Wild Cards Hollywood

by Kevin Andrew Murphy

Most of the Wild Cards series takes place in New York, in Manhattan, in and about the environs of Jokertown, the former Bowery.  But the wild card virus touched more than just the city and in so doing changed the world and the world’s view of itself.   Especially through the eyes of Hollywood.

Hollywood, in fact, is there from the start.  The very first Wild Cards story, Howard Waldrop’s “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway,” starring Jetboy, is later made into movies with the same name in the same universe.  One production is mentioned specifically–the bad one–starring Dudley Moore in a red wig as Dr. Tachyon.  At the end of the story (and the later in-universe movies based on it), Jetboy utters his immortal line, “I can’t die yet–I haven’t seen The Jolson Story!” a riff on the advertising for the picture: “If you see only one movie before you die, make it The Jolson Story!”  But Jetboy does die and with him the world untouched by the Wild Card.  The virus is released and the world changes forever.

Tinsel Town is again touched on and later physically visited in the first volume in Walter Jon William’s “Witness” where his character Jack Braun, an aspiring actor in New York, breathes in the virus while watching a matinee of The Jolson Story.  Braun becomes Golden Boy, the world’s strongest man and one of the founding members of The Four Aces.  Braun then also becomes a movie star as he dreamed, first starring in a Chrysler ad and then a semi-autobiographical picture titled Golden Boy–unrelated to the previous Golden Boy movie and play, except for paying Clifford Odets for rights to the title, and unrelated to the reality of Wild Cards history except for it starring a fair-haired hero named John Brown.

Golden Boy bombs at the box office, thanks to edits and rewrites (courtesy of the secret work of the Card Sharks, the conspiracy to undermine the Wild Cards, as revealed in Wild Cards XIII: Card Sharks).  Jack Braun’s next picture, The Rickenbacker Story, does somewhat better, but after the HUAC hearings and the ensuing tragedy of the Four Aces, Braun’s spirit is broken and his movie career with it.  He turns to television, does four seasons as a blond Tarzan, and gets enough money to retire into real estate.  Braun also, as the years go on, discovers that he’s an unaging immortal.

The next appearance of Hollywood, chronologically, is again in Wild Cards I, but the recent expanded edition, in Michael Cassutt’s new story “Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace,” set in 1956.  There, Karl von Kampen, a former rocket scientist and a secret ace, works as producer of the Captain Cathode children’s television serial.  As Karl discovers, after talking to Jack Braun in the course of his investigations into the habitual tardiness of his star, Brant Brewer, Hollywood has its own analogue to Jokertown, that being the Santa Monica Pier where the sideshows and freak shows have become the home of a new kind of freak, since even jokers on television are played by nats in masks, as with Captain Cathode’s dog-faced sidekick Turk.

On the pier, next to the merry-go-round, we also find the joker bar and nightclub The Menagerie.  There Karl encounters a sexy femcat joker who claims to be an actress and tries to get a part in his children’s show, but whom Karl guesses has her experience in joker smut films.  (The femcat and her smut films are unnamed, but both are undoubtedly still known in the Wild Cards world.)

The Menagerie later appears–but is first established and appearing in–Wild Cards XIII: Card Sharks, in 1962, in “Cursum Perficio,” my first Wild Card story.  That tale stars another secret ace, Nick Williams, aka Will-o’-Wisp, a private eye who has been hired by Orson Welles to investigate troubles with the filming of his picture, Blythe, a biopic based on the life and death of Blythe van Renssaeler, aka Brain Trust from the Four Aces, the beautiful doomed socialite who gained the power to copy other people’s minds into her own, then went mad due to the pressures of the HUAC hearings.  Blythe stars Marilyn Monroe who is none too stable herself.

Nick Williams, as cover for his investigation, is hired as body double for Ron Ely who is playing Jack Braun.  Nick is also an actor and had also previously been one of the swimmers on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for Jane Russell’s number “Anyone Here for Love?” but had never managed to make Marilyn’s acquaintance until my story.  Along the way, investigating the film’s trouble and in so doing uncovering part of the Card Sharks conspiracy, Williams encounters a number of other Hollywood legends–Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s acting coach and confidante; Hedda Hopper, Hollywood’s infamous Queen of Gossip; and also, yet again, Jack Braun, the chronicle of his life inextricably interwoven with Wild Cards Hollywood.

Alongside Braun’s checkered career, Tinsel Town of the Wild Cards world continues on its course.  Some movies are the same for all intents and purposes as our reality.  Spartacus is made, and JFK and Bobby Kennedy make a political statement by seeing it, finally breaking the power of the Hollywood blacklist.  Other movies are made with differences: Elizabeth Taylor died in the same car crash that injured James Dean during the filming of Giant, leaving her unable to take the lead role in Cleopatra, leaving the role free to be played by Marilyn Monroe, and Marilyn also free to accept the lead in Blythe.

But aside from public aces like Jack Braun, and secret aces and minor actors like Nick Williams, the next Hollywood picture with a wild card in it–at least publically billed as one in a major role–is mentioned in Wild Cards I, in George R.R. Martin’s Tom Wolfe pastiche.  He establishes his character Aurora–a gorgeous red-headed ace who projects the lights of the aurora borealis above herself–as the first bonafide Wild Card movie star since Golden Boy.

