George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards: The Reread

Death, Disguises, Centaurs, and Cat Ladies: Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty

The fifth Wild Cards volume, Down and Dirty, appeared in 1988. In part, it is a companion novel to Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad, partially overlapping the events of the international junket in 1986-1987. Down and Dirty’s events take place back in New York City, primarily Jokertown and its environs. About a third of the way into the book, the WHO/UN junket ends, characters such as Dez and Tachyon return to the city, and a unified timeline proceeds thereafter. Two main plots unite the various stories and characters. First is a full-scale gang war between the Mafia’s Five Families and the encroaching Shadow Fist Society. The latter group, led by the mostly absent Kien, recruits various smaller gangs, including joker crews, to do his nefarious bidding. The second plot is a “sleeper” plot, creeping in entirely unnoticed until well into the second half of the book. Only then does New York City realize it’s in the midst of a new wild card outbreak.

The volume is split into seven mostly undivided chapters (Miller, Harper, Byron Cover, Bryant, Leigh, Cadigan, Williams), with three additional storylines that are broken up and interspersed throughout (Martin, Snodgrass, Zelazny). These last three interstitials help to tie the various plots together.

The seven standalone chapters begin with Brennan at the Crystal Palace, caught up in the gang war. There he witnesses the Mob shaking down Chrysalis for some information about the Shadow Fists. He saves the damsel, then embarks on a mission to infiltrate the Shadow Fists. He does so in a trice, then gets sent out with a team to acquire a body part from the morgue, which conveniently turns out to be Gruber’s head because the Shadow Fists intend to find Wraith and Kien’s stolen journal. They meet with Siu Ma, a crime boss working under Brennan’s nemesis, and Brennan volunteers to take out one of the Mafia dons in an effort to get on her good side. This enables him to warn and save another damsel, Wraith, before the Shadow Fists get her; to secure her future safety, he returns Kien’s (now blank) diary.

Rosemary’s Godfather storyline continues in Down and Dirty. She is surrounded by untrustworthy underlings bent on stabbing her in the back, although in this volume she has made the full turn into a villain. As the Assistant DA she uses the city’s justice system to further the fortunes of the Gambione Family. She manipulates aces into serving her, and she approves the murder of her old friend (and Bagabond’s boyfriend) Paul. In the end, she is outed as the head of the Gambione Family. On the run and completely isolated by Chris Mazzuchelli, she fails to recognize that she has relinquished all her power. When Chris betrays her, she makes a last bid to use Bagabond for her own ends, but Bagabond finally drops her as the bad habit she is.

In the next full chapter, several POVs wind together as the gang war continues with one of the Mafia Five Families (ciao, Don Calvino!) and Wyrm’s Werewolves. Evangelical anti-Joker preacher Leo Barnett finally makes his appearance and we find that despite his squeaky clean public persona, he’s arrived in the Edge to meet his (current) illicit lover Belinda May. Their seedy hotel, unfortunately, is also the location for a truce meeting between the organized criminals. In reality the meeting is a planned hit, with the Werewolves instigating a full-fledged battle at the hotel and the diner across the street. After the violence, Barnett reveals himself as a faith-healer in front of the attendant news cameras when he saves the enigmatic Quasimoto, thereafter announcing his bid for president of the United States. Barnett appeared off-screen at several points in WC IV, fitting in well with that book’s religious theme. As we saw in Aces Abroad, the effects of the wild card virus was subject to a variety of religious interpretations based on different regions’ culture and historical backgrounds. Barnett’s ace healing power fits well with the evangelical faith-healing context from which he springs and which has such a long history in the U.S.

Sewer Jack discovers that he’s contracted HIV, a death sentence in the 1980s and one accelerated when combined with the wild card virus. Feeling sicker by the day, he has a last hurrah by helping Cordelia orchestrate a music benefit at the Funhouse. His niece manages to embroil herself in a bit of corporate forensic investigating, this time focused on some of the shady goings-on in the music industry. It lands her in trouble with Loophole Latham and the Shadow Fists, but the Funhouse concert manages to be a success nonetheless. Not only does CC Ryder take the stage, but Buddy Holley[1] (who never died in the plane crash) enacts an almighty comeback while simultaneously developing a shaman-esque wild card power.

