on an isolated atoll in Alaska, he’s long felt an attachment to Service’s poetry about the northern wilderness he doesn’t actually remember. I was probably five or six the first time he read me “The Cremation of Sam McGee” as a bedtime story, growling the stanzas in his basso-profundo voice.

I laughed myself sick. I thought it was the funniest poem I’d ever heard. I laughed at the howling dogs, the singing to the dead body, everything. When I was old enough to be trusted with his books, I took The Spell of the Yukon to school and read the poem to any classmate who would listen. To a one, they were horrified … and at least half their horror of that poem was based on my reaction to it. Anyone who read this kind of sick stuff, they declared, let alone laughed at it, had to be some kind of psycho. It was judgments like this that made me so amazingly popular with my classmates.

I pretty much quit liking poetry around high school, when I was informed that grown-up poets, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, basically never let anything rhyme. Rhyming was outré, I was told, the mark of an unimaginative poet. Real poets did their work with single syllables and obscure literary and cultural allusions. They certainly never wrote poems about singing to corpses. Well, if that was poetry, I replied, then poetry wasn’t for me.

And then I went and found myself in the middle of a story that required a lot of it.

One of my side projects when I’m not working on Masks is a story that takes place a few years after the end of a highly destructive SF/fantasy war … and the shadow of a murdered general looms large over it. Although he’s dead before the story begins, his influence over my characters remains strong. I wanted a way to get into the general’s head after his death, but just having someone find his diary seemed like too much of a cliché even for someone who writes about superheroes. I did want my characters to discover something he’d written, though … and then I remembered my father reciting Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service. Suppose the general had written a few poems, had them bound privately in a book and given to a few cherished friends … and suppose one of my characters, who robbed the man’s house on the day he died, still had that rare volume?

But of course I couldn’t write poetry. I had been told this many, many times. For one thing, I insisted on making everything rhyme.

But the world I was writing was not the world I lived in. Perhaps poems rhymed there. And besides, generals are not poets, at least not usually. A man with old-fashioned literary tastes might prefer something with some rhythm to it, some music. And I began thinking of some other poems in The Spell of the Yukon--dark and forbidding pieces like “The March of the Dead”, lonely ones like “The Men That Don’t Fit In,” touching ones like “My Madonna,” which I once used as the basis for a short screenplay that got me my best-ever screenwriting grade.

And I remembered a particularly affecting little piece called “Unforgotten”, which seems to be about Constance Maclean, the woman whom Service loved to distraction and who married another man:

I know a garden where the lilies gleam,
And one who lingers in the sunshine there;
She is than white-stoled lily far more fair,
And oh, her eyes are heaven-lit with dream!

I know a garret, cold and dark and drear,
And one who toils and toils with tireless pen,
Until his brave, sad eyes grow weary — then
He seeks the stars, pale, silent as a seer.

And ah, it’s strange; for, desolate and dim,
Between these two there rolls an ocean wide;
Yet he is in the garden by her side
And she is in the garret there with him.

And I thought, maybe I have something here after all …

Monday, November 22, 2010

Meet Rae and Trevor!

Well, electronically.

Once again, I find myself in need of a little online noise—traffic on the blog and Facebook page, people reposting and commenting on the trailer videos, etc. Once again, I can’t tell you why I need that noise, for the usual reasons. And once again, I’m willing to bribe you to have fun. Does it get any better than this?

We’re coming up on Thanksgiving, so Rae’s off school for the week (or maybe just playing hooky again—it’s hard to tell the difference). Trevor, of course, does not go to school except to tinker in the computer lab and eavesdrop on the guidance counselor’s office. Captain Catastrophe is visiting family back East, so his next nefarious plot will probably focus on TSA screeners in Atlanta, and therefore he’s not much of a threat to L.A. right now. The forces of evil are mostly either trying to get their Christmas-death-spree shopping done early or still putting the finishing touches on turkey-based death rays.

In short, my heroes are just a little bit bored. So I’m going to let them out to play with all of you.

For the next week, Rae, Trevor, and my other characters will be answering fan questions on this blog and on the Masks Facebook page. So if there’s something you absolutely have to know about the world of Masks, this is your chance to ask the source. Have you ever wondered where the hell Rae’s parents are, and why they don’t seem to mind her running around in the dark beating people up? You can ask her, and she’ll tell you. Or maybe you’d like to know what the Masked Rider does when he’s not delivering cryptic warnings and casually foiling robberies with spray paint. He’s got an answer for that, although you might have to get Nathan Fillion to translate. And Trevor’s got so many secrets I know you’ll have questions for him (How did he end up a superhero’s sidekick? What did he do for two years on the road? Where did the creepy voices in his head come from?), and maybe he’ll even give you a straight answer to one or two. The coyote will be available for questions, too, although of course you can’t always trust what a trickster says.

So if you’ve ever wanted to know something about one of the Masks characters … or even something about the world (Where did superheroes come from? Why didn’t new masks come into L.A. after the purge killed off the old ones? Do superheroes often fall in love with each other, or are Rae and Trevor an exception?), this is your chance.

