Friday, September 30, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 9

This chapter basically breaks down into three plot threads. I’ll address them in turn:

1. Rae and Mike: This is the first major step in what will be a pretty complicated relationship between Rae and Mike Glass, the Resident Advisor slash Responsible Adult in her life. I wrote this scene to work out how Mike would feel about what Rae’s doing—and eventually decided that while he envies her a little, he is profoundly worried about her. Rae hasn’t seen the kind of life Mike’s had just yet, but trust me when I say he knows what it’s like to be sixteen and want something stupid. Mike has seen his life nearly destroyed by his own lack of impulse control, and because he’s a responsible, empathetic guy at heart, he can’t stand the thought of Rae making the mistakes that cost him so dearly. Basically, Mike once faced the same dangerous choice that Rae now faces, and he chose to embrace the danger—and he failed. He thinks Rae will fail, too. He wants to save her from that. 

Of course, he thinks he can save her by scaring her. This is because Mike’s 18, not 30. If he were really thinking this through, he would know that he’s essentially bullying Rae into behaving. And we’ve seen how well Rae responds to bullies. Oh, Mike, you’re in so much trouble …

Sidebar: The defacement of Mike’s door is a direct reference to this song, by the irrepressible Throwing Toasters: 

Yes, the entire reason I made Mike an RA, specifically, was so I could glue things to his door. I never said I was sane ... 

2. The Black Mask: Hey, look, this world has some history to it! You have no idea how long this segment was before I cut it down, and cut it down, and then cut it down. I’ve had some of the more recent readers congratulate me on writing a Google scene that people can actually read; in fact, Rae’s search for information about the Black Mask is more or less based on what I used to do as a journalism student, diving into my university’s databases. I love a good database crawl, but it gets wild and random, just like it does for Rae here. So I combined a little of my own experience with Rae’s natural curiosity and the advent of the YouTube age, and produced the requisite grainy video clip of dubious provenance. And of course, because Rae thinks way too hard about this stuff, it leads her to decide she needs a new hairdo. We’ll be seeing more of the Black Mask, never fear, and more of this library.

Sidebar: Some of my readers have mentioned confusion as to the meaning of the word “do-rag.” Be glad you don’t remember the early to mid-1990s, guys. I still have the image of skinny white guys with oversized bandanas tied around their heads seared into my brain. Especially those who were trying to talk like rappers. It was also common among cheap thugs in bad nineties action movies, hence its inclusion here. Just say no to do-rags, kids.

3. The training montage! Oh, I’m going to get letters about this. I know there’s a contingent of longtime readers who are very upset about the fact that Rae, in this version of Masks, is Trevor’s inferior in a straight-up, hand-to-hand fight. They feel this endorses stereotypes of young women as weak, flighty, undisciplined, etc. Let me say now, for the record: That’s not why I made Rae a lousy fighter. This scene is why. I needed a character who could ask the questions about the life of a superhero that the reader would need answered, including the ones about how fighting is different for superheroes, and there was no way I could pass an ex-sidekick off as someone who didn’t know his way around a fight. That meant Rae had to be the one learning. Rae will mature as a hero as this story progresses, too, and part of that will involve discovering how to use her physical power, but I couldn’t do that if she started the book kicking every opponent’s butt. So yes, Rae is a white belt in this scene, previous dojo experience notwithstanding. I had to give her room to grow, and to let the audience grow with her.

Aspiring writers, I’ll bet you can tell me the other reason I didn’t give Rae hand-to-hand chops for this scene. Look carefully. See it? Care to share it with the class?

That’s right. This is not actually a fight scene. Don’t get me wrong, all those rules of superhero combat will be important later—but this chapter is actually a love scene. From Rae’s dorky attempt to attract Trevor’s attention with the magic of stolen hair products to Trevor’s acute discomfort whenever the conversation isn’t about hitting, this scene is all about these two characters trying to feel each other out and figure out where they stand with each other. It doesn’t end with sloppy kisses, but it’s an important step in their relationship nonetheless. The hitting is almost entirely incidental.

That said, this chapter’s soundtrack is the song I always use when I’m blocking or writing a fight scene. I give you Black Lab’s “Learn to Crawl”:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 8

Well, here we are, a quarter of the way through the book! You guys cannot imagine how big a milestone this was for me. I started rewriting Masks in a fit of black depression over getting dumped, and my confidence was badly shaken. Half the reason I did the rewrite was to convince myself I still had talent. This was, in some ways, the chapter that convinced me to stick it out, because it’s the chapter where the world really kicks in.

This chapter is the first time you get a sense of the larger history of the world in Masks. The Black Mask, like most of the major characters in this book, started as something I made up as a teenager and threw against a wall to see if it would stick. (For the record, aspiring writers, many, many things I wrote back then did not stick … which is why, among other reasons, there is a strict “no space aliens” rule in Masks. Long story.) He was an homage to several of my favorite comic-book elements. When I was getting into comics in the 1990s, there was a trend where characters from the Golden Age of Comic Books—basically, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s—were brought back from the dead, out of limbo, etc., and forced to confront the “modern world.” This resulted in some really nifty comic books, and some of my favorite stories about characters like Marvel’s Captain America and DC’s Justice Society. I wanted to do a story like that—but because I didn’t have 60 or 70 years’ worth of comics publishing behind me, I had to make up my superheroic past from scratch. The Black Mask was the first step in that.

