Monday, March 29, 2010

Everything I need to know I learned from Daredevil comics ...

I finally got to take a break this weekend after posting that plushie pattern, and I spent it on a comic book binge. I was running through my DVD collection while I stitched the Backpack Coyote together, and happened across my all-time favorite movie from when I was twelve. Laugh away—it was Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and at the time it was the only live-action movie about my very favorite superhero. If you ask me, it still is. The Ben Affleck travesty does not count.

I first got into Daredevil around the time I first got into comics. My very first comic books came from a dollar box at the back of a used bookshop (which, incidentally, is why Rae’s secret origin involves one). I would buy as many as I could afford and smuggle them home under my windbreaker so my mom wouldn’t know her honor-roll student had regressed to reading stuff with pictures. At first I bought mostly heroes I knew from cartoons—Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Batman, and the like. But Daredevil was the one that stuck.

I ignored the yellowed comics with the guy in the red devil suit until I saw an episode of the Fantastic Four cartoon where they lost their powers and, in some kind of weird lateral-thinking fit, decided that the best guy to help them was a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock. What was he going to do, sue Dr. Doom? Murdock, of course, turned out to be the superhero Daredevil, blinded in an accident but blessed with superhumanly acute senses. (The ninja skills he actually went out and earned.) Daredevil secretly infiltrated the Baxter Building after it was captured by Dr. Doom, and the FF eventually got their powers back thanks to his dogged efforts.

Two elements of that story struck chords in me. The first, and most obviously fascinating, was that Daredevil was blind … and I had a morbid terror of going blind myself. I was born with pretty bad eyesight, and it only got worse as I grew. Most children try to break or hide their first pair of eyeglasses, unwilling to deal with the discomfort and embarrassment; my mother tells me that at age four, I refused to take mine off—I just ran around staring at leaves on trees and birds in the sky for the first time in my life. My vision got worse year by year, requiring ever-stronger prescriptions, and right around the time I hit puberty the deterioration accelerated so fast that the eye doctor could no longer hide his dismay. I would not admit it to my parents, but by age twelve, I was secretly afraid that I would soon go blind. Imagine telling a twelve-year-old bibliophile that she would have to learn to read all over again. I tried to learn Braille, and failed miserably. I dreaded having to survive as a blind girl.

But when I bought a couple of Daredevil’s comics, I discovered that he didn’t just survive being blind. He thrived on it. His stories, I discovered, were a paradox—intensely visual tales about someone who could not perceive the bright colors and splashy compositions around him. Writers made up for that by filling dialogue and captions with references to sounds, smells, textures and tastes—details that were missing from most comic books, and that made Daredevil’s adventures all the richer as readers experienced his world as he did. And even though his hypersenses were at least as much a curse as a blessing (bad guys could effectively paralyze him with an air horn), he found ways to work with that, taking advantage of the secrets he overheard and the scents he could follow and finding workarounds for things like not being able to read computer screens or street signs (he can read print only if he touches it).

The other piece of the cartoon Daredevil that stuck with me was that he was completely outclassed by Dr. Doom. Sure enough, his adventures in the comics were usually street-level tales, pitting him against low-power bad guys and assorted crimelords. Yet he was willing to take on Dr. Doom, supervillain extraordinaire, and get beaten and electrocuted, all for the sake of four powers snobs who seemed to think he was pretty much a nutbar. He set his mind to something, and he worked at it until he succeeded, in spite or maybe because of the staggering odds against him. I could respect that.

So I devoured Daredevil’s adventures wherever I could find them. When the bookshop ran out of Daredevil comics, I used the yellow pages (remember those?) to find a local comic-book store and rode my bike for miles to feed my addiction. I read random back issues by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Frank Miller, and Ann Nocenti. I argued continuity with older geeks, most of whom were shocked to see a ponytailed sixth-grader lovingly tucking comics from the 25-cent bin into a cardboard box in her backpack. And as I read, I learned.

