Tuesday, August 30, 2011

For those who came in late ... hi!

I have a confession to make. I love walking in on the middle of things.

When I was sixteen, I randomly started watching the anime Gundam Wing at episode 15 of 49. Why is that important? Because for about ten episodes after episode 15, none of the five main characters are addressed by name. Really. None. They’re all undercover, or using false names, or in prison and identified by numbers. Somewhere around here I still have the notebook where I kept my notes as I tried to figure out what on earth was going on. I gave the characters nicknames—I forget what I called the first pilot, but it was Sparky for the peppy pilot of the second giant robot, Iceman for the ever-calm pilot of the third, Junior for the pilot of the fourth (who seemed to be about eight years old), and Bruce for the token Chinese pilot, who mostly seemed to run around kung-fu-ing people to death. I had lots of fun trying to figure out the characters’ backstories and whatall. I think I enjoyed speculating more than I enjoyed the actual anime. Actually, I know I did.

Similarly, I enjoy walking in on the middle of good comic-book storylines and trying to figure out what’s going on. It adds an element of challenge to an already entertaining story, and I can get a good mental workout trying to reverse-engineer all the plot threads. Double the entertainment value for money.

I will actually stop people from trying to catch me up on the plot of a show I’m joining mid-season. I have been known to pick up volume four of a five-book series and become absolutely obsessed with it. I’ll walk into a movie 20 minutes late, too, although these days that means I still catch most of the trailers.

There are several reasons to do this, of course. For one, it demands less responsibility on my part—I don’t have to show up on time, track down the previous volumes, read the show’s Wikipedia page, etc. For another, it makes the story more challenging, as I said, and if the characters are engaging, I’m motivated to come up with intriguing back stories. Mostly, though, I like having the room to imagine. Half the time, my fanciful beginnings are more interesting than the real thing, and they often inspire stories of my own.

Why do I mention this? Because I’m about to give all your friends the chance to do just this.

Tonight at midnight Pacific time, Chapter 7 of Masks goes live on Pocket Coyote. If you’ve been following along with the free chapters I’ve been posting (and if you haven’t—why not? See above re: free), you know that Rae and Trevor need a forensic laboratory to analyze some evidence, and Rae thinks she knows one she can sneak into. Three guesses where that is—that’s right, she’s going back to superhero school, and this time she’s getting into trouble.

Titled “The Gremlin,” the chapter includes most of the elements I look for in a walk-in point. It’s got strong characterization, a nice balance of action and thought, and a few funny bits mixed in with a mystery. If your friends have been putting off reading Masks because they don’t want to bother with the early chapters, or because they think I’m going to start charging for access, this is their wake-up call.

But do me one favor. If you decide to give my characters funny nicknames, please comment on the chapter so I can enjoy the nicknames too!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 2

Trevor is the original problem child.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I created Trevor about ten years ago as a one-off character for a series of short stories I was writing called Masks. While nominally about a teenage girl learning to be a superhero without any powers, Masks was really more of an ensemble piece that gave me a chance to explore corners of popular fiction that interested me, especially those that related to superhero comics. Trevor appeared in the second story in the series, which tells you how excited I was to get to his concept.

Basically, Trevor boiled down to my seventeen-year-old self wondering what would happen if you took one of the really good sidekicks—one of the especially talented Robins, say—and whacked him upside the head with an extra trauma. I think I originally phrased the story to myself as something like, “Batman disappeared, Robin doesn’t know what happened to him … and things went very wrong when he went looking.” The story was mostly supposed to be a poke at the way kid sidekicks never seem to end happily, and a backhanded way to establish that the superheroic world of Masks was much darker and more character-driven than the plotty popcorn stuff I’d written previously. (Why did I feel the need to establish this? Because I already had a small but loyal readership who wrote me angry letters … more on them later.)

So why is a one-off character taking a co-leading role in this novel? For two reasons: first, because I felt sorry for him all those years ago, and second, because he rapidly became the most interesting character in the cast and has stayed in the top three ever since.

In the original story, Trevor was supposed to die a bloody but possibly redemptive death after trying to kill Rae (yes, really—I did say dark!). But even as a teenager, I knew my characters weren’t completely under my control, and I felt bad about doing all those horrible things to Trevor when he was fundamentally a good kid who just wanted to be a hero. I find that my stories work best when I treat my characters fairly (although my definition of fair may not overlap with yours), so I relented and let him live, giving him a chance to turn his life around and become less of a psycho. He repaid my kindness by taking over half the series, falling in love with my protagonist, and proving himself so consistently fascinating that I didn’t dare write him out. It took ten issues of the monthly serial for my readers to fall in love with Trevor the way I had, but when they did, most of them fell hard. Trevor was the second character in Masks to develop a hardcore fan base, and his relationship with Rae—good, bad, and head-scratchingly strange—became the heartbeat of the story. I’ve probably written this novel five or six different ways now, but I always come back to Rae and Trevor, because nothing else is anywhere near as interesting.

