Posts Tagged ‘superheroes’

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On May 16th, Meerkat Press will release their eagerly awaited superhero anthology Behind the Mask. (It’s available for pre-order now and the advance reviews have been great and the table of contents boasts some exciting names.)

This is particularly relevant to me because my Cobalt City story “Madjack” happens to be between those pages–a fact I couldn’t possibly be happier about. It’s particularly joyous for me, because the concept of Madjack has been kicking around in my cranium in some capacity since late 1991. And I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy because the two initial inspirations were Marvel’s Captain Britain with a costume that was more Jack of Clubs and less flag and… wait for it… Freddie Mercury.

The original Madjack was a British man with a terminal illness who could hold off death but only as long as he remained in his transformed Madjack self. Which he did for a while because he feared what would happen to him after his death. But when the time came, he accepted fate and sacrificed himself so the team could live.

Yes. The martyr trope. Such anguish. Much wow. What can I say? I was 22 and Queen’s “Show Must Go On” devastated me.

And I thought that was it. But still the idea of a Madjack–not a person so much as a concept that was passed down, a symbol of something unknown–it stuck with me on some level.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Seattle and part of a writing group that tried to turn out fresh material every other week. Somehow, Madjack resurfaced. But this time, the story centered on young man from a wealthy family in Hong Kong whose industrialist father dies under mysterious circumstances. Forced to return home from the states, he begins to uncover that his father might have been, much to everyone’s surprise, the superhero known as Madjack. And what’s more, his father wasn’t even from “around here,” and it was up to this young man to pick up his father’s mantle and legacy to avenge him.

And honestly, I never finished writing the story. Never got more than a few thousand words into it. Something was missing.

That’s the thing with what I call “junk drawer” stories. They’re often little more than neat concepts or characters looking for something else to make them complete.

I thought I had that something just a few years later when my love of early David Bowie sparked with the Madjack idea. What if, just what if Ziggy Stardust really HAD been an alien who came to Earth and became a musician? What if his own daughter didn’t really know if it was true or not? A musician in her own right, trying to forge some kind of her own path in the shadow of her exponentially more famous father, what was her story? It’s worth noting that at this point, Madjack moved away from the normal superhero tropes of “person with super strength and force fields and flight” and into something more complicated–“person with extreme empathy and projective empathy, with the other powers stepped down to take a back seat.”

I even plotted out a full novel I’d intended to write for NaNoWriMo in 2015. Called Throne of Stars, it was going to involve the new Madjack hiring John Gallows to act as her bodyguard during a week long period of shows in Cobalt City while she figured her shit out and processed her father’s death (and the followup attack of the aliens who killed him in the first place.) Think the movie The Bodyguard, but with a teleporter with self-esteem problems in the Kevin Costner role.

The problem is, I still couldn’t find the damn hook, and it was bugging the hell out of me. But I figured I could put it back in the junk drawer and let it rattle around a little bit longer. There was no pressing reason I had to write it now, right?

Then January 10th, 2016.

I was back in Durango, staying with my mom and helping my son move when I heard David Bowie died. I was a wreck for a couple of months. And let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal goddamned year.

I got talking with a few of the other Cobalt City authors, and we started kicking around the idea of writing stories about rock and roll set in the city. And I knew I had something with Madjack. I needed to do something with her. I had a few false starts, but something was missing. There was an emotional core that was missing, and I couldn’t find it.

So I went on a drive. No destination in mind, I just packed up my laptop, put a few CDs in the car stereo, and took off in a northerly direction. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your head and letting things happen. It certainly was in this case.

I don’t honestly know how many times I had to hear this particular song before it clicked, but suddenly it did. I listened to it again and things started falling into place. I kept listening to the song as I raced to the nearest place with coffee and an electrical outlet. And in doing so, I figured out the heart of the story. I posted up in a Starbucks in some anonymous mall off the interstate and dropped down the first half of the story. The next two days, I wrote the rest of that first draft and sent it out to a friend for another opinion.

I loved the hell out of it, but didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, what to do with a superhero story where no one is fighting crime? Who wants a superhero story about a person dealing with their complicated family life and questions of identity?

