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My Flesh is Cool #1 interior page
My Flesh is Cool #1 interior page
My Flesh is Cool #1 interior page
MY FLESH IS COOL
editorial by Steven Grant
Work as a writer in a field like comics long enough (like maybe three
days) and you'll get the question people love to ask: "Where do
you get your ideas?" A common reply is "there's a mail drop
in Ohio..." but that's so obviously snide (have any ideas ever
come out of Ohio?) that I've always thought it must be a bit offensive
to querists, who, in my experience, genuinely want to know. Though we
culturally have such a mystical viewpoint about "ideas" that
my own answer must be disappointing, and probably more than a little
It's pretty much like any trade. It just takes practice.
I first codified this a few years ago while having my hair cut. The
stylist (not that I get my hair styled, but these days if you want your
hair cut you go to salons, and in salons the barbers are called stylists)
rattled off the usual questions - How do you want your hair cut? Is
that your natural color? What do you do for a living that you can get
your hair cut in the middle of the day? Oh, really? What do you write?
Where do you get your ideas from? - and, not being in a particularly
chatty mood that day, I said: it's probably a lot like cutting hair.
Think about it. If you want to be a hair stylist, you get training.
At some point (in theory, anyway) you learn or figure out how to cut
hair. So you start cutting. For awhile, you're not quite sure what you're
doing or if you're getting it right. But after awhile, you've trained
that mental muscle. You don't concentrate on how your hand holds the
scissors or anything like that, you may not even concentrate on the
hair. You know what you're doing. Your body knows. (To paraphrase another
song, this one from Howard Devoto, your skin remembers.)
(In fact, since I made that observation, it turns out brain studies
back me up. The latest neurological investigations show that learning
a new skill causes development of new brain cells in, and functionally
a swelling of, the corpus collosum, the knot of tissue that holds the
halves of our brains together. That amount of development depends on
what skill is being learned - learning to play the violin, for instance,
causes tremendous development - but after a certain point the "educated
cells" disperse across the brain, returning the size of the corpus
collosum to normal. Which is the point where your "skin remembers."
You no longer have to actively think to access that skill, you know
how to do it. This is fascinating on another level. It has always been
thought the brain doesn't regenerate dead cells, but now it turns out
we can regenerate all we want. We just have to keep learning new skills.)
Anyway, learning to get ideas is just like learning to cut hair: practice
long enough, and after awhile it just happens.
"Getting an idea" is the act of drawing a mental line between
two dots that no one has ever drawn a line between before. No idea erupts
from nowhere, just as you can't build muscles without exercise and protein.
The "idea muscle" is just like any other muscle: it needs
to be nourished and developed to work properly. Information is our protein.
To some extent writers have to be information sponges, absorbing pretty
much everything without filters or bias. Because that's how you accrue
the raw material of ideas: information bits are the amino acids that
coalesce into ideas, and you never know which bits are going to matter.
I'm not sure how far back to trace the evolution of MY FLESH IS COOL.
Certainly it goes back at least as far as 1978, when I heard the British
rock band Ultravox sing "Artificial Life," containing the
"So we drink and sink and talk and stalk
with interchangeable enemies and friends
trying on each other's skins
while we dying to be born again"
That image always stuck with me. The band used it metaphorically; I
made the jump to a literal interpretation. That's the "line between
the dots" thing I was talking about. It took years, but the idea
slowly formed and festered in my head and became something else: what
if you could jump into someone else's body, do whatever you wanted,
then leave without a trace and without any risk of blame or punishment
for what you did there, because no one would ever know it was you and
not the person whose body you wore?
I grew up in an era when "freedom" was a topic of considerable
debate, and, for many of us, a real concern. (Then, as now, the official
stance of the status quo was that we were free to disagree with the
government as long as we did what we were told anyway.) As Americans
we pride ourselves on our "freedoms" (even as we spend an
inordinate amount of time trying to flush them down the toilet), but
there's always the question of where freedom ends and licentiousness
takes off. That fine line between freedom and license has fed many novels,
Sunday sermons and Congressional debates, but rarely without a Calvinistic
subtext wherein it's expected that the libertine will ultimately get
So the limits of freedom (as far as it can be said to be limited) has
been one of the recurring themes in my work. You might have to look
hard to spot it, but it's there. Another, which I don't get to delve
into anywhere near as much as I'd like to, is the dislocation of identity.
(It doesn't seem to be a theme that interests many editors.) It's probably
why I was attracted to the idea of "body jumping" in the first
In the mid-'80s I moved to Los Angeles, and it was there I decided to
write a spec screenplay called SLIDER. This was in the Reagan era, when
the economic and social disparity between the rich and poor in America
became striking, particularly after the relatively egalitarian '70s
- to the extent that it seemed war had been declared on the poor. Nowhere
was this more evident than in L.A., a city bursting with life and possibility
if you're filthy rich and crushingly oppressive if you're not. By now
you've probably noticed songs function as triggers for me, and here
another enters the picture: the Sex Pistols' "Holidays In The Sun."
