My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome J. M. McDermott to talk about how his power of Ha Do Ken relates to Maze.
I am old enough, or young enough, to have played Street Fighter II in arcades without an inkling of expectation that it might enter the home console market at some point. I remember this well because the only place I ever had a chance to play it was at a local movie theater. If you were any good at it, you’d miss your movie. My friend, Ben Drake, was very good at it. I was not. I looked over his shoulder while he took on kid after kid, pounding them into virtual submission, while one of our mothers nagged us about how we were going to miss the movie we went there to see.
My preferred character were generally Dhalsim or Ryu. Ben preferred Guile or Chun Li. I liked the cheap slow fireball and the medium kick trick that wailed inexperienced players, but it was not a serious affinity, just a desire for easy victories where I could find them. Ryu really was the one I felt a strange affinity towards, and whom I favored for most serious soda-fueled showdowns with serious players. I liked the spinning kick thing. I liked the ridiculously intense upper cut (which would be very useless in real life). I also liked the magic power ball that shot from his soul out towards the enemy in a burst of energy.
I can’t jump and spin kick anymore; I haven’t done martial arts since I was 19. I certainly don’t throw my hand up in the air, exposing my ribs to whatever comes next while jumping up and down. But I still do the Ha Do Ken. I build these swirling balls of energy inside of me. I push them out into the world. I howl.
Non-sequitor: Van Halen is an amazing guitarist and has produced some righteous jams, but no one could ever convince me that it is little more than technical wizardry propping-up party music. It is the sonic equivalent of a Michael Bay film. It is also corollary to a lot of populist fictions that are technically proficient — nay, dazzling — yet vapid and insipid and worth no serious inquiry beyond the machineries of plot. There’s no soul in them. There’s no beating heart of compassion and love. There’s just driving above the speed of 55, and jumping, and the moment of right now as a forced, ridiculously-parodied false epiphany.
My friend Ben was a wizard of Street Fighter II. Man, he could miss the movie and defend his place all day among the arcade kids at the Forum 303 Mall. A talented musician, Ben had timing down. He could flip and sonic boom and tear the other kids up. I have no doubt he has gone on to great things. I bet he still plays piano with technical wizardry. He was like Van Halen. He was never a Gillian Welch, where a heart was exposed in the music.
There’s lots of folks who can play piano. There’s lots of folks who can make cocaine-fueled party love to guitars and lots of folks who can write good books. I have no doubt Ben is out in the world doing just fine where he’s at, earning a good living at something honest and finding lots of ways to keep his talented hands busy. (His step-dad would rebuild abandoned Triumph automobiles in his spare time and sell them, for instance, and that’s pretty goddamn impressive for a super power if you ask me.)
But that’s not my super-power. I may not do much in this life, but I can do the Ha Do Ken.
It takes years to build up the ball of energy and emotion. When I was writing Maze, I was a security guard at an art museum, riding my bike when I could, and living in a library when I wasn’t in an apartment with cats that couldn’t come out to see me if I wasn’t feeding them. I went to my ten-year high school reunion alone; it was fun, and I ran into some nice folks who haven’t spoken to me since. That night, I had a dream of a light that flew through the air. This puff of light floating like a dustball or the seed of the cottonwood had a simple statement and a simple request. My name is Jenny. Put me in your lung. Breathe deep. In the dream, I did. I gave birth to this dark creature out of my lung, like Eve falling from Adam’s rib. The sequence of events described in Joseph’s section of MAZE are transcribed as straight from the dream as I could do it when I woke up that morning, where I had spent the night dragged into the Maze, surviving there.
I had been working on this idea and working on it. I wrote a short story about it, where I was thinking that if I ever got pulled into the Labyrinth — Jim Henson’s brilliant and evocative children’s film, The Labyrinth — I would never reach the center in time. I would fail and have to carve my life out from the stone and rocks and ruins. I’d have to find other survivors, form tribes, and build barricades where I could survive the winter.
I built my ball of emotion, my ball of energy and light and loneliness and paranoia and anger and hope and wrapped it all up in this mosaic. I pushed it through my hands, through the air itself. Ha Do Ken.
Maze is alive in the world, and it will strike you hard if you encounter it. If I did a good job, it might even knock you off your feet.
J. M. McDermott is the author of four novels and two short story collections including Last Dragon, Women and Monsters, and When We Were Executioners. Find him on the web at jmmcdermott.blogspot.com and see if you can find him at the Twig Bookshop in February 1, in San Antonio, TX, to sign copies of his latest novel, MAZE.