To ask a question, leave a comment on this blog entry or a post on the book’s Facebook page (see the links in the column to the right), addressing the question to the relevant party. (Example: “Coyote: How do you stay ahead of Animal Control?”) I’ll get back to you with the character’s responses throughout the week. (“I iz wily. And I bitez thru truck tires.”) The best questions and responses will be reprinted in an interview on this blog later.

Now let’s make some noise!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What I learned from accidentally stabbing myself in the leg.

Okay, I’m an idiot, I’ll admit. I grew up around knives, I am cautious in the extreme, and yet I failed to pay attention for a couple of seconds and managed to stab myself. You may all laugh; in fact, I’ll be leading the laugh-in, because I showed up at the ER Sunday morning having changed my shirt for the occasion. I wore the T-shirt I made for Halloween as part of my three-dollar costume. That’s right, I showed up to the ER with a stabbed leg and over a thousand pages of reading material (I hate being bored in waiting rooms, so I brought American Gods and Dune), wearing a T-shirt that said (NINJA). With the parentheses. The ER docs said it showed a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing, so at least that part of me is healthy.

So, to answer the immediate questions first:

1. My life was not in any particular danger. The stab in question was more of a poke with the tip of the knife blade, about as long as my pinky fingernail is wide and about that deep. It went into the meat of my lower thigh, not very close to the knee and not close to any major blood vessels. I managed to soak about a quarter of a balled-up Kleenex with the blood before I got the thing properly dressed. After that, it took about five hours for a dime-sized area on the top of the gauze pad to turn pink. I only went to the ER at all because my dad took a look at it and said, “Hmm, I think you’ll need stitches.” (The ER doc later told me it would have been one stitch, tops, and not even that because I didn’t bother to come in until the morning after.)

2. I am not going to be crippled. I am limping slightly, mostly because I wear a lot of boot-cut jeans that are narrow in the lower thigh and knee, and therefore tend to rub the bandaged area. According to the nice ER docs, I did an excellent job of cleaning and bandaging the poke myself, and about the only thing they had to offer was a tetanus shot in case the knife wasn’t as clean as I thought it was. (It was my best knife, and I use it for food prep sometimes, so I clean it regularly with soap and water.) I got a flu shot while I was at it, because I hate getting shots and I figured there was no point in ruining two mornings when I could combine all the poking and stabbing into one pointy occasion.

3. I’m an idiot. We are in agreement on that. But I like to think I’m a classy sort of idiot, because once I figured out I was going to be limping all day, I began doing Martin Freeman impressions to amuse the friend who drove me to the ER. (The bandages I applied to stop the bleeding were tight enough to restrict the motion of my knee, which would have made driving … interesting.) Martin Freeman, for those of you not in the know, is the actor who plays the limping Dr. John Watson in the BBC’s excellent series Sherlock, and he spends most of each episode hobbling around after Sherlock Holmes, yelling at him to slow down and stop being a git.

And now, because one of my stupid human tricks would not be complete without a) a blog entry and b) an application to my writing, I’ll tell you what I learned from the experience.

First, I learned that I still remembered high-school health class and my time hanging around with EMTs well enough to cleanly and correctly dress a wound. (I was happy to relay this experience to my tutoring students today, ending the lecture with, “So pay attention in science class, kids, because you never know when you’ll get stabbed in the leg and have to quickly figure out whether you nicked an artery.”) I make a point of researching the real-world science behind my writing, so when Trevor sews up his own arm in Chapter 7 of Masks, you can be assured that the suture kit he uses actually exists and he’s doing it more or less right. It’s always gratifying when that research and background knowledge tests out well in the real world, although of course I’d prefer not to get stabbed in the process if I can help it.

Second, I learned that my freakish crisis reflex is still in place. I have no better way to explain it than this—I can dress a knife wound, but I cannot dress for a party. If I am invited to a friend’s party, I will stress out like crazy over what I’m supposed to wear and how I’m supposed to act lest it reflect badly on my friend. (I never care much about it reflecting badly on me—if people think I’m weird, it just means they’re perceptive.) But as soon as there’s blood, or screaming, or some kind of actual crisis involved, I get very calm and can usually handle things okay. I used to think that everyone was like this—and indeed, many people are—but it was fascinating to see the range of reactions from other people upon being told that I’d stabbed myself. A good half of them freaked right out, even after I told them that the injury was small and I’d taken care of it effectively. A client who had a meeting postponed due to the ER run seemed to think I was going to lose my leg. I, meanwhile, went all out cleaning and bandaging the thing because I’m not THAT stupid and infections are no fun, but I also took mental notes on what the inside of my leg looked like just in case I needed to know someday, and then kicked back and read comic books for a couple of hours while keeping the area elevated. Even putting on a funny T-shirt, however, didn’t seem to dent the general anxiety. (Interestingly, my brother calmed right down when I told him the bleeding had stopped, and the ER doc who looked at the injury wondered aloud why I’d even come in—until I told her I worked with kids and wanted to set a good example by going to the doctor when I was hurt instead of trying to tough it out.)

