A Most Decent Fellow
by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Who somehow managed to get the cover of a novel all to himself (battling a crocodile while wearing a pith helmet no less) after he began life as a single thro away line? Of course I’m talking about Wally Gunderson, aka Rustbelt, aka Rusty (to his friends).
But let me back up. It’s really difficult to pick which character (that I didn’t create) that I like the best. I sat down to flip through The Big Notebook O’Characters where I keep printouts of all the characters our writers have created over the years. Some of those printouts are on dot matrix paper — yes, we have been doing this for that long.
I really considered Cap’n Trips. He was probably Dr. Tachyon’s best friend, and such a gentle character. Then I realized I wanted to look at the thing that makes Wild Cards unique in superhero universes — the jokers.
That made it easy to choose a nominee — Rustbelt. Rusty is the brainchild of Ian Tregillis. Ian had labored long over the character he thought would be his main protagonist in Wild Cards, the joker/ace Genetrix. She has like an eight page write up that includes an elaborate analysis of her back story, family, physical attributes, joker deformity, power, and how her emotional issues, a desperate love and need for children, had shaped that power.
Meanwhile we were creating the roster of contestants for American Hero, the reality TV show (created by another of our fabulous writers, Carrie Vaughn), and we needed to fill out the ranks of competitors with aces and jokers. Most were intended to be throwaways. I came up with Matryoshka, the American-Russian ace who splits when he’s hit or damaged. Other writers created other less-than- major talents like Toad Man, Spasm, Blrr, and Holy Roller.
Ian wrote up one sentence on his entry, a single sentence that contained Wally’s name, where he was from (the Iron Range in Minnesota), a description (an iron skin with a steam shovel jaw), and his powers: he was very strong, and tcould rust metal down to powder with a touch.
Thus a hero was born.
Rusty was just supposed to be a background figure in INSIDE STRAIGHT, but due to a series of unfortunate circumstances George and I found ourselves short a story. He needed a replacement, and we needed it fast. We approached Ian. He pitched a Wally story and the rest is Wild Cards history.
Rusty’s innocence and naiveté make him a wonderful humorous foil, and Ian kept us all in stitches doing the Minnesotan accent. (Ian’s from Minnesota,so he’s allowed.) Rusty often ends up the comic relief. In LOWBALL we were treated to Rusty getting caught on one of those big car magnets in a junkyard and deciding a fedora was an adequate disguise for a guy who weighs 700 pounds, has to scour his rusting hide with Brillo or SOS pads. Rust actually hurts him, it eats through to the skin beneath leaving him exposed.
Rusty isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but in terms of his ethics and morals he’s like the light from a supernova, and for my money he is the conscience of Wild Cards. Most of our characters are various shades of grey, which I like, but it’s also nice to have our version of Superman, the guy who always does the right thing because he’s just a decent, good man.
It is sweet, dim Rusty who teaches a group of entitled youngsters the real meaning of heroism when he walks out of the glitz and glamour of a TV reality show to help suffering jokers facing genocide in Egypt.
He joins the Committee, a group of aces working under the auspices of the United Nations to deal with emergencies all around the globe, because Rusty really does believe individuals can make the world a better place.
He certainly demonstrates that during the horrific events in SUICIDE KINGS which take him to an African nation where children are been deliberately infected with the wild card virus to turn them into ace powered child soldiers.
In some ways Rusty is everyman. He’s shy and awkward with women, but he wins the love of the the ace Jerusha Carter (Gardener). When she dies he does not allow it to blight his life; instead he devotes himself to maintaining the school for joker children built in her honor.
He adopts one of the damaged child soldiers and by his love and example begins to heal the emotional and psychological damage Ghost endured. He faces the problems of being a single parent. Finding someone to care for Ghost while he’s off being a hero isn’t the easiest thing, since she likes to go insubstantial, walk through walls, and stab people. Despite the loss of his first love he meets someone new, and his integrity, decency and kindness helps break down the meter maid Darcy’s angry, prickly nature.
Rusty is also one of those characters who can demonstrate ways to use superpowers in the real world. When you think about it it doesn’t make sense that an insurance salesman, accountant, nurse, teacher or cab driver would decide to put on long johns and fight crime if they did happen to develop superpowers. Most of us would just go on about our lives and careers.
I’ve always believed that if you want to figure out how a fictional world would really work you have to look at economics. That’s where I started when I sat down to figure out what my retired ace assassin Noel Mathews ( Double Helix) would do post his MI-7 career. Since Noel is all about making a buck, I had him found a company that uses ace powers to solve real world problems. Got some toxic waste that needs disposal? Have Chalktalk open a door to another world. (Noel wouldn’t be all that concerned about the people who might live in that alternate world. Remember I said we had a lot of grey characters.) Need to be at a meeting halfway around the world in the next ten minutes? Get one of Noel’s avatars to teleport you there. Want to try and save an island under threat from rising sea levels? Bring in Earth Witch.
I knew that Rusty would definitely be a sub-contractor for Noel. There’s no better way to bring down a modern building. No dangerous explosives, no giant wrecking ball sending debris flying everywhere. Just expose some rebar, let Rusty touch it and wait for the building to collapse. You can read about it in my upcoming tor.com story, “When The Devil Drives.” It will be published in July.
Bottom line, in a world where super powers are measured by the damage they can do, Rusty is the guy out there trying to repair the damage. Not with his powers, which are formidable, but with his humanity, a basic decency that hasn’t been diminished because he’s a joker. There may be regret that life dealt him this card, but no bitterness. He never rails against what happened to him. Instead he tries to find a way to make lemonade.
Rusty’s body made be as hard as iron, but his heart isn’t.