Another story deals with what I think of as the Enemies of Hartmann. Misha, the Seer first introduced in WC IV, has come to New York with Hartmann’s jacket, which tests show carries bloodstains from a wild card ace. Still a sympathetic figure, Misha’s visionary dreams tell her that Sara Morgenstern is the key to Hartmann’s downfall. Gimli tries to keep his fractious team united against the Senator, but the Russian ex-spy Polyakov does not trust their ability to stay focused (he chooses to be Blaise’s tutor instead). In the end, Hartmann wins out, commanding Misha’s brutal murder, while Gimli dies from a horrible new sickness.

Jane Dow makes another appearance as Water Lily, a somewhat hapless sad sack and terrible judge of character. After first inadvertently aiding the Mob, she gets caught up in the unfolding Ti Malice fiasco. The girl can’t catch a break. Discovering that Hiram’s unusual recent behavior has to do with the disgusting worm feeding off his neck, Jane becomes Ti Malices target and eventual “mount.” Naturally, bad things happen thereafter, and when she finds herself free again and addicted to Ti Malice, Jane turns to that other great drug user for help: Croyd. She suddenly possesses a new ace power, with which she can cure the wild card (through sex!). Hmmm, no wonder she runs for it and never reappears.

Modular Man returns in his own chapter, rebuilt from backed-up memories by his creator. He’s sad to discover that, in the time he’s been dead, his many girlfriends have moved on. As he tries to orient himself to this new world, his creator Travnicek falls ill and commands that he capture Croyd. What follows is a series of humiliating defeats for Modular Man, until he is able to overcome Croyd with the help of the rather fantastic (Mr.) Gravemold.

That brings us to the three interstitial storylines.

The Turtle’s is a lovely character study. Now middle-aged, with nothing to show for himself and an inability to even secure a loan from the bank, he’s an increasingly bitter hero with all of the responsibilities but none of the benefits. Thomas Tudbury realizes that the Turtle’s rumored death at the end of WC III might be his best chance yet to start his life anew. First he sells the junk yard where it all began and then, recognizing that he has to get rid of the Turtle’s old shells, sells them to the Bowery Dime Museum. When he’s trapped in the city during rioting and martial law, he finds himself unable to tell the difference between good guy and bad. Although it all ends triumphantly with Joey and Tom doing what they do best, his story is at times heartbreaking.[2]

With this story, Martin revisits the topic of heroism that occupies so many of his books, exploring what happens when the hero gives up in the face of that great villain, the Disappointment of Day-to-day Life. When Tom decides to cash in the Turtle, Joey says “It’s a damn shame, though. You’re going to make my kid cry. The Turtle’s his hero.” Tom responds, “Jetboy was my hero. He died, too. That’s part of growing up. Sooner or later, all your heroes die.” Ouch. At the end of the arc we realize that, more than anything, he’s been battling a crippling sense of vulnerability. This is probably my favorite Turtle story yet, and it’s the Turtle at his most heroic.

During his arc, Tachyon juggles a number of difficulties. Now a single parent raising a troubled (and troubling) grandson, Blaise, the alien also channels his feudal past on Takis when he discovers that “his people” in Jokertown suffer mightily under the competing protection rackets of the Mafia and Shadow Fists. He sets up a true protection gig with Dez, running a Neighborhood Watch on steroids, with joker teams trouncing the organized criminals left and right. He finally comprehends that the new outbreaks of the wild card virus have a human vector, and then proceeds in clueless Tachyon-fashion to chase off Patient Zero and create a joker-bashing riot scenario in NYC. In my mind he is directly responsible for a number of deaths and a renewed wave of boiling hatred towards jokers.

