Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes is my first new writing project of 2017. It is going to be a serial, but I’m doing a ton of writing for it well in advance to allow for better editing and more consistent updates. To help generate interest and whet the appetite of potential audience members, I’m going to be sharing snippets about it, mostly in the form of character sketches, behind-the-scenes-info, and worldbuilding info.
This is the first such post, concerning the character of J.J. Masterson, AKA Labrys.
The Long Journey
One of the things I’ve realized about my most prolific writing periods is that even though I never do a lot of prep before I start writing, I have a solid bedrock foundation for it in that I have spent most of my life making up characters and stories. The story that became Star Harbor Nights was based on a roleplaying game campaign I sketched out but never ran in college, which was based in a shared universe of superheroes that I bruited about with my older brother when we were teenagers. (Many of whom originated in various roleplaying game systems.)
Most of the characters who featured prominently in my Star Harbor stories were original creations to my twenties. The idea of the universe went back to my high school days, but the characters I created then tended to be a bit bland in terms of personality and overpowered. In fact, in retrospect, a lot of them were more like sets of powers than fully sketched-out characters.
So, when I started the project that became the Secret Sisterhood of Superheroes, I began by taking some of those character concepts and fleshing them out, attaching them to distinct personalities and identities.
One of my very first original superheroes was a character whose powers came from a magical golden axe. This character was created using the hilariously misnamed Palladium Heroes Unlimited system, whose flaws were not really that apparent to me as a starry-eyed tween. We’d just come back from a family vacation where I’d played a lot of the video game Golden Axe in the hotel’s arcade, and I was also kind of into Marvel’s Thor and even more so Black Knight, and “gets a limited selection of powers from a magical weapon” was one of the 12 or so character concepts the system supported, so.
I never came up with a better name for the character than “Golden Axe”, which wasn’t a great superhero name even if it wasn’t on the nose about the inspiration. So I called the character–who was then male–“Magic Axe”, which was shortened and went through various permutations until I arrived at “Majacks” and decided it was the character’s last name. I went between Jeffrey and Jonathan as first names, before deciding that it would be Jeffrey Jonathan Majacks.
I actually used this version of the character in a short-lived web fiction thing at some point (I don’t remember when, exactly), a shared universe experiment.
Majacks was the leader of a team of superheroes with JLA-type god-like cosmic power levels, and he held that position because was actually the closest to being a mere mortal. It was a matter of keeping the public’s trust and keeping some perspective for the team’s operations. His personality was pretty much generic tough guy hero. Principled and stubborn, yet rebellious.
I’ve tried writing the character into stuff (including the aforementioned experiment) but he never actually resonated with me, probably because large portions of him were based more in what I thought a superhero was supposed to be than anything else. His uniform was a vaguely organic suit of high tech armor that was conjured when he activated the axe, and I never found a great way to justify it, but it seemed like an essential part of the concept at the time?
So, the thing that became my design document/story bible for Secret Sisterhood began with my decision to bring my oldest superhero to life in a real way. I started by writing the name, then erased “Majacks” and wrote “Masterson” instead. The project was not yet about a sisterhood, but the next question I asked was: was there an actual reason the character was male? The original team had been envisioned as being six men and one woman at its core, with another couple guys and one more woman as a sort of auxiliary/occasional members. It’s the model I was most familiar with. The classic core of the Justice League is six men and one woman, for instance.
So I erased “Jeffrey Jonathan” and, after some consideration, wrote “Jennifer Joy” instead. I immediately realized the character would go by “J.J.” Already the names were suggesting more of a personality than Jeffery Jonathan Majacks ever had. I saw J.J. as being bouncy, friendly, ebullient.
While I was working with this, I had a conversation with Jack about a tweet that used the variant swear form of “hecking”. I don’t remember what the tweet said or even what it was about, only that it was both endearing and hilarious in the way that mis-minced oaths so often are. There is this childlike sub-set of the weird social media genre that has a lot of overlap with the “queer kid” sub-culture: those who self-identify as queer and perhaps even more aggressively as young. They’re the ones trying new things, pushing boundaries, playing with language and identity, developing and refining ideas and vocabulary like they’re plaything.
I started locating J.J.’s personality there. She’s is very immersed in internet culture, neither conversant nor concerned with social norms, and as a college graduate in her early twenties, she’s still connected to aspects of youth culture.
