The Secret Origins of Wild Cards – Part Two

by Paul Cornell

Last time we explored the membership of the Santa Fe gaming group where Wild Cards was born, and how they formed the core of the Collective that went on to create the books.  This time round, we’re looking at the writers from outside that group who George R.R. Martin approached to work on the first anthology.  

            The recruitment of Howard Waldrop changed everything for Wild Cards.  The great fantasy writer was perhaps at the peak of his early success in 1986, with a collection of his renowned short stories and his novel Them Bones just behind him.  He was also already a Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner.  He’d co-authored a short story with Martin in 1974, Martin having regularly slept on Waldrop’s floor when visiting Austin, and the author was keen to bring him onboard as the first Wild Cards collection took shape.  

But Waldrop wouldn’t play ball with the proposed shape of that collection, which was to have been just a series of contemporary stories set in the Wild Cards universe.  Waldrop wanted to write a homage to his own most personal connection to super heroes, Airboy, Charles Biro, Dick Wood and Al Camy’s Golden Age aviator hero.  Airboy was a non-powered inventor who fought the Nazis using his own design of advanced aircraft.  His original publication history ended when Waldrop was seven years old, but those old issues made a big impact on the young writer.  Not only did Waldrop insist that if he was to write a super hero, it would be a non-powered air ace in the post-war years, he insisted that the story ended, and the Wild Cards universe thus began, with the disastrous release of the Wild Card virus, on his own birthday, September 15th, 1946.  That meant the first story in the anthology would be a historical piece, and that suggested a shape for the book and for the universe going forward.  

            Perhaps aptly, that statement made, Waldrop never wrote for Wild Cards again, but remained the wry, detached observer of human foibles whose career still prospers today.  He did make one major mistake, however, as Melinda Snodgrass recounts: ‘Roger (Zelazny) had asked Howard if September 15th 1946 was a weekday.’ (It had to be for the text to work.  Croyd Crenson was infected with the virus when heading home from school.) ‘Howard said it was.  Then after the book came out it was discovered it was a Sunday.  We were gathered at George’s house when that news broke.  Roger was curled up like a cat on this big ottoman nursing his pipe.  When he heard he pulled the pipe out of his mouth, said “damn, damn, damn” and threw his pipe into the kiva fireplace.  I believe Howard offered the excuse that in the Wild Cards universe we had never moved off the Julian calendar… hence the discrepancy.  Hey it’s an explanation.’

            ‘(It was) the only time I ever saw Roger mad,’ adds Martin.  ‘(Waldrop) never bothered to check… he had always been told that he was born on a weekday.  To spread the blame around a little, though, I could have checked the date myself, in my capacity as editor.  Perpetual calendars can be found easily enough.  We all just made the mistake of trusting Howard.’  

            Which is testament to how much this group cared (and still cares) about the details.  It’s interesting to note how many great disasters fate and fiction seem to have packed into five days in September, with Space: 1999’s moon being blown out of orbit on the 13th, and, well, then there are the horrors of the real world that the Wild Cards universe avoided.  

            It’s also interesting to note that Alan Moore also pastiched Airboy, with his creation Jetlad appearing in the Top 10 graphic novel The Forty-Niners in 2005.  Such cross-referencing is apt, since the first Wild Cards anthology appeared at a time when the super hero was being reinvented, by Moore and others.  1986 was the year of Watchmenand The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.  The game Martin, Snodgrass and their friends had been playing for years had also been working itself out in the minds of many other authors.  All of these texts came from different roots, but their common origin was the body of myth they were deconstructing.  Even Airboy himself reappeared in 1986, in a reinvention from Eclipse Comics.  (Future Wild Cards Consortium member Bob Wayne, then running a string of Texas comics stores, introduced Waldrop to comics artist (and later Wild Cards illustrator) Timothy Truman, who tried to persuade Waldrop to write for that incarnation of his childhood hero, but, again, Waldrop retained his distance.)  

            So, who else did Martin pursue to add to the gaming group’s universe?  

