COMING UP ACES

By Marko Kloos

One of the best things about being a Wild Cards writer is that you get to make up your own characters from scratch. That is also one of the most difficultthings about being a Wild Cards writer.

I am an egoist when it comes to the worlds in which I write. I don’t like playing in other peoples’ literary sandboxes, and I don’t encourage or endorse fan fiction because my worlds and characters are mine alone. (I suspect my aversion to collaboration has to do with the trauma of participating in many “group” projects in school where I ended up pulling the cart most of the way.) But I jumped at the chance to become a Wild Cards writer because it’sWild Cards. For one, the group of writers who make up the consortium are people I’ve read since childhood, or (in the case of the relative newbies) colleagues and friends whose talents I greatly admire. (And when George R.R.Martin asks you if you’d like to contribute to his successful shared world superhero series that has been going since you were in high school, the only sound and sane answer is an emphatic yes.)

Wild Cards was designed as a shared world collaboration from the beginning, which is one of its major strengths—the diversity of writers results in a variety of perspectives on the Wild Cards world, and the frequent addition of new voices means the series never feels stale or formulaic. And unlike the school projects I got shanghaied into back in the day, everyone on the team pulls their weight when it comes to doing the work. But the longevity of the series and the sheer number of contributors make it pretty hard to come up with new and fresh characters.

Wild Cards is up to twenty-six volumes now, and the Trust has more than forty members. Each of those writers has created multiple characters, so there are hundreds of aces, joker-aces, and jokers out in the Wild Cards world, each with their own distinct physical characteristics and abilities. And once they are on the page, they’re canon. Try coming up with an original ace who doesn’t duplicate something that’s already been done by someone else—I can assure you it’s not easy, especially if you’re new to the team and haven’t had your head in that world for the last few decades. The first few ideas I had were roundly shot down at the start because they had been used in some form already, or they brought abilities to the table that had been done too often.

For my first character that truly stuck, I came up with Khan, who makes his first appearance in LOW CHICAGO. Khan is a joker-ace, a 300-pound underworld bodyguard whose left body half is that of a Bengal tiger. The demarcation line between man and tiger goes right down the center of his body from top to bottom, so the left side of his face is feline while the right side is human. (He’s on the cover of LOW CHICAGO, firing a Tommy gun while roaring. The artwork by Michael Komarck is now on my office wall, and I never get tired of looking at it.) Human/Tiger hybrids aren’t exactly thick on the ground even among the menagerie of jokers and joker-aces of the Wild Cards world, so I had the unique look to make him stand out. His abilities came more or less from his physical properties and a few loans from the Shapeshifter drawer of the trope cabinet—enhanced strength, night vision, ultrafast reflexes, quick healing, and a set of wicked claws and teeth. He has that bad-ass vibe that would make him a valuable commodity in the personal protection market among the rich and famous in the seedy worlds of organized crime and entertainment, so his backstory practically wrote itself. Khan looks really cool, he can lift one-ton girders in a pinch, and he can cut a room full of bad guys to ribbons without mussing up his tailored suit.

But after I had written his adventure in LOW CHICAGO, I got worried that I Supermanned the poor guy.

Confession: when I was young, I thought that Superman was the most boring superhero ever. It had to do with his powers, which were so—well, in modern MMO gameplay, you’d call him imbalanced. He’s invulnerable, has super strength, the ability to fly, X-ray andheat vision, and he’s a handsome devil to boot. That’s a lot of power in one character—so much power, in fact, that it makes it hard for the writer to put him in situations where he’s in actual peril. This is particularly problematic in a cast of many, where Superman’s powers completely outshine those of the rest of the team.

(SPOILER WARNING FOR JUSTICE LEAGUE AND AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR)

In the recent Justice League, the poor guy had to be sidelined for most of the movie by being dead, because once he got resurrected and showed up for the fight, he swatted the Big Bad like a common housefly. That problem isn’t just a Superman/DC thing, as is evidenced by the Hulk, who had to sit out Marvel’s Cap: Civil War completely because whatever side he took would have mopped the floor with the other side, and who had to have Rage Dysfunction for most of Infinity War and remain Bruce Banner because the Hulk would have been too formidable an opponent for Thanos’ army and his lieutenants.

