Freeform Friday

Path of the Just

dreams

The chief concern of the Just is the well being of the many; of least concern is himself
One who is Just shall harm no one, unless the lives of other are at stake
One who is Just shall help all those who require his aid, even his greatest foe
The values of the Just are Honor, Loyalty, Valor, Discipline, Faith and Humility
One who is Just shall judge not through words, but deeds
One who is Just shall give his life before violating a vow of honor
One who is just must always allow for the possibility that he is wrong

I wrote those an early version of those words in college, as the prelude to a story featuring characters I had already spent quite some time with. They had undergone several permutations by then, with more to follow. I’d have to go back to the filing cabinet with all my old stories to remember what the story itself was about(probably something grim and overwrought, given the tone of my work at that point), and it’s unimportant. I can’t remember writing those words above either, nor do I remember where their collective name come from, but they’ve lingered far longer than the story they were attached to.

At the bottom of the page, those lines ended with the phrase The Path of the Just.

Eagle eyed viewers may have noticed that same name as a subsection in my writing links. Starting this week, I’m going to start posting a serialized story that takes place in a world shaped by those words, a world populated by half-human, half animal hybrids called Emejre, and a world that has been in my head, in some form or another, for more than half my life. I want to share that world, its characters and its stories, with all of you. But first, I want to explain how it came to be, and a rough idea of what it is.

HS-29

Walt Disney once said it all started with a mouse, and for me it all started with a rabbit.

I’m not trying to suggest I’m in Walt’s league, or that the character who would in time become my main protagonist was a fraction as memorable as Mickey, but that’s where our story begins.I was in seventh grade, which in Oklahoma at that time was the first year of junior high school. For the first time, I could pick my own classes and opted to take art. I’d love to tell you this allowed me to develop my art skills and I went on to great things, but my artistic flare was little more than an ember, and hasn’t gotten much larger since.

But that art class was where I met HS-29 for the first time.

To set the scene, I need to give just a little background. By the late 80s and into the early 90s, the toy lines I’d grown up with, like G.I. Joe, Transformers and He-Man, had started to fade into obscurity. They were replaced by those infamous heroes in a half shell, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While a lot of other kids my age were eager to leave cartoons and toys behind and enter teenagerdom, I couldn’t quite let go, and so I fell into the Turtles craze about the same time other people were getting into music, movies and sports.

At the same time, I spent a lot of time around my older brother and his friends and I found myself dabbling in their worlds as well. In particular, I started role playing with them, and while we played a lot of different games(including an incredibly fun wrestling game called Champions of the Galaxy), I fell in love with Marvel Super Heroes, a comics based RPG from the same company that made Dungeons and Dragons. In addition to playing as familiar characters like Captain America and Wolverine, the games had a system for creating your own super heroes and villains. A later supplement, The Ultimate Powers Book1, expanded that character creation system, and I fell in love with the idea of making my own superheroes and telling their adventures.

It came together one day when we walked into the local hobby shop and found a new game on the shelf: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. At this point, I had no idea about the other Turtles, the ones from the original, gritty black and white comics, and the game book had sections of those comics as well as a character creation guide. I went home and couldn’t stop reading it, and though it was more complicated than the Marvel game2, I wanted to learn more about it.

Maybe I’d been predisposed at a young age, as I loved Thundercats and thought the animal characters from He-Man were really cool, and of course there’s Disney’s Robin Hood as well. I also fell in love with a then-obscure Marvel limited series called Rocket Raccoon, an oddball tale of anthropomorphic animals illustrated by a young artist named Mike Mignola, who would later go on to create Hellboy. Wherever it came from, the idea of creating my own anthro characters really appealed to me, and when we were given the chance to draw anything we wanted in art class, my mind went in that direction almost right away.

Maybe it was Blackjack O’Hare, a mercenary supporting character from the Rocket Raccoon comic that influenced my choice, or the introduction of the new character Usagi Yojimbo on the Ninja Turtles cartoon. Maybe it went further back, to when Swift Heart Rabbit was my favorite Care Bear Cousin. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remembered a movie called The Adventures of the American Rabbit that I probably haven’t thought of in at least a decade3. Maybe it all swirled together, but it all came together and I started to draw a rabbit character.

originalhs
You see why this is a writing and photography site.

I think that’s what it is, anyway.

I started to jot down details, details that made him little more than a cheap knockoff of the Ninja Turtles. Instead of pizza, he had a love of peanut butter. He was outfitted from head to toe in red white and blue, that early version incredibly patriotic(maybe that American Rabbit movie had more of an impact than I thought). I was really proud of what I was coming up with.

