Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Read a banned book! Or, why I love to teach "Mein Kampf".

This week is Banned Books Week, which I think is one of the more awesome things the American Library Association does. For those of you who haven’t noticed, I have very little tolerance for censorship, except in obvious and carefully limited forms (translation: if you make my three-year-old niece watch an R-rated movie, I will hurt you, but I fully support your right to make and watch that movie if you so choose).

I grew up in an … interesting reading environment. My parents were extremely permissive; they allowed me to read anything I liked as long as I didn’t repeat any bad words I learned or have nightmares about what I read (well, I think they were okay with nightmares as long as I didn’t wake them up in the process). However, I went to private religious schools from preschool through twelfth grade, and various teachers, principals, and other authorities would periodically try to ban something in order to protect the students’ delicate sensibilities. Often the ban was religious in nature; sometimes it was just because a lot of parents complained.

Without fail, whenever a teacher prohibited something, I would track down a copy and at least read the cover blurb. If it sounded interesting, I’d read the book. (I wasn’t quite so short of things to do that I would read a banned book that sounded boring just because it was banned. But being banned did make it less boring, of course …) I learned a lot that way. First and foremost, I learned that banned books can be just as dull as the regular kind. But I also learned that banning books because they conflict with your beliefs is not only stupid, but dangerous as well. If a mere novel can shake your faith in something, you probably shouldn’t believe that something. And if your beliefs are so fragile that they shatter under the pressure of a few words on a page, then there’s no use cherry-picking your reading material—you shouldn’t be reading at all! If you’re that easily swayed, leave the grown-up books to the grown-ups.

Reading banned books taught me that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a lot of racist language in it, but also quite a few interesting things to say about what it means to be human, and what it means to be civilized. By age 13, I probably knew more about rape than anyone else in my class despite not being a rape victim myself, and I definitely knew more about sex tourism and the international trafficking of children, thanks to things I read that my teachers would have taken away if I hadn’t hidden them below my desk. (It really freaked out a family friend, visiting from Thailand, who was trying to find a diplomatic way to explain to a junior-high girl what went on in Bangkok.) Banned and suspect books taught me about war, and love, and laughter, and the persistence of the human spirit. They also taught me dirty puns and enough folklore and mythology to get me into the subject on my own time, resulting in a folklore library that threatens to take over a section of my bookcase.

And they taught me what I believed. Sometimes they agreed with me, or I with them, and sometimes we got into the mental equivalent of screaming, hair-pulling fights, but there’s nothing like being alone with a book that disagrees with you to make you think about why you hold the convictions you do. I learned that facts can’t hurt you, at least not any more than lies can, and they can be powerful weapons in the service of truth.

All of which brings me to my single favorite lesson to teach, in any classroom, ever. Tell me I get to teach this one today and I will be happy all week.

My favorite book to teach is Mein Kampf.

Talk about a hot-button book! Just showing the cover gets a reaction from students. As soon as they notice it’s by Adolf Hitler, the questions come out. What kind of class is this? Am I some kind of crypto-Nazi? Do their parents know they’re reading this? Should their parents know they’re reading this?

I give them a section to read, a passage usually titled “On Nation and Race.” And I challenge the students to find the flaws in the author’s reasoning, if they can.

They do, of course. It’s not hard. Mein Kampf is literally a textbook example of fallacious logic—in fact, it was the textbook example of fallacious logic in my favorite rhetoric manual, which is where I got the idea. It’s one non sequitur after another, with a bit of hasty generalization and a few straw men thrown in for good measure. Once you actually read the thing, you almost want to laugh when you think that the author of this pathetic claptrap held a nation in its thrall. (Almost—it doesn’t make the Holocaust any less horrible.)

But that, of course, is the point. Most students have been told all their lives that Hitler was one of the great villains of the twentieth century, a sorcerer of words, a gifted writer and orator who could ensnare the mind and soul with only a few syllables. Most of the students I work with are genuinely afraid that the book will turn them into Nazis. But reading that selection shows them Der Fuhrer for who he really was—a pathetic loon. Students walk out of that class feeling invincible. They have slain the dragon with the sword of reason, and all they had to do was sit down and read the damn book!