Aurora is set to star opposite Robert Redford in an unnamed picture directed by Mike Nichols in 1971.  What this film is and how it did at the box office remains to be revealed, as do later appearances of Aurora–but I can promise that there’s at least one upcoming story where we get to see Aurora and her ace again and find out more details of her later career.

Chronologically, the next appearance of Hollywood in the Wild Card universe is in Wild Cards XVI: Deuces Down, in Melinda Snodgrass’s Dr. Finn story, “A Face for the Cutting Room Floor.”  Bradley Finn, a joker centaur who’s also a medical doctor, is also the son of a famous Hollywood producer G. Benton Finn.  But around 1980, back when Bradley Finn was a student, he got a gig to play a centaur in Roger Corman’s production of Jason and the Argonauts along with jokers who looked like a satyr, a cyclops, and Medusa, together making the Myth Patrol.  Jason and the Argonauts starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Soul and was being produced at the same time as Finn’s father was producing The French Lieutenant’s Woman starring Warren Beatty and Grace Kelley, who in the Wild Cards timeline had continued her film career rather than marry the Prince of Monaco.

In Snodgrass’s story, Finn also encounters Harry Gold, a less reputable producer who wants Finn to star in joker porn and has previously produced such masterpieces as The Four Deuces starring Golden Hotdog, the Enema, Cock Tease, and Black Stallion.  Other joker-porn stars in Gold’s stable are Jettballs and Dr. Tachydong.

Also in 1980, the next Wild Card to star on the small screen is Gail Gerstner-Miller’s character Peregrine, the winged cheerleader turned fashion model turned talk-show hostess, getting her own late-night show, Peregrine’s Perch.  Peregrine is witty and funny, and while her show is filmed in New York, she and her production company are no stranger to Hollywood and her show is broadcast nationwide.

Mention should also be made here of Arthur Byron Cover’s character Leo Barnett, the charismatic nat preacher and politician who is the son of Colonel Belvedere Fincastle, a flamboyant evangelist who once controlled radio stations across the South.  Barnett first appears on the scene in 1987 by faith-healing the teleporting joker-ace Quasiman.  Barnett’s later rise to power, including the Presidency, was undoubtedly helped by the family media.  Barnett gained the Presidency from 1992 to 2000, passing many repressive anti-joker laws, then retired to his Peaceable Kingdom religious theme park in Branson, Missouri.  (Whether Barnett branched out to televangelism remains to be seen, but is likely.  Ditto religious films.)

Roll the film back to February or March of 1988 and the next Wild Card to star in a major Hollywood picture is Walton “Bud” Simon’s character the Projectionist, a.k.a. Mr. Nobody, a.k.a. Jerry Strauss who was trapped for years in the form of The Great Ape, fifty feet tall and reduced to ape intelligence.  In that shape, he’d been shipped to Sri Lanka, cast as the lead in King Pongo as detailed in “The Teardrop of India” in Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad.  (As for whether there was enough footage shot for King Pongo to be released is a question that has yet to be resolved.)

Joker porn also comes up later in the chronology, and earlier in the books, in Wild Cards IX: Dealer’s Choice, set in September of 1990,where my character Herne is introduced, an eight-foot-plus stag-legged stag-antlered joker-ace (or knave, as they’re called in Britain).  Dylan Hardesty, before calling up the Gabriel Hounds and leading the Wild Hunt to chase Senator Hartmann across the Brooklyn Bridge, gained fame as a joker porn star, starring in such films as The King of Spring and The Rutting Stag.

Where Herne’s stag films were filmed is unspecified, but a small detail from “With a Flourish and a Flair,” my Jokertown Boys story in Deuces Down, set on Halloween of 2002, lets us know that Herne’s joker porn flicks were originally billed as French art films wherein Herne portrays the King of Spring and has sex with almost two-dozen nuns.

(Originally from England, Herne will also have an appearance in Knaves Over Queens, our upcoming British volume.)

“With a Flourish and a Flair” also reintroduces Peregrine and Fortunato’s son, John Fortune, now a teenager and a Harry Potter fan, dressed as him for Halloween.  It isn’t specified whether any of the HP movies have been made in the Wild Cards timeline, but Topper drops a mention that Glenn Close has starred in the live-action 101 Dalmations, so we can conclude that that and the original cartoon have both been produced by Disney.  The Jokertown Boys Halloween concert is also broadcast by Mtv in place of Britney Spears last-minute cancellation.

Roll the film forward to 2008 and Inside Straight, Volume XVIII of Wild Cards and the first with our new publisher, Tor, and the first with the new generation of aces, starting with Daniel Abraham’s character Jonathan Hive, or as he soon becomes known, Bugsy, because his power is to turn into an equivalent volume of green stinging wasplike insects.  Bugsy is a blogger and reintroduces us to the Wild Card world, dropping details about various productions over the years.  Quentin Tarantino has done films trying to breathe life back into Wild Cards Chic, back from its heyday when Aurora launched her career.  Christina Ricci is mentioned as an actress as well, but the big deal is reality television and the new show American Hero.