Quite honestly, I’ve forgotten where I got the name, although I do remember realizing that it made sense to have him inspire the term “mask” (which I’d actually borrowed from a completely different source) for a costumed vigilante, just like we get “superhero” from Superman. For the record, let’s say the Black Mask is named after Black Mask Magazine, the influential pulp magazine that gave guys like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett their start. He’s your basic trenchcoat-and-fedora hero, at least as far as anyone could tell from the outside, but he had a few secrets about him—one of which was how he stayed young and vital from World War II up until the point ten years ago when he was killed in battle with his archenemy, Necrocide. Yes, he really was active all that time. Yes, I really can do math. More on that secret later if I get the chance. (Tangent: that “ten years ago” is a sliding point—I’m not pinning the death of L.A.’s masks to anything as specific as the year 2001. Just as the Fantastic Four have been superheroing for “about ten years” for the last several decades, so my crisis point will move forward in time.)

One thing I established early, though, was that the Black Mask was probably the nastiest piece of work running around in a costume during the war. You’ll meet some other World War II-era heroes, if I get the chance to write those stories, and the others are much nobler, more honorable men and women. The Black Mask was much more of an antihero, a grim pulp-inspired figure who carried a gun and had no qualms about using it. He had a uniquely personal code of honor, and was scrupulously loyal to the small circle of friends, allies, and innocents he gathered around him—but anyone outside that circle had better watch out. So Trevor and Rae are wise to be cautious about breaking into his hideout. Any hero willing to frame gang members for sex crimes against children probably has a loose interpretation of “nonlethal defenses.” You’ll find out more about this element of the story in later chapters.

Oh, and this is the chapter where we get our first real taste of Trevor’s rules! I love these, but they’re insanely difficult to write. Some of them are based on fan submissions, some on wise sayings I’ve picked up from mentors in my life. The rule about duct tape I stole from a Peter David comic from the mid-1990s. “Recon before you defcon” was the result of my playing around with words while bored one day. But most of the best stuff comes from things my grandmother told me, or something a teacher said when he or she thought I wasn’t listening.

“Always run toward the screaming” comes from two specific places. The first was a hazy memory of family barbecues during my childhood, where dinner almost always ended with my dad and grandfather, Army vets both, swapping war stories—mostly stories that had happened to other people, because my grandfather didn’t like to talk about his war experiences and my dad had never seen combat, but both were military-history buffs. On some long summer evening, one of them (probably Dad) mentioned that George Armstrong Custer first rose to prominence during the Civil War because of his unusual habit, whenever he and his troops got lost on their way to a battlefield, of marching his men resolutely toward the sound of artillery fire. I don’t know whether the story was true or not, but the idea of people who go toward explosions rather than away from them stuck in my head. “Always run toward the explosions,” however, was of only limited use to a superhero; fundamentally, they’re about saving people, so I swapped in “screaming” and had myself a proverb.

The other source for that proverb was my own experience with people screaming in the night. (Ye gods, that sounds more dramatic than it is.) I live in a neighborhood that abuts a major state university, a law school, a large public high school, and a continuation high school. The upshot of that is that an awful lot of high-school and college students come wandering down my street at night, very often drunk and/or rowdy, on their way to or from a concert, bar, or tagging spree. I’d say we get a really piercing female scream about every other week, apparently because the girls think it’s funny to scream in an otherwise quiet neighborhood at midnight. If I hear it, I always go to the window and check to make sure no one’s actually in trouble, and so far it’s always been a knot of five or six young people staggering up the sidewalk, laughing their heads off. A couple of times the scream has been repeated, and I’ve gone outside to sort things out, but as I’ve said, it’s always been people kidding around. And it’s struck me on more than one occasion that if someone in my neighborhood actually needed help … particularly a woman … screaming probably wouldn’t do her any good. Practically no one would care, or check. Certainly I’ve never seen my neighbors peering out a window or stepping onto a porch; apparently I'm the neighborhood busybody in this. So the idea of people who head toward the screaming—who aren’t desensitized—appeals to me. These characters are unusual, and therefore interesting.

“Remember who you are” … it sounds like such a perfect rule for superheroes, doesn’t it? You’d think I structured the novel around it. And I did … but only after I got the idea from this Louis Armstrong song popping up randomly on my MP3 player. I give you my favorite track from The Real Ambassadors, “Remember Who You Are”, which is apparently about the State Department warnings given to American jazz musicians doing goodwill tours in the 1960s. Originally this was the soundtrack in my head for a story where the masks go to Japan to rescue a missing comrade, and get into lots of trouble with ninjas and international relations. I may yet write that one ...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 7

Chapter 7 was a surprise hit with my reading circles. I didn’t expect them to enjoy Rae sneaking around quite so much, but they did. A few notes on the origins of this chapter:

-The tunnels under Lieber Hall are based on my dad’s stories about attending UCLA as a physics major in the 1960s. There were, at the time (and according to the Web, there still are) tunnels running underneath the campus, supposedly built during World War II. By the 1960s, students in physics and the other sciences would run experiments down there. I recall one particular story about an acoustically neutral room—a room that had been outfitted so that sound basically wouldn’t travel in it. The tunnels don’t seem to be in use anymore, except by unauthorized urban explorers. The smell was inspired in a “toilet graveyard” pictured in one explorer’s photo diary—a collection of abandoned toilets dumped in a tunnel and left to fill in with dirt. Research is awesome.