In this case, though, it wasn't a lyric but the dust jacket for the
single that provided a trigger phrase: "a cheap vacation in someone
else's misery." And that's what I envisioned in SLIDER: the ultra-rich
indulging their every whim, particularly with sexual indulgences in
particular being made problematic by the scourge of AIDS, by transporting
their minds into other people's bodies and getting their kicks that
way, leaving the poor possessed shlub to clean up after the party's
over. In the story, this was accomplished by secret government assassination
technology - throw assassins into bodies of the trusted aides of targets
and perform the hits through them - sold to those able and willing to
pay the price to get an implant. It started with incredibly rich woman
"sliding" on her 70th birthday into the body of a Sunset Strip
streetwalker, only to be brutally murdered by a John who may or may
not have known how to prevent the woman from leaving her pilfered body
before death. (It was the illogical conceit of the story that voices
travel with spirits from body to body, and a vocal cue triggers return
to the original body, meaning if the voicebox is crushed the "slider"
can't escape.) The hero of the story, an ex-cop, comes in to track down
the real culprit, the original slider whose natural talent gave the
government the model for their technology, but who was then incarcerated
only to escape with the intent of wiping out all the other sliders.
It was an '80s kind of story. The screenplay got some interest but ultimately
didn't sell (the fate of most spec screenplays). Eventually the Sci-Fi
Channel introduced the TV show SLIDERS, about an intrepid band shifting
from parallel Earth to parallel Earth - sounded too Irwin Allen to me,
so I never watched, plus I was pissed about the name - and that was
pretty much it for SLIDER. No point in even showing it around after
that. Unless I changed the name, and I just couldn't come up with another
name I thought was any good, and, at any rate, as the '90s wore on aspects
of the screenplay just didn't seem pertinent anymore. It was time to
let it go.
I've brushed up against the theme here and there after that. When I
was writing the thankless MANHUNTER series from DC c. '95, I created
a villain called The Skinwalker, a primodial spirit/monster who stole
and wore human skins in order to function in our world, and who hung
up his victims in a closet the way we hang up our clothes. Though easily
my favorite issue of that short-lived series, it was already miles from
I've never really been very comfortable writing the standard hero, probably
due again to the era in which I grew up. The "hero" in America
is an archetype, which is a fancy way (misinterpreting Carl Jung much
the same way the overuse of the word "synchronicity" does,
and you can trust me on this because I've studied Jung) of saying cliché.
Heroes, particularly in comic books, are expected to behave a certain
way, have certain reactions to certain stimuli, and uphold specific
philosophical biases readers are believed to hold dear. I'm not against
any of that, but having such considerations constantly imposed gets
tedious. Remove them, and you get characters with a much wider range
of response, and that's when stories get interesting for writers. I'd
previously written a more customary hero, a cop, for publisher-editor
William Christensen in my first Avatar project, MORTAL SOULS (if you
haven't read it, run out and find it, because you'll like it), so when
William asked me to come up with something else and pretty much left
it to my discretion, I wanted to try something a little different.
I didn't, in fact, have an idea for a follow-up to MORTAL SOULS. This
is where ideas come from: sometimes they hit you out of the blue, sometimes
you squeeze them out under duress, sometimes old ideas reconfigure into
new. Plus all of the above, at once. MORTAL SOULS had itself "stolen"
an idea from an unused project, something I generated years ago for
Shawn McManus to draw called BIZARRE, whose titular heroine could only
see living things via their Kirlian auras and thus realized that many
people walking around were dead. This time, fishing for an idea, I remembered
doomed SLIDER and realized I still wanted to explore that territory.
I didn't, however, want to return to those characters, or even that
For one thing, I only had three issues to work with, and three issues
of a comic book covers considerably less than a full-length movie (even
if many movie adaptations are crammed into that many comics pages).
Still, there was that core idea - throwing your psyche into someone
else's body - that was worth hanging a story on, no matter how much
reconception was required. First up was the lead character. Unlike the
hero of SLIDER, who's introduced slowly and untangles both the scenario
and the mystery over time, I needed a protagonist who could cut straight
to the chase and get us into the story as quickly as possible.
Which meant he had to be the one doing the "sliding."
Let's face it, there are only so many reasons you'd want to jump into
someone else's body. One I'd covered in SLIDER: sheer arrogance and
malice, because you could, free from repercussion; to have sex with
no strings attached, or to demonstrate power over your victim, essentially
being a rapist. I'd covered it in the screenplay, but it's not something
I feel any sympathy toward. There's curiosity (amounting, in such a
situation, to voyeurism), but recurring curiosity quickly becomes indistinguishable
So if my "hero" was going to do this, it would have to be
for practical, though probably not noble, reasons. Professional reasons.
(I suppose I could've concocted purely altruisitic reasons for him to
essentially kidnap, manipulate and endanger other people, but get real.)
Longtime readers of my work may have noted my frequent use of criminals
as protagonists (also expressed as the vigilante or loner hero, all
of them being basically social outsiders). For me, this is the essence
of the "crime story": not stories about cops hunting criminals
but stories about criminals themselves. Editors tend to be uncomfortable
with this type of focal character, so I don't get to them often, and
I figured this was a good spot for one.
