By Max Gladstone
Superpowered universes rarely have much history. They have continuity, sure, tons of the stuff, but you can have an awful lot of continuity without adding up to history. And that, to my mind, is where the world of Wild Cards stands out.
D.C. Comics characters are beyond history for the most part, in the same way they’re beyond our day-to-day existence. D.C. heroes inhabit a heightened mythic reality a few steps removed from our own Earth, a place where the colors are just a little more saturated and the shadows a little darker. Metropolis bears the same relationship to New York that T.H. White’s ‘Isle of Gramarye’ does to Britain. The D.C. Universe is so concerned with myth over day to day reality, in fact, that it has to have two New Yorks, Gotham and Metropolis, both megalopolises, both vaguely northeastern, both on the shore of the Atlantic, to hold our two great myths of New York: Gotham, that Damon Runyon nightmare, where parents are gunned down in alleys, where the police are always corrupt except for the few good and tired cops trying to make right, where the mob rules and everything’s for sale; and Metropolis, where reporters stand up to billionaires and win, where immigrant kids make good, where people are kind and try their best because how else can ten million of us live on top of one another without going mad? Metropolis is the city where it doesn’t always have to hurt. Batman and Superman don’t have the same worldview, but they belong in the same universe because both their modes of storytelling have the same relationship with our own world: they’re what we see, distilled.
Marvel’s writers have often tried to show us the “world outside our window” (their phrase) through a superheroic lens. Spider-Man doesn’t live in Spideropolis—he lives in Queens. Ben Grimm is from Yancey Street. Stark Industries has the same kind of global reach and trillion-with-a-t market capitalization as Lex Luthor’s Lexcorp or Wayne Enterprises, but it feels more like a company we might see people talk about on CNBC. Over the years Stark Industries has gone bankrupt, been bought out by a Japanese conglomerate, refounded two or three times, subjected to hostile takeovers, risen, fallen—it’s a business, not an icon of Business. Tony Stark has been an alcoholic, and he’s worked the program. One of my favorite comics of the 90s featured Tony and Carol Danvers bonding over how to manage their substance abuse issues. (I’m weird.) Natasha Romanov and Bucky Barnes were Soviet agents, Jenn Walters went to Harvard Law, and Erik Killmonger taught at MIT. The Marvel universe never let this interest in the real world stop it from building new wings onto the basic structure, like Kirby’s cosmic escapades or the transcendent invention of Wakanda, but those stories all eventually came home. Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run is deeply interested in the USA in general and New York in specific, and the Korvac Saga reaches its climax in a small house in Forest Hills.
But Marvel characters, with only a few exceptions, don’t tend to live in history. Comics reference past comics (See Avengers#118, Dear Reader!), and characters remember their adventures, along with a few big crossover events. But how long has Spider-Man been Spider-Man? When exactly was Bruce Banner conducting open-air gamma bomb tests in the desert of the American Southwest, given that the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect in the 60s? It’s 2019; was Natasha Romanov still a Sovietspy? For how long? Let’s give her a five year wet ops career for Mother Russia, assume she started at fourteen—is she really 49? (I mean, let’s be real, I’d pay good money to read a “Black Widow hits 50, 50 hits back” comic… Or if someone wants to pay me good money, I’ll write one…)
History drives Marvel characters—Steve isn’t Steve without the Second World War, Bruce isn’t Bruce without the bomb—but they live in a gnomic present. Spider-Man may grow up but he doesn’t get old. His main story doesn’t move from frontline heroics to the kind of education and successor-training that might make Spider-Man a lasting part of New York. He is. And when the weight of continuity grows too heavy—when we can’t believe that Peter Parker isn’t thirty-eight and wondering what comes next—the solution is to renew Spider-Man, rather than changing him. (This is one of the many reasons Into the Spider-Verse is so great—it’s asking these questions, and many others.)
