by Bob Wayne
My background is different from most of the Wild Cards contributors. I’ve written some comics (including the Time Masters series with fellow Wild Cards writer Lewis Shiner), but most of my time has been spent on the business side. I sold comics and books at conventions and at retail stores in the 1970s and 1980s. From 1987 to 2015, I worked at DC Comics, rising to the position of Senior Vice President – Sales. My goal here is to talk about the ways comics influenced Wild Cards… and the way Wild Cards has to some extent influenced comics… and share a few anecdotes as we go.
Wild Cards is a shared super-hero universe. The shared super-hero universe has been a favorite of fans since the earliest days of comics, dating back to the 1940 debut of the Justice Society of America in All Star Comics #3. That established the concept of DC’s super-hero characters all operating within the same fictional setting. Marvel’s All-Winners Squad appeared a few years later in 1946, with a similar super-team format. I wasn’t reading comics at this point, but I gravitated towards similar super-teams when I got into comics. Justice League of America, Fantastic Four, Legion of Super-Heroes. I judged comics in part by how many super-heroes appeared in each issue, looking for the most characters for each dime.
Tighter continuity within a shared super-hero universe dates to early in the Silver Age of comics. 1961 saw both Fantastic Four #1 and the birth of the modern Marvel Universe, as well as The Flash #123 and the beginnings of DC’s multiverse. The alternate history worldbuilding of Wild Cards owes a debt to both. I suspect that many of the contributors can tell you the first Marvel comic they read. Or the first DC title they bought. (The first DC title that I purchased was Superman #137 for 10₵ in 1960; the first Marvel I read was two years later. Strange Tales #104, where the Human Torch met the unforgettable Paste Pot Pete. Years later I was talking with Stan Lee and a few other comics folks at a convention bar when the conversation went to ‘first Marvel comic you read’… when I mentioned Paste Pot Pete, Stan asked “how many years until you read another one?” I truthfully said three years. Stan apologized and bought me a drink. My 12₵ investment in that issue of Strange Tales had finally paid off.)
The early 1960s style of super-hero storytelling had a strong impact on the earliest contributors to Wild Cards. Although a few of the writers had written comics, more of them were readers of 1960s comics. Comics are clearly a major component in the Wild Cards DNA.
Some of the Wild Cards characters are loving homages to classic comics characters. Howard Waldrop’s Jetboy was certainly influenced by Hillman’s 1940s Airboy, as well as other pulp and comic air aces. Timothy Truman, who was part of a 1980s revival of Airboy, would later become the cover artist for several Wild Cards books. (I actually introduced Waldrop to Truman in Austin around the same time.)
Another comics era that impacted Wild Cards was the darker, more cynical, more realistic wave of comics that included Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Wild Cards was born in the same creative climate as those projects. (My own participation with Wild Cards started with a ‘what happens next’ question: what happened to everyone displaced by the establishment of Jokertown? When I started on staff at DC Comics, I became a passive participant in the consortium. It was considered a conflict of interest for me to work with both universes simultaneously.)
To me, there are several ways that Wild Cards has returned the favor and influenced comics. The Wild Cards shared universe has run for over thirty years without a reboot. Arguably it’s now the longest running super-hero continuity, with no major revisions. It provides an example of how to continuously evolve a shared universe without ignoring some of the earliest storytelling. A lot of effort goes into maintain the Wild Cards continuity.
Wild Cards also has a progressive business model, based in part on avoiding any of the perceived historic inequities in the comics world, including those less discussed by fandom. Create a character? What if that character is then used by another author in a different story — does the original creator receive compensation? Want to conclude your character’s storyline, never to return? All of these long running creative concerns and more are covered behind the scenes, looking at some of the creative and business issues in comics publishing and building a working model that continues to this day. Wild Cards is more than a shared universe. It’s a shared business. (There certainly would have been more than one appearance by a character like Jetboy in a traditional super-hero universe.)
I’ve talked Wild Cards several times with colleagues over the years. Once I was asked if I thought they knew that there was a Turtle character in Showcase #4, the debut of the Silver Age Flash. No, I replied. Because he was called Turtle Man in Showcase #4, even though he was based on the original Turtle who was a Golden Age Flash villain. Plus the Wild Cards character is the Great and Powerful Turtle. (Knowing things like this was a much more valuable skill in comics publishing before the invention of Google.)
Those of you fluent in both Wild Cards and comics probably have you own examples of how one influenced the other. Let me know what you think if you see me at a convention.