Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Lang Syne

When I first thought of writing this blog entry—that’s right, I’ve got nothing to do on New Year’s Eve but blog—I wanted to open with the line, “I move that we never speak of 2011 again.” I finally decided that would be unfair to you guys.

If I’ve done my job, 2011 has been memorable for you. You finally got to read Masks (well, two-thirds of it, and the remaining third in the new year), and you got to read it for free. You got to help build a little online community to support something you love. And two different characters got to wrestle a werewolf, so what’s not to love about that?

For me, though, 2011 was more of a mixed bag, as I’m sure it was for many of you. The year began, of course, with the news that Masks had been rejected by a publisher I liked very much. I took a new job, only to have to quit before I could be fired for being the wrong color. My excellent literary agent decided to cut ties. My grandfather died. My writing group broke up. And I came down with a stomach virus so nasty that I vomited for 19 hours, causing most of the blood vessels in my eyes to burst quite painfully.

On the plus side, I started my own little publishing concern and discovered that a surprisingly large number of you were willing to stick around even after you finally got to read what I wrote (and, horror of horrors, see what I drew). Some of you are even willing to pay money for the privilege. Many of those are not even people I know.

My friends got together and bugged all their friends to read my book. More of them got together and helped me shoot a far better book cover than I could have hoped to produce with a pencil.  

My favorite comic-book character finally got a title that didn’t suck. Another favorite died but came back to life. I got to meet one of my favorite authors and mostly didn’t make an idiot of myself. I met another author who is now one of my new favorites. I got a new job that pays less than the old one, but nobody’s made any snide comments about my ethnicity yet. I have a new novel to write, and the knowledge that an editor at a publishing house I like has already asked to read it when I’m done (if only I can find a new agent to represent it). And I got a new nephew in mid-December who just might be the cutest thing currently breathing.

As I say, a mixed bag.

I’m not a fan of resolutions, but I can tell you a few things you can expect to see in the coming year. After I finish The Novel, I’ll be working on a Free Comic Book Day story that features the Black Mask and a couple of his buddies from World War II. That story will tie in to the second Masks series, tentatively planned for the summer. I hope to get an e-bookstore up and running and make Masks available for the iPad, Kindle, and Nook. I’ve got some ideas to increase the traffic to Pocket Coyote (the stories will still be free, but there may be an occasional ad in the margins). There are plans for videos. I might even appear in one, if I’m feeling particularly self-confident. I hope to have good news about The Novel in 2012, although of course there’s practically nothing I can spill about that yet.

I knew there was a reason I liked Jim’s Big Ego. “Next year will be better …”

Monday, December 26, 2011

The book is out! Well, nearly!

The book is basically out. Officially, it’s out. You can buy it and everything. But if you want it just a bit cheaper and much better, it’s out in, oh, a couple of days, as soon as UPS comes through.

Here’s the situation. If you go here, right now, you can order a paperback copy of the first volume of Masks. All 32 chapters, plus four nifty special features:

1. A “secret origin” essay explaining how this rather odd book came to be;
2. A feature showing how the illustrations were produced, from the initial pencil sketch to the final printed form;
3. Copies of the Hawkins Foundation’s secret files on Rae, Trevor, Tammy, Soleil, Moon, and Golem; and
4. “The Missing,” a short story that bridges the gap between Volumes 1 and 2, featuring 4 new illustrations by Nicole Le.

That’s 412 pages of Masks goodness, all for the low, low price of $19.48 plus shipping.

But wait! There’s more!

Right now, there are two boxes of copies winging my way (well, rolling my way via UPS Ground) from Lulu, the POD service I’m using to produce the books. (There are a lot of arguments for and against POD, but I went with Lulu because they’ll keep producing copies on demand, for anyone who wants to buy them, even if I can’t keep a lot of stock on hand myself—and at times, I won’t be able to do that.) It’s not a big shipment, and a few of the books will be belated Christmas gifts or thank-yous to beta readers—but the rest are for sale, right here, while supplies last. And there are two things you should know about the books in these two boxes.

Every one of these books comes autographed by the author.

And they’re all cheaper than the un-autographed versions.

