Monday, April 30, 2012

Free Comic Book Day preview!

It’s almost that time again!

Yes, this coming Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, and you know what that means—Masks is back!

On Saturday, I’m posting a new story on Pocket Coyote and on this blog. It’s called “Ghost Dance,” and it will introduce at least two heroes you haven’t seen in Masks before, including the man who gave his name to heroes who might be nonpowered but are never powerless—the Black Mask himself! And that’s not even the best part!

Set in 1947, “Ghost Dance” follows Clayton Ross, a.k.a. the Black Mask, as he tracks down an old ally and recruits him for a daring rescue mission. Clay hasn’t seen Ben Wise, a.k.a. Eagle Eye, since the early days of the Second World War, and while he’s heard a few rumors about what happened to the kid behind enemy lines, nothing can prepare him for what he finds. Once a costumed vigilante who relied on a pair of mechanical wings to fight crime, Ben was captured by the Nazis and subjected to horrific experiments as the scientists tried to discover the source of the powers he didn’t actually have. Ben emerged from the ordeal with a set of Pyrrhic superpowers and a growing distance from the people he once loved.

Can Clay remind him of what it means to be human before it’s too late? And can Ben pull it together enough to help save an old friend from a fate worse than death? The answers lie in the southwestern desert, along with a few surprises that will lay the foundation for Volume 2 of Masks …

Did I mention that’s not even the best part?!

I am so excited about this that I am literally vibrating as I type, so pardon the typos, but here it is—I wrote a comic book!

An actual comic book! With pictures and everything! I’m hoping it will be done in time for FCBD, but if it’s not, it’ll be because I was late finishing the script and not because of the artist because the artist is freaking amazing, you guys. No, you don’t have to put up with my art this time around—I’ve got THIS GUY!

 Yeah, the guy who drew, oh, the best Masks art ever. His name is Derrick Fleece, and if you’re not already a fan of his work, you should be. He was the first guy to give Trevor a face that actually made sense—a face I liked so much that I immediately changed the way I drew Trevor just so he’d look more like Derrick’s interpretation. 

 The 8-page story, titled “Pick Your Poison”, should be available on or shortly after Free Comic Book Day, and it picks up where “Ghost Dance” leaves off, with Clay making a decision that will change his life forever—and turn Rae’s and Trevor’s lives upside-down. Derrick wanted to draw some noir, so I gave him all the shadows and muddled morality I could, and the results are unbelievably awesome. And if all goes well, you’ll get all of it this coming Saturday.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a way to speed up time … 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Urban fantasy redux

Not a lot going on this week I can blog about, but luckily for me Jim C. Hines has returned to his topic of ridiculous cover poses. Now, I've already covered this topic in my own way, but I couldn't resist the chance to put Trevor in a silly position. And once I'd sketched that out, I couldn't help thinking how much an extended Achilles tendon would appeal to a certain trickster ...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Right on the edge

So I’m supposed to be working on the Free Comic Book Day story (you’re all showing up for that, right? May 5!), and I’m also working on Volume 2 of Masks, and both projects are going to interesting places.

The FCBD story first got my attention when I got a mental picture of its opening scene, in which a character I know to be one of my most heroic (albeit tragic) is sitting in a dark corner of a bar, trying unsuccessfully to get drunk. It’s his little sister’s wedding day, and he can’t go to the wedding because his family thinks he died in World War II. He’s letting them think that because it’s easier than telling them what actually happened. I’d written a series of stories about this guy when I was a teenager, mapping out his whole life from the day of his birth to his possible death at an advanced age, and the darkness in this scene surprised me. As bad a life as he’s had, I didn’t think he was prone to this kind of despair.

Then the devil sits down next to him and offers him a job.

Not the literal devil. It’s not that kind of story. But it’s someone who plays a big role in the Masks universe, and a man this young hero has come to see as a bit of a personal Mephistopheles, the tempter who leads him into all trouble. And as I sketched out the remainder of the story—the exact nature of the job, and what the young man ends up doing, and the devil’s secret reason for getting him to do it—I realized that I was actually drawing an arc of redemption for my hero, with the devil (of all people) as its agent. And when I sat down to actually write the story, I found I was writing it from the devil’s point of view.

 It’s something that mirrors a few of the events in Volume 2 of Masks, although you’ll probably end up being surprised by who rises and who falls by the story’s end.

It seems I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with characters who stand right on the edge between light and dark—literally, in the case of Masks, and a bit more metaphorically in Street of Bakers. I used to know a classics professor who would talk about liminal figures—people and things that only appear when you’re crossing a border from one place to another, one state to the next. Psychopomps and threshold guardians, sentries and scavengers. And the thing about liminal figures is that they’re shape-shifters. You’re never completely sure of who you’re dealing with or what they’ll do next. You have to trust in your own power, or your wisdom, or your cunning, or your god, to pass their tests. And the crazy part is that a liminal figure might turn out to be any of those things. You just don’t know until it’s too late to change your mind.

