Monday, July 16, 2012

The Wild Cards Novels

I’ve just started reading the Wild Cards novel series.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up the Green Ronin M&M Wild Cards sourcebook- it was at the Hastings bookstore in my town, used for 5 bucks. So I picked it up, and it was a decent intro to the world. Intrigued enough to try some of the books themselves, I found Book 1, and several later books. So far, in addition to the sourcebook- which is an overview of the Wild Cards series until the end of the “Card Sharks” arc, I’ve read through Book 1, Aces Aboard (book 4, the world tour arc, and the best of the books so far) and Ace in the Hole (book 6, the 1988 presidential primary story), and I’d just started on Card Sharks, which I think is book 15 or 16 in the series.

Anyway, George RR Martin’s Wild Card shared universe is a lot like what I’m doing with Otherverse America- this intricate and authentic alternate world with hardcore political satire mixed in among its action. I’m enjoying the series, so far. As I mentioned above, Aces Abroad was possibly the best single book, though after I finished the first book, I read Ace in the Hole first. I’m a huge fan of Hartman and really enjoyed seeing the end of his arc. (Yes, I’m reading the books out of order- since my ‘collection’ has such huge gaps, and I’ve already gotten spoilers from the RPG, I’m just reading through the books in the order they catch my eye.)

The strength of the series is the shared world aspect and the multiplicity of characters. Having so many people involved in the series, each writing a few signature characters over the course of a dozen or more novels, gives Wild Cards a real unpredictability. Each character in the series (Tachyon, Hartman, Gimli, and all the other players) reacts differently, offering greater diversity of personalities than you’d get even from the most skilled single writer. In a way, the Wild Cards series is like a very long running RPG campaign, which is appropriate because it apparently had its genesis in an old Superworld RPG that Martin ran back during the 70s and 80s.

I’m also somewhat puzzled by the differences between the licensed RPG and the world as presented in the novels. First, the RPG’s introductory editorial was a bit pretentious- “Oh this isn’t comics. We’re doing alternate history, our plots are so much more plausible and mature and serious than comics. Comics are for kids!” Horseshit, Wild Cards is well written and well thought out, but it’s an interlaced superhero universe, with as much backstory, and as many if not more crossovers than Marvel or DC. Wild Cards was obviously influenced by mainstream comics- Claremont’s X-Men had a role in the series’ creation, I’m sure. Wild Cards also seems to be VERY influential in mainstream comics, and I didn’t quite realize how much until I started reading the novels.

Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, which introduced mutants with weird deformities and no appreciable powers, like Beak, seems a straight lift from the ‘jokers’ of the Wild Cards novels. Marvel’s Mutant Town in NYC is an almost perfect duplicate of Joker Town. Over in Astro City, Kurt Bruisek lifted Jube the Walrus (a newsvendor and spy for an alien empire), changed his appearance slightly and inserted him an issue of Astro City. Which, I suppose, is another good reason to dislike Bruisek, aside from his patronizing writing style and rampant hardon for Silver Age nostalgia. Lots of the flavor of Wild Cards found itself into Warren Ellis’ excellent Transmetropolotian, but I can’t think of any exact lifts, save for one. Ellis’ Smiler (a corrupt sociopath successfully masquerading as a compassionate politician) looks FUCKING EXACTLY like the Tim Truman art on the cover of Ace in the Hole, which features a close up of Senator Gregg Hartman. I don’t know if Ellis himself read any Wild Cards stuff (I’d guess yes, because he seems like a pretty well read dude), but judging by the visual similarities, I’d bet Derrick Robertson is.

Anyway, the real strength of the series, as I said before, are the characters themselves. My thoughts on some of my favorites (and least favorites).

Senator Gregg Hartman- far and away, my favorite character in the novels to date. Hartman is such a miserable, manipulative little rat-fuck, you can’t help be fascinated by him. He’s one of the most selfish and malicious villain protagonists I’ve ever read and is just so hilariously EVIL he comes off as almost epic. I find myself wandering which came first, Wild Cards I (which introduced Hartman) or Stephen King’s The Dead Zone? Whichever it is, maybe since we get to see him scheme over the course of 6 books before he gets his karmic due in Ace in the Hole, Hartman seems like a more intriguing villain than the bad guy in Dead Zone.

Dr. Tachyon- this guy is so hilariously useless. Reading through the RPG sourcebook, I got the impression that Tachyon is this grand schemer, manipulating the world. In the novels, by contrast, he seems mostly reactive- despite his royal pretensions, this guy isn’t much of a leader. To me, he seems a mix of serious figure (25%) and unintentional comic relief (75%)- he’s this overly demonstrative, metrosexual mad scientist who dresses like a Ren-Faire pirate with anime hair who occasionally gets great lines (his sarcastic dismissal of the Soviets in Aces Abroad is amazingly cool). Another change from the RPG- his telepathic abilities seem impressive in M&M terms, but are pretty minor in the books- plus, Tachyon is too much of a scmuck to ever use his telepathy intelligently.

Xavier Desmond- I seriously hate this moron. From the RPG summary (and his name I suppose), I figured him to be the setting’s Xavier figure- a moderate voice for Jokers’ rights. Seriously, I’ve got very low tolerance for moderate, non-violent advocates for the rights of oppressed minorities. Talking comics, I prefer Magneto’s philosophy over Xavier’s, and in real life, I think the world needs a lot more Malcolm Xes than it does Martin Luther Kings. Plus, the character does absolutely nothing, accomplishes absolutely nothing, and his journals, which form the framing story for Book 4: Aces Abroad, are incredibly whiny and self serving. I’m kind of shocked how little the ‘mayor of Jokertown’ actually matters to the story. By contrast, I fucking love Gimli- hardassed, temperamental little bastard that he was. Finally, the art in the RPG oddly depicted Desmond as a brawny, athletic figure….while in the book he’s a 70 year old man, dying rapidly of cancer.

