by William F. Wu
Wild Cards is special in many ways. Looking back, I find that even the choices I’ve made for protagonists are unique among my work. I’ve written stories about two and a half protagonists for Wild Cards, with the third protagonist separated by roughly a quarter century from the first.
Half a protagonist? Only in Wild Cards, I’m tempted to say, though DC’s Silver Age character Triplicate Girl might dispute that after Brainiac 5’s invention Computo the Conqueror killed one of the trio and turned her into Duo Damsel. I suppose I digress, but that tragic event has stayed with me for all these years.
In retrospect, I do find my Wild Cards characters unlike any others I’ve written about since my first fiction sales in the 1970s. I suppose the Wild Card virus must have caused this to happen.
That half-a-protagonist was Lazy Dragon, born as Ben Choy, who shares his body with his twin sister, Tienyu, or Vivian Choy. (They appear in “Snow Dragon,” One-Eyed Jacks, 1991.) At any given time, one of them is dominant and controls their body, including changing its gender physically, while the other “rides,” and has plenty to say inside their shared brain. They also have specific powers; Lazy Dragon can carve or fold an animal shape and move his consciousness into it, leaving their body unconscious and vulnerable while he turns into a real version of the creature. Tienyu can do something similar with mechanical objects, but so far she has not taken center stage in her own story. These powers are loosely borrowed from an old Chinese folk tale.
While Tienyu takes the high road in her life, becoming a police officer, Lazy Dragon is the opposite, having joined the Shadow Fists gang. He’s also misogynistic, racially hostile, and ruthless. Those traits make him unlike protagonists in my other work, who are generally a good-hearted, sympathetic bunch. Among them, even the violent ones only kill villains. In the case of Lazy Dragon, taking on such an unlikeable guy was a new challenge for me. Of course he doesn’t consider himself to be such a bad guy, so understanding his view of his life was critical to telling his story.
My second story for Wild Cards is “’Til I Kissed You,” which takes its title from an Everly Brothers song because the story’s a flashback set in 1959. (Card Sharks, 1993).
The first-person protagonist is a joker who was born with the name Chuck Tanaka. Called Chop-Chop after the character from Blackhawk comics, which started in 1941, the character looks like the weird Chinese caricature in the original Blackhawk Squadron: Unusually short, chubby, with gigantic buck teeth, wearing an outfit intended to be that of a Chinese cook instead of the military uniforms worn by all the other members. He also had large ears and a queue with a red bow on it. The first Chop-Chop started out as the team’s cook and the Blackhawk character’s personal sidekick, instead of being a pilot like the others. In the World War II-era comic books, he represented China among the international team of Allies, but certainly was shown to be much less than a full member. In fact, he looked like a joker even before the Wild Card virus arrived.
I should note that years later, his character gradually took on an appearance more consistent with the other members and he eventually was depicted as a pilot himself. This was slow to come along, considering that in real life, China of course was one of the Allies.
Related to the 1940s, I made my character a Japanese American (a Sansei) to make the point that Chop-Chop’s appearance is a racial consideration that goes beyond one ethnic group. In that sense, the Wild Card virus got the joker wrong, making a Sansei kid into a Chinese stereotype. As to why within this universe, Forget it, Wild Card. It’s Jokertown.
At sixteen years old, my Chop-Chop has already faced the fact that he won’t have much of a love life or even be able to aim very high in any endeavor. He’s more pitiable than any protagonist I’ve written about, though I hope with some depth and heart. He does get involved in a complex criminal case in Jokertown and has what might be the only sexual interlude in his life. I tried to imagine what a regular guy might feel like inside his joker body.
For a variety of mundane reasons that I blame on the Wild Card virus as I check my own appearance in the mirror, I didn’t write another Wild Cards story until “Jade Blossom’s Brew,” for Texas Hold’em, 2018. Some years earlier, I had created ace Jade Blossom, who can alter the density of her body from very light, allowing her to use updrafts to “fly,” to extremely heavy, so that she can withstand bullets, smash through doors, or stomp down from the top of a grand piano to the floor without being harmed. She appeared in a story or two by other authors before I made her the protagonist of this story.
A supermodel and actress of Chinese descent, Jade Blossom—an American born with the name Haley Mok—is six feet tall, slender, and beautiful. She’s also a diva of the most unpleasant sort, coming across as egotistical and uncaring; she not only enjoys unloading verbal abuse on others, but makes no effort to hide how much fun she’s having. As a supporting character in her first appearances, her unpleasantness didn’t come out. I wanted to write a story from her viewpoint that would not only put her personality on full display, but suggest how she became the person she is.
In creating her, I saw her as an oblique update on the “dragon lady” stereotype of Asian women. Starting in the early twentieth century, these characters appeared in novels, films, pulp magazines, and comic strips including Terry and the Pirates, which did much to popularize the term with a character called “Dragon Lady.” In those years, the characters were most often Chinese. Common traits included beauty, mystery, seductive behavior, and, sometimes, a tendency to betray a white hero.
These characters often had an element of cruelty and danger. They were presented as exotic and sometimes beyond the understanding of white characters who interacted with them. With Jade Blossom, I was writing in her viewpoint. She wouldn’t see herself as mysterious or exotic, though she might well use other people’s expectations to manipulate them.
