Friday, January 29, 2010

How to win fame, fortune, and free stuff!

Okay, maybe there isn’t much of a fortune involved. But fame and free stuff we’ve got. This is your chance to snag a little piece of literary immortality … or at least some impressive bragging rights.

Right now, Masks is in consideration with publishers. I’m not really supposed to talk about the details, so I’ll just say that the better Masks looks online, the better the odds it will get published, and soon. Since Facebook apparently passed MySpace in the coolness stakes some time ago, that means building up the ol’ Facebook fanbase. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet figured out how to invite total strangers to join my page on Facebook like I did on MySpace—the only way to add fans is to invite personal friends. I only have about a hundred friends myself, so we’re well past my social circle by now. Which means Masks keeps growing only if you guys invite your friends.

Now, I hate friend-spamming as much as the next person who only has a hundred friends on Facebook. And the fact that I’m not actually selling anything—because the book is not yet published, there’s nothing for you to buy—does not, in my well-mannered mind, fully excuse the annoyance I’m asking you to inflict on others. So I’m going to bribe you. All of you.

It works like this. During the month of February, I’m going to ask you guys to invite as many friends as you can find to join the page. (There’s a handy link right under the profile image that lets you invite anyone on your friends list.) The trailer goes up on Monday (woo-hoo!), so you’ll have an entertaining way to share the magic of Masks with newcomers, and I’ll be posting lots of neat stuff during the month to keep everyone amused. (New action plushies, anyone?)

Ask your friends, when they join the page, to leave a message on the page’s wall nominating the person who invited them to join. I’ll keep a running tally of who gets name-dropped the most and who does the name-dropping. The contest ends February 28 at midnight Pacific time.

The person who recruits the largest number of people wins the grand prize—the right to name a character in Masks! I’ve got a couple of new characters waiting to be inserted in the current draft of the book, and at least one of them will also make an appearance, by name, in the Free Comic Book Day story being released May 1. The named character will get face time and dialogue with at least one of the two lead characters, and will be instrumental to the plot. I will accept any name that isn’t obscene, profane, or a violation of either libel laws or someone else’s copyright. So you’re not allowed to name someone Mickey Mouse, Clark Kent, or Britney Spears … but you’re more than welcome to name a character after yourself, or your dog, or the third-grade teacher who told you comic books would rot your brain.

But wait! There’s more!

Each person who nominates the winning entry … that is, all the people the lucky winner has recruited … will get a sneak peek at the short story in question! And so will the grand-prize winner. That’s right, you and your army of Masks recruits will get to read the FCBD story a full two months ahead of the rest of the planet. The whole text, beginning to end. There will be lots of special features in the finished FCBD zine that won’t be done yet … but you get to find out what happens to Rae and Trevor two months before anybody else does. Including the part with the duct tape.

For those of you who have ALREADY spammed your friends lists, feel free to post the name of the person who invited you … unless it’s me. I’m not allowed to win, obviously, and the people I invited directly will just have to be happy with the regular freebies—unless, of course, they can recruit enough people to win the grand prize themselves.

So fire up your friends lists and start recruiting! Tell them that undying fame and a completely awesome use of duct tape await! If this works well, there will be more contests in the future. And someday soon, perhaps I’ll be giving away copies of the book!

Oh, and my promise to post a free sewing pattern and instructions for a Masks plushie that can be made for less than ten bucks still stands. That happens when the friend count hits 200, no matter what. So everybody gets something …

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bring on the bad guy ... and Tinkerbell

I was going to write about Cobalt in this entry, but I can’t write about Cobalt without writing about John Lawrence, too.

I was never a big fan of superhero teams, but my older brother picked up Grant Morrison’s celebrated run on the Justice League of America where, after years of C-list superheroes and D-list plots, the comics gods finally reunited the so-called Magnificent Seven of DC Comics—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter. The run combined zippy plotting, high-octane action, and occasional little asides that reminded you that these people were more than just steroidal bundles of superpowers. And while I never read Morrison’s JLA for more than a free extra superhero adventure every week, a line from the first issue stayed with me for years.

The moment comes as the heroes are speeding off to some crisis or other, and Superman is flying alongside the Batplane and talking to Batman. Bats is pretty blunt in his opinion that this team thing isn’t going to work, and that he’s not going to take any silliness from rookies like the then-new Green Lantern. And he tells Superman, “I don’t have superspeed or invulnerability. I can’t risk wearing a bright costume that makes me a target and I can’t afford to trust poorly-trained people who do. Present company excepted.”

Present company excepted.

That was the thing that always puzzled me about superhero teams. Batman and Superman shouldn’t get along. They certainly shouldn’t be pals. So why are they standing next to each other in the group photo? What is Captain America, a glorified acrobat with an invulnerable trash-can lid as his primary weapon, doing leading the Avengers, a team unironically subtitled “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”? Don’t get me wrong—I loved the idea of mere mortals clawing their way up to Olympus and elbowing gods aside for a spot in the pantheon. Scrappy heroes with few or no powers were my favorites. In a Superman-Batman fight, my money was on Batman all the way—forget heat vision, give me a zillion dollars and the ability to think fifty moves ahead! And while I may joke about the silly shield, I haven’t missed an issue of Captain America since 1997, and I would pit my favorite walking anachronism against any cosmic supervillain you care to name at better-than-even odds. I love nothing more than the underdog pulling it off, which is probably why these stories keep getting published. But seriously—what musclebound megapowered meathead is actually going to like having these guys on his team?

All of which led me to Darth Vader and Tinkerbell.

I originally designed John Lawrence and Cobalt as polar opposites who were frenemies before the term was coined (and, five seconds later, run into the ground, so you won’t see it again in this blog). Lawrence was my Superman, my Apollo, designed to be so perfect and so perfectly good-natured that he drove everyone privately up the wall. Blond hair, blue eyes, big muscles, big grin, constantly glowing from within with the mysterious energy that powered him, apparently centered in the sun-like amulet on his chest. His costume was gold and white to show he never got dirty, he didn’t use gloves or a mask or a codename because he had nothing to hide, and his cape had a mind of its own, wafting and billowing even when there wasn’t a dramatic breeze. Cobalt, meanwhile, was the other end of the spectrum, the apex of the grim and gritty—body completely covered with kevlar armor and a computerized breathing apparatus, draped in shadows and midnight, carrying a seemingly unlimited arsenal but moving as lightly and silently as a cat in a mortuary. The only warning of his appearance was the blue glow of his eyepieces—the source of his name. Maybe he was human, maybe not—and you definitely didn’t want to get close enough to find out.

