Why Yeoman?

By John Jos. Miller

Long-time readers of Wild Cards probably already know that Daniel Brennan (Yeoman) was my first point-of-view character in the series, and is also one of the few characters from the original role-playing game to make it into the books.  This post will delve into his own “secret origin,” or as much of it as I can reconstruct after thirty plus years.  It’s a long story, so stick with me.  I’ll get there, eventually.

But, unsurprisingly, his story begins with my own origins in rural New York state.  I used to say that I came from upstate New York, but my wife, who is actually from upstate New York, won’t let me say that anymore, so to be somewhat precise I’ll say that I grew up about sixty miles north of New York City and eight miles outside of Goshen, a village, then, of five thousand inhabitants.  

We lived in an in unincorporated township on a secondary county road that was named, unimaginatively, Onion Avenue, because of – you guessed it – all the onion fields that fronted off it.  It stopped being paved about a hundred yards past our house, and since it was in an unincorporated township the local infrastructure on the whole was scanty, to say the least.  There were no sidewalks, not even stripes painted down the middle of the road (it was pretty much one lane in width anyway) and there were certainly no streetlights.  

The latter freaked out my college freshman roommate (Howie from Queens) so much that when he came to visit me for a few days in the summer before our sophomore year, he made me drive at night.  (“How can you see where to drive in the dark?”  “Well, there are always the car’s headlights.”  I did torture him a couple of times by turning off the lights and navigating by moonlight, but only once we’d hit Onion Avenue, where meeting on-coming traffic that wasn’t a tractor, especially at night, was a once in a blue moon event.  But I digress.)

Like many in the area where we lived, my extended family (almost everyone who lived on Onion Avenue was part of my family on my mother’s mother’s side) were enthusiastic hunters of deer, rabbit, squirrel, duck, etc.  When I was five my grandfather took my dog Skip with him hunting one day.  Skip loved accompanying me on hikes in the extensive wooded area behind our house, and loved being with my grandfather as well.  This day Skip did not come home, as another hunter mistook him for a deer and shot and killed him.

That turned out to be a seminal event in my life, as, even at that early age, I was fairly obstinate.  Because of this incident I’ve never in my life hunted animals or even fired a gun.  

 Archery, however, was a different matter.

I took that up at an early age, although the only things I ever shot at were targets, a couple of trees, and, yes, confession time, a plastic pink flamingo that inhabited the flower garden in front of the house.  I was actually pretty surprised that I hit it, because I was shooting from the other end of the yard, a fair distance away.  Punched a pretty big hole right through it.  No one noticed for weeks.  When they finally did, I was as baffled as they were.  “Huh.  How’d that hole get there?”

One of the few families who lived on Onion Avenue that wasn’t related to us lived right across the road.  The second oldest boy, who’s five years older than me, was one of my best friends.  Starting when I was about ten we used to shoot arrows together all the time.  I had just a fiberglass cheapie, but Vince had two rather good bows, one of which had a sixty or so pound pull, which was way too much for us.  But, undeterred, we’d plop down on our butts and, holding the bow sort of parallel to the ground, brace both feet against it, pull the string back using both hands, and let her rip.  We weren’t very accurate, but we did get nice distance.  

Another favorite game when we got bored was to stand on the target, shoot straight up into the sky and then run like hell, reckoning that the one who could shoot the arrow the highest would strike closest to the target when it arced back to earth.  At this date I’m not entirely sure on the physics behind our reasoning, but we did manage to kill a lot of time with these shenanigans without killing each other, so, mission accomplished.

One more anecdote, then we get to Wild Cards, I promise.

Flash forward some years to the summer between my junior and senior year in college.  I was tired of working crap jobs, which I’d been doing for the past twelve summers or so (In the interest of total accuracy, I’d actually reached my limit the summer before, when I said screw it, took two hundred and fifty dollars and a backpack full of clothes and bought a plane ticket to Great Britain where I’d been an exchange student for a couple of weeks my senior year in high school.   Through a university newsletter I’d gotten a couple of jobs working archeological sites for three months.  Up to then, it was the best summer of my life.).  

I’d started out working the onion fields at an age that, if I could remember it precisely, would appall you, graduated to the Rat Farm (I’ve got stories about that, but for another day. Howveer, if you’d like to track it down, the one mostly true autobiographical story I’ve ever written was about this job.  See “Day of the Gerbil,” in A Career Guide to Your Job in Hell.), and finally put in two summers in a place where they made flavorings and perfumes.  You had to be a union member to work there.  Remember unions?  That job paid an awesome $7 an hour (in 1971 dollars, of course), up from the $1.65 I’d been earning at the Rat Farm.  That was enough, combined with my scholarship, (Thank you, New York state.) to pay my college bills  (Remember affordable college bills?) and leave me with some cash in the kitty.