Crystalis- I like her a lot, mostly because of her visually awesome mutation. While I was glad we lost Desmond in book 4, I was sorry to see her die so early in the series. I want to find book 5, which focuses on her death and final days in depth, even though I know it’s going to be a Brendan centric book (ugh). Since part of her back story is that she’s a girl from Ohio that affects a British accent, I keep hearing Madonna’s voice in my head when I read her lines. (You’ll be pleased to know I hear Dr. Zoidberg’s voice reading Father Squid’s lines. Woop-woop-woop.)

Mackie Messer: another fucking awesome villain. He’s equal parts pathetic and vile. Half the time you’re reading his story, you just want to give the little twerp a hug. I know Wild Cards and Watchmen came out near simultaneously, and I find it interesting how psychologically similar Messer is to Rorschach. He’s also got one of the most awesome combat powers in the series- I find myself making a little buzz saw noise under my breath every time he kills somebody in Book 6….and this fucker kills A LOT of people. I saw online (in the linked article below) that a key scene with Messer is described as the most terrifying blowjob ever written, and yes, that description is very accurate. You’ll notice my favorite characters in the books- Hartman, Messer, Gimli- are the bad guys, which is because many of the heroes in Wild Cards are either assholes or schmucks. Even Crystalis is more of a neutral info-broker and blackmailer than a hero. It’s kind of a pessimistic world.

Of the heroes, I’m not a fan of many of the series big names. Tachyon is a shockingly inept little prick, Jack Braun screws up pretty much everything he’s ever attempted, though his continued efforts at redemption are both endearing and cool. Plus his obvious PTSD and the fact he's dealing with it (mostly) makes him one of fiction's cooler veterans. Of the big heroes, I do like the pragmatic and blue collar Turtle the best. Harlem Hammer is awesome- taciturn, cranky and pissed as hell. I was gratified there was a scene in Aces Abroad showing him recovering after taking several full clips from multiple AK-47s and having a van fall on him. That guy is too cool to die, and I was surprised at how emotional I got when I thought this relatively minor character had been killed.  

I like most of the Jokers- they make the Wild Cards setting so unique, and are more vital to the story, collectively, then the Aces, which are more like typical superheroes. Most of the minor aces sorta bore me, but I’m fascinated by the minor Jokers by contrast. How do they live, what kind of weird medical needs and anatomical quirks do they have? Crystalis, Angelface, the Joker family Demise meets in Atlanta, Doughboy, Succubus, Chuck and the 50s-era jokers in Til I Kissed Her, and a bunch more are these super imaginative body horror creations that you have to love these freaks. Not many of them have powers in the comic book sense, but most of ‘em are so original it’s not a lack.

Hiram Worchester is also surprisingly likeable even if he’s possessed/addicted as of book 6. In the RPG, he seemed like a fat fuck with a minor gravity control power. In the books, he’s actually really good with his power- he pulls of Star Boy style gravity stunts and is entertainingly brutal….another reason I want to get ahold of Book Five.

Loved the Living Gods (book 4), but as a modern worshipper of Bast who has also had great success lately in invoking Ma’at, what’d you expect? I just finished up Dr. Finn’s story in Card Sharks, and despite his conspicuous wealth, I like the guy, perhaps because his chapter held the viscerally nastiest Card Sharks conspiracy to date in the novel.

My least favorite character so far isn’t an Ace or a Joker- it’s the human archer Brendan/Yeoman. Brendan is this horrible action movie cliché storm tossed into an otherwise interesting fictional world. He’s a badass Vietnam vet slash ninja who swore vengeance on the Vietnamese crimelord who killed his wife and kid. Seriously, there’s not one fucking thing about Brendan that’s original. If Wild Cards were a movie, he’d be played by Steven Segal. Maybe my opinion of the guy will change if I get my hands on Book Five, but I doubt it. I haven’t warmed to Mark Meadows yet either. In the first book, I skipped the Transfigurations chapter, which intro’ed him. I just couldn’t get into it, mostly because Meadows seems like such a one dimensional character- the stereotypical hippy. I kinda want to read the Free Vietnam storyline and see him in action, but right now, Mark’s not even on my radar.

One thing I didn’t expect is that two of the best written stories so far have focused on abortion. I know that I shouldn’t be shocked, given that Wild Cards plays with every other aspect of human life, but I kinda am. Down By The Nile (which is an amusing coincidence, as I didn’t read the story until a few days ago, and I named the Bastian kids show in Otherverse America several years ago) and Til I Kissed Her both had abortion as a key plot element. In Down By the Nile, Tachyon is pressuring Peregrine to have an abortion, as her kid will probably end up a deformed Joker, and Til I Kissed Her features a pre-Roe abortion (and I wonder if the duck-billed joker Doc is a speculatum joke?). Both felt authentic and well written, and the events in Til I Kissed Her spin Fluer’s words and actions in Book 6 in a totally new light. Also, and I hope this is answered in another book, given Tachyon’s feelings about joker births and his medical skill, I wonder if his Blythe Van Resseler Memorial clinic is set up to perform abortions? Hell, if I ever get asked to join the Wild Cards mosaic (small chance of that, right), that’d be the first story I’d write.

Anyway, speaking of unintentional similarities between my writing and Wild Cards, Fortunato is totally a Black Tokyo PC. Seriously, if you read his story in Book I, you’ll see what I mean. I don’t want to spoil it for you…..

Blessed Be,

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