Lawrence and Cobalt were natural rivals, so I threw them into a power struggle over control of their team, the World Justice Federation. It came to a bloody and surprising end in the series, with the revelation of the real source of Lawrence’s powers and Cobalt’s true identity, and the Rider galloped away with more than one soul. It was the first time I’d done real big-gun superpowers, outside Rae’s and Trevor’s dark and quirky little world of rookie heroes in a devastated city. It was like having your garage band open for U2. And to be honest, it was kind of cool. But when I sat down with a long list of elements from the series and decided what was and was not going into the book, Lawrence and Cobalt were one big question mark. Did I want to make my world that big, that soon? Sure, their rivalry made a good story, and the final revelation made a real wow finish, but how was I going to tie them into the story of two powerless teenagers solving a mystery in the ruins of a city that, by definition, did not have any “real” superheroes?

And then I thought of “Peer Review.”

I read Michael A. Stackpole’s short story when I was 12, and it was the beginning of my love affair with superhero prose fiction. The story (which you can now download for $3.00 at Stackpole’s Stormwolf website) is about a nonpowered hero (a self-described “ordinary man with a few tricks and a cape”) who, in doing a good but dangerous deed, runs afoul of a typical high-powered superhero team. The team later holds a hearing on their disaster of a mission; to their surprise, the caped mortal shows up to confront the witnesses against him, and the twist ending is memorable. I love this story. I can recite paragraphs from it verbatim. I love it so much that Rae’s mask name in early drafts was Revenant, after Stackpole’s hero, and in every draft there has been a cool character in a blue cape in his honor. I love this story so much that I worked my tail off making sure that no part of Masks was actually taken from it, because I love it too much to steal it. But what makes the story work—aside from the great dynamic between Revenant and the six-year-old boy he’s trying to rescue—is the idea that the caped-mortal crowd crosses paths with the tights-and-flights crowd whether they like it or not, and people with superpowers view mortal meddlers about the way cops view overly enthusiastic police buffs—what are you doing here, and why can’t you leave this up to the professionals?

Of course, superheroes are all amateurs to one extent or another, so the prejudice is much less fair. And there I found the toehold for Lawrence and Cobalt in the world of Masks. They’re the pros. Cobalt’s spent his life clawing his way up to Lawrence’s Olympus, but he’s there, and Trevor and Rae are definitely not. Trevor dreams of someday being invited to join a team like the World Justice Federation—it’s part of his idea of being a true hero—and Rae is used to having her entire city snubbed by the more fortunate capes.

And so when Rae sees Cobalt try to blow a captured villain’s brains out—yes, I’m deliberately playing against my own prejudices by making the caped mortal the bad guy—she naturally assumes that no one but another Z-lister will believe her. Even when Lawrence takes an interest, he has a few fundamental prejudices of his own that skew his perspective on his teammate. So ultimately the story boils down to whether a couple of kids can solve the case and save the world by making it up as they go. And when Lawrence (who jokes that he can’t be taken seriously because “I glow like Tinkerbell and wear white after Labor Day”) comes to his own conclusions about the scrappy kids who have suddenly entered his life—just as Cobalt is reaching his own endgame—you’d better watch out …

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Comic books you should be reading

I started writing Rae Masterson and her friends all those years ago because I wanted to get people who don’t read comic books to start reading comic books. Now I have lots and lots of readers … most of them people who don’t read comic books. Step one is accomplished. So since it’s raining cats out there today (yes, it does happen!), I’ve decided to put together a little list of comics you’ll probably enjoy if you like Masks. Or, in fact, if you don’t. No matter what you’re into, here are some good places to start, with content ratings for the queasy.

1. If you like teenage superhero adventures, you will probably enjoy … Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways series, which began in 2003. Start from the beginning—you’ll find some of the best stuff there. The first volume, Pride and Joy, chronicles the adventures of a pack of seemingly semi-normal California teenagers who discover that their parents are actually supervillains—crime lords, evil wizards, time-traveling despots, mad scientists, mind-controlling mutants, and aliens bent on world domination. The parents have formed a criminal syndicate called the Pride that’s plotting to destroy the world, and all that stands between them and success is six kids who’ve inherited their parents’ powers and a telepathic dinosaur named Old Lace. PG-13, for rollicking violence and Sister Grimm kissing everyone on the team.

You will probably also enjoy … Young Avengers, at least the early run by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung. Set during a period of Marvel Comics continuity where the longstanding Avengers team had been dissolved, the comic follows six superpowered teenagers who try to step into some very big shoes, with mixed results. They face active opposition from former Avengers Iron Man and Captain America even as they deal with time-hopping tyrants, an alien invasion, and getting grounded for fighting evil too late on a school night. My favorite line: “This is NOT superhero behavior!” The first collection, Sidekicks, is a great place to start. PG-13, for lots of violence and that thing with Billy and Teddy.

2. If you like snarky superhero adventure, you will probably enjoy … the recent hit “season eight” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Dark Horse Comics. Joss Whedon’s pioneering TV series pretty much made it okay for girls to slay monsters and for everyone to be snarky about everything, and the comic continues the cancelled series with a blockbuster budget and some excellent writing, so I encourage everyone who hasn’t yet to pick up the trades, starting with The Long Way Home. Please note: Buffy had a villain named Twilight before the book series had enslaved the masses, which makes what’s going on in the later volumes even funnier … PG-13 again, for Slayers kicking monster butt and the thing with the cinnamon lip gloss.