The father of a friend of another college roommate of mine owned a summer camp and I got a job there as a counselor the summer before our senior year, herding a cabin of ten year olds.  It paid poorly, but you couldn’t beat the working conditions.  As a sideline, I taught archery, which mainly consisted of marching the kids down to the “archery range” (which was an empty field with a couple of cheap targets tacked onto bales of hay), and pretty much just make sure they didn’t stand in front of each other as they shot arrows, largely futile, at the targets.

The kids’ favorite part of the exercise occurred at the end of the lesson when I’d have them all stand behind me as I turned, faced the far end of the field, and shot an arrow as far as I could.   They’d race after it, striving to be the first to reach the spot where the arrow came down and root around for it among the weeds.  I’d do that five, six times to get them good and tuckered out for the rest of the day.

That was the last time I’ve handled a bow.  I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty appalled to realize that was like forty-four years ago.  Archery was something I enjoyed doing and I had a modicum of skill at, but, how, exactly, does this fit in with Wild Cards?

Well, I’ll tell you. Finally.

With the first book contract in hand, George sent out the call for character proposals.  I knew that virtually everyone would submit proposals for insanely powerful aces, but I wanted to do something different: a normal man unaffected by the virus who had to deal with those powerful aces.  Although “ordinary” wasn’t exactly what I was reaching for.  He had to have some edge to give him a chance to compete in this brave new world.  

I also wanted him to harken back to some recognizable comics trope (I was a huge comic book fan) but with a spin on it that would do it better.  The original group of writers whom George had asked to pitch (largely, although not exclusively) were also submitting some version of the character(s) they’d developed for the Superworld role playing game.  I had a handful of those, but (I believe) I only pitched two for the books (both were eventually accepted), but they weren’t the ones I’d mostly played.  

Yeoman was one of them.  (The other, interestingly, was Wraith, though there was no real relationship between them in the game).  I don’t remember at this late date how much of a back story Yeoman had in the game.  I’m pretty sure that I gave him an actual name in the Wild Cards pitch, and certainly his back story was nowhere near as developed, if at all, for the game.  (For example, for the books he was from New Mexico.  As far as I can remember he had no specific birthplace in the game.).  I was planning to write him pretty much as I’d played him in the RPG, but with richer detail .

Let’s step back a moment and look at archer characters in comics.  I consulted the online comic book encyclopedia to see how many archer heroes (and villains) have appeared in comics over the years, and was startled to discover that they number in the dozens.  Dozens and dozens.  Of course, most of them appeared in obscure Golden Age comics published by obscure Golden Age publishing houses and are entirely forgotten today.  

The only two super-heroes (if you can call guys who are real good at shooting arrows super-heroes) whom I was actually familiar with before creating Yeoman were from the big guys, DC and Marvel: Green Arrow and Hawkeye, respectively.  (A third archer character, Shaft, who was part of Image’s Youngblood team, post-dates the early Wild Cards books, and the less said about that piece of work, the better.  I can still remember the line of dialog that made me close the comic and put it away forever: “No arrows!  Pen!”)

Of the two, Hawkeye was by far the better character.  At least he had a discernible personality, a costume that wasn’t an embarrassment, lacked an inappropriately named pre-teen sidekick, and relied less on trick arrows.  Although the Green Arrow character evolved over the years, his initial Silver Age run as a backup Batman-clone with, yes, an arrow car, an arrow plane, etc. etc., and an over-reliance on boxing-glove arrows was rather pathetic.  Of course, he also suffered from the same malady most DC characters had during that time period: lack of a personality.  In those days the only way you could distinguish Green Arrow from Green Lantern as individual human beings was the different costumes they wore.

It seemed to me that, on the whole, both the Marvel and DC characters missed the essential core of their archer characters:  the fact that the bow is the weapon of a hunter, and deadly. It doesn’t shoot boxing gloves, nets, or capsules of knockout gas.  It silently delivers arrows with razor-sharp broad head points.  I wanted to write about a hunter, essential a rural character, come to the city.  

I had previously read Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which had initially introduced the concept of Zen to the western world when it was first published in 1948.  I felt that this Zen approach could be the edge that Yeoman needed to compete successfully with both aces and other foes who were what most would consider more heavily and dangerously armed.  The cultivation of Zen would also give Brennan a version of mental discipline which would serve him well in difficult situations.