And third, leg wounds are absolutely hilarious. Really. It’s all a matter of perspective. So I feel quite justified in including a slightly morbid line of dialogue in the scene where Rae watches Trevor stitching up his gashed arm. When Rae looks uneasy at Trevor’s comfort with blood and surgical tools, he tries to lighten the mood by saying, “Hey, it could be worse. I could be amputating it.”

Rae laughs.

What can I say? They’re made for each other …

Monday, November 8, 2010

Would you believe ... ?

I have a weird, weird brain.

Case in point: I have laid out a sequence that will be the climax of either Book 2 or Book 3 of the Masks series (it’s still getting shuffled a bit) based entirely on this Jonathan Coulton song, “I Crush Everything,” about a self-loathing giant squid.

My sequence does not contain a squid. It may or may not even contain water. It is entirely about Rae’s relationship with Trevor. Nobody gets crushed, literally or metaphorically. And yet I tell you this—this song is note-for-note accurate to what happens in the sequence. No squid. No crushing. Probably no water. And yet it makes perfect sense, at least to me.

Peripherally, I have mapped out their entire relationship to a completely different JoCo song, “I’m Your Moon.” But the former planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto does not appear in my outline.

I defy you to figure out what either of these songs could possibly have to do with a superhero epic.

And while you’re doing that, I think I’ll go write some more …

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's bribery time!

You might have seen a few new images cropping up on the Facebook page—sketches and watercolors by my friend Nicole Le. Well, we’re finally ready to admit what we’re doing.

Masks is getting a new trailer. Specifically, it’s getting two—one from Rae’s perspective, and one from Trevor’s.

This is a product partly of my book-trailer envy, partly of my advancing skills at video-making and partly of the fact that the mixed-media aspect of the previous trailer is just bugging me. Nicole has graciously contributed eleven (!!) watercolor paintings of characters and scenes from Masks, and I’m now in the process of editing them together into something that looks, if not professional, at least intentional. There’s some kickin’ music involved, too. I am pleased.

I’ve decided to post the trailers as a bribe after the Facebook page hits 300 fans. That’s not such a stretch—it’s been hovering around 295 fans for a couple of weeks now, and so if just five of you guys invite at least one other person, well, you get the idea. Heck, if each of Mr. Olson’s minions invited one friend, we’d be at 325, which I think would be worth posting some behind-the-scenes stuff like Nicole’s preliminary sketches (some of which bear very little resemblance, interestingly, to the finished product).

Once again, things are moving interestingly behind the scenes on Masks, and once again I can’t say much about it because a) I don’t want to jinx it and b) I don’t want to get a reputation as a blabbermouth. But having a popular, and populous, Facebook page and blog couldn’t hurt the cause and might well help it. As always, it’s the fans who carry the day on this kind of deal, so thank you once again for all your support. I literally could not do it without you. (Hence the bribery.)

Now get thee to Facebook! Spam away! It’s in a good cause!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Eleven great tastes that taste awful together

I needed something random to blog about this week, so I’m going to publish my wishlist for all of you to mock.

Every fan has one of these. “Oh, if only the comics gods would smile upon me, I would completely redefine … [insert name here].” I’ve listened to dozens if not hundreds of them, and I’ve always found it an informative experience … unless and until my companion decided to remind me of the conversation every day for the next few months, on the off chance I might be one of the comics gods in disguise. I’m not.

But here’s my personal top-ten-plus-one list anyway—the eleven characters I’d most like to take a crack at in mainstream (and occasionally indie) comicdom.

1. THE BLACK KNIGHT. The Dane Whitman version, for those of you keeping score. Short version: the son of a mad-scientist supervillain also called the Black Knight, Dane inherits his uncle’s gear, including a cursed sword that likes to drive its owners insane, and sets out to be a superhero. No, I’m not kidding. I took a shine to Dane waaaayyyy back during his days on the unmemorable team book Heroes For Hire, and mostly forgot about him until my college years, when I needed some extra-credit points in a classics course and re-read all my H4H comics to analyze their portrayal of Hercules for a paper. Unfortunately, the professor was one of those dimwits who genuinely believes that Batman and Robin are up to hanky-panky in the Batcave, and he wouldn’t accept any paper about comic books that didn’t boldly proclaim some character to be gay. Thus Hercules needed a boyfriend, and as he spent half his scenes with the Black Knight … well, I felt bad about it afterward, I really did. I felt so bad about it, in fact, that I tracked down old issues where the Black Knight appeared and got genuinely interested in the character. I like the fact that he’s a doctoral-level physics student who got handed a magic sword and somehow avoided the cognitive dissonance, I like the fact that he’s modeling himself on his uncle the supervillain, and I find hilarious the fact that his various writers keep saddling him with assorted curses that never go anywhere because the title gets canceled first, or the writer leaves the book, or they dump him into an alternate universe, or—you get the idea. (Even Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI13 series couldn’t resist—or at least Dane’s heart being made of stone was a new one on me.) I want to write a Black Knight limited series that explores the physics-magic divide, examines his relationship with that dead uncle, and maybe has a few of those dozens of curses bear fruit. I’d keep Faiza Husain, his love interest from MI13, as she’s one of the best-written Muslim characters in mainstream comics and too much fun to pass up. Oh, and I’m going to use Merlin in the tree, but that’s for another time.