Then Behind the Mask showed up on my radar, looking for stories of superheroes on their downtime. It was perfect timing. Weirdly perfect timing.

So now Madjack is almost out in the world and I can hardly wait for you to read it and the other incredible stories in Behind the Mask. I think you’ll enjoy. Madjack will even play a part in the Cobalt City novel I’m currently in the middle of. Her journey is just beginning.

Oh, and the song that provided the final spark? I borrowed my protagonist’s name from it.

Available September 1, 2015

Available September 1, 2015 Cover by Luke Spooner

The following is an advance look at the next Cobalt City book, a grim look into the underworld of the city from which no one returns unchanged. Cobalt City: Ties that Bind will be available exclusively for the Kindle on September 1st, 2015.


Chapter Two—Bantam

If you keep your ear to the street like I do, you tend to hear things. For instance, I heard about group of hero nerds who created a complicated ranking system of all known capes, whether they’re heroes or villains or those like me who sort of fall in-between. They evolved this into online message boards and, believe it or not, a sort of fantasy league. I clean up on my office fantasy basketball pool but this was a kind of alchemy beyond even me. My activity on the fringes of the Cobalt City cape and cowl proved to be little to no help. But even if I wasn’t going to win any tournaments, I found their system of defining the relative “weight class” of given super powered individuals fascinating.

I was stunned to see that even I was ranked on their boards. I thought I was being discreet. Or at least as discreet as a vigilante in a rooster mask could be in this town. Apparently I wasn’t discreet enough because there I was, sixth from the bottom. To be fair, in addition to being new I hadn’t displayed any powers, just a pair of tonfa fighting batons, toe-spurs on my boots, and compact glider wings built into my costume. It made sense that I’d be feather weight. Bantam weight, if you will. The only capes ranked lower were ones I tended to think of as jokes or tourists who were going to get themselves killed in spandex. Snowflake, the panda who flew the plane for the Protectorate ranked above me.

I’ll admit, I was kind of hurt by that at first. But I had to be honest with myself. Knockabout could stop an army, locking them in place with the gravity of a dying sun. Mister Grey was a terrifying, immortal cloud of crematorium ash in human form. I could beat on a fool with my sticks. The rankings hurt, but not as much as having my spine ripped out.

I joined the cape fantasy league and was slowly figuring out the system. I made a point not to draft myself as I felt that would be unethical, especially after the corruption scandal that hit the Cobalt City Blue Blazers last season. In addition to keeping me occupied with another fantasy league, I used it as a guide to make informed decisions. When I pulled on the stylized rooster mask, I made it a habit not to pick fights outside of my weight class.

I don’t know what kind of medical plans other Cobalt City heroes might have, but I was stuck on the police department’s plan. If I showed up at my HMO with a proton blast wound, questions were going to be asked. The more questions I could avoid, the happier I’d be.

Bad enough I had a dead dad with a criminal record. Bad enough that I was woman, and barely met the department’s height guidelines at 5’ 7”. Bad enough I didn’t play well with others and hadn’t been assigned a partner since Olson transferred to vice in January. If word leaked that I put on a mask to do things as Bantam that I couldn’t do as a cop, I’d be out of a job.

I learned to embrace anonymity. You hear of people like Tree Frog or Midnight Thunder or even Gato Loco because the press loves the glamor of people in costumes stopping other people in costumes from committing crime. I vowed to keep it simple to keep under the radar. No capes. If they had a costume or powers or a name like “Dr. Destruction” or “The Reaver,” they were someone else’s problem.

I didn’t need press to feel I was making a difference. I didn’t need to climb the ranks in the fantasy league. There was still plenty of crime in Cobalt City committed by ordinary people making very bad decisions. No, it wasn’t glamorous. But even without costumes or powers, they were real monsters. They didn’t bother to wear masks because their victims were their own family, their neighbors. So I was able to work in the shadows because acknowledging me meant admitting that a person don’t need a death ray and an iron mask to be evil. No one wants to read that over their morning coffee.

When I heard that there was someone with a gun spotted entering an old hotel around the corner from me, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check. Give me a guy with a gun over some psycho with telepathic wolves any day of the week. He was relatively easy to spot, too. It was hot as balls out, and this joker was wearing a trench coat.