Here’s the thing: for arcane reasons known only to Lulu, they insist on charging $19.48 per book. My best guess is that this is so Amazon can eventually take a big chunk out of the price and make you think you’re getting a good deal, but I’m not totally sure about that. Anyway, the cover price is $19.48, so the official selling price on my website, in solidarity, is $19.48.

But, well … even with the cost of shipping the books to my house, I’m paying a good bit less than $19.48 per book. And I can give you a significantly better price than that while still making a reasonable profit on my effort. So if you use the coupon code COYOTE at checkout, you’ll get $3 off the cover price of the book. Buy the book from me, and it’s $16.48—my little thank-you for supporting independent publishing. Plus I’ll sign it for you.

I can’t do anything about the shipping costs, of course. Priority Mail charges $4.95 flat to ship via a padded envelope. I think I can get two books into one envelope; if that’s the case, and you order two books, I’ll refund you the cost of shipping the second book. I don’t know yet whether that will work, though.

This whole operation is still in its infancy, of course, so I appreciate your patience as I wait for the shipment to appear on my doorstep. If you order a book today, I’ll sign it and toss it in the mail as soon as the actual boxes arrive.

Oh, and if you include a note with your purchase (there’s a little box at checkout to let you do that), you can get the book personalized. That means that if you want me to write, “Happy birthday, Bob!” or something in there—include your name and/or a brief, inoffensive message with my signature—I’ll do it. Just make sure you spell everything right (I have no way of knowing how most of you spell your names, after all) and don’t make your message anything that’s likely to get me sued, arrested, or punched in the face. “Happy birthday” is fine, but I’m not going to write “I’m really Stephen King,” or “I shot JFK”, or “You suck, Bob!” If I think your message is likely to get me in trouble, you’ll just get a signature and maybe a happy face with too many eyes. My mother didn’t raise any stupid kids.

And now I think I’ll go sit in a corner, quietly making happy “eeeeeeee!” noises and trying not to watch the street for a big brown truck. And maybe get that ebook version up and running …

Monday, December 19, 2011

Nicole Le has a confession to make.

And now, I think, we’ve come to a very particular point in our little superhero epic—the moment where the reader, at least, discovers the hero’s secret identity.

Not that I’m claiming to be a superhero—far from it. But I have been maintaining a second identity on the side, and now I’ve lost my original reason for maintaining it and don’t have a replacement. So here’s the secret:

Nicole Le doesn’t exist. Or rather, she does, but she’s me.

Any illustration you’ve seen on this blog, or on Facebook, or on Pocket Coyote attributed to Nicole Le is, in fact, the work of one R.M. Hendershot. Yours truly. Quite a few of you already know this, of course; among my friends and colleagues, it’s just about the worst-kept secret ever, although some of them seem to forget from time to time and ask me if “Nicole” might draw something, then give me blank looks when I say, “Sure, if I have time.” But I drew those first sketches of Rae and Trevor and their world. I painted the images in that first trailer, in addition to taking the photographs. I did the art for the Comic-Con bookmark and T-shirt. And every blessed one of those black-and-white chapter illustrations on Pocket Coyote is my work, too. (Sorry about that!)

I’m telling you now because the book is coming out, and it seems disingenuous to claim that two people worked on it when in fact I did all the work myself. This is less because I want to brag about having done all that work than because I want to own up to any mistakes; whether the art sucks or there’s a typo on page 47, it’s all on me. That’s what boostrap publishing is all about.

So why did I invent Nicole in the first place, if it wasn’t to avoid taking the heat for lousy artwork?

Well, that was the original reason—but not in the way it sounds. Remember, I started out as a comic-book fan, and in comicdom there is a thing called a “writer-artist.” Writer-artists write and illustrate their own comics, a bit like singer-songwriters in music. There are some wonderful writer-artists out there—people like Aaron Williams of PS238 or Michel Gagné of The Saga of Rex. But—not to put too fine a point on it—most writer-artists are judged more by their art than by their writing. That’s only natural; you can look at a drawing of a superhero and tell pretty much immediately whether it’s any good, but you have to read an entire story to judge a writer.

