The True and Terrible Tale of American Hero

by George R.R. Martin

((Beware Spoilers Below))

George R. R. Martin

All true Wild Card fans, and regular readers of these blog posts, know the not-so-secret origin of the reality series American Hero.

Carrie Vaughn started all the trouble, when you come right down to it.   It was along about 2006 (maybe late 2005), and we’d just signed a contract with Tor Books to bring back Wild Cards after a long hiatus.   Whenever we embark on a new triad, I like to recruit a few new writers.   New writers bring new characters, new conflicts, new relationships.   It helps keep things from getting stale… and one thing Wild Cards has never been is stale.

Carrie had been a Wild Cards fan since high school, had even written me a fan letter back in the heydey of the original series.  In the years since, she’d grown up, turned pro, and established herself as a rising star in the genre, but she was still a Wild Cards fan, and responded eagerly when I reached out to her, sending me ideas for half a dozen characters.

Headshot of Wild Cards author, Carrie Vaughn

After some back and forth, two of her creations were accepted into the universe: Earth Witch and Curveball both became fan favorites in Inside Straight and the books that followed. But it was one of the characters that I rejected who ended up having the most immediate impact.  In the short bio she wrote for him, Carrie mentioned in passing that he had been a runner-up in a super-powered reality show called American Hero.

“Hmmm,” I thought.  “That’s interesting.”   Reality shows were all the rage back then, and we like Wild Cards to reflect the real world (albeit in a warped funhouse mirror sort of way).  A reality show built around aces and their powers sounded as if it could be a lot of fun.  Moreover, Inside Straight was intended to be the first of our “next generation” books, which meant that we would be introducing a lot of brand new characters.   A television series would be an economical and elegant way to usher a whole new cast onto the stage in one fell swoop, rather than bringing them on piecemeal in a series of unconnected origin stories.

It was genius.  It was perfect.   And it worked like a charm.   American Hero grew to be the spine of the first of the “next generation” books.  (Which you’d know if you’re read Inside Straight— and if you haven’t, shame on you, get right on that now).

Many of our Wild Cards books are organized into triads, with the first two volumes leading to a climactic mosaic in the third.   For our first set of originals for Tor, the central idea was the introduction of our own Wild Cards take on a “super group,” like DC’s Justice League or Marvel’s Avengers.   Our version was to be called the Committee, and Inside Straight, Busted Flush, and Suicide Kings would form the Committee Triad.

That concept was well in place by the time Carrie tossed us the American Hero curveball.  It was the basis of the proposal that Tor saw when they bought the three books.   I can hear you asking, “How do you get the Avengers out the guys voted off the island on Survivor?”

Turned out, it wasn’t hard at all.

Many of my writers already had characters in mind for the “next generation” books.    Most of them slid very easily into the reality show template.   Carrie had Curveball and Earth Witch ready to go, of course; Daniel Abraham gave us Jonathan Hive, our interstitial narrator; Caroline Spector created the Amazing Bubbles, Michael Cassutt offered up Stuntman, Walter Jon Williams dreamed up the pre-teen stuffie queen Dragon Girl, and Stephen Leigh (fooling no one in his S.L. Farrell mask) gave us the towering joker-ace rock ‘n roll star Drummer Boy.

That’s not to say that all the characters created for the Committee books fit comfortably into the American Hero scenario.  My own creations were the first to be displaced.  I’d come up with two cool new aces: Lohengrin and Hoodoo Mama.   But Lohengrin was German, so he was not going to work as a contestant for a show called American Hero (I did manage to squeeze him in as a guest ace, kicking the ass of the regular contestants).   And while Hoodoo Mama was based in New Orleans, I had worked long enough in television to know that a foul-mouthed teenager with a criminal record whose power was animating corpses was not likely to be seen as “hero” material either.   Joey would have to wait for the next book, Busted Flush.   So would Ian Tregillis’s creation Genetrix, and Walton Simons’ Little Fat Boy… a living nuclear bomb whose power would have cancelled the series once and for all.  (Though the mushroom cloud would have made a hell of a Sweeps promo).

We designed the format of American Hero with the ‘playing card’ motif of Wild Cards in mind.  The competition would begin with four teams of would-be heroes, each named after one of the four suits and consisting of seven contestants, as a nod to seven card stud.  That meant we needed twenty-eight aces to kick things off; twenty-eight new characters.

We didn’t have room for anything close to twenty-eight stories of course, so the additional characters created to fill out the teams could not be featured in their own stories (at least not in this book).  Instead they would be sidekicks, antagonists, rivals, love interests (or one-night stands), bit players, cameos, redshirts, walk-ons.   Back then we had about thirty-five writers in the consortium (we have more than forty today), and usually no more than eight to ten story slots in any one book… but even the writers who did not have stories in Inside Straight wanted to get in on the fun.

