by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Confession time. I didn’t read comics growing up. My parents wouldn’t let me, so it wasn’t until that now famous Super World game that I became interested in all this superhero stuff. Even now most of my knowledge is due to the Marvel cinematic universe, and the D.C. television shows. (Maybe someday D.C. will figure out how to make a decent feature film. One can hope.)
This is all by way of saying I don’t know every detail from sixty years of comic runs from the two major publishers. Maybe all of this has been done before, but honestly, it does feel like Wild Cards forged a new direction when exploring the issue of superheroes in a real world setting that Marvel and D.C. are only now discovering.
So, what is the this I’m talking about? It’s the idea of emotional trauma and decisions that have nothing to do with whether New York City, or Gotham, or Metropolis will be destroyed by — fill in the villain — it’s much smaller than that. It’s deeply personal with repercussions solely for that individual and maybe their immediate family.
Disney/Marvel has done an amazing job first with WandaVision and then with the breathtakingly powerful Falcon and Winter Soldier.
OKAY THERE ARE GOING TO BE SOME SPOILERS COMING SO DON’T READ FURTHER IF YOU CAN’T STAND SPOILERS.
When I first started watching Wanda Vision I was baffled, and then I realized — oh, this is a story about inappropriate grieving. A woman devastated by personal loss — first her brother, then her lover — has the power to create a fantasy world where none of the bad things ever happened. I had predicted that her need to default into safe American sitcoms came from her need to remember a safe and happy time when she was a child nestled in the bosom of a loving family watching those sitcoms, and I was right (I really ought to be doing this for a living.)
Then there was Falcon and Winter Soldier. In a move I never expected from Disney they fearlessly stepped into issues of racism in America, the plight of refugees, the loss of a beloved family business because banks are unwilling to loan to people of color. The heart-stopping scene where Isaiah Bradley cries out to Sam “They will never let a black man be Captain America.” had me shaking.
But guess what? Wild Cards was there decades before these shows. Racism and othering? We did that, but our jokers became a metaphor for oppressed minorities the world over. The refugee crises? Take a look at Mississippi Roll. The growing danger of right wing violence in the streets? Three Kings examined those issues. The rise of terrorism? Detailed in Black Trump. Genocide by governments against minority populations? Inside Straight. Child soldiers? Check out Suicide Kings.
All of these are big and desperately important topics and I have always said science fiction and fantasy are the places where people can exam their biases and issues of gender, politics, race and religion, but at arm’s length where it feels less judgmental and in-your-face. A safe space, if you will.
But for me what has always been the heart of Wild Cards are the more private, small and personal stories, choices and decisions that determine the arc of a character’s life.
One of my favorite examples of this is in George’s story “Winter’s Chill,” which can be found in volume two Aces High. In Wild Cards it is the release of an alien virus that rewrites human DNA that is the cause of humans gaining meta-human powers. Unfortunately, it was a beta test, and the results are often tragic — black queens, or disturbing — jokers. The chances of a person who contracts the virus or is born to parents who are Wild Cards actually becoming an ace are surpassingly small.
In the story George’s character, the wonderful Tom Tudbury (aka the Great and Powerful Turtle) has finally realized his dream of dating a girl he has loved since high school. He is preparing to ask her to marry him when his friend Dr. Tachyon gives him a piece of devastating news. Tom’s lady carries the wild card virus. At the moment she is a latent, it has not expressed and indeed might never express, but if she and Tom were to have children there would be a ninety percent chance the infant will be a black queen and be born dead or die soon after birth. Tom knows that a family, children is desperately important to Barbara so he walks away and ultimately learns she has married another man. It’s a gut wrenching decision for Tom, but there is nothing Earth shaking, it’s just a man sacrificing his own happiness for the happiness of the woman he loves.
“Witness,” Walter Jon Williams’ powerful story about the House Un-American Activities Committee and the ultimate weakness of one of the strongest men in the world, has echoes of the John Walker character in Falcon and Winter Soldier. Jack Braun was a farm boy fighting in WWII when he was infected by the virus. He is recruited by an FDR style millionaire looking to use the aces to further the goals of democracy in the aftermath of a devastating world war.
