Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wardrobe check, or yet another way I overthink my work …

When you tell people you’re writing a novel about superheroes, there are certain elements of the conversation you can predict. For example, someone will say, “What, you mean like [name of copyrighted superhero]?” and be completely wrong. (Hint: if I were writing a superhero who was just like an existing, copyrighted superhero, I would be in a lot of legal trouble, and also probably bored out of my skull.) Also, the conversation will involve at least one question about when the movie’s getting made. (For the record, there is no movie—at least for now. But I’m open to doing lunch.) And finally, whoever I’m talking to will try to make at least one lame joke about spandex.


I think I’m a bit more sensitive than most people on the subject of superhero costumes. Long before I discovered comic books, I was sewing my own clothes and accessories on my mom’s sewing machine, so I have some idea of what’s involved in some of those fiddly designs. Because my family didn’t make nearly as much money as most of our neighbors, and because I went to school with a bunch of kids from the rich end of town, my mother worried a bit that I would start begging her for the same designer fashions my classmates wore. She couldn’t afford fancy stuff like that, but fabric was cheap and so she compensated by sewing me any garment I really, really wanted, no matter how questionable my choice of color or design. And once our tastes in clothes really started to diverge (i.e., I discovered black), I began sewing whatever she wouldn’t make for me.

So I know my way around a fabric store. I know how to design and sew clothing that will survive my daily life, which never runs out of ways to be weird. And so I approach the question of how superheroes might dress with, shall we say, a slightly different perspective.

First and foremost, superhero costumes must achieve the basic functions of normal clothing—cover certain parts of the body, protect the wearer from the elements, and perform specific work-related tasks like carrying tools and conforming to a dress code. For superheroes, we can add simultaneously concealing their real identities—Rae doesn’t want anyone seeing who’s under her mask, and Trevor is ferociously paranoid about security cameras—and clearly associating them with their mask identities. (That’s one reason Rae’s Peregrine insignia appears on the back of her tunic as well as at her hip—so police officers and anyone else involved in a crisis don’t shoot her by mistake, even if they’re not looking at her face-on.)

But of course, being a superhero puts some extraordinary demands on clothing. If you have powers, you’d better have a costume that can withstand their use or you’re going to have a real problem every time the Human Torch bursts into flames—or at least, whenever he puts the fire out again. And your costume had better be able to withstand the kind of powers you encounter in others, too—the last thing you need is Mr. Freeze freezing Batman’s utility belt off his body. And then there are the everyday hazards heroes encounter as a matter of course. If your enemies shoot at you, Kevlar is going to be your friend. If you’re not invulnerable, you’ll probably want eye protection; superhero battles produce shrapnel, and an eye injury can be career-ending in the mask world. Freedom of movement is an issue all by itself—if your costume won’t let you throw a spinning back kick, you might die from the lack of one.

But the one thing you do NOT want to put a superhero in, at least in my view, is spandex.

Yes, the skintight costume is easy to draw. That’s the major reason it’s become the industry standard (well, that and it looked futuristic back when Joe Shuster stole it from Alex Raymond and put it on Superman in 1938). But if you look at the people who wear skintight clothing in real life, the only ones who don’t make us all cringe are dancers and Olympic athletes. And you’ll note that the specialized clothing they wear is designed for use under specific, controlled conditions, like a dance performance or a carefully regulated sporting event.

Try finding controlled conditions in a superhero fight! Superheroes need something that will still perform the functions of superhero clothing after Nitro the Human Bomb has gone off!

So here’s how the rules of superhero wardrobe apply to my two lead characters.

Rae Masterson. My first and overriding principle in designing Rae’s costume was that it would have to be something a sixteen-year-old girl could quietly keep with her at school and change into at a moment’s notice. I don’t know about you, but I did not have the self-confidence at sixteen to suddenly strip naked where other people might see me, so a real quick-change was out of the question. She also couldn’t wear the costume under her school clothes, unless her costume looked remarkably like underwear—someone would see it when she changed for P.E. So Rae’s costume had to go over her street clothes. Since she’d have to hide the costume in her backpack, I settled on lightweight fabric that wouldn’t take up too much space. That also meant that Rae wouldn’t be adding too many layers—we couldn’t have our superheroine dropping from heat exhaustion, could we? Unfortunately, light fabric also rips easily, so I focused on a simple design that Rae could replicate easily when her costume got trashed. (That’s also why she wears jeans under the tunic, by the way—they’re harder to destroy!) Tunics and hoods are relatively easy to sew, and making it loose-fitting allowed freedom of movement while simultaneously saving Rae sewing time she’d otherwise spend on fine-tuning the fit. A bulky, pocket-heavy costume would carry Rae’s toolkit, but wouldn’t squish down in her backpack, so I settled for a sash she could tuck things into. I took the overall look of the costume from a couple of different manga characters—an area Rae might look to for inspiration, since there are plenty of anime cosplayers in California. Finally, the gloves were inspired by the heavy muleskin gloves I wore as a kid to pick berries in my grandmother’s patch. They were the toughest hand protection I’d ever come across, and I figured Rae could find something similar without too much trouble. The brooch I figure she made in her high school’s metal shop—and yes, some but not all of the edges have been sharpened.

