by John Picacio
I don’t know much about playing poker, but I do know a bit about breaking curses. They’re both tricky propositions. You’ve gotta keep your eyes on the details. And it always helps to have some luck on your side.
I saw George R. R. Martin at a loud, crowded Saturday night Worldcon party in 2008. It was in Denver, Colorado. Back when I attended conventions in those days, I walked around with a metal portfolio surgically attached to my left armpit. Not ‘really’ surgically attached, but you wouldn’t know it, seeing as I carried it with me from the moment I left my hotel room for breakfast until the wee hours after bars closed. The case was stacked with an ever-changing rotation of my book cover and magazine artwork. Those pages were my calling card, as I crisscrossed conventions, hustling for jobs in the SFF publishing world.
I still hustle, but thankfully I don’t need to heft that case everywhere. That night, I was with some of my friends and I walked up to George. I introduced myself. I asked if maybe sometime later I could show him the art in that portfolio because I would love to work with him someday. He said, “I already know who you are, John.”
And then George proceeded to rattle off several book titles that had my cover illustrations on them. He lobbed those mentions effortlessly, shuffling invisible index cards in his brain. It was an impressive bit of recall. “Don’t worry. We’ll work together someday,” he said. We shook hands, and I walked away with my friends, thinking that he was the coolest for being able to remember all of that on-the-fly, but I figured he was probably just being nice.
Turns out George is more than ‘nice’. Turns out he wasn’t kidding.
Fast forward to 2009 in Montreal. I’m at another Saturday night Worldcon party, drinking and hanging out with Lou Anders and friends. George walked up to me. I hadn’t seen him since that meeting. We shook hands. He said, “Got time for a talk?”
“How ’bout now. Let’s go to the bar.” I parted ways with my people. George and I made our way downstairs. We sat down and he said, “Have you ever read my SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books?”
“Those are the big fat ones, right?”
“Yes. Those are the big fat ones.”
“Nah, I haven’t read ’em yet.” As if that wasn’t painfully obvious.
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS was still a few years away. At that point, there were four published books in the ASoIaF series with FEAST FOR CROWS being the most recent. George lasered in upon a passion project of his, relating to the ASoIaF canon. He wanted a high-profile art calendar series for his beloved literary franchise. One calendar had already been produced, but it had suffered from poor distribution. I had seen an image or two from that release because the art was by the brilliant Michael Komarck, and I thought he did some dynamite, iconic work. So did George. He had hoped that would be the start of a successful art calendar tradition rivaling the kind that Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS still has.
However, with the failed commercial start of the series, George said, “It’s a cursed project. I need an artist to break the curse.” At the time, I was working through an insanely heavy workload, juggling multiple cover assignments as well as all of the interior illustrations for a new Michael Moorcock ELRIC book. My plate was full. A sane person would have gently said, “I need to pass. Thank you though.” Instead…..
“Let’s do it. Count me in.”
And we shook hands. I remember us getting up from the table and I felt slightly dizzy. It wasn’t the alcohol.
A few weeks later, I officially signed the deal with Penguin Random House and began the work on what would eventually become the 2012 George R. R. Martin / A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE Calendar. It became an instant best-seller and helped launch the bold tradition of mass-market ASoIaF art calendars that has now featured the work of artists such as Donato Giancola, Magali Villeneuve, Gary Gianni, Marc Simonetti, John Jude Palencar, John Howe, and more.
Let’s be honest though.
Some of the fanfare and spectacular commercial success of my calendar was due to the world falling in love with a little HBO production known as GAME OF THRONES. However, at the time I was working on my calendar art, the show was still a vapor in development. It had only begun to search for its locations and now-legendary cast. Only after signing the deal had George told me about the possibility of a show inspired by the books. Back in Montreal, he had insisted that if I did the project he wanted ‘a John Picacio vision of my books and characters’ and now once I learned about the TV deal, he reiterated that. He didn’t want me to be influenced by any reports of possible cast members and just wanted my attention focused on the books. That was what I wanted too, so it was easy to keep that promise, and I did.