Daredevil could read normal print by feeling the raised surface of ink on paper with his hypersensitive fingertips. I tried a few experiments with Magic Marker, found that the idea worked in principle, and began stretching my other senses as far as they would go. I couldn’t hear heartbeats, but I learned to recognize people by their footfalls and the sound of their breathing. I couldn’t track people by scent, but I quickly learned to tell my classmates apart by the smells of their skin, their lunches, and their deodorants. I didn’t have Daredevil’s radar, but a few blindfold experiments taught me that air moved differently around objects than it did through open space, and at age 13 I startled a teacher by walking blindfolded through a jumble of desks and chairs without tripping once. (It really screwed up his object lesson.) I discovered I had an auditory memory—an unpredictable but startling ability to remember random sounds with near-perfect accuracy, which really came in handy when I accidentally memorized most of a history lecture and used the information to ace the test without studying. On a school camping trip, I found I moved faster along a dark trail when I turned off my flashlight, and could not only hear the class bully coming but bluff my way past him by pretending to have a weapon ready in the dark. I found that I could get by without using my eyes—and that there were distinct advantages to not having to depend on them.

And then there was that slogan. “Daredevil—The Man Without Fear!” He wasn’t totally fearless, of course, but seeing the embodiment of my phobia jumping off rooftops and hurling himself into battle with opponents far stronger and better-armed than he (including the Hulk!) did wonders for my own self-confidence. With Daredevil in my head, quietly analyzing or puckishly cracking wise, I could face down classroom bullies and menacing teachers and grouchy comic-book geeks and everyone who said I was good for nothing but doing their homework for them. It gave me ideas.

Six months after I discovered the character, I was writing my own stories about him. Eighteen months after that, I was creating my own fictional universe, so rich in sounds and tastes and textures and smells that my English teachers thought I was some kind of prodigy. My world was chock-full of heroes who were outmatched and outclassed, regularly beaten physically and spiritually but always able to pick themselves up and keep going, against all odds. Mere mortals surrounded by people with powers. Kids in a superhero culture run by adults. Losers and failures and has-beens and never-weres who nevertheless came through, by hook or by crook, to save the day.

When the series went online, I started getting fan letters. I was giving other kids ideas, too.

One of the first graphic novels I bought was Frank Miller’s Man Without Fear limited series, which retold Daredevil’s origin in vivid sensory detail and included Miller’s later contributions, like Matt’s ninja training and his affair with the assassin Elektra. And because I was the kind of kid who read everything (remember, any chance to read with my eyes could be my last), I read Miller’s introduction. While I actively dislike a lot of Miller’s pompous recent work, that intro stayed with me. Miller pointed out that Daredevil, on paper, should have been a bad guy. He was the product of a broken home, bullied and abused as a child, raised in poverty by a washed-up mob thug, and then blinded in a horrific accident. He was smart, a gifted fighter, and he had a nasty temper—someone you would expect to see turn bad, and someone you would dread fighting when he did.

“He’s got every excuse in the world,” Miller wrote. “And within him are the makings. But Matt Murdock is no villain, and no victim … He may never join the holy order his teacher hinted at. But he will do the best he can, this hero. He’ll fight the bullies till the day he dies.”

I loved that.

My vision has mostly stabilized now; I can see fairly well within a foot or so of my eyes, and with newer corrective lenses I can see better than most people with normal sight. I never did learn Braille, but I took up martial arts, where everyone has to come within arm’s or leg’s reach, and found I was good at it, especially when I had to counter my opponent without looking. Rae fights bullies, and stands up to people who can vaporize her, and speaks truth to power. Trevor goes into battle armed with his wits and a rock, and runs across rooftops by night. When I’m doing my job right, the world of Masks sings with the sweet stink of a horse’s breath, the scrape of asphalt against steel and skin, and the lonesome song of a coyote in the distant hills.

And almost every time I hand my manuscript to a new reader, the first few comments I get back include something to the effect of, “Wow, your writing is so visual--it’s like I can see everything that’s happening!”

I never tell them why that makes me smile.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

This blog entry does not exist. But MASKS still needs your help!

Those of you who’ve been watching this blog for a while know that occasionally I ask for reader assistance. It’s never anything illegal or immoral … well, never the colorful kinds of immoral that end up on The Smoking Gun … but the fact is that I run this thing half for our collective amusement and half to accomplish a goal. I want my book published. A fair number of you seem to want to see it published, so you can read it. And in order for us all to get what we want, we need to help each other out from time to time.

You didn’t hear it from me, but this is one of those times.

