One hell of a Trip!

When strongest power doesn’t mean strongest mind

by Matteo Barbagallo

Part 1

With the beginning of 2023, many of us must have heard or seen somewhere that sentence concentrated in the words “new year, new me”.

It’s a powerful statement, indicating the intention of leaving in the past the person that we were until 11:59pm to make space for a newly improved version of ourselves in the year to come at midnight. A new identity, if you will.

Whenever I’ve heard someone saying it, I have always thought about superheroes. Superheroes have the chance to be “anew” every time they turn into their alter ego, and, in a way, every day is a new year, a new chance to behave differently, to recreate their identity as they please.

The theme of secret identities, or the double, has always been an interesting one to me, but while growing up I have also encountered those characters in literature or superheroes in comic books who not only had an alter ego, but an actual separate personality that could take control of them however possible, acting either in favor of or against them. Today, I want to explore it in Wild Cards, but before that I’ll show you two examples taken from comic books and literature, to show you how incredibly dense this parallelism will be in George R.R. Martin’s series.

The first example that comes to mind with regards to this is the amazing character of David Haller, also known as Legion in the Marvel Universe. David is Charlies Xavier’s biological son, and a mutant of Omega level, which means that his psychic powers can even alter the course of reality. This defines Legion as one of the strongest mutants and heroes within the Marvel Universe, and one of the most dangerous. For many years, in fact, David’s mind was troubled by the presence, or coexistence, of another personality: Amahl Farouk, whose real name is Shadow King. This personality was considered the personification of darkness itself and on many occasions, it possessed David’s body and became a villainous danger for mankind, capable of decimating the population of a city just by batting his eyelashes or even killing superheroes with a thought. With time, however, Haller developed a whole “legion” of personalities inside his head, both good and evil, which gave him different superpowers and, most of all, different lives since he had no control over any of them.

A similar case could be made about another superhero of mine, whose story seems to recall Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in many aspects: Sentry. Robert Reynolds, a teenage addict in a struggle between being bullied and being high, once broke in a laboratory where he found a vial which he mistakenly considered filled with some powerful hallucinogenic drug, while it contained the Golden Sentry serum, an attempt at copying the Super Soldier Serum that created Captain America. The ingestion of that serum transformed Robert, creating a superhero with the strength of a thousand suns. And while Sentry was accepted by the whole superhero community for his strength and resolve in battle as perhaps the strongest among them, capable of defeating Thor, Hulk and many others, a large shadow reigned over Sentry: the evil figure of Void. Considered by all as Sentry’s nemesis, Void was a monster capable of finding its enemies worst fears and using those against them. What neither Sentry nor the other heroes knew, however, was that Void was an actual persona living inside Robert Reynold’s, a negative personality enhanced by the serum and with a power as destructive as the one of his positive alter ego. The only solution to destroy Void? Making the whole world, and even Sentry himself, forget its existence so not to make it emerge from Robert’s mind.

Behind this co-existence of personalities there’s of course the shadow of dissociative identity disorder, a severe type of mental illness. Dissociation is a mental process that results in a loss of connection between a person’s ideas, memories, feelings, behaviors, or sense of identity. Dissociative identity disorder is assumed to result from several circumstances, some of which may include trauma that the disordered individual has experienced. It is believed that the dissociative feature is a coping technique; the individual figuratively disconnects from or dissociates from a scenario or experience that is too traumatic, violent, or unpleasant to absorb with their conscious self.

In Wild Cards, this association with dissociation (allow me the pun) is far more evident than in the comic books I’ve just mentioned.

It is no mystery, in fact, that there are several characters who could be considered the strongest among their peers and yet are the weakest due to their lack of control over their own source of power. In this article and the following ones, I will consider the behavior of a few of them, starting with Cap’n Trips, the Sleeper, Eddie Carmichael, and Black Shadow to then move to Brain Trust and Mr. Nobody. I divided these characters into two groups as it is interesting to see how while the first group consists of heroes capable of creating new identities at their will, the second one is only capable of absorbing or recreating identities, power and personalities of already existing characters.

Let’s start today with one of my favorite characters: Cap’n Trips, whose real name is Mark Meadows, one of the world’s most brilliant biochemists and an ace who can turn into several other aces, whom he calls “his friends”, through the ingestion of special psychoactive powders devised by himself. When his college sweetheart and future wife Kimberly, also known as “Sunflower”, convinced him to try LSD, Mark turned for the first time into his first “friend”: the Radical. This ace, who can be considered the fusion of all his other personalities, in his first “arising” has shown having enhanced agility and super strength, but later will emulate the powers of all the other personalities arising in Mark’s mind. The morning after, Mark turned back himself, but without any recollection of what happened during his time as the Radical.

For some time, Mark tried turning into the Radical again, but without any success, and during that time his personal life took the wrong turn, bringing him to divorcing his wife and getting full custody of their daughter due to her mother’s alcoholism. This deep end brought him to experiment even more with psychoactive drugs, up to the point of understanding that he could turn into more personalities or “aces.”  Depending on the powder ingested, he could turn into: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a pyrokinetic with a restless, impetuous nature; Moonchild, a stunning Asian woman martial artist and ardent peacemaker; the megalomaniacal coward and shapeshifting Cosmic Traveler who can become insubstantial, the solar-powered champion Starshine, a dedicated environmentalist, and Aquarius, a grumpy were-dolphin who despises surface-dwellers.

And while, depending on the quantity of powder ingested, Mark could turn into them for only one hour, it is interesting to note that these five personalities exist within Mark’s head and could communicate with him and with each other at will. Some think that these aces are aspects of Mark’s personality, being either his feminine side, courageous side or extroverted one, some others think that they are cosmic entities trapped inside his head. 

While both ideas are potentially valid, it is still interesting to see that nobody is aware of Mark’s great deeds, while everybody admires the aces he turns into. It is almost as if he needs to alienate himself to actually find recognition within the world. As a matter of fact, at a certain point Mark will turn into the Radical, a violent extremist, for a long time and only live as a submerged personality within him, until the point where he finds the strength to emerge again.

As we can see from this brief description, Cap’n Trips can definitely be considered a strong example of dissociative identity disorder and, most of all, one of the strongest characters in the Wild Cards Universe. Sadly, his mind is a double edged sword, as he is capable of controlling the arising of these personalities only thanks to psychoactive drugs, but incapable of managing their existence, behavior or power over his main personality. The need for dissociation, the need for these drugs to bring out his personality one side at a time, seems to come from the pitfalls he faced, but most of all from the fear of putting people in danger should his full personality were to be expressed all at once, as it happens when he is The Radical.

In this first article, it’s already possible to see how dissociative identity disorder is often portrayed as a superpower in Wild Cards, but it also comes with its own set of challenges and difficulties. Characters with dissociative identity disorder often struggle to control their powers and may experience confusion and distress when switching between different personalities. They may also face discrimination and mistrust from others due to their unusual abilities.

In conclusion, dissociative identity disorder plays a significant role in the Wild Cards series as both a superpower and a source of struggle for the characters who possess it. While it allows them to access unique abilities and skills, it also comes with its own set of challenges and difficulties that they must overcome.

For Mark, we should have him say “New year, New trip”.

May this be a “transformative” year for everybody!