Thursday, June 27, 2013

Face Front, True Believers!

One of the things I miss about message-board culture, since my withdrawal from it, is the sense of play — the writing prompts and games that were such sterling triggers for creativity, or at least reliable distractions from what I was supposed to be writing, and which gave the scene (at its best) the aura of a genuine literary salon.

Esteemed Internet chum Andrew Weiss has been aiming to bring some of that spirit back, with the Ultimate Powers Jam feature on his blog Armagideon Time. Participating writers and artists receive from Andrew a set of statistics, generated at random from an old Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game rulebook, and use them to create a comic-book style character, complete with backstory.
The results — some of pro-quality, some amateurish, all imbued with an unhinged enthusiasm — have been glorious. The random element produces some weird combinations of abilities and weaknesses, and making all those aspects work together has a surreal aspect. It’s the superhero equivalent of the Comte de LautrĂ©amont’s “chance meeting, on the dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” These are comic books I’d like to read — certainly moreso than anything that Marvel is actually publishing, these days. Naturally, I wanted in.
Now, I can draw, just a little, and if worse came to worst I figured I could dash off a sketch of my character myself; but I’d been casting about for a some collaborative project to do with my elder child — a fabulous artist whose natural habitat is Tumblr, and who has done enough round-robins and fan-community art challenges to know how this stuff works.
This is the prompt that Andrew gave us, in its entirety:
The character comes from a race of mutants whose powers manifest during childhood.
He/she has the ability to shape and control light across the spectrum as well as the power to make stuff blow up by obliterating its molecular bonds. These powers require quite of bit of energy to use, and overexertion could lead to a period of "mandatory cooldown."
The character is a poor combatant, despite being superhumanly strong and tough. He/she is also extremely intelligent, with intuitive thinking skills to match.

What’s been interesting about the Jam is how the participants use or do not use the existing Marvel Universe elements. The company’s cosmology, its roster of secret societies, alien species, and super-science think tanks, can be a great time-saver. And had I looked at that “race of mutants” line and thought, “Oh, right, the Inhumans or whatever,” my jam piece would have taken about ten minutes to write.
Instead, I disregarded the Marvel Universe elements entirely and started creating a world and a backstory from scratch. When I was done, I had something that looked like a pitch document for a series of Young Adult books, and to my delight Claire illustrated it in a style to match.
You think there is only one world, and you think you know your place in it.

You think your name is Judy Hatch, and that you’re a normal middle-school girl — quiet, a bit big for your age, not particularly athletic. You live with your family in a boring suburb. You like to read about science, you take piano lessons, you bicker with your brother. You’re smart; you suspect you may be a genius. You notice things that others don’t, and occasionally it gets you into trouble. But mostly you do not think of yourself as anything but ordinary.

Occasionally you daydream — as children do — that your parents are not your parents, and that you have a destiny Somewhere Else. Not that you are a princess, or anything (don’t be stupid, that stuff is for babies), but that you are in some way extraordinary, and that one day your real parents will take you away from the drab sameness of your little town and off to a new world of magic and danger and excitement, where you will be understood and appreciated, and where you will never, ever be bored.

You know that this is only a daydream, though. Until the day that it isn’t.

It’s summer — just before your eleventh birthday — and you’re camping with your family at the dumb state park, like always. It’s not like you’ve been fighting with them, really; but the weather is lousy and you’ve been cooped up in the tent with your brother, who is annoying as only a 14-year old boy can be. And it’s not like you’re running away when you leave camp and hide in one of the caves that dot the hillside just off the trail. You just want some time to yourself. And to let your family realize how much they’d miss you, if you were gone.

But of course your parents freak. You’re barely settled before they’re running around, calling your name, like it’s a rescue mission. Then your dad’s outside the cave, and it’s so unfair. You’re not ready to be found. Not just yet.

But when he looks into the cave, his eyes just ... look past you.
And when he shines his flashlight into the darkness, its beam sort of ... slides around you, somehow.

And he moves off to look elsewhere, calling your name again.

You reflect on the oddness of this, and you’re thinking it’s a good time to go back to camp. It’s getting late, and the cave is uncomfortably hot, and you think you may be coming down with something (and you never get sick). But before you can make your way out, something shifts in the slope above the cave entrance, and a half-ton of rocks slide down, blocking the exit. Suddenly you are very scared, trapped in darkness, wishing you had a light, even the spark of a match.

As you wish this, tiny dots of pure white light crackle from your body, coalescing into a luminous globe that lights up the cave. You would marvel at your newfound ability to manipulate light and darkness, but you are still trapped, and feeling feverish. You run your hand over the debris blocking your path. Solid. Too heavy to shift. 

You remember reading something about dark matter — how it makes up 85% of the mass of everything. If you could light up that darkness, you could clear away 85% of the rockpile in front of you. Impossible. And as you think this, the wall in front of you dissolves into atoms, its very substance disassembled on a molecular level.

You stumble out of the cave into the night, thirsty and burning with fever. And waiting for you is a stranger, elegant Edwardian-style suit somehow seeming not at all out-of-place in the forest twilight. His name, he tells you, is Alleyn Adargi, and he has something to tell you that will change your life forever.

The world you thought you knew, he tells you, is false. There is not one human species, but two, one hidden from the other. For living alongside Homo sapiens is the secret race Homo obscura. They call themselves Cryptothropes. Alleyn Adargi is one of them.

And so are you.
And he has come to restore you to your long-lost heritage.

The rest of the story — well, that’s the next next book.

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