(That I Didn’t Create)
The Fan of a Thousand Faces: Mr. Nobody
by Kevin Andrew Murphy
Wild Cards has a bunch of characters who have a number of different faces, guises, ace names, alternate identities, secret and not, and sometimes even different powers to go with them. Some of these characters I even created myself. My first Wild Cards characters were Herne, an antlered joker porn star and drama geek whose secret and swiftly not-so-secret alter ego was the Master of the Wild Hunt, and Cameo, a trance channeler who, by touching the cameo brooch at her throat, could call up the psyche of her mother and her ancestresses who’d worn it, along with their knowledge and skills–and if Cameo touched an object once belonging to a dead ace, she could summon up the dead ace’s powers along with his or her psyche. Her favorite alter ego was Will-o’-Wisp, a dead private eye who could summon ball lightning and who Cameo in turn channeled from his vintage fedora. One of my current characters, Rosa Loteria, has over a hundred different aces and personas she can draw from her antique loteria deck, costumes included.
But my favorite Wild Cards character, whom I did not create but wish I had, is Mr. Nobody, created by Walton “Bud” Simons. Mr. Nobody has more faces and guises than any other character in the whole Wild Cards universe, even Rosa and Cameo with all their cards and heirlooms put together. Plus Mr. Nobody is the quintessential fanboy, an even bigger cinema geek than Herne is a drama geek. And that’s saying something.
The exact details of when Mr. Nobody’s card first turned haven’t been told, but they don’t have to be. We can make guesses and assumptions, and Bud may at some point write the story. But from what we know on the page from the many stories he’s appeared in, both by Bud and the other Wild Cards writers, Mr. Nobody is a huge fan of classic cinema, so it’s a safe assumption that the wild card latched onto that inner passion and gave him the power to shapeshift into his heroes and heroines and even the villains and monsters from the same movies.
Of course, when I first saw Mr. Nobody, he wasn’t called Mr. Nobody and I didn’t know it was him. Which is as it should be. He was on the cover of Aces High, the second Wild Cards volume, on the spinner rack of loaner novels at Sluggo’s Coffee Shop at UC Santa Cruz my sophomore year of college. Mr. Nobody at that moment looked like King Kong climbing the Empire State Building with a blonde in his hand.
I was intrigued and amused by it, both the cover and the back cover blurb, but I did not read Wild Cards immediately, being busy with college and my own writing. Three years later, just after graduation, I borrowed the series (then up to nine books) from my friend Troy, who was a big Wild Cards fan and recommended it highly.
On finally reading Aces High, I got to see the forty-five foot tall ape from the viewpoint of Walter Jon William’s Modular Man, also on the cover. Mod Man, with his android perceptions, notes a swarm of flying aces buzzing the great ape while blasting him with wands, rayguns, and even stranger weaponry.
It was a great image, and even better running gag for the story, people asking, “Did I meet you at the ape escape?” as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Heroes being heroes had heard the call to action, or at least noticed the great ape climbing the Empire State Building, and went off to do something about it, with varying degrees of efficacy.
As Mod Man remembers from the info downloaded into his android brain, the great ape–unnamed at this point–had suddenly appeared in Midtown Manhattan in 1965, right at the start of the Great Blackout. New York, not knowing what else to do with a giant gorilla, put him in the zoo, only to have him every once in a while break out, grab the nearest blonde, and begin climbing the Empire State Building. Aces then subdued him, freed the blonde, and brought the great ape back to the zoo. Every few years the great ape would escape and repeat the process. It was a New York tradition and Mod Man was finally taking part in it.
What I particularly liked about this bit of local color was that it gave a nice view of life in the Wild Cards universe, where “the ape escape” was a regular occurrence, about as remarkable as unusual weather–not impossible, just an interesting thing to talk about in casual conversation. It also showed the background community of aces who exist but are mostly never seen on the page.