Makes you watch the edges of the shadows a little more carefully …

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When characters go off-book, or Watson takes a faceplant

Sorry, Watson.
I didn’t find much to blog about in the last week, but luckily for me something happened on Monday. As I was hammering away on my Street of Bakers project, on the very page following the selection I posted last Friday, one of the characters went off-book.

For those of you who don’t have halcyon memories of childhood drama classes, “going off-book” is a theatrical term for working without a script. Usually, this means that the script has been memorized, and actors are now expected to go onstage and play their roles to the full, without a script (or “book”) in their hands. Less commonly, it refers to performers deviating from the script—doing and saying things that the author never intended.

I don’t consider any of my stories to have really begun until a character goes off-book and deviates from whatever I’ve set out in my mind for that character to do. Think about Trevor refusing to die when my outline called for it. It’s a sign that the character is coming to life, speaking to me from the weird part of my brain that doesn’t seem to be connected to the other parts—the place my stories come from.

Anyway, I was typing away on the first scene in Street of Bakers, where my Watson analog wakes up on the morning of her first marriage—more on that later, have no fear—and ruins breakfast. I decided I wanted to show her actually waking up because I wanted to have her notice the nasty yellowish pea-soup fog rolling past her window—the kind of fog that apparently doesn’t happen much in London anymore since the advent of clean-air laws, but that Doyle describes so well in a couple of places. Writing the wake-up scene, I discovered more details about the room in which she sleeps—that her nightstand is “secondhand”; that she uses a man’s pocketwatch instead of an alarm clock or any other timepiece; that her dressing-gown is a lady’s dressing-gown, but far too large for her; that she sleeps in an attic hastily converted into a bedroom. All these details were, to some extent, important—they showed that she was a recent and unexpected addition to her household (attic bedroom, secondhand furniture), that she’d lost many of her possessions (the dressing-gown belongs to her aunt), and that there had been a man in her life who was very important to her, but was now gone (the source of that pocketwatch). Watson realizes she’s overslept and is late starting breakfast, she throws off her bedclothes, and she’s just struggling into her dressing-gown when her author suddenly has a thought:

Wait a minute! Watson can’t walk!

Now, to understand how Watson went off-book, you have to understand how my mind works. When I’m writing a story, I’m basically taking notes on a movie in my head that happens to include tastes, textures, and smells. The camera angles may be really strange, and I can read thoughts, but it’s essentially a movie, coming from that not-me part of my brain. And when my normal brain yells at me to wait a minute, the picture freezes and nothing moves, except in the most tentative, flickering way, until I resolve whatever’s tripping me up. So imagine young Watson, sixteen years old with a tangled tail of curly blond hair, struggling into a dressing-gown that’s far too big for her, frozen in time …

And then imagine her falling over.

I hadn’t hit the play button in my head. She’d just decided that, since I’d been so stupid as to let her climb out of bed without grabbing the stick she uses to get around, she was going to have to take a faceplant. And there was something so natural, so right about the motion, that I realized she’d just told me something with it. Watson’s had trouble walking for about a year, and she keeps that cane wedged between her bed and that secondhand nightstand. She knows she needs her stick to get around. So why would she climb out of bed without it?

And the little not-me voice from the other side of my brain whispered: Because she’s not awake yet. And in her dreams, she can walk.

Now that was an interesting perspective on Watson. Somebody who knows perfectly well, when she’s awake, that she has a disability—her left leg won’t hold her weight. But in the privacy of her mind, she’s never accepted that fact. At her core, she believes she should be able to walk, and when she’s half-asleep, she tries it. And every morning she falls.

Of course, she’s also a pragmatic sort of girl, so I added a chair near the bed for her to catch herself on. She’s not stupid. She stumbles, catches herself, grabs the stick, and heads out the door. It’s her morning ritual, and she prepares for it as much as she can.

But oh, the things that will happen to this girl when she meets the most dangerous woman in London, when they’re literally off and running …

It’s a good start!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Friday Fragment: Street of Bakers

From the Sherlock Holmes Museum. I have one of these signed cards myself, but it's packed up right now.

I've been kicking around my Street of Bakers project, and as promised, here's a little taste of how it's going. I think that Joey, the character who's speaking in this passage, will probably narrate the whole book; she's stepped into the Watson role quite well. I haven't figured everything out yet, of course. Who is Sofia, really? I know how lost dog comes into it, but I'm still working on how my characters will set fire to Buckingham Palace. And as for Joey's first wedding ... well, that's a story in itself, albeit an incomplete one. 

I know what happens to breakfast, though. That's enough to go on for now. And so, with apologies to A Study in Scarlet ... 