This version of Masks that you see on your screen is about the second-darkest version of the story I’ve ever written. (There was a version written for adults once that included considerably more violence and a bit more sex, but that was scrapped when my agent pointed out that I was writing for teenagers, and maybe I shouldn’t try quite so hard to write like Grant Morrison. I never liked Grant Morrison anyway.) Trevor’s journey is a mirror of Rae’s; she starts out as a happy-go-lucky, sunshiney girl, and plunges deep into the darkness inherent in being an adult superhero, while Trevor starts out in the darkest place he’s ever been and slowly claws his way back toward the light. (Interestingly, they end up standing in more or less the same place.) That meant I had to start in the nastiest part of the snake pit that stands in for Trevor’s brain in the beginning of the story. And that meant rolling his two worst traumas into the nightmare sequence you see here.

I’ve had sleep problems ever since I was a kid, and I rolled a few elements of my own recurring nightmares into Trevor’s and tried to maintain weird dream logic throughout, but this is mostly his psyche coming out to play. You will find out more details of these two scenes—the burning train and the blood on the carpet—as the novel goes on, but I hope they’ve whetted your appetite.

Then we come to Trevor and Moon. Moon’s one of those characters that I never expected to do much with, but he turned out to have a nice little arc that even I can’t always predict. I threw him in originally because I needed a kid with powers that physically disfigured him, and I had some dim idea that werewolves were trendy. Moon didn’t end up trendy, though, which pleases me mightily. I like how Moon brings out the pragmatist in Trevor, and shows that Trevor doesn’t really want to hurt anybody but is in a place where he feels it’s necessary. Most of all I love that Moon is the single character most likely to mouth off to Trevor, even though Trevor can hurt him terribly for it and has a really short fuse right now. Moon is always Moon, and that’s why I love him.

Incidentally, half my beta readers wrote notes in my margins asking if Moon and/or Golem might be gay. I had different ideas about that at different points in the writing process, and finally gave up trying to read the political winds and just let the characters make up their own minds. Their answer surprised me a bit, but it came from them more than it came from me, so I'm happy with it. I won’t spoil the answer for you, except to say that Golem directly addresses the question in a later chapter. Until then, you’re welcome to speculate.

This chapter’s soundtrack is “Cold Feelings” by Social Distortion. I have a little bit of a soft spot for Social D; I divided my childhood between their hometown and the birthplace of the Beach Boys, which might explain how I turned out this way. Anyway, a friend burned me a mix CD in college with “Cold Feelings” marked as the soundtrack to a nightmare scene she was writing, and the tune has scored my characters’ nightmares ever since. Yeah, I’m a thief. But you knew that. Enjoy. 

NEXT: Rae Masterson’s school days, the real-life Soleil and Tammy, and a little Hoobastank.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Comic Books You Should Be Reading: Daredevil (FINALLY!)

You have no idea how happy I am to finally be putting Daredevil into this feature.
As longtime readers may recall, I’m a little biased on the subject of Marvel Comics’ blind ninja acrobat lawyer superhero. He’s arguably my favorite comic-book character, and a big influence on the way I write superhero fiction—both in my emphasis on non-visual description (you guys may have noticed all the sounds, smells, textures and tastes in Masks) and in my love of low-powered roofrunners. But dearly as I love ol’ Hornhead, the comic has pretty much sucked for the last couple of years.

That’s over now.

For those of you who sensibly sat out most of the character’s history (or, worse, sat through that godawful Ben Affleck movie), Daredevil is known to his friends as Matt Murdock, a lawyer blinded in an accident by radioactive waste that took his sight and gave him hyperactive senses, including a “radar” that basically lets him see things in outline. He can hear heartbeats, track people by scent, read print by brushing his fingertips over the ink—but reading road signs from a distance is a real problem, and I’ve never figured out how he can stand to punch people. Anyway, he was trained by a mysterious blind ninja-master guy, and he kicks bad-guy butt, mostly mobsters and penny-ante supervillains. He’s one of the smarter street-level heroes, and pals with Spider-Man, so I’ve always enjoyed his combination of analytical ability and dry humor … at least, when he’s done right.

