A Wild Cards World

by Gregory Noveck

 

 

Novak

I’ve always wanted superheroes to be real. Sometimes, in a more pragmatic frame of mind, I specifically wish super powers were real, the heroing bit not so much. My 70s and 80s childhood was replete with comic books, Christopher Reeve and Adam West, and yet my reality was stubbornly mundane. While I was cognizant that comics and movies were all fiction, stories built to entertain and amaze, I craved for it all to be somehow true. Knowing it was a fool’s errand, I diligently searched for some germ of a clue that would grant credence to these fables, just a wink letting me in on a secret reality known to but a few. Life would be less dreary and pedestrian if some people really had marvelous and amazing abilities, or secretly came from different planets and beneath the sea. In the era of Reagan, AIDS, and New Coke, I suspect the wish for some sort of extranormal salvation was not unusual.

Coming of age when The Incredible Hulk was still first-run on CBS, things were different. The slow burn pop culture genre revolution launched by Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 was a long way away. Today, we live in a world where realistic depictions of the incredible and heretofore impossible are all around us. Whether it’s the massive spectacles of summer films, the more restrained yet no less impressive visuals of genre TV shows, or the very real and increasingly visceral images of global discovery, disaster and conflict, our imaginations no longer supersede our technological limitations.

For many years, the closest I got to super powers made flesh was Marvel Comics. Their heroes didn’t live in a fictional cosmopolis, almost all lived in New York. More importantly, I lived in New York, in Manhattan natch, and by all rights within easy walking distance to Avengers Mansion. For years, I stared at skyscrapers trying to figure out which one was the Baxter Building. Whenever I found myself in Westchester, I looked in vain for a Graymalkin Lane street sign or a plaque in front of a long driveway proclaiming the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters.

The Marvel characters were grittier and had more flaws than their DC counterparts (“Yes, but Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns” etc., I know, that was later. Please, bear with me). Marvel’s tougher conflicts and more nuanced emotional stakes strongly resonated with my early adolescent self. As my teen years wore on, however, I yearned for an ever deeper level of exploration. I felt there was much more to examine and appreciate below the surface of the idea of people with powers; of how a community, nation and world would actually respond to the emergence of super powered citizens. I had become a fan of cohesive universes populated with characters created by multiple authors, similar to the way different Marvel heroes and villains popped into each other’s adventures. Or like when Superman showed up on I Love Lucy.

Marvel and DC had evolved somewhat haphazardly over the 70s and 80s towards a ramshackle continuity, one in routine need of demolition and repair. The experience of reading a collective universe of interrelated stories was still compelling despite its ad hoc evolution and inherent contradictions. I wanted more and went in search of shared worlds and expanded universes. I read all the Star Wars comic books of course, and ROM, which was better than the toy it was based on. Of course, there is a long history in genre fiction of authors trading characters and mythologies as they mutually evolved their own distinct worlds and voices; Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft trading elements between their respective Conan and Cthulhu mythologies, among two notable early examples. Cross-pollination among imaginary worlds occurred more by chance, sense of fun or mutual respect, rarely if ever from pre-conceived intent.

Birthed out of the pulps and later battered by the Kefauver hearings, the first couple generations of comic writers and artists were discouraged from giving super heroes and super powers a more thoughtful, nuanced treatment. In fact, it likely never occurred to most that there would even be a market for such a thing as super power stories for adults. It would take a new generation of creators unapologetic in their love of superheroes to embrace the arena’s potential. They felt fully empowered to reimagine and refine as adults what had mesmerized and amazed them as children.

In the primordial days before Amazon, finding new literary galaxies to conquer was no simple task. My methodology consisted of delving through the Science Fiction / Fantasy sections of all the local bookstores I could get to.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that I once had an exhaustive mental database of every bookstore’s science fiction section from Mid-town to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Each had their strengths and weaknesses: B. Dalton’s on 5th Ave. and 52nd was great for the classics and juveniles like C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, T.H. White, and had an oddly extensive Piers

Anthony selection. The Barnes and Noble on Third Ave. and 60th basically carried anything that had a Boris Vallejo cover (and again, lots of Piers Anthony), yet also had a very broad cross-section of current and classic authors; from Asimov to Heinlein to LeGuin to Zelazny, and also Elizabeth Boyer, Jack Chalker, and Simon Hawke.1

I often planned my purchases two to four books ahead, based on such factors as size, price, author, genre, likelihood of the next volume being published, publisher, Boris Vallejo covers, etc. I very rarely pre-empted a purchase for something new. I always had to weigh cost versus value. I would not pay more than $2.75 for a hundred and seventy- five page Daw softcover, but I would pay $3.50 for a three hundred and twenty-five page Del Rey paperback, with “FIRST TIME IN PRINT” bolded across the back.