I am under strict orders not to tell you what is going on. But it’s big. Even though I don’t exactly know everything that’s going on, the part that I do know about is big. Really big. And it has a timetable attached.

Remember when I asked you guys to make some noise on the MySpace page as I was submitting Masks to agents? And remember how I ended up signing with an agent? Well, it’s kind of like that again, only bigger. No, I haven’t lost my agent, but I need some noise. And I’m willing to bribe you for it.

In the next two weeks, I would be embarrassingly grateful if you guys could make as much noise on the Facebook and MySpace pages, and this blog, as possible. Likes, comments, links, pictures, fan content, new recruits, whatever. The more posts, the better; the more posters, the better. I know from my page stats that I have a fair number of anonymous lurkers, and I respect your right to lurk, but this is a big deal, and time-sensitive, so I’m going to ask you to creep out of hiding for a few days and make some noise so the people involved in this Really Big Thing know you’re there. We are trying to get some folks to run toward the screaming, and that means we need some screaming.

I’m very sorry that I can’t yet tell you more than this about the Really Big Thing and why it’s time-sensitive, but believe me, if and when I get to tell the story, it will be a good one. It will be even better if the Really Big Thing goes our way. Which brings me to the bribe.

That’s right, I’m not asking you to fan-camp the pages out of the goodness of your hearts—I’m going to bribe you. If the page gets noisy, and the Really Big Thing goes well, I will post a new video I’ve had waiting around for a little while. It will be related to Masks, and it will be funny.

Your support has meant a lot to me in this long journey to get Masks published, and I hope you’ll stick with me for this.

Oh, and if anybody asks, this blog entry never happened. Shhh. :)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Twilight-related apology.

Don’t foam at the mouth yet. I can explain.

About a year and a half ago, around the time the first Twilight movie came out, I had to read the first of Stephenie Meyer’s novels for work. (Really—I had an editing job that required me to make sure my client wasn’t plagiarizing it.) I was unimpressed. I posted a blog entry on my MySpace page, titled something like “Why I don’t like Twilight (please don’t kill me),” explaining my principal objections to the books. Those objections still stand, and I’ll restate them here because the MySpace blog engine is quite buggy and I need them to explain my position here.

The odds that I’d like Twilight were always fairly low, because it’s basically a romance story in which nothing else happens--at least, not for the first 500 pages, which suggests the book has no other reason to exist. I don’t enjoy nothing-else-happens romances; call it a genre preference.

My other major objection was that while Bella was fairly low on personality, Edward seemed to have none whatsoever, and I really don’t enjoy stories that are supposed to have two main characters (like romances) and completely neglect the needs, wants, thoughts, or feelings of one of those characters. There are words for romantic relationships with only one character in them, but the only kind I feel comfortable mentioning on a blog read by minors is “narcissism.”

But I consider my objections to Twilight reasonable, intelligent—and personal. Nobody else has to dislike nothing-else-happens romances, and certainly any reader in the world is free to enjoy one-character stories; as far as I can tell, fully half the romance market is books structured in this way. I don’t like Twilight, but I don’t think it’s a unique abomination or anything like that. It’s just a book I don’t happen to enjoy. I like other kinds of books better, which is why I wrote a novel that is also, in its way, a romance … but in which the two main characters are both richly developed (and, indeed, the book is more or less evenly split between their perspectives) and in which a lot of other interesting stuff (superhero action, witty banter, high school drama in and out of high school, supernatural ooga-booga, and some well-disguised philosophy) also happens. As far as I’m concerned, Twilight is chocolate ice cream, and I’m more of a Rocky Road kind of girl.

But Twilight fandom is another story.

Last week, Yen Press (which publishes my current favorite manga, Nightschool) published a graphic-novel adaptation of Twilight, presumably to reach those last two teenage girls who hadn’t yet read it. The fan opprobrium has been memorable, especially among the members of the manga crowd who feel their territory is being invaded by uncouth barbarians sprinkling glitter all over the place. I will not print the comments here, as I have a strict PG-13 policy on this blog. Suffice it to say there are a lot of fans out there who find Twilight fans so repugnant as to threaten them with various forms of assault, sexual battery, and/or murder.

