Monday, May 30, 2011

An ebook experiment, and pimping for someone I like …

If you read this blog enough, you’ve probably figured out that I greatly enjoy the work of Michael A. Stackpole. He’s not my favorite writer in the universe, but he’s well up there. Several of his books are my favorite literary comfort foods. One of them probably saved my life once. Now he’s doing a little ebook experiment, and if you’re willing, I’d like to invite you guys to participate.

Full disclosure: I think I’ve exchanged maybe two emails with Mr. Stackpole in my life, and one of them was about a technical problem with his website. We are not personal friends, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know who I am, and he did not ask me to write or post this entry. I just like his work and am interested in the outcome of his experiment.

Mr. Stackpole is a big promoter of ebooks and electronic reading. After he was dropped by a publisher a few years ago, he went independent and began selling his work online. With the recent explosion in ebook sales, he is now on track (he says) to have his ebook work pay his mortgage and health-insurance costs by year’s end. Not too shabby. I wouldn’t mind being there someday, with ebooks or physical books—and ebooks pay the author a lot more per copy than the dead-tree kind. Recently, his electronic-only books like In Hero Years … I’m Dead have done quite nicely, and been good reads to boot.

Stackpole’s best-known for his Star Wars tie-in novels about X-wing pilots, but he’s written some nice epic fantasy, too. Swords and horses aren’t really my genre (I think my parents spoiled me by reading me J.R.R. Tolkien when I was four), and I haven’t been able to finish everything he’s written in the field, but his Talion: Revenant is probably my favorite non-Tolkien fantasy. I got it for Christmas a few  years ago, fell in love with the characters, and never looked back.

Talion: Revenant is about an orphaned boy who becomes a Justice—sort of a fantasy version of a marshal, with law-enforcement authority and the ability to pull souls from those convicted of capital offenses—and who, as an adult, is given the task of protecting the king who, long ago, slaughtered our hero’s family. The novel is written with two threads, with alternating chapters following the present-day story of the bodyguarding assignment and the times-past tale of the hero’s development as a Justice. It all ties together beautifully in the end, with a neat little twist, and the world is richly developed as a good fantasy world should be. And it doesn’t hurt that it shares a name with Revenant, the Stackpole-created superhero who inspired Masks all those years ago.

Talion: Revenant was the first novel Stackpole wrote, although not the first he published, and he says it’s the cause of one of his most frequently asked questions: “When are you going to write a sequel?” Now he’s finally named his terms on that second book, and set up an interesting little experiment.

Stackpole sells his own ebooks through his website, Talion: Revenant is available for almost every e-reader that’s out there, including Nook, iPad, Kindle, etc. And its author has announced that, because he has a hole in his schedule around January that he thinks is big enough to squeeze in another novel, he’s willing to make that novel the long-awaited Talion: Nemesis if he can sell 5,000 e-copies of the first book before then. Bought through his website, the book is $5, which is less than my mom paid for my paper copy all those years ago, and you can read the early chapters for free online to see if you like them.

Now, I have a pair of dogs in this fight. First and foremost, I want to read that sequel. I love Talion: Revenant, always have, and would be delighted to get another adventure featuring that hero and his world. I’ve already bought an EPUB copy to take with me on my little traveling netbook, which doubles as my e-reader. But Stackpole has asked fans not to go around buying multiple copies and skewing his results—he wants to gauge the level of interest in the sequel, not the obsession level of a few fans. So if I want to read that sequel, I would do well to persuade a few new readers to buy.

Second, I’m interested to see whether Stackpole can pull this off. Because Masks is now off the table for traditional publishing, I may well decide to sell it as an e-book once it finishes up as a serial. It would be nice to have a functioning business model, especially if it pays my bills while I write a second serial (and if there’s enough interest, I probably will). I’d like to see if Stackpole can make this thing work, and I’d like to see if I can pull in a few sales for him—since one day I might be pulling in a few sales for me.

I have no illusions that I have enough blog readers right now to drive 5,000 sales of a book most of you have never heard of, but if you do enjoy epic fantasy, I ask you to give the free chapters of Talion: Revenant a try. And if you like them, I ask you to gamble five bucks that you’ll like the rest of the book. Basically, I’m asking you to become a patron of the arts if you care enough to patronize them. That status and a kickass novel aren’t too bad a reward for a five-dollar investment.