            American Hero is the creation of Peregrine and her production company and Digger Downs, the editor of Aces! Magazine.  They serve as judges along with Topper and the Harlem Hammer, picking new aces from nationwide auditions of hopefuls.  Bugsy is picked for Team Hearts along with Earth Witch, Curveball, Drummer Boy, Gardner, Wild Fox, and Hardhat II.  Team Diamonds consists of The Amazing Bubbles, Jetman, Matryoshka, Tiffani, Joe Twitch, Blrr, and The Maharajah.  Team Clubs is comprised of Toad Man, Stuntman, Spasm, Diver, Brave Hawk, Jade Blossom, and Holy Roller, and Team Spades introduces Cleopatra a.k.a. “Pop Tart,” Dragon Huntress, Rustbelt, King Cobalt, Rosa Loteria, Simoon, and The Candle.

Inside Straight and its companion novella American Hero (first done as a website, but soon to be rereleased as an illustrated ebook) together tell the tale of the newest aces in the Wild Cards universe.  John Fortune is also seen again, working as a PA for his mother’s production company, after a brief moment of being either the Savior or the Antichrist, depending on who you talk to (as detailed in John Jos. Miller’s Death Draws Five, Wild Cards XVI).

In addition to the judges, there are several guest aces brought in as villains for the American Heroes to fight.  The new German ace Lohengrin, who’s on a publicity tour for a BMW motorcycle (and can summon armor and a sword) is one (and is featured on the cover of Inside Straight).  Another is the world renowned stage magician Noel Matthews (who’s also the secret ace Double Helix).  And it being Hollywood, another is Jack Braun, returning to television to face off with The Amazing Bubbles, the world’s strongest man matching his strength against the world’s most invulnerable woman.

While the American Hero show starts as planned, it doesn’t end that way, with some of the new aces, both the eliminated ones in the Discard Pile house and the ones still in the contest, deciding to leave the show early, go off to the real world, and become real heroes.  Some fallen heroes as well.

But some of the real heroes don’t leave Hollywood forever.  In the next volume, Busted Flush, the Amazing Bubbles–revealed as Michelle Pond, an established supermodel to begin with and no stranger to advertising–has become an international hero and joined the Committee under the auspices of the United Nations.  She stars in a Volvo commercial, letting the car hit her and becoming fatter with the impact.  Aside from this, Busted Flush takes the heroes away from Hollywood, but there are still mentions of it throughout, including the second season of American Hero which introduces such new aces as Brickbat, who’s a great favorite with children, Auntie Gravity and her gravity-defying breasts, the incredibly powerful Tesseract, the far less powerful Laureate, the eight-foot humped Buffalo Gal, the Jackalope, and Professor Polka and his accordion.

The next volume, Suicide Kings, has brief mentions of the third season of American Hero, including the new hero Adamantine whose body looks as if it were computer generated.  Fort Freak follows and in it, in my story “The Straight Man,” there’s mention of the Captain Cathode episode where Dr. Tachyon steals the Hope Diamond, the scene immortalized on a vintage lunch pail.

In the following volume, Lowball, we go back to Hollywood and catch up with Stuntman, one of the stars of the first season of American Hero and also a lifelong resident of Los Angeles who introduces us to the whimsical new Hollywood nightclub Gulliver, made to look like a Liliputian village, which also has a beautiful doll-size joker hostess, a troll-shaped joker waiter, and other joker staff.

Lowball also lets us find out about contestants from the fifth season of American Hero, including the robot-like joker-ace Steely Dan.  We also find out about secret sex tapes made of the contestants on American Hero, particularly the six-armed rock star Drummer Boy who bedded multiple female contestants.  But darker than that, we also find out about tapes of a secret underground joker fight club, which features prominently in High Stakes.

But that is not the end of Wild Cards Hollywood, for in Walter Jon William’s Tor web fiction “Prompt.  Professional.  Pop!” we catch up with the teleporting Pop Tart and some of the other also-rans from the first season of American Hero.

Cleopatra stars.  Her film career has not been going well, her three latest films going direct-to-video, but this is better than her hated rival Rosa Loteria, who stole Drummer Boy from her (and probably appeared on the sex tape after she did) who has had little work apart from getting the Chiquita Banana commercial, her ace with her antique loteria deck incredibly versatile but equally unpredictable, also leaving her free to take part in the story.  The rollerblading speedster Blrr also makes an appearance, taking a break from her break-out hit show Who’s That Grrl?  So does Dragon Huntress, now nineteen and no longer a little girl.  And it being Hollywood, Jack Braun also makes an appearance, playing a key role.

Along with the aces there are also some Hollywood producers: Dag Ringqvist, the producer of the incredibly popular mACE and mACE II–based loosely on The Committee–and Chas Thatcher, producer of The Underground, a cheap knock-off of mACE.

But that is not the last tale of Wild Cards Hollywood or its producers, for I can promise that another will be appearing in 2018 in Low Chicago, answering a mystery which has been left unanswered since Card Sharks….