So while I support the literary equivalent of warning labels—let’s not hand I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to, say, a six-year-old, no matter how precocious—I am emphatically against the banning of books. Even the bad ones have something to teach us … and often it’s something the good ones can’t.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Vote for the MASKS fan art contest!

Okay, all the submissions are in, and here they are:

A) T-shirt on "Breaking Free" statue by Marton Varo, July 1990. Located in Brea, CA, USA. Submitted for the fan-art contest by Shelley Dawson Hendershot.

B) Part of the public art piece, "Water Power" by J. Stweard Johnson, Jr. located in Brea, California, USA. Submitted for the fan-art contest by Shelley Dawson Hendershot.

C) Part of the public art piece, "Water Power" by J. Stweard Johnson, Jr. located in Brea, California, USA. Submitted for the fan-art contest by Shelley Dawson Hendershot.

D) Untitled Fan Art - Fort Worth, Texas, USA, May 2010. Shelley Dawson Hendershot writes: “OK, I don't know what ‘normal’ people would do with them, but I am sure Rae and Trevor could find a use for something sharp and pointy and mean looking.”

E) Untitled MASKS art piece by Amber Peters featuring the Masked Rider, Rae, the coyote, the Hollywood sign, and what looks like Griffith Observatory.

F) MASKS video titled “Run Towards the Screaming” by Shelley Dawson Hendershot, viewable here.

G) Untitled MASKS video by John Konecsni, viewable here.

Polls close tomorrow at midnight. Please vote in comments on this blog entry. You may vote as many times as you like, and you may vote for yourself … but only one entry can win (sorry, Shelley)!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

All the MASKS stories so far, in one convenient place.

Here are the three short stories I’ve published so far in the Masks universe. You can download them through Scribd if you like, or just read them here. While most of the action in Masks obviously takes place in the books, side stories like these give me a chance to develop my characters and world in a shorter format … and they give you a chance to see what those characters and that world are like before the book actually comes out.

Yes, longtime readers, I know that I have technically published four stories—but I’m not counting “The Curtain” as strictly canonical because I’ve changed some stuff in the plot and characters since then. (For one thing, we now have a completely different story on how Trevor first saw Rae …)

And yes, VERY longtime readers, I know that I published about a hundred short stories about these characters between 1998 and 2005. I’m not counting them, either … until I decide I am.

The first story in the cycle, “Motion Capture”, features Rae and Trevor doing their thing in their native habitats. Specifically, Rae gets in trouble with her school’s mean girls and then gets in a supervillain’s face, and Trevor tries to do the right thing and gets duct-taped to a wall and very nearly lobotomized.

Motion Capture

The second story, “Zephyr Street,” takes place after “Motion Capture” and features Rae solving the murder of one of the dozens of masks killed in the superhero purge a decade back. The case takes her to a sunny little neighborhood with a big, dark secret …

Zephyr Street

And the most recent story, “The Buddy System,” features Trevor shortly after he arrives in Los Angeles after the events of “Motion Capture” as he tries to evade his pursuers and protect a little boy who’s wiggled into the wrong place at the wrong time ….

The Buddy System

Monday, September 20, 2010

Real-life heroes

I spent the weekend helping Nicole Le with her prep work for the upcoming trailer project. (Note for the newbies: Nicole is a friend from high school who volunteers her artwork to help make Masks look good because I can’t just post the whole book online. I pay her in fast food, usually tacos or Flame Broiler bowls, and the negotiations are … interesting.) She’s gotten heavily into painting of late, and picked up a few ideas from an Alex Ross artbook she found in the local library. Ross does a lot of superhero paintings and works heavily from photographs, and because a) Nicole’s camera doesn’t work and b) I have, from time to time, worked as a news photographer and/or videographer, she asked me to help her out with the technical side.

We didn’t have a live model for Trevor—basically, we didn’t know any guys of the right build and facial cast who were (and this is critical) short enough to pass for Trevor—so there was some pulling out of photos from old yearbooks and the like. But for Rae, we had a real live human being—Carolyn Kabelitz, younger sister of Amber Peters, one of my best friends and (in my humble opinion) the finest living American coloratura.

