Wild Cards: the Austin Connection

by Walton (Bud) Simons

New Mexico — Albuquerque and Santa Fe in particular — is the center of the Wild Cards universe. The series grew from a group of New Mexico writers who invested an inordinate amount of time and creative energy in the SuperWorld role-playing game, eventually deciding that the imaginative work they were doing would be an excellent vehicle for a series of books. George R.R. Martin, Melinda Snodgrass, John J. and Gail Miller, Walter Jon Williams, and Vic Milan brainstormed an alternate earth where a Takisian virus was let loose on the populace of Earth. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you know at least some of what happened afterward.

As editor, George quickly roped legendary writer Roger Zelazny into becoming a contributor for the project, but knew he’d have to cast an even wider net to create the ensemble of talent he wanted. He recruited Steve Leigh from Cincinnati, Ed Bryant and Leanne Harper from Denver, and Howard Waldrop and Lew Shiner from Austin.

The first time I saw Howard Waldrop’s name it was in Creepy magazine, a story called “Polly Want A Wizard?” It was several years later that I actually met him at a convention in Dallas in the early 1970s.

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Howard and George go way back, pretty much pre-Cambrian way back, and appropriately were brought together by their mutual love of comic books. They corresponded for decades before Wild Cards was even a gleam in George’s eye, and by the 1980s both were award-winning authors. George wanted a story from Howard for the first Wild Cards book, and Howard had this notion of writing an homage to the old Airboy comic books starring a fellow named Jetboy, so it seemed like Kismet.

Of course, nothing could ever be Kismet with Howard participating in a group project since Mr. W resides at the corner of “Literary Singularity” and “Not-A-Team-Player.” So a few hairs turned grey (or were torn out) of numerous heads before “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” reached final form.

Because of Howard’s insistence that the finale of “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” take place on his actual birthday, the first Wild Cards volume was an alternate history starting on September 16, 1946, as opposed to what back in the 1980s was current day. This gave the authors a broader canvas, timewise, to create their stories for the initial volume. The premise actually worked out extremely well, so Howard’s obstinacy paid dividends in that particular circumstance. A second historical volume, Deuces Down, was later published by iBooks. Who knows when George might give us another shot at a historical? In the Wild Cards universe, pretty much anything is possible.

george,lew,howard    Before I move on to Lew Shiner, who is central to my participation in Wild Cards, I’m going to digress with a story about Dudefest. I’m pretty sure that the person who came up with that name was the only non-dude who participated. In any case, several of us — Howard, Lew, Warren Spector plus one, and I — would go comic book shopping every Saturday. First to Austin Books and then to Dragon’s Lair, each of us buying a stack of new comics to take home and read.

To digress on my digression, Warren’s plus one was his wife, Caroline. He’d first met her at Austin Books, where she was running the register. I was there the first time they met each other and saw the way Warren eyeballed Caroline. It was like a lightbulb had gone off over his head, only it wasn’t a lightbulb and it wasn’t over his head. They later worked together at Steve Jackson Games and eventually got married.

Back to Mr. Shiner who, at the time George was recruiting writers, had recently published his first novel, Frontera. Lew had also written several acclaimed short stories and earned the reputation as a hot young writer. When George came calling, Lew answered with Fortunato, a tantric magician who ran a stable of high-priced geishas. Many considered Fortunato the alpha to Dr. Tachyon’s omega (or perhaps vice-versa), and “the wimp vs. the pimp” dichotomy created an interesting tension to the first Wild Card triad. The third volume reached its climax with the aerial battle between Fortunato and his nemesis, the Astronomer.

Lew did one more Fortunato story for Aces Abroad and later wrote stories featuring Fortunato’s former geisha, Veronica. He was also responsible for the creation of Kid Dinosaur, who became a bigger fan favorite than anyone expected. Additionally, Lew edited and co-wrote a Wild Cards miniseries for Marvel Comics as well as four one-shot stories for their Epic label. Although he hasn’t returned to the Wild Cards universe since his last Veronica story, Lew did two comic series for DC “Time Masters” with Wild Card alum Bob Wayne, and “The Hacker Files.” Lew has long since departed for North Carolina and continues to produce his own distinctive work, but I’d like to think there’s still a bit of Austin in his heart.

At some point early in the Wild Cards game, George asked Lew if he’d recommend any other Austin writers and Lew suggested me. George and I had met on several occasions and he was aware that I participated in the Turkey City writer’s conference, along with Lew, Howard, Bruce Sterling, Lisa Tuttle, Chad Oliver, and a bunch of other gifted Texas authors. No one’s ever told me so, but I’m guessing George was skeptical about my participation. I’d managed a couple of writing credits at DC comics after Bob Wayne (there’s that name again) introduced me to some of the editorial staff there. In spite of whatever reservations George might have had, he allowed me to come up with character ideas to pitch.