That’s how we got Rosa Loteria and the Maharajah from Kevin Andrew Murphy, Diver from Sage Walker, Blrr from Gail Gerstner Miller and Simoon from John Jos. Miller, Brave Hawk from Steve Perrin, Jade Blossom from William F. Wu, Hardhat from Christopher Rowe, and the multi-talented Candle from Laura J. Mixon.   That still wasn’t enough for four full teams, though, so I dipped way back into ancient Wild Cards history and pulled up a couple of characters from the Superworld games we had played in Albuquerque twenty years before, to add Chip Wideman’s Toad Man and my own Holy Roller to the roster.

Even the writers who had major characters on stage could not resist to urge to create a few more.  Melinda Snodgrass’s main man (ah, person?) was Double Helix, but she gave us Matryoska too.  Ian Tregillis had labored long and hard to create Genetrix, but he tossed out Rustbelt, the iron ace from the Iron Range, in a sentence.  Caroline Spector created Tiffani to be Bubbles’s friend and bete noir, Daniel Abraham added Spasm (who could make his enemies orgasm themselves unconscious, something you won’t see from Marvel or DC), Bud Simons created the annoying Joe Twitch, and Walter Jon Williams presented us with the faux Mexican masked wrestler King Cobalt and the teleporter Cleopatra (don’t you ever call her Pop Tart).  And Carrie Vaughn, who had started the madness, created the illusion-caster Wild Fox to join her Big Two of Curveball and Earth Witch. Even I chipped in, with Jetman (the man that Jetboy would have been).

Finally we reached the magic number: twenty-eight.


Then the writers wrote the stories.

And I edited the stories.  And oh, damn, discovered we had a hole in the middle of the book, and brought in two more writers to make it all work.  One was John Jos. Miller, whose John Fortune character had been working on the show all along as a PA.   The other writer who stepped up for us was Ian Tregillis… with Rustbelt, that ‘throwaway character’ he had created to help fill out the Spades, who had assumed unexpected importance in Michael Cassutt’s story and now had a story of his own… and a key role in the overall narrative.   Rusty would go on to become one of the most popular of all the ‘next generation’ characters.

And that was not the only weird thing that happened.

The structure of Inside Straight, y’see, had all these characters starting out on the reality show, but eventually realizing that it was all fake and empty, whereupon a number of them (most from the Discard Pile), crossed the world to do something truly heroic (and truly dangerous) and prevent a genocide on the Nile.  It’s a pretty good story, and it’s there in the novel (if you have not read it yet, you can pick up autographed copies from the bookstore at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, via mailorder).

What we discovered, somewhat to our surprise, is that while most of our fans loved the story, they also wanted to know what happened in the other story, the reality show story.   Not all of our aces went off to Egypt, after all.   Some remained behind to fight it out for that million dollar prize.  “Who Will Be the New American Hero?” the tagline for the show ran.  Turns out there were a lot of Wild Cards readers who wanted to know the answer.

So we told them.   We created an in-world website for the television series, complete with a week-by-week recap of the action, the machinations and betrayals and love affairs, and kept it running all the way to the end, even after the stars of Inside Straight had taken their leave.  All of the writers contributed, writing confessionals for their own characters… but we made poor Carrie Vaughn pay for the sin of creating this monster by doing the recaps.   And yes, though the American Hero website is long gone, all that material still exists, and Tor will be bringing it to you soon as an ebook, for all you Wild Card completists.  (With more great art by Mike S. Miller).

And that’s the story of American Hero, season one (2007-08).

But it’s not the end of our story.

Inside Straight was eighteenth volume in the Wild Cards series (and no, as I have said a thousand times, it is NOT necessary to have read the first seventeen to enjoy it).  Next month, volume twenty-five, Low Chicago, will be released in hardcover by Tor, and we have five more volumes in the pipeline.  A lot of things have happened in our world since that first season of American Hero.  Twenty-eight contestants vied for the million dollar prize that first year.   Six of them have died since then, and one has lost an arm (things happen in Wild Cards, and they don’t un-happen, as in all too many mainstream comics).

For the surviving contestants, life goes on, sometimes in unexpected ways.   Some remain members of the Committee, working for the UN.  Others resigned for one reason or another to return to their private lives.  Bugsy, Bubbles, Rustbelt, Double Helix, and Drummer Boy continue to be major characters in the series, popping up in book after book… but some of those bit players we created to fill out the teams have come into their own since, shouldering forward to claim some of the spotlight.

