By David Anthony Durham
A big part of writing for Wild Cards is character creation. Finding a person you connect with. A backstory that speaks to you. Dreams and aspirations. Flaws and virtues. And then… you upend all of that with the Wild Card virus. For my character Marcus Morgan, aka The Infamous Black Tongue (IBT for short), the virus turned him from a normal African-American kid from suburban Baltimore into a venom-spitting joker with a lower body made of sinewy, muscled, snake parts. It was a lot for his parents to deal with. They didn’t rise to the occasion. Instead, they tried to surgically remove the scales and tail that had suddenly come to define the way the world saw him. Marcus fled.
That tail – both in the fiction and off the page in this writer’s life – proved to be complicated.
From his debut in Fort Freak to the recent Joker Moon, he’s been busy: he took out crooked cops, fought for his life in underground gladiatorial matches, helped save the world from Lovecraftian monsters, and protected refugee jokers from the other side of the world. He fell in love (a couple of times). He even took up residence on the moon. Through it all he found his identity shaped not by what his family wished for him, but by what living with the virus pushed him to become in response. He grew and changed, loved and lost, became famous and – more importantly – infamous, hunted, a hero to some, a vigilante villain to others. It’s been a long, strange trip.
Enter Hollywood to make it stranger.
A few years back – and after several near misses – Wild Cards found a home at a premium streaming network. Two shows went into development simultaneously. One of them was based on Fort Freak, the NYC set Jokertown cop-drama that launched IBT’s career. Awesome, right? IBT was a central character. He was a black youth on the wrong side of the law, framed, pursued, and ultimately only able to clear his name by battling it out with the corrupt cop who was out to ruin him. Visually, he’s stunning on the page. His fight scenes are filled with surging, writhing, snapping curls of his long, serpentine tail. Cue dreams of seeing him brought to life on the screen!
Can you imagine the excitement when I strolled into a cafe to meet with the showrunner attached to the project? I’d recently stepped into the world of TV writing, and I was there to interview for a spot on the writing team – and, of course, to talk about IBT. I didn’t even have to bring him up, though. The showrunner did. He talked about how the story of IBT’s card turning, his rejection from his family, his early days on the streets of Jokertown and him slowly coming to grips with his new identity and the community of jokers who would become his family. He talked about how movingly his story captured the upheaval, tragedy, and resilience of jokers perfectly. This was all sounding really good. Until…
The showrunner said (I’m paraphrasing the dialogue, by the way): “Too bad we can’t use him in the show.”
Say what now?
“It’s the tail. It works great in the books, but filming that… We won’t have the budget. Even if we did it would be hard to really get right, and the last thing we want is for it to look awkward.”
Is that the last thing we want?
But, honestly, I couldn’t argue with his points. I wouldn’t want TV-IBT to be a disappointment, and budget constraints are just part of the business. So, I let that go. I also let go of the prospect of joining the writing staff, as that offer didn’t materialize.
Those two shows didn’t ultimately make it onto the screen. They were canceled (as detailed in another blog post from the showrunner) and the series moved on, eventually landing at another streamer. With a new home, I was to discover, come new possibilities.
I received an email from George in June 2021, which included this interesting news about the development of the show:
As you recall, we had to drop IBT from the earlier version… I would like to get IBT back into the series… Do you think there would be a way to tweak IBT so he is not half-snake? His name is Infamous Black Tongue, after all, not SnakeBoy. His power derives from his tongue and his venom. He would still need to be a joker, and one disturbing enough for his family to disown him and attempt to perform surgery on him… those beats are too powerful to lose… but if his deformity was something equally disturbing but more easily done on television, maybe we could get him back in the mix.
David pre-TV brain might have heard this news with a sinking feeling. How could there be an IBT without a tail? All those scenes I’d written… His whole backstory with his parents’ reaction… In the past, it would’ve been a lot harder to move from those set-in-stone things. Current David? That’s a different story.
Maybe it was because I’d spent time in a number of TV writers rooms and had become a lot more comfortable with the collaborative nature of that, the way that characters, plot points, scene beats shapeshift and morph in the air of the room before landing in a form that may or may not bear any resemblance to the initial pitch… Maybe those experiences have loosened up the way I relate to story within the TV realm…
Whatever the reason, instead of feeling twisted and conflicted about the prospect of altering my beloved character, I bounced back with an immediate idea for a change:
My gut response (without having pondered it particularly deeply) is that we lose the tail and instead have his face and some of his body scaled like a coral snake. Dark black, red, and yellow. Maybe with his face only partially scaled. Like Mystique from X-Men. Scales would provide good fighting armor, too. And they’d be something that his parents would think they could remove. His power would be his tongue, the venom, strength, and some body armor. This would make him scary to strangers in a different way than his tail does, which I like as part of his character – that he still has to learn how to function when he suddenly becomes more intimidating than he feels he is. What do you think? It’s a simple tweak, but maybe it works?
George shared the idea with the showrunner, and they both agreed the change just might do the trick. And with that, IBT was back in contention!
Move forward another 8 months…
I’ve just gotten onto a zoom with an executive at the streamer that (still) has Wild Cards in development. It’s a general meeting about TV writing prospects – not about Wild Cards – and he’s surprised when I bring up my connection to the series. As we talk, I connect the dots for him, and it becomes an interesting conversation. At some point I bring up the evolution of the character that I’ve just described here, to which he says, rather casually (and I’m paraphrasing again), “Well, you know… maybe we could keep the tail after all.”
Ah, Hollywood. I think I’m growing to love thee.