-Hermes Psychopompos was a real aspect of the Greek god Hermes. I’m not even kidding. Look him up; he’s awesome. He’s the root of the English word “psychopomp,” which is still in use by academics and probably a hundred points in Scrabble.

-Odysseus with a wooden-horse logo: Odysseus was the creator of the Trojan Horse, of course. He’s also my favorite Greek hero, so he had to show up here.

-Soleil’s lock code is based on 741.5, the section of the Dewey decimal system reserved for comic books. Talk about obscure! But it was my favorite part of my local library when I was growing up, before the graphic novels got their own special section. It's also why she and Rae have room 741 in Castigan Hall.

-The fates of superheroes’ significant others: this is a multi-level joke. “Tossed off a bridge” is, of course, a reference to Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Stan Lee wrote a story in 1973 where the Green Goblin kidnapped Gwen and tossed her off the George Washington Bridge. Spider-Man tried to snag her with his webbing, but (in most versions of the story) the sudden stop broke her neck, and she was dead by the time Spidey pulled her back up. “Murdered and stuffed in a refrigerator” is a reference to the death of Alex DeWitt, girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, in 1994. Kyle came home and found that his enemy, Major Force, had killed Alex and stuffed her body into a refrigerator.

-The refrigerator bit is a double reference because of “Women in Refrigerators”, a website active in the late 1990s that listed female characters in comics who were injured, killed, or otherwise depowered as plot devices in comics. The site, created by writer Gail Simone, was designed to pose the question of why it was overwhelmingly women who were treated in this manner, often to motivate male heroes. A common response to this criticism was that it wasn’t so much an attack on female characters as it was a result of the fact that supporting characters tend to take the hit when heroes need motivating, and because most superheroes are male, their supporting casts skew female. Anyway, when I sat down to write this chapter, I realized that, because Rae considers herself the protagonist of her own story, she wouldn’t see Trevor as the Superman to her Lois Lane. She’d see him as the Lois Lane to her Superman. Any guy she dates would be in danger of ending up in the refrigerator, at least to her way of thinking. Of course, Trevor can take much better care of himself than your average supporting character, and that makes him more attractive date material for Rae. This is what passes for humor among people who read too many comic books.

-Guessing Trevor’s real name: Yes, every single one of these names is a superhero reference. “Jason” is Jason Todd, one of the boys who served as Robin under Batman (and got killed doing it). “Steve” is a reference to Steve Rogers, who’s “too old” for obvious reasons. “Matthew” and “Michael” are both references to my favorite hero, Daredevil, a.k.a. Matthew Michael Murdock (and because I had to turn Rae’s thoughts to Mike somehow). I considered just using all the Robins’ names, but that would mean calling Trevor Dick (not a good name to use in English anymore), Tim (instant Monty Python reference, but I’d be repeating his first initial), and Damian (does anyone see that name and not think of The Omen?). That didn’t work, so I just used one Robin name and two other superheroes I like.

-Bruises: Injuries and abuse will be a recurring motif in Masks. In future blogs, I’ll talk about the real-life missing and abused children who inspired Rae’s origin story. This chapter, however, provides our first real glimpse of that darkness in Rae’s past as she watches the dead body of a little boy removed from a house in her neighborhood—a boy who died from abuse that only Rae seemed to know about. The story of this family, and how this boy died and what Rae had to do with it, will be explored as the story unfolds. I wanted to give Rae a secret that would stack up against Trevor’s dramatic past (remember the burning train and the blood on the carpet?), and it seemed right that she should have a more intimate, personal tragedy, something that only she would remember. It made sense that someone with Rae’s powers of observation would see and remember details that other people missed. These haunting memories are the price of that talent, and they connect to some secrets in John Lawrence’s past and even a few pieces of Trevor’s arc. 

This week's song is almost inevitable. I can't write a sneaking-around-in-darkness scene without thinking of Theory of a Deadman's "Invisible Man" (watch out for the lyrics, youngsters): 

Monday, September 26, 2011

All about "Talisman"

That’s right, I’m shamelessly plugging the new bonus story, which you can buy for only two dollars. It’s twice as long as a regular Masks chapter, too, despite being banged out in 48 hours flat. And as I said before, all proceeds go directly to buy back-to-school supplies for some needy kids pointed out to me by a local teacher. (If you'd rather just donate money, you can do that here.)

So, what’s “Talisman” about, now that I’ve finished writing it?

I thought the story would be mostly a character study for Trevor. I wanted to explore what he was like as a kid sidekick, before Jude disappeared on him and The Bad Thing happened to him. As I’ve said, the story was inspired by a throwaway line where Trevor mentioned spending two weeks in a Buddhist shrine, healing up at the end of something called the “Night Lords’ War.” I was intrigued by the idea of involving a couple of street-level masks like Trevor and Jude in a big supernatural war, as I knew it had to be an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation—the Champions of the Cosmos calling in reserve members, including those without powers and those with no aptitude for magic. This conflict had to be huge, and I love throwing my characters into huge situations because it shows how wonderfully they work the small details.