You can read the free chapters of Talion: Revenant here:

Monday, May 23, 2011

What's in my name?

Recently, I’ve been reading Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerrilla Marketing in an effort to figure out how I’m going to make sure Masks reaches the greatest possible number of eyeballs once it goes live in July. I’ve also had to go to a couple of social occasions where I’ve met new people and been asked to justify my existence. In my day jobs, I am an editor and a language-arts tutor, and since nobody really wants to hear my horror stories about comma splices gone wrong, the only interesting topic in my conversational quiver has been Masks, especially since my friends hype it so enthusiastically. This often ends with me passing out bookmarks or writing down the URL of this blog, and that of my not-up-yet-but-won’t-it-be-cool website,

At which point I get asked one question, so predictably that I can actually mouth the words along with my interlocutor:

“Where’s your name on all this? I don’t see your name anywhere.”

That’s right. You don’t see my name. My name will be on the next round of bookmarks, though not my full name—I’ve decided that, at least when I publish online, I’m going to go by R.M. Hendershot. But I’m not using that as my URL, my blog handle, or anything other than a book-cover ID, really.

Now, according to everything I’m reading in Guerrilla Marketing, I need to develop a personal brand and push it consistently. The simplest brand anyone can use is their own name—you’re the only you there’s ever been, and unless you have a really common name like Tom Smith, you can probably get pretty far on that brand without having to work too hard at associating yourself with it. And “Hendershot” is not exactly a common name, so why aren’t I using it more?

There are several reasons. In no particular order:

1. I pretty much hate my surname. It’s a bit weird, and rare, supposedly because it was originally a Middle High German word for a rear-guard unit who tended to get slaughtered when the rest of the army was in retreat. The story goes that anyone still alive who’s named Hendershot is the descendant of some of the toughest SOBs the German states could produce … but that’s why there are so few of us. I mostly know it as the name that causes total strangers to ask me if I’m a Nazi. (Only after they hear my name, though—I got my looks from my Jewish great-grandmother, and the resulting cognitive dissonance among very stupid people is often quite funny.)

2. I might change my name at some point, and having it in my URL then would be a pain in the butt. I was raised in a fairly conservative, religious family, and my father, in particular, has long waxed eloquent on the evils of feminism in all its forms, presumably including this shifty business of married women keeping their maiden names. (I think it’s perfectly reasonable, but that’s another blog entry.) I am single and have no plans to marry, but it’s not like what I plan and what happens have ever been similar. In a few years, I might well have a different last name. I don’t particularly relish the idea of picking a fight with my father—or worse, my hypothetical in-laws—over that name and why one version or another is not in my URL. This may sound absurd to people who live on the Internet, where you can call yourself Piffle the Wonder Unicorn if you want, but you would not believe the arguments I get into. If my URL is no particular form of my name, that’s one argument I can avoid. (The shouting matches about the name on my book covers, of course, are another matter—but you can’t have everything.)

3. My name is unspellable, and therefore un-Googleable. My own mother misspelled my first name on my birth certificate, and I’ve met only a few people in my life who could spell it correctly on the first try, or even the third. People consistently look at my surname and read it as “Henderson.” When my father was a boy, he was sent to the principal’s office for insisting that his teacher call him by his proper last name. (They finally settled the matter by calling his father in—from the local Army base. Captain Hendershot arrived in full uniform, with his name on his chest. The shouting match was memorable.) Now imagine trying to get teenagers all over the English-speaking world to type my name correctly into Google. I’ve had friends fail to find me online even when they had my legal, correctly spelled name to plug into a search engine. I have had trouble finding me on Google, and you’d think I could spell my name if anyone could. Give me a name people can spell, and Google, and look up on Amazon. If I must publish under my given name, I’m attaching a handle people can remember.

Which brings me to my primary reason …

4. Pocket Coyote is much easier to remember than any version of my name I’ve been able to concoct. It’s constructed of two common words that most English speakers can spell within three tries—particularly if they have any familiarity with my body of work. It’s a phrase that nobody’s using, aside from sellers of tactical vests who have a “pocket” model in “coyote brown” (note to tac-vest sellers: coyotes are mostly gray). The domain name wasn’t taken, presumably because nobody in the English-speaking world is insane enough to want to put a coyote in his or her pocket, except me. I give Pocket Coyotes away as prizes, and he’s become the mascot of this blog, so he’s obviously got more charisma than I will ever have.