3. If you like superhero team-ups, you will probably enjoy … Geoff Johns’ triumphant return to the team he made awesome in Justice Society of America. Start with the first trade of the recent reboot, The Next Age. While the JSA has always been something of a magnet for superhero nostalgia buffs—it features the adventures of a superteam that’s been around since World War II, mostly made up of original, very senior members or of modern successors to those who have died—it’s also extremely well-written under Johns. Anybody can write about a kid getting the call to join a big-name team, but only Johns could come up with someone like Maxine Hunkel, a teenage wind witch, JSA fangirl and blue-streak chatterbox whose response to the invitation is … memorable. And how can you not love a comic whose first issue ends with a dead superhero falling through the skylight onto the conference room table? PG-13 again, mostly for the dead guy.

4. If you like cowboys, you will probably enjoy … Dynamite Entertainment’s bestselling Lone Ranger series, beginning with the first volume. It’s hard to do a good Western these days without trying to graft in steampunk or modern politics, but writer Brett Matthews has done it, with a surprising take on the Ranger’s origin story and the best Tonto I’ve seen in years. (Hint: You find out why he’s really running around with this idiot white boy …) Starting with the classic character as the shellshocked survivor of his big brother’s murder puts a promising spin on the hero-sidekick dynamic, and it’s good that someone finally gave black-hat Butch Cavendish a villainous personality worth watching. PG-13, for the pretty graphic results of six-gun action and, eventually, what happens between Linda Reid and ... well, I won't spoil it for you.

5. If you like mythology-infused adventure, you will probably enjoy … J. Michael Straczynski’s multi-award-winning run on Amazing Spider-Man. Beginning with the first volume in the run, Coming Home, and now collected in several hardcovers that are mostly worth the cover price, Straczynski takes Spidey to new and surprising places. Most notably, the JMS run deals with what happens when Peter Parker’s “sweet old Aunt May” finds out, after all these years, that he’s Spider-Man—“I knew you had something in the closet. Could’ve been chiffon. Who knew it was a costume?”—and Spidey’s encounter with the mysterious Ezekiel, a powerful and enigmatic figure who seems to have all of Spidey’s abilities but also a lot more connections to the supernatural than Spidey himself ever thought he had. Watch for appearances by Dr. Strange and Loki, Norse god of the hotfoot. Especially watch for what happens when Loki eats a New York hotdog.PG-13 for wholesale property destruction and paralyzingly funny dialogue.

You will probably also enjoy … Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, now being collected for the billionth time in yet another commemorative edition. This groundbreaking story, which ran for 10 volumes from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, went to startling and fantastic places with the idea of a god of dreams being forced to change. It’s studied in college literature courses, and not just in a “ha ha, I get to read comic books for credit” way. Honestly, I can’t describe this one and do it justice. Just go read it. This one gets an R rating for grown-up stuff.

6. If you like intrigue and high-octane shoot-em-ups, you will probably enjoy … Ed Brubaker’s bazillion-selling run on Captain America. Brubaker took a somewhat dorky patriotic superhero and revamped his comic as a compelling thrill ride of international espionage, with unexpected emotional twists. While the run is now best-known for including the assassination of Captain America in early 2006 and the four years of terrific storytelling it’s pulled off in the absence of the title character, it’s worth your time to go back to the beginning and pick up volumes one and two of the Winter Soldier storyline, which starts with the murder of Cap’s longtime enemy, the Red Skull, and concludes with a reality-warping knock-down, drag-out fight between Cap and the most memorable opponent he’s faced in years—his back-from-the-dead sidekick from World War II.PG-13 for sex, violence, and angst.

7. If you like all-ages superhero fun, you will probably enjoy … Aaron William’s delightful PS238. Billed as “the school for metaprodigy children,” PS238 is a secret elementary school for the children of superheroes and supervillains, a concept so good that Disney has stolen it twice and failed both times to express Williams’ genius. Told mostly from the point of view of Tyler Marlocke, the normal child of two superheroes who so badly want him to develop superpowers that they’re sending him to school with werewolves, aliens, and freaks of science in the hope something will rub off, PS238 combines the schoolyard adventures of Harry Potter with high-flying superhero action and hefty doses of some of the best social and literary criticism you’ll ever read from people in tights. But don’t worry, parents—there’s stuff in there for you, too. G for most issues, PG for the alien invasion and frank talk about a superhero divorce.

8. If you enjoy genre-bending superhero drama, you will probably enjoy … Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, a loving look at “what else happens” in superhero stories. Infrequently published over the last few years, it’s generally worth the wait to read stories about things like life in the section of town populated by vampires and werewolves, or what happens when an enterprising lawyer uses the “evil twin” defense on the case of a non-superpowered client. While the first volume, Life in the Big City, is a masterpiece of vignette storytelling, for my money the best work yet is the second volume, Confession, a coming-of-age narrative about a boy who comes to the city to be a superhero and gets more than he bargained for, on several levels. I have lent my copy of Confession to comics skeptics so many times that the cover’s falling off, and none of them have returned it unimpressed. But some were crying. PG for some violence and a lot of grown-up thinking.

You will probably also enjoy … Warren Ellis’ recently completed Planetary series. Start with the first volume, All Over the World and Other Stories, and get hooked. Planetary’s team of squabbling “mystery archaeologists” travel the world in search of bizarre real-world relics of pop-culture zeitgeist, from the island where all the Godzilla monsters went to die to the rocket that brought a certain alien baby to earth … watch for a conversation beginning, “Did you really kick a rhino over the Grand Canyon?” R rating for violence, nudity, language, and other goodies. You've been warned.

That’s all for this week, class. Do the reading, and next time we’ll discuss the literary significance of wearing your underwear on the outside … Freudians, please stay home.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pyramid marketing for books ...

Gathering fans on Facebook is hard. Period. On MySpace, you can invite people by the hundreds—it’s limited only by your willingness to sit there clicking that button hour after hour. Facebook, meanwhile … well, it’s a little tougher. I can only invite people on my personal friends list, and because I have this thing about having actual friends on my friends list and they don’t all have a legitimate interest in young-adult superhero fiction, it’s slow going.

So I’m going to bribe all of you to recruit for me.

Through the end of February, we’re going to have a fan contest on this page—that is, a contest to see who can add the largest number of fans. I think it will work like this:

1. Invite your friends to join the page. Simple, right? There’s a little button under the profile image that will let you spam your whole friends list.

