Monday, February 22, 2010

L.A. Noir, or Talking to Myself

I once read an interview with Stephen King where he described the process by which he designed his novel Desperation. He was driving through the small town of Ruth, Nevada, and noticed that the streets were deserted. He asked himself, idly, as writers do, “Why is no one out on a nice day like this?”

And because this is Stephen King we’re talking about, the man who famously described a writer as “someone who has taught his mind to misbehave,” he got an answer to his question. A voice in his head reportedly said, Dead. They’re all dead.

“Interesting. Why are they all dead?”

Sheriff went crazy and killed ‘em all.

Of such things are stories made.

I like to joke that Masks came from a similar conversation, spurred by the fact that at that time (the late 1990s), there were no successful superhero stories set in California. The West Coast Avengers and all the rest had failed dismally, even though Los Angeles was nearly as populous and surely as interesting as New York. Coast City got nuked, and that was the end of Green Lantern’s California days. If Chicago got Hawkman, why didn’t L.A. get anyone?

There used to be superheroes here … but now they’re all dead.

Oh, come on. They’re superheroes. Superheroes are hard to kill. How did they all die?

They were murdered. Someone killed them.

Oh, yeah? Who?

A bad guy. Obviously. Stupid. (My inner voice has a real attitude problem.)

So why didn’t any more superheroes come in to replace them? They do that, you know.

They’re all scared. Something has them scared that the next heroes might die, too …

Hmm. I like your style, psychotic inner voice. What are they scared of?

The thing that killed them is still here. It killed them, so nobody got rid of it.

Big monster. I like big monsters. What is this thing that kills superheroes?


A big monster, indeed, but not a very good villain. “Look out! It’s Captain Stupidity!”

And you think I have an attitude problem. Look, you know how nobody ever notices that Clark Kent and Superman look exactly alike, except for the glasses and the spitcurl?

I have often noticed the silliness of that concept, in this age of facial-recognition software.

A bad guy noticed that resemblance one day … and he didn’t do anything about it.

This does not frighten me.

That’s because you haven’t heard the ending. He didn’t do anything about it except write it down. And he wrote down the next secret he learned, and the one after that. And this bad guy was the kind of villain who’ll be in the comic books for decades, so he learned a lot.

So why should I be worried about this big bad villain who just sits there and collects information and never does anything with it?

Because one day he found out he was dying. And he decided to take them all with him.

So that’s how the Los Angeles masks died, and how L.A. ended up bereft of superheroes. My mystery villain—who’ll remain a mystery for now, if you’ll forgive me—collected their weaknesses over the years, and then attacked them all at once. Magnaman was invulnerable, but only when he thought about it—so he was shot by a sniper while he lay in bed, asleep. Riptide was poisoned by a rare pollutant dumped into the right bay. The Black Mask was suckered into an ambush and blown up. The Blue Shadow went into hiding, but he had to come out to help the neighborhood kid for whom he served as a surrogate father, and he took a bullet on a rooftop as the boy watched. Califia vanished, and rumors swirled about the secret she’d been keeping all this time. They got Eagle Eye when he flew down to help a wounded comrade who was bleeding out in the middle of the Miracle Mile.

For days after I had my inner-voice exchange, I found myself thinking up ways for superheroes to die. Suddenly the imaginary world I’d carefully constructed throughout my childhood had a new area in it, as if demented Imagineers had suddenly doubled the size of Disneyland and added a death’s-head motif. Dead Superhero Land. It made for a very dark fictional world. I’d read my share of what I thought of as “dead hero stories”—The Death and Life of Superman, The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Captain Marvel—and suddenly I had my own universe full of dead guys. I’m not sure why this happened, but it did, and it appealed to me in its sheer tragedy and in its gleeful perversity.

But it worked, weirdly. In fiction, L.A. is the birthplace of the hardboiled detective of noir fame—the stomping grounds of Philip Marlowe, the wasteland of Chinatown. (It’s something about the light, I think—bright sunlight makes shadows look darker.) Most mysteries start with one dead body; I had my own personal epidemic. A murder spree of these proportions called for one hell of a detective.

So naturally I handed the case to a couple of teenagers with severe personal problems, and let the good times roll.

Who says you shouldn’t listen to the voices in your head?

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