In the fourth book, Aces Abroad, in Bud’s story “The Teardrop of India,” it’s revealed that the great ape–dubbed King Pongo for a movie of the same name to be filmed in Sri Lanka–was formerly a minor ace from the sixties called the Projectionist, one Jeremiah Strauss, a young film buff from a wealthy family who the Wild Card had granted the power of shapeshifting, allowing him to morph his form to match any of his matinee idols, his wealth allowing him appropriate costuming. But neither the Wild Card nor wealth granted him acting talent, so while he could become the spitting image of W.C. Fields, for example, both in look and voice, he couldn’t tell a joke. Jerry used this power to become a third-rate nightclub act up until the fateful date in 1965 where he decided to show everyone what he could do. The Projectionist caused the Great Blackout as he sucked in enough electrical energy to gain the mass to become the great ape from his favorite black-and-white film.
This time, however, the Wild Card gave him the acting talent he wanted as pure method acting, Jerry Strauss reduced to a simian intellect with no other instincts other than that his raison d’etre being to grab the nearest blonde, climb the Empire State Building, and wave at planes or whatever looked close.
In Sri Lanka, J.C. Jayewardene, a minor diplomat with precognitive dreams (who in later books becomes the secretary general of the United Nations), realizes that King Pongo is in fact a man. Jayewardene points this out to Dr. Tachyon who, after a brief attack of guilt for not realizing this, uses his telepathy to reach the mind of Jerry Strauss, still submerged in the great ape’s subconscious, and gets him to return to his human form, twenty one years since his transformation. Not knowing what it’s like to be a man in his forties, Jerry Strauss returns to the one human body he remembers, a slim young red-head in his mid-twenties who’s understandably confused and shell-shocked.
Being in my early twenties myself when I first read this, I loved this and loved the character even more, wanting to know more about him, wanting to play with him in a roleplaying game. Maybe even get a chance to write him….
I read on, and the next volume where we see Jerry Strauss is volume VIII, One-Eyed Jacks. Mr. Nobody had become Bud’s new main character, Bud having finished up Demise’s storyline a book before. Jerry tries to find himself over the course of the interstitial narrative forming the spine of the first book of the Jumper triad, each of the individual chapters being variations on the theme of “nobody”: “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Nobody’s Home,” etc.
Aside from the clever and memorable titles, that interstitial was and still is one of my favorite stories in the Wild Cards series, detailing Jerry’s sad-sack doomed romance with the prostitute Veronica, his reconnection with his brother Kenneth after twenty one years, his budding friendship with his new sister-in-law, Beth, and his investigation of the sinister Jumpers, about whom the less said the better (so as to not spoil the story).
Jerry’s investigation continues in the next volume, Jokertown Shuffle, in Bud’s story, “Nobody Does It Alone,” which again I’m loathe to spoil except to mention that it solves the mystery of the Jumpers and sets up Jerry to join Jay “Popinjay” Ackroyd, George’s teleporting private eye, at his detective agency. Jerry then comes up with another alias, Creighton, to use in his role as Popinjay’s partner, taking his name from the real name of Lon Chaney. One of the wonderful running gags with the character and the series is Jerry’s continued enamoration with the actors of Hollywood’s golden age, despite the fact that no one in the modern age either knows or cares.
Of course, I did. I’d just gotten into the graduate writing program at USC and was now surrounded by vintage Hollywood. At the same time, I’d continued my roleplaying game writing, getting the gig to write the GURPS roleplaying game adaptation of Aces Abroad for Steve Jackson Games. I spent my first semester writing that game book, then sent it in. Then George read my manuscript for approval. He liked what I’d done, and he then brought me and my characters Cameo, Herne, and Captain Flint into the Wild Cards consortium, this at the tender young age of twenty-three.
Being the enthusiastic newbie, I then started asking lots of questions about everyone’s characters and their powers, in particular asking Bud about Jerry Strauss, the Projectionist, Mr. Nobody, etc. His brief write up from John’s first GURPS Wild Cards game book stated that Jerry had a film-buff’s knowledge of film up to 1965, but not much beyond that.
Even so, that catalog of film opened up a lot of possibilities. I inquired if Jerry were to turn into a certain green-skinned morally-challenged occidental enchantress from a well known movie–since we were sanding some names off for copyright purposes–could he fly a broomstick? Throw fireballs? Summon flying monkeys?