2. But wait! There’s more! When you invite your friends, ask them to leave a comment on the page’s wall with the name of the friend who invited them. If a new fan gets more than one invitation, he or she is welcome to name all the people who invited him/her. I’ll keep a running tally of the names that get mentioned most. I do have a way of identifying new fans on this page, but I don’t know how they got there, so this is the only way I can track who invites whom.

3. The contest will end February 28, 2010. On March 1, I will announce the winner—at which point that fan and all the fans he or she invited will get prizes.

I’m still figuring out what those prizes will be, though, so I’m going to test this new blog system by inviting votes. I’ll list the options, and I encourage you to leave your votes in the comment section of this blog.

There will be two levels of prize—one big one-of-a-kind prize for the person who adds the largest number of fans, and a smaller, more easily replicable prize for both the winner and all the fans who nominated that person.

Possibilities for level one:

1. Original MASKS plushie, handmade by the author. Current plan is either my new fleece-coyote design (recently beta-tested on a Christmas gift recipient) or a doll of Rae or Trevor—recipient’s choice.

2. Original MASKS art—a signed Nicole Le sketch, again of the character of the winner’s choice. Nicole’s agreed to do contest art again if I bribe her with Flame Broiler. Derrick does not do contest art, apparently because he has more self-respect than Nicole. (I love you, Nicole …)

3. Naming a character in MASKS. I have to add a couple of people in the Fourth Draft—at least one male and at least one female—and I’d be willing to give away the naming rights to a character, within reason. (Keep it PG, and no profanity, please—but I’m more than willing to name the character after you!) Each of these characters will have dialogue and be the centerpiece of at least one plot point.

Possibilities for level two:

1. Exclusive MASKS wallpaper. Nicole’s got some art she’s saving up for Free Comic Book Day, but I have Flame Broiler coupons …

2. MASKS podcast—a limited edition, one-of-a-kind, limited-time-only audio recording of something related to MASKS. Maybe someone reading the first chapter or two …

3. An early look at the new MASKS short story I’m writing for Free Comic Book Day … which isn’t until May, so you’d get two months and some change to taunt people with it. There are ninjas.

Register your votes, for level one and level two. Remember—the person who brings in the largest number of fans gets both prizes, and everyone he or she brings in gets the level-two prize. I’ll also accept suggestions for alternate prizes, if anyone’s got any brilliant ideas.

If this works well, I’ll probably do more recruiting contests in the future, with more prizes, so your odds of winning something are pretty good. And with luck, sometime soon I’ll be able to give away autographed first editions …

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cowboy up

I love comic books. I love, love,
love comic books. I especially love the oddball comic books, the ones full of fascinating and colorful ideas that never quite seemed to go anywhere. I love characters whose origins were never fully revealed, plot threads that trail off into nowhere when the series is canceled, and little details that someone meant to develop sometime but that were lost in the creative shuffle.

I made Masks out of those pieces. I find a certain enigmatic charm in the odd hero-sidekick relationships that were quietly cleaned up after people began suggesting Batman was a pedophile, so I made Trevor a lost-boy sidekick searching for his missing mentor. I find villain team-ups sort of funny and unlikely—seriously, who thought the Red Skull (a Nazi) and Dr. Doom (the son of a Gypsy) would get along?—so I created the Flying Tortoise, a place for villains to go and do their business without having to pretend they’re friends. I was fascinated by the way trenchcoat-and-fedora detectives managed to run around detecting in a world full of spandex acrobats, so I called my heroes masks instead of superheroes and had the name derive from a classic hero of the trenchcoat persuasion.

And a few of those pieces went into making the Masked Rider.

Time was, cowboys dominated a large share of the pulp-novel and comic-book markets that also hosted the superheroes. Back when horse operas ruled the silver screen, the big comic-book publishers made a lot of money with mask-and-horse characters with names like the Two-Gun Kid, the Rawhide Kid, the Black Rider, the Outlaw Kid, El Diablo, Ghost Rider, Red Wolf, Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, and Kid Colt, Outlaw (was this last one named because no one was buying the Outlaw Kid?). And that’s leaving off the big names like the Lone Ranger and Zorro. But when cowboy movies and TV shows began sliding into obscurity, they took the cowboy comic books with them, and by the time I came along as a comics geek in the mid-1990s, there was nothing left except Ghost Rider (now on a motorcycle) and Jonah Hex’s cameo on Batman: The Animated Series.

And then Blaze of Glory came along.

You probably don’t remember that one. Most comic fans are fairly glad to forget it. Subtitled The Last Ride of the Western Heroes, it was a late-90s attempt to retcon Marvel Comics’ cowboy heroes into relevance once again. Giving the heroes fashionably anachronistic costumes and playing up their psychological disturbances and political implications, the story trudged along toward its inevitable conclusion—a battle between the surviving six-shooters and a bunch of Ku Klux Klan wannabes that killed off most of the good guys. I read the series as an adult and I roll my eyes.

But to the 16-year-old I was when I first read those comics, Blaze of Glory was a revelation. The white hats died with all the pathos of Achilles, and the tragic schizophrenia of the Outlaw Kid made my lip tremble as I read the comics by night after putting my babysitting charges to bed. So I decided I was going to have a cowboy in Masks, come hell or high water. And I decided his story was going to be primarily about reading stories like this.

The Masked Rider as he first appeared was a magical character, an “imaginary friend” to the few lonely children who still read his adventures, now forgotten in libraries and attics, or who watched the dozen or so movies made about him, many of them starring the Black Mask in his secret identity as a film actor. (Actually, his several secret identities—he didn’t age normally, so he had to keep “dying” and coming back under a different name.) But a ghostly masked cowboy who could change his face, walk through walls, and ride his black horse faster than a speeding getaway car had too much potential for me to leave him alone. So when I turned my old stories into the novel Masks, I wrote him in, over the objections of several people who pointed out that cowboys didn’t properly belong in a superhero story.

Except, to me, they do.

Dime novels begat pulp magazines, which then begat comic books. Wandering cowboy heroes were the spiritual ancestors of wandering aliens, crime victims, and freaks of mad science, all trying to do good. If haven’t yet seen a dozen superhero stories that were thinly veiled rip-offs of Shane, you’re not paying attention. But western comics, with a few exceptions, are now regarded as quaint bits of the past, a good way to doom your up-and-coming comics company (unless you’re Dynamite—has anyone else noticed that their infrequently published Lone Ranger series is more than worth the wait for new installments?).