We didn’t have an actual Peregrine costume lying around for Carolyn (how crazy so you think I am?), so we improvised with an old hooded tunic/shirt I made a few years ago when I was testing how a Peregrine-style tunic would hold up in hot weather. (So, that crazy … and for the record, I walked around in it all day at a theme park in July, and became neither overheated nor sunburned—take that, spandex monkeys!) Carolyn’s slimmer than I am, so we took it in at the sides, hiked the sleeves a bit, and adjusted the hood so she looked more like a superhero and less like a Nazgul. And then we took some pictures.

It was … odd.

I’ve known Carolyn for more than a decade, since she was tagging along after her big sister and sitting in on our anime DVD-a-thons. I’ve lived with Rae in my head for about as long, but hadn’t really put the two of them together until my artists began asking me for visual reference on Rae. My early drafts of the book didn’t describe her until the third chapter or so (an oversight that has now been corrected, although Rae’s view of herself and what Trevor sees when he looks at her later are slightly, and significantly, different). I had never considered her physical appearance particularly important, perhaps because she doesn’t think it’s important, and goes out of her way to disguise it. Rae, in my head, was a voice. But artists need a face. So I grabbed the nearest brunette of the right build and got to work.

At first, I was just looking through my viewfinder at Carolyn and trying to get her to strike whatever poses Nicole had sketched out in her thumbnail roughs. I focused on lighting and position, getting the folds in the cloth to stand out clearly so Nicole could see them when she used the photos as reference later. Carolyn giggled and mugged between takes—she is naturally cheerful, much more so than Rae, and takes a staggering amount of joy in life. I yelled out random words to try to get her to make whatever face Nicole said she needed, and generally tried to make the real person line up with the imaginary one.

But then—briefly at first, then more and more regularly—I began seeing flashes of somebody else when I lined up my shots. Something in Carolyn’s eyes as she glanced up at the camera, the curve of her mouth as she looked down to adjust her costume, the ruffle of her hair in the breeze. For heartbeats at a time, I could almost see Rae standing there. I could see little bits of my character coming through. Carolyn’s been a Masks reader for years, and while she hasn’t read the current draft, she has a pretty good sense of what Rae’s like. Yet I’m fairly certain she wasn’t trying to act between shots. She was just finding the little bits of Rae that were already in her … bits that probably went into the character when I had to design an indomitable teenage girl who enjoyed yanking supervillains’ chains.

Makes me wonder how many people I know went into the people I made …

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Masks Primer, Part Two: Why I'm Doing This

In a weird way, the story of how Masks came to be written is almost as interesting (at least to me) as the story that made it onto the page.

I began writing Masks as an experiment. Like Rae, I didn’t have many friends in school at age fourteen—I was a fairly bright girl with dark hair from the wrong side of the economic tracks, and the girls in my school tended toward blonde hair, family money, and pretending to be dumb, at least in public. Add to that an attitude problem that caused my dad to refer to me (affectionately) as “Cuisinart-mouth”, and I was not going to win any popularity contests. About the only kids who would talk to me were the nerds, which worked out well because we liked the same books, comics, and movies. And whenever they ran up against a nasty comic-book cliffhanger—Superman dying of kryptonite poisoning, Spider-Man dangling by a frayed web above a piranha tank—I would write them stories that solved the crisis du jour and wrapped up the story a month early. It was fun for me, and fun for them.

Then somebody suggested I write comic books for a living.

Now, there were very few women reading or writing comics at the time, so I was a little worried about trying to crack that particular glass ceiling. And besides, what if I got there and found out I couldn’t actually write about the same characters every month? I decided to try a little test, without telling anybody. I took a spiral notebook out of a cupboard and sat down to create my own fictional universe. Rae was the first character to come flying out of my pen—young, scared, and scrappy as hell. She lied about her age and fought bad guys twice her size. And I wrote about her every month, in the first person, as if the notebook were her diary. (In fact, it gave one of the popular girls quite a shock when she found the notebook in my backpack and read it, thinking it was my diary! She looked at me funny for the rest of the year.) I got pretty good at making up adventures, and I enjoyed exploring Rae as a person—figuring out what made her tick.

Then, nine months into my experiment, someone took my notebook.