Bud’s answers were “No,” “No,” and “No.” Basically, if Jerry became the Wicked Witch of the West, he would turn into a green-skinned version of Margaret Hamilton who could cackle, “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little dog too!” But not very convincingly and without any extra powers. Or costuming.
I persevered, pointing out that as King Pongo, aside from sucking in electricity to make up his extra mass and later letting it out again, Jerry must have gained some sort of super strength, telekinesis, or perhaps gravity control, because otherwise a forty-five foot tall gorilla would have collapsed of its own mass. Couldn’t he use that same telekinesis to fly a broomstick?
George then weighed in, pointing out that with just telekinesis alone, if Jerry Strauss recalled a few biblical epics, he could part the Red Sea and cause all sorts of havoc. Better to rule all that out right now and handwave the violation of the square-cube law. Otherwise it would make the character too powerful.
That said, while Jerry often did his transformations while looking in a mirror like you would when putting on make-up, adjusting until he matched a photograph or an image in his head, George didn’t really imagine Jerry standing in front of a certain eighties-era Midtown Manhattan tower (which shall remain nameless, since we’ve renamed it for the Wild Cards world) looking in the mirrored windows, going, “No, King Pongo was taller and had more hair,” fussing and readjusting as he grew to forty-five feet tall and slowly changed himself into a giant ape. Instead, the transformation was instantaneous.
Jerry Strauss, George ruled, was one of those rare wild cards who actually possessed two separate but related aces: the first was his ace as the Projectionist, allowing him to transform into the great ape or other famous movie monsters instantaneously, but risking getting stuck in a rut with the filmstrip in his head. The further from human the form was, the harder it was for Jerry to keep control. Frankenstein’s monster was fine, mostly a giant green guy with bolts on his neck, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon gillman was sufficiently inhuman that Jerry had trouble keeping control, and one of the giant werewolves from The Howling proved too far in one story and he almost lost himself in that role as well.
Jerry’s second ace was as Mr. Nobody, the shapeshifting master of disguise–if not the world’s best actor–who could reform his body as he liked on the fly, up to and including tricks like slimming a finger down to the size of a key, then expanding it inside the lock to make a skeleton key out of actual bone. Or perhaps a bone icepick for other purposes….
While I was now in Wild Cards proper, which allowed me a chance to pitch stories for the individual volumes, it still wasn’t an immediate thing. Melinda’s novel Double Solitaire came next, with Vic’s novel Turn of the Cards two books after. In between? Dealer’s Choice, a mosaic novel, and the finale of the Jumper triad.
I pitched, but did not get in. However, my character Herne got used–and even made the cover art–and so did Cameo, recruited for John Jos. Miller’s Carnifex storyline. I’m not certain if Bud pitched, but Mr. Nobody was recruited for the same storyline, joining Cameo on her first adventure as they infiltrate the Rox, the castle built by Stephen Leigh’s character, Bloat, in the middle of the New York Harbor.
The Wild Cards authors at the time had their own Rox, a private clubhouse on the GEnie message boards, and Bud and I both used it to kibitz with John about the use of our characters in this storyline, in standard Wild Cards fashion. Everyone got their own rooms. George put me in the nursery, but I learned a lot about writing and mosaic novels from this experience.
After Vic’s novel, the last of the Bantam books, came the Card Sharks triad from Baen, our new publisher at the time. “Cursum Perficio,” my first Will-o’-Wisp story and my first sale to George, appeared in Card Sharks, the first volume. Cameo channeled Will-o’-Wisp from his hat to tell a tale of 1960s Hollywood and Marilyn Monroe. Bud’s next Mr. Nobody story, “Two of a Kind,” appears in the second volume, Marked Cards, dealing with the villainous George Battle introduced in John’s storyline in Dealer’s Choice. I’d pitched for that volume as well but the reality of Wild Cards is that there are only so many slots and not everyone gets in.