So in a bit of ironic meta-ness, I made the Masked Rider a literal death omen in the Masks universe. According to urban legend, if you see him, it means someone’s going to die—probably someone in a cape and mask. He is greeted with terror and dread whenever he appears, and people who bet on superhero fights lay three sets of odds—hero wins, villain wins, and Rider shows up. And then I sat down and thought about what that would look like from the Masked Rider’s side of the equation. Was he really collecting souls, as his legend suggested? Was he a superhero Grim Reaper? Or did he have some other purpose in mind that would still require him to be present when superheroes were in mortal danger?

And the more I got into his origin story as a kind of nineteenth-century proto-mask, the more I thought about why he might still be around … and what he might really want with all these dying heroes … and I came up with something very interesting indeed, that I can’t spoil here.

Not that that stops Rae from freaking out when the Rider gallops up to her in the middle of a losing battle and offers her a lift …

Coyote pretty

(Originally published 12/30/09) (Photo: Shreve Stockton, Daily Coyote)

I should probably explain about the coyote thing.

You might have noticed a certain … motif around this page that doesn’t quite go with the superheroes that make
Masks what it is. So I’m finally going to answer all the people who keep asking me what on earth is up with the coyotes. There are several explanations. The first explanation is that Rae, the female protagonist of the book, is irrationally afraid of coyotes, but a particular coyote spends most of the book following her around and occasionally trying to bite her. I can’t go into all the details without spoiling a pretty big plot point, but the trauma that made Rae decide to put on a mask and jump out windows at night involved a coyote. In fact, a series of vignettes throughout the book shows coyotes present at almost every major event in her life—watching through the schoolyard fence the day she broke a bully’s nose, howling the night she first threw herself into battle against a supervillain. Rae’s not quite sure what all these coyotes want with her, but by the end of the book, she’ll find out. Meanwhile, they make good cuddly plush toys of doom.

The coyote also ties into the whole omen-of-death motif that plays throughout the book. The coyote is connected to the Masked Rider, a black-clad cowboy on horseback who comes and goes like a ghost and is rumored to collect the souls of dead masks. The story goes that when the Rider appears, a mask is going to die, and Rae and Trevor both see the Rider repeatedly over the course of the story. Both heroes have conversations with him; Rae is faced with a choice between dying in a fight and taking a ride on the ghostly black horse, and Trevor finds himself nose-to-barrel with the Rider’s six-guns when he does something the horseman doesn’t like. The coyote, like the Rider, seems to have more-than-natural abilities, and the two specters clash more than once, apparently over access to Rae and Trevor.

So why do I have a ghost cowboy and a demon coyote running around in my superhero story?

Because, as Neil Gaiman once observed, “There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.” Superheroes are a popular subject for pop-psychology treatises on neurosis and social decay, but anybody who studies literature at all sees their connections to a larger mythic tradition. If you can’t see any of Heracles in Superman, you’re blind, and it didn’t take J. Michael Straczynski to notice how much Spider-Man has in common with Anansi (although we’re very glad he decided to write a story about it).

So while my superheroes wear capes and masks and soar through the air and skulk through alleys with the best of them, they are also inextricably entwined with the stories that came before them. The word
mask in my world comes from the Black Mask, a hardboiled trenchcoat-and-fedora detective hero who walked straight out of the pulps and into my brain—acquiring his name along the way from the title of the pulp magazine that first published The Maltese Falcon. Masks is haunted by the ghosts of film noir and Saturday matinee serials, with the occasional detour through straight sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction (my outline for the current rewrite includes the phrase “and they never found his head”). The World Justice Federation superhero team is home to a cyborg psychic, a golem, and a werewolf. The passwords to the Flying Tortoise supervillain bar are taken from sources as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes stories and Arsenic and Old Lace. The Grim Reaper in my universe is a dime-novel masked cowboy with an unlikely origin story. Masks is filled with mythic quests and Faustian bargains. Which brings me to the coyote.

Once I decided to look at superhero stories as modern mythology, I had to sit down and ask myself what kind of mythic figures my heroes were. The trickster archetype suggested itself immediately, for Rae in particular. Rae’s first action in
Masks is to deceive a teacher in order to sneak out of school. Not long after, she cunningly talks her way out of a bloody hostage situation. She also has a unique ability to “shapeshift”—changing her voice, posture, and behavior to become other people while remaining herself, and all without having to be bitten by a radioactive chameleon. What Rae lacks in superpowers she makes up in wit. She’s got more coyote in her than she realizes, and so it seemed appropriate to saddle her with a spectral coyote nemesis.

Mythology aside, I’ve long been fascinated by urban wildlife and how animals adapt to the changes humans have made to their environment. I named my heroine Peregrine after the falcons that roost in skyscrapers, and coyotes are part of the same world. They run along the cinderblock walls that divide southern California backyards, slip into neighborhoods by night to raid trash cans and devour unwary pets, and even wander into elevators and subway cars, provoking a mixture of fascination and fright in urban dwellers who remember that the cute and furry intruder just might have rabies. Coyotes are one of the few species (rats are another) that actually see their populations boom when humans move in, because they take over territory that other predators must leave behind.

Am I the only person who sees a natural connection to scrappy, trickster-like masks who make their dens in dead men’s hideouts, scavenge their equipment where they can find it, and startle the living daylights out of “normal” heroes who never get their boots dirty?

Yeah, I probably am, but if I were well-adjusted I wouldn’t have written a book.

So coyotes tend to pop up in
Masks, both as Rae’s personal demons and as symbols of the larger mythic and natural worlds the characters inhabit. They seem to have invited themselves, mostly, as they tend to do, but I like having them there. They’re good company, in a spooky sort of way, and somebody has to eat the Chihuahuas.

How it's going

The short version is, sloooooowwwly.

For those of you following the epic saga that is me trying to get Masks published, we are working on step three of a five-step sequence. The full sequence goes like this:

1. Write book. So far, so good on that one. I’ve written three complete drafts of Masks, and have extensive notes on a fourth—basically, I’m ready to go to work as soon as I get anything like approval.