The last couple of story arcs, however, have left something to be desired. After Ed Brubaker (already one of my favorites for his work on Captain America) set Matt up as the leader of the Hand, the evil ninjas he’s been fighting since the 1980s, writer Andy Diggle pretty much ran the character into the ground by having him be possessed by a ninja demon (?!) that made him stab his worst enemy to death and build an evil ninja citadel in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen. In the ensuing, mostly boring Shadowland storyline, Daredevil finally hit rock bottom and died to purge the demon, then came back from the dead and went on a six-issue walkabout that didn’t really seem to do much except rip off a neat Frank Miller story from back in the day. When Marvel announced they were relaunching Daredevil in his own title with a new issue #1, I was skeptical to say the least.

Consider my skepticism waived.

The new Daredevil, written by Mark Waid (of too many award-winning credits to list here, but the highlights include Kingdom Come, The Flash, and Irredeemable) and drawn by Paolo Rivera, has a grace and a delicacy to it that the title hasn’t had for years. From the light-footed way Daredevil touches down on a rooftop to his masterful job of snarking his way into and then arguing his way out of a fight, there’s nothing clunky in this book. No heavy-handed attempts to tie the story intricately into the crossover du jour, just quick action, quick wit, and occasional grace notes that remind you how effortless a good comic should seem.

In the new series, Daredevil’s back in New York and, in a classic setup, doing a little independent snooping on a case being tried by his law firm. Meanwhile he’s running afoul of bizarre villains and the news media, who remember the rumors linking the blind lawyer and the superhero and aren’t going to let either one of them off the hook. But Matt is dancing through his complicated life now, not slogging, and the temptation to join in is irresistible.

In the second issue, now on the stands, Matt lands on the bad side of Captain America, who’s out to arrest him for crimes he committed while possessed. Rivera’s clean lines and deep shadows, reminiscent of Steve Rude, are a perfect complement for Waid’s deft writing (no surprise in this case, since he wrote a definitive run on Cap back in the 1990s), and in both words and pictures, the story never stops moving—in this scene in particular.

It’s the small touches that make the scene work. Early in the inevitable superhero fight, Cap hurls his shield at Daredevil’s head; Daredevil’s dodge is just a shade too slow and he loses a horn off his cowl, so he gamely flicks his truncheon so accurately that it snips a wing off the big guy’s own mask. In a nice bit of symmetry, the shield and truncheon both rebound off pieces of the landscape—and each hero ends up holding the other’s weapon. Daredevil promptly jumps off the roof with the shield, confident that Cap will have to chase him to get it back. The next sequence is part dance, part fight, part comedy routine, and part courtroom drama as Daredevil summons his inner lawyer and argues the star-spangled superhero into calling off the dogs for a couple of days. At last, he hands the shield back—no hard feelings—saying, “That thing is beautifully balanced, by the way. It’s like touching a Stradivarius. High point of my evening.”

And my first thought was: Yes. That is exactly the right reaction. Not too snarky, not too serious—we’re back to the courtroom wizard now, the trained boxer who took up being a ninja and never makes a move, or a noise, he doesn’t want to. He’s a grownup, mostly, but he has a sense of humor about it. He gets along with the other good guys even when they’re trying to take his head off, and he respects beauty even when it’s being misused. When was the last time you saw that in a mainstream comic book? Let alone in a throwaway line?

The rest of the issue deepens the mystery surrounding Matt’s client and introduces some promisingly weird bad guys—I have a theory about them, but I won’t spoil anything here—and generally wraps up a rollicking superhero adventure. If you want a good taste of straight-up superheroic fun, and a chance to see the kind of story that drew me into the four-color funnies in the first place, you could do a lot worse than Daredevil.

Although I kind of want to see him fight Captain America again. So pretty … so poignant … and I really want the line, “I’m pulling out the Bucky defense” to enter the Marvel lexicon.

Mmm, comics …

Friday, August 19, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 1

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of the commentary track for Masks! In these probably-weekly posts, I'll dissect all the hard work I do to entertain you over on PocketCoyote, offer a few tips for the aspiring writers out there, and generally make an idiot of myself. Which is exactly what commentary tracks are for, right? Right!

So here's how the commentary starts:
Beginnings are hard.

I have a bit of an obsession with openings. I compulsively re-read the chapter in Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing that deals with first words, first sentences, first paragraphs. A beloved high-school drama teacher used to tell me that, “As long as you have an opening and an ending, you have a show.” While that’s not strictly true of novels—people may sit through the dull middle of a play but they won’t slog through the dull middle of a novel—I have always tried to abide by his advice and provide bang-up beginnings and endings.