The Four Aces consisted of Blythe van Rensselaer (aka Brain Trust) who could absorb the knowledge contained in the minds of other humans. (More on her later); David Harstein (aka The Envoy) who could use his pheromones to convince people to do almost anything ( unfortunately, the effect fades after he leave the room so the peace treaties he helped broker never held); and Earl Sanderson (aka Black Eagle)who was branded a left wing agitator for his actions on behalf of black Americans. After a failure to secure peace between Maoists and Chiang Kai-shek the Four Aces were brought before HUAC, and Jack Braun folded under the pressure, becoming a friendly witness against the others and naming names.
“Witness” is a fascinating story about the limits of strength. True strength wasn’t the fact that Jack could dead-lift a tank or fold its gun barrel as if it were a paper straw, but the mental and moral strength to stand against government overreach, to defend your friends, to remain constant. Jack failed at all of these and it haunted him through all the years of his very long life. Again, no cities were threatened — only a man’s soul.
Now to pick up the tragic tale of Blythe. Given her power it was decided that she should absorb the minds of brilliant scientist to preserve their knowledge — men like Einstein. My character Dr. Tachyon (one of the aliens who created the virus but had a crisis-of-conscience and tried to prevent its release) fell in love with Blythe and was completely opposed to this plan. Tachyon was a telepath, and he knew the dangers of a single human mind trying to hold the knowledge and personalities of so many other individuals. At one point Blythe absorbs Tachyon’s mind and knowledge as well, which included the names of every ace that Tachyon had treated.
Jack Braun reveals that to HUAC, and the committee pulls in Blythe in order to obtain those names. Tachyon feared that the government intended to incarcerate the aces, so he mind-controls his love to prevent her from speaking. Unfortunately, Blythe’s slender grip on sanity due to the pressure of all the different minds she had absorbed is unable to withstand the trauma and she descends into madness. Tachyon is deported from the United States and becomes a hopeless drunk and derelict tortured by all of his failures and his destruction of the woman he loved. Tachyon protected the aces, but at such terrible, personal cost.
One of our joker characters, Miranda Michaelson (aka Rikki), is the daughter of two jokers who, despite the risks associated with two wild cards having children, endured multiple miscarriages to finally have their beloved joker baby. But Rikki has made the decision she will adopt before she ever bears a child of her own. She is not willing to take the risks her parents embraced.
Our writers craft stories about a beloved neighborhood bakery being threatened by developers. A high school band competition where the joker students from Xavier Desmond High School in Jokertown face down bigotry but also find friends and some romance along the way.
I have a graphic novel in the works that centers around a young man discovering the father he was raised to revere as a hero and an exemplary police officer was in fact a dark and criminal figure. Since Francis Xavier Black based his entire life on following in the footsteps of a father he never knew, these revelations leave him shaken and questioning the entire direction of his life. His decision to join the police was based on a lie, and he’s now faced with whether to continue in that profession or forge a new path for himself. (I’m still wrestling with that.)
We also deal with issues of aging and death. There are a very few characters who are virtually immortal, but George and I have put a stop to that. In Three Kings the youngest character is Noel Matthews at thirty-nine. All the others are people in their seventies and eighties, and there’s even a (somewhat) sad love story, because everyone is entitled to romance no matter how old they might be. The Great and Powerful Turtle has also retired from being a hero. He’s a man in his seventies living…. I think in California, but he’s keeping such a low profile I’ve forgotten.
The other thing that is unique to Wild Cards is that death is permanent. Death should have consequence — certainly for the people who loved that person. And on a writerly note, it’s not fair to readers or viewers to ask them for an emotional reaction, and then give a wink and tell them “Never mind.” Wild Cards characters sicken, age, and die.
Don’t get me wrong — Wild Cards has plenty of dangers that threaten the planet, from the Astronomer and the Swarm Mother to a dark god from the Cthulhu dimension… but I do think our greatest strength is when we speak to the human heart, to small joys and personal sorrows.