I pretty much ignored all this, as the next Nightschool volume isn’t out until April. Then I wandered across a blog entry by Melinda Beasi titled “Dear Fandom: Please Grow Up.” (You can find it at Ms. Beasi makes an excellent point, which I feel I should restate here, partly because I’ve gotten some email from readers who feel the need to run down Twilight and its fans, perhaps to make Masks look better, and me feel better, by comparison.

Ms. Beasi points out that the symptoms of Twilight fandom are remarkably similar to the symptoms of most other obsessive fandoms (anime, manga, comic books, Harry Potter, SF and fantasy, Star Wars) … except that a large number of Twilight fans, statistically speaking, will grow up to be allegedly normal people who don’t read very much else. So combine all that obsessive energy, that passionate devotion to a first literary love, with a population whose members are not all heavy readers by nature, and you’re bound to get something silly. But not much sillier than existing fandoms get. Except for the fact that a lot of Twilight fans are, by definition, the kind of people who don’t hang out with the book nerds in school, and that can create sectarian conflicts of the kind usually associated with car bombings in the Middle East.

The essay really hit home with me. Suddenly I was 13 again, with my nose jammed into a copy of Edmond Hamilton’s Starwolf, scowling over my pages at the girls in my class who shrieked over the Backstreet Boys or Titanic. And while I don’t make a habit of running down Twilight fans in public, I certainly let others run on about how irritating they are. And yet I would like to think I’m more mature now than I was at 13.

So here’s the summing-up. Yes, Twilighters are annoying sometimes. So was I, and so were you, when we were 13, physically or emotionally, and obsessed with something. We mostly grew out of it. So, mostly, will they. And if you call yourself a reader, you should have the mature perspective to recognize that someone who doesn’t love your favorite books, or who loves books you don’t enjoy, is not necessarily the devil incarnate. Treat this as an opportunity. If you’re not on the Twilight side of the Great Fandom Divide, make friends with someone who is. Talk. Laugh. Share the books you love. Perhaps you’ll make a new convert, and perhaps you’ll just learn a little bit more about what it means to be a civilized being. Either result is well worth your time.

The more fans Masks collects, the more comments I get beginning with, “You’re SO much better than that [expletive deleted] Twilight.” Let’s save that vitriol for targets that deserve it. Child molesters. Nazis. People who talk on their cell phones while driving.

And hey, while you’re reaching across the barbed wire, see if you can pull a few of the Twilighters into Masks fandom. I’ve always wanted to endow a scholarship fund …

Monday, March 15, 2010

Books that haunt me

We all have books that won’t leave us alone, but I like to think mine are extra unusual because they are so often Internet-proof.

One of my earliest memories is of my father placing in my four- or five-year-old hands a book that he told me was more than a hundred years old. I was awed that I was permitted to touch such an ancient artifact. It was a volume of poetry by Bret Harte, California’s answer to Mark Twain (though Twain excoriated him at pretty much every opportunity, and perhaps with reason). Though the spine was damaged, it was still a breathtaking volume, with a delicate butterfly painted on it in gold.

My dad bought it for ten cents.

He was a member of the Friends of the Hawthorne Library when we lived there, and was present for their first fund-raising book sale in 80 years. They cleared out the basements and had no idea what was in there, and as a Friend he was permitted to go in first, and pay very low prices. He filled most of a wall with four or five matched sets of classic literature, plus beloved little oddities like Winston Churchill’s histories … and he did it for pennies. The Harte remains his treasure. When his father died, the heirs argued over who would get the patriarch’s tools; when my father dies, I suspect the arguing will be slightly less acrimonious, but it will all be over his books. Perhaps he’ll have the foresight to write them into his will, though I imagine he doesn’t like to contemplate parting with them.

I suppose his reverence for books, for words on paper and whispers from long-dead voices, is why I begged for oak bookcases when I was twelve. I was wise to do so; they are all double-stacked now, and while they may topple in an earthquake and bury me under an avalanche of literature, the shelves themselves will not buckle in my lifetime. And while I treasure my paperbacks—I generally can’t afford hardcovers, or the space to store them—I haunt used bookstores and library book sales in a quest for the ghost of that butterfly.

Take, for example, The Rider of the Black Horse.