The first chapter of Masks came from several places. First off, I knew I had to introduce the character of Rae, and I'd have to go back to my original concept for the character. Waaaaayyy back when I started writing her as a pimply fourteen-year-old (long story), she was my idea of what it would take for a kid who didn't even have her driver's license, let alone superpowers, to become a hero. I had her inherit a costume and a name, and I gave her a bit of a secret in her past that would motivate her to jump off rooftops and punch Captain Catastrophe in the face. And while I've written her at many other stages of her career, I knew that this time I had to take her right back to that beginning--a scrappy teenage girl, making things up as she went along, zip-tying the bad guys to street signs. (Though she does have a driver's license this time, mostly because I had to cut the character who taught her to drive illegally. Ah, well, you can't have everything.)

The big goal with Rae in this chapter was to make her someone you guys could root for. I knew from experience that Trevor would provide all the angst and darkness and mystery and bad-boy appeal I could ever want, but it would be Rae’s job to carry the audience’s heart until Trevor softened up a little. In Masks, both Trevor and Rae become heroes—but only Rae starts out as someone you might actually want to talk to on the bus.

So I played up her nerves in this chapter, and borrowed a beloved moment from an earlier draft—the bit with the safety on the death ray, which my beta readers kept pointing out as the moment that won them over to Rae’s side. The moment also introduces the closest thing Rae has to a superpower—her ability to get into other people’s minds and understand how they think. She’s not a mind-reader or a shape-shifter, but she is uncannily good with people, mostly by instinct. Watch that brain of hers--it will get her into trouble before this story is through.

Second, I had to include the Masked Rider. This chapter introduces the Stetson-wearing angel of death himself! The Rider started out, years ago, as my homage to cowboy heroes in the comic books, and the fact that they all but died out with the arrival of the Silver Age superheroes in the early 1960s. Considering their roots in the pulps, and the dime novels before them, it made sense that death, to a superhero, might look like a masked horseman. He came in here because I needed to get rid of a lot of superheroes so that no one would wonder why the real heroes weren't stopping Rae from doing her thing. But the Rider’s a lot more than a simple omen of doom. Masks plays a lot with mythology, and you’ll see how he fits into our little modern myth. I needed his appearance to be brief and scary, and so I wrote it like I imagined most of his appearances would go from an outsider's point of view—he’s in and out, we never see everything he’s doing, but he scares the bejeezus out of everyone while he’s around.

Finally, I needed “The Wannabe” to be fun. I wanted a rollicking superhero adventure, a coming-of-age story for a very unusual girl, and just a bit of a scare for people who thought they knew how the tale was going to go. I knew there was plenty of darkness and trouble on the horizon in Chapter 2, so this chapter is all about what it’s like to be a superhero—the good parts and the bad, but mostly the good. There’s lots of running and tumbling and kicking people in the knee and making jokes at the expense of the bad guy, and a few moments of wonder mixed in with the terror. I really do think that’s what being a superhero would be like—exhausting, exhilarating, mysterious, and occasionally necessitating a change of underwear.

For this chapter, as for each chapter in the book, I have selected a song that connects to the content or the characters. (This may end up being the strangest Pandora playlist ever.) Since this chapter focused so closely on a rookie superhero, I’ve chosen “What If?”, from the filker Tom Smith’s excellent album The Last Hero on Earth.  Years ago, I wrote a Masks screenplay that used “What If?” as a superhero theme song, and I believe it still applies. Enjoy, and do check out the rest of the album if you like it—if you buy through Bandcamp, the money goes to Mr. Smith, not Steve Jobs.

Next time: Chapter 2, Trevor’s demons, and a little Social D.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Things You Didn’t Know You Should Know, Part 2: Going Out of Bounds

When I was about ten years old, I ran up to my mother in a department store and said, “Guess what! I found out what color the ink in those security tags is! It’s yellow!”

My mother, of course, was horrified, and I could practically see the visions of ruined (and very expensive) garments dancing in her eyes. She knew the tags I meant—the bulky plastic canisters clipped tightly to the priciest items in the store, ready to spill indelible ink all over the garments if a thief tried to remove them without the proper tool. My mother had seen me fingering the tags and knew I was naturally curious. I finally had to lead her over to the area near the register, where I’d been wandering around looking at things, to prove that I hadn’t actually done anything she’d have to pay for.

As it turned out, I had discovered a spot where I could stand and look behind the cash register as a salesclerk rang up purchases. Nobody watches a ten-year-old who’s standing still and not touching anything, so I was able to observe the clerk using a tool to remove the tags and drop them into a clear plastic tub under her counter. As it turned out, when the tags were opened correctly, they revealed little clear plastic windows that showed the color and level of ink inside—and all the windows I could see showed yellow ink. I thought this a strange color for security ink, especially on dark-colored garments; wouldn’t something like red be better? My mother was relieved, and for years afterward delighted in telling people about her clever troublemaking daughter who figured out the color of the security ink without actually getting into trouble.