Always a voracious reader, in a few short years I had worked my way from A (generally Lynn Abbey, Robert Adams) to Z (Zelazny, almost always Zelazny). New releases appeared too infrequently to sate my Galactus-like hunger for new worlds. I had to expand my hunting grounds.

Ninth grade brought with it the weekly freedom to take the subway downtown to Forbidden Planet, the New York outpost of the legendary British bookseller. It was my personal Shangri-La, all science fiction and fantasy books with not a cookbook or legal thriller in sight. I spent many hours dreamily browsing the aisles, carefully weighing what purchase the few singles in my pocket would go towards. Still, the trek downtown was a hike, so imagine my pleasure when in the mid-eighties, Forbidden Planet opened an uptown branch two blocks from my house.

Now long gone, the bookseller’s latest establishment was responsible for a lot of personal firsts. That store, a few doors down from a lived-in Dosanko Ramen is where Michael Moorcock, Neuromancer, Riverworld, and so many more found their way into my hands. Predominantly starting out in short stories and serialized fiction for the genre magazines and short story collections of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, a number of these talented writers built expansive, contiguous worlds with the potential to host multiple explorations of related stories and protagonists. These were more layered and refined than the Marvel and DC Universes, which the editors and writers were then retconning into some less unruly configuration. While not always fully planned, these creators built naturally strong foundations to their worlds, allowing for the construction of detailed, mighty structures of story and character. I had no lack for heroic tales, and every new book was a fresh world to explore. Still, as I matured I was left craving a protagonist I could connect to my reality: a hero that didn’t wear a cloak, or happen to be the rightful heir to a magical throne. I wanted something that had the sweep and breadth of detail of the genre books I was reading as well as the immediacy and emotional connection I felt with the comic books on my nightstand.

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My over thirty years of devoted Wild Cards readership began on one fateful Wednesday (new comic book day), when I walked into the Uptown Forbidden Planet. As usual, I checked the upstairs racks for the latest books, before heading downstairs to the periodical and back issue section.  Catching my eye almost immediately was something called WILD CARDS. I remember being drawn to the cover of the first volume, with its cool for the time glossy lettering, and the glowing dude on top of the building holding a tank. The guy incongruously dressed as a Renaissance-era fop in the middle of the street with the New York skyline in the background was more compelling than odd and appealed to this Highlander fan. The cobra-headed rock star soloing on the electric guitar also demanded a second look. The marketing copy on the back cover sealed the deal:

“Surrender yourself to wonder, excitement and high adventure,” it declared, “There is a secret history to the world – a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with superhuman powers.”

I had a choice to make. If left to my own devices I would pour through four or five books a week. Living in other people’s worlds costs money though, so growing up I had to be very judicious with what I chose to read.  Determined not to waste my hard earned funds on an unsatisfying choice, I always took care to consider which book would get my $3.95 (which was already an escalation of the $2.95 that prevailed for the bulk of my youth).

The slick and garish art made Wild Cards look deceptively slim, so I was pleasantly impressed when I discovered that Wild Cards came in at a very solid and respectable 410 pages total; at $3.95, a very good value. I think William Gibson’s Burning Chrome was next up for purchase, but seeing Roger Zelazny listed as one of the contributors, whom I idolized because of The Chronicles of Amber, This Immortal and so much more, was a strong draw. I’ll confess that at first glance, most of the other authors listed didn’t make much of an impression. I had read and was a fan of Robert Aspirin’s Thieves’ World anthology series, which had been one of the first efforts to create a shared fantasy universe from scratch. Wild Cards represented a new effort in that direction. Set in New York City. With super people. That was all I needed.  To hold in my hands the launch of a meticulously planned out, lovingly orchestrated in- depth examination of themes and locales so dear to my heart was electrifying.  I can still remember the quiet thrill of buying Wild Cards, taking it home, carefully examining the cover, and finally sitting down to begin my read.