2. STAR-LORD. Ah, the Marvel space hero so dorky they had him blow up a planet by way of rehabilitation. I admit I’m irrational on this one—I liked the old version of Peter Quill, with the goofy element gun and the sentient spaceship that seemed to be in love with him and the knack for running into truly weird stuff on planets no one else ever seemed to find. I liked the sheer Joseph Campbell-ness of his origin story—the lost half-human son of the alien prince, avenging his murdered mother across the galaxy … with a sword, no less! An actual sword! And he fought giant lizard-men! I found Star-Lord through the Timothy Zahn limited series from 1996 that had Ship wandering around, lost, without Peter, and taking on a new partner in the wayward telepath Sinjin Quarrel. (Why the hell has that series never been collected???) Once I tracked down the earlier Peter stories, I liked them almost as much. I also like what Keith Giffen’s doing with Star-Lord now, with a disgraced Peter, playing down his connection to Star-Lord, leading the interstellar butt-kicking Guardians of the Galaxy in the title of the same name. So if I ever get the chance, I’d like to write a Star-Lord series where Sinjin meets Peter and things get interesting. And I’m using the gun-toting Rocket Raccoon and his giant tree buddy Groot, because I have to. Say it with me: I AM GROOT!

3. DR. MID-NITE. I have a thing for blind superheroes. Sue me. And I always liked the utility of Dr. Mid-Nite—in almost every version, a gifted medic and a noncombatant who still went into the field with his superhero team because they needed someone to sew their guts back in. That’s a motivation you don’t see every day. The coolest part for me was that, unlike Daredevil, Dr. Mid-Nite didn’t have much in the way of powers—his only gift was the ability to see in the dark (in bright light, he’s still blind unless he’s wearing special goggles), so he defends himself by throwing “blackout bombs” to blind his foes. And he still runs headlong into bright, flashy superhero fights! Dr. Mid-Nite hasn’t seen much action since the Matt Wagner limited series of the mid-1990s, outside of his regular small appearances with the Justice Society of America for DC Comics. In theory he has his own city to protect, and a rich supporting cast there, and I’d like to see him get back to that sometime. For sheer symbolic value, I think I’d have to start my tale with a city-wide blackout …

4. BUCKY BARNES. I’m happy to let Ed Brubaker write him most of the time, but I’d gladly take the chance to write an eensy character-driven one-shot about Captain America’s tortured former sidekick, who now wears the mantle of his former mentor (but still carries a gun in addition to Cap’s iconic shield). I always liked the “man out of time” element to Captain America—his worldview shaped in the period before World War II, his dilemmas when confronted with the modern world. Bucky offers a chance to play that conflict from a different angle, since unlike Steve Rogers he didn’t have much of a civilian life before the war—he was the “mascot” of an Army camp. The U.S. Army he remembers is gone, and society has changed so profoundly that I can’t resist tinkering. But only briefly. (Ed Brubaker scares me!)

5. THE REVENANT. I am forever grateful to Michael A. Stackpole for “Peer Review,” the 1995 short story that introduced his superhero character Revenant and that showed a certain twelve-year-old that superheroes could be written without pictures. I was careful not to steal from the story when I wrote Masks—I just borrowed the idea of superheroes in prose, really—but I still love the character of Revenant, a spooky and pragmatic “Nightmare Detective” who single-handedly defeats an entire superhero team with gadgets, luck, and a dark sense of humor. I also adore what Aaron Williams has done with the character, with Stackpole’s permission, in PS238 (if you haven’t picked this series up yet—WHY NOT?). But I still want to take Revenant for a very brief spin. Maybe a short story? For charity? And explore just how the hell Nemesis got his phone number?

6. THE GREEN HORNET. Forget Van Williams and Bruce Lee—my Green Hornet nerd-dom goes all the way back to the radio shows. I fell in love with recordings of the radio avenger who took the Lone Ranger concept to its logical conclusion. Where the Ranger was always greeted by somebody saying, “A masked man! He must be an outlaw!” the Hornet removed the “must” from the equation and openly told people he was one. Imagine the hero of a 1930s gangster movie in a slightly more colorful costume … and then imagine that his struggles against gangland rivals conveniently always land them in the hands of the law, and preserve the lives of innocents, while the Hornet himself always gets away. To a kid who wondered why more cops didn’t arrest Batman for doing what he did, the Hornet’s ruse made a lot of sense. I’m pretty sure Seth Rogen is going to ruin the character in his upcoming movie, and Kevin Smith’s interpretation of the character for Dynamite Entertainment has been incredibly disappointing (please note—this is not true of the retro Green Hornet: Year One by Matt Wagner or The Green Hornet Strikes! by Brett Matthews). So in about ten years or so I’d like to take a modern Hornet back to his dastardly roots and pit him against modern organized crime, and use that complicated Reid family tree to my advantage. Assuming The Green Hornet Strikes! doesn’t steal my thunder … in which case I’m still happy, because I get my delicious story without having to do the actual work.