Good writers, I’ve discovered, often have a knack for going carefully out of bounds. While great stories can come from the mundane details of ordinary life, there’s nothing like a dash of the unknown to spice things up. What’s behind that door? What’s in that locked cabinet? What would you see if you could just slip backstage while the curtain is down? If you want to know, chances are your readers will be interested, too, and real-life details from out-of-bounds places can make your story come alive. To that end, I’ve collected a few tips for aspiring discreet trespassers.

1. Look like you belong there. When I was in journalism school at USC, I attended a seminar by a well-regarded photojournalist, who eagerly described his favorite techniques for getting close to the scene of the action to take pictures. His most useful trick: he carried a set of colored windbreakers in the trunk of his car, and used them to blend into the crowd of officials at the scene—blue for the LAPD, brown or green for local sheriff’s departments, the Highway Patrol, the Forest Service, etc. (I treasure the memory of one of my professors standing behind the photographer, emphatically shaking his head and mouthing the word No! to students who appeared to be getting ideas.) While I don’t recommend impersonating a police officer just to get into someplace interesting, it does help to dress practically and look like you belong there. If you want to walk around a college campus, dress like a student or a professor. If you want to blend into an office, dress professionally.

2. Keep moving. One of life’s little joys for me in college was visiting a friend in her dormitory at Biola University. Biola’s a mid-sized Christian university, and its students include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met—and some of the dumbest. Every single time I visited the campus, if my friend didn’t meet me in the parking lot, I could easily sneak into her dormitory, despite my lack of a campus ID card or passkey. I would hang around outside the dorm and catch the door before it swung shut, or convince a resident that I’d lost my ID, and get inside in seconds. Once in there, all I had to do was keep walking like I knew where I was going, even if I didn’t. People don’t question you as much if you look like you’re in a hurry. Once I got all the way into my friend’s room while she was out (her roommate had left the door open) and hid her iPod just to make her crazy. (I don’t recommend doing this if you plan on getting into a place more than once.)

3. Mirror people. Human brains are keyed for pattern recognition. Remember that old Sesame Street song that went, “One of these things is not like the others”? We play that game all our lives. When you’re in an unfamiliar place, learning new things, try to mirror the people around you to keep from standing out. If the people around you walk a certain way, look at certain things, or stand with a certain posture, mimic that. Don’t copy one person continuously, and don’t mimic the most obvious tics, but try to take a little from everyone so that eyes will slide right over you, assuming you fit in. It works surprisingly well. When I was about eleven, I went to the reading of an uncle’s Ph.D dissertation—which happened to be about the psychology of child molesters. I mirrored the adults in the room well enough that I caught several of them doing a double-take when they belatedly realized that one member of the audience was young enough to be a victim of the crime being discussed.

4. Take a guide. There’s no substitute for an inside source of information. Thanks to a family friend, I once got an opportunity to interview a local fire captain who had invented a new system for finding victims trapped in collapsed buildings, as well as other search-and-rescue techniques. It was supposed to be a standard school assignment, and I was supposed to be interviewing him in his office at the station, but the man was so delighted to have someone interested in his work that he invited me to ride along on a fire truck while he and his men performed inspections of local industrial buildings. I learned priceless things about the amount of junk that gets thrown into the back of a fire engine’s cab, and about firefighters’ reluctance to wear seatbelts. It’s going in a story someday, and that fire captain is going in the acknowledgments. Never underestimate how excited people can get when you ask them to talk about their private obsessions—or their willingness to let you behind the scenes.

5. Don’t break or take. I happen to own a T-shirt that says (NINJA) in big white letters. For some reason, I often find myself wandering out of bounds while wearing it. It’s not that I got up that morning and decided to wear my ninja shirt and go trespassing; it’s just the ineffable workings of Murphy’s law that I seem to be wearing a ninja shirt when I do something vaguely sneaky. Often, I’ve found myself wearing the shirt when I went to tutor the children of a local family. The house has some nice security on it, but the family has a habit of leaving doors unlocked for one reason or another, and I’ll often just let myself in to save time and trouble when we have an appointment. The kids know that I might show up unexpectedly behind them at tutoring time without ringing the doorbell, and they are usually amused to see the ninja shirt … but their parents tolerate it only because they know I’d never actually steal anything or hurt anybody, and that I’ll break up a fight between the kids if I walk in on one. If you’re just looking to explore a corner of the world where you’re not strictly allowed, do your best to avoid damaging the place. It makes it a lot easier to pretend later that the trespassing was unintentional or that you belonged there all along.

