Pulling Strings: The Saga of Gregg Hartmann, aka “Puppetman”

by Stephen Leigh


Ultimately, it’s all George’s fault, so blame him.  I remember getting a phone call from George one evening in early 1986 (I think…), which went something like this:  “Hey, Steve, you like role-playing games, right?”  I told him I did, as I’d been running a fantasy-based RPG locally for years.

“And you like comics and superheroes, right?” he asked next, and I acknowledged that yes, I’d certainly read my share of comics and superhero stories. I still sob when I remember that my parents threw out the entire drawerful of old comics from the early 60s that I’d stored in my old room.  Ah, what I could have sold those for…  But I digress.

“Excellent!” George said.  “I have a proposition for you…”  And he proceeded to tell me how he and several other Santa Fe/Albuquerque writers had been obsessively caught in an RPG for some time, and had an idea of how to turn that fascination into a cooperative shared world writing project, and would I like to join in the fun. Not quite certain of what I was getting myself into, I replied that of course I would.

“Well,” George added, “I’ll send you the basic outline of how this will work. But you’ll have to create some characters for this. Right now, we already have as many ‘heroes’ as we need. Any chance you come up with a decent villain?”

“Sure, George, I could do that,” I assured him.

And thus was the nascent Gregg Hartmann born.  In the vernacular of the series, Gregg was an “ace in the hole” — someone who kept his supernormal ability hidden from the world. And what ability should a villain have?  I knew almost immediately.  I wanted this character to read the hidden thoughts and dark desires of those around him — you know, all those nasty things you’re too polite to say, and all those terrible retributions that you savor in your mind but would never never act upon.  I wanted my villain to have the power to force people to actually perform those terrible deeds in their heads. Vampiric, Gregg would feed upon that awfulness, deriving pleasure and satisfaction from the suffering he caused in others, and letting his victims reap any punishment while Gregg was safely distant and removed from the violence.

To keep the power separate from the ‘normal’ self that he showed to the world, Gregg invented a personality within himself: Puppetman.  In Gregg’s mind, it wasn’t actually him who made others do these awful, terrible things; it was Puppetman who controlled the emotional strings of their ‘puppets’–those compelled to do Puppetman’s bidding.

And what better role for such a person to play than a revered and popular politician?  Gregg Hartmann: born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, now a liberal senator from the state of New York, defender of those affected by the wild card virus, the hero of Jokertown, and eventually the chairman of the Senate committee SCARE (Special Committee for Ace Resources and Endeavors), which controlled and directed the actions of the aces of the day.  Even without his hidden ace ability, Gregg was a powerful and influential person, who would eventually aspire to the presidency. He was beloved by his constituents, even as Puppetman preyed on them.

(An aside:  in 2003, I saw a campaign sign for “Greg Hartman,” running for Clerk of Courts in Cincinnati.  I have to admit it scared me:  a real politician named Greg Hartman? That was just too much of a coincidence even if this Greg Hartman lacked the additional consonants at the end of his first and last name. However, unlike my Greggie, this one was a conservative Republican, not a liberal Democrat.  Still… Yes, Greg Hartman won, and has gone on to serve in several other positions, including being the Hamilton County Campaign Chair for Ohio in John Kasich’s successful 2010 run for Governor of Ohio.)

I’d also create several other characters through the run of the ‘original’ series:  Gimli, the angry joker dwarf; Oddity, the fusion of three lovers; the Howler, an ace with sonic abilities, Succubus, an ace whose ability should be relatively apparent from the name; Bloat, who would become the ‘villain’ of the Rox trilogy; the Nur al-Allah, who attempted to establish a new Caliphate; Hannah Davis, the nat arson investigator who would become a pivotal character in the Black Trump trilogy from Baen Books, as well as others.

As a friend was to tell me later as the series took off:  “Steve, you’re such a nice, pleasant person, but that Puppetman…  He does such awful things!”

He certainly did.


I teach creative writing at a local university. I tell my students that one of the most difficult tasks a writer faces is being true to characters who aren’t at all like them, who must say and do things that the writer, personally, would find offensive or disgusting or revolting.

More than any character I’ve ever created, for me that character was Gregg Hartmann. With a viewpoint character especially, a writer has to put himself or herself inside the character in order to come up with believable and realistic dialogue and actions. Inhabiting Hartmann wasn’t a comfortable place to be. Hartmann, throughout the series, was the architect of loathsome, horrific things: murders, rape, torture… and ultimately I was the one who had to come up with those deeds and write the words.

Writers must be, to some degree, actors. We have to think “If I were this person, with that background, with those beliefs, with that mindset and with that personality, what would I do?  What would I say?  How would I respond?”  And then we have to write that down—not what we would do ourselves, but what our character would do.

Readers should understand that what a character believes, what a character does, and what a character says is not necessarily a reflection of the beliefs of the writer.  In fact, the polar opposite may be true.


I’m not even sure that, were I were writing Gregg Hartmann today, I’d write him the same way.  Or maybe I would. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are no time machines to allow us to perform the experiment.