I found it a few months ago for a dollar at a library book sale (how’s that for inflation?). It was published in 1904, which makes it my first centenarian book. The cover shows a shadowy figure in what appears to be 18th-century clothing, galloping through woods on a spirited black steed. The title caught my attention, as I was working on Masked Rider scenes at the time, and I decided it was worth the gamble of a dollar to see if there was anything in there I could use. I have not yet found the time to read it, but it puzzles me mightily.

Its author, Everett T. Tomlinson, is practically absent from Google. Even though his work is apparently long out of copyright and Google Books should therefore be all over him, there are precious few references to him. Apparently he once wrote a couple of boys’ adventure books about the American Revolution. This may be one, or perhaps not. The title doesn’t show up anywhere online, or if it does, it’s lost in a thousand webpages devoted to John’s Revelation (the rider on the black horse was War). I’m pretty sure this book isn’t about the Apocalypse. Obviously someone valued this book—it was kept somewhere cool and dry and cared for over the course of a century. There is a tiny spot of what looks like white paint on the cover, yellowed with age, but the rest of the damage is sheer wear—glue dried up and disintegrating, shelf-wear on the spine and edges of the covers. There are no library marks, so I imagine it was part of someone’s collection—probably several someones, if it’s been around a hundred years. Who loved this book? Why? I hope to get some work out of the way soon and plumb the mystery.

As I type this, I have another, slightly less ancient, book sitting beside me. The spine is so faded that I can barely read the letters anymore, because they’re tarnished gold on dusty beige, but the front cover is still navy blue, and on it is a simple line-drawing in gilt of a mounted knight, with lance and shield, on a rearing charger. The book is called The Golden Knight, it was printed in 1936, and its author went by the name George Challis, though that was an alias. This author does show up on Google, as a pseudonym of the prolific pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust, best known by yet another pen name—Max Brand. As Brand he was known for his unusually literary Westerns; he also went by George Owen Baxter, George Evans, David Manning, John Frederick, Peter Morland and Frederick Frost. He created Harrison Destry and Dr. Kildare, of all things. I fell in love with a short story of his, “Miniature,” as a child.

But when I look at this volume, it’s William J. Phillips that interests me.

William J. Phillips had a stamp that printed his name in Old English letters, and he stamped it in now-faded black ink both on the title page of The Golden Knight and on the inside front cover, on a bookplate that reads, “I enjoy sharing my books as I do my friends, asking only that you treat them well and see them safely home.” (My father has had bookplates printed with exactly that message; perhaps there was a similarity of temperament.) He once taped this book’s dust jacket in place, but the tape disintegrated, leaving only a few dark glue stains near the bookplate. There were no other books of Brand’s oeuvre on the “rare and unusual” table at the book sale that day, so I assume The Golden Knight was unique among Phillips’ collection, or at least those he donated. Again, there are no library marks, and no other marks of ownership, so it seems likely the book has had only a few private owners in its nearly 75-year life. Why did Phillips, or whoever, keep this book so long, treasure it so evidently, when it doesn’t even make most lists of Brand’s work? There doesn’t seem to be anybody who thinks The Golden Knight is very important, and yet William J. Phillips seems to have kept it for decades on a dry shelf in a sunny room, next to a book that was not part of a set (you can still see the neighboring book’s shadow where the back cover isn’t faded). How did it come to be on that table? I wonder if Phillips died recently, and someone wouldn’t or couldn’t manage to keep a book he loved.

Spider Robinson once wrote about a man who went around collecting the favorite books of great authors for a project he called “Immortality for Immortals.” He carefully analyzed each volume for traces of its owner’s DNA—stray hairs caught between the pages, flakes of skin that fell on well-loved passages—and planned to use it to clone the artists and intellectuals he thought most worthy of preservation. How much of William J. Phillips remains in The Golden Knight? How much of that unknown reader remains in The Rider of the Black Horse? What pieces of ourselves will we leave behind in the stories we love?

