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 ...

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