(SPOILER ENDS)

We don’t have too many god-like Superman characters in Wild Cards. Most of the aces have one or just a few well-defined powers, and even if they can approach Supes-like feats with them (the Turtle, for example, can lift a battleship out of the water with his telekinetic powers, if only for a few feet), they aren’t all-around Swiss Army Knives of superpowers like the Man of Steel. Khan has his bag of tricks, but they’re strictly limited to bruiser skills. (When he went up in a virtual death match against Caroline Spector’s Amazing Bubbles at MidAmeriCon II, he promptly got his ass kicked because his strength and brawn were useless against her powers.)

But when he does what he does best, Khan is, well, imbalanced. He can kill a dozen gun-wielding Mafia mooks because those bruiser skills combined with feline reflexes and tiger strength are a nigh-unbeatable combination in a physical brawl. And he can do it all while looking cool. If you had to draw a joker-ace, you’d want to draw one like  Khan’s, because even though he can’t pass for a nat (a “normal” human) like an ace could, at least he looks like a complete bad-ass, an apex predator in a tailored suit.

If you know the Wild Cards universe, you may have caught on to the notion that when your card turns, your subconscious seems to play a role in the nature of your ace or joker ability. I think that may also apply to the writers and the nature of their creations.  When I looked at Khan and the way he carves his way through the criminal underworld, I got a little worried that my subconscious had been at the wheel when I created him, and that he was a sort of wish fulfillment. And while he was in plenty of peril in LOW CHICAGO, there was never a question that he could tackle any physical fight that the Chicago mob in 1929 could throw his way. He just turned out too good of a bruiser.

So for my next character, I set out to create an anti-Khan. He’s featured in our British volume, KNAVES OVER QUEENS, and his name is Rory Campbell, a.k.a. Archimedes. Rory is everything Khan is not. He’s physically unimposing, balding, somewhat portly, and as non-threatening in appearance as any mild-mannered, middle-aged accountant you see on the street on the way to work. Even his ace skill isn’t sexy—he can emit focused EMP energy at anything he sees, which means he can disable or destroy any piece of technology with electronics in it. In KNAVES OVER QUEENS, he gets to rewrite the history of the Falklands conflict, and I wanted to put this soft, non-martial character into a situation where he has to go to war with SAS commando teams and Royal Marines. He’s basically the Everyman who just happens to have an ability that’s militarily useful, and because of that, he gets put into a situation that is completely against his nature. Wild Cards has more than its share of flashy aces, but I felt that a certain percentage of those who drew an ace would be content to do their jobs under the radar, so I wanted to add an ace who does just that, lending his specialized and non-exciting skill to a good cause until he gets to retire and move to a cottage somewhere in Yorkshire to tend to his vegetable garden and his stamp collection.

Archimedes is modest and sort of hum-drum, and he was fun to write into Wild Cards canon precisely because of those qualities. But then an unexpected thing happened.

When your job suddenly involves creating meta-humans and giving them extraordinary powers, you start to re-examine your previous “amateur” opinions on the subject. And in my case, I found that I had done Superman a grave injustice. I considered him boring because of his surfeit of overpowered abilities, when those abilities are exactly what makehim special. I just didn’t appreciate the context when I was younger: it’s not the nature of his powers, but the way he chooses to use them, or rather refusesto use them. If you had meta-humans like Superman coming from another planet and having god-like powers on Earth, 99 out of 100 Supermen would abuse those powers and set themselves up as deities. The Superman in the DC universe is special because he’s the one out of a hundred who doesn’t.

After I wrote the novellas that became part of LOW CHICAGO and KNAVES OVER QUEENS, I had the idea for a new ace. Her creation story was one of those magical things where the idea just pops into your head unbidden and won’t leave you alone, and then you sit down at your desk and her tale almost writes itself. It wasn’t part of any scheduled Wild Cards volume. I just wanted to tell the tale, and I was hoping that the story was good enough to make it into the canon and kick off the career of a new ace. And this time, I threw out all preconceptions of the subconscious dictating my choices, of “Supermanning” or Mary Sue-ing the character, or of consciously creating a counterweight to something I created earlier. I just asked myself  “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?, and let my brain off the leash.

And the result is a young girl from rural Vermont with a physical disability who discovers that she is an amazingly powerful ace, but who uses her new ability reluctantly and very judiciously. She’s not like Khan or Archimedes, and she doesn’t feel called to save the world or kick anyone’s ass. But she’s gentler than Archimedes, and she could wipe the floor with Khan in a fight. I think she’s the most Wild Cardscharacter I’ve yet written, and I can’t wait for you to meet her next year.

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