And the fact is, I’m a much better writer than I am an artist. Always have been, and likely always will be. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been, shall we say, less than visually gifted; maybe it’s because I just didn’t like drawing as much as I liked writing, and therefore didn’t practice it as much. In any case, I have always considered drawing a pleasant sideline, a way to solve writing problems and occasionally get a little attention for my stories, and I didn’t want to have my real work judged on the basis of my hobby work. As long as I was writing superhero stories primarily for my fellow nerds, I wanted to avoid the stigma of being a writer-artist who couldn’t actually draw all that well.
So I invented Nicole, a fairly transparent fiction, and would gladly admit to anyone who asked that we were the same person—but most people didn’t ask. They were content to laugh at my stories of bribing my “friend” with fast food, smirk as I complained about having to take reference photos for my fussy, reclusive artist pal. (The rumor that she never uses her hands for anything but drawing, however, and therefore needs doors opened for her and food spooned into her mouth … that one wasn’t my doing. You will not be surprised to hear that the friend who inspired Tammy Hoffman came up with that one. Someday she’ll finish writing her own novel, and it will be a strange and wondrous thing.)

Perhaps nobody thought I’d make up an alter ego I couldn’t pass for, and there’s no way anyone will believe I’m Vietnamese. (For the record, “Le” is the Vietnamese equivalent of “Jones”—the second most common last name in that country, after Nguyen. It’s also the last name of a friend from high school. I chose “Nicole” as a first name because it sounded like a good Francophone “American name” for a Vietnamese American, and because it was the given name of my best friend in second grade.) Perhaps it was easier for people to enjoy my stories if they imagined the illustrations hadn’t actually come from the mind and hand of the person who made up the characters—that there was still some wiggle room between what was on the page and what those imaginary people were really like. (There is—if you think Rae and Trevor look like something other than what I’ve drawn, you’re welcome to it. I can’t actually represent what’s in my head.) Or maybe most people just didn’t care.

But now I’m not writing strictly for fandom, or at least not comic fandom. In the book world, it’s okay to be a slightly idiosyncratic artist if you’re illustrating your own books. I’m still slow on the draw by professional standards, and a bit short on genuine artistic talent by any standards, but if anyone complains about the art at this point, I can shrug and say, “What do you expect? I’m really a writer.” And that’s just fine, as long as I’m not doing full-on comic books. I also like the fact that this way I don’t have to feel bad when I criticize “Nicole” ’s art in public—I’m not picking on my absent artist, I’m showing off my low self-esteem.

And, I’ll admit, I think it’s just a bit more impressive to be a writer who draws her own illustrations because all her artist friends are busy than it is to be a writer who dragoons her friends into drawing for her. But maybe that’s just me.

Now, Nicole’s byline isn’t going away. The fiction’s just going to be a lot more transparent now. I really don’t care whether anybody knows I’m Nicole or not. Let casual readers think we’re two different people; you guys (and anyone who cares enough to Google this blog entry) will know the truth. If you meet me at a fair or a signing, I’ll happily draw you a terrible sketch and sign it for the both of us. I will continue to use the name Nicole Le for my artwork online and stick to my own for the writing (and on the books—the ISBN lawyers will get huffy otherwise). Nicole’s DeviantArt page will soon get going. I will probably keep making up silly stories about what I had to do to get Nicole to illustrate something this time. I quite like having an imaginary artist friend.

But next time I post a sketch signed “NLe”, you can have the warm pleasure of knowing you’re an insider. You know what’s really going on. You’ve seen behind the mask, you’re in on the secret, you’re one of the select few privileged to know R.M. Hendershot’s secret identity.

But if you get kidnapped by a supervillain and thrown off the George Washington Bridge, you’re on your own. Probably.

Friday, December 16, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 22

This chapter was unusually difficult to write, for a fairly stupid reason.

When I began writing stories as a child, I was usually pretty good at what I now call “character work.” I had a pretty good sense of how people felt and how they would react to the events of the story. Vividly realized characters were my forte, beginning with a large cast of imaginary friends who followed me to school and amused me by making faces behind any teachers who dared to bore me (which, sadly, was most of them).