I’ve never considered myself a GAME OF THRONES artist. I’m A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE artist, and proud of it. That said, the art become some of the most popular I’ve done to date. The year after the calendar released, I won my first Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, after losing the first seven times I was nominated. I’m sure the show had a lot to do with the visibility and popularity of my work, but I never could have predicted that convergence of events.
Sometimes, you just get lucky.
Still, when I look back, I broke the curse of that calendar project because I fell in love with Westeros and the characters. I saw and felt them in my mind’s eye and I needed to get those visions out where others could see them too. Breaking curses often requires a bit of luck, but it always requires all the passion you can muster. You have to want it more than anything else in the world.
So mission accomplished. Curse broken. End of story, right? Not so fast.
Tor.com began publishing all-new online stories in George’s Wild Cards universe around 2013. My ASoIaF Calendar was now a memory and Marc Simonetti’s 2013 version was receiving raves and much-deserved acclaim. George asked me to turn my attention to these Wild Cards stories and try my hand at illustrating them for Tor.com’s series. The first was Daniel Abraham’s ‘When We Were Heroes’. I fell in love all over again — not just with Daniel’s story but breaking new ground with this all-new world of heroes and villains infected with a mysterious virus that gives them powers, but also can break their hearts.
I grew up loving superhero comic books. Comics are my first language. They’re how I learned how to read. I grew up a superhero omnivore of the 70s, into the 80s — just as passionate for DC’s superheroes as Marvel’s. Like most kids, I collected comics for stories and characters. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, FANTASTIC FOUR, and BATMAN were my early favorites and I bought ’em every month, fresh off the spinner racks at grocery stores with arcane names like Handy Andy and Piggly Wiggly. But when I look back at those early purchases, I bought a lot of comics with multiple superheroes in them. There were often 100-page editions with multiple stories (for the now-astonishing price of only 60 cents), or every once in a while, there would be giant treasury editions on the magazine shelf with catchy titles like MARVEL HOLIDAY GRABBAG. I bought lots of JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE SOCIETY comics. I’m sure my meager allowance money budget probably had something to do with those ‘more bang for the buck’ choices, but I think the idea of superheroes in a shared universe probably drove those purchases a lot more.
A few years later, a different urge was driving, and that urge was less about characters and more about creators, as I sought out every issue of UNCANNY X-MEN created by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin, all issues of DAREDEVIL by Frank Miller, and pretty much anything touched by Neal Adams, Bill Sienkiewicz, George Perez, Jose Garcia-Lopez, Berni Wrightson, and more.
Wild Cards lights up that part of my brain, and probably always will, but these stories are not comics. They’re pieces of a shared prose tapestry woven by an author community, handpicked by George. The lives of these characters ebb and flow between, around, and inside each other, and instead of newsprint rubbing off on my fingers when I read them, I’m left with smudges of noir, pulp fiction and Jokertown grime on my brain.
Daniel’s story introduced me to a character called Jonathan Hive, a man who can turn himself into green wasps. In the world of Wild Cards, he’s considered an ‘ace’ because the wild-card virus gave him super powers and yet he still retains human form that allows him to move without prejudice within society. I approached this artwork differently from the ASoIaF work. I let these illustrations be occasionally more experimental and looser than my book cover work. I remember Bill Sienkiewicz’s run on NEW MUTANTS back in the ’80s. His art for the ‘Demon Bear’ saga was different from his art as the series evolved and as the storyline’s tone changed as well.
Each of the Wild Cards stories was written by a different author and featured different characters. So naturally, the tones of each story vary widely and thus, why shouldn’t the art flex a bit too? I tried to treat the artworks like they were cover art, even though they were commissioned for online release. So my solutions often leaned toward iconic, single-character designs, with a few rare exceptions. ‘When We Were Heroes’ felt cinematic, intimate, and scary all at the same time. So I tried to create an illustration that reflected that.
Soon after came Cherie Priest’s “The Button Man and The Murder Tree”. I met Cherie back when she first lived in King County. It was at a Norwescon in Seattle back in ’08. She was a force of nature. ‘Button Man’ is the story of a small-time gangster hood named Raul who has a problem. Mushroom-like growths grow out of his skin. And that’s not even the worst problem he has. The story was set in 1971 Chicago. I’m a big fan of early 70s cinema and pop culture. The story felt like someone distilled the spirit of early Scorcese into a pot, sprinkled a pinch of Coppola and a spade of De Palma into a gallon of Wild Cards gin, splashed in some blood and spit, and stirred. It’s one of my favorite drawings in my entire Wild Cards run.
