by Peter Newman
I’ve been thinking about what makes Wild Cards different from other worlds populated by super powered characters.
There’s less spandex for one thing. And everyone in Wild Cards knows that the underpants go, well, under the pants. But it’s not just about cosmetics.
Wild Cards is set in a version of the real world, like the world of Marvel comics. It often focuses on a more realistic portrayal of life, with all the gritty and difficult things that entails. But there are many gritty and tough comics out there (I’m looking at you, DC). It often uses the status imbalance created by the virus to speak to social issues, whether that be about aces who can function beyond the law, or jokers who suffer the worst of human prejudice. This last point is one of the strongest ‘cards’ (sorry) of the Wild Cards world, but it is not the thing that makes it different. The X-Men have allowed Marvel to tell similar stories over the years.
In my opinion, what sets Wild Cards apart, what makes it rewarding to write for (and, hopefully, to read!) is time.
Most super heroes have a sense of the immortal about them. A quintessential essence that cannot be changed. Superman is a symbol of hope and a fundamentally decent person. He might go through phases of being dark and edgy, he might even turn evil for an issue, or give up the cape for a bit, but at the end of the story or when a new writer comes to the fore, or when DC resets its universe, Superman will go back to his iconic self. Like a myth that is told and retold through the ages.
It’s funny to me that Spider-man has been around since 1962 and he’s still a teenager. I’ve read comics where he’s left school to work for the Daily Bugle full time. I’ve read comics where he has left the Daily Bugle to become a school teacher. And of course, there are a hundred alternate universes where we meet him as an old man, a villain, a policeman, and so on. But, ultimately, we always come back to a version of Spider-man set in a vaguely modern version of New York as a nerdy teenager wrestling with poverty, hormones, and responsibility.
Traditional super heroes (and villains) come back from the dead all the time. Superman has done it, so has Batman, Captain America and many others. For me, the threat of death in those universes ceases to carry weight. It’s not just death, either. Oracle has regained the ability to walk and Batman has come back from a broken spine, and for me that cheapens things. I like stories where our heroes have to deal with problems their powers and abilities can’t solve. It humanises them.
In stark contrast to the worlds of Marvel and DC, Wild Cards has a fixed timeline and grounds its stories and protagonists in that chronology. A character born in 1962 will be 59 in 2021 and will suffer all the problems that come with leaping around rooftops as you approach retirement. If a town is blown off the map in one story, it’s gone for good. If a character dies, they’re not coming back. Well, probably not…
This means that actions have permanent consequences, and that raises the stakes.
The first character I wrote for Wild Cards was the Green Man, a joker who gets involved with the Twisted Fists (for more on those guys, check out the Card Sharks Cycle). He was born in 1941 and is a straight-laced, middle-aged conservative family man when his card turns in Knaves Over Queens during the 80s. No longer able to pass as human or maintain his old life, Green Man has to make difficult choices. Spoiler: He gets a lot of them wrong.
By the time we meet him again in Three Kings, he’s an old man full of anger and regret, hated by his family, and wanted by the authorities. There is no reset button for the Green Man. No new writer to swoop in and write a story about a younger version of the character who makes different and more wholesome choices. If a new writer picks him up, they have to take the character as they are, warts and all. The blood on Green Man’s hands will not wash off. The scars he’s picked up over the years will stay with him until the end. And that’s great!
Though he’s a relatively new character, he has lived through Wild Cards history and that means he has to conform to that history.
There’s a sequence in Avengers: Endgame where our heroes go back in time and visit scenes from past movies. They can’t change the core timeline, but they can see old scenes from new angles or show things in that time we haven’t previously seen. That’s pretty much what it’s like for writing in any historical period in the Wild Cards Universe. You can’t change the canon, but you can play in the gaps between other people’s stories. You can’t change a story that already exists, but you can show another side of things, add a new thread to another writer’s tapestry and hopefully make the world a little richer than it was.
Green Man’s story in Knaves Over Queens runs across several decades, interweaving with events in the Card Sharks Cycle and in particular, Black Trump.It includes characters created by other writers, like the Lion (John Jos. Miller), Herne the Huntsman (Kevin Andrew Murphy), the Black Dog (George R.R. Martin), and King Brian (Stephen Leigh).
And that’s just one story in one volume of one book in a universe that has been running for over two and a half decades and features a dazzling array of talented writers. It’s like we’re all building this giant house together where the foundations have already been laid down. Sometimes we’re adding new bricks to the structure, sometimes we’re extending the work of others. Now, I’ll be honest, the house is pretty crazy and sprawling, and it’s easy to get lost in there, but it’s got character! And the house has extremely hard working project managers who keep the rest of us in line (I’m looking at you George and Melinda).
I’m looking forwards to seeing what the new extension is going to look like, but whatever shape it takes, whatever bricks we lay, they’re there for good. No take backs!
I wouldn’t have it any other way.