I don’t flatter myself that my stories will be counted among the great works produced by the English-speaking world, or that my first editions will become prized collector’s items. Much as I love writing and much as my work seems to speak to my readers, I’ve read enough Greek literature to be wary of hubris. But I like to think that someday, a hundred years from now, someone will clean out Grandma or Granddad’s library and find a well-loved book there with my name faded on the spine. It might be the only copy left in the world, and great-grandchildren who grew up with electronic readers may hesitate to turn the fragile pages. But I hope it will bear its smudged thumbprints with pride, and offer a welcoming home to the lingering traces of the readers who passed happy hours in my little world. And maybe, if I love God and am good, there will be a bookplate on the inside front cover, gladly offering to share this friend, asking only that you treat it well and see it safely home.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Why sidekicks worry me ... and why I totally would have been one

Sketch by Derrick Fleece

Sidekicks are a great blessing and bane of the comic book industry. The first kid sidekicks started running around with superheroes shortly after the superheroes themselves got going—witness Robin, debuting in 1940, only a year after Batman. They gave kids a chance to imagine themselves in the thick of the adventure; after all, if Robin and Speedy and Aqualad could keep up with the big boys, why couldn’t we? No wonder Jimmy Olsen had his own comic book for 20 years.

But the sidekick idea has been controversial at least since Frederic Wertham suggested, in print, that Batman was a pedophile. (For the record, I don’t agree with Wertham’s conclusions—but I think the fact that people keep bringing up his ideas means the question is not being fully addressed.) What American parents in their right minds would let their elementary-schooler jump off rooftops? The superhero sidekick is in many ways a cheerier version of the child soldier—a juvenile, theoretically with less-than-adult judgment, being indoctrinated to a cause (war on crime, mutant rights) and expected to bear arms in its defense, yet remaining subordinate to the indoctrinating adult. We worry about our kids playing first-person shooter video games; why are we okay with kid heroes throwing razor-sharp Batarangs and shooting optic blasts at supervillains?

The psychological explanations that have been offered for the popularity of sidekicks are many and complex, but they basically fall into two categories. Wertham, and some of his less execrable ideological kin, hold that mentor-sidekick relationships are analogs for sexual relationships. This seems especially true when partners are of opposite sexes and close in age; maybe Batman and Robin aren’t getting up to anything in the Batcave, but Hawkman and Hawkgirl have had a kid, which leaves little to the imagination. Then there’s the other side of the debate, which holds that mentor-sidekick relationships are stand-ins for other kinds of family relationships—usually those between older and younger siblings, or sometimes between parent and child. Of course, that brings us back to what kind of family would expose their kids to Dr. Doom.

But as I look at my favorite sidekicks, I find that they also address one of the fundamental, uncomfortable truths about life—that as much as we want to shield children from the nasty bits sidekicks encounter, it’s not always going to work out.

Take Bucky Barnes, created during World War II as a sidekick to the patriotic hero Captain America. Even before Ed Brubaker’s magnificent retcon, Bucky was the kind of sidekick you worried about—a teenager with a machine gun who followed the grown-up heroes around like a puppy. But as Brubaker had one character point out, “We both know he’s not the only sixteen-year-old in this man’s Army.” Bucky came into being during a world war where it wasn’t really possible to conceal violence from most kids. As an orphaned Army brat maturing out of the Great Depression, he didn’t have a lot of options in life, and fighting the Nazis was probably the least destructive use of his time and energy. God knows there were teenagers in resistance movements across Europe; why should America be excluded? In extreme situations, sometimes this kind of character represents the “least bad” option. If you can’t stop the war, and you can’t protect the kid, a responsible guardian might well decide he’s better off prepared than not.

And even when there isn’t a war on, sometimes sidekickdom seems the best possible fate for some kids. I have a soft spot for the Silver Age version of the Flash, a police scientist named Barry Allen who was struck by lightning, doused with some unspecified chemicals, and supercharged to fight talking gorillas and mad scientists. A few years after his debut, his writers introduced Wally West, the nephew of Barry’s girlfriend (whom he later married, making Wally Barry’s nephew, too), and the kid accidentally got the same treatment. Were I writing the Flash, I would probably have to point out that if you can’t protect the kid from freak lab accidents, it’s only responsible to teach him how to deal with their results before his adolescence gets even more miserable and crazy-making. Wally West as a juvenile delinquent is not a pleasant thought, so bully for Uncle Barry.

Okay, smart girl, I hear you saying, so what about your sidekicks? You’ve said about a dozen times that Trevor was adopted and raised by a superhero, but he doesn’t have any powers, and there’s nothing in your writing to suggest there’s a threat on the horizon on the scale of Nazi Germany. So what could possibly justify Trevor’s guardian in putting a kid in mortal danger? And who let this psycho adopt a child, anyway?