7. SPIDER-GIRL (THE ORIGINAL ONE). Yeah, you read that right. Spider-Girl was a commendable effort to make the best of several bad situations, and I think she’s been criminally misused. Originally a “What If …?” character based on the ill-fated “Clone Storyline” in Marvel’s Spider-Man comics, May “Mayday” Parker became an unlikely little superheroine who could. The comic featuring Spider-Man’s daughter long outlasted the alternate-future universe for which it was created, and the character hung on for more than a decade in various forms, acquiring a rich cast of alt-future versions of Spider-Man’s friends and enemies. The comic usually tried to balance superhero action and teenage soap opera, and as loyally as I followed it throughout its run, I have always felt it suffered from having almost no women involved in its creation. There are some male writers who can write female characters well; Spider-Girl guru Tom DeFalco does not seem to be one of them. Too many of Mayday’s adventures were repeats of Peter Parker’s adolescent exploits, or pale imitations of popular girl-TV shows. The superheroic adventure was fun—but the girl part of it never felt real, not even in the way that Peter Parker’s poor-me life in high school seemed to reflect the self-image of many teenage boys. Mayday was finally phased out recently in favor of Anya Corazon, the superheroine formerly known as Araña, in the suit in the present day. Given the chance, I’d take Mayday into areas that male writers don’t seem to think of, like the complex politics of female friendships, or how the classic superhero romantic dilemma plays out when the supporting-player boyfriend is much more likely to be superpowered than the supporting-player girlfriend ever was. Here’s a hint, boys—if you want girls to read comics, it’s time to write girls who act like girls!

8. DARKDEVIL. Yes, you read that correctly. Technically, this is the last pick continued, but it’s an old itch of mine. Darkdevil was the Spider-Girl universe’s version of Daredevil—the ghost of my favorite hero inhabiting the demon-powered body of the son of a Spider-Man clone. If that sounds complicated, it is … but I was always amazed that no one bothered to exploit the tragic consequences of the fact that Peter Parker, now retired from crimefighting and sometimes mentoring his wall-crawling daughter, hates Darkdevil’s guts. Genetically, Darkdevil is part of Peter’s family, and psychologically, half of him is Peter’s now-dead best friend—not that Peter was ever allowed to discover either of those facts. Darkdevil, by contrast, knows the whole story, and seems to have a protective interest in his “cousin”, Mayday, coupled with a strong desire to avoid Peter. (Perhaps he fears the drama overload would endanger innocent civilians.) Meanwhile he’s running around the city as a grim-and-gritty vigilante with a mystic twist and taking a lot of criticism for “sullying” Daredevil’s memory. It’s bugged me for years that no one has explored the conflict inherent in the character, so given the chance, I’d trap Peter and Darkdevil in a stuck elevator during a Spider-Girl adventure and let nature take its course. I can’t promise Peter would be clued in by the end of the story, or that it would end happily for poor exiled Darkdevil, but I just can’t help wondering what family looks like to a guy this messed up.

9. ANYBODY IN A COWBOY HAT. Except for Jonah Hex or the Rawhide Kid, who have both been given thorough revamps and retcons of late, I’d be interested in writing just about any kind of cowboy from either of the Big Two. I developed a liking for the Two-Gun Kid some years back, and was introduced to the rest of Marvel’s Western bunch in the ill-fated “Blaze of Glory” miniseries. Between that and the interesting if limited use of Scalphunter in James Robinson’s Starman, I think there’s some possibilities in a superhero Western with actual history involved. I created the Masked Rider in part to scratch this itch, and let’s just say there’s a reason I tracked down Theodore Roosevelt’s one recorded interaction with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show …

10. PETER CANNON, THUNDERBOLT. This one is completely irrational, and a little background is necessary. Waaaayyyy back in the 1960s, a talented comic-book writer-artist named Pete Morisi finally achieved a lifelong dream and joined the New York Police Department. But he kept doing comics on the side—signing his best-known work with his initials so his bosses wouldn’t know he was moonlighting. His most popular creation, Thunderbolt, was one of the most thoughtful and well-done invocations of Asian culture in Western comics (despite being a blond guy with no pants). Peter Cannon was the current incarnation of Vajra, the hero of the obscure Tibetan Buddhist monastery where he was raised after his missionary parents died of a plague. He had all kinds of nifty mental powers and some low-grade physical enhancements as a result of your basic meditation. The character bounced around for a while in the sixties and seventies, then was revived in the nineties by DC Comics for a short-lived series. I fell in love with this last effort, partly because it was a clever, well-written superhero adventure that explored just how reincarnation affected people in a genre where heroes routinely died and came back to life. It also did a fine job of messing with geopolitics, making Cannon an exiled Tibetan citizen (he was born there, after all, but forced to leave by the Chinese) and an advocate for a free Tibet. The rights to the character currently lie with Morisi’s estate; the creator died in 2003. I’d want to pick up with a thread left dangling when the series was canceled—the possibility that Peter’s predecessor as Vajra, believed executed by the Chinese, might still be alive somewhere in China … meaning Peter isn’t Vajra at all …

11. THE SHADOW. Another radio favorite, done for a while by DC Comics and others. There have been so many conflicting versions of him that I just want to play with the concept. In some versions he was an almost demonic figure, in others just a playboy with a knack for hypnotism, in still others a grim avenger who seemed to stand outside of time, his supernatural abilities never fully explored or explained. I want to roll all those versions around and see what falls out. And maybe play a little with the Shadow’s creator, “Maxwell Grant,” a.k.a. Walter Gibson, otherwise best known as the ghostwriter for Harry Houdini. What sort of trouble could I start with the master escape artist and the master of men’s minds? I wonder …

Okay, gods of comics. The list is out here. (And everyone else—mock away!)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A little fragment I'm proud of ...

