The Hardhat of Two Worlds

by Christopher Rowe

There used to be a very exclusive annual party held in a very exclusive location. It was most often put on in an enormous high-tech satellite in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles in the sky, and to receive an invitation you had to be a member of either Earth-One’s Justice League of America or Earth-Two’s Justice Society of America. I never got to attend, but I faithfully read about the parties in the society pages, by which I mean in the pages of various DC Comics.

Funny thing about those parties. Something always went wrong. There was always an alien invasion, or an incursion of evil doppelgängers from an (other) alternate dimension, or a para-Newtonian temporal explosion that sent everyone back to the Triassic, or a mystery to be solved that made Elongated Man’s nose twitch (I loved when that happened!). There was always some sort of, forgive my use of the word, crisis.

I am not old enough to remember the seminal pop culture moment that—eventually, circuitously—led to the more or less yearly meetups of the biggest super-teams in DC Comics storied history. I was not yet born when the September, 1961 issue of The Flash (#121) hit newsstands all over America (hell, I’m barely old enough to remember when they sold comics at newsstands—or when there were newsstands). That amazing example of four-color storytelling, “The Flash of Two Worlds,” was brought to readers by the legendary team of writer Gardner Fox, penciler Carmine Infantino, and editor Julius Schwartz. The iconic cover of the comic should be, I firmly believe, included in every text book of 20th Century American art, literature, and social history. 

Do you know it? A construction worker (there will be more of those in this post), lies amid debris at the end of a brick wall, arm held high in the impossible hope of shielding himself from the certain doom represented by a steel girder plunging from on high. Who can save him? He knows. He calls out, “Flash! Save me!”

And along one side of that brick wall, racing towards the worker and the reader, comes the blurred form of Barry Allen, the Flash, the Fastest Man Alive. Here to save the day.

And along the opposite side of that brick wall, rushing to the rescue, his timeless Mercury helmet set slightly askew, races Jay Garrick, the Flash, the Fastest Man Alive. Here to save the day.

This story, in which Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, visits and adventures with his Golden Age predecessor on an alternate world, established the existence of DC’s fabled Multiverse, which has given so many creators so many headaches down the decades, and so many readers so much pleasure. It did not invent, but showcased and formalized, the idea of what many people now refer to as “legacy heroes” when they talk about comic book superheroes.

Wild Cards is about aces and jokers, deuces and nats, in a world where superpowers, but very few superheroes, exist. Otherdimensions? Sure, we’ve done that, a little. But that’s not what this essay is about, and the multiple Earths of my childhood favorite comics are not what most thrilled me about those annual team-ups of heroes old and new(ish).

What thrilled me is that I didn’t just get Hal Jordon, super-science space cop employed by the Guardians of the Galaxy and assigned to patrol Sector 2814 of the galaxy, but I also got Alan Scott, multimillionaire media mogul gifted with the mystic power of the Green Lantern. Not only was Katar Hol, alien winged warrior from planet Thanagar in attendance, but his older, decidedly weirder double, a Hawkman who was the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince was there as well.

Hey! There are crazy older versions of all the heroes I know and love! What’s up with that?

What’s up is the aforementioned notion of the legacy hero. And, actually, we don’t do that in Wild Cards. Well, we’ve only done it once. 

I did it. It was an accident.

I came on board with the Wild Cards Consortium as the Committee Triad was being planned. One of the first things George asked us to do was design what were intended to be minor characters to fill out the roster of the in-universe American Hero reality show. We needed dozens of bit players. I pitched a few, and the one that got picked to be added to the cast was a foul-mouthed Polish American construction worker from Chicago named Todd “TT” Taszycki. TT had the power to generate glowing yellow girders of variant lengths and masses that he could use to build structures or even wield as weapons.

As things developed, I wound up not actually writing a story for that triad, but several of my fellow Wild Cards authors liked TT, or “Hardhat” to use his nom de ace, well enough to include him in their stories.  I think it was all the cursing. But those of you who have read the very first Wild Cards volume are probably thinking about something right now. “Polish construction worker? Hardhat?”

I cannot truthfully say whether or not I was thinking of Victor Milán’s creation of Wojtek Grabowski for the story “Transfigurations” when I came up with TT. I’d read the story many times, dating back to its original publication in the 1980s, so I was certainly familiar with the character. But I don’t think TT was a deliberate homage (in fact, in my original pitch, his ace name was “Girder”). Not at first, anyway.

As George worked with me developing the character, and rejected the original code name, he mentioned the older character and noted the similarities. One or the other of us floated the idea of just calling TT “Hardhat” as well, and I’m certain it was George who said something along the lines of “We can just have a Hardhat II, they do it in comics all the time.”

Boy do they. See above.