Finally, there’s Croyd, whose arc sees him doing a job for the Mafia, starting up a relationship with Veronica, and stepping in to help Cordelia deal with Loophole Latham. Croyd struggles a bit with his drug problem and his fear of sleep—which this time around does far more damage to others than usual. For most of the book he sports white hair and pale white skin, perhaps symbolizing his own power to eternally avoid the Black Queen. We find that the new wild card outbreak follows in Croyd’s footsteps and that he is, in fact, its cause. In his current iteration, Croyd carries a mutating wild card virus that attacks both new victims and those already infected. Because of his drug-induced paranoia, he imagines himself on the run, which results in him doing the one thing a virus carrier shouldn’t: crisscrossing NYC on foot and on public transportation, with the newly aced Snotman to protect him.[3] Suddenly they really are after him, and I mean everybody: the Mafia, the Shadow Fists, the jokers, the aces, the nats, the robots, the cops, even the National Guard. With panic shattering NYC and violence breaking out in the streets, that thin boundary between being an ace or a joker comes back to haunt Croyd once more. In previous books lauded as an ace (and welcomed at Aces High), now everyone thinks of him as the ultimate joker, to the detriment of jokers everywhere. One wonders, will Croyd ever bear the consequences of his actions?

I don’t know about everyone else, but Typhoid Croyd is one of my favorite Sleeper plots. We’ve had a number of Croyd stories over the years, from coming-of-age tale to comic caper, but this one proves to be a black comedy of errors. The last third of the book, as chaos descends across NYC, is a masterful buildup of tension, anxiety, and growing dread. I could barely put it down to sleep.[4]

Side Characters to Love

This fifth volume includes a number of wild card side characters that really do deserve special mention. John J. Miller starts us off with several. There’s Lazy Dragon, with his cool and artsy power that allows him to vivify animal models he’s carved from soap or folded into origami. Miller’s Deadhead, who eats the brains of the departed to acquire their memories and knowledge, is a stark reminder of how much pop-culture owes to the wild card world (I’m looking at you, “Heroes” and “iZombie”). Melinda Snodgrass gives us the dreamy centaur Dr. Finn, with his blond good looks only a part of the complete Palomino package. Girls love handsome doctors, but they also love to braid horse manes and tails. Finn is like a teen fantasy come to life. George Martin mentions in passing the Sculptress, a thief with the power to shape metal and stone with her hands. A real Frank Abagnale, Jr., she ends up working for the Justice Department. Now that’s a character I want to see again! Who do I NOT want to see again? Martin’s disgustingly horrific Mishmash, probably the skin-crawlingest character to yet grace the pages of the Wild Cards series. My hair stands on end just thinking about him.

Arthur Byron Cover likewise introduces some fantastic characters in Leo Barnett’s chapter, most notably the beautifully-written Quasiman. His body partially shifts forward and backward in time, and sideways through space and null-space. Quasiman’s abilities shift as well, with the physics intermittently affecting even his memory and intelligence. One of the briefest and most intriguing characters in Byron Cover’s chapter survives for only a page, sadly. Red of skin and with a phenomenal power, she shoots hordes of homicidal red insects that chew through enemies like locusts. All and sundry, raise a glass for the much-lamented Pesticide!


Who Knew?

The joys of any reread include all the things you notice in a book based on your contemporaneous life. This time around I was struck by one thing about Bagabond. Because I was reading while wearing my cat lady hat—managing strays and hand-feeding my own dangerously feverish kitty—I couldn’t help but be struck by Bagabond’s role as the Cat Lady Ace. In WC I, she was smelly and unwashed, covered in animal hair, and better able to communicate with cats than with people (like so many of us cat ladies, perhaps?). She watched out for her special animal friends, the black and the calico, who frequently wound themselves around her feet. Yet, Bagabond actually failed as a cat lady, neglecting to provide NYC’s feral cat colonies with food or vet care. Most damning of all, although wholly aware of the many kitten generations produced by the black cat, Bagabond’s actions include a distinct lack of TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release). She wouldn’t even have to Trap, just Neuter and Release! Now that’s what I call a superpower, which she sadly chooses not to engage.