I was a freshman in high school at this point, just turned fifteen. A pretty sixteen-year-old sophomore flounced up to me as I was writing in the notebook, asked me what I was doing, and took the book right out of my hands. She walked off with it. I watched her go, helpless and terrified. Everybody in school liked her, so picking a fight with her to get my notebook back would probably get me killed. Losing the notebook felt like someone had ripped my arm off.

Then, three days later, the girl came back. She pushed the notebook back into my hands and ordered me to finish the story I’d been writing when she “borrowed” it. I did. She liked it. I wrote another story. She liked that, too. Other kids began asking to borrow the notebook. I wrote more stories. The notebook’s cover fell off from being read too much. I duct-taped it back together and began typing up each chapter as I wrote it, stuffing copies into the lockers of my “subscribers”. Suddenly I had friends, people who got to know me through my stories and decided I was their kind of person. I started getting fan mail from my own classmates. One of the nerds from junior high photocopied a chapter and distributed it to his entire track team at another high school. The subscription list got too long to deal with on paper, so I started an e-mail subscription service. Then a website. Some of my readers I never even met—they emailed me through other readers, begging to be added. The oldest reader was a man in his eighties; the youngest was a twelve-year-old girl.

Some of the characters began taking on a life of their own at this point. Trevor was supposed to be a one-off character, a crazy ex-sidekick who tried to kill Rae in his first appearance and then got tossed off a roof. Except when I sat down to write the climax of that first story, I found I felt too sorry for the guy to kill him off. He just wouldn’t leave me alone. I let him live, and the next thing I knew he was elbowing his way into other stories, working through some of his issues and becoming quite the heroic figure. He even fell in love with Rae, which I swear wasn’t my idea (although it did get me more angry fan letters than almost anything else I ever wrote—it seems the fanbase was rooting for her to end up with the pretty boy, not the bad boy who happened to be an inch shorter than she was. Come on! He got a growth spurt eventually!)

The best part was, many of the earliest readers became my closest friends. That sophomore who took my notebook? I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and we still hang out about once a week. In fact, of the five people I consider my best friends in the world, four of them met me through Masks.

I wrote Masks, putting out a new story every two to four weeks, right through high school and most of my college years. I was still doing it for the exercise, and because people seemed to enjoy it. I had no plans to become a professional writer, or publish my work anywhere outside my little website. And then I got a very interesting call from my scholarship foundation.

I was attending the University of Southern California on an academic scholarship that basically paid my tuition. (I’m one of those people who test well … and yes, I agree that it’s not fair.) I was preparing to graduate summa cum laude with a journalism degree—just as the bottom was falling out of the journalism business—when the folks who were paying my fees informed me that they were prepared to pay for a master’s degree, as well. They had just one condition: I had to find a graduate program that would take me by the beginning of the fall semester.

I think we had this conversation in March or April. I remember weighing the pluses and minuses. Plus: free master’s degree, probably my only chance to get one. Minus: pretty much any program worth its salt had long since closed its fall admissions. I decided to roll the dice anyway. I took the required tests in about a week, without studying, and aced them (see, I told you I test well). I decided that if I was going to spend two years studying just one subject, it was going to be something I loved, and there was only one thing I loved enough for that—writing. I discovered that, luckily for me, USC’s Master of Professional Writing program had a rolling admissions policy that would admit students at any time of year; even in April, I could start classes as early as that summer. I just had to submit adequate test scores and grades (no problem there) and a sample of my writing that proved I was talented enough to belong in the program.

Yeah, you can see where this is going.

Masks was where I’d done my best work, learned all the important lessons, honed my skills to their sharpest. I pulled out three of my finest chapters, polished them up, and sent them off. To my profound surprise, I soon got a phone call telling me I was in.

I was even more surprised when I got into my first writing workshop and discovered who else was in the program. I was sitting next to poets and playwrights and novelists who did things like read Russian literature for fun, sometimes in the original Russian. There were people there who wanted to win Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, and whose writing was good enough to put them in the running. With my frayed jeans and my backpack full of comic books, I couldn’t have been more out of place. I have no idea how the admissions committee looked at my three stories about superheroes and decided I belonged in this crowd. Maybe it was April Fool’s Day or something.