Then another kid next to me saw it and started laughing, and I refused to show the class when it came time to share our work. I felt completely embarrassed, and I remember wanting to take the pages out and just throw it all away. After class, our teacher Mrs. Strube stopped me and wanted to hear all about the character, and told me not to let what the other kids thought influence me. I might not have been destined to be a great artist, but I’ll always fondly remembering her for taking a moment to encourage a kid to not listen to the ridicule and not to give up on something I loved because of what one person said.

And though he wouldn’t be remotely close to that same character, HS-29 would stick around for a while, maybe even longer than Mrs. Strube ever expected.

From el Matador to Path of the Just

While art fell by the wayside before long, my passion for writing grew over the years. For a long time, one of the Christmas presents I got every year was at least one package of blank notebooks, and I cherished getting that gift. I filled most of them up, with character profiles and story starters and scripts for video projects to shoot with my cousins. I used the AppleWorks program on our Apple //c more than the games, and in seventh grade I’d already written a complete, hand written novelization of the Mega Man games4. Even into high school, I would fill paper after page with my horrible hand writing.

In high school we upgraded to an IBM clone PC, and I discovered the online service Prodigy. I wrote there as well, and for the first time shared my work with other people. I’m not sure the term fanfic had been coined just yet5, but that’s what I did, telling the further adventures of games like Final Fantasy IV. Those stories were filled with self insert characters, but no one really cared at that point. I loved having an audience for my work, and to hear that people took their time to read what I’d written.

Towards the end of high school, I’d started to write out the adventures of several of my Marvel Super Heroes characters as short stories and novels. At first, I wrote a Superman-esque character named Starsmasher, and then on a suggestion from my best friend tried to adapt my version of Mega Man(who by now I knew was nothing like the character in the games) into a new character, who I called Matrix. The stories were, in a way, fan fiction, taking place in the Marvel universe with characters from the X-Men showing up from time to time. At one point, I needed an interesting villain for him to fight, and I turned back to HS-29’s world.

originalklaw
He’s holding a scimitar, not a giant banana. At least I think so.

I’d written more about him in junior high, and I’d come up with the idea that he was one of thousands of test subjects, and so I used that as the basis. At some point, probably way back in elementary school, I’d drawn pictures of a group of character I dubbed “American Slaughterhouse”, and one of them was a wolf named TerrorKlaw. TerrorKlaw ended up leading a group of anthro characters who were pro-environment terrorists, determined to end mankind’s abuses on animals.6

Look, I never said any of this was good, okay?

That story written, I came up with the idea of a big bad, something that would require Starsmasher and Matrix to work together, and I loved the idea of another of HS-29’s species showing up in the midst of all this. I drew up a horrid sketch of this non-specific animal character. To my surprise, I really enjoyed writing this new hero(whose ID number I can’t remember), and I started writing more stories about him. Drawing inspiration from two of my favorite cartoons at the time, Batman the Animated Series and Gargoyles, I started to take this new character in a darker, more brooding direction, and eliminated the connections to Marvel completely.

cmcd-firstmatador
The original el Matador

I started talking about the idea during Spanish with a fellow classmate of mine(you’d think listening to this I didn’t get a lot accomplished in high school. And, um… well let’s not talk about my Chemistry grades, okay?), and we decided to try and turn it into a comic book. When I learned the history of the bull fight and why matadors were important to the culture, I realized I couldn’t think of a comic character off hand who used that name, and instead of using a serial number like HS-29, the lead became el Matador. I showed my classmate my horrible “battle body” sketch, and he took it in a completely different direction.

The comic never came together, but I kept writing el Matador stories while I was at college. Since I majored in film at the time, I even wrote a full length screenplay that fleshed out the world. And as fate would have it, my fandom interests would eventually lead me to meet an incredibly talented artist who was making original characters of her own, and we would talk for hours on end about them. And one day, she

owen-ballpoint-sketch - Copy
Christie’s first drawing of Owen Matthias

sent me a care package that included artwork of several of my characters.

And from that point forward, my future wife helped me in bringing those characters to life.

Over the years, we talked and the stories continued to change. At some point, I realized the super powerful Matador character wasn’t as interesting to me. I’d read plenty about the hero’s journey, and that made me consider a new hero, someone on the outside looking in and who would have to grow into his role as hero.

I remembered HS-29, renamed him Owen Matthias, and started to write once more. And without its titular hero, I renamed the series Path of the Just.