Down the line came a story called “Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza” by Carrie Vaughn. It featured a character nicknamed Earth Witch, whose mother had drawn the Black Queen when she was only four. That’s Wild Cards shorthand for ‘death by virus’. As Earth Witch grew older, her power to control the elements of the soil and the trees grew more prodigious. This art was a bit experimental in its own way. It can be turned 90 degrees counter-clockwise and be read as a landscape image, which is a bit of an easter egg for those that encountered it as the ‘cover’ for Carrie’s story. It was nominated for a Chesley Award (so was ‘The Button Man and The Murder Tree’) and Earth Witch is still one of my favorite characters that I encountered in my Wild Cards run.
In the end, I did art for seventeen Wild Cards stories and it’s impossible to pick a favorite because there are so many good ones. I would say that Melinda M. Snodgrass’ ‘When The Devil Drives’ is in my top handful. Melinda is one of the straws that stirs the milk in Jokertown. Her stories have been included in over twenty of the Wild Cards anthologies, including the groundbreaking first featuring classic characters such as Sewer Jack, The Sleeper, Dr. Tachyon, Captain Trips, and The Great and Powerful Turtle. She’s created a long list of Wild Cards characters including Noel Matthews (Double Helix), who is perceived as meek by most, but is actually a powerful hermaphrodite with extraordinary male and female avatars. This story was soaked in noir and made me want to draw as soon as I finished it. It’s hard to pick favorite stories, but this might be my favorite of my Wild Cards artworks. Melinda owns the original, and this one was also nominated for a Chesley Award the following year.
Another of my very favorite Wild Cards works turned out to be a heartbreaker. ‘Evernight’ was Victor Milán’s final Wild Cards story before he passed away in 2018. According to George, Victor got to see my sketch for ‘Evernight’ but never got to see the final artwork. He died the day before it was published, which turned out to be Valentine’s Day. Like Melinda, Victor was one of the initial corps of Wild Cards authors and beloved by his peers. I loved Candace Sessou, known as The Darkness. She can cloak her surroundings in total inky blackness, blinding her opponents. Meanwhile, she can see with perfect clarity amidst it all. I still have the original art for this one, and it will always remind me of Victor, who was kind to me whenever we crossed paths on the road. In 2019, the art was nominated for the Chesley and was jury-selected for inclusion in the art annual INFECTED BY ART.
Along the way through my Wild Cards odyssey, I’ve been honored to illustrate stories and characters created by Parris McBride-Martin, Paul Cornell, Walter Jon Williams, David D. Levine, Stephen Leigh, Caroline Spector, Bradley Denton, Max Gladstone, Marko Kloos, Sage Walker, Bud Simons, and Mark Lawrence. George edited all of the stories and I hope he’s someday deservedly nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Editor Short Form for his ongoing Wild Cards output. Ditto Wild Cards for the Best Series Hugo. Tor.com’s Irene Gallo art directed every single one of the seventeen artworks that I did and I thank her for granting me those opportunities.
I hope George and I work together again someday. I enjoyed the hell out of the ASoIaF experience and the Wild Cards journey. And most importantly, I poured my love into the hand that I was dealt.
Time to show my cards.
I broke ground with an Ace called Jonathan Hive.
I met a woman in King County who introduced me to a hood named Raul in a story with a spade of De Palma.
I dug into a landscape with an Earth Witch whose mother died of the Black Queen.
I pulled spades on the artwork for an author who wrote stories alongside Edward Bryant’s Sewer Jack, back in the groundbreaking Wild Cards Volume 1 (and Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Volume 2).
My 10th Wild Cards artwork was Victor Mílan’s ‘Evernight’.
Ace. King. Queen. Jack. 10. Spades.
That’s a Royal Flush.
Dedicated to George, Victor, Melinda, and all of the Wild Cards authors and fans.
Let’s go break some more curses.
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