Cleopatra (do NOT call her Pop Tart) co-starred with Golden Boy in an original by Walter Jon Williams for   Carrie’s third wheel, the irrepressible Wild Fox, was featured in a tale of his own in Mississippi Roll.   William F. Wu’s Jade Blossom will have her turn in the forthcoming Texas Hold’ Em.  Gardener and Simoon played huge, huge roles in Suicide Kings, Joe Twitch had his moments in Fort Freak, and Hardhat will be soloing next month in Low Chicago.  Rosa Loteria, whose amazing array of personae Kevin Andrew Murphy blogged about, is going to be the star of a graphic novel scripted by Kevin and John Jos. Miller.  And Laura J. Mixon is working on a novel featuring the Candle and Tiffani.

Can stories about Blrr, the Maharajah, Jetman, and Spasm be far behind?  Who knows?  Not me. I’m just the editor here.

And those are just the contestants from the first season.

American Hero ran for nine seasons.

That we can’t blame on Carrie Vaughn.   I am not sure who we can blame it on, if truth be told.   All I know for sure is that when we were writing Busted Flush, the middle book in our Committee triad, suddenly various of my writers were dropping in references to the show’s second season… despite the fact that none of the action in the book is anywhere near Hollywood.   Here I am reading along, in my editorial innocence, and suddenly I seeing mentions of Professor Polka, Auntie Gravity, Kandy Kane, Kozmic Kowboy, and… especially… talk about how the Laureate screwed Tesseract.

“Who the hell are these people?”I wondered.

One of them, Tesseract – Mollie Steunenberg of Coeur d’Iene, Idaho – was another one of the characters Ian Tregillis likes to throw off from time to time.  From a one-line mention in Busted Flush, she went on to become a major player in Suicide Kings, Lowball, and High Stakes… and one of the most dangerous aces in the world.   You’ll be seeing more of her.

Colonel Centrigrade showed up in Mississippi Roll, and you’ll soon be meeting Rubberband and Kozmic Kowboy as well, so keep your eyes peeled.   I have it on good authority that our surviving season one contestants consider the season two crowd as wannabees not quite good enough to make the grade… but aces are aces, and the second season squad may not be content to remain in the shadows forever.

Oh… and as it happens, we worked out the members of all the teams for season two, just as we did for season one:

HEARTS: Minx, Battlebabe, Colonel Centigrade, Miss Congeniality, Hombre, Steambot, Rubberband.

SPADES: Summer Storm, Runaround Sue, Kozmic Kowboy, Jack Hammer, Professor Polka, Junkyard Dawg, Kandy Kane.

CLUBS: Spin Doctor, Buckeye, Brickbat, Auntie Gravity, Tesseract, The Laureate, Lullaby.

DIAMONDS: Buffalo Gal, The Jackalope, Witchfyre, the Human Crab, Turbo, Space Cadette, Crazy Quilt.

The American Hero story did not end with season two.   In the Wild Cards universe, the series was a huge hit, much as American Idol, Survivor, and The Amazing Race were in the real world.  Season followed season all through the ‘oughts and into the teens, each one introducing twenty-eight new contestants and aspiring heroes.

Deeper into the series, the producers rang in a few changes to the format to keep viewer interest high.   The first two seasons had been filmed in Los Angeles, but for season three the show moved to San Francisco, while season four was shot in Atlanta.

Season five (2011-2012) was promoted as “The Return,” and featured four teams made up entirely of losers from the four previous seasons, giving fans the opportunity to cheer on some old favorites once again. That year, the Hearts were all discards from season one, the Clubs contestants from season two, the Spades from season three, and the Diamonds from season four.   “Everyone deserves a second chance,” the network’s promotional spots insisted.

Season six (2012-2013) introduced another wrinkle, and built each of the four initial teams around a single demographic.   That season the Hearts were all women, the Spades all men.  The Diamonds were the teen team, with seven aces all below the age of twenty; the Clubs were made up entirely of contestants older than fifty.

American Hero returned to its original format for its final three seasons, but by that time ratings had begun to fall off.   Even the novelty of shooting season nine (2015-2016) in Hawaii did not arrest the decline, and the involvement of one of the show’s producers in the notorious ‘Joker Death Match’ video scandals dealt the series a black eye from which it could not recover.   Despite a vigorous fan campaign to “Save the Heroes,” the show was cancelled after its ninth season.

All things come to an end, however, and over the course of its nine unforgettable seasons, American Hero changed the course of television and introduced two hundred and twenty-four new aces, joker-aces, and would-be heroes to the world of the wild cards.