by David D. Levine
Every superhero universe has its archetypal hero. For DC, it’s Superman. For Marvel, it’s Spider-Man. And for Wild Cards, in my opinion, it’s Tom Tudbury, The Great and Powerful Turtle.
The Turtle has been a part of Wild Cards from the beginning, going back to the SuperWorld games played by George R. R. Martin and his friends which gave birth to the series. The character appeared in the first volume of the series and many others thereafter, up to the Card Sharks trilogy. He’s also the world’s most powerful telekinetic, in a world where telekinesis is the foundation of so many others’ powers.
One of the things that makes the Turtle so emblematic of Wild Cards is the fact that he’s firmly embedded in the history of the Wild Cards universe. Born at the tail end of WWII, like the Wild Card virus itself, he kept his ace secret during the 50s due to the Four Aces scandal (the Wild Cards equivalent of the Red Scare), but was inspired to become a public ace — the first public ace since the 50s — by the Kennedy assassination. During the 60s and 70s he was seen keeping the peace at demonstrations, and it was never clear whether he was a joker or an ace, or whether he was a radical or a Clean-Gene-McCarthy-style centrist. Even though he is inactive in the present day (if he’s alive, he’d be in his 70s) he is a towering figure in Wild Card history, with his old shells on display in the Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum, and his exploits often referenced in other stories right up to the latest publications.
But those are all circumstantial. To me, the thing that makes the Turtle the archetypal Wild Cards character is his humanity.
Superman is, if you’ll pardon a cliché, cartoonish — brightly colored, simplistic, with ridiculous powers that mark him as being so far beyond humanity that it’s a constantly-revisited question why he cares about ordinary people at all.
Spider-Man, created in response to Superman and his ilk, is more realistic. He lives in New York, not a fictional Metropolis, and he has neuroses and a day job and relatives… but, after his epiphany that “with great power comes great responsibility,” he is still a straightforward hero (albeit a wisecracking one).
But the Turtle is more complex still. As befits a prose character, rather than a comic-book character, he has a strong interior life. His use of his powers begins with revenge, and his backstory as a bullied nerd continues to affect his personality for the rest of his life. He can be petty, peevish, self-centered. Indeed, his fundamental desire to protect himself from harm is the most emblematic factor in his personality, powers, and role in the world. He does come out as the first public ace in a decade, leading the way for a whole new generation of heroes, but even as he performs in public he remains secure inside his shell, hiding his identity and even his status as joker or ace from the world.
Another factor that makes the Turtle so human and sympathetic is his vulnerability. It’s been said that the most important D&D statistic for an action movie hero is Constitution. If you want to be someone like John McClane, Max Rockatansky, John Rambo, or Ellen Ripley, you don’t need to be superhuman — indeed, you don’t even need to be particularly strong or smart or fast or nimble — but you do need to be able to take hit after hit after hit and keep going. Even non-superhuman superheroes like Batman and Black Widow are shown falling from heights, taking blows, and enduring explosions that would kill any normal human.
But the Turtle is as easily damaged as anyone, in fact more so than some because he’s an unathletic nebbish. This vulnerability — psychological as well as physical — is another defining characteristic that sets him apart from other heroes and makes it easy to identify with him. And, because he’s a prose character, we have more insight into his vulnerable psyche than we would if his interior life were limited to thought balloons. His telekinetic powers also don’t function well outside of the protection of his shell, or when he’s frightened or upset, which makes his emotional vulnerability integral to his status as a superhero.
The Turtle is junky. (Not a junkie — that would be Angelface or Veronica.) Unlike the clean, straightforward costumes and settings of four-color comic books, the Turtle’s shell — his whole world, really — is made of repurposed trash, the detritus of society. This textured detail makes him feel more real and emphasizes his blue-collar origins.
But most of all, the Turtle is relatable. He’s a comic-book collector, a nerd, a schlub… a short, overweight kid from Bayonne, New Jersey with a crewcut and horn-rim glasses. He’s a nothing… but he’s been handed one of the greatest powers in the entire Wild Cards universe. What does he do with it? For all his limitations, for all his neuroses, he does the right thing, the smart thing: he takes appropriate precautions to protect himself, then goes out to help people. And, vulnerable though he is, he keeps going out even when the going gets hard. It’s easy for any science fiction or comic book reader to identify with him.
That’s why I find the Turtle to be the best, most archetypal hero of the Wild Cards universe, and therefore one of the best superheroes of all time.
And if you don’t agree… I’ll be hiding in my shell over here.