And besides, he’s cute!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Things You Didn’t Know You Should Know, Part 1: Playing Doctor

Pretty much for the hell of it, I’m going to start a companion series to Comic Books You Should Be Reading. I’m going to list the various unlikely subjects good writers—at least, good writers of contemporary non-literary fiction (read: fiction where stuff happens)—should be able to fake their way through. Let’s face it—unless we luck into a Kathy Reichs-like situation where we can write bestselling novels about our very favorite subject, in which we happen to be one of the world’s leading experts, most of us will have to do some research from time to time in order to write authoritatively about lives not our own.

But the problem with research for writers is that we tend to assume we know enough about most things to fake our way through it. And let’s face it, we tend to know a lot—as avid readers, we are usually autodidacts, filling our brains with useful information long before we pick up a pen. If you’re not at least a little bit of a trivia buff, you probably shouldn’t be a writer. But that doesn’t help you when you say something stupid in print and suddenly get a hundred emails from people who experience the situation you describe all the time and can tell you just how wrong you got it.

So here’s the first subject writers should know at least a little bit about: emergency medicine.

Let’s be honest—unless you’re going to write stories where nobody gets hurt, ever, or all injuries and accidents correspond exactly to events that have befallen you or your nearest and dearest, at some point a character will run up against a medical complication that requires expert help. And because nobody plans this kind of thing happening, it’s more dramatic and more realistic to have that misadventure be an emergency. And nothing you've seen on TV can be trusted. Writing an adventure story? You need to know what to do if one of your characters gets shot, stabbed, concussed, etc.—even if your characters are going to handle the situation wrongly. You need a good sense of how physical damage will affect your story, and for that you need research.

I count myself lucky in this regard—two of my best friends are former EMTs, a third is a medical assistant, and a fourth is a veterinary technician. There’s nothing like being able to call somebody up at a random time and say, “So my character was just shot in the head. What are my options if I want him to survive?” (Of course, I don’t actually have to ask this one, because one EMT has already made me lose my lunch with a graphic story about taking a call on a failed suicide who shot himself in the temple, severed both optic nerves, and lived—blind, but functional.) There is no substitute for cultivating friendships with people in the trenches. Reward them handsomely for their help, thank them lavishly in your acknowledgments, and listen to everything they have to say when they’re answering your question. You never know when a detail will turn out to be crucial.

For example, I recently wrote a scene in which one of my characters gets cut and needs stitches, but can’t go to a hospital. Instead, he must talk another character through the process of stitching him up (the injury is to his back and he can’t reach it without help). The helper character, like me, has experience with sewing—but never with sewing anything that bleeds. My vet-tech friend came to my rescue, as the only person in my immediate circle who is allowed to stitch up patients. (According to one EMT, only qualified doctors can suture human beings—but the vet tech assures me that there isn’t a lot of practical difference between stitching up a human and stitching up, say, a pig.) She brought over a block of foam with some sample cuts, as well as two different kinds of curved needle and the type of thread used for sutures. She gave me a brief demonstration and then, content with her experience of my ordinary sewing abilities, sat back to watch me try.

The first thing I learned: I might be an artist with a straight needle, but I’m a klutz with a curved one. It doesn’t help much to push on the eye of the needle, and I could never really predict where the point would go once I pushed it into the “flesh.” I was quickly glad that my character would have a local anesthetic working when he got these stitches, and I had a new respect for Victor Frankenstein—those stitches were amazingly neat, while mine looked like a parade of drunken ants.

The second thing I learned: there’s no good place to grip a curved needle. It’s all going into the flesh at some point, of course, but the real problem is that once the point is in, so much of the curve is at a bad angle for my thick fingers that I had even less control over the needle’s direction than I expected, and I dropped the thing entirely several times. I quickly decided that my character would have to use the type of suture kit that comes with the suture permanently attached to a disposable needle, because otherwise the wound would never get stitched before the anesthetic wore off.