But I was, and am, extremely stubborn. I don’t mind failing as long as I fail while doing my absolute best. I paid close attention in every class and took copious notes. I made friends with everyone who’d let me (that pretty sophomore had taught me how). I tried my best to help my classmates improve their writing, and asked questions whenever I got the chance. And whenever I had to turn in my own work, I sweated blood over it. Occasionally, though, I’d just run out of time or ideas, and I’d turn in another superhero adventure. I was good at them, and I loved writing them. A few of my classmates liked them. Most people just found them confusing.

In order to earn a master’s degree, I had to write a 200-page book of publishable quality. I submitted my proposals to several professors—three or four ideas that I could turn into novels. Most of my work had some sci-fi or fantasy angle to it, but I kept the ideas as straightforward as possible. But every professor I asked for advice had the same question: “Why don’t you just write more about your superheroes?”

“Because you don’t like them,” I said. “Nobody here likes them. You don’t read comic books. You don’t watch superhero movies. You don’t like superheroes.”

And the answer, whispered or muttered under the breath, was always the same: “I like yours.”

So I wrote the book based on my stories, surprised a few people with what I changed and what I didn’t, and got my degree. About a year after graduation, I got a literary agent (someone who can submit a manuscript to the major publishers—they don’t take submissions from just anybody). We’re now talking to publishers. It’s going rather well, I think, though I can’t post everything that happens on this blog because my agent will probably hunt me down and stab me with a letter opener.

And that’s where you guys come in. I started this blog, and the pages on Facebook and MySpace, in order to drum up support for Masks, to prove to the world that this weird little superhero story that won me the best friends I’ve ever had and won over an entire graduate program full of people who didn’t like comic books might just appeal to the rest of the world, too. That’s why I run contests and give stuff away and post free short stories. I’m trying to show everyone how amazing this little universe of mine really is, and invite them to come live in it with me. And the more people I invite in, the more people follow them. The more noise you guys make, the easier it gets to put Masks out there for everyone.

Because, you see, none of this was my idea, really. I didn’t mean for anyone else to read the notebook. I didn’t think stories about superheroes would get me into grad school. I didn’t plan to write Masks as my thesis. But people kept finding me, and reading the stories, and bugging me for more. And I kept writing them, because it was fun for them and fun for me. Writing is still my very favorite thing to do, even the painful parts, and if I didn’t have an audience I would probably still be filling up notebooks for my own amusement somewhere. But because I do have an audience, I want to give them (you!) the best experience possible. I want to make you laugh and cry and fall in love. I want to tell stories that change people’s lives. I want to bless you, the readers I’ve met and the readers I haven’t, as much as you have blessed me.

Masks has given me the best friends ever and the best job in the world. I can’t wait to see what it will give you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A MASKS Primer, Part One: What If?

We’ve had a bunch of new folk join the Facebook page of late (hi, Mr. Olson’s minions!), so I thought I’d take a detour this month and blog, in one convenient place, everything you need to know about Masks and how it came to be.

Masks is my first novel (at least, my first novel likely to be published). It’s based on a series of stories I began writing when I was fourteen years old (more on that tomorrow). It began with a question: what would it take to make me—a nerdy, emotionally scarred teenage girl who didn’t even have a driver’s license, let alone powers—a superhero? And after some thought, I came to a surprising conclusion.

All it would take … is one good reason.

Masks is about that reason. It’s about what takes people who may seem ordinary, or even weak or silly or cowardly, and makes them heroes. No matter what anyone else says or does. Everyone’s reason is different—but every reason matters.

In Masks, being a superhero is a career. There are superheroes in every major city on Earth … except Los Angeles (my hometown, as it happens). Here, an unknown enemy mysteriously killed off all the heroes about ten years ago, and almost no new good guys moved in to replace them. That’s where one of our two main characters comes in. Rae Masterson is fighting the good fight as Peregrine, a wisecracking heroine with an arsenal of tools and weapons that once belonged to the city’s dead “masks”. Rae is brave, intelligent, and passionate about doing the right thing. She’s also sixteen years old and completely devoid of superpowers. In any other city, someone in a cape would have picked her up by the scruff of her neck and called her parents, but L.A. is so short of heroes that even the cops look the other way. Someone has to stand up to the mad scientists and super-terrorists and monsters from the sewers, and Peregrine is all they’ve got.