A friend recently sent me the photo above, with a note attached: "I'm not sure whether this is Rorschach or the Black Mask ... thoughts?" It reminded me of this passage in Chapter 3, where Trevor searches Rae's hideout, which used to be the Black Mask's, and finds an old fedora that could only belong to one person …

It wasn’t everyone who could wear a trenchcoat and fedora in the waning nights of the twentieth century, but that was the Black Mask for you. It helped that he had haunted Los Angeles since before the talkies were a glimmer in Al Jolson’s eye, but that was only part of his mystique. The Black Mask knew everything, about everyone. He kept files on generations of city governments, whispered in the ears of industrialists and studio chiefs, came and went from police headquarters like a wraith. There were almost no photos, few recordings of the gravelly voice behind the black facecloth — the sound of oil and broken glass, one unauthorized biographer had called it — but everyone knew he was there. The crimes no one could solve, the powerful men no one could touch, the shadows no one could penetrate … they melted away before him like morning fog. Maybe he had powers, maybe he didn’t; it never mattered.

When capes and tights sprouted around him like weeds and the heroes went from front-page news to scandal-sheet trash, he stuck to the trenchcoat and the shadows and the truth. Even the most devout powers snobs steered clear of him, never questioned his right to exist. In other cities, they were metas and superheroes and mysterymen and capes; here they were masks, and could be nothing else. The girl took advantage of that. Ten years after the mysterious explosion that took his life, his hideout was still drawing free electricity from the grid, and no cop in the city would risk pulling over a black Indian with his plates. Just in case. Just in case.

Trevor remembered when he wanted to be the Black Mask someday.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bullies, Grammar, and What to Do About Them Both

There’s been a bit of a manufactured foofaw in the press lately about bullied LGBTQ teens committing suicide. (I say “manufactured” because it recently hit the lucky three-deaths-equals-a-trend sweet spot, and choosing to report on something just because it’s hit exactly three events always seems rather disingenuous to me. It doesn’t make something a non-issue—just artificial in its coverage.) But beneath all the hand-wringing about how persecuted these kids were, and how we need to get every remotely oddball teen out of the small towns and into a nice, safe city where everyone’s magically tolerant of everyone else, there’s another angle nobody seems to be mentioning.

In every news account I read, the dead kids are described as “being bullied”. As someone who makes her living from words, I notice grammar like that. This statement is in what’s known as the passive voice—that odd little syntactic setup where the subject of the sentence receives the action rather than performing it. So, in the sentence, “Fred was bullied,” the subject is Fred and the predicate is was bullied—but Fred didn’t do the bullying. Someone else did. Who? We may never know. All we know is that Fred got the short end of the stick in that sentence.

Grammatically, there are only three good reasons to use the passive voice in professional nonfiction writing (which, yes, includes journalism). The first is in scientific and technical articles where the author, for reasons of professional modesty, is not permitted to come out and say that he or she performed the experiments, did the research, and reached the conclusions now being laid before the public. That’s how we get sentences like “The medications were administered.”

The second reason is that the writer does not know who committed the act being described—for example, “Bob was killed an hour ago.” We probably don’t know yet who killed Bob, but if the body was just found and the death declared a homicide (let’s say Bob was stabbed seven times in the back), it’s only responsible journalism to say that Bob was actively killed by another human being; he didn’t just slip in the bath or choke on a hot dog.

Finally, the third reason we use the passive voice is because we know who did something—we just can’t or won’t say. Sometimes confidential informants are involved; sometimes an individual has been accused of a crime but not yet tried, and the writer doesn’t want to be sued for libel. So even if George was found standing over Bob the Dead Guy holding a bloody knife and babbling, “I did it, I did it, I’m not sorry, he deserved it, I did it,” a wise journalist will merely say that “Bob was killed” and “George was arrested.” After George gets convicted or pleads guilty to the crime, we can say that George killed Bob, and it’s bye-bye passive voice.

But here’s the thing about using the passive voice in the deaths of these children. These aren’t scientific articles. No one is being accused of a crime in these cases (at least not yet). And in many cases, we know who did the bullying—at least in a general sense. Perhaps it would be legally actionable to identify the bullies by name, but we could at least say something like “Other kids bullied Fred.” See how much stronger than “Fred was bullied” that sentence is? And it makes the bullying seem somehow less like it’s Fred’s fault—which is as it should be. And yet nobody’s saying it. Nobody’s saying that other children, many of whom grew up alongside these now-dead kids, tortured them on a daily basis until the victims finally decided that being dead was better than being alive. Or that these other children now have to live with the guilt of what they’ve done—or worse, live without that guilt, because they believe the dead kid got what was coming to him.