In retrospect, that should have been a red flag.

I didn’t recognize the fucker until he pulled on his mask at which point it was too late. He was distinctive with the mask: a black full-head affair with a giant blue circle over the face. A contract killer, new to the Cobalt City scene, he signed his two kills as “Regret.” The report said he carried two custom guns that fired a wide variety of specialized ammunition, which he proved to be true by whipping them out in the hotel lobby.

As the two midnight black hand-cannons appear from under his trench coat, I scanned for his potential targets. Despite my rooster mask, he hadn’t seemed to really notice me yet, and trained killer or not, he telegraphed his targets like a goddamned amateur. Two people stepping out of the fancy hotel bar across the lobby, a man and woman in their fifties, both white, both distinctly middle-class—not the kinds of people one usually pictured as the targets for a paid assassin. What could they have possibly done except maybe let the front lawn get a bit out of control? But in my years in Cobalt City, I’d seen people killed for less. And here I was, the only person between a contract killer and his paycheck.

There was no time to think, not even to second-guess myself. I launched a flying kick straight into Regret’s back. The impact was enough to knock him over, and the toe-spur in my boot sliced through the back of his coat. He tumbled across the worn gold-flecked maroon of the lobby carpet and came up in a crouch facing me, no worse for wear. It gave me the first good look at what he was wearing under the coat.

Kevlar body armor. Shit. That’s bad news.

I had my tonfa out, the length of each club down my forearms, ready to block. But two guns beats two sticks, especially with fifteen feet between us. I told myself that at least I bought the intended targets some time, but both of them had frozen up next to this potted plant, a big bastard with wide, deep green leaves that looked more at home in a jungle than a hotel lobby in New England. So much for hoping the rabbits would run.

“I don’t know who you are,” Regret said, “But you’ll bleed like the rest.”

Several years on the force and even more growing up in my dad’s shadow taught me the sound of a guy putting on a fake tough-guy voice. Despite the Kevlar, mask, guns, and stated occupation on his theoretical business card, this guy was not the world-class bad-ass he liked to project himself to be. That said, he was still a confirmed killer with specialized gun, body armor, and the drop on me.

He was out of my weight class. No doubt about it. FantasyCape.com would probably have given me long odds on dropping him. 45 to 1 was my guess. He opened up on me with one of his guns, and I had the good sense to recognize he wasn’t just waving them around as a threat. I flipped backwards and the shot passed inches below me as I got the hell out of the way. I came down on the other side of a leather sofa that looked as solid as a mid-sized sedan which had taken the bullet meant for me. The shot had dented the leather but not punctured it. Sandbag rounds. Non-lethal.

I doubted someone put him on retainer to tenderize this couple, so he might have balked at the idea of killing a cape. I might not be high profile, or any profile, but that kind of thing puts a target on a person’s back. There were far worse rounds he could have unloaded in my direction. His last kill had burned up from the inside out. While that target had been a sleazy banker connected to a billion dollar fraud scheme, immolation was still a hell of a way to go. At least he was going easy on me so far. I didn’t care much for his condescension, though it may have been the only thing keeping me alive at that particular juncture.

Regret must have figured me out of the fight and turned back towards his targets. I hurled one of the heavy sofa cushions at his arms with every ounce of strength I had. It might have been out of spite at being dismissed so readily, but it was enough to throw off his aim. The huge bronze-finished planter holding the jungle plant paid the ultimate sacrifice and showered the two screaming targets with dirt and ceramic dust. That was enough to get them moving, and both husband and wife, or I’m guessing husband and wife, dodged back into the hotel bar. If there was no back exit, they just boxed themselves in, but it was still better than standing in plain sight with thumbs up their respective rectums.

It still put me no closer to stopping Regret. I could close the distance, but the likelihood of getting shot at least once was phenomenally high. I crunched the numbers in my head, a skill that would have made me a great insurance actuary had I not dreamed for something different. It was automatic, an learned response to pick out this assassin’s weak points. He had his weaknesses. Everyone did. Despite the body armor on his torso and probably lighter weight armor in plating on arms and legs, his joints were still relatively unprotected. His mask looked lightly armored, flexible like ballistic weave, so it would stop penetration from a bullet and prevent slicing, but he would still be vulnerable to a blunt force trauma which I could provide in spades. But seeing a weakness and being able to exploit it were two very different beasts. For me to press my advantage, I had to get within striking distance or fling my weapons at him which was one hell of a gamble. With no practical cover between me the chances of losing my weapon or catching a bullet were high.