   What can I tell you about Sofia Hunter? Everyone asks me that. And the answer is: everything—and nothing.

   There’s what everybody knows: the heroine of Buckingham Palace, the mistress of detection, the finest mind of this or any age. There’s what I know: the shrieking violin solos, the daylong sulks, and the chemical experiments that regularly blow out the windows of our flat. When she’s feeling ironic, she calls herself the defender of nations and the finder of lost dogs. But none of that’s the real Sofia Hunter.

   Not that I know the real Sofia. Nobody does, including her. But from the moment we locked eyes in the subway car to the night we set the Palace on fire, I knew there was no one else like her. She saved my life, and I think I saved hers. Sofia Hunter is the most dangerous woman in London, and she’s my best friend.

   But I’m getting ahead of myself. This story begins on the morning of my first wedding, the last time I ever ruined breakfast.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Comic Books You Should Be Reading: Smoke and Mirrors

When I was a kid, my family wasn’t much for going on vacation during the summer. My dad rarely got time off work, and we usually didn’t have the money for it, so my mom compensated by taking my brothers and me to the library as much as humanly possible. It was a good call; we were all avid readers, and since buying books was an activity usually restricted to birthdays, Christmas, and report cards (one book per straight-A card, as I recall), the library was the best way to feed our habits. And so every summer, after a school year spent reading fiction that took me out of my daily classroom life, I would pick a nonfiction subject that interested me and read everything the library had to say about it. One summer it was the Aztec and Maya empires; one summer it was carousel-horse carving.

One summer it was magic. 

I read all the books and did all the usual kiddie-magic tricks, and found I was pretty good at the patter but only average at misdirection and terrible at anything involving manual dexterity. I needed weeks of practice to master a simple Svengali deck, and the only trick I could reliably manage was the pin-proof balloon. But I devoured stories of famous magicians, and I treasured the copy of Houdini on Magic that I dug up in a used bookstore—not least because it was actually written by Walter Gibson, a.k.a. Maxwell Grant, creator of The Shadow. And while I admit to treasuring the grimy “lucky” quarter I got from a street magician when I was 15, it’s been a while since I’ve felt the thrill of seeing a trick I couldn’t figure out, or watching someone’s eyes widen as I did the impossible.

But now, thanks to a new comic from IDW, a bit of that magic is back.

Smoke and Mirrors is a hugely under-publicized comic that has several strikes against it, marketing-wise—no famous names attached to the writing or art, no popular franchise characters in prominent roles, no connections to the big crossover of the moment. But the story itself, and the characters it contains, make that lack of attention quite an injustice. Put simply, Smoke and Mirrors  is the ultimate magic comic, whether you like the witches-and-wizards sort of magic or the cards-and-coins variety—because it’s got both.

The premise, as much as you can pick it out from the maddeningly mysterious first issue, is that there’s a world where magic runs everything the way technology runs ours. A Steve Jobs-like magical innovator gives a presentation on the hot new gesture spells that can run everything from construction cranes to microwave ovens, and even kids can use “slates” (which look a lot like tablet computers) to perform such simple spells as seeing through a cat’s eyes. In this world we find a troubled boy named Ethan, who stumbles into something sinister on a school trip to an Apple-like facility. Ethan is fascinated by a strange man who stands in a public square in the bad part of town, seemingly performing the most advanced magic ever seen (the equal of the newest stuff from the idea factory) and dazzling audiences with his powers. Though this man goes unnamed in the first issue of the comic, publicity materials identify him as Terry Ward, and he is a totally ordinary stage magician, apparently from our world.

That’s right. A stage magician using his illusions to survive in a world full of actual magic. And it gets better, because the comic itself plays a literal magic trick on the audience.

I’m serious. Writer Mike Costa works with professional illusionist Jon Armstrong (a consultant on The Mentalist, among other things) create tricks for Terry to do, in full view of the readers—and I’ve never yet met someone who saw through the tricks on the first reading. Even me, and I was warned by the guy at the comic shop to watch Terry’s every move! IDW claims that each issue of the comic will contain such a trick, and so far Armstrong seems to know what he’s doing.

There’s plenty of mystery and excitement if you’re not a magic nerd, too, of course—including a talking cat and something hinky with those gesture-based spells. But as of Smoke and Mirrors #1, it’s Terry himself who commands most of my attention, with his suitcase full of rings and rabbits and decks of cards and at least one thing common in our world that Ethan’s never seen before. But I won’t spoil that surprise for you.

After all, I couldn’t bear to ruin the illusion.

Monthly issues of Smoke and Mirrors are $3.99 apiece, and available at your local comic shop. I encourage you to go pick one up; the more copies creator-owned comics like this sell, the greater the chance that there will be more issues to enjoy.  

Maybe I’ll finally learn to pull a quarter out of someone’s ear …