But I wasn’t any good at complicated plots. I enjoyed reading them—I just didn’t have the sort of brain that naturally came up with them. It’s why I didn’t gravitate toward writing mysteries or thrillers. While I work very hard on my plots—a lack of natural talent is no excuse for mediocrity—it is work in a way that character work really isn’t. And every once in a while, I hit a complicated bit of plotting or design that just knocks me flat, because it really belongs in another genre.

This is a very long way of saying that I have a couple of consultants helping me design my deathtraps.

The design of Trevor’s prison—the tiger cage inside the shipping container—was the work of John Konecsni, author of the very complex and plotty A Pius Man, among other tales. It’s really one of the better trap designs I’ve used, given the resources I handed him and the needs of the project. Cobalt’s impromptu prison had to be something he could construct out of commonly available materials, for starters—when you’re trapping superpowered kids, you have to assume that part of the trap will get trashed from time to time, so you’ve got to make sure you can replace any damaged elements. The trap also had to be modular; because, as he says, he’s selling the kids to the highest bidder, he needs the ability to put kids in and take kids out without interacting with them too much, and also keep them from working together too easily.

And if you’re not impressed, just wait a couple of weeks; you haven’t seen the entire trap yet. Trevor will find out more about his prison when he actually has to get out of it. Remember, there’s a whole world outside that shipping container that could have anything in it …

This chapter also marks the point where Trevor finally starts to revise the way he thinks and acts. While I never intended Masks to be a navel-gazing sort of story, the changes in Trevor’s and Rae’s characters are a major driving force, and some of Trevor’s changes are particularly intentional. He’s going to work his way back to being more of a traditional superhero, and that process starts here, locked in a cage next to an angry werewolf. After all, what’s the point of self-examination if it doesn’t come with face-clawing?

Random note: if you’ve never seen Otter Pops, you can find out more about them here. I knew Cobalt wasn’t stupid enough to give Trevor anything hard to work with, so that meant his water couldn’t come in anything made of glass, metal, or rigid plastic. An IV line would be too much trouble, and for reasons you’ll see later, Cobalt can’t come throw a bucket of water over the cages on a regular basis. Otter Pops were my solution. And for the record, Sir Isaac Lime was my favorite flavor, so there.

This week’s soundtrack is (what else?) Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Comic Books You Should Be Gifting (2011)

Has Christmas shopping made your head explode yet? It has mine, and half the people I know are getting the same thing (Masks volume 1, out in paperback … soon!). So while I go back to working on paperback proofs, here are ten great comic-book gift ideas for the readers in your life.

As always, these suggestions are designed for recipients who don’t regularly read comics. They’re rated loosely according to the MPAA’s rating scale—basically, if your lucky recipient can handle a PG-13-rated movie, he or she can handle a PG-13-rated comic. And, of course, I have to recommend the collected edition of Masks (out before Christmas—watch this space!) for any recipient. Order it through my website and I’ll even autograph and personalize it for you …

Right! Now on to the list!

1. Sandman. (Stop whining, JohnK.) Neil Gaiman’s epic ten-volume series redefined comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it’s still a great gateway drug for future comics fanatics. The story loosely follows the god of dreams (at various points called Dream, Morpheus, Oneiros, and a half-dozen other things) as he sees his world changing around him, partly because of a few past mistakes. Dream’s journey makes stops all across literature and history—prominent guest stars include Marco Polo, Julius Caesar, the entire cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the devil himself. While new readers are usually advised to begin with the first volume of the series, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” I personally suggest picking up whatever later volume catches your fancy. My gateway to the series was Volume 6, “Fables and Reflections,” which charmed me with Orpheus and Eurydice, the French Revolution, and the mostly true story of the first and last emperor of North America. Rated R for sex, violence, and Neil Gaiman being Neil Gaiman. Perfect for: mythology buffs, literature fiends, musicians, and hipsters (especially hipsters whom you’d rather see start acting like rational people again).