Rae pours everything she has into her life as an amateur mask. She is estranged from her parents, who travel a lot and don’t know what their daughter does at night. She has no friends at school, where she makes fantastic grades (she’s scary smart) but also wears all black and a lot of goth makeup, so there are a lot of freaky rumors about her. As far as Rae is concerned, her real life begins when the sun goes down. As Rae, she’s lonely and cut off from other people and angry all the time; as Peregrine, she’s happy and free and has a purpose in life that includes kicking people in the face and playing practical jokes on supervillains.

Rae’s story begins when she sneaks out of school to stop a bank robbery. On her way to the scene of the crime, she passes a boy her age panhandling on the sidewalk. She doesn’t have any money on her, so she pulls the sandwich out of her lunch and hands it to the boy as she runs past him. Moments later, she’s changing into her costume in an alley when the boy walks around the corner and sees her!

That boy, of course, is our other main character. Trevor grew up in Chicago, where he has been training to be a mask since he was six years old. Trevor was adopted and raised as a superhero’s sidekick, so he’s already a master detective and a brilliant hand-to-hand fighter. He probably would have taken over for his mentor someday—except that his mentor disappeared, leaving behind a pool of blood and a whole lot of trouble for Trevor. Trevor has searched all over the world for the man he considers his father, and his last lead has brought him to Los Angeles, where he hopes to solve the mystery once and for all. There’s just one problem—something bad happened to Trevor during his odyssey, something so horrible he’s afraid to talk about it. The other superheroes have turned against him, and he’s on the run from some scary guys he refers to as “the foxhounds.” If he doesn’t find his dad soon, he’ll have a lot more to worry about than weird girls giving him sandwiches.

Trevor deliberately bumps into Rae in the alley, and he steals the key to her secret hideout so he can search it for clues. Rae, meanwhile, goes to stop that bank robbery—only to be upstaged by Cobalt, a well-known armored superhero who’s mysteriously in town and has no patience for superhero wannabes. Even when Rae turns the tables on Captain Catastrophe, the bad guy robbing the bank, and gets him to surrender, Cobalt’s still not happy. In fact, he pulls a gun and tries to shoot Captain Catastrophe in the face!

Now, Rae is just old-fashioned enough to believe good guys don’t shoot bad guys after the bad guys have surrendered. She tricks Cobalt into missing and saves Catastrophe’s life, but now Cobalt wants to silence her before she can tattle on him. Rae is forced to run for her life, and it doesn’t look like she’s going to make it—until she falls, wounded and slipping in and out of consciousness, on the doorstep of her hideout. With Cobalt right behind her. Just as Trevor’s coming out the door.

Trevor is a lot of things, but he still wants very badly to be a hero, and that means he can’t leave the nice girl to die. Trevor uses his long-neglected hero training to fight Cobalt off, and he and Rae are safe—but only until Cobalt finds a way to get them back. If they want to live to see next week, they have to find out why Cobalt wanted Captain Catastrophe dead, and stop him. And if they want to do that, they have to trust each other, which is the single hardest thing in the world for either one of them to do. Especially when they’re both keeping big secrets.

As Rae and Trevor work together, they learn a lot about the world of superheroes and how it works. They go to a bar full of supervillains and make some unexpected friends (and enemies). They cross paths with heroes, villains, and monsters—and one person who’s all three. They meet John Lawrence, a big glowing Boy Scout of a superhero who definitely has his own agenda. And they come to the attention of supernatural forces—a spectral coyote that has stalked Rae since her childhood, and a ghostly horseman called the Masked Rider whose appearance is thought to be a death omen for masks … and who is suddenly very interested in Trevor.

And in spite of all odds—and very much against their wills—Rae and Trevor find themselves drawing closer and closer to each other. Before the story is over, they’ll find out what that reason I mentioned really means—what really makes a hero. And they’ll find out whether saving the day is worth the price … when the price is losing the person you love.