2. Get agent. Check and check. I am officially represented by Angela Rinaldi and Spencer Humphrey, two very fine agents indeed.

3. Get publishing deal. Still working on that one. Spencer has reported some promising developments that I’m not supposed to be talking about on Facebook. We’re talking to people, including the infamous editor Fred X (name chosen at random—I don’t use real names online until I actually have something in hand) mentioned on my MySpace blog, and others too. But we probably won’t hear anything until January, since much of the publishing industry takes much of December off.

4. Publish book. This is on hold until step three is finished, of course.

5. Win undying fame and fortune. Well … I’ll get back to you.

So now you know. If you’d like to help get Masks off the ground, your best method is to invite friends to join this page—the more people it’s got, the better it looks to Fred X and company. It looks like the trailer may not get posted until January thanks to some delays in the art, but the mystery plushie’s coming along, so that should be entertaining.

And for the record, this note is good news, not bad. While I would have been deliriously happy to have a contract in hand by year’s end, Spencer has done a phenomenal job of getting Masks where it needs to be, and the book has come much farther than I would have expected. If you’d told me when I was writing Masks in high school that someday I’d be taking meetings about it with editors at the biggest publishing companies on earth, I would have asked you what you were smoking and suggested you lay off.

As one of my favorite authors is fond of pointing out, most people who have story ideas never write anything, most who write never finish, and most who finish never submit. Doing all that and getting this much attention is pretty darn impressive. I’ve gotten some good feedback, and I’m putting it to good use, so the only real downer in this entry is that I get to spend Christmas and New Year’s with relatives asking me every five minutes why my book isn’t published yet. Then again, if I had a contract in hand this late in the year, they’d all want to know why I hadn’t brought them free signed copies, so maybe this works out better.

Happy random winter celebrations to all, and may your secret identities remain intact for another year!

How to make a last-minute Christmas gift--with ears!

For those of you with even a little sewing acumen (by which I mean those of you who remember those stitch-with-yarn cards from preschool), here’s a quick and easy way to please a few people on your list this year.

During the summer, I used some fleece scraps to construct a coyote hat—ears and all—similar to the cat-eared “kitty hats” popular among anime fans. The hat was something of a hit, and got quite a laugh from my friends one chilly night recently when I wore it on an expedition to look at Christmas lights. It also kept my ears warm.

So here’s how to make your very own eared hat—bunny-eared, cat-eared, or—if you’re inclined to show your Masks spirit—coyote-eared. I recommend gray for that, because people don’t believe in brown coyotes.

1. Buy a half-yard or so of fleece from your local fabric store. You can probably get it as a remnant, or odd end of an old bolt of fabric, which is cheaper than buying it off the bolt. Get a color you can stand—you do have to wear this thing. I recommend “anti-pill” fleece rather than “blizzard” fleece—it’s a bit more expensive, but after you’ve washed your hat a few times, you start to notice the difference. Get some thread in a suitable color. You’ll also need a needle and some straight pins.

2. Measure your head. Wrap a tape measure around your cranium at about where you want the bottom of the hat to rest. If you want your hat to cover your ears, wrap the tape around your ears when you make the measurement. Measure from the top of your head to the bottom of your planned hat so you know how tall your hat will be. I like to pull mine down to my eyebrows when I’m cold, but your results may vary.

3. Go to and download the “Wild Things” freeware program. The program lets you make lots of simple hats, bags, accessories, etc, but what you want here is the Baseball Hat program. Select the Baseball Hat, input your head circumference and intended height of your hat (minus the width of your band—see step 5), and generate a pattern. You will see, among other things, a bunch of pattern pieces shaped like pie slices. Print out one of those pie slices and cut it out of the paper.

4. Choose the “right” and “wrong” side of your fabric. There’s no right or wrong way to do this (ha), so pick which side of the fabric you want to be on the outside of the hat. That’s your “right” side. Cut six pie slices from your fabric, with the pattern on the right side. NOTE: The pattern will include a seam allowance—a dotted line that shows you how far into the fabric you will be sewing your seam. Make sure you can live with that seam allowance. If you think you need a bigger one, cut the pieces bigger, but be consistent.

5. Cut out your hat’s headband. This will help the hat maintain its shape. Decide how wide you want the headband—I like three or four inches—and then cut a strip twice that wide and as long as your head circumference, plus seam allowances all around the piece.

6. Make your ears. Draw your ear shape on a piece of paper and cut it out. Cat ears, coyote ears, ears with notches, whatever floats your boat—just draw the ear, draw your seam allowance around it, and then cut the piece out of the paper. Cut four ear pieces from your fabric. NOTE: If you want a contrast lining—where the inside of the ear is a color different from the color of the outside—cut two of your four ear pieces from the contrast fabric.

7. Sew your ears. Each ear is made from two ear pieces (or one regular ear piece and one contrast ear piece) sewn together with their right sides facing each other, leaving the bottom edges open. Sew each ear in this way and then turn your ears inside out. BONUS POINT: Hold the ears to your head at this juncture and run around the house making “rawr!” noises. This will encourage people to leave you alone while you sew the rest of the hat, as you’re obviously out of your skull.

8. Sew the two halves of your hat. Each half is made of three pie slices, sewn together at the sides so that the points come together at the top. Sew the pie slices with their right sides together. This way, when you turn your hat right-side out, the seam allowances will be on the inside and the outside of your hat will appear smooth.

9. Attach your ears and sew your halves together. As you fit the two halves of your hat together (right sides together), position your ears in the seam and pin them there if necessary. Remember, the bottom of each ear should be sticking into a seam and the top of each ear should be on the inside (right side) of the hat when the hat is inside-out for sewing. So while you’re sewing this hat, you see only the bottoms of your ears sticking into your seam. Stitch the front and back of your hat together. If you have contrast ears, make sure the contrasts on the two ears are both facing the same direction—toward the forward side of your hat. BONUS POINT: To add dimensionality to your ears, fold one side in just a bit so that the fold is toward the crown of the hat. This will make your ears stick out more and appear to be listening forward or out to the sides.

10. Make your hatband. Sew the ends of the band together (right sides together again) to make a loop with the same circumference as your hat.