6. Don’t be stupid. Don’t go slipping into places where you’d actually be in danger, and especially don’t tell the cops I told you to do it. Places where you really shouldn’t go without an official guide include crime scenes, disaster areas, nuclear reactors, military bases, etc. There’s a difference between casually wandering into a college dormitory where you don’t happen to live and slipping into Camp Pendleton when no one’s looking. (Pendleton is harder, for one thing.) Use your common sense; while there’s no real substitute for what you can learn by being in a place, there’s also no substitute for living to tell the tale. If wandering out of bounds would get you arrested, hurt, or killed, don’t do it. Find an informant to tell you about it, look at photos online, or do outside research. Heck, call up the public-information office, say you’re doing research, and ask to take a tour. You may not find out any nuclear secrets, but you’ll probably find out what the floor polish smells like—and sometimes that’s all you need to make your story come alive.

My favorite trespassing story dates from my senior year of high school, when I toured the campus of the University of California, Irvine with a friend. It was Saturday, when UCI doesn’t have any classes, and we’d finished the campus tour when my friend remarked that she wished she could sit in a UCI classroom and see if she felt comfortable there. This seemed like a pretty simple problem to me, so I convinced her to walk all over the campus with me, trying doorknobs until we found one carelessly unlocked. One of the buildings we accidentally explored before we found a lecture hall was home to a weekend neuroscience conference—lots of meeting rooms with signs on the door full of incomprehensible medical jargon. At one point, we passed a deserted sign-in table with a notice asking people to sign in and take a souvenir button from the conference. My friend talked me out of signing us in without an invitation, but I did get a button out of the deal, one that has informed my out-of-bounds trips ever since.

It says, “Brain Awareness Week—Just Use It!”

Monday, August 8, 2011

I’ll give you a Pocket Coyote for ten minutes of your time. Really.

So I have a little problem, and if you can solve it for me, I’ll send you a handmade Pocket Coyote. Autographed, even, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I love love love love love writing Masks. It’s the funnest job ever, really. But technically, it’s not yet achieving its goal. I write the story because it’s fun; I post the story both to thank you for your support and because I want lots and lots of attention to help me sell the other books I’m writing. Basically, I’m giving you free story as the grown-up equivalent of a four-year-old throwing a tantrum in a grocery store. I want attention, I want it now, and if I have to kick and scream to get it, I will. It’s just that being nice to people and giving them things works better than kicking and screaming for my purposes, and is much less exhausting. (I’m an introvert. Kicking and screaming doesn’t come naturally to me.)

Now, I need a little help expanding my reach.

Part of my brilliant master plan for world domination involves getting people to subscribe to Masks. No, there’s no fee involved—I’ll be selling stuff later, but I don’t ever plan to charge a subscription fee. There are two major ways to subscribe to a blog. There’s RSS, which is basically a computer program that collects new entries from your favorite blogs and presents them to you whenever you log in. And there are assorted similar programs for smartphones like the iPhone and the various Android systems.

I happen to know my readership contains both kids as young as 11 years old and adults over 80. Some of you are tech-savvy and some are not. The tech-savvy folks can figure out RSS on their own, so what I really need is a set of instructions that a complete idiot can follow and still get a satisfactory result.

A good friend of mine has written me a lovely set of instructions for RSS. I’ll have them up … oh, sometime this week, I hope. But I don’t have any friends with the smartphone chops to write me a set of user-friendly instructions for subscribing to Masks on a smartphone.

So here’s the deal.

If you can write me a set of legible, easy-to-follow instructions for subscribing to Masks either a) on the iPhone, iPod, iPad, etc. or b) on an Android smartphone, I will give you a handmade Pocket Coyote. The first person to submit a set of instructions that I or my smartphone-owning friends can use to subscribe gets the plushie. There are two plushies available, so whether you’re an Apple geek or an Android user, you’ve got a shot at getting your own fleecy companion. Once I have the instructions and have verified that they work, I will start making your plushie and will send it to whatever address you supply in the U.S. or Canada.

To submit your instructions, please post them either in a comment on this blog entry or on a webpage I can access, like Scribd or a personal blog or Facebook page. Then, if you’ve posted elsewhere, send me a link by commenting on this blog entry, posting on the Masks Facebook page, or contacting me on Twitter, where my handle is PocketCoyote.

The first set of instructions that I can get to work wins. Bear in mind that I’ll be reading the instructions aloud to a smartphone user to test them, so assume I haven’t picked a smart one and write very, VERY clearly. With luck, I should have instructions for all three platforms up soon, so everyone can subscribe with ease.

And yes, I can autograph a Pocket Coyote. There are special pens involved.