But to my surprise, “Talisman” turned out to be mostly about family.

This part came from another throwaway line—Trevor mentions in a late chapter of Masks that he doesn’t really have any clear memories of his parents, even though he was six years old when they died in a car accident. I don’t know about you, but I have at least a few solid memories of being six. I mean, I was in kindergarten when I was six, and I remember plenty of that. Yet Trevor’s memories essentially begin with his parents’ funeral. I had already included a scene in Masks where Trevor handles his parents’ wedding rings, and as I wrote “Talisman,” I found Trevor’s attention returning to the question of these people he should remember, but doesn’t.

So while the plot of “Talisman” is about monsters attacking the shrine, and a badly wounded twelve-year-old Trevor limping out to save the day or die trying, the emotional through-line is all about family. Trevor is worried that he’ll be “fired” as Jude’s sidekick because he got hurt—Jude is his only family now, and he’s afraid of being disowned. He’s frustrated that he can’t remember his real family, and fiercely protective of the only artifact he has from them. He finds himself having to be a protective big brother to a boy named Bobby, the four-year-old son of the superhero Behemoth (most of the Champions of the Cosmos left their loved ones at the shrine for safekeeping, protected by the talisman in the story's title).

And the question of why Trevor doesn’t remember his parents becomes central to the resolution of the story. There isn’t an obvious physical cause, even accounting for the terrible medical science found in fiction—he wasn’t in the car when the accident happened, so there’s no convenient head trauma or anything like that. He hasn’t been exposed to any telepaths with a reason to erase his memories. His mom and dad were, by all accounts, nice people who loved their only child and would never abuse him. There’s no reason in the world Trevor shouldn’t have at least a few memories of his biological family. So why doesn’t he remember them?

Well, you’ll have to buy the story to find out, of course. But if it’s any consolation, you’ll also get to see Jude and Trevor kicking serious monster butt, and find out a lot about what Trevor’s world was like back in his sidekick days. And for those of you who have been wondering just what Trevor’s mentor was really like in person … well, your wish is my command. He's here.

I’m still working on getting permission to tell you more about the kids “Talisman” is going to help. I’ll keep you posted on that. Until then—superheroes! Monsters! What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Superheroes to the rescue: A bonus MASKS story!

That’s right, junior superheroes, you’re getting a chapter and a short story this week … but only if you help me help some kids in need.

I’m friends with a lot of teachers. Actually, it worries me how many teachers I’m friends with, even considering that I dabble in teaching. I pal around with teachers from kindergarten through college and beyond, so I hear a lot of teaching horror stories. But this one really upset me, and it dovetailed nicely with something I want to do anyway.

I have been working on a bonus short story to include in the collected edition of Masks (out sometime before Christmas, probably November, thanks for asking). I had a great idea for a Trevor story, one that really stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone—but I wanted a story that featured both my heroes, set after the main plot of the book, and this other tale is all about Trevor and actually takes place before Masks begins. It started with an offhand comment in one of the later chapters, where Trevor mentions that he hasn’t set foot in a church since his parents’ funeral, “unless he counted the two weeks he’d spent healing up in a Buddhist shrine toward the end of the Night Lords’ War when he was twelve.” It was originally a throwaway line, just a way to show the kind of crazy stuff Trevor got into as a sidekick. But it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to know who the Night Lords were, and why they were having a War, and why Trevor was so badly injured that he needed two whole weeks to heal, and why he had to do it in a Buddhist shrine. I had a hazy mental image of twelve-year-old Trevor, lying on a cot in the back room of some run-down old temple, with some kind of supernatural war going on all around him—and I just knew he wouldn’t want to sit still. Once I got a picture of him crawling off to go fight monsters, I knew I had to write the story, so I found myself sitting on a curb yesterday, scribbling frantically in a notebook to get the idea down before it could fly away. I knew I couldn’t use the tale, but I just had to get it out of my system.

Then I had dinner with one of my teacher friends, who told me about a local family that had hit a rough patch and was having trouble affording back-to-school expenses for their children—you know, that binge of shopping all our moms went on every August and September to make sure our clothes all fit and our backpacks didn’t have holes. Speaking as someone who started second grade at a new school with a nylon backpack, a pee-chee folder, a Lunchable, and nothing else, I can tell you that stuff really makes a difference. Anyway, my friend asked me if I knew anyone who might be able to donate any of the items on a shopping list so these kids—good students all, great kids—wouldn’t have to go without. I didn’t have any of the stuff lying around, so I suggested just raising some money so the family could buy whatever they needed. My friend gave me a funny look and said, “I’m a teacher and you’re a writer. What are we going to sell?”

And I remembered the story I wanted to write anyway.

So here’s the deal. I’m going to write that little story about the Night Lords’ War this week. It won’t be long—I’m aiming for about 3,000 words, about as long as a Masks chapter—but it will be packed with action and emotion and freaky weird stuff and all the goodies you’ve come to expect from an R.M. Hendershot extravaganza. You’ll get to see Trevor in his sidekick days, and his mysterious mentor, and God knows what else because I swear I’m making this up as I type. I’ve figured out how Trevor got injured and why he can’t sit still and how his mentor fits in, and the rest is probably going to be improv. I’ll see if I can dragoon Nicole or somebody into drawing an illustration. And I will throw the whole thing up for sale on Friday, for two dollars.

