Sunday, July 18, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Jaguar

I'm going to reach waaaaay back here.

You remember the Nastassia Kinski Cat People, from 1982? I had a lot of problems with that movie, most of which boil down to - it was telling the wrong story.

You remember early in the movie, before Irena's brother tells her their squicky-awful family history, she's in a bar and a feline woman sort of slinks up to her and addresses her as "mi hermana?" Which means "my sister" for those of you who don't live in a place where you learn a certain amount of Spanish by osmosis. And for some reason this frightens her and the woman goes away and is never seen or referred to again. Which is stupid, because the obvious implication of this is that there's a whole society of cat people right there in town, and them seeking Irena and her brother out and giving them a refuge is both a much better story and a much better way of addressing the problem than either going along with Paul's incest plan or the ending we got, with Irena permanently in cat form and shut up in the zoo. So that's the story I was writing in my head on the way out of the theater.

I do that fairly often coming out of theaters, by the way. It's gotten even worse lately, but American movie culture has gotten itself locked into certain formulaic ways of doing things that tend to turn every intriguing premise into the same damn story, to the point that it's possible to amuse yourself in a blockbuster predicting the next bit of dialog, or the next plot complication, or the third-act turn.

Anyway, to get at the real story here you'd have to answer a few questions up front. How did your werecats get separated from their kind? This could be anything from political upheaval to personal drama. What kind of cats you're dealing with? Answering that question leads to: How is the werecat society supposed to work? After all, cats aren't pack animals, though most species are hardly as solitary as people say. Independent, yes; but this independence exists in the context of sometimes complex sociopolitical arrangements involving hierarchy, territory, sexual and hunting rights, and mutual benefits. A pride of lion-people would function differently than a group of jaguar or leopard or cheetah people.

My protagonist was a teen-age were-jaguar. The only other were-jaguar she knows is her mother, who used to belong to a jaguar colony in an isolated region of South or Central America. If I'd ever actually written this I'd have picked a particular historical time and place, but I never decided whether it broke up as the result of a political, natural, economic, or criminal disaster. Mama escaped with her baby, or maybe she was pregnant, and made it all the way to San Antonio, where she raised what she thought to be the last of the werecats.

This is a big secret and of course when baby werejaguar - I forget what I was calling her; Elena maybe - becomes teen werejaguar she starts to push her boundaries. She likes to patrol a certain scary part of her neighborhood (I picked a spot where a friend of mine was raped and wouldn't be talked into reporting it), pouncing on and scaring the snot out of people going there to do bad things. She thinks of herself as a superheroine. Mama thinks she's going to get herself killed. And one day on patrol she's approached by a snow leopard.

Elena and Mama, you see, may or may not be the last of the werejaguars, but they are not the last of the werecats. Every continent produces a small but viable population of weres of its representative cats. (I never did come up with a good excuse why, but most audiences are willing to handwave that.) America being what it is, this means that while small homogenous groups of weres probably live on Indian reservations and remote rural areas, in urban areas the werecat population is heterogenous and has to work out its own rules like any other ethnic subculture. The snow leopard, a professor at one of the local universities, is of Russian descent and is more or less boss cat for the San Antonio subculture.

On the one hand, she can offer Elena and Mama many desirable things - men they can date without deceiving, viable health care options, maybe a scholarship, job finding assistance, mutual support. On the other hand - well, she's boss cat, isn't she?

Ever watch kitty politics in action in your back yard? It's one of our regular occupations. We always have one cat per adult in our house, and we maintain a compost heap, bird feeders, and water features, which makes us prime feline real estate. Daytime soap operas are simple by comparison. The senior cat, the boss cat, the indoor cats, the pregnant cat, the kittens, the new tom, the sick tom, the cat who can control the big dog in the next yard over, the tiny Jungle Queen who rules by sheer force of personality...each yard divided into not only the front and back but into spheres of influence, areas of cover, location of resources; and it's all in constant flux. Imagine the yard as a town; imagine the cats not only all ages and sizes but all types, each with slightly different internal rules. Mountain lions don't live like snow leopards who don't live like jaguars who don't live like lions who don't live like Scottish wildcats...

I quickly realized that this was a series, and not a series of books, either. This screams for the open-endedness of a comic book series. It would even have a bit of a superhero hook as Elena tries to live up to her vision of herself as a neighborhood protector. You could have honest-to-god fight scenes with human bad guys (some of whom inevitably find out about the secret cat society and get ideas), dominance battles with lots of hair puffing and posturing, constantly shifting political ground as alliances are made and broken and the interests of differing parts of the community come into collision. Exactly the sort of thing most of us would rather get away from, and a lot of cats will opt out of most of it (I'm thinking particularly mountain lions), but you've got to meet your own kind sometimes. Like when you want to marry; when you're injured and human treatments just don't cut it.

With 20/20 hindsight, I now realize that if I'd tried hard enough I probably could have done it, at least for a few issues. This was the day of Independent Comics Explosion, after all. I wouldn't have had to rely on selling the concept to one of the Big Two and watched it get sucked down into the seething morass of their bizarre continuities. Antarctic Press, after all, started in San Antonio only two years later. My Achilles' Heel has always been my complete absence of any entrepreneurial drive. I'd rather just write the story and sell it to a publisher. I don't want to have to go out and hunt down a compatible artist, find financing, sell myself to a distributor, yadda yadda yadda. And did I love this concept enough to tie myself down to it for long enough to accomplish all that?

No, I did not. And it still hasn't been done, though modern paranormal romance gives plenty of evidence that other people have had thoughts along those lines. Some people have even given thought to the notion of wereanimals being ethnically tied to the natural habitat of the animal portion; but way too many literary weres are still white folks. Irena and her brother, who turned into black leopards, should have been played by black people in the movie. Mountain lions and jaguars and bobcats should have American Indian backgrounds, and tigers should hail from the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. And so on.

It'd be cool. I'd buy it bimonthly.

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