Yeah, these are the kids I want running the world in another ten or twenty years.

I have a dog in this fight, I’ll admit. I was bullied in school for about seven years straight. I remember being nauseated every morning at the thought that I would have to get up and face my classmates’ contempt again. I wasn’t doing anything especially wrong—I just happened to have the wrong hair color (one kid actually told me she wasn’t allowed to be friends with non-blondes) and I used too many big words. Everywhere I went, people made fun of my hair, my glasses, the way I talked. And nobody in authority did anything about it. I complained to teachers, to the principal, and was blown off. Consistently.

“Oh, you’re just imagining it.”

“They’re just high-strung.”

“We don’t want to damage their self-esteem.”

“Someday you’ll be a software billionaire and it won’t matter.” (This last is a direct quote—and considering that I was struggling mightily in computer class at the time, not a very funny one.)

After five years, my parents tried to pull me out of that school, and I wouldn’t let them, because I couldn’t stand the idea that the bullies would think that I was running away. That they’d won. That they could do this to anyone else they didn’t like.

So for my last two years, I got in their faces. (After all, what were they going to do, bully me?) When they made fun of me, I mocked them back, harder and meaner. I hung signs on my backpack to protest the school’s (lack of a) disciplinary policy, and made sure that parents saw them for maximum embarrassment value. When I saw younger kids being picked on by younger bullies, I went after them hammer and tongs. I cultivated words as weapons. I learned to box. My stubbornness became my strength, and for a while there I pretty much lost my middle gears between passively accepting abuse and viciously returning it tenfold. I thought of this new side of my personality as the monster in my head, and I hated it, but I needed it, too. When I graduated from that school, I swore not to speak to my classmates again, with two exceptions for fellow nerds.

On my first day of high school, a 250-pound football player followed me around, making fun of my vocabulary. I went home and hit the heavy bag with a vengeance, and began plotting ways to sneak a knife into school. It’s a good thing I was writing Masks, because it made me my first friend around that time, which is probably the only reason I didn’t actually stab anyone. And it’s a very good thing that my new friends were willing to stand by me against bullies—having a small army of girls at my back meant I only had to retaliate when someone really deserved it, and I only had to slug one fellow student between ninth and twelfth grade. Thanks to them, I grew my middle gears back.

But from the descriptions I’ve read, these kids who died recently weren’t as stubborn as I was. They weren’t as angry. And honestly, I’m not sure I’d want them to be. It’s pretty horrible to go through childhood and adolescence thinking up ways to cripple people before they can cripple you. Kids should be free to be themselves, as long as they don’t hurt anyone in the process, and to do so without fear of being tortured by monsters, or becoming monsters themselves. They should have a third option. And while I recognize that the world isn’t perfect and you can’t always get what you want, bullying isn’t a disease or a natural disaster. It’s a behavior, one that’s tolerated and even encouraged by the adults who raised and taught those bullies, and by the other kids who stand around watching as it happens.

To which I say—bullshit. The kids who died deserved better than they got. And if I have anything to say about it, their living comrades—gay, straight, and just plain weird—will get it.

To the kids being bullied—it does get better, I swear. I have two pieces of advice. First, decide who you want to be. Not who they want you to be—who you want to be. As strange, beautiful, and brilliant as you want. Choose courage, or wisdom, or laughter, or anything else you want to be part of this person. Then work on becoming that person, come hell or high water. Hone your skills. Develop your spirit. Grow. It’s all easier when you can feel yourself becoming someone you respect.

Second, find friends, good ones—and accept nothing less until you find them! Find a place (mental, physical, spiritual, or other) where you’re truly loved, even if it’s a weird place or you have to search a long time to find it. It’s a place worth finding, and a necessary one, and just the search will keep you going for a while. Once you find it, too, things get better, usually better than you could have imagined they’d be. Such places exist. Never believe they don’t. Keep looking. I’ve found several already, and—this is the important part—you only need to find one.

To the kids doing the bullying, I have nothing to say. You aren’t reading this anyway. Call me when you’re ready to rejoin the human race.

To the adults who raised and trained the bullies, who tolerate their behavior—good luck sleeping at night. I’m a mild case. I never actually killed anybody, or even tried to kill myself. Now imagine all the other kids who weren’t as lucky as I was … and remember that the ones that live to adulthood will be running your retirement facilities. Don’t like it? Then step in. Tell someone no. Do something. You’re adults. Hell, some of you are mandated reporters. You have no excuses.