He must have seen my considering making a stupid decision and fired off two more shots in my direction to dissuade me. The first hit the sofa and froze it solid. The second filled my area with a choking smoke that forced me to pull back even further, behind a pillar on my left.

That’s when she showed up.

I had seen Velvet in the news for a while now, first attached to Starcom innovator Jaccob Stevens as something of a troubleshooter, and then as a member of the local superhero collective, the Protectorate. She was hot-headed. A scrapper.

As weight classes went, Regret was in for some rough learning.

He managed to squeeze off two shots at her, both of which hit her cloak and fell useless to the ground. Then she was on him, the fingers of her left hand curled in his armored chest piece like it was nothing. She lifted him off the ground and slapped him unconscious.

Not punched.

Slapped. Open palm. From where I stood, it sounded like the world’s largest belly flop and he was out like a light.

I swear on my father’s name, she looked disappointed.

Still holding the limp body of the hitman, she turned to face me. I saw her weighing the costume: rooster mask, brown bodysuit with wide stripes up the side in a deep russet. If she saw the toe spurs, she didn’t react. Most heroes didn’t wear blades. Too much risk of killing someone, which most heroes were careful about. But I wasn’t most heroes.

“Who are you?”

It would have made me happier if she had dropped Regret, but I suppose it was safer to hold onto him until the police arrived. “They call me Bantam.”

“Who calls you that?”

It was a legit question. I worked solo and struck fast, so it wasn’t like I had any serious press outside of the fantasy leagues. No one had called me much of anything out loud, let alone Bantam. I had been careful. But that had been my father’s name when he wore the same costume and it seemed every person on the damn planet had a camera on their phone now. One more thing to blame Jaccob Stevens and Starcom for, I guess. “People.”

It was enough of an answer for her and she nodded her head towards the captive. “Guess that explains the chicken mask. And what’s his name?”

I didn’t feel it was worth correcting her on the difference between rosters and chickens. “The papers call him Regret.”

She laughed, a lighter sound than I would have expected from someone with her presence, her visible strength. “Regret? Oh, that’s got to suck for him. Did he lose a bet?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” I said. “While you’re at it, you might want to ask who hired him.”

I imagine her eyebrows shot up beneath her mask though I couldn’t see it. Her entire demeanor shifted. “He’s a contract hitter?”

“Yes. No idea who hired him, but his intended targets are the couple in their fifties currently hiding out in the bar, likely reeking of their own urine. I’d really like to know why they were targets.”

Velvet looked in the direction of the bar, at Regret, back to me in quick succession. “And why should I trust you?”

“Because I held your playmate there off long enough for you to get here and stop him,” I said. I heard the approach of sirens. This part of town, they were likely from my precinct, too. I couldn’t linger. “Roof of St. Joan at midnight. I’ll share what I know.”

I got half of a nod from her. It was enough. And it was still a few hours away. Plenty of time for me to do some digging. I bolted for the stairs and took them two at a time until I hit the rooftop, somewhat winded. I wasn’t cut out for this. I knew it. Hell, Velvet probably knew it as well.

But I needed to know. It was going to drive me crazy if I didn’t. I took a few seconds on the rooftop to catch my breath before plunging off the north side of the building.

Arms out to my side, the glider fins caught the air, sent me soaring on a thermal updraft. I rode it all the way to my downtown apartment, sighting on the yellow rug hung over the railings as an easy marker.

I opened up the small plastic tool box on my tiny patio and rooted through the plastic baggies of incense until I found the pack of cigarettes I had buried there. I only allowed myself one a day, and damn if I hadn’t earned it today. Mask on the table next to me, I opened the sliding glass door to let my apartment cool off a bit while I sat at the little bistro table in the dark and smoked.
Violence was a funny thing. In the heat of the moment, anyone could be a target. But premeditated violence was something different. Give it enough forethought to hire someone to do the killing—that was something ugly and cold. It was impersonal, wanting someone dead but not needing the release of doing the act yourself, in fact cultivating that distance from the target.