So let me walk you through the evolution of Gregg Hartmann in the Wild Cards books. I’ll try to avoid huge spoilers in case you haven’t yet read the books (and if you haven’t, what the heck are you waiting for?).

We need to go back three decades.


“Strings” — in the 1987 volume WILD CARDS (our first book!) — was the initial story I wrote for Wild Cards and also the first with Gregg as the protagonist.  It followed him through his attempt to become the Democratic Presidential candidate at the 1976 convention (small spoiler: Jimmy Carter gets the nomination).  Like most of the stories in that first volume, this was an ‘origin’ story, serving as an introduction to Gregg and his ace ability, as well as his personality.

And to prove how foolish I can be, I didn’t pitch a story to George for the next book, ACES HIGH.  I don’t remember why, honestly. (Yes, the writers have to ‘pitch’ a proposal to George for each book, and not all who pitch get in—George picks the stories he feels will work best together.)

Then, because I wasn’t involved in that book, I also failed to provide a good pitch for the concluding volume of our first triad, JOKERS WILD.  However, thanks to the other writers, Gregg Hartmann was kept visible with a couple cameo mentions (and my poor Howler met his demise in spectacular fashion).

Feeling rather left out at that point, I made certain to pitch a Gregg Hartmann story for the first book in the following triad, ACES ABROAD, especially since Gregg was a natural fit for a book that featured a world tour of aces and politicians.  I also had my first taste of writing an ‘interstitial’ tale (entitled “The Tint of Hatred” — if you don’t know the term, an interstitial is a story broken into several pieces running through all (or most, in this case) of the volume, serving as the ‘mortar’ between the ‘bricks’ of stories set in one place and time, connecting the pieces and providing segues from one to another.)  My story followed Gregg from the beginning of the trip in Washington DC, to Mexico, to Brazil, to South Africa, to Damascus.  I love doing research for stories and bringing to life the locales, even if I had Gregg doing some awful things in several of them (Brazil being a good example of that). I also interlaced sections from the POV of the Nur al-Allah in my story, as the confrontation between Gregg and the Nur would become the concluding sections of my story in the book, though not the actual end of the book.  You see, a few other things would happen to Gregg later in the trip as well. Some of our writers have equally twisted minds, as it turns out (Hi, Vic!).  If you’ve read the book, you understand.

The next book, DOWN AND DIRTY, would see Gregg fighting to keep his political future alive in a story titled “The Hue of the Mind,” as he has to personally do some of the dirty work in order to survive as a politician.  You see, there was this bloody jacket, and poor Chrysalis and the Nur’s sister were in the way… But would all Gregg’s efforts keep him safe?  After all, some important characters were beginning to wonder about him.

ACE IN THE HOLE was ostensibly the concluding volume of this triad, written (as most concluding volumes have been) as a “mosaic novel.”  A mosaic novel is one where there are no individual stories at all. The writers for the book create the scenes where their character has POV, while using the other writers’ characters as needed.  It’s a delicate dance where all your drafts have to be passed along to the ‘owner’ of any character you use so that they can give their imprimatur to that character’s portrayal, and the outline of the novel is carefully plotted out so that all the pieces fit together. There’s also a ton of editing and rewriting involved — just ask George and Melinda.

However, the book ended up being so long that it was eventually split into two books, ACE IN THE HOLE and the following volume DEAD MAN’S HAND (which contains George’s and John Jos. Miller’s contributions).  ACE IN THE HOLE portrayed the Gregg’s final attempt to become president—this time at the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, where Gregg was the frontrunner candidate.

This was one of my favorite books to write. I especially enjoyed working with my good friend Melinda Snodgrass on the extensive Tachyon/Hartmann scenes.  The two of us had a few long phone calls where we’d literally role-play our characters’ lines of dialogue — and I think the effort was worth it. I still consider ACE IN THE HOLE to be one of our best books.

However, this was also a story that I wouldn’t let Denise, my wonderful spouse who is also my first reader, even look at until after it was published.  This was because Gregg’s wife in the story was pregnant, and Denise was also at the time very pregnant with our second child.  And Gregg… well, read the book and you’ll figure out why I didn’t want Denise to read the story until after she’d safely delivered our son.

As for Gregg, his bid to become the presidential candidate ends in a spectacular, gore-splashed  scene. I won’t spoil it any further…

ONE-EYED JACKS would be the eighth Wild Cards volume, opening the Rox Trilogy (and introducing the “Jumpers’ — the less said about them, the better) and though I wrote a story for this one (“Sixteen Candles”) that tale featured Oddity, now sixteen years a joker. Gregg would be mentioned relatively prominently throughout the book (and played a minor role in another writer’s story).  But the truth was that at this point, Gregg’s political career was gone and I’d had him going back to being a lawyer. Gregg (and I) thought his career as a major character in the saga of the wild card universe was also over. I thought I’d never be writing another Gregg Hartmann story again for the series.

I was wrong.  It would be awhile, but even so, Gregg’s evolution as a character continued.