To the kids standing by and watching this go on—step in. Trust me. Just step in. I know it’s a scary thought, but once you get past the scary, there’s very little to actually be afraid of. In my experience, any given school has only a few hardcore bullies, and a lot of enablers. If one or two people stand up and object, the bullying stops. If they keep objecting, the bullying really stops. One or two people is all you need. If you see it going on, you’ve already got one person right there—you. If the grownups rely on mob rule to control the students, use it against them. Create a mob for civility. Make friends with the losers. Eat lunch with them, and talk to them like they’re normal people rather than charity cases. They may not become your best friends (although I guarantee at least a few will), but everyone who sees you doing the right thing will remember it. They’ll trust you. They’ll want to be friends with someone who does the unpopular thing because it’s right. You’ll be a better person, and better off, for it. And oh, yeah, you’ll have some of the best friends in the universe.

There’s a scene in Masks where Rae hears the voice of the coyote in her head, whispering suggestions—simple, violent ways to permanently solve her problems. She has to fight against what seems to be a part of herself that nevertheless wants her to do terrible things. The scene is rooted in fact. I still live with the monster in my head that I created to deal with the monsters around me. It’s gotten quieter over the years, as I’ve gotten used to stuffing it back into its dark hole. It never completely goes away, though, especially when I walk into a room full of strangers and my stomach turns over in the old, familiar way.

But I am able to beat it back, mostly because someone took a chance on me. When I was in ninth grade, Amber Kabelitz, one of the sweetest girls in the school, befriended me. She didn’t have to, but she seemed to like my stories, and by extension me. She ate lunch with me most days, and soon other kids joined us. Bullies just couldn’t be mean to Amber; it would have been like stomping a kitten. Being around Amber meant you had to play nice. And all she did to change my life was eat lunch with me.

People think bullying is impossible to stop, that it’s a fact of human nature. It’s not. It happens because no one can be bothered to stop it. The trick is remembering to bother. After that, the sky’s the limit.

As one of my favorite writers likes to say, “We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

How I made the bookmarks

Do you love how I’m saying “I” made the bookmarks when Nicole did all the work? Well, I paid for the tacos, anyway. And the Alex Ross artbook she called reference and I called a bribe. That’s almost like work, isn’t it?

Step 1: Take reference photos.

The lovely Carolyn Kabelitz modeled for Rae, in a somewhat ad-hoc version of Rae’s costume. My parents’ backyard provided the backdrop. We took a bunch of photos and cherry-picked the best ones.

Trevor was a more difficult task, mostly because I don’t know any guys with the right build and facial structure to double for him. I knew plenty in high school, of course, which is why he looks and acts the way he does, but most of them did eventually get that last growth spurt and are now much taller than I am. So I dug up a photo of a boy playing what looks like flag football and told Nicole to use her imagination. There were extra tacos involved.

Step 2: Lay out the bookmark design

This is the point where Nicole took over. She flopped the image of Carolyn so that she now appeared to be standing with her left hip toward the camera—you’ll see why in a minute—and turned both photos black-and-white. Then she fiddled with layouts until she arrived with something she liked in the right proportions to fit on the bookmarks, which we knew would be 2x6”.

Step 3: Pencil.

Next Nicole printed out the photos at four times their final size (that’s 4x12”, for those keeping score) and laboriously copied the poses. She added Rae’s logo brooch at her hip (the reason she flopped the photo in Step 2) and lengthened her tunic. She also wants it known that she is now going to draw Rae in Chuck Taylors at every opportunity, because Carolyn made them look so superheroic.

The Trevor image was harder, of course, because she had to take an image of a boy running in a loose T-shirt and shorts and translate it into an image of a boy running in long pants and a jacket, and add his signature mask and goggles. It didn’t come out too badly, though. Nicole also changed the position of the boy’s right arm, because “every time I drew it like it was in the photo, it looked weird.”

Step 4: Watercolor

After Nicole scanned in the sketches to back them up in case something went wrong, she began applying watercolor paint to the images—first the black areas, then the lighter shading. We knew we’d be tinting the Rae image red and the Trevor image blue, so the whole process was very much about values of light and dark—making the shadows stand out sharply, capturing the different grays that would represent the hues of their costumes. The final step was to brush gray paint lightly around the figures to create a textured background and a sense of light. Nicole asks me to inform you that she decided to make the area behind Rae’s shoulder darker because she has such ominous forces around her all the time, and she gathered some shadows near Trevor’s front foot because John Lawrence is always showing up overhead and glowing, which would naturally make the sky around Trevor very light.

Step 5: Production

Once the black-and-white paintings were dry, I stepped in again and scanned them into my laptop. There I used PhotoFiltre to remove the penciled boundary lines marking the edges of the bookmarks (the printer asked me to leave 1/8” clear all the way around the design in case of printing issues) and add the text to each image—the quote, plus the information about the book and the blog address. Finally I used the Colorize option to tint Rae’s bookmark red, then turned up the saturation and contrast to get a really vivid hue. I did the same thing to tint Trevor’s bookmark image blue. Then I emailed the two .jpgs to the wonderful Richard Fieger, printer extraordinaire, and let him do his magic.

The result—my best bookmarks ever, which is good because with this much work for a 2x6” piece of cardstock, I don’t want to have to redesign them anytime soon. Although I’m sure I’ll end up tinkering with the proportions just a bit on the next batch … I really need industrial-strength therapy.