As I made my way through the book, with its multitude of seamless changes in voice and tempo, several things were blazingly evident. Whoever created this world loved it. They understood it. They had read everything I had ever read multiplied by a hundred, asked all of the same questions, and desired the same care and attention be applied in exquisite, precise detail to the world they had manifested. The canvas was huge, the palette infinite, and possibilities only as large as the entire universe. At the time, of course, I approached this as pure entertainment; a book to be consumed whole, completely unaware of how its themes would inform my real world experiences.

Wild Cards’ opening gambit, ostensibly an excerpt from an oral history by none other than Studs Terkel (Wild Times: An Oral History of the Postwar Years), “chronicles” the events immediately preceding the release of the Wild Card, an engineered alien virus about to be unleashed on humanity. The stage is set in grounded, realistic and relatable detail. It is a clarion call proclaiming a different approach to spinning tales about an unpredictable population of individuals with extraordinary abilities.

 

In brief, an engineered alien virus is released in the skies of New York in 1946. The thousands of immediately infected, and victims of all subsequent outbreaks, fall into three categories: black queens, jokers and aces. Over 90% die, drawing the black queen. Of the 10% that don’t die, nine out of ten are physically transformed, some in horrible grotesque ways, others in sublimely beautiful evolutions. The physical alterations suffered by these jokers, often come with attendant superhuman abilities. The remaining one percent are the aces, outwardly unaffected, but wielding great power, skills as varied as the individuals themselves.

The virus spores would continue to live on, floating in the jet stream or buried in musty attics, causing spontaneous viral eruptions around the world to the present day. If the Prologue established a more immediate and compelling voice, the first chapter, 30 Minutes Over Broadway, plants a flag announcing that while this was  a new universe, it still pays homage to those worlds that came before. 30 Minutes’ protagonist, Jetboy, embodies the pulp stories of the past, with his depiction of the earnest and squeaky clean hero at the hard end of his journey. In many ways, this tale of Jetboy’s fatalistic heroism serves as a bridge to the complex, conflicted, and compromised paladins of the future. The simple genius of the Wild Card virus as a universal origin story, where every new infection is still a unique experience, allows for a mature, non-formulaic, and widely appealing examination of the premise of enhanced and transformed people.

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One of the major and ultimately great Wild Cards arcs starts with a simple story of a twisted mind. A character whose face we never see and whose name we don’t yet know uses his mental powers of suggestion on another person. The clinical description of the ensuing crime is gruesome and elicits goosebumps. Over the course of several stories we come to learn that the fast rising local superstar Congressman on his way to the Presidency and the nihilistic sociopath Puppetman, are one and the same.

What appealed to me was not just that Wild Cards dealt with superpowers in a delightfully pseudo-scientific, technical, and gritty way (and there was sex, a decent amount of honestly blatant literary sex. Ahem.)2, but that the people who wielded these abilities, who suffered from these afflictions, malformations, enhancements, and impediments were real people. Complicated, not always nice and never perfect, they were people I knew and recognized, with fears and foibles and fantastic talents.

 

The characters in Wild Cards are as rich and diverse as all of us. They’re not just eccentric zillionaires with MacGuyver man-servants. And just like Marvel, it was taking place in New York, New Jersey, and D.C.; places I could clearly mentally navigate. Jokertown in the Bowery was eminently recognizable to me as a sort of mutant Chinatown / punk rock lower East side. This was a New York I knew well.  Wild Cards spoke to me as if I were reading my history, a first generation American born to immigrant parents, learning to assimilate several different cultures at once.

Page after page, the first Wild Cards volume presents the reader with a modern, incisive, revelatory look at the effects of disaster, its aftermath, and the transformation that ripples throughout society as a result. Here at last were layered characters that felt fully alive in a world I always knew had rich potential.  Where else would a vengeful gangster be thwarted by a homeless woman whose relationship with her cats keeps her informed of events all across The Big Apple?

Occasionally, I feel that no other writer’s voice compares to Wild Cards contributor Roger Zelazny’s immediacy, pugnaciousness, and irascible pragmatism. That’s certainly how I felt the first time I read his story about young Croyd Crenson, soon to be legendary ace The Sleeper. Even with that high bar, all the other authors stepped up with characters equally crafted and nuanced which, twenty three volumes later and counting, have more than stood the test of time.