After several minutes of determined effort, I was ready to give up, and my foam “patient” was probably glad of it: 

A few tips for aspiring writers who are looking to build their own emergency-medicine knowledge but can’t do EMT training:

1. Make friends at your local fire station. When I was a journalism student, I was assigned the first-responders beat, and got to ride around in the fire truck and do all kinds of fun stuff. It wasn’t at all difficult to befriend the local firefighters once I explained who I was and why I was bothering them, especially since most fire stations are full of guys who basically do chores and paperwork all day while they’re waiting for that bell to ring. Asking respectful questions and carefully writing everything down (ask everyone to spell their name—it convinces them that you’re going to cite your sources) will take you pretty far, and be clear at the outset that if a call comes in, you will immediately get out of the way. Finally, simple comfort food is your friend here. Firefighters often have 24-hour shifts (minimum!), and a lot of their meals are either takeout or whatever the guy on mess duty can cook. My best interviews came after I showed up with a plate of homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Best of all, firefighters are much easier to befriend than police officers, who tend to be more wary of the press, and if you do need to talk to some cops, you can do worse than come in with a glowing reference from a fire captain.

2. Read reference books. Even if they’re boring, even if you don’t understand it all, something will sink in, and it will help you when you’re talking to the experts. Nothing makes a highly knowledgeable person like you better than a question like, “Okay, I understand that tetanus sets in when a wound is exposed to certain kinds of contaminants and stuff, but exactly where do you find those contaminants? Where’s the most unlikely source of tetanus you’ve found?” The preface says that you’ve done some homework and your source is not wasting his or her time; the follow-up question reassures your source that his or her expertise is indeed needed.

3. Seek out experts online. Dr. D.P. Lyle, M.D., has written some great books on how forensics work for mystery writers, and he has a very helpful website where he takes questions. Universities are another great source of experts; some, like California State University, Fullerton, have searchable “experts guides” that let you find faculty members who specialize in your area of inquiry. They’re a great resource as long as you are flexible about when they get back to you on your questions. I once interviewed a leading expert on urban planning and didn’t realize what a big deal he was until years later, when I noticed him being cited in a lot of other reference material I read.

Finally, and this is the most important lesson I’ve learned about research for writers—never be afraid to ask a (polite) question. In general, being clueless will take you pretty far, as long as you’re nice about it. And the questions you don’t ask will be the holes in your story …

Monday, May 9, 2011


I am completely dead exhausted from Free Comic Book Day and all the rannygazoo that went with it, not to mention falling behind on my writing deadlines. So I'm posting a silly picture of the Pocket Coyote trying to help me write faster, and calling a mulligan this Monday.

But don't feel too badly. You can still read all about what I'm doing with The Serial and check out the free short story I posted for Free Comic Book Day

I will return soon with more silliness, never fear. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Free Comic Book Day story: Three Kinds of Scars

Three Kinds of Scars

Friday, May 6, 2011

Spilling the beans on The Serial, getting a seat at the lunch table ...

Once upon a time, there was a boy and there was a girl. And they met. And things went a bit wrong after that.

When I was seventeen years old, I wrote a short story called “The Hall.” It was the first story where Trevor Gray appeared, and the first story I had to publish with a warning label. In that story, Rae Masterson was running along the rooftops at night to blow off a little steam—but she was doing it in her civilian clothes, because it was too hot to wear her costume. She met a boy up there, also running, also in civilian clothing. They met, and they ran, and they danced in the way that roofrunning superheroes do. They fell in love a little, but they never exchanged names—Trevor was so quiet that Rae assumed he couldn’t speak. They met every Friday night to run.

Then the weather cooled, and Rae showed up in costume one night, and something rather unexpected happened.

Trevor freaked out. He spoke, for the first time—the word “No.” He looked at Rae with horror, and he disappeared into the dark, without an explanation.

A few days later, Trevor showed up at Rae’s school and began effectively stalking her, for reasons I won’t spill here. Suffice it to say he had a very good reason for suddenly putting her in the “bad guy” category in his mind. Their final confrontation, in which he flipped again from adversary to ally, was one of the better scenes I’d written up to that point. I had planned to have Trevor die in that story, but as we all know it didn’t work out that way, and he became Rae’s best friend and unlikely love interest. 