As I found her voice, I realized she was skewing towards a very particular point in the Venn diagram of weird internet and queer youth. There’s a phenomenon I’ve been noticing about the social mediums where younger queer folks are not just reclaiming “queer” but are also staking out the various negative associations “gay” has picked up over the schoolyards that have nothing to do with sexuality or identity: not gay as in queer, but gay as in cares about stuff. Gay as in has a lot of feelings. For decades (at least), kids have been using “gay” the way they use “dork”, and a generation of self-identified queer dorks who have come of age or are coming of age on the internet are embracing this connection.
I find this fascinating and liberating. So where other characters I’ve written who are lesbian or bisexual women in their late teens or early twenties have all had an element of angsty self-loathing to them, J.J. is an unapologetic “big gay dorkwad”. It says so right on the top of her blog, in the bio line right beneath the heading “only g*sh can judge me”. J.J. is the sort of person who would respond to a supervillain’s monologue with “Tag yourself: I’m ‘insolent bugs’.”
J.J. is something that Jeffery Jonathan wasn’t, and my angsty early 21st century superhero stories were not often enough: fun. She likes herself. She likes other people. She likes you, and she wants you to succeed. She represents feel-good Twitter/Tumblr. She retweets @RespectfulMemes and @a_single_bear. I’ve been sharing snippets of dialogue with and involving her on the social mediums because they make me smile so often.
The Powers of Labrys
The original version of Majacks never had a decent origin story. It was so deus ex machina (guy sort of finds a magical golden axe, just sort of there) that I eventually determined he was guided to it by a group of interdimensional aliens who had tried to make him a champion on a thousands of parallel worlds by running him through various superhero origin scenarios (most of them ended badly).
I kind of like that as an idea, to be honest, and it might make an appearance for J.J. or someone else, but J.J.’s origin as it appears in the story so far will give her a reason for being where she is and what happens that stand on its own.
The short version is that there is an apparently Minoan artifact that is actually an alien energy storage device that is on display in a museum. A man arrives just before closing and attempts to open the device, J.J. tussles with him, and they’re both bathed in its energies. The energy J.J. absorbs essentially converts her into the new storage medium, giving her a device (which manifests as a bronze double-bladed axe, or labrys) that can tap the power inside her body, and absorb or release additional energy. The alien energy sustains and enhances her body, giving her enhanced physical abilities.
Her Role In The Story
As the one going through a superhero origin, J.J. is the initial focal character for the ensemble story. Once the band gets together, she will not be the leader of the team (which will take a less hierarchical structure than my childhood version did) but instead be the heart of it, the team puppy dog and the impetus for the other members to try hard and give a care, and to get along. This will remain true even if some of the other people on the team find her personality and aesthetic grating; she’s just so hecking earnest about everything that it’s hard to let her down.
The man who was trying to use the alien device intended to become a living god using it. The actual results (being transformed into a bull-monster who is strong and has certain powers, but not exactly god-like to his thinking) do not match his expectations, and he both blames J.J. for stealing “his” power and believes that she is the key to unlocking true omnipotence.
Dubbing himself Minos, he dedicates himself to wresting the axe from J.J. and using it to take her power from himself, a quest that is complicated by the fact that the axe is one of the only things that can easily hurt him. (It kind of cuts both ways, so to speak.)
In terms of personality and motivation, Minos is an alt-right supervillain. He identifies with the more tacitly respectable, suit-and-tie portion of the movement, and sees the recent electoral victory of their anointed candidate as an endorsement of the will to power, which emboldened to seize the opportunity to gain ultimate power for himself.
J.J. is polyamorous and defines her long-term relationships more in terms of intense friendships than traditional romantic structures, though she enjoys making and receiving romantic gestures. She forms a strong bond with a nurse who briefly tends her (rapidly-vanishing) wounds after the incident where she gains her powers and who really needs someone to take care of her for a change after an unsatisfying long-term relationship, and shares an unacknowledged mutual attraction with future teammate Cassandra Davies, the scientist and secret operative who helps her evaluate her powers. She will form a relationship of mutual support with another future team member, whose uncontrollable energy generation/expulsion powers she’ll be able to help moderate with her energy control/absorption abilities, while also powering herself up using them.
Ties To Earlier Stories
J.J. is a fan of queer musician/mystic hero Tigerlily, whose debut solo album They Won’t Let Me Call This One Natalie Merchant just came out in 2015.