When I found the first volume of Wild Cards short stories in a youth hostel library while I was on the road, I read the whole thing in two big late-night gulps, and found myself enchanted by how the anthology refracted the whole sweep of twentieth century (especially) American history through the prism of the Wild Cards virus. Sometimes these refractions were glorious and goofy, like a superpowered hippy and hard-hat guy brawling through a concert in Berkekey; sometimes they were deeply tragic, like the Wild Cards iteration of the McCarthy hearings. That first volume ran from the virus’ release in ’49 through to the then-present 1980s—but where similar projects like Watchmen stopped in the 80s, when they were set, Wild Cards kept going.
And kept changing, as the world changed. Wild Cards history diverges from our own in places, but circles back weirdly in others. Superpowered vigilantes more or less wiped out the Italian mob in Wild Cards New York, but the Russian mob’s still running fine; our world’s seen similar changes for different reasons. Wild Cards stories tend to be set in the year they’re written—so the Sleeper’s adventures in 1987 took place over thirty years ago for a character in a 2018 story, and modern kids in the Wild Cards universe grew up hearing about the exploits of Croyd or the Turtle or Doctor Tachyon the way I grew up hearing about the Beatles. When a Wild Cards tale explores an area that’s not previously been our focus, part of the discussion behind the scenes turns to alternate history. What do we know about this place already? What would have been going on here during the invasion? Would anyone have been affected by the war in Egypt? When did the virus hit Hong Kong, and how did the city react? And when the series delves into time travel, as in the recent anthology Low Chicago, the questions and answers grow even more tangled.
Wild Cards has a strong tradition of Great Events stories spread throughout its history, of course—but all those Epic Crossovers have left their mark on the world. America was almost taken over by a gang of body-snatchers! Aliens invaded! Dimensional rifts opened in central Asia! Masterminds assembled Wild Cards to mimic ancient gods and rule Egypt with an Iron Fist!
When I was given the chance to add to this universe, to create characters with which to explore the wild cards virus and its world, I wanted to build people bound in this history, rather than folks whose power might insulate them from its changes and consequences. I wanted small people, trying to figure their lives out in a big weird world where history wasn’t built with them in mind—people not so different from the rest of us, in other words. Folks looking for a wheel fit for their shoulder, and sure footing to push. I wanted people who woke up in history, looked at the consequences of previous generations’ adventures and mistakes, and asked, well, shit, what can we do with this?
So I chose my little corner of the world: Jokertown in 2018. In the Wild Cards universe’s 1950s, the area around the Bowery became a combination haven and ghetto for those the Wild Cards virus infected, mutated, but did not grace with powers—half Sesame Street, half Cronenberg flick. Now, of course, it’s gentrifying, and uncomfortable with what that might mean. Kids here grow up with the virus and its mutations, surrounded by a society that takes one look at them and decides who and what they are: the big dumb rock guy. The girl with snakes for fingers. The shadow. But is what the world sees in them what they want to be? Who are they, anyway? And what’s going to happen to their world?
My story “Fitting In”introduces many of these characters, and my story in Texas Hold ‘ Em carries them forward. Robin Ruttiger’s a guidance counselor in Jokertown’s high school, trying to find his own way and earn his students’ trust—two tasks for which his superpower of stretching his body like Mister Fantastic isn’t much help. Jan Chang’s a former finance whiz kid who suffered a nervous breakdown and is trying to make her own twisted sense of the universe from behind the sunglasses she wears to hide the lightning in her eyes. Octavia Zargoza inherited her grandma’s bakery, which she runs with the aid of animated dough-men; Fred Minz is an extremely out of work chef who can turn into any animal he eats. These aren’t high-powered people; if I were to stat them out in SuperWorld, the canonical Wild Cards RPG system, I wouldn’t need many points. They’d be jokes on the field of battle, in a system that prides itself on its munchkin potential and its double handfuls of d6s. That’s by design. I want Robin and the rest close to the ground. If your shoes are thin, you can feel the road.
Robin and Jan and the rest don’t make history, or at least, they don’t make history yet. They were made by it, shaped by it—which was only possible because the Wild Cards universe had a real history to make them and shape them. They’ve grown up inside this great old house, wondering at the pictures of unfamiliar people on the walls. But let’s not count them out just yet. One day, they might find a sledgehammer—or, at least, a door.