So why am I talking about all this, you ask? That story was written more than ten years ago, and I’ve said before that Masks is dead.

Well, it is and it isn’t.

I don’t set great store by rejection notices. As I’ve noted before, sometimes the reasons a work is rejected have nothing to do with that work—they’re personal to the individual or company doing the rejecting. And there were three major criticisms leveled against Masks when it was rejected, only two of which had anything to do with the manuscript, and the third of which led me to The Serial.

The first criticism, as I stated before, was that the draft was Frankensteined together—which only makes sense after so many cooks getting at the broth. There’s a simple way to solve that one—toss the Frankensteined draft.

The second criticism was that the whole thing was just too weird. I take this one with a grain of salt, since I’ve been weird my whole life and it hasn’t done me any harm, and readers seem to like most of my weird. But I know how to tone down a bit of the weirdness that wasn’t really working, and the rest easily falls into the category of “everyone thinks this is weird until they read it, and then they’re having it tattooed on them.”

The third criticism was that I didn’t have enough “name recognition.” Translation: I’m not famous enough to be worth anybody’s time. This seems to be the grown-up version of the popular kids in middle school who won’t let you sit at their lunch table because you’re not cool enough. Most of the people making this complaint didn’t seem to have actually read my manuscript, but submitting to a publisher by definition means trying to impress people who haven’t read your stuff yet and don’t see why they should.

Now, Masks has been rejected by pretty much every publisher there is. Nobody’s going to want to see it ever again, thank you very much, no matter how much I improve it. I’m not cool enough for the lunch table. There’s some interest in my new project (for now imaginatively code-named The Novel), but I fully expect to encounter at least the third objection on that, too. Organic writing I can do, weirdness I can do better, but I’m never going to be cool enough for that lunch table. I was born uncool.

But when I was fourteen and someone told me I wasn’t cool enough for the lunch table, I didn’t mope around. I went off and started writing superhero stories, and made friends with people who liked reading them, and by the time I graduated from high school I had a posse bigger than the popular kids’ club, and a few popular kids were whining to be let in.

Nobody is ever going to want to publish Masks. I’m a weirdo and I’ll never be cool enough for the lunch table. My complete lack of cool will likely be an obstacle to anything else I try to publish, ever.

So the way I see it—why not have a little fun?

Over the last three months, I went back to the world of Masks and threw out pretty much everything except Rae and Trevor and the basic idea of superheroes. And I started all over, with one goal in mind—maximum fun. It got me thinking about that rooftop, and how the scene stuck in my head for years, and how I was never really happy with the way Trevor reacted to that secret being revealed, and how it fascinated me that the relationship worked only as long as neither one of my protagonists knew the other’s true name. And I pulled a few pieces out of my head, and fitted them together, and eventually came up with a story I liked much better.

Rae feels younger in this draft, more inexperienced, but just as smart and no less determined to be a hero. Trevor has a few more shadows in his past, but he has a clear goal and will do some frightening things to achieve it. And they meet on the rooftop, and they dance, and they fall in love. And then things go wrong, and they have to fix them if they’re going to make this work—and oh, yeah, save the world, too.

Starting sometime this summer—in late July, I hope; I’d like to get the first chapter up before Comic-Con—you will be able to read their story, a chapter a week, for free. It will be delightful. It will be fun. It will be weird. And it will be worth the wait. (There will also be new art every week, but that’s a story for later.)

With luck, you’ll like it enough to tell your friends. That’s what I’m hoping for—lots and lots of people reading the serial on their computers and their mobile phones and their iPads and whatall else, without paying a dime. Subscriptions will be free. The archive will be free. That free part is important. I started a small cult, once. I’d like to start a big one now.

Because, you see, I’m not going to be submitting Masks to any publishers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s off the table. I own the copyright, and I declare it to be my personal playground—our playground, starting this summer. If there’s enough support by the time the serial finishes up, I’ll write the second “season” I’ve already got kicking around in the back of my head. That, too, will be free.

I would still like to publish books through a conventional publisher. I would like to be a grown-up author with grown-up books to her credit. I would like to work with editors and put out books that you guys can go into a bookstore and buy; none of that has changed. I’m still working on The Novel, and when it’s finished I plan to submit it. And I plan to write more books after that, each better than the last, and keep submitting them, until something happens.