Trevor Gray. My big idea in designing Trevor’s costume was that he’d been around superheroes all his life, so he wasn’t married to the spandex idea, and because of some of the shadier parts of his past, he places a premium on disappearing in a hurry when he has to. Trevor got the eye-protection memo that Rae missed, too, so his mask includes shatterproof goggles. The major feature here, though, is Trevor’s idea of the quick-change. The mask can be kept in one of the jacket’s many pockets and the jacket itself reverses to a more normal, civilian-style garment, allowing him to switch identities in seconds. (Fun fact: as a native Chicagoan far from home, Trevor had the logo of the Chicago Cubs put on the back of his “non-super” jacket. He really is a glutton for punishment!) He’s also got access to fancier materials than Rae, so he’s got some padding and reinforcement in the mask to cut down on concussions, and the gloves are tougher than they look. Other than that, his outfit is 100% off-the-rack, allowing him to blend into the crowd at a moment’s notice. Trevor is also more concerned than Rae is about disguising his real appearance at all times—he remarks at one point in Masks that he really hates having such dark eyes and such light hair, because it makes him instantly memorable, and that’s the worst thing to be when you’re trying to be stealthy. That’s why his mask covers his hair, and why his goggle lenses are polarized to slightly alter the color of his eyes. Many people looking at him with his goggles on assume that his eyes are brown, and that’s just how he likes it. His mask is also a lot more secure than Rae’s, which is basically a bandana tied around the lower part of her face, and covers a distinctive scar near his hairline that he picked up in Chicago, as well as a break in his nose he got when someone punched him in the face in Kiev. And finally, in case anyone’s interested, Trevor wins the cargo-capacity stakes; his pockets carry a lot more tools and weapons than Rae’s sash, and he uses all of them ably.

I still think he ought to invest in a helmet, though. One of these days, to borrow a phrase, he’s going to wake up in a coma …

Monday, August 16, 2010

Two contests for the price of one! Well, actually for the price of two ...

While I’m slaving away over the second short story, I think I’ll put my wonderful readers to work. That’s right, it’s time for another contest! Or, in this case, TWO contests!

One of the most interesting aspects of running Masks as a monthly web serial back in the day was the fan art I’d get. Some of it was pretty darn cool, and some of it made me laugh, and occasionally it made me wonder what kind of medication my readers were taking, but it was always entertaining. I’ve gotten a little bit of fan art while I’ve been hyping the book, but I kind of miss the zaniness of seeing my universe through others’ eyes.

So for the next six weeks, I will be accepting fan-art submissions for the new contest. The fan art can take pretty much any form as long as it produces an image—drawing, painting, photograph, video still, whatever. The art can draw on existing Masks characters and stories, or expand the universe in some way (hint: dozens of masks died in the superhero purge ten years ago—and I’ve only named about ten of them so far!). If you’re not comfortable with a pencil, go crazy with the contents of your closet and take photos. Paint up an action figure like Guillermo did in “Zephyr Street.” Use screen captures from an MMO like Erik Johnson did for his Masks project in City of Heroes. If you're musically inclined, post a video of a song! Wacky videos are acceptable, as long as you made them yourself and you don’t mind my sticking a screen capture in the album for reference. I’m not looking for Hollywood-caliber production values here—anything that’s fun and superheroic (or supervillainous) is fine by me.

Pretty much any kind of art will do as long as a) it stays PG-13 (no profanity, nudity, sexual content, or racial slurs, please); b) it’s not going to get me in trouble with the copyright monkeys (no Superman or Dr. Horrible—but your own original character is fine); and c) people looking at it can tell it’s associated with the book somehow. Feel free to plaster the title on the image.

Submit the art to this blog or the book’s Facebook page on or before September 27—I’ll be developing an album on the page so everyone can see what gets turned in. After the submission period closes, I’ll post a link so the fans can vote to choose the best submission. Ah, democratic anarchy!

And oh, yeah, there’s a prize! The best submission wins a bloodthirsty animal sidekick with which to battle the forces of evil. That’s right, the Pocket Coyote is finally coming along … and the best fan art wins one, handmade by yours truly! Photos of it soon.

But wait! I hear you saying, “Rebekah, I have the artistic ability of a poleaxed goat. I can barely hold a crayon, let alone a needle or a camera, but I want to win a Pocket Coyote, too!” Well, never fear, because there’s a contest for you as well! We’re having another fan drive, something like the last one.

Invite your friends to Like the book’s Facebook page OR sign up to follow this blog (that’s right, if they do both it counts TWICE), and comment on the blog or the page to identify who invited whom. Whoever gets the most new fans between today and September 27 (i.e., fans that join or follow between now and then) gets a Pocket Coyote of their very own in the mail. I'll send the thing to any location the postman can find in the United States or Canada.

Unless it’s John K, who won last time. Fair’s fair.

