Friday, November 4, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 16

Moon’s background was one of the surprises waiting for me as I wrote this book. He and Golem were originally created as one-off characters for the background of a scene with a lot of other superpowered kids, but when I rewrote the plot to set much of the action in the tunnels, the two of them emerged as the best candidates for Trevor’s “neighbors,” and quickly developed a shared backstory that let me explore this underground market for young metahumans.

The idea for black-market exploitation of kids with powers came originally from a series of articles I’d read over the years about street children in Los Angeles and other cities—how many of them are fleeing bad home situations, and many end up in even worse states of exploitation. With all the different sources of superpowers floating around the Masks universe (mad science, magic, and more), and considering the large number of comic books over the years about teenagers who unexpectedly sprout superpowers, I reasoned that there had to be some kids who ended up with powers that they didn’t want and/or couldn’t deal with. I’ve known kids who were kicked out of their homes for changing or rejecting their religion, dating the wrong person (or not dating the right person), or doing any of a hundred other things most people would think of as relatively harmless. What would life be like for those kids if their families found out they had superpowers? Particularly if those superpowers got in the way of the lives those families wanted for their kids?

If your parents can’t handle a kid who cross-dresses, how will they deal with a shapeshifter? If they’ve got their hopes pinned on sending you to med school at Harvard, what will they do if you develop bulletproof skin and decide to become a professional superhero? What if you have the ability to read minds, and you find out a family secret? It’s not hard to imagine a kid with inconvenient powers ending up on the street, and after that, you’ve got all the usual dangers for runaway kids, with a new one added on—people who either fear your powers or want to use them for their own ends. It made sense that kids who couldn’t hide their powers (like being made out of rock) would have the hardest time, and be most vulnerable to people like Dr. Maligno.

This provided an interesting opportunity for non-powered masks like Trevor, of course. It’s easy for the guy with no obvious powers and/or reputation to sneak around and get the drop on the bad guys while they’re focusing on his superpowered friends. I’ve lost count of the number of comic-book stories I’ve read where low-powered heroes like Captain America, Daredevil, or Batman flattened big, powerful villains who were too busy pounding the stuffing out of Iron Man or Superman to think about the “little” guys. A lot of the early Avengers stories did this with Captain America in particular—some bad guy would capture all the “important” heroes and assume that anybody could deal with a “glorified acrobat” like Cap. Those stories pretty much always ended with Cap breaking someone’s jaw, and they got me thinking about what it must have been like to be one of the high-powered guys trapped in a stasis tube or tied to a nuclear missile. Were they embarrassed to have a mere mortal saving their skins? Were they jealous that the normal guys didn’t have to deal with so much scrutiny? Wasn’t the ability to be constantly underestimated sort of a power all by itself?

I think this really came to a head when I read a story about Captain America and Iron Man, set shortly after Cap thawed out of the iceberg. Cap was still getting his bearings in modern New York (the story began with him staring in horror at a plaque where Ebbets Field used to be—apparently he was a big Dodger fan), and Iron Man spent the first half of the story pitying the guy and worrying about how he must “feel like a caveman”, so far out of his native time. When a bunch of giant killer robots attacked, Iron Man, worried about his vulnerable colleague, ordered Cap to “stay back and protect the civilians”. Then he soared off to take on the bad guys all by himself, which didn’t work out so well—he got completely thrashed and thrown at an oncoming bus. Just as he was about to make scrap metal out of armor, bus, and helpless passengers, a familiar striped shield spun into frame. Thanks to the shield’s unique impact-absorbing properties, one SP-TANG later, we ended up with a dented bus and a dented superhero, but no casualties. “The civilians are okay,” Cap deadpanned as Iron Man picked himself up.  

Much as I loved that story and rooted for the timelost hero to mop the town with his much more powerful foes, I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for Iron Man. The world was supposed to belong to guys like him, and instead it belonged to the underdogs, because that made a better story. So it made sense that Trevor, growing up in a world like this, would feel responsible for people who were much more powerful than he, and feel guilty when he failed to protect them. It’s the kind of upside-down mentality that only makes sense if you grow up in a world where the bad guys attack the big guns first … but that’s Trevor for you.

Oh, and then we have Trevor's guesses about Rae's real name! Like Rae's speculations in Chapter 7, these are all references to big-name superheroes, or at least as big-name as female heroes get. "Cassie" is Cassandra Sandsmark, known to Teen Titans fans as Wonder Girl and (for a while) a girlfriend of Tim Drake. "Jean" is, of course, Jean Grey, the X-Men character who went by about a dozen codenames over the years (including Marvel Girl, Phoenix, Dark Phoenix and--off and on--just "Jean Grey"). And "Stephanie" is Stephanie Brown, the only female Robin in the major Batman canon (no, I don't count Carrie Kelley from The Dark Knight Returns, since I think that's been retconned or Elsworldsed away) and yet another girlfriend of Tim Drake. It was a little harder coming up with girl-hero names, but I persevered.

This week’s track, more or less randomly selected off my MASKS playlist, is Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ordinary Man,” for all the wandering mere-mortal heroes out there.

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