On Creating My First Wild Cards Character
By David Anthony Durham
In March of 2009 I got an email. The subject line was “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?” It was from someone with an email that looked suspiciously like one of the most popular writers in the world. The email asked me if I’d loved comics growing up? Wondered if I’d be interested in writing in the weird and wonderful long-running collaborative project called Wild Cards?
I was like, “Yeah, but… wait…. is this the George RR Martin?”
I’d met George at a number of cons and had really enjoyed hanging out with him. I’d also sent him a copy of one of my books and – wow! – he’d read it and said nice things about it. So I did know the email was really from GRRM. I’d read a few Wild Cards stories and quite liked them, but had never imagined I’d be invited into the world. What do you do when offered collaboration with a king of fantasy literature? Jump at the chance, I say.
That was the easy part.
In the weeks that followed came the reality check. George had extended the invitation, but that didn’t mean I was in. My first job – other than catching up on the series with a hefty bit of reading – was to come up with a signature character, the one that would come with me into the consortium as I joined. Sounds easy, yeah? Super heroes. Mutants. Just make something up, right? George generously offered to be a sounding board. He said I could feel free to throw ideas at him, even dumb ones. So, with gusto, I proceeded to bombard him with… well, dumb ideas.
They were embarrassing enough that I need not fully detail them here. The problems with this seemingly simple creative act were manifold. For one, Wild Cards had a twenty-book history that included hundreds of characters. I couldn’t know them all, so George frequently had to respond with things like (not literal quotes), “You know, I think we’ve had enough guys with lizard heads” or “Nah, we’ve already got Toad Man and he’s pretty cool, so not sure your guy with frog legs offers much…” or “We’ve already done a ton of shapeshifters.” And he went on to name them all. Long list. It wasn’t like there couldn’t be some repetition of powers, but the emphasis was on either something they hadn’t had before, or a new, interesting spin on powers that an earlier character might’ve had.
The other thing I came up against was a tendency to veer from misfires like those above to characters that were more grounded in my fictional interests: characters with backstories that had to do with race or social history or some other… thematically meaningful… stuff. Those might’ve been okay in general, but George responded with (still a made up quote), “You do remember that your characters need to be interesting and actually have some powers and/or mutations, right?”
I had to acknowledge that – though I’ve watched as many super hero movies as anyone – I’d not grown up as a comic book reader. It wasn’t one of my primary languages. Though I’d written five novels at this point – and created hundreds of characters in the process – writing for Wild Cards was clearly going to require a new set of creative muscles. It was also, I realized, going to require some collaborative help just to get me in the door. Fortunately, help was, literally, sitting next to me on the couch.
Me, glancing over at my son, Sage (7 years old at the time): “What’s that you’re looking at?”
Sage: “My book of superheroes.”
He folded it closed and showed me the cover: Sage’s Super Squadron of Super-Heroes. I’m not kidding. He had such a thing. I’d known he had it because friends of ours had given it to him for his birthday, a three-ring binder filled with blank form pages for character development. Slots for names. Illustrations. Powers. Weaknesses. Backstories. While it had been empty when those friends gave it to him, now (like a week later), it was bursting with weird and wacky ideas that he and my daughter, Maya (8 at the time), had come up with.
Me: “Can I look at it?”
Sage scooted over and we began flipping through the pages.
Next time I emailed George, I mentioned a character my kids wanted me to pitch to him. Light Licker. He gained energy by licking lightbulbs. George was skeptical about the amount of energy someone could get from a lightbulb, but for the first time he saw some possibilities. He didn’t imagine this guy was the one, but I was getting closer. (Or we were getting closer.)
With that in mind, I considered more of Sage and Maya’s creations: Downright Impossible. Out of the Question. Fire fart. Globe Spinner. Knowledge Eater. Infamous Black Tongue. Model Man. Willow Woman. Metal Man. Frost Fighter. The Handsmith. Yellow Snake. Frost Fighter. Razor…
It was quite a long list. I’d tell you all about each of them, but considering that I used a variation of The Handsmith in High Stakes recently, I’m going to have assume some of these might actually make it into the Wild Cards world at some point.
George’s interest clearly perked up. He wrote (and this is a direct quote): “Okay, you have got to tell me more about these guys. Especially Infamous Black Tongue.” He also wrote: “Maybe I should be recruiting your kids for Wild Cards instead of you yourself…”
My blood ran cold… With fears of being surpassed by my pre-teen children as they sprinted into a superhero future aside, I soldiered on. I’d already spilled the beans on where the ideas were coming from, so I kept going with it. George had some interest in a few of these characters, but The Infamous Black Tongue emerged as the main person of interest. Here’s where the conversation started to take off.
For context on the process, I should mention that Sage’s original sketch of the character looked like this:
His main – and rather dubious – initial power was that he could shoot his tongue out of his mouth and have it travel all the way around the world until he touched the back of his head with it. Hmmm. I’m pretty sure I nixed that idea before ever mentioning it to George, though I did like some variation on his tongue as a weapon. That made it into the discussion. And boy, what a discussion it was! Looking back through the long email exchange that followed, I’m struck by how much it was a three-person collaboration: Sage, who came up with the initial character, me, who tried to find ways to run with it, and George, who offered cautions, comparisons and suggestions as the character morphed. We tested all sorts of variations on his form and his powers. He slowly began to take shape, as did my understanding of just how cool collaborative creation could be. I added a name, Marcus Morgan, and a backstory that gave him a familial situation I could write intimately, and an origin story – the moment his card “turned” – that saw him rejected by his family and cast out on to the street.
About a month after this all began, I sent George a complete character bio. He accepted it, and officially presented me – and IBT – to the other Wild Cards writers. Sometime later, when IBT was on the cover of my second Wild Cards outing, Lowball, he got the full artistic treatment by Michael Kormack:
Pretty cool, huh? IBT has come a long way since that initial sketch and the idea born in a seven-year old’s mind. It was wonderful (and lucky for me) to have Sage and Maya to work creatively with. It still is. They’ve had a hand in helping me bring other characters to life. I’m hoping they always will.
And, yes, I’m fully aware of how much I owe them for helping me join the Wild Cards universe.
They make sure I don’t forget.