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 …

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