It’s Hard Being Good in Wild Cards.

by Peter Newman

Deep down, I’m a bit of a sap. I like stories where protagonists who initially annoy each other get together at the end. I like stories where the heroes get a happily ever after, the villain is defeated, and good things happen to good people.

This is probably why I spend as little time in the real world as possible!

On the other hand, I am unmoved by stories where the stakes are too low. When I was a child, I remember watching the cartoons of the day (He-Man, Thundercats, Transformers, and Dungeons & Dragons) and often being frustrated with how pathetic the bad guys were.

I love Skeletor (and his many henchman) but He-Man could take them all on, on his own, with one hand behind his back and still have time to deliver a moral message by the end of the show.

Part of the appeal of a cartoon or comic is watching the hero triumph. I am there for that, but it can lead to a lessening of stakes. Outside of a ‘what if’ scenario or a standalone story, it is all too common for a story that starts with a city being sucked into hell, or the half the world being turned into zombies, not only be back to normal by the end, but these things having no consequences for future stories.

Also, it’s easy to be good in a universe that rewards you for being good, where being good is unquestionably the best way to be and where good actions will be recognised and rewarded (I fully understand why these are important messages in kids shows btw, it’s just, even as a kid, I didn’t always buy it).

I think that’s why Spider-Man is one of my favourite heroes, because his life is full of mundane difficulty and, thanks to the Daily Bugle, he  often doesn’t get the credit for his actions.

It’s also why I like Wild Cards. It’s a world where superpowers exist alongside capitalism, greed, and radicalism, and there is not always a consensus on what good actually is. Where many of the characters are struggling to exist in a world much more like ours, and justice is rarely its own reward. It’s a world where a positive ending feels meaningful because that outcome was never certain, and its a relief to know your favourite characters are still alive at the end of the story. It’s a world with no reboots…

Sometimes in Wild Cards it can be hard to know who the heroes are, or even if there are any! I’m put in mind of the Card Sharks trilogy, where we can all agree that the Card Sharks themselves are a bad bunch, but characters like Puppetman (courtesy of Stephen Leigh) and the Sleeper (created by the late, great, Roger Zelazny) often walk the line between good and evil, if not fall over it.

My first Wild Cards character, the Green Man, was not a good person. He thought he was. You could argue that in the early part of his story in Knaves Over Queens, he was just a good man in a hard place making difficult decisions. But, by the end, whatever else he might be or might have achieved, he is not a hero.

In Three Kings, Green Man shares the stage with a number of other dubious folk who, one way or another, all have bloody hands: Double Helix, Babh, and Enigma (from the devious minds of Melinda Snodgrass, Paedar Ó Guilín and Mary Anne Mohanraj respectively), and part of the story is about whether these characters find peace or redemption, or even if they deserve to. The Seamstress (created by Caroline Spector) is easily the most decent of the bunch but does that mean she gets a happy ending? I’ll leave you to find out…

So, when I was asked to create a second character for Wild Cards (during lockdown when everything seemed pretty miserable) I decided that I wanted to make someone genuinely good, a proper hero and, being in Wild Cards, I wanted them to struggle.

Brief aside: probably my favourite show of all time is Avatar: The Legend of Aang, which features one of the best redemption arc storylines I’ve ever seen. A line from the show has always stuck with me where a character tries to do the right thing and it blows up in his face: “Why am I so bad at being good?” Being good is not always easy and does not automatically lead to good things happening. Being good can be thankless, exhausting, and takes practice.

That’s what makes heroes special because, in the end, they will do what’s right, no matter how hard it is, and they will keep trying. It’s also what makes them compelling. I want to read about people that find a way forward, that struggle, really struggle, but eventually find a way through despite what life throws at them.

So, I made a character called Stuart Hill. Stuart is young, idealistic. He’s nerdy about the other heroes in Wild Cards and idolises them, especially the Silver Helix (he is not prepared for the reality when he finally gets to meet them!), he isn’t socially confident, hasn’t had a noteworthy education, isn’t that clever, his family wrestle with illness and poverty, his power is unreliable, and he doesn’t even get to pick his own hero name.

Suffice to say, things often don’t go his way.

Stuart has appeared in two stories now, one in Pairing Up (superhero romance!!!), the other a story in House Rules (superhero horror, coming soon), and has managed to struggle his way through both. There’s little more terrifying for a young hero than public romance, though Loveday House comes pretty close. Even I don’t know if, in future stories, Stuart will ultimately get a happy ending but I know that if he does he will have earned it.

For what it’s worth, I hope he does because, at the end of the day, I’m a bit of a sap.