In two of the next three volumes, JOKERTOWN SHUFFLE (Book 9) and DEALER’S CHOICE  (Book 11) — interrupted by Melinda’s solo Tachyon novel, DOUBLE SOLITAIRE (Book 10) — the stories I wrote featured Bloat and finished the Rox storyline.  However, Hartmann would resurface fairly prominently in DEALER’S CHOICE in several of the writers’ stories, attempting to end the conflict, and would have his right hand mangled in the process — in a future book, we’d learn that the hand was unable to be saved and Gregg was fitted with a prosthetic.

The loss of the hand was an ironic homage to Gregg’s old friend and nemesis, Dr. Tachyon.

Book 12 would be Vic Milan’s solo novel, TURN OF THE CARDS, which would also be the last of the Bantam Spectra-published books.  However, Baen Books would pick up the series for the next three volumes: essentially the last of the ‘original’ run of the series.  And it was here that Gregg would make his return to full prominence.

The first Baen volume — the three Baen books being among the more difficult to find in the original printings, so if you have them, hang onto ‘em! — would be CARD SHARKS, again starting a planned triad about a conspiracy within the wild card universe. In this one, I had the interstitial narrative (it was becoming a ‘bad’ habit for me) with Hannah Davis, a nat assigned to investigate a fire at Father Squid’s church.  Gregg mostly sits this one out, but not entirely…  In the final scene, Hannah takes the information she’s uncovered concerning this dark conspiracy to the one person she thinks might be able to help.  Here’s how that scene and that book ended:

I’m not exactly a wild card historian, but you’re one person who has always come down squarely in the joker’s camp, even when it wasn‘t to your advantage to do so.  You’re one person who has always tried to bring some sanity to all this, to make peace.  You’ve spoken out against the violence; you’ve been visibly shaken by it.  I mean, my God, you lost a hand to the wild card and you‘re still fighting for the rights of those infected by the virus.  

In the end, we had to trust someone.  That‘s why I’ve spent so much time talking with you about this and giving you the whole story.  I feel good about you.  I don‘t think you have any evil in you at all.

So I’m handing all this to you. Please, look it over carefully…  I know you‘ll see the same things I’ve seen.  And then do something about it. Do what none of us have the connections and power to do.  

Don’t disappoint us, Senator Hartmann.

I’ve been told by several readers of the series that the final line made them shudder.

MARKED CARDS, our 14th Wild Cards book, would take up where CARD SHARKS left off, but after a seven book hiatus, I was again writing from Gregg Hartmann’s POV (though Hannah would be a prominent character in this book and the next).  I had the interstitial with “The Color Of His Skin”… because Walter Jon Williams had contacted me and said “Steve, would you mind if I turned Hartmann into a yellow caterpillar in my story?”

Remember, in the Wild Cards universe, we writers can’t do anything to another character without first getting permission from the creator of the character.  Being the cooperative sort, I said “Sure, Walter. Go ahead…”  In this book, poor Greggie hits absolute rock bottom in his character arc, and has to begin to figure out who he really is—at his core and without his ace abilities. And once you’re at rock bottom, there’s only one place to go.

BLACK TRUMP would be the 15th and concluding volume of the original series, and my favorite (and final) Hartmann story. In this book, Gregg manages to regain some of his lost ace ability, and also manages to finally play a hero for a change.  This book, in my opinion, was again one of the best we produced as a team.  It was also, I felt, a great end to Gregg’s evolution as a character.  He began as a horrific, sadistic, utterly despicable ace-in-the-hole; he would undergo tragedy, would have his star rise again and fall yet further, but his tale would end in a final act of selfless redemption.  As George would say later on a few occasions not long after the book’s publication, “Gregg Hartmann was the only major character whose arc began in the first book and ended in the last.”


The last book?  Well, you see, BLACK TRUMP appeared in 1995. At the time, we all thought it would likely be the final volume in the series as well. We were very nearly right (it would be seven years and a whole new century before the next Wild Cards book surfaced), but in the end, happily. we ended up being very wrong. Look—we’ve written several new books, and the old ones are being reissued, some of those with brand-new stories added.  We’re back! Thank you, Tor Books!

As for Gregg, I want to thank to all of you who loved to hate Gregg over his career. Mind you, I never hated the character myself; in fact, I rather felt sorry for him.  I always envisioned him as suffering from a form of Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka multiple personality disorder), He’d compartmentalized his personality, breaking himself into two separate entities with “Puppetman” taking over control of Hartmann’s actions when Gregg himself might have done nothing. Yes, both Puppetman and Gregg derived pleasure from the pain they inflicted and the way they manipulated others, but having Puppetman as a separate entity in his mind meant that Gregg didn’t have to accept any guilt or remorse for Puppetman’s actions. (“It wasn’t me; it was Puppetman.”)  I didn’t like Gregg, but I understood why he was the way he was, and therefore I had empathy and sympathy for him.

After all, ultimately it’s not his fault Gregg was the way he was. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit:  “I’m not bad.  I’m just written that way.”

And I’m glad that, in the end, I was able to bring him full circle.  Hey, it only took fifteen books!