But when the popular kids look at The Novel say that it’s very nice but I’m not cool enough to sit at their lunch table, I’d like to be able to point at my posse and say, “Really? You don’t want to be the person selling all these people something they desperately want to buy?”

Tomorrow I will put out a free story that I wrote before Masks was rejected, but that still works pretty well in the new continuity because it involves alternate universes anyway. There will be more tidbits in this blog, and links to the serial website when I get it up and running. Masks isn’t going anywhere. Pocket Coyote isn’t going anywhere. Welcome to the posse. Welcome to the cult.

Who’s up for storming that lunch table?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dear Superman: Please grow up (again)

[Note: Yes, I know Osama bin Laden is dead. This blog was written earlier. And frankly, my colleague John Konecsni at A Pius Man has more to say about it, now that he's done swearing under his breath that he's out a good villain. For now, my view is this: bin Laden is dead. Confirm the corpse’s identity, treat it with the respect he never gave us, and then act like the civilized nation we sometimes remember we are. He’s dead. Justice is served, as much as it will ever be. Now on to helping the living.]

As pretty much everyone on the internet has heard of late, the latest news item from the world of Superman comics has the Man of Steel renouncing his U.S. citizenship. The reasons aren’t as complicated as you might think: Superman shows up to peacefully support anti-government protesters in Tehran, the Iranian government interprets his presence as an act of war on the part of the United States, and Supes renounces his citizenship because he’s tired of having his actions linked to U.S. policies (and vice versa) and because “truth, justice and the American way [isn’t] enough anymore.” He is now a stateless, global superhero.

Leaving aside some of the more practical questions (since he presumably doesn’t have a Kryptonian passport, can he now enter any country on Earth without being a literal illegal alien?), I can’t help but be annoyed by this.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t really care whether Superman’s a U.S. citizen or not. I support the right of any human being (or humanoid, or reasonable facsimile) to renounce their citizenship as they choose, and to take citizenship in any country that will have them. I think it’s a bloody stupid idea sometimes, but I support the right to be harmlessly stupid because, well, if humans can’t be stupid then they pretty much can’t do anything. But from a storytelling perspective, I think this move is a bad one.

Within about ten minutes of hearing the news, I had pretty much distilled my reaction down to one sentence: Did Superman leave his competence somewhere, and can we give it back to him?

There has been a string of stories in DC Comics over the last decade or so that have steadily chipped away at the image of Superman as a hero who knows what he’s doing. Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had Superman either consciously allowing members of the Justice League to magically  lobotomize supervillains or just being too dumb to figure out what was going on and stop them. Succeeding storylines had Superman being mind-controlled by the villain Maxwell Lord, forcing Wonder Woman to kill Lord in order to save Supes; Superman taking a year off to get his head straight after screwing too many things up; and Superman taking a year-long walking journey across America to “reconnect” with the people he nominally protects, after failing to cure cancer (?!).

Most of these storylines, including the citizenship arc, appear to begin with Superman making a horrifying mistake of one kind or another, and then spend the next four to twelve issues dealing with his agonized guilt over the error in an attempt to seem “relevant” to mere-mortal readers. Once in a while, this kind of story is interesting, but after six or seven straight years of this stuff, I’m beginning to wonder if Superman hasn’t been replaced by Bizarro, given better grammar, and left to wreak havoc on our world. Seriously, it seems like the guy can’t do anything right. And it bugs me.

Here is what bothers me most: Superman has been a superhero for pretty much his entire adult life. Most DC Comics editors hew to the policy that, in any given story, he’s been flying around in tights for “about ten years” in comics time. Think about that. Do cops and firefighters ten years into their careers suddenly start making rookie mistakes? Is the ten-year mark the point where we normally expect human performance to drop off? No. In most species that learn and remember what they learn, we expect individuals to get better over time at things they do a lot, unless their physical or mental capacities degrade. Musicians get better as they train, unless they suffer damage to their minds or bodies. Athletes improve until age or injuries catch up with them. We expect poets and artists to produce better and better work, or at least plateau, unless something stops them. And nothing, as far as we can tell, has stopped Superman. So unless he suddenly turns out to have Kryptonian Alzheimer’s or something, it makes no sense for him to suddenly make a string of colossally stupid mistakes. He’s Superman. He’s been Superman for a while now. If nothing else, he should have basic coping skills for being Superman.