That’s right. Two bucks. Half the cost of a cup of Starbucks coffee. I’ll try to set up a donation system so you can toss in more money if you want, but for two bucks, you get a PDF of the story. And every cent I collect, minus PayPal’s cut, will go directly to that family to buy essential supplies for those kids.

I don’t have big ambitions for this project. If I collect a hundred bucks before PayPal, I’ll be over the moon. That’ll be fifty people buying the story. I happen to know Pocket Coyote gets 70 hits on a good day right now, maybe 20 of those reading the newest chapter. Imagine what would happen if those 20 people each invited one friend to chip in a couple of bucks for an extra story … heck, imagine what would happen if those 20 people each invited two friends.

I can’t use the family’s name or personal details here, because I don’t have their permission. If they give permission later, I’ll tell you all about the kids and how awesome they are and how big a difference your donations have made. For now, I’ll just say they’re the kind of kids a teacher doesn’t forget easily, the kind she’d hit up a penniless author for. The kind I can’t say no to. And so, in honor of some great kids and a great teacher, I’m writing a story about a great kid and his great teacher.

Oh, and there will be ninjas. Not sure how yet, but there will totally be ninjas of some description. I’m excited. NINJAS!!!

Watch this blog on Friday for a link to the story and instructions on how to donate. There will be announcements on Facebook and Twitter, too, so be sure to get on board with those. I’ll keep you posted.

And now, I think it’s time to set a new land speed record for keyboarding …

Monday, September 19, 2011

Comic-book grieving

Okay, it’s time to admit it. I’m a little bit in mourning for a comic-book character.

I’ve blogged before about how much I’ve enjoyed Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, especially what he’s done with Cap’s World War II sidekick, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, who came back as the brainwashed Soviet assassin Winter Soldier, then got his personality back and plowed through a metric ton of angst before Captain America got shot and Bucky took up the shield in his place. This sounds like an incredibly bad story, but it was amazing, despite being stretched out over several years. In fact, the way it was stretched out was doubly amazing, at least to me—I’m still studying those trade paperbacks and taking notes on how the story is plotted out. It never got boring. This comic was at the very bottom of my monthly pile (the place reserved for the most anticipated comic of the month—I read worst-to-best) for six or seven years straight. That’s almost unheard of. The only other character who’s achieved that is Daredevil, who’s been my favorite superhero since I was 12. (Of course, Bucky’s case was helped by the fact that Daredevil’s adventures started to suck just as Bucky’s were getting good.)

And as everyone in comicdom knows, Bucky was brutally killed off in this summer’s Marvel Comics crossover event, Fear Itself, written by Matt Fraction (and a legacy of the work of former editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, about whom more here). His not-really-a-nemesis Sin (he once asked her in the middle of a fight, “Have you ever killed anyone who knew what they were doing, or just innocent bystanders?”) got her hands on some supernatural evil, ripped off Bucky’s bionic arm, and beat him to death with it. Voilá. Instant angst. Crossover achieved.

So here’s what the five stages of grief sound like inside my head when I find out one of my favorite characters has been killed off in what amounts to a publicity stunt:

1. Denial: “Oh, come on, it’s a summer crossover. They’ll bring him back in a hot jiffy. None of these things ever has a lasting effect on continuity.”

2. Anger: “I hate these stupid crossovers! They killed off a great character just to make themselves look badass, and his story was a million times better than any dumb event book! This is about the movie, isn’t it? They think nobody’ll buy their comics if Steve isn’t back in the costume! C’mon, Bucky was already out of the suit by the end of the ‘Gulag’ storyline! They’re picking on Bucky because he’s not a big name! It’s not fair!”

3. Bargaining: “Okay, I’ll outline a way to bring him back from the dead and keep it on file for the inevitable day Marvel’s stupid enough to offer me a comic-book run because they think I’m Joss Whedon or Michael Chabon. That’ll fix it.”

4. Depression: “Crap. He’s dead. It’s gonna be five or ten  years before anyone’s allowed to bring him back. This sucks beyond all words. I hate my life.”

5. Acceptance: “That’s it. It’s time to blog.”

Heh. Yeah, you guys are part of my therapy. But I have to admit, I was surprised at the strength of my reaction—especially to a comic book that I didn’t actually buy or read, since (as I’ve mentioned before) I avoid big crossover storylines if I can. I’m usually pretty good about dealing with character death, especially in genres like comics where it’s famously temporary. I’m sure it’s made worse at the moment by the fact that bringing this character back from the dead isn’t like bringing Captain America himself back; it undermines the stupid mega-story without creating the sales boost associated with the return of a big-name character. Steve Rogers was selling comics for more than 60 years before he was killed off; his death made the news around the world. Bucky, by contrast, had only managed to be interesting for the last six years or so, and his fans are mostly new to the party (and not well-represented among Marvel Comics’ editorial staff). He’s probably not coming back any time soon.

