Tuesday, January 12, 2010
(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.