Just as the World War II era creation of Jay Garrick informed and influenced the Cold War creation of Barry Allen, and that ofAlan Scott influenced Hal Jordan (and Al Pratt influenced Ray Palmer… the list goes on, and gets even longer when you get forty or fifty years further along and there are a whole new raft of characters using the sobriquets Flash and Green Lantern and Atom and Firebrand and Hourman and Liberty Belle and Mr. Terrific and Starman and and and…), Victor Milán’s World WarII partisan fighter Wojtek Grabowski therefore came to influence my family-loving (like Wojtek), hard-drinking (somewhat like Wojtek), blue streak cursing (not at all like the much more pious Catholic Wojtek) Todd Taszycki. I made a careful study of “Transfigurations,” taking pages and pages of notes on the tiniest details Vic provided and doing independent research on the historical events Wojtek had been caught up in. Some of this—a lot of it—came to influence TT’s characterization (and later portrayal when he finally got his own story, see below). Some of it didn’t. That’s the way these things work.

So we put a fair amount of work into designing the character, then the writers of Inside Straight spent a gratifying amount of time developing him. And then fellow Wild Cards writer S.L. Farrell killed him (spoilers!).

I was sanguine about it. He went out a hero, and in a way, TT was born to die (aren’t we all?). He had a critical role to fill as a supporting character, he did his job, and then he was taken off the stage. Well, he was washed down the Nile, but you should read that for yourself if you haven’t already.

I liked TT. I missed him. But to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second acts in American Heroes (that guy would have made a great Wild Cards Consortium member).

I moved on to other Wild Cards projects and characters—the bulk of my work in our shared world has yet to see print, but it’s coming—and had no regrets about my first foray into the universe being a short-lived supporting player. All my favorite actors are supporting players, and they’re forever dying on screen, too. Of course, they come back in other guises. That wasn’t an option for TT.

Well, it wasn’t an option until George threw time travel into the mix.

Low Chicago was the first, and, we’re told, will be the only point along Wild Cards deep and complicated and ongoingtimeline that we writers would be allowed some temporal hijinks. Time travel is a tangle for one writer in a piece that otherwise respects Aristotle’s Classical unities. Imagine what it’s like wrangling a half dozen of us working with decades of continuity, dozens upon dozens of previously published stories, and literally hundreds of characters to play with. There are a few things I envy about George’s life (mainly related to his awesome collection of gaming miniatures), but I do not now, nor will I ever envy him the task of editing Low Chicago.

Chicago, Chicago, that’s already come up in this essay, hasn’t it? That’s right. Hometown hero Todd Taszycki hails from there. As the setting for the stories in the second volume of the American Triad, the Windy City presented authors with a wonderful historical banquet of options for stories. Gangsters. Serial killers. Dinosaurs.

Construction workers.

TT was dead in the time of the opening of the book. But what if somebody else got thrown back in time to a point where he wasn’t dead? What if some other Wild Cards character was on the scene when TT actually first gained his powers (when his card first turned, to use our parlance), and they had an adventure. That would mean I would get to write a full length story starring my first Wild Cards character after all!

But who was a good candidate from the cast of “still alive now” aces to take the temporal trip? Seemed obvious to me! I reread “Transfigurations” and then combed through all the volumes since then. Wojtek Grabowski disappeared into anonymity following his famous fight at People’s Park with Tom Marion Douglas and the Radical in the spring of 1970 (despite the fact that Charles Bronson played him in the in-universe movie that recounted those events). He would be quite aged by the opening of Low Chicago, but hey, I figured, he’s an ace. If Golden Boy can keep on keeping on, why shouldn’t Hardhat I?

I proposed some differences, of course. Unlike Golden Boy, Wojtek wasn’t stuck at one moment in time (in terms of physiology). By the time he shows up, uninvited, to a certain poker game at the Palmer House, he’s a centenarian and looks like one. But he’s still passionate about what he believes in. He’s still really crazy strong.

There’s a, whatever, let’s say an alien viral influenced para-Newtonian event. Wojtek Grabowski gets thrown back in time. And I get to write “The Motherfucking Apotheosis of Todd Motherfucking Taszycki.”

A legacy hero, for my purposes (and I don’t think my purposes run counter to the way the term is most commonly understood in superpowered story circles) is a person who takes up the mantle of a previously existing character, takes the name, sometimes takes the specific mission, sometimes has similar or even identical powers. The curious circling back and forth in time of the real-world creation of Victor Milán’s Hardhat in the 1980s and mine nearly thirty years later, taken together with the fact that Vic’s story was set in 1970 (with flashbacks to the 1940s), and then mixed up with time travel, well, it’s not entirely clear which directions all the influences run. Did Todd Taszycki carry out an ennobled version of Wojtek Graboswki’s legacy? I like to think so.

But Hardhat I, unlike the much younger hero he influenced, is still alive in our continuity. Last I checked. Did TT influence the older man in his turn? I like to think so.

And who knows, maybe one day there’ll be a Hardhat III (just kidding, George!).