Ready? On your mark … get set …

Monday, August 2, 2010

Less is more, or another Comic Book You Should Be Reading

I’m a freak. I’m fairly proud of it, actually, and like to broadcast the fact as a kind of truth in advertising. If you haven’t figured out I’m a freak by the time I’ve spoken for five minutes, either I am not doing my job or you are not paying attention. Dimensions of my freakishness include a penchant for chanting in dead languages, an unhealthy obsession with apples, and a habit of walking up to stray dogs in parks in the middle of the night and addressing them as “sweetheart.”

But the freakdom that seems to bother people the most is that I like to be confused.

I like movies more when I walk into them 10 or 20 minutes late. I enjoy picking up comic books in the middle of a storyline so I can try to guess what happened earlier. One of my favorite TV shows of all time was an anime series I began watching at episode 16 of 49—and I loved it most because I came in on a dramatic moment that clearly defined the conflict and yet, for the next ten episodes, none of the five main characters were identified by name, and most of them regularly lied to other characters about who they were and where they’d come from. I still have the notes I took as I tried to figure it all out, and liked the nicknames I gave four of the characters better than the names they eventually revealed.

I would rather have an interesting situation and intriguing people than a full rundown of what’s going on, and I will often shush well-meaning friends who try to clue me in. I just don’t want to know. I like the intellectual challenge of putting the pieces together, and I like having the room to imagine my own back- and side stories to a narrative. It’s a rare and delicate balance of storytelling that lets me know just enough about characters to love them and root for their success, but not enough to be tired of them before the first act break.

Seldom, if ever, does a comic book hit that sweet spot as perfectly as The Green Hornet Strikes! And as of its second issue, out last Wednesday, I am officially a fan.

Strikes! is a latecomer to the Green Hornet party, one of the last comics to be introduced this year about the various incarnations of the emerald insectoid in the build-up to the Seth Rogen movie whose trailer already makes me cringe. Whereas the other comic series have focused on the past and present of the character, to varying degrees of success—Kevin Smith’s flagship Green Hornet is a lot of flash but little substance so far, whereas Matt Wagner’s historical, noirish Green Hornet: Year One is more rewarding--The Green Hornet Strikes! delves into a possible future. But instead of relying on high-tech gadgets and Orwellian political statements, as most future incarnations of superheroes like to do, Strikes! sticks close to the characters at its heart.

And to my delight, the characters are almost all ciphers.

The Green Hornet who appears on the cover of Strikes! #1 speaks a grand total of ten words in his first appearance, and three words in a single balloon is practically a soliloquy as, driven by an unknown but clearly powerful motive, he fights his way through several floors of guards and goons to meet the villain of the piece—and then gets himself shot. Interspersed with all this is a flashback to a much earlier Green Hornet giving himself up to this same villain, and being murdered. The current Hornet’s connection to the previous one is still murky, as of the second issue, but the clues are tantalizing. We find out the dead Hornet’s name was John Reid, which connects him to the Reid family that produced both the Lone Ranger and several generations of Hornets, but we don’t know exactly where he sits on the family tree—only that he apparently lost a son, and at least one other Hornet, to his war on crime. The wounded Hornet has the blond hair, green eyes, and general facial cast of the Reid family, but so far only has a first name—Luke—that may or may not be his real one. There are fragmentary flashbacks, voices from the shadows, and a lot of tiny pieces, but no big picture yet.

There’s a driven police detective with some interesting personality twists, a conflicted police commissioner on the take, and an enigmatic woman who may be playing both sides against the middle. There’s a regretful voice from a limousine with distinctive green headlights. There’s $2.5 million that seems to vanish into the ether. And there’s mysterious, taciturn, bleeding-to-death Luke, with some very interesting resources at his command and (apparently) no clear idea of how he’s going to take this villain down—but a burning determination to try.

I freaking love this book.

I’m sure many of these mysteries will be cleared up eventually. Writer Brett Matthews has proven during his excellent run on The Lone Ranger that he knows when to keep his cards close to the vest and when to lay them on the table. But if Luke lives up to half his promise as a hero—and plays out even half the drama of the one burning eye we can see through the shattered lens of his gas mask (penciller Ariel Padilla, I’ve never heard of you but I like you a lot)—he’ll be worth following for a long time to come.

Rarely am I so happy to be so completely in the dark …

The Big Announcement (for today)

I’ll make it short and sweet:

On August 10, I will post a new FREE short story in the blog. It’ll probably be around 5,000 words, it’ll be called “Zephyr Street”, and it will take place between the events of “Motion Capture” and the beginning of Masks. It’ll be about Rae solving the murder of one of the masks who died during the purge ten years ago.

On September 10, as a birthday gift to myself, I will post a second FREE short story in the blog, also set between “Motion Capture” and Masks, of about the same length as “Zephyr Street.” It doesn’t have a title yet, but it will be about Trevor having a little adventure around the time he first arrives in Los Angeles. There will almost certainly be running and screaming.

These stories will be designed as jumping-on points for the Masks universe—I’m hoping to recruit some more readers as we head into autumn. Oh, and there will be at least one contest coming up before my birthday … haven’t decided what the prize is, though.

Now don’t ever say I never give you anything.

Oh, and there’ll be a regular blog entry sometime tonight … a comic book review …