My initial notions ran to the absurd, including Puddle-Man (who made an appearance in Deuces Down), Grow-Grip Man (his hands became huge when he grabbed a person), and Sign Girl (who could stand in front of a sign, visually imitate a letter and disappear). One of the first serious characters I submitted was a bad guy called Oblivion. George pointed out that there had been a character with that name in an Iceman limited series. I was a bit annoyed. Coming up with character names has always been a challenge for me, so I went back to square one and decided on Demise, aka James Spector.


The last name was a tip of the hat to my buddy Warren Spector, who returned the favor by making Walton Simons one of the main villains in the computer game Deus Ex. So I had a character name, but getting him into a story required doing one on spec. The initial version of “If Looks Could Kill” bore little resemblance to the final story, but Demise ultimately made it into print and I was happy as a clam. I’ve since introduced Jerry “Mr. Nobody” Strauss, G. C. Jayewardene, and Drake “Little Fat Boy” Thomas. Clearly, I’m happy to keep creating characters and stories as long George continues to buy them.

Now we arrive at the final member of the Austin writing gang to become a Wild Card writer, Caroline Spector. Gamers probably think of her as the wife of “gaming god” Warren Spector, and while that’s technically true, Wild Card readers might be more inclined to classify Warren as Mr. Bubbles. Caroline has geek cred out the wazoo, as anyone who has seen her t-shirt collection can attest. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve even seen all of them.

A decade or so ago, when Tor Books picked up Wild Cards, George went hunting for new talent again, and unsurprisingly turned his editorial eye back to Austin. Caroline was certainly no novice to the writing field, having worked as an associate editor at Amazing Stories, written several gaming books, and authored three novels: Little Treasures, Scars, and Worlds Without End. George had been friends with the Spectors for years, and Caroline seemed a natural fit for Tor’s relaunch of the series.

Her character creation was the Amazing Bubbles, who started out as a fashion model and ended up as a dramatically powerful ace, an adoptive mother, and instead of taking walks down the runway now has an unfortunate tendency to periodically take strolls into hell-on-earth. Bubbles has appeared in many recent volumes of Wild Cards and is one of the series’ current favorite characters.

bubbles-1-300x223One Bubbles story appeared in the acclaimed anthology Dangerous Women. When asked what her bubbles are made of, Caroline tends to say “they’re made up of plot.” At some point, I’m guessing Caroline will open up her literary wings a bit and choose another viewpoint character for a Wild Cards story. That’s why we all keep reading the books, to see what the writers come up with next.

One particularly interesting fact about Caroline is that she’s the only person to be both a contributing author and a character in the Wild Cards universe. Caroline the character was one of Fortunato’s geishas in Aces High and Jokers Wild. At one point in Jokers Wild Caroline encountered Demise and the Astronomer and it didn’t go very well for her, to say the least. That section was really grim, so I let Caroline read it to make sure she was okay with it – – well, as okay as she could be given the circumstances.


We’re still good friends, and she’s got carte blanche to kill off a character named Bud anytime she wants. And just to clarify, the fictional Caroline bore a physical resemblance to her real-life counterpart, but although she’s a great hostess Caroline has never been a geisha. At least, not as far as I know.

The Austin group of Wild Cards writers, like the New Mexico folks, go way back. We’re the same in our love of comic books, sf, and fantasy, and that nexus of enjoyment has, hopefully, made us good collaborators. There’s a ton of stories to tell, probably more than any one of us can remember. You can ask Howard and if he doesn’t recall one he’ll most likely make up a story for you that’s better than the actual truth.


For me, working on Wild Cards with the other writers, particularly when you can drive over to their home to bounce ideas off one another, is one of the great joys of the project. I have lots of fond memories of brainstorming characters with Lew back in the day. Busted Flush was the first time I was in a Wild Cards book with Caroline, but it won’t be the last. If you run into either or both of us at a convention ask about Texas Hold’em. All I’m willing to say is that a fair amount of alcoholic beverages were consumed, mostly by me. I was simply trying to be a good guest, don’t you know. How much alcohol? When asked that question in North by Northwest Cary Grant held his hands several feet apart and said, “about this much.” That’s a fair approximation. Still, Wild Cards has been, and continues to be, much more fun than frustration. We’ve all done our best to Keep Austin Weird, in a Wild Cards kind of way.