by Cherie Priest
2020 has been a hell of a year from any number of angles, and ordinarily I might say something like, “But it’s never boring!” Except, of course, that it’s been wildly tedious for months, as responsible people who are able to do so have stayed home to protect their communities from COVID 19. But as the months have grinded on, and necessity has dictated that sometimes, some people actually do have to leave the house, real life mask-wearing out in the world—at least in part—has shared some interesting parallels with the rise of mask use in our fictional Jokertown.
Naturally, the Venn diagram overlap is incomplete, and there are clear differences between the masks we’re being asked to wear in America, right now, and the masks that jokers initially donned to disguise their deformities in our made up version of New York City. Not least of all, joker masks didn’t protect anyone from any virus—either the wearer, or people in the wearer’s vicinity.
(Though real life, present-day masks may offer some slight protection against viruses for the wearer, they primarily serve to keep the wearer’s germs to their own damn self. A worthy goal indeed, and something that shouldn’t be up for debate, but here we are.)
That said, an effort to hide can also be an effort to protect.
For the earliest jokers in particular—twisted and mutated into shapes previously unimagined—hiding their appearance with a mask was an act of desperation. So many were exiled, feared, and loathed, pushed to such considerable extremes for survival, that even a cheap pretense of ordinary humanity could give them (if nothing else) a small, weak sense of security. A tiny barrier between the unfortunate victim and the cruel world. A mobile place to hide.
Even if the mask was an obvious disguise, something tawdry or silly, it would be the first thing that a nat would notice upon passing the joker on the street. The split second that it would take for the nat to register that a joker hid behind the paper façade was a split second that gave the joker an opportunity to act first: to hide, to duck and flee. A second or two could mean the difference between escape and a hate crime.
Humankind doesn’t have a terrific reputation for treating anyone who appears “different” with kindness and understanding on first blush (or second, or third), and it could be argued that this is predominantly a primal fear response. We are social primates, and social primates are suspicious of primates from other groups, or primates that don’t look like us.
This is bad for any primate who isn’t immediately recognizable as a member of the accepted group.
To be sure, the odds were vastly higher that an unmasked joker would receive hate than cause harm, so the mask was primarily intended to shield the wearer, and protection for the average Joe on the street was a secondary consideration at best. Perhaps an easily frightened nat could be startled into a coronary, but common sense would suggest that this was not a regular occurrence.
In time, as the Wild Cards world acclimated to humanity’s new and more varied state, the inevitable occurred: what once was a matter of necessity became a matter of fashion.
The first joker masks were dime-store models of paper or plastic, fooling no one and not providing much in the way of reassurance or protection for the wearer. But as the wearing of masks became better understood and more ubiquitous, the masks evolved into works of art and self-expression.
As mask use was more widely adopted, and Jokertown became a bit of a tourist destination, a tipping point occurred. Streets that had once been tragic panoramas of the lost and deformed became galleries of the proud and wild and beautiful and strange and everything else that fashion can be.
You see, art is for everyone. Even jokers.
As usual, next came appropriation. Rich city slummers picked up masks of their own—probably masks that seemed out of place to those who wore them routinely, as part of their burgeoning culture—and they sneaked into joker spaces to gawk without being recognized as gawkers.
Then, one must assume, masks became high fashion.
Unaffordable to the common folks, and a status item to the aspiring well-to-do. It’s the natural course of capitalism when it meets the magpie minds of novelty-craving monkeys: make it a different kind of symbol. Make it class marker. Make it expensive.
Then make knockoffs of the expensive versions, and watch the cycle repeat itself.
We are starting to see this cycle play out in the real world, but it’s been slow. Slower than Jokertown? Hard to say. I’m sure it took a few years at least, in that universe; in this one, we don’t have a few years to get our shit together—and the first six months of this year have not done much to make me optimistic about the next six.
In Jokertown, masks were a sign of solidarity. In America: 2020, they’re a political statement and an IQ test.
Yes, this is the stupidest timeline.
That said, desperation is filtering to even the most reluctant holdouts as the known death toll closes in on the American total for Vietnam, the Korean War, and the First World War combined. (Source: Veteran’s Affairs – https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf) Even the staunchest critics of mask-wearing, the conspiracy-theorists and the politicians who fuel them, are starting to rethink their stance as more and more voters bite the dust.
So we’re seeing the Jokertown cycle.
Masks first for people who need them—healthcare workers and others (cafeteria and janitorial staff, etc.) who keep hospitals running, and medically vulnerable folks. Then “essential workers,” the delivery and warehouse and shipping people who make it possible for a greater swath of the population to stay indoors.
In those first weeks, people wearing masks still stood out as “other.” Maybe not as terrifyingly “other” as the first round of jokers, but “other” enough to scan as “someone who runs a risk of being exposed that is significantly greater than my own personal risk” for entirely too many people.
(This is not surprising, given the muddled political messaging.)
But week after week, month after month, public health officials have chipped away at the blockade of ignorance and now, in many places, more people than not have gotten a clue and put on a mask—either due to local mandate or plain old peer pressure.
The first masks were disposable ones, generally. Then those ran out, and an army of crafters and costumers stepped up to the plate. These next-generation masks were handmade and mass produced by people (mostly women) by the score, and some—like Wild Card’s own Diana Rowland—even helped keep struggling hospitals in PPE when the government dropped the ball.
Eventually, as the tipping point finally teetered and toppled, manufacturers started producing their own. Indie brands did it for exposure. Big brands did it to show their support for medical and other frontline workers. Now you can get them in Target—disposables in bulk, or reusable cloth off the rack.
And of course, now the fancy masks have begun to arrive.
I got a Facebook ad for the luxury brand Coach’s haute couture masks not an hour ago, and plenty of other high fashion folks have gone pret-a-porter with facial coverings that cost more than a week’s worth of groceries.
Hit ‘em high, hit ‘em low. Just hit ‘em.
We don’t yet have a mask on every face or hand sanitizer in every purse, but just like the normalization of masks in Jokertown, it’s getting less unusual out in the real world every day. Sure, there are a few jerks raising a stink in restaurants and stores; and sure, we have a president who thinks you wear PPE like the Lone Ranger; but hey, the tide is shifting with or without the science deniers.
Jokertown residents wore masks for necessity, and now they wear masks for themselves, if they damn well feel like it.
Maybe before everyone dies of the plague, we can get our act together and get everybody wearing one—fancy as Paris, or cheap as paper. And perhaps in time, we’ll be able to appreciate them in the same way: casually, as fascinating relics of a bygone era—appreciated for their usefulness and beauty, and for the lives they saved along the way.