            Let’s start with the aforementioned Roger Zelazny.  Zelazny was already known to the group, having been included in Snodgrass’ SF anthology A Very Large Array.  Waldrop might have been a cult hero, but Zelazny was by that point a giant of the genre, halfway through the second series of his Chronicles of Amber novels, five of his six Hugo Awards already won.  Getting him onboard helped turn the group’s hobby into a commercial proposition.  Zelazny’s character, Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper was our point of view in the moments after the Wild Card virus was released and continues to be a popular lead in the series, years after Zelazny’s passing.  

            Another friend from Austin, both of Martin and core Wild Cards author Walter Jon Williams, was upcoming writer Lewis Shiner, who was able to lure both visiting creators away from Waldrop’s floor with his plush guest room. Martin took an interest in Shiner’s writing and asked him to pitch to Wild Cards.  Shiner, wanting to test how ‘adult’ this adult super hero collection was going to be, created Fortunato, a pimp who practiced sex magic.  He also, at the last minute, pitched Kid Dinosaur, after Martin had put out a call for ‘red shirt’ characters, whose death would come as a surprise.  Martin liked the Kid so much he wanted to save him, but Shiner was adamant.  ‘George wasn’t nearly as ruthless back in those days,’ he said in this 2017 interview.  Shiner’s subsequent body of work includes a run of novels with an emphasis on the music business, one of which, Glimpses, won the World Fantasy Award.

            Edward Bryant was a friend of and co-writer with Harlan Ellison, and a veteran of the American New Wave of SF in the mid-Seventies.  He was mostly known for his short stories, for which, by the time of Wild Cards, he’d already won two Nebulas.  Having moved to Denver, Colorado, Bryant had put down deep roots in the SF community there and was responsible for the founding of a writer’s group that produced talents like Dan Simmons and Connie Willis. Recruiting someone who was a seven hour drive away was, in those days, a matter of convention meet-ups, phone calls and the postal service.  And Bryant hadn’t much experience with gaming or super hero comics.  Bryant’s short fiction background, however, and his reputation for dark, cutting-edge stories put him in the frame for the flavour Martin wanted for his anthology.  Bryant, however, realised he needed help.  

            Leanne C. Harper was the Vice President of Mile High Comics, now America’s largest comics dealer, but even then a major presence in Denver.  She also edited its in-house magazine, Mile High Futures, and had overseen Bryant’s work as a book reviewer.  Knowing she was an expert on comics, Bryant sought out her advice on his Wild Cardscharacters, and they ended up pitching and then working on the story together.  Harper regards that experience as another example of Bryant’s effect on many young writers.  ‘I was collaborating with someone I knew to be a superb writer while I had no such illusions about my skills,’ she said in this essay for the Wild Cards website.  ‘The good news was that I knew that Ed was an equally superb mentor to many other writers.’  Harper not only got that shared credit in the first Wild Cards anthology but went on to write on her own for three more of the books.  

            Meanwhile, Martin knew that his convention friend Stephen Leigh was a comic book fan and a fellow game-master, running a fantasy role-playing game of his own creation at his home in Cincinnati, where Martin had occasionally visited him.  He was also a budding writer with four SF novels to his name.  Martin called Leigh one night and asked him to contribute a character that spoke of the politics of the universe his gaming group was creating, so Leigh came back with Senator Gregg Hartmann, another building block for everything that would follow.  Leigh has continued to prosper in genre fiction and as a lecturer in creative writing and has stayed with Wild Cards through thick and thin, his most recent story being in Mississippi Roll (2017).  

            However, not everyone who was contacted made it into print.  ‘I asked a number of writers who, for one reason or another, never actually wrote anything for the series,’ says Martin.   ‘Gardner Dozois was one.   George Alec Effinger another.’  Dozois, one of the greatest editors in SF history, and an old friend of Martin’s, apparently pitched a character called The Wanker, about whom, perhaps fortunately, little is known.  Effinger, soon to be a darling of Cyberpunk, had actually written for Marvel Comics, adapting Gullivar Jones and Thongor stories for Creatures on the Loose.  Also invited at the time were Arthur Byron Cover, co-owner of the Dangerous Visions bookstore in LA, who had been a Harlan Ellison discovery and a star of the American New Wave, and was known for his funky, off the wall ideas.  His first and only story for Wild Cards finally appeared in the fifth volume, Down and Dirty.  