Even the aces, outwardly unaffected by the virus, face serious obstacles. The Great and Powerful Turtle is one of the most genuinely humanistic portrayals of a regular person with good intentions balancing the responsibilities and unintended setbacks of great ability. Thomas Tudbury’s awkward evolution from underachieving electronics repairman to steel encased secret superhero is at once an exciting hero’s journey and a heartbreaking reflection of the burdens of power and difficulties of doing the right thing. Another favorite, Dr. Tachyon, the renegade alien researcher whose quest to save us from his creation ends in futility, is Professor X with a libido, Einstein’s brain with Joan Rivers’ restraint and Mick Jagger’s dating philosophy. All of these disparate but never dissonant threads weave an expansive quilt at once fantastical and brilliantly real.

Their stories weren’t just accounts of a society’s response to disaster, or the insensitive fear mongering by a government ensuring national security. They were the tale of a boy losing a parent, thrust too young into the role of supporting his family; a college student with big dreams, forced to protect his soul mate by leaving her with no explanation; or a woman driven mad by the voices inside her head, put there with the help of her lover. I recognized the humanity in those stories, in a world not so different from our own, its inhabitants reacting in plausible ways to the implausibilities they experienced. Like all great stories, they left me both dreaming of living there, and feeling like I already was. I was sure there was a chance that at any time my card would turn. I related to the disaffection, the burden of being misunderstood. I empathized with The Turtle far more than I did to Holden Caulfield.

 

Wild Cards was personally meaningful to me when I first encountered it. It was fun, smart, and thrilling. At times, it was hilarious, scary and disturbing. It stayed with me. As the years went by, and I checked in on new volumes and stories, its deeper meaning came through.

A Hollywood aphorism states that everyone out here is trying to make movies of the stuff they fell in love with when they were 15. In my case it’s literally true. I always wanted super people to be real.  Ever since I first read Wild Cards, bringing these characters to life has been a fervent dream of mine. It never occurred to me back then that the key Wild Cards creators were on their way to influencing millions around the world with their collective work.3

In volume after volume, decades since it was first published, the world of Wild Cards has grown and matured apace with our own. It’s more topical today than when I first read it over thirty years ago. Reflecting our society’s ills and thrills, Wild Cards works its characters over, compelling them to deal with financial woes, personal conflicts, drug addiction and mental illness. Yes, they save the world, or use their powers for ill intent, but they’re more than just heroes and villains. Jokers and aces alike fall party to, or victim of, political activism or minority oppression and marginalization, seasoned with the insouciant manipulation by the moneyed and powerful elite. There are government attempts to identify and contain the affected, to control those who might be of use, and destroy those deemed potential threats. The hostility levied against those afflicted with the Wild Card virus, is not just an allegory depicting the singling out an entire population due to one common characteristic. Nor is it only a visceral echo of a recent past or a reflection of when it was written. It’s a lighthouse beacon that warns against a period of future social upheaval, a time when the notions of personal liberties, civil rights, and the other institutions of a free society are imperiled. These are the stories of how lives are altered in an instant, and how we shouldn’t fear the unique and the different, we should nurture it.

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Each and every one of us feel like jokers at times. We each have gifts that promise to make us aces. In a time when the most vulnerable in our society are at greater risk than ever before, when the rhetoric of fear and the concentrated application of power against the powerless seem ascendant, Wild Cards serves as a fantastical reflection of what’s at stake and how we can persevere. In its uncensored and realistic approach to distinctly extraordinary happenings, the message from the creators of the Wild Cards Universe is an optimistic one: Only in recognizing the invaluable contributions that every unique individual provides can we ever aspire to a world where all are cherished.

As for me, I am and will always remain, a fan.

 



1 Less attractive options included the overly cerebral and thin selection at Doubleday on 53rd, or the more fantasy leaning options at the other Barnes and Noble on 47th. The less said about the Strand bookstore’s terribly curated science fiction section, the better.


2   I also confess to reading Judy Blume’s Wifey around the same time, a highly underappreciated classic where I somehow managed to connect to the titular character, a Dix Hills, 1970s NJ housewife desperately in search of meaning and pleasure, but I digress.


3 Just a few examples include: A Song of Ice and Fire, The Expanse, The Clockwork Century, Kitty Norville, and many other seminal novels. Over the years, Wild Cards writers have been significant contributors to everything from Star Trek: TNG, Uncanny X-MEN, The Outer Limits, Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone and much more.