I’d also forgotten how much I enjoyed Buddy Holley’s appearance. I went through a major Buddy Holly obsession phase in my 20s, as one does, and so appreciate that Edward Bryant gave us an alt-history rock-n-roll story centered on Holley’s return to the limelight. The chapter is something of a fantasy-come-true for all those Buddy Holly fans longing for his lost future, personified by Sewer Jack crying as he listened to Holly’s new songs. The very idea of it makes me a little weepy this very second. Excuse me while I go watch Buddy Holly videos on the internet…


Death and Resurrection

A reoccurring theme of the book is death and resurrection. The motif surfaces clearly throughout “The Second Coming of Buddy Holley.” The chapter flirts throughout with death, near-death, death-that-should-have-been, and rebirth. Holley himself, at the end of his set, experiences a strange bodily dissolution, before his body reassembles itself again; Cordelia quips, “it’s the death and resurrection show.” Meanwhile, Croyd goes from stiff-as-a-board corpse to Typhoid Mary and then back again (Gravemold: “Death is cold, Mr. Crenson…and I am cold as death.”) Modular Man, a dead machine and decapitated head, comes back to life in “Mortality.” His maker tells him, “welcome back, toaster. The land of the living awaits.” But upon realizing that Travineck won’t be able to revivify him again, Modular Man must contemplate the end that eventually awaits him. The Turtle’s story also cycles through death and resurrection; Tom thinks repeatedly that the Turtle is dead, but in the end, he decides that perhaps Tom Tudbury is the disguise he can remove, and it’s Tom that he decides to purposefully kill off as his alter ego.


Masks and Disguises

The prevalence and symbolism of the mask serves as another major theme in this volume. Disguises are, of course, a major trope in superhero stories, but the masks in Wild Cards have their origins in the pain and shame of Jokertown. They litter Down and Dirty, from the Nixon masks of the Werewolves gang to the damn expensive leather lion mask sported by Dutton. The disguises and hidden truths of numerous characters pervade the book, ranging from the more physical to the more symbolic. There’s Brennan’s questionable disguise as a bearded Asian cowboy, complete with surgically-added epicanthic folds. Misha longs for the black veils to hide her face and her faults. Hartmann too hides his ace power and his nasty secret, but he tells his ecstatic followers: “There are other masks than those which Jokertown has made famous. There is a mask which hides a greater ugliness than anything the wild card might produce. Behind that mask is an infection that’s all too human…I want to rip the mask off and expose the true ugliness behind, the ugliness of hatred.”

Bagabond and Rosemary’s stories also deal throughout with double lives. Jack says to Bagabond, “we’ve become trapped in our undercover lives as normal people” (76). The Turtle, on the other hand, has been trapped by his life in the shell. He dons a frog mask to enter Jokertown on foot, but his real mask is the shell. He says to Joey, “Those shells of mine, they’re like some kind of symbol for my whole fucking life. I’m standing here thinking about it, and it makes me sick. All the money I’ve put into them, all the hours, all the work. If I’d put that kind of effort into my real life I could be somebody” (52). But the Turtle, like so many great heroes, chooses the shell and what it hides, in the end.


[1] His real name is spelled with the ‘e.’

[2] One of its triumphs, however, is the use of the verb “turtling” to describe Turtling.

[3] This is pretty much what the real Typhoid Mary did. She ran from place to place, hiding from the authorities and changing her name, even though (unlike Croyd) she knew perfectly well that she infected people. The doctors told Mary that she could no longer work as a cook because of her contagious nature, but she bolted, infecting people along the way. Eventually she thought it would be a good idea to cook in a maternity hospital and started another typhoid outbreak. Over the years she was responsible for multiple deaths. Perhaps she’s a bit like Croyd after all, since he knows perfectly well that other people get hurt when he uses speed. As Water Lily reminds him several times, “Sleeper speeding, people bleeding.”

[4] In other words, this part of the book made me join the Bad Decisions Book Club; I stayed up ‘til the crack of dawn reading.

Katie Rask is an assistant professor of archaeology and classics at Duquesne University. She’s excavated in Greece and Italy for over 15 years.


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