2. Lions, Tigers, and Bears Volume 3. That’s right, it’s baaaaack! Mike Bullock’s winning all-ages series about two kids and their stuffed animals fighting fantasy monsters has returned for a third volume, this one a self-contained adventure from little Hermes Press that’s this year’s all-ages offering. In "Graybeard's Ghost," Joey and Courtney have a new companion in Courtney’s snobby cousin Beth, who’s altogether too mature for all this stuffed-animal nonsense. The Beasties, of course, don’t care what Beth believes, and trouble ensues. All I’ll say about the plot of this volume is that it involves both ghosts and pirates. Pirates, I tell you! What more do you need to know? Rated G, with an advisory for pirates. Perfect for: anybody over the age of 6 smart enough to know that stuffed animals get up to things when you’re not looking.

3. Daredevil. With the Big Two busily rebooting and rehashing their offerings late in the year, this list had slim pickings among the new graphic novels. If you just can’t live without your superhero fix, however, hit your local comic shop and pick up a few back issues of this little gem (the first collection’s not out until February). Writer Mark Waid has pulled the venerable blind superhero out of the doom and gloom that have characterized his series, for good or ill, for the last 30 years and given him back his sense of humor and whimsy. The result is a crackling adventure story with plenty of wit and humor—never a parody, but always good for a guffaw. There’s a reason IGN voted this series the #1 Marvel comic to watch in 2012. Start with any back issue you can find, or (especially) the Christmas issue, out December 21 for just $2.99. It apparently involves a wrecked school bus full of kids and Matt wearing a sweater that says “I’m not Daredevil.” Rated PG-13 for violence, innuendo, and somewhat grown-up words and humor. Perfect for: superhero fans and readers of swashbuckling adventure—plus anybody who enjoys a good legal thriller, thanks to the courtroom fireworks in the hero’s secret identity.

4. Basic Instructions. One of the best webcomics out there, in my humble opinion, and a magnificent gateway drug. The premise of Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions is simple: four-panel instructions on how to perform a task, simple or complex. The cartoonist acts out the directions, along with his friends, relatives, and coworkers, and that’s where it all gets weird. With characters like Mullet Boss and Scott’s much-put-upon friend Rick, Basic Instructions manages to enliven all manner of subjects from “How to Smile” (Scott smiles by thinking, “Your hide will make a fine poncho!”) to “How to Explain Your Tastes” (“Dr Pepper has NEVER contained prunes. If it did, it would say, ‘Made with real fruit’ on the label.”). Watch for the infrequent appearances of Meyer’s oddball superheroes—Omnipresent Man, Mr. Everywhere, the Knifeketeer, and Rocket Hat. Rated R for grown-up language and jokes that will make you snort coffee out of your nose. Start with volume 1, “Help Is On the Way”, or indeed any volume you can find. Perfect for: anyone with a dark, twisted, or nerdy sense of humor. Or anyone who’sever tried to wash a cat.

5. Dramacon. Svetlana Chmakova’s wacky-sweet romantic comedy is all about the relationship between a young would-be manga writer and a mysterious cosplayer who meet exactly once a year, at an anime con. The three volumes cover three years of the convention, with plenty of twists and turns along the way—evolving friendships, wacky costumed hijinks, and serious drama involving boyfriends, girlfriends, an attempted rape, and—well, let’s just say it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Even with the heavy stuff, though, Dramacon never manages to be less than dazzling, thanks to Chmakova’s vivid art and pitch-perfect writing. Because of Tokyopop’s recent bankruptcy, most of the series is now out of print, so you’ll have to hit used booksellers (I recommend to find it. Get the “Ultimate Edition” (containing all three volumes) if you can—you’ll want to read the whole story. Rated PG-13 for violence, an attempted rape, and demonic chibis. Perfect for: anime and manga fans, romance fans, cosplayers, and almost any girl between the ages of 12 and 18.