Whew! That’s a lot of story! But worth it, I think you’ll agree. Tomorrow, I’ll post a second entry about how Masks went from scribbles in a secret notebook to a finished novel on its way to publication. And I’ll include a links to some free short stories and some other cool stuff. See you then!

Friday, September 10, 2010

New short story: "The Buddy System"

The story is here! It's up! And it features previously unreleased art by Nicole Le! (She tells me it's a study for a painting, based on a picture I took of the Olympic Boulevard bridge ... somewhere in there this story developed.)

Remember, you can still enter the fan-art and recruitment contests--they run until September 25!

And now, I'm going to go take the rest of my birthday off. Turning off the cell phone ... NOW!
The Buddy System

Monday, September 6, 2010


I’ve had my nine-month old nephew and my three-year-old niece running around my life for the last week and a half, and I’ve come to an amusing conclusion.

There is absolutely no such thing as a normal kid.

There just isn’t. It’s a myth. Biologically average, maybe, exhibiting standard behavioral markers for their age and whatnot …

But normal, if it ever existed, is dead. We’re all weirdos. At some point it gets drummed out of us, if we’re unlucky.

Case in point? My niece is wearing the coyote on her head because she saw me doing it. Then she decided “he likes being up there”.

By the way, if you still want to win one to put on YOUR head, see the previous entry.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Meet (and win) the Pocket Coyote!

I finally finished making the Pocket Coyote last night. He and his twin will be the prizes in the TWO current contests! That's right, there's two! Did you forget?

You can enter the fan art contest by submitting any kind of fan art--drawings, photos, videos, recordings, whatever. Post the art, or a link to it, on the wall of the Masks Facebook page (there's a link in the column to the right of this blog entry). As long as the art is 1) about Masks; 2) non-obscene (PG-13, please!); and 3) not a violation of anybody else's copyright (no cameos by Superman or the X-Men), it's eligible. The winner of the fan art contest will be decided by a fan vote on this blog ... and yes, you can vote for yourself. Although I'm sure you'd like your friends to vote for you, too ...

Which brings me to the fan recruitment contest! You can win a Pocket Coyote by inviting your friends to "like" Masks on Facebook. When your friends add the page, post their names on the page's Wall (or have them post their names, along with a note saying you invited them). Whoever recruits the most people this way (and isn't Shelley, who won last time) gets a Pocket Coyote!

The Pocket Coyote is 100% machine washable and handmade by the author. No two Pocket Coyotes are exactly alike. If you want to give him to a kid, he's probably safe for any kid that can handle a beanie baby (although he might offer the kid a faustian bargain when you're not looking, so watch for telltale signs of suddenly achieving a superheroic destiny). If you want to keep him for yourself, he can probably be trained to do something, but I have no idea what.

Why am I doing all this? The usual explanation applies--the more fans I get on Facebook, the more traffic I get on this blog, and the more attention I get generally, the better the chance that Masks will eventually get published. So if you want to read the book, please help me make some noise, Pocket Coyote or no. I'll probably post the Pocket Coyote pattern eventually, too, for those of you who are into that.

Oh, and did I mention ...

... he fits in a pocket!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Easy targets, but not the targets you think ...

Some days my job is just too easy.

A Maryland state senator named Nancy J. King is running for reelection on the pro-education ballot, promising to reduce cutbacks in education funding. There’s nothing wrong with the principle—indeed, I would happily pay higher taxes if it meant teachers got, say, a pay raise of 50% or more, effective immediately—but the advertisements King has sent out to make her point are ridiculous. Actually, they’re worse than ridiculous, but I don’t say words like those I’d need on a blog that kids may read. You can see the ad in question above, and choose your own vocabulary. If King had anything to do with the content of her message—that laying off teachers will reduce our beloved children to reading (shudder!) comic books—she should have a dunce cap permanently installed over her seat in the Maryland State Senate.

King is playing to the stereotype of comic books as low-quality entertainment for the barely literate, and of comic-book readers as grunting troglodytes unable to get through a 15-minute thriller without pictures to help them along. The idea, of course, is to frighten parents with the specter of their children reading comics, because everyone knows comic books are the mark of an illiterate person.

Fish in a barrel!