11. Attach your band. Center the seam in your loop on the back of your hat (it should end up in the middle of the center back piece), and then pin the band in place there—right sides together. Work your way around the hat, pinning the band with the right sides together, to make sure everything fits. Stitch the band in place.

12. Turn the band right-side out (you should see a smooth seam where the band joins the pie slices). Now fold the band in half and tuck the other side into the inside of the hat. Pin the free side in place just like you did the previous side. Stitch your hatband to the inside of your hat. If you want to fold your edge under and stitch right-sides-together again, go ahead, or just attach it any old way you like as long as you don’t make too big a mess visible on the outside of the hat.

13. Turn the hat right-side-out and stitch on any accessories you want, like eyes or scars or fangs or other shapes, preferably cut from fleece. Painting designs on fleece is hard, embroidering them isn’t worth your time, and while felt is cheap and tempting, it doesn’t wash well, and you will eventually want to wash this hat. I plan to sew fangs on my next coyote hat after hearing several people remark that it appeared to be eating my head.

14. Tug your hat onto your head, or wrap it up to present to the animal in your life. If you’ve had the good taste to make a Masks coyote hat, go howl at the moon!

I can make one of these suckers by hand in two or three hours. I assume it’s faster on a sewing machine. The fabric and thread generally come to less than ten bucks—less than five if I use coupons or poke around the right stores. These hats generally sell for about thirty bucks at conventions, so with a little ingenuity it’s not hard to be the envy of your fandom.

Best of all, fleece does not fray out like most fabrics, so you can expect your hat to look good and keep your head warm for a long time. At least until a hungry coyote steals it off your head.

Trouble with a boy

(Originally published 10/15/09)

I knew I’d have to put a boy in my story sometime. The superhero genre is dominated by male characters, so I needed to address my own gender imbalance. I’d tried it before, in fact—given Rae a superhero boyfriend so popular that one reader threatened to kill me if I let him die in some climactic battle. He changed a lot when I morphed the series into Masks, but I knew readers were still watching for him, so I decided to play with their expectations a little before I unveiled the real male lead. And that’s how Trevor came into the story, and how the trouble began.

He was supposed to be a one-shot character, a play on the grim-and-gritty trend that had dominated comics for so many years. If Batman had turned into Dirty Harry, I asked myself, what had happened to Robin? I sketched out an angry, disturbed boy who’d grown up believing he would inherit a heroic mantle until Something Went Terribly Wrong. I made him a brilliant detective and a hand-to-hand combat genius and gave him an emotional wound that would not heal. I found a way to pit him against my cunning but kindhearted heroine, and I let the fur fly, planning to kill him off at the end of the story in a tragic object lesson.

I forget now how I was going to have Trevor die. Maybe I planned to force Rae to kill him. Maybe he slipped and fell off a roof. Maybe he gave his life to save someone in an unexpected last gasp of heroism. But he was going to end up dead as disco … and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think I felt sorry for him, honestly. I’d given him such a terrible life, and forced him into an excruciating position, and he was just some kid who just wanted to be one of the good guys. I felt he deserved another chance, so I ended the story with him defeated, but not dead. And I brought him back as a prickly, contrary part of the regular cast.

You should have seen the letters I got. How dare I toss an unrepentant villain into my pantheon of heroes? What made Trevor good enough to stand with the likes of Rae and the others? Wasn’t he just going to go psycho on them someday?

And ewwww, who said he was allowed to fall in love with Rae?

That last part was his idea, I swear. About a year after his accidental debut, I decided to do a life-changing story for Rae, and I needed someone to be in it with her. Trevor walked into the front of my brain, sat down, and refused to move until I wrote him in. Half of the story ended up being from his point of view—the first time he’d told his own tale—and I realized to my shock as I was writing it that he had fallen hard for the one girl who was forever out of his reach. And I started seeing ways that this could make the whole series a lot more interesting.

I still remember the reaction of one schoolmate who read the series a couple of years later. She read the first appearance and was flabbergasted that I’d let the little psycho live … until she got to “Fever Dreams,” as the two-part story was called. Then she came and knocked on my dorm room door one evening, and when I opened it, she said simply, “Okay. Now I like Trevor.” He’d won her over just like he’d won me over. Not bad for someone who was supposed to fall off a roof.

I continued writing Masks while I was in college, picking up new readers on campus and on the trains, hiding the series from most of my classmates in journalism school. Making stuff up was grounds for expulsion in J-school, and while I wasn’t sure writing sci-fi and fantasy stories counted, exactly, I didn’t want to take the chance. I did write an essay about my fictional alter ego, titled “The Best Friend I Never Had,” and it won a cash prize in a university writing contest and was published in an online literary journal. But mostly I flew under the radar. Everyone knew that writing silly stories wasn’t a job, and someday I’d have to grow up and get one. The time was soon coming when I would have to put away childish things.

Then, toward the end of my senior year of college, the foundation that funded my scholarship informed me that, because of my high grades and lots of other stuff like that (I’m one of those people who tests well, and yes, I think it’s unfair too), I had the option of taking a full-ride scholarship to graduate school if I wanted to go. But I had only a couple of months to get everything in order, or the offer would expire.

Noticing that the journalism business was, er, not doing too well, I decided to take a chance on adding some letters after my name. And if I was going to study only one subject for two or three years in grad school, there was only one choice. I began investigating writing programs, most of which had already stopped accepting applications for the coming year, and I found the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, which accepted apps year-round. I took the Graduate Record Examination without studying, passed, and spent the rest of my prep time working on my writing samples. I had only one possible sample source—Masks—so I was shocked when a literary writing program admitted someone who wrote about superheroes.

The program required degree candidates in fiction to complete a 200-page book of publishable quality, either a novel or a collection of short stories. I chose a novel early on, feeling I’d had enough of short fiction with nearly a hundred Masks stories under my belt. I tried to work on new material, but my superheroes and their world crept in, popping up in workshops whenever I had nothing else to submit, doodled in the margins of my lecture notes, illustrating when I tried to explain myself to poets and playwrights who hadn’t done much with deadlines before grad school. And when I had to pitch my master’s thesis, everyone who heard my options had the same answer: “I thought you were going to write about superheroes.”