Now get writing! Your fuzzy fiend awaits!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Superheroes we never dreamed

My friend Eric recently noticed that I have a penchant for using quotes from the British sci-fi series Doctor Who in my “superhero quote of the day” feature. He wondered aloud whether the Doctor, the time-traveling alien hero of that show, qualifies as a superhero under the conventional definition—which quickly led us to wonder what the conventional definition was. While there doesn’t seem to be an iron consensus on what makes a superhero, permit me to list a few common elements of most definitions—and a few surprising characters who make the cut as a result. Please note: a superhero need not have all these characteristics … but anyone who has enough of them might qualify as a superhero. I usually abide by a rule of three—hit a trifecta, and you at least qualify for a cape. Note also that these qualifications are independent of the medium in which a superhero appears. They can show up in novels, plays, movies, TV shows, comics, radio, anything that tells a story. 

1. Superhuman powers. Let’s face it, this one is basic. Although I’m a big fan of low-power and no-power heroes, none of them are actually powerless, at least in my view. Besides the usual assortment of power rings, magic words, and bodies that can soar through the air unaided, there are other powers. In my personal opinion, Batman’s superpower is preparedness—he always has whatever he needs in that belt. Don’t tell me that’s not a superpower! And consider Sherlock Holmes’ one-in-a-million intellect. Is that a superpower, or is it excluded just because it’s (theoretically) possible (at the outer limits of human capability)? There’s a lot of wiggle room here, but if you can do something 99% of the rest of the population can’t do, you just might have a superpower.

2. Codename. This is part of what made superheroes different from the fictional characters who came before them: that colorful name, which is not only trademarkable but intensely memorable, and somehow sums them up. You may not remember Billy Batson, but you sure as hell remember Captain Marvel. On this front, at least, characters like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel count as superheroes. The essence of a good codename is that it sums up the character in ways that his or her real name does not, and “Fox” sums up a sword-swinging swashbuckler better than Diego de la Vega (James of the Field) ever could. Codenames are often tied into a superhero’s origin story (Spider-Man) or a theme that underlies most of their adventures (The Question). 

3. Distinctive costume. The obvious example here is spandex, but it’s not the only example. Superhero costumes evolved originally because they made comics faster to draw—just sketch a nude human form without obvious genitalia, add a few lines to indicate gloves, boots, and/or trunks, maybe pencil in a cape and it’s on to the next panel without all those tedious wrinkles and lines you find in real clothing. But even when it’s not skintight, a distinctive costume enables artists with wildly different styles to draw the same hero recognizably. I’ve seen hundreds of different faces for my favorite heroes, but the mask is always familiar. In this respect, the Phantom of the Opera might qualify as a superhero—the makeup for the monster changes from film to film, but the mask is always there, and it helps you identify the character as much as it ever conceals him. Ditto the Lone Ranger; I still treasure one 1940s serial whose central conceit was that the audience had to figure out which of six men was the real masked avenger. I peered at every scene, trying to catch minute details that would identify the actor under the mask—until I found out, years later, that all six actors switched off to make it harder to guess. I didn’t even notice when the Ranger suddenly grew three inches between scenes; the human brain sees that mask and gunbelt and makes the connection.

4. Alignment with good. Let’s face it, this goes with the word hero. Of course, there’s some room for wiggling here, especially with the rise of antiheroes (like the 1930s Sub-Mariner, who once tried to destroy New York City when he wasn’t fighting Nazis), but a moral compass that points toward white hats is a helpful indicator that you might be dealing with a superhero. It’s important, though, to note here the difference between what gamers call “lawful good” and what they call “chaotic good.” Your hero can be a straight-arrow, law-abiding type, someone like Will Eisner’s The Spirit, or he can be a wacky or violent force of nature, nominally on the side of the good guys but not averse to wanton destruction and/or absurdity in the pursuit of his goals. See the character of V in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

5. Extranormal opponents. What good is a superhero if he just fights ordinary bank robbers? A hero who’s truly super usually needs larger-than-life opponents. The stories work better if you have a steady supply of bad guys that the regular cops just can’t handle, and they’re always useful for upping the stakes. The villains may have superhuman powers of their own, like the Green Goblin, or they may simply be beyond the reach of conventional authorities, like Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. By this definition, of course, Sherlock Holmes qualifies again as a superhero (note also the superpowers, alignment with good, and distinctive costume), as does James Bond.

6. Extralegal status. Very rarely is a superhero a recognized part of law enforcement, and when he is, the institution of which he is part is usually unrecognizable as a police force. Does anybody’s local PD look like the Green Lantern Corps, or the police force Robocop works for? Being an extralegal vigilante gives the character, and the people writing him, wiggle room. Very commonly, superheroes operate outside the law but parallel to it—though they can find themselves at odds with it too, as the Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger so often do, and even Batman does in his early adventures.