6. Starman. It’s been nearly a decade since James Robinson’s quirky signature series, Starman, was in print, but it’s worth revisiting now. The Golden-Age superhero Starman had two sons, one of whom took up his superheroic mantle … and gets shot to death in the first issue. After that the job of hero falls to his brother, Jack Knight, a junk dealer who’d rather hunt vintage vinyl than throw down with Solomon Grundy. With stylish art by Tony Harris and unexpectedly human characters (watch for the immortal and unpredictable Shade, now featured in a limited series from DC that isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves), Starman was much more about finding direction in life and making peace with family than it ever was about fighting bad guys. That said, watch for cowboys, ghost pirates, and psychedelic journeys through space, time, and disco. Start with Volume 1, “Sins of the Father”, or the first Starman Omnibus (which you’ll have to find used, alas). Rated PG-13 for sex, violence, and 1950s pop-culture references. Perfect for: reformed hipsters and anybody looking for something a little different.

7. Captain America. Okay, I confess. This one is only on the list because the movie came out this summer, and did quite well. If anyone on your list enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger, they’ll want to check out Ed Brubaker’s work on the character, which was so massively successful that he really should have been listed as one of the writers on that movie. From the assassination of the Red Skull to the resurrection of Cap’s dead sidekick to one of the best surprise reveals in recent comics history, Brubaker’s run on the character is action-packed and understandably definitive. The recent relaunch of the series is pretty good, too, but not collected yet, so grab an omnibus if you want more bang for your comic-book buck. Perfect for: fans of war stories, espionage thrillers, and anything that involves punching Nazis.

8. The Unwritten (again). I didn’t think this comic could get any better … but it did. This year Tom Taylor’s adventure through the secret world of books written and unwritten took him through the pages of Moby Dick and into his own twisted, long-forgotten origins. The transformation of his female companion, Lizzie Hexam, has been astonishing—particularly since it happened in the only choose-your-own-adventure story I’ve actually been able to finish. (And then I went back and read all the other options, because it was that good.) Volume 4, “Leviathan”, contains the excellent Melville story (with a cameo by Frankenstein’s creature!), and while volume 5, “On to Genesis”, isn’t out until January, it’s well worth waiting for with its vivid exploration of the pulps, the origins of comic books, and how superheroes can mess with the head of an entire culture. You can also start with volume 1, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.” By Mike Carey. Rated R for sex, violence, and literature. Perfect for: lit fiends, horror and fantasy junkies, and anyone who always knew there was something darker going on behind Harry Potter.

9. Superman: Earth One. If you’re a nerd, you either loved this one or hated it. If you’re not a nerd, you didn’t even hear about it until it broke a bunch of bestseller lists. A thoughtful retelling of Superman’s origin story, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One dares to mess with a lot of the canon—like the reason Krypton blew up—and it mostly works. The story follows young Clark Kent as he tries to make his way in Metropolis and decide what he’ll do with his life. We get to see the non-face-punching side of Superman as he’s offered a series of plum jobs, from cutting-edge research scientist to football star, and the story underlines the point that at this moment in his life, Clark really could have become almost anyone. But it takes an alien invasion and three scrappy journalists from a certain aging newspaper to help Clark finally figure out who he is, and who he’s going to be. Rated PG-13, for property destruction and a surprising amount of thinking. Perfect for: anybody who likes superheroes and anybody who claims superheroes are “played out.”

10. Superman: Secret Identity. How did this list end up with two Superman titles on it? A complete accident, I swear. DC Comics has just re-released Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s thought-provoking alt-universe take on Superman … set in a world where superpowers don’t exist and Supes himself is a fictional character. (Sound familiar?) A real-life Mr. and Mrs. Kent in real-life Kansas have a sense of humor, it seems, so when they have a dark-haired, blue-eyed son, they name him Clark, much to his eventual chagrin. Growing up surrounded by Superman jokes is bad enough—but then young Clark actually starts developing Superman-like powers. The four-issue series, now collected in one volume, follows this Clark’s life from birth to old age, as he encounters the challenges you might expect for a real-life man named Clark Kent—a blind date with a woman named Lois (complicated by the fact that they actually do fall in love), a government agency trying to find out what makes his powers tick, a writing career and a family that take unlikely turns. Above all, Secret Identity is thought-provoking, heartfelt, and bittersweet—the perfect comic for readers who think they’ve seen everything. Rated PG-13 for the scary moments, and perhaps the happy ones too. Perfect for: anybody who won’t read comics because “they’re too unrealistic.”