A Wild Cards Tribute to Victor Milán

Victor Milán, who passed away earlier this month, created a number of memorable Wild Cards characters over the years, from the murderous Mackie Messers to the tough-as-nails Harlem Hammer. Let’s talk about some of the best-loved moments and characters that Milán created in the series. I thought I’d start with a look at two of his most popular characters, and we can continue the discussion in the comments…

 

Sara Morgenstern, Reporter

Sara is an investigative reporter who specializes in wild card matters and Jokertown. She hounds Gregg Hartmann (Puppetman) for years. One of the main female leads from the early books, her story unfolds in the second Wild Card trilogy. Although her POV chapters come later, Sara’s story really begins in 1950 with the death of her sister, Andrea Whitman, killed as a child by Puppetman. Sara’s not a presence in the first volume, but we do find an excerpt of her writing there (in the appendix, from Rolling Stone magazine, 1986), a text she compiled about the science of the wild card virus for the 40th anniversary. It is the events that unfold in “Strings” (Stephen Leigh, Wild Cards) that will truly change her life, however; during the 1976 Jokertown Riot, Hartmann’s lover Succubus momentarily wears the face of Sara’s dead sister. As we discover in Aces High (WC II), what the reporter discovers about the riot causes her to suspect Hartmann, and her suspicions and investigation lead directly to the events in Aces Abroad (WC IV) and Ace in the Hole (WC VI).

One interesting facet of Sara is that she’s a nat, one of the few POVs not infected by the wild card virus. Like Brennan, she must navigate an impossibly treacherous world of superhuman powers while being entirely powerless herself. Her weapons are her intelligence, her written words, and her dogged tenacity. She exhibits those real investigative reporter superpowers, the ability to connect facts and clues into a larger picture, and to chase those facts down wherever the story might take her. Like Brennan, Sara’s a hunter, with Puppetman her most dangerous target. Despite the risks involved, she’s out there fighting the good fight, taking down the monsters, and giving voice to survivors. It takes not just brains, but guts, and Sara has those in spades. How could she face down villains like Hartmann otherwise?

Unlike Brennan, who has actual combat skills and hunting prowess acquired in Vietnam, Sara is, in many other ways, defenseless. While vulnerable to Puppetman, she is one of the very few individuals to realize the danger he poses before he takes her as a puppet. Despite the fact that he mentally and physically assaults her in Aces Abroad, Sara pulls together the shambles of her life and continues her hunt. Ace in the Hole takes her to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and further horrors there. She reaches the end of her rope: fired from The Washington Post, humiliated in the media for her “affair” with Hartmann, barely surviving assassination attempts. It’s only the attacks by Mackie Messers that break her—which makes sense, given that he’s the quintessential horror movie villain, an invincible chainsaw-wielding murderer who leaves aces fallen in his wake.

And yet somehow, Sara picks herself up yet again. She decides to shoot Hartmann when he’s onstage accepting the nomination as the Democratic candidate for president. She knows it will be her final act, resulting in her death or imprisonment. She knowingly sacrifices herself, because she realizes that the safety of the entire world depends on her actions. Of course, that’s not all that makes her raise her weapon. As she states, “Avenging Andi depends on my going through with this. And Sondra Fallin, and Kahina, and Chrysalis. And me” (Ace in the Hole, 417).

Wild Cards Ace in the Hole Sara Morgenstern Victor Milan

Wild Cards: Ace in the Hole cover art by Michael Komarck

There is something disturbing about Sara’s role in this political assassination, especially given that it echoes so many real-life events from the past. Whether it was intentional or not, Hartmann has always reminded me of Robert Kennedy. He’s the charismatic young leader, uniting the Democratic tribes, speaking out against injustice, standing up for the powerless, battling for the civil rights of all people. He’s adored, practically worshipped. And there he is, flush with an electoral victory, surrounded by his devotees, when an ideological assassin raises a gun against him. Is Sara a 1989 version of Sirhan Sirhan? That assassin thought that he should kill in order to protect his home and his people; specifically, Sirhan’s prosecutors argued that Kennedy’s support of the sale of Phantom Jets to Israel in 1968, presumably to be used against Palestine, was the catalyst for Kennedy’s assassination. In Sirhan’s mind, the political killing was undertaken to avenge, to resist, and to defend a homeland. Sara does the same: she’s fighting for the world, for the jokers, for Hartmann’s victims, and for herself. When paging through her POV, we side with Sara—we view her as heroic, especially there at the end. The disconcerting parallels with Sirhan Sirhan are mitigated, however, because as readers we independently recognize that Hartmann truly is a grotesque threat to the entire world and must be stopped at all costs. Rather than a villain, we’re shown in Sara a character who continues her role as a hero, but must perform a terrible deed in order to save others.

In the resulting melee, it is actually Tachyon who ultimately does Hartmann in, but Sara still has the last word. After all, she’s the only one who remembers Hartmann’s female victims. She thinks,

Puppetman’s strings were all cut. But Gregg Hartmann had one more victim left. She stood up and left the park with a sense of purpose that tasted like an alien emotion to one who thought her purpose was all used up. (Ace in the Hole, 458)

Who was the final victim? Poor Ellen, Hartmann’s wife. Demure, modest, the perfect political spouse; Hartmann had nevertheless been pulling her strings for years, until he finally killed their unborn child and fed off of Ellen’s pain. It’s by saving this last victim, by giving power to this woman who’d always been powerless, that Sara finally achieves her revenge.