7. Dual identity. This is often credited as the innovation that originally set superheroes apart from the pulp heroes who came before them. Most superheroes live a double life, at least on some level; they’re not super all the time, and the audience couldn’t relate to them very well if they were. No, the best heroes have some element of their identities hidden from at least half the people they know, and sometimes from themselves too. The Incredible Hulk is an extreme example of this, often unable to remember events in one form that happened to him in the other. Jason Bourne of Robert Ludlum’s novels might qualify here, too; his preternatural spy skills come with amnesia, and he must piece together the life he left behind him.

8. Difference. This is a personal requirement of mine, but an important one. If your character is a policeman who can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes, but he lives in a society where everyone can do that, he is not necessarily a superhero. Ditto a colorful costumed type who lives in a world where everyone has a colorful costume. A superhero has to be different from the world around him. Consequently, a normal man in extranormal circumstances can become a superhero. Flash Gordon was a normal Earthman transported to an alien planet; Tarzan was a human infant raised by apes; both qualify as superheroes under this definition. Heck, setting is what makes Superman a hero—back on Krypton, he’d be just another guy. It’s Earth’s sun that gives him his powers, and his status as an alien that makes him an outsider, an immigrant, to our world. His stories wouldn’t work if he’d just stayed home.

 So what about the Doctor? Well, as an alien from the planet Gallifrey, he has several unique physical characteristics that might qualify as superpowers; he’s got two hearts, he once grew back a hand that had been cut off, and instead of dying, he “regenerates” into another actor, good as new. He has a codename—it’s established in the show that his real name is not “the Doctor,” though his real name has not yet been revealed. He’s got the distinctive costume nailed—every incarnation of the Doctor since 1963 has had a distinctive outfit that he wore in every episode with very little variation, and  you can’t argue those costumes weren’t distinctive when they included things like an 18-foot-long scarf, a brightly colored plaid trenchcoat, or a stick of celery pinned to a lapel. Alignment with good? Yeah, mostly, since he’s all about saving planets and mucking up the plans of people and creatures who harm other life forms. He’s got a strong taboo against killing, too, and considers it morally wrong. Extranormal opponents are a gimme—he fights aliens and killer robots and mad scientists and monsters of all descriptions. While he has occasionally been allied with legal organizations like UNIT, he never seems to get along with them well, and quite often he’s running around mucking up their plans, so “extralegal” seems to fit. And he’s definitely different from those around him; we hardly ever saw him on his home planet or near any other member of his species, even before the show’s writers destroyed that planet and killed the other Time Lords, so he’s always out of place. The dual identity is more in question; while he does clearly have another name and a life back on his homeworld (we know he once had a child, for instance) and while he does conceal his true name even from his friends, we hardly ever see the part of his life that he conceals. No phonebooth for him. But seven out of eight characteristics make for a pretty compelling argument.

And what about my characters, you might ask?

Well, Rae doesn’t have much in the way of superpowers, unless bullheaded stubbornness counts, but I wouldn’t bet on that state of affairs lasting long if I were you, and Trevor’s freaky levels of training and obsession surely count if Batman’s preparedness does. Rae has a codename at the beginning of the story, and Trevor had one in the past and will have one again in the future, if he lives long enough.  They both have distinctive costumes, from Rae’s Peregrine tunic to the uniform jacket Trevor inherited from his mentor (more on that later). Rae’s fully aligned with good, and Trevor tries, though it doesn’t always work out for him. Rae’s extranormal opponents are a little wimpy, unless you count the Masked Rider, but Trevor’s fought mad scientists and evil ninjas and whatall, so I think he counts there. Extralegal status—well, neither one of them’s a cop, and they’re both out fighting bad guys, so I think that’s a gimme. Then there’s difference; Rae has that in spades, what with her society’s prejudice against non-powered humans being heroes, and Trevor qualifies as different just as long as he stays away from the superhero culture in which he was raised. Rae’s stronger on the dual-identity front than Trevor, but Trevor did maintain a secret identity back in Chicago, and went to extreme lengths to protect that secret. So that makes the final score seven out of eight for each of them.

Of course, some real people qualify as superheroes, too. Albert Einstein counts for superpowers, distinctive costume, and difference. You could make an argument for Johnny Cash on the grounds of preternatural talent, costume, and alignment with good. T.E. Lawrence had a codename, a costume, and a fair amount of difference. It’s not exactly a hard and fast set of rules.

Still, I wouldn’t mind meeting a few superheroes in the real world …