I realize I’m in danger of a hypocrisy charge here, what with my own John Lawrence being a Superman analog and, as longtime readers of my stories about him know, not exactly perfect himself. (For one thing, he’s a powers snob, looking down on Rae and Trevor because they can’t fly or punch through walls.) But the fact is, John Lawrence only works as a character because Superman is a competent superhero. Superman’s recent string of screwups makes John Lawrence look pretty good, and that annoys me. Because while I gleefully deconstruct Superman from time to time with old JL, I can do that only because I first put a real Superman analog into the Masks universe.

Believe it or not, there is a long history of superheroics in the Masks-verse, going back at least as far as the Roman Empire. (Really. Why do you think my main character has a superhero name in Latin?) The era of tights-and-flights superheroism really got going in the early 20th century, and by the time the 1920s rolled around, the Black Mask was doing his thing in L.A. in imitation of earlier mysterymen in New York. By the 1930s, he was picking up superhero allies, including Eagle Eye, and a bunch of super-types were active in World War II and after. And while there were many well-known heroes in the U.S. and Europe, and later all over the world, in the succeeding decades, there was one who really defined the archetype. Before him, people argued about whether costumed heroes were a good idea, and they did it pretty much whenever a well-known hero botched something. But after Ascalon, there was always a quick end to that argument, because everyone agreed that he was the real deal.

Art by Nicole Le
On the sliding scale of comic-book time, Ascalon first appeared in the world of Masks about forty or fifty years before Rae and Trevor met. He was young then—late teens, early twenties—and not altogether sure of himself, but he was powerful and idealistic and passionate about doing the right thing. He had the standard superhero power package, what Aaron Williams refers to as the FISS set: flight, invulnerability, speed, and strength. This was because he was also an energy projector—he could produce blasts of violet energy, sometimes from his eyes but more often from his hands and occasionally, when things got really bad, in something like a full-body explosion. He used the energy to power a fast metabolism, to perform feats of strength, and to make himself bulletproof and fly. Most interestingly, it enabled him to “sidestep” or move from one place to another without crossing the intervening space. (The best guess is that this is how he ended up on Earth as a child, but where he started from he doesn’t know.) When he wasn’t too tired, he could take people with him, eventually enabling him to transport an entire superhero team to and from a battle.

Ascalon was never very open about his origins, mostly because he didn’t remember them. His earliest memories are of being about three years old, in an orphanage in Colorado, and being hungry—his alien metabolism couldn’t digest most Earth foods. He was in significant danger of starving to death until he met an eight-year-old prodigy who figured out one of the few foods he could eat: apples. The strange boy was soon adopted by a childless local couple who happened to have an apple orchard, and he grew up with your basic wholesome values. He also met that prodigy again a few years later, when the young man was embarking on his own career as a cape-and-gadgets hero named Sinister. The two became close friends, worked a lot of cases together, and eventually formed the nucleus of a superhero team with a third hero I’ll get around to describing at some point. Pretty much everything you expect a big-name superhero to do, Ascalon did—battling alien invasions and killer robots, leading a team, intervening in humanitarian crises—and Sinister was right there, backing him up whenever he didn’t have his own disasters to deal with.

And then Ascalon disappeared. About twenty years before Rae and Trevor met for the first time, about ten years before something wiped out all the superheroes in Los Angeles, Ascalon simply vanished. Other superheroes stepped up to deal with his usual disasters, and some searched for him—but even Sinister couldn’t find any trace. Some people said he’d finally found his homeworld, and gone back to it; some said his archenemy had finally gotten the better of him; some said he’d just decided it was time to retire. Either way, he was gone. And the world got a lot darker without him.

Art by Derrick Fleece
So when a young orphan boy discovered he could fly, and project golden energy fields, there was only one thought in his mind. He put on a cape and tights and set out to be the next Ascalon. It’s what makes the basic concept of the superhero work, even in stories where superheroes screw up—the notion that somewhere out there is a superhero who does get it right, at least most of the time.

So until I get enough Masks stories written to really establish Ascalon, it would be nice if Superman would grow the heck up and get back to saving the world.