Why would Jade Blossom be so hostile and manipulative? In seeing Jade Blossom as an unhappy adolescent who suddenly became physically powerful without altering her appearance, I figured she learned at that time she could bully and even terrify people. Yet she also matured into a very attractive adult, with exactly the appearance favored for supermodels. As a result, she grew up as a bully, though she learned enough social skills to succeed in the difficult careers of fashion modeling and acting. And, of course, she uses her beauty privilege to great but selfish effect.
To other characters, her hostility would parallel that aura of danger from the old dragon lady characters. Her verbal abuse is an element of cruelty, though it’s emotional rather than immediate physical danger. Jade Blossom certainly can be a danger, with her ability to increase her density and strength; this is what she uses when she joins other aces in confronting villains. However, the threat she poses to ordinary people is to hurt anyone’s feelings at a whim because she enjoys doing so—and often gets away with it because she has her ace with which to throw her weight around quite literally.
I also wanted to convey two other traits: One, that she’s hurting inside and uses cruelty to keep people at an emotional distance; two, that she’s lonely precisely because she keeps people at a distance. The contradiction drives her actions in life. As a result, she also finds ways to offer occasional kindnesses, while rarely admitting to anyone else or even herself that she’s doing so. These characteristics made her fun to write about.
The ace of Lazy Dragon and Tienyu also determines their lives, of course. I started their concept with the Daoist yin-yang principle, considered to represent a male-female duality along with good-evil and light-darkness. Together, the twins form a whole within one body—but, naturally, they have opposite reactions to the duality, as well.
Lazy Dragon hates having his sister’s voice in his head when he’s pursuing his sleazy pursuits, and she—leaning toward kindness and the positives in life—disapproves of the crimes he commits and the way he treats the young woman he beds while she, inescapably, is along for the ride. Tienyu became a police officer because she believes her life mission is to do good in the world, especially to make up for her brother’s actions. So far, however, they can’t escape each other, just as the duality they represent forms a single whole.
Then again, I suppose everybody would resent having someone else constantly yammering in their minds. It’s backseat driving but you can’t exit the vehicle—except, of course, by using their ace ability.
Like Jade Blossom, my Wild Cards version of Chop-Chop is a variation of racial stereotypes that were common in earlier generations. The original Chop-Chop of Blackhawk carried a cleaver, being both the squadron’s cook and also fulfilling an old stereotype of hatchet-wielding guys in Chinatown tongs. An important comparison is that some other members of the international Blackhawk Squadron did have ethnic accents and physical traits, but they were presented heroically. In contrast, only Chop-Chop was intended to look ridiculous.
During World War II, depictions of Japanese men as the enemy were drawn in comics in similarly extreme ways. I find it interesting—actually, downright strange—that Chop-Chop, representing an ally, was drawn to look at least as bad.
The Wild Cards version of Chop-Chop has joker traits that don’t even give him the advantages that some jokers have. He’s not tall, strong, or intimidating. Chop-Chop could conceivably use a cleaver when he’s preparing dinner, but has no need to carry one. In his story, he does use his gigantic teeth to bite a bad guy. Those teeth would be his one weapon resulting from his joker traits. He just has to get close enough to use them.
These days, some people express weariness with reminders of past racism, including areas of popular culture such as comics. American society has improved overall with these depictions and the subject itself gets an airing nowadays that was rare in relation to people and characters of East Asian descent when I was young. I can almost hear members of younger generations asking why they should care about the time when I was young. It’s a fair question and one valid answer is, they don’t need to. Life goes forward, not backward.
Then again, the Wild Cards version of Chop-Chop had his story set, as I mentioned earlier, in 1959, when the character was still an offensive caricature, though not quite as extremely as before. The character is contemporary with the Chop-Chop of my childhood, and I read Blackhawk comics at that time. I never related to Chop-Chop, even in his somewhat improved depiction; he had no traits then, either, that would make him a role model.
I did think of Chop-Chop, of course, in creating a joker. What might a joker of East Asian descent look like? Anything, really, because that’s how the Wild Card virus works, but I wanted to try this idea. Granting that many jokers in the Wild Cards universe have a much worse fate than Chop-Chop, I wanted to create this character and see experiences through his viewpoint.
As I consider the generational changes in real life, I sometimes do look backward for perspective. I’m going to end this on a serious note.
My late father, who was a surgical resident in Cincinnati at the time, volunteered for the United States Army during World War II. He was sent to the 22nd Field Hospital, which had a large group of Chinese Americans because the military services were racially segregated at the time. This unit became part of Yunnan Force, a task force that became part of the Salween River Campaign in Burma.
Obviously, members of this unit put their lives on the line as they worked. Like other people in marginalized groups in American society who served in the military in that war, they did so living with the dualities of their real lives and the ways those groups were often depicted in American popular culture. My father received a Bronze Star for treating wounded under fire at the same time that Chop-Chop was the image of Chinese men in combat that many American kids saw in their formative years. In Blackhawk No. 9, the squadron is fighting in Burma, with Chop-Chop depicted at his most extreme. My dad and his colleagues never deserved this.
Ultimately, of course, I hope to write stories that are entertaining first and foremost. That’s the first requirement of fiction. I’m grateful to be a part of Wild Cards and to have the chance to try out these characters in all their weirdness.