I’m sure part of my response has to do with the way my life has gone for the past few years. While I usually try to keep my personal life out of this blog—at least, the non-happy parts, and believe me, there are non-happy parts—it’s not going to surprise anyone if I say that things haven’t exactly gone to plan. The crash of the American economy and a perfect storm of family problems have ensured that I am stuck in a personal situation that can politely be called toxic. I was one of those high-scoring, insufferably clever kids in school, and I’ve always had a knack for doing the highly improbable, but I’ve been stringing together part-time gigs for so long since graduation that I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to start this “life” thing everyone used to talk about. I never had a really strong plan for my life, partly because I have a medical condition that could kill me in the next 30 seconds (or let me live a hundred years, so don’t freak out too much), but I did rather expect that I’d have things a bit together by now, if I lived this long. Job. Home. Maybe a dog; there was always a dog in the picture somehow, even though I’ve never been able to have a dog. Heck, everyone I know is surprised that I don’t at least have a publishing contract by this point, and the fact that I’m bootstrapping myself via Pocket Coyote is no substitute for having a galley copy you can show your grandfather before Alzheimer’s eradicates his ability to recognize you.

And I have always sought solace in fiction.

When I was twelve years old and terrified that I would go blind, I dove into Daredevil comics, which reassured me that I could get by even without sight. When I was fourteen and ostracized in school, I read Edmond Hamilton’s Starwolf and felt better because somebody else understood what it was like to be an alien among your own kind. When I was eighteen and worried about how I’d survive outside of high school, I watched the first Spider-Man movie over and over because it showed Peter Parker doing just that. And just as I was finishing up college and going through grad school and discovering that the world I’d always been promised had dissolved, that I was going to spend the rest of my life fighting for any tiny scrap of success—a part-time or contract gig, a brief respite from verbal abuse, a couple of hours watching someone else’s dog—there was James Buchanan Barnes, thrust all unwilling into the twenty-first century, saddled with a legacy that threatened to crush him, and somehow managing to bear up under the weight of it all. And if he could do it, I could do it.

I think that’s why I like grown-up sidekicks better than the heroes who trained them, honestly. I know more about what it’s like to live in someone’s shadow than I do about creating my own legacy. I prefer Nightwing to Batman, because Nightwing has to work twice as hard for half Batman’s recognition—and he can still laugh about it. Much as I have enjoyed Steve Rogers’ adventures for the decade-plus I’ve been reading them, I’ve enjoyed James Barnes’ adventures much more. I never identified with the characters, really—the comic-book gender gap is just too wide—but they became a sort of good-luck charm. On a really bad day, I could glance at my bookshelf and remind myself that at least I wasn’t trying to punch a giant robot spider into submission … and when I finished working the day’s miracle of economy or death-defying feat of toleration, there might be another story with which to reward myself.

No more stories now, unless someone does something very clever. The monthly Captain America title has been renamed Captain America and Bucky and is running a flashback storyline about World War II, but I don’t trust it to last.

It’s got the back of my brain humming, though. There are pieces floating around back there, about badass former sidekicks and characters dropped into times and places where they don’t belong. Some of it will end up in Trevor, I’m sure, but the rest—who knows? I’ve turned bad endings of good stories into my own new tales before this. There’s a lot here. Maybe something I can use. A final gift, of sorts, from a character I’ve lived with for a while. Maybe I can make something that will become someone else’s good-luck charm.

But I’m still going to have to give Matt Fraction and Joe Quesada a resounding boot to the head … 

Friday, September 16, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 6

Sidebar: I LOVE this illustration. Should I put it on a T-shirt, do you think?

I used to have a real problem writing dialogue. My characters sounded like they were taking turns to give their speeches, and that’s a boring way to write. I finally stumbled upon two pieces of advice that helped me write chapters like this one—almost nothing but talking, and I’ll bet you weren’t bored.

The first piece of advice I got was from Sol Stein, author of the excellent Stein on Writing. Seriously, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want to be a reader, go buy it and read it NOW. Anyway, Stein’s method was based on an experience of his at the Actor’s Studio in New York (Stein started out as a playwright, not a novelist).

Elia Kazan was directing Stein and an actress named Rona Jaffe in a scene they were improvising. They were supposed to be playing the principal of a private school and the mother of a student who’s about to be expelled. Then Kazan stopped pulled each actor aside for a private word. He told Stein that the boy was an incorrigible terror, a menace to every class he was in, and under no circumstances was Stein to let this kid back into his school. When Stein and Jaffe got onstage, they were suddenly shouting at each other, red in the face, going at it hammer and tongs. The audience was mesmerized

Kazan stopped the performance and asked each actor to tell the audience what he or she had been told. Stein told his story--and then Jaffe said that she had been told her “son” was a bright, well-behaved boy and that the headmaster was prejudiced against him, so she had to fight like mad to get the youngster back into school. Actors are taught never to directly deny another actor’s statement when they’re improvising—it damages the audience’s illusion of reality—so instead the actor and actress fought subtly and ferociously to determine whose version of the truth would win out.Their scene was electric because they had been given different scripts.

Have you ever had an argument of someone who seemed to have a view of the world so different from your own that you might have been from different planets? How well did you guys get along? I’ve found that one of the keys to writing an engaging scene is to figure out how the two characters see the situation, and remember that they have different scripts.