            Also sent an invitation was games writer Steve Perrin, who is about to have his first story for Wild Cards appear, in the forthcoming Joker Moon, thirty-four years later!  But Perrin is nevertheless already the creator of the Wild Cards characters Brave Hawk, Cyclone, Digger Downs and Mistral.  Martin had known Perrin as a penpal since their high school days in the early 1960s, when both were active (along with Waldrop) in early comic book fandom.  Notably, Perrin was the writer of the SuperWorld role-playing game that inspired Martin’s gaming group to create Wild Cards.  ‘There was a call of some sort for characters without possessive writers attached,’ says Perrin now.  ‘At least I think I’m not the only non-campaign contributor who just offered characters, not stories.  I intended to write stories, but that kept getting postponed…  I remember George had to put out a general statement that Wild Cards had enough characters, please no more submissions, mostly aimed at friends of friends who heard about the series and wanted to be part of it.’

            So, Wild Cards had cast its net reasonably wide, and had recruited from current SF both the established and the upcoming, including several key figures that would legitimise and reinforce the gaming group’s venture into a shared universe.  But how that universe came to become a book series was down to two big decisions.  

            Firstly, the Master Agreement (and it’s come to deserve the capital letters) the writers all signed was expertly conceived, with Snodgrass drawing on her training as a lawyer to contribute.  She and Martin had taken advice from editors Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey, whose Thieves’ World shared universe had begun in 1978, the first venture of this type.  ‘They generously shared their experiences… so we could avoid some of the pitfalls that befell them,’ says Snodgrass.  ‘Bob and Lyn sent their agreement to George along with warnings about what had gone wrong with Thieves’ World.  Then George and I worked together to draft a system that would hopefully avoid those pitfalls.  We made a number of good choices but one of the best was having writers sign their characters over to the consortium.  That enabled us to have Hollywood and other entities negotiate with the editors and not every individual writer.  If we hadn’t done that I doubt we would ever have sold the project to Hollywood.’  

            ‘By the time we started up Wild Cards there were half a dozen (shared worlds) going,’ adds Martin, ‘either published or in the pipeline: IthkarHeroes in HellWar WorldMerovingian Nights and, most crucially, Liavek, edited by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly.   Bob Asprin and Lynn Abbey had started Thieves’ World with a standard one-page anthology contract but had run into all sorts of land mines a few books in when the scale of success became apparent.  They had to spend a lot of money on lawyer’s fees to draft their Master Agreement, which not all of their contributors were willing to sign when it was presented to them.  Bob and Lynn were very generous in sharing the agreement with those who came after them, including Will and Emma.  The Liavek agreement tweaked the TW agreement in a couple of ways to avoid the problems that Asprin and Abbey had run into.  That worked; but the tweaks created a few problems of their own.  We had the benefit of seeing both versions.  That allowed me to tweak the tweaks, most notably by inserting the “consortium point” clause that rewards writers financially for allowing their characters to be used by others, while simultaneously giving them veto power over the manner of such use.  Maybe the most essential point, however, is that all Wild Cards contributors must sign the Master Agreement before entering our world.’

            The Master Agreement has kept the peace in the Wild Cards Collective for over three decades.  The new universe had been built on a solid foundation.  

            The second big decision that determined the shape of Wild Cards as a book series was taken by a new editor on her first day on the job.  Shawna McCarthy had won the Hugo for editing Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983.  Two years later she joined Bantam Books.  Before the world had heard of Watchmen, she decided, immediately, that Martin’s gritty shared universe super hero anthology was a great idea.  That was a big decision.  But she also decided immediately that Wild Cards should actually be a series of three books.  That was a bigger decision.  And the start of the trilogy structure that would shape Wild Cards ever after. 

            That decision took the newly-formed Collective by surprise.  To make the pitch into a trilogy was going to require a lot of thought.  And it would mean the recruitment of even more writers.  As we’ll discover next time, Wild Cards was going to need a bigger boat.