In my experience, there were three kinds of people who went that route: someone who didn’t want to get caught, someone who wasn’t capable of doing the act themselves, or someone who simply believed the other person just flat out needed to die.

It made me wonder which we were dealing with.

And why.

Strong female heroes don't get much stronger than Velvet

Strong female heroes don’t get much stronger than Velvet

Frequent readers know that I have plans to put out another Cobalt City book this fall. I might have mentioned it once or twice. I might also have mentioned that it’s a bit dark.

I’m deep in my final edit pass right now, with a goal to have it formatted by the end of the month. I’ve also been talking to a cover artist who has done great work for some friends and fellow publishers. I think he’ll be a great fit for the material.

Here’s the thing.

It’s dark.

“But dude,” I hear you say, “You write horror. That’s already dark. Isn’t that like warning us that the ocean is wet?”

Yes. And so very much no.

Let me share a bit of an anecdote. Years ago I used to collaborate with a good friend of mine on screenplays. The first two were horror, and we reached an early understanding: he’d do horror, but not serial killers. His reasoning was that it was one thing to write about supernatural horrors, but he didn’t want to write about human monsters. Ultimately, he didn’t want to feed into our inherent distrust of one another. And I respect that, so no serial killers.

Yeah, I write horror. But pretty much without exception it has all been supernatural horror. I have no problem making people look twice at potentially evil finger puppets, or question what might be lurking, evil and eternal at the bottom of a cold lake. But I have pretty much steered clear of human monsters.

The next Cobalt City book is not horror. It is very much a crime story. And like Greetings from Buena Rosa, the roots of the story lie in very real life horrors. In the case of Buena Rosa, it was the large number of unsolved murders in border regions of Mexico, and police torturing innocent people into confessing so that they could show some sort of progress or resolution. In the case of the new book, it was the industry of sex trafficking.

The truth of sex trafficking and human slavery is horrifying. It’s real easy to see why we as a culture are so quick to turn a blind eye or pretend that it “doesn’t happen here.” But it does. It’s a shadow industry that, according to some studies, collectively generates more money than fast food. We’re talking billions of dollars.

It’s the kind of situation that makes me want to see heroes step in and address the problem. And rather than send Gato Loco in again, I found my heroes in Protectorate favorite Velvet and a new character named Bantam. They’ll be joined by Xia Lo, the Harlequin, enforcer for the city’s criminal syndicate. Maybe “joined” is too strong of a word…

In many ways, this book (originally called Thicker than Water but now titled Ties that Bind), is an exorcism. It’s become a deeply personal project for me. All of my point-of-view characters are female. 2/3 of them are Asian. One character is gay, another bi. In watching them navigate and confront the linked industries of human trafficking and sex slavery, I get to see them grow and change. For purely selfish reasons I get to confront a problem I find deeply problematic on a variety of fronts. And as I’m closing in on the end of this final edit pass, I recognize that it’s a damn good book despite being a brutal ride.

Yeah, it’s grim subject matter. The journey is not a fun one. Imagine Andrew Vacchs writing superhero comics in the 80’s. It felt necessary for me to write this, but I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it. Sure, there’s a glimmer of hope. These are heroes, after all. That said, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever written in Cobalt City.

But I’m publishing it anyway. I’m shelling out cash for a cover I can be proud of. I’m making the text as polished as it can be. And I’ll be dropping this dark little slice of Cobalt City out into the world sometime in late September. A tiny slice of hell at about 50,000 words in length.

I’ll be honest, it’s entirely likely that I won’t sell a single copy. While it’s certainly not the goal, it is the realistic expectation. I know that Cobalt City: Ties that Bind is a good book. It’s a book that I’m proud of. I don’t need sales or reviews to convince me of that. If you want something less grim, I encourage you to read any of the other books in the Cobalt City universe, either those written by me or by several other talented authors. Completely ignore this one. That’s fine. I don’t blame you.

But if you’re ready to take a peek into the darker corners of Cobalt City, I have a book for you.