What’s Next

It’s taken me a long time to move forward with Path, for a variety of reasons. I think it’s a story that required me to grow, both as a writer and as a person, before I felt confident telling it. I recently started listening to The Accidental Creative Podcast, and Todd Henry closes out each episode by saying, “Cover bands don’t change the world . . . you need to find your unique voice if you want to thrive.” For years, I tried too hard to make the story into something that would fit easier into a particular category, or would check all the boxes someone else felt made for a great story. It’s only been over the last year or two that I’ve realized I’ll only ever be truly happy with these stories if I’m honest about what I want to write.

As I’ve talked about here before, I’ve also cultivated a really obnoxious pessimism about my work. I nicknamed this “Eeg” early on, my Evil Editor Gremlin. I’ve looked at so many things I’ve written and have tended to pick at them and analyze them to death. Eeg’s really kept me from putting a lot of my work out there, and since Path is near and dear to my heart, it’s also the thing I’ve been most critical with.

And well, I suppose we’ve got to address the elephant in the room, don’t we? There’s a problem when you write about anthropomorphic animals. One thing that’s been hard about writing this has been trying to put this in a delicate way. Perhaps we could just say that there is a very, well, eclectic fan base for anthro characters, and that fan base has colored a lot of things(and please, don’t try to Google for more information if you aren’t already familiar). There are people who won’t even look at a story with a half human, half animal cast, and some artists will refuse to draw them even if paid for the work. Path has been no exception, and it’s not fun to see something you love judged for things beyond your control.

Like I said earlier, I grew up on things like the Thundercats, Ninja Turtles and the original Rocket Raccoon comic. While I was in school, I took classes on animal behavior and thought there were interesting elements of that you could work into characters. But most important is the fact that animal fables have been around forever, and there are expectations and ideas from those that are fun to play with as a writer. While I’ve stepped away from the grittier version of this story for the most part, there are subjects I want to tackle that aren’t easy. There are ways to use these characters as allegories that don’t depend on people’s preexisting notions, and maybe it’s easier to learn those kinds of lessons if you’re one step removed from the conflict.

Thank goodness for Zootopia. That film’s success, and really nuanced and wonderfully crafted message, might lead people to give these stories a chance. I know Path of the Just isn’t in that league, and it’s different in a lot of ways. But there are lots of different ways you can take anthro stories, and I think Zootopia has opened the door for that. If I can tell a story that’s a fraction as well constructed and moving as that film, I’ll consider it a great accomplishment.

I don’t know where Path of the Just will ultimately go, but I’ve been sitting on it too long and telling myself that “one day” I’ll do something with it. Am I scared that it will go nowhere? Of course. You’ve got to accept that failure is a possibility. But if I can find even just a small fanbase for this quirky little story and these characters I’ve been living with for so long, I’ll be happy. But the only way that will happen is if I take a chance and share those stories with the world.

Dreams

I’d been working on a draft of a novel for Path of the Just for a few months when Christmas came around. The story revolved around Owen Matthias finding another Emejre still trapped within a splinter lab, and the two of them trying to find their way to safety. When she first sees Owen, RD-01 rushes over and locks him into a tight embrace.

I had no idea what my wife had planned for my gift that year, but when she handed me the present and I unwrapped it, I was blown away. She’d given me a stunning image of Owen and RD-01 from that scene in the manuscript, their arms wrapped around each other. In text below the image, she wrote out “Hold onto your dreams.” It’s still my favorite image from Path of the Just, and I’m even looking up at it as I write this.

I’ve never let those dreams go since, but now I finally have the confidence to share them as well.

You can find the first installment of “The Third Rule” here.

 

Footnotes

1 – I still have my copy of this book, and I actually consult it from time to time when I’m creating new characters for Path. It’s a pretty great resource.

2 – This is no exaggeration, I once had somebody I gamed with say the problem with the Turtles game was that you spend an hour creating a character who’d die in two minutes.

3 – Fun fact: I dragged my brother and a friend to see this instead of seeing Back to the Future a second time because I really hated the scene were Doc Brown gets shot. Yes, I know, I need to surrender my geek card now. In my defense, I was still kind of young at the time.

4 – I sent this to Christie before I moved to California, and she still has it. I think that’s really sweet, though the fact that she agreed to marry me suggests she never actually read it, which is probably for the best.

5 – What’s interesting is that “fanfic” did exist in the early days of science fiction fandom among the ‘zine writers, but was generally a derogatory term for work that was really poor and amateurish. In other words, it fit what I was doing either way.

6 – I mention TerrorKlaw because that character remains a part of the current Path story, and also to have an excuse to show how Christie took that terrible artwork and transformed it into something amazing:

terrorklaw new copy

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