At the time I was heavily into mystery writer Raymond Chandler, who has been called the greatest writer to ever appear in a pulp magazine (I don’t know if I totally agree with that assessment, but it is hard to argue against).  I had come across this passage in his essay on detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder,” which defines his concept of what a private eye protagonist should be: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…He must be a complete man and a common man, and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”

I took this as Brennan’s core.  The rest of him came as needed to tell his story, though of course in places I had to accede to the over-arcing plot of the particular book and get him involved in, among other things, solving Chrysalis’s murder or saving the world from the Swarm.  Once his story was told, though, it was told, and I took him off the stage.

I couldn’t resist, however, bringing him back for one last hurrah in a guest-starring turn in my novel, Death Draws Five, which to this day remains the scarcest and probably the least-read Wild Cards book of them all.  In several ways it was a cursed book.  Some of you may know some of the details regarding this, but probably not all of them.  Here’s a quick recapitulation.

I forget the exact year, but I remember the day because it was Mother’s Day.  I sat down at the computer to wrap up the novel’s final chapter.  Usually when working on a novel or any particularly long project, I’d break up the manuscript into several sections, like chapters 1-5, 6-10, etc.  For some reason this time around I decided to do it all in one long document.  I don’t know why.  Possibly I was just being lazy, but anyway that’s the first and last time I’ll ever take that approach.

As I opened the doc that fateful Mother’s Day I was more than a little startled to discover that my manuscript now actually ended on page forty-two of the novel, while the rest of the document consisted of some unknown person’s address book.  What the heck? I thought, or word to that effect.  That was worrisome, though not fatal, because I had assiduously backed-up my file after every day’s work.  I went to the back-up, only to discover that it too had been corrupted in the very same place and in the very same manner.

Still, I wasn’t totally dismayed, although I was completely aggravated.  I always printed out my manuscripts, not every day, but in chunks, so there was a physical hard copy to fall back upon.  Still, I was facing a lot of typing with (at this late date I don’t remember which) either a looming deadline or a deadline that had already loomed over me.

I checked the stack of paper next to the printer and discovered that actually I’d only printed out the first hundred and forty pages or so pages, then run out of paper.  I’d forgotten that.  I had never printed out the rest, so it was gone, vanished into word-processing heaven.

Later I found out that somehow my computer had been infected with a worm that’d been released by some fat-headed teenaged German hacker.  He’d been caught and eventually did prison time for his youthful hijinks, but that was little solace for me.  I had to rewrite about two-thirds of Death Draws Five from my memory and from the few scattered notes I’d made.  (I don’t outline, not even novels.  That kills the story for me.  When it comes to writing I’m a gardener, not an engineer.  I know that that approach is less efficient and makes for more work in the long run, but that’s the way my mind works, such as it is, and I’m stuck with it.)

So, with mounting deadline pressure, I hit the computer again, eventually re-finished the novel, and sent it off to the publisher and waited, as we always do, impatiently for the book to come out.

Death Draws Five, you may know, was the second (and last) original Wild Cards book contracted for by iBooks.  Long-time editor and publisher Byron Preiss was the proprietor of that imprint.  On the Sunday before the Wednesday Death Draws Five was scheduled to be released, Byron tragically lost his life in an automobile accident.  On Tuesday when the iBooks staff came to work they basically found their offices locked and iBooks out of business.  Preiss’s family had no interest in continuing the imprint.  iBooks was finished.  

Later, we lost ownership of the two original books as a judge in bankruptcy court awarded the assets of the company to Preiss’s creditors.  Only a couple of hundred copies of the book had somehow managed to get out of the warehouse, so the first hardback edition of Death Draws Five remains an authentic scarcity.  There is hope that a remedy for this situation will eventually be found.  More I can’t say.

Daniel Brennan does play a small but significant role in Death Draws Five’s opening chapters.  I won’t go into much detail, but I set a couple of chapters of the novel in Onion Avenue and environs.  In fact, I had Fortunato (who makes his return from his self-imposed exile in a Japanese monastery in an attempt to save the life of his then adolescent son, John Fortune) delve deep (literally) into the very field where I sweated away the summers of my youth.

Other aspects of those chapters, the landscape, some buildings, and general description of the area, including neighboring Snake Hill, etc, are all completely accurate, although the cult of snake handlers headquartered on the hill is fictitious, if not completely imaginary.

Daniel Brennan remains unique in the annals of Wild Cards history as a nat who had a long and largely successful run, and who finally buried his ghosts and made his peace with the world.

Which, really, is the most that any of us can hope for.