Well, that brings me to my third raison d’etre for sidekicks … the one that worries me, and therefore interests me, most.

In Masks, Trevor is an orphan—his parents killed in a car accident on the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago when Trevor is six. Because his only living blood relation is a grandfather in Ohio with advanced Alzheimer’s, Trevor is adopted by his godfather, a longtime family friend and seemingly stable bachelor identified only by his first name, Jude. (I haven’t yet decided whether Trevor’s last name, Grey, will be his birth name, his adoptive name, or an alias he has assumed in his years on the road.) Jude didn’t see adopting Trevor as a perfect solution, but rather as the only way to keep a six-year-old kid out of a horrific foster-care system. Trevor represents a huge complication to Jude’s career as a masked vigilante, but as he adjusts to the life of a single father, he manages to keep Trevor out of that part of his world.

But Trevor is a badly traumatized little boy, and well aware that Jude is all that stands between him and some very unpleasant social workers. He quickly figures out Jude’s secret and blackmails him with it, threatening to tell the authorities about Jude’s alter ego … unless Jude takes him on as a sidekick. Jude grudgingly accepts, and trains the kid for four years before he finally runs out of excuses and lets him tag along, in secret, on missions.

Jude takes Trevor on as a sidekick because he has to, and because in a weird way it brings him closer to this child who has been forced unexpectedly into his life. But I’m more interested in Trevor’s motivation, which is much more basic. As I said, Jude is, effectively, Trevor’s only family … and he’s jumping out of windows and getting shot at every night. As a child, Trevor is terrified of losing Jude, and appoints himself a sidekick as much to bodyguard his adoptive father as out of any thirst for adventure or love of justice. It’s a side of Trevor’s personality that presents itself over and over again in Masks, this burning desire to protect the few people he loves. Irrational? You bet. But love makes people irrational. Being four feet tall doesn’t excuse you from wanting desperately to keep your loved ones alive.

So when Trevor allows Rae into his carefully guarded personal circle, he quickly finds himself willing to go to remarkable lengths to protect her, too. By the end of the novel, he’s willing to go to his death if it means she gets to live … which gets rather complicated as she’s busily trying to sacrifice herself for him. (The fight between them over this is one of my favorite scenes in the book.)

And that’s what makes sidekicks make sense to me. They’re a little crazy, by definition … but there are things out there that make people crazy. War makes people crazy. Freak accidents make people crazy. Love makes people crazy. And what’s fiction for, if not exploring the crazy-making corners of the world? If all I had to do to keep my loved ones safe was put on a stupid outfit and run around in the dark, I’d have a costume hanging in my closet as fast as I could sew it.

Tom Smith had it right in his song “Sidekick”:

"When the villain has us where he wants us in the end,
I’ll do something stupid against which he must defend,
Leaving him wide open for a shot from my best friend;
I’m the hero’s sidekick, or so I pretend."

Besides, who wouldn’t take a chance to drive the Batmobile?

Friday, March 5, 2010

How to be a bad influence

Well, this is embarrassing.

A friend has asked me to come speak at an afterschool reading program for disadvantaged kids next week. (She tells me I’m famous enough to impress the kids, even if I don’t have a book in bookstores. I hadn’t realized kids were so easily impressed.) I’m supposed to bring one of my heavily marked-up manuscripts to show off so that they can learn about how good writers revise their work. I have also offered to bring bookmarks to give to the kids, because they pay more attention when bribes are involved.

And typically, my mouth has written a check my brain can’t cash. My snarky sense of humor is definitely getting the better of me, as you can see from my most recent attempt at bookmark design.

The bookmarks are supposed to be cool-looking and PG-rated, tops, with something on them about the importance of reading. These kids are a little below my target market for Masks, since they read at something like a third-grade level (not my third-grade level, a normal third-grade level), so the bookmarks needn’t have much to do with the content of the novel, as long as there’s nothing in them that would cause parents to storm the school with pitchforks and torches.

So I’m now officially taking suggestions for bookmark slogans, using any piece of artwork that’s been posted to this page. Winner gets an advance look at “Motion Capture.” Contest ends Wednesday, March 10.

I’ll be over in the corner, trying to get my snark under control.