I know that most of the people who read this blog are at least open to the idea that comic books have some artistic, literary, and cultural value. You are, after all, reading a blog that frequently focuses on a novel about superheroes, and has a regular feature called “Comic Books You Should Be Reading.” But as I observed in my entry about Dungeons & Dragons a few months ago, I can’t afford to assume that everyone reading this thing is as nerdy as I am, or able to refute the scare tactics sometimes employed against nerd culture. So I’d like to clear up a common misconception about the world of four-color funnies, and the basis of King’s frankly slanderous ad—that comic books are inferior to “real” books, a mark of the functionally illiterate, and that reading them is a sign of a failure on the part of education.

Let’s start by defining our terms here. “Real” books, for the purposes of this argument, are usually defined as full-length novels or nonfiction works with relatively few pictures. They are, ideally, what we want our kids to end up reading. Comic books, by contrast, are traditionally magazines containing up to 32 pages of illustrated stories with words in narration boxes and speech and thought balloons, plus some advertisements. If you’re being generous, you might also include in this category graphic novels and trade collections of comic books—same format, just between better covers, longer and with few to no ads. The two significant differences between comics and “real” books, then, are length (either in page count or in word count) and quantity and quality of illustrations. “Real” books are better because they’re longer and don’t have (as many) pictures. Right?

But right away there’s a problem with these assumptions. Take the idea that “real” books are better because they’re longer. Many acclaimed works of literature are far shorter than the average comic book, and nobody complains that they’re inferior because of their length. The average Shakespearean sonnet has fewer words than an issue of X-Men and is considerably shorter than, say, The Da Vinci Code, but no one claims that Dan Brown is a better author than William Shakespeare. (At least nobody who isn’t soon beaten about the head by an English teacher.) Shorter too are a lot of flash-fiction works and many short stories, and yet nobody tries to ban them from English curricula. Clearly length alone does not disqualify a work of art from consideration.

True enough, you may say, but what about the pictures? Surely pictures are a crutch, there to make up for deficiencies in the text? Well, if images themselves are inherently lowbrow, you’d better toss out the Mona Lisa, stat. Even the combination of words and pictures does not necessarily reduce the value of a work; one need only look at illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells to see how words and images can together create breathtaking works of beauty, greater than the sum of their parts. Comic-book legend Stan Lee used to ask comics’ high-minded detractors whether they’d be interested in a comic book if Shakespeare wrote the words and Leonardo da Vinci drew the pictures. No intellectually honest person could say no to that one, and after that the argument basically boils down to complaints about the quality of particular words and the pictures. And with Pulitzer Prize winners writing comics and painters like Alex Ross illustrating them, this excuse is on shaky ground.

All right, I hear Ms. King saying, maybe comic books aren’t so bad for adults, but do we really want our children reading them? Well, yes, actually. We do. Comic books have an excellent track record in improving the skills of so-called reluctant readers—children and some adults who read below the level normal for their age and educational attainment, and who usually avoid reading by choice. The bright colors, striking visuals, and exciting stories can break through to readers who struggle with language barriers, learning disabilities, and other challenges, and often help them improve their skills. I began working with one reluctant reader two years ago, when reading and writing simple sentences was a struggle for him. Comic books and superhero-style book series like Percy Jackson and the Olympians finally got him into reading; now he’s on the honor roll and talking about going to law school when he’s older. I’m particularly fond of the story about the teacher being interviewed about comics who observed, “I can tell which kids read comics. They’re the ones who not only know how to spell ‘invulnerable,’ they can tell you what it means.” In fact, Maryland itself has an educational comic-book initiative in partnership with Diamond, the major comic-book distributor in the U.S. Oops.

So no, Ms. King, I can’t say I’d be upset to find any school-age child of mine reading comics, unless he or she were neglecting schoolwork to do so (and depending on the schoolwork, I might still be in favor). I can think of worse fates for kids than developing visual imagination and expanding vocabulary. By all means let’s support our teachers—they do a thankless job, for inadequate compensation, and suffer unnecessarily for their desire to help children learn—but let’s not take the kids’ comics away.

We wouldn’t want them to resort to reading your campaign ads, after all.