The second tip came from my thesis advisor in grad school, who reminded me that in any given conversation, one conversant usually has more power than the other. Both characters want something (even if it's only to avoid something unpleasant), and usually the conversation wouldn't be happening unless someone's desire was in someone else's hands. The balance of power may shift as the conversation goes on, but usually there’s only one dominant person at a time. The characters may be struggling for conversational power, or trying to avoid it, or one character may be trying to give it to the other, but that power is a factor. And that’s where this scene came from.

Inthis chapter, Trevor has the power at the beginning. He views Rae as a potential threat, but he also finds her fascinating. He’s testing her, trying to figure out what she can do for him and how he might have to deal with her. In his mind, this scene is going to be a polite interrogation, and he’s going to vanish into the night mysteriously just like his mentor always did. (His hormones get in the way of that a bit, of course.) Rae, meanwhile, sees Trevor as a potential resource, and hopes to use him to learn what John Lawrence won’t teach her. That means she has to prove herself—and that includes turning the tables on him halfway through the chapter. That’s when the power shifts from Trevor to Rae, and eventually ends up being shared between them. This is the kind of thing Rae does best: she comes across rather unsure of herself at first, then goes in for the kill when you least expect it. She’s also a little flattered by Trevor’s attention, and has that slightly girlish uncertainty about what she’s going to do about it.

Of course, Rae has no idea how her little stunt connects to how Trevor got his sidekick wings—but that’s all part of having two different scripts, isn’t it? Sometimes you say just the right thing, or just the wrong thing, and the whole world changes. The more layers you give your characters, the easier it is to trigger moments like that. (Fun fact: this piece of Trevor’s origin story long predates this scene. He's always become a sidekick this way, but only recently have I written Rae doing the same thing to him. I didn’t realize until I was outlining this chapter that Rae’s turnabout connected to how Trevor had become a sidekick—but it was lots of fun making the connection for you guys.)

Then we come to the no-name rule, something that will have serious ramifications in later parts of the book. I knew I wanted to keep my leads’ names from each other, but I weighed several ways to do it. I finally settled on having Trevor set the condition because he’s the more paranoid of the two, and sees himself as having more to lose if his true identity becomes even a little bit public. Rae agrees because of her famous father, and thinks it’s all about secret identities and classic superhero schtick … and believe me, both characters will have reason to regret that choice later.

Fun fact: the eye-color nicknames came from my outlining method. At one point, several drafts ago, all the index cards in my deck signifying scenes from Rae’s point of view had scribbles of green marker at one end, and all of Trevor’s had blue scribbles. (Those were the markers I had handy when I made the deck.) The system made keeping their multiple-name problem straight a little easier, and eventually worked its way into the narrative. You’ll see other symbols attached to those colors as the story goes on, never fear.

The soundtrack to this chapter is a bit of a mulligan. I'm a fan of a Canadian band called Captain Tractor, and while this isn't their best song (or even in the top 20), it tends to get stuck in my head while I'm writing dialogue-heavy scenes. I have no idea what the deal with the mime is doing in the video, though.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

MASKs Commentary Track: Chapter 5

Thischapter was the  new twist on the very old idea that appeared in the last chapter. While the meeting between Rae and Trevor has always gone this way, what they do after has changed a lot. This time, I had quite a few people asking me how the characters might each establish that the other was one of the good guys. And when I thought back over all the ways that superheroes might prove their bona fides, there were really only two major ways. They can be introduced by a mutually trusted superhero (“Hey, Batman, it’s Superman. I want you to meet Captain Marvel. He’s probably not useless.”) or they can end up on the same side of the same fight.

For street-level heroes, that pretty much means stopping a street-level robbery, rape, or murder. I liked the idea of the convenience store that gets robbed all the time, especially since Captain Catastrophe is so much a creature of habit, so it made sense to have it get robbed again and have Mr. Chaidez be completely unfazed by the event, or even by Rae’s lack of a costume. This chapter gave me a chance to show off Rae’s relative discomfort with real-world criminals (this is her first real encounter with a gun) and Trevor’s easy facility with weapons.

Side note: the gun disarm Trevor uses is a real disarm, which I borrowed from krav maga practitioner John Konecsni, author of A Pius Man. John very kindly walked me through the whole process several times, and even sent me a couple of videos of the disarm. So there really is a solid, simple way to take a gun like this … I just didn’t include the precise details because it would slow down the scene and, since it took me three viewings of the video to catch what was going on, I figured Rae wouldn’t observe everything on the first try, in the dark, under stress. Character trumped technique here. (I also went with the simpler form of the disarm because it matched Trevor's mixed-style training.) But trust me, the gun disarm really does work.

This chapter also brings up, for the first time, the question of superheroes and guns. There are a lot of adherents of the Batman school in comics—good guys who will never, ever, ever use a gun. This may seem a little illogical for those who don’t have horrific childhood traumas involving firearms, but it makes life a lot easier for the writers. It’s hard to write the amazing adventures of Shooting-People Man without racking up an impressive body count. The Punisher already covers that territory, and any more principled use of firearms easily devolves into a standard cop drama. Unless you make the story about the gun—have your hero be a master of Gun Fu, etc.—firearms can really take the fun out of a written fight scene. So a lot of comic-book writers go out of their way to avoid making their heroes regular gun users, and that’s why Rae doesn’t know how to shoot. (This is also because I don’t know how to shoot, and don’t currently have the resources to pay for professional instruction for the sake of research—and I’m not stupid enough to pick up a gun and try to learn how to use it without an experienced professional helping me.)