There a school of thought (if you've ever taken screenwriting classes,
you'll have heard this) that creation breaks down into functions: plot,
story, theme, character, etc. That you create your characters and build
a story around them, or you come up with your story and find characters
that fit. Then you add in this element or that, and voila! It doesn't
work that way for me. I find it very difficult to separate character
from plot in my head. Stories happen to people, and people happen to
stories, and anything else is just trying to impose market considerations,
a subtle form of self-censorship. Every element you put in a story affects
every other element, and if it doesn't you're not thinking it through.
So, okay, he's a criminal of some sort. How would someone make professional
use of the ability to jump into anyone else's body? How would they gain
that ability? Though I'd done what amounted to a government conspiracy
in SLIDER, that whole bit had been so overdone in the intervening years
I didn't want to go there. Corporate crime? That would make sense -
bear in mind this was before Enron, WorldCom, etc. suddenly put corporate
crime back on the front pages - and it would provide him a rationale.
But why him? If some corporation had developed a "slider"
technology, wouldn't they have a small army of "sliders" working
for them? But that would cripple the protagonist's uniqueness, the thing
that sets him apart, as well as take him out of the "loner"
category. So he'd have to be working freelance, in the pay of some company
but not on their payroll, and the means to do what he does would have
to be his alone. How would he have access to that sort of technology?
Past the initial inspiration, every story is a series of problems to
solve, and you hope when you come out the other side you've made the
right choices. (On the other hand, there's Brian Eno's aphorism, "Honor
thy error as hidden intention.") A technological source of the
protagonist's "power" drove things too far in the wrong direction,
so I pulled back and shifted gears, deciding on a drug instead. So we've
got a protagonist who uses a drug to jump into other people's bodies,
working freelance for a corporation? As what? A troubleshooter, dealing
with "problems" the corporation can't deal with any other
way. Still, they're a corporation; if he gets results, they're going
to want to know how he gets them, which will lead them to...
And this is how stories come together. You set up your dots, draw the
lines, and at some point elements of the plot coalesce into a logical
order. New characters become necessary - you create them as needed,
and they turn the story in new directions as the interrelationships
become clear. (More dots, more lines.) This is a reason I don't like
to define stories too much in the early stages, often the stages where
editors want detailed plots. Every story should be allowed to breathe
and change as necessary.
What I didn't have were names. Names are important. They set a character's
tone. Here's where a good thesaurus comes in. Pick a characteristic
and root through a thesaurus, leapfrogging from meaning to meaning as
synonyms shade, until the right name hits you. Due to his abilities
and his profession, I wanted something that suggested his ephemeral
presence and how dangerous he is. It took half a day but I finally hit
the right combination: evanescent ("(of an impression, etc.) fading
quickly) and noxious ("harmful").
A guy who could compartmentalize his life enough that he could be a
perfectly decent guy on the one hand and a corporate killer on the other.
Who could get the error of his ways shoved in his face and rise to the
occasion to do the decent thing and accept responsibility for a situation
that couldn't have arisen without him.
More than that would be telling, of course. Except to follow the "what
if" to its logical extent: what happens if the drug Knox uses starts
being sold on street corners? What kind of civilization do you end up
with when anyone can leap into anyone else's body and indulge whatever
desires or fantasies move them? And what does someone like Evan Knox
do about it? That's the story of MY FLESH IS COOL, and ultimately it
isn't about guns or killing or even corporate intrigue. It's about when
it becomes important to do the right thing, and how far a man is willing
to go to do it.
With twists and curveballs to keep things interesting.
Of course, a comic book isn't just a story. We still needed a title
and an artist. For some months, I'd been in contact with Spanish artists'
agent David Macho Gomez, whose stable includes artists from Europe and
South America. There I found Argentinian artist Sebastian Fiumara, whose
pages grace this book, and though he hadn't worked in the crime genre
before (and MY FLESH IS COOL, in my mind, is equally a crime and science
fiction book, or what Harlan Ellison calls "speculative fiction"),
he loved the story and was eager to step up to the plate, and it turned
out we loved his work too. But I don't need to talk you into loving
it. Just go look at it.
Which left a title. I puttered around with more traditional titles.
I forget what they were just now, but they were nothing inspirational.
And then I remembered:
One summer during my Los Angeles stint, my wife and I were sitting on
our sofa during a heat wave when she brushed against my bare arm and
noted, "your flesh is cool." It was such a weird thing to
say - nobody says "flesh" anymore, for one thing - that I
was instantly taken with it. I repeated it, translating it to the first
person, and it evoked Mickey Spillaine writing erotica: MY FLESH IS
COOL. I went for a long time looking for a story I could hang on that
Now I was looking for a title to hang a story on, an unusual title that
stood out from the standard type of comic book name. MY FLESH IS COOL
was perfect, and even appropriate with another faint tweak to the concept.
Still, I expected William Christensen to blanch at it.
Enjoy the book.