Same thing happened with Black Trump, another mosaic novel and the final book of the triad. But Bud got in, contributing a Mr. Nobody storyline which I don’t want to spoil except to mention a rather wonderful comedy exchange that happened while Mr. Nobody is impersonating Sprout Meadows, the beautiful but mentally handicapped daughter of Captain Trips.
After a scene of frankly graphic horror, Captain Trips has realized that Sprout is not in fact Sprout. Since his daughter is mentally handicapped, she’s often unclear on modesty, so Trips has seen her naked, despite his best attempts trying to set appropriate boundaries. Mr. Nobody, in his impersonation, has matched Sprout Meadow’s face, but not her body, and is now naked, leading to this exchange:
“Sprout doesn’t look like an exotic dancer with augments,” Mark said accusingly. “You got an unenlightened view of women, man.”
“Oh, yeah?” “Sprout” was frowning into the mirror. “If you’re so pure, how come you know what a stripper with a boob job looks like, hmmm?”
It’s pure character: The old liberal hippie father versus the young–mentally and emotionally–wealthy playboy more accustomed to the swinging sixties than the relatively more politically enlightened late eighties and early nineties. It also expertly pierces the tension built up in the scene before where the one clue that Sprout is not in fact Sprout is Mr. Nobody’s less than perfect acting.
After reading that scene, I really wanted to write the character even more.
Of course, after the Card Sharks trilogy, Wild Cards had a few years gap before picking up with iBooks. But in the new volume, Deuces Down, I finally got a chance to write my second Wild Cards story, “With a Flourish and a Flair,” dealing with a new band of characters (and actual band), the Jokertown Boys, along with Topper, one of the private eyes at the Ackroyd-Creighton detective agency. I also got a chance to use Cameo again and finally got a chance to use Mr. Nobody.
Jerry Strauss, in this story, has been hired by Peregrine to guard her teenage son, John Fortune, who’s with her as she slips backstage at the Jokertown Boys Halloween concert. Mr. Nobody, to play bodyguard, has taken the form of John Fortune’s date. But it’s Halloween, and Jerry Strauss being Jerry Strauss, and still the classic Hollywood film buff, cannot resist the opportunity, so has taken the form of a beautiful young twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her riding costume as Velvet Brown from National Velvet.
However, things go a bit south when Peregrine’s wing clips the tip of one of the Jokertown Boys’ unicorn horn. Alicorn involuntarily transforms into his unicorn form, which is only undone by being ridden by a virgin. And while Mr. Nobody may look like a virginal young Velvet Brown/Liz Taylor, he is most emphatically not a virgin, and Alicorn’s horn is able to tell. After a wild ride, Mr. Nobody ends up getting dumped on his/her ass by the spooked unicorn, is fired by Peregrine, and is finally free to deliver some needed clues for the plot.
It was an incredibly fun scene to write, Jerry the cinema geek not trapped in the film loop as with his monster roles, but still unable to resist the temptation to live out one of his film fantasies. It also served as a lead-in to John’s novel, Death Draws Five, which features John Fortune, Cameo, and Mr. Nobody, where all of them square off with Carnifex against the threat of the Alumbrudos.
Of course, while that novel has the last appearance of Mr. Nobody on the page, it’s not his last appearance ever. Last year at World Con in Kansas City, all of us Wild Cards writers present got to do an elimination battle, roleplaying as our characters. Bud as Mr. Nobody squared off against me as Rosa Loteria amid the splendor of Versailles ( which was quickly ruined by the ensuing battle). It was a close fight, Rosa getting a lucky draw as she became the Sun, floating up as Mr. Nobody once again resumed his form as the great ape, Bud asking me the immortal question, “Are you a blonde?”
As the Sun? Pretty good odds, but this hot blonde was a very hot blonde and burned King Pongo’s hand, then blinded him with her brilliance as he threw Louis XIV furniture at her. The battle finally had to be decided by the audience, who gave the match to Rosa.
It was also too fun of a battle not to reuse some time, either in one of our stories or one of the graphic novel. Or maybe in a television series to come.
Mr. Nobody would do great in Hollywood.