“But you don’t like them,” I replied. “You never read comic books. Nobody does. Nobody likes superheroes.”

And someone would always mutter back, “I like yours.”

So I wrote the novel. I had interested nibbles from literary agents before I’d finished the first draft, which startled me (more on THAT process later). A year after I graduated, I had an agreement with an agency, and two months after that, I was meeting with editors.

The book’s about Rae, in all her scrappy, heartfelt glory, and about Trevor and his flawed aspirations. There are superheroes and supervillains and a masked cowboy on a black horse who just might be the Angel of Death (what else would death look like to someone in a cape?), and flying ships and talking animals and magic and mystery and myth. It’s about figuring life out when you’re 16 and think you know what’s going on and suddenly everything turns upside down on you. It’s about sticking up for what’s right, even when everyone else thinks you’re wrong. It’s a little bit about young love, too, in the cockeyed way that Rae and Trevor have.

And, because I’m still me, there are two bar fights and an awful lot of stuff blowing up. Hey, I can’t be serious all the time.

Our story so far ...

Originally published 10/13/09:

Masks began as an experiment. That’s the long and short—I tried something to see what would happen, and what happened surprised me mightily. In fact, it seems to have surprised me more than it surprised anyone else, but that’s another story.

When I was 14 years old, I had exactly two friends. Both boys, which made my reputation at school pretty interesting, and both what would now be called geeks. Our common bond, besides the fact that none of us really liked showing our faces on the playground during recess, was our love of the nerdier side of pop culture. Comic books. Science fiction. Fantasy. Computers. Anything Joss Whedon wrote, ever. You know—cool stuff.

But if there was one thing we hated, more than playground jocks or bad dial-up connections or network executives, it was the three little words that make every fanboy scream. “To be continued.” And they happened so regularly! Every TV season, every cool anime episode, every issue of our favorite comic books, seemed to end with “to be continued.” It seemed so perverse. We had to wait days, weeks, even months to find out what happened. What if we got hit by a bus before then? What if we stopped liking something? It was so unfair.

So, as someone who was never without a pencil, I started to write my own endings. I’d never heard of fanfic, and wouldn’t discover it until years after, but that’s pretty much what I wrote. I’d take the season finale, the most recent issue or episode, and write What Happened Next. The results were passed around in a three-ring binder, which I carefully mislabeled in case my mother found it, and were so successful that my two friends began suggesting that I think about writing for a living. Comic books, especially—I was extra good at writing crackling superhero action, seasoned with funny little insights into what the characters were thinking. How did Batman and Superman REALLY get along? How would the X-Men deal with a normal human stuck at the mansion? If Daredevil had a hyperactive sense of touch, how did he feel when he punched someone?

It was an attractive proposition. But write a story every MONTH? On a DEADLINE? I wasn’t sure I could do that.

So I pilfered a spiral notebook from a cupboard at my house and started to write, just to see whether I could. I decided I should work with original characters so I wouldn’t have to keep up with established continuity for Captain America or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I chose a superhero story, since the genre seemed wide open, and set about creating my hero. Or rather, my heroine.

For most of my life, I’d been frustrated by the lack of interesting girls in the kinds of stories I liked to read. It seemed like most of the fictional girls clustered for protection behind pink covers, playing with dolls and doing each other’s hair, so when I wanted to go wrestle lions or fly starfighters or leap tall buildings in a single bound, I had to be content with mental crossdressing. It was easier to slip into Tarzan’s skin than Jane’s, more fun to identify with Superman than Lois Lane, more enjoyable to face Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker (or better yet, Han Solo) than Princess Leia. I didn’t want to be saved, I didn’t want to be a foil, and I didn’t understand why so few girls had adventures worth reading about. I dumped Nancy Drew as soon as I discovered Sherlock Holmes, and never looked back.

But there was nothing intrinsically wrong with girls, I reasoned—after all, I was one. Sure, they were a bit short on upper-body strength (except for Buffy), but if Professor X could fight evil from a wheelchair, surely a girl could fight evil without bench-pressing it. And it would be easier to write a girl protagonist than a boy one—after all, I’d been a girl all my life, and if my brothers’ ideas about girls were any indication, neither sex understood the opposite one very well. Leave boys for later.

So I set out to design a heroine for my story. She would be smart, and strong in spirit if not in body, because that’s how heroes should be. She’d have a wicked sense of humor, because I loved writing snarky lines. She’d get in over her head and scared witless at least once or twice per chapter, because I did that all the time and knew what it felt like, but she’d never let it stop her. And eventually she would, without meaning to, surround herself with the strangest people I could dream up. I made her a makeshift superhero, in a borrowed costume with a borrowed name, running around saving the world from evil by hook and by crook because most of the big-name heroes of her world were dead. And as I picked up the knack of plotting and writing to deadline, I genuinely started to enjoy her company in these stories written just for myself.

Then someone took my notebook.

I was 15 by that time, a freshman in high school. A sophomore walked up to me as I was scribbling away on a chapter in the school common area, said, “What are you writing?” and took the notebook out of my hands. She was taller than I was, prettier than I was, and often surrounded by giggling friends. I knew her. I was terrified of her. She walked off with nine or ten months’ work in a spiral binding, flipping idly through the pages as she went. I watched, feeling like I’d lost an arm.

Three days later, she brought the notebook back and told me to finish my chapter.

Things moved fast after that. More people discovered the notebook, and a rotation developed so they could all borrow it as I finished chapters. Then the covers fell off, so I began typing the stories and delivering stapled packets to my readers’ lockers twice a month. We started eating lunch together—the pretty sophomore, a tough girl who wore a leather duster to class, a quiet one who didn’t talk much but knew everything about The X-Files. The popular crowd reacted, too—the class president asked me if Rae was really me, and a cheerleader demanded I stop writing because it stole her spotlight. I just grinned at them both.

I relaunched my series at the beginning of my junior year, fixing three years’ worth of rookie errors and broadening the focus from Rae’s adventures to an evolving, expanding universe I called Masks. Readership grew to the point where I couldn’t afford to print the stories anymore, so I sent them out by e-mail. And it was right about that time that the troublemaker walked into my life.

Next: Trevor makes his appearance.