Trevor, however, is pretty darn good with guns.

There are a couple of reasons for this. As the series goes on, you’ll find out more about his training and discover that he’s unusually good with projectile weapons of all kinds—his trademark weapon as a kid sidekick was a simple sling, and he’s an excellent shot with shuriken, throwing knives, etc. There’s something in his brain that works well with the physics of flying objects, and that extends to both bullets and arrows. (More on the arrows later.) 

The second reason is that I can’t imagine Jude training Trevor without making him familiar with guns. So much of their job involves gun-wielding villains and henchmen, plus the occasional cop with the wrong idea (because what superhero hasn’t been accused at some point of, say, murdering police officers in cold blood?) that they’d have to be experienced at avoiding getting shot, taking guns away from people, and (if necessary) using them. And Trevor, as you can see here, gets just a little scary when there’s a gun in his hands. Not all of his gun training came from his mentor. More on that later.

And oh, hey, this chapter marks the first time Trevor and Rae flirt with each other! Watch for the phrase “Blue Eyes” in later chapters … it will come to mean something rather different. 

By the way, I'm not a fan of the illustration on this chapter (and neither is Nicole), so it may change in the eventual ebook and printed versions. You have been warned.

This chapter’s musical selection is almost inevitable, since I privately refer to this chapter as “Everybody run, Trevor’s got a gun.” I give you Julie Brown’s timeless “The Homecoming Queen’s Got A Gun”:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

You don't want to read this.

This is a personal blog. That’s why it’s going up on Sunday. If you’re looking for a bit of cheery, angsty entertainment, that’s what tomorrow’s for (and do come back for that; it promises to be good).

I wasn’t going to blog about the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This isn’t A Pius Man. I’ve been avoiding Facebook and Twitter all day. I’m not going to any of the various memorial services and public commemorations. It just feels wrong to stand in a crowd of mourners and hear people talk about What This Meant To Our Country, or What God Has To Say About This. I’ve never cared much for nationalism, because America for me has always been a nation of ideas, and it rises or falls with them—so what should I care about the dirt? And I have about as clear an idea of what God has to say about the whole thing as I’m likely to get any time soon, because I’ve asked him over and over, and listened very carefully, and it seems he’s said all he’s going to say for now.

I don’t have strong personal memories of the day of the attacks. I was in California, not New York. I remember getting up for school at 5:45 a.m. and hearing that the first plane had struck—I immediately thought of a plane that accidentally hit the Empire State Building in the 1940s. The first tower fell as I was driving to class, and I remember shouting at the car radio when word came down about the Pentagon—“What are they, morons?” I knew it was intentional by then, but these had to be the stupidest terrorists on earth. I remember talking to a friend outside a classroom before the first class started, and a teacher stepping out to tell us the second tower had fallen. My high school was in the flight path of an international airport, and I remember the eerie silence as flights were grounded, broken in late afternoon as I was doing my calculus homework by the unfamiliar snarl of a military jet passing overhead. I went still, and just listened.

The president of my class joined the Marines right after graduation. A childhood friend, born the day after I was, was already in boot camp the day of the attacks. Last I heard he was in Afghanistan. A decade slid by, with two wars that met with varying public support. People told me I should be all for kicking the terrorists’ asses, or shouting No Blood For Oil, or doing just about anything except what I was doing, which was what I’d been doing all along: listening. Listening, and thinking.

And what I think is this:

September 10, 2001 was my eighteenth birthday. And every time I see those photos from the day after, glimpse those videos, I think: welcome to citizenship. Welcome to adulthood. This is the world. You will vote about some of this. Your friends will die for more of it. You might die, too. What will you do about it?

I write stories about hope. I write about unlikely heroes bucking the odds. I write about people who make a difference, however small, however strange. I don’t write about nations, or great battles, or the clash of civilizations. I don’t care. In a thousand years all anyone will know about my lifetime is that three thousand people died and touched off a bloody conflict that will probably be going on long after I’m dust—and those future historians will all be missing the point. This wasn’t about politics, or economic forces, or religion. It was about people who made choices—horrible choices, impossible choices, magnificent choices. Three thousand of them died; many others lived.

So I write about people who choose to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. I write about people who choose to fight when they must, and to refrain when they should. I write about people who don’t give up. I write about people who change the world in small, strange ways, and sometimes in large, strange ways.

I don’t claim to speak for any of the victims who died on my first full day as a citizen. I didn’t know them, and now I never will. I doubt they’d all approve of what’s happened since, but I doubt they’d all oppose it, either. That’s the trouble with three thousand unique individuals—you’ll never get them all to agree perfectly on anything, especially anything about life and death. But that’s three thousand choices out of the world now, and it’s my hope that if I just write enough new choosers, maybe the people who read about them will change the way they make choices of their own. Maybe they will listen, and think.

Welcome to the world. What will you do about it?