 

Mark Meadows, aka Captain (sometimes “Cap’n” ) Trips, aka A Bunch of Other Aces, Too

Wild Cards Captain Trips Victor Milan best characters tributeVictor Milán’s most famous Wild Card character is Mark Meadows. Meadows’ role spans almost the entire history of the series, from 1986’s Wild Cards to 2009’s Suicide Kings. Mark’s origin story began in “Transfigurations,” set in 1969. We meet him as a young scientist working towards his PhD in biochemistry and genetics. He’s a bit of a genius, but his life will change when he becomes interested in the “chemistry of the mind,” aka the chemical effects of psychedelics. His card turns when he field tests LSD with his life-long crush Kimberly Ann Cordayne; it’s a bit Revenge of the Nerds on Acid. Shy and geeky Mark disappears and is replaced by his opposite, the Radical—the embodiment of everything hip, anti-Establishment, and revolutionary. The Radical battles the traditional and old-fashioned figure Hardhat in People’s Park; when the acid wears off and Mark returns, he wants that high back so badly that he’ll spend much of his life trying to bring the Radical back.

Aces High reveals the next major phase of Mark’s transformation; we discover that in the ’70s he carried out his career in the sciences, continuing his effort to find the Radical by mixing various power concoctions to trip his virus. Now in the 1980s, he’s no longer the dorky nerd with a pocket protector; instead, he’s a stovepipe hat-wearing, Uncle-Sam-dressing head shop owner. He’s an exaggeration of hippie culture condensed into one man. His speech patterns are affable and goofy, to the point that most people don’t take him seriously. He’s described as “just an old hippie. To anybody else he’d be a figure of fun. Almost a clown” (Busted Flush, 133). But many characters, especially Tachyon, find Mark to be lovable and sweet. In fact, he’s remarkably like the Dude. (Cue The Big Lebowski: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man…”)

The drug-taking version of Mark Meadows is generally called Cap’n Trips, as if he a persona. In fact, Cap’n Trips (aka Mark) has a number of other ace personas that he can release by ingesting his special powders. Over the course of the Wild Cards series we meet several of them: Aquarius, Cosmic Traveler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Monster, Moonchild, and Starshine. Each has an exaggerated personality and their own special super powers. There’s a good chance Cap’n Trips has got an infinite number of aces hidden inside, but he’d need an infinite number of powder concoctions to unleash them all.

Ultimately, Mark will play a major role in ten of the twenty-four Wild Cards novels. His sometimes outlandish, sometimes touching adventures continue and often involve his daughter Sprout, or are driven by idealistic goals, covering everything from overcoming conservative prejudice against single hippie fathers to visiting the alien planet Takis. It’s during his battle with the Card Sharks (who try to eradicate all wild carders in Volume 15) that he finally releases the Radical again. Unfortunately, he becomes stuck as the Radical, who now represents not the peace-and-love counter-culture ethos of 1969, but a rather more militant revolutionary trying to enact change on a global scale. It turns out the quest to find the hero of People’s Park was a mistake; Mark later regrets “chasing a dream that turned into a nightmare for the whole world to share” (Suicide Kings, 439).

As the Radical, Mark changes into a villain, rather than a hero. In Busted Flush and Suicide Kings, the Radical becomes a warped version of the good-natured Cap’n Trips; the two books explore in some depth the notion that all his aces are part of Mark. The struggle to regain control from the Radical verges on a personality disorder, with the personalities engaged in an epic battle; one of them yells at the other, “You don’t even fucking exist” (Busted Flush, 133). It will take the Committee to finally topple the Radical in Suicide Kings, with help from the inner Mark Meadows, of course, flashing peace signs left and right.

In Suicide Kings, Mark’s story finally comes to an end. He decides to stop releasing his inner aces with drugs, choosing instead to embrace science nerd Mark Meadows once more. Wanted across the globe for his crimes, he catches a ride to Takis together with Sprout and his wife, Hei-lian.

I’m struck by the centrality of shape-changing in Mark’s story. As Milán hinted with the title of that first chapter (“Transfigurations”), superhero stories are often marked by transformation. Not only do the characters change and develop over the course of the tale, but they continuously change back and forth between their everyday personas and their super-personas. In Mark’s case, we never know what we’re gonna get after he changes. He seems to embody the very notion of superheroic alteration in that Mark isn’t limited to just one super-ace. I don’t know a whole lot about comics, but it makes sense that the transfiguration facet of the superhero tale is so enduring; it’s certainly been a feature of storytelling since the early days of written history. The Roman poet Ovid, for example, wrote an entire epic of 12,000 lines on the topic, called The Metamorphoses. Ovid’s first-century BCE tale begins:

My mind turns to tell of forms changed into new bodies. Gods, inspire my undertakings, for indeed you have changed them…[1]

Most of Ovid’s transformations are single events, often used to explain the creation of features in the natural world or landscape. Frequently the metamorphoses are punishments, accidents, or result from conflict. Sounds just right for a superhero origin story! Supes can change back and forth repeatedly, although he usually retains only a limited number of forms. Mark’s metamorphoses are potentially limitless; perhaps he’s less an Ovidian character and more like a Greek myth, such as Proteus, the sea spirit.

Proteus is an ancient deity who appears in the eighth-century BCE Iliad and the Odyssey. The god can change into any and all shapes (e.g., Odyssey 4.484: lion, serpent, leopard, boar, running water, tree).[2] What’s especially interesting is that we see him cycling through these forms in an effort to overcome enemies and those who desire to abuse him. Mark Meadows does the same, only transmuting from his hippie duderino state when there are enemies or major challenges to surmount. As with Proteus, change is central to his ace power and form.

I like especially that the first Mark story was called “Transfigurations” because that term implies something beyond just a change of form, but rather a transformation into something improved and more spiritual. In that story, Mark becomes not simply a nat, but an ace; not just a dork, but a hippie god. Mark will spend his life trying to obtain that more glorious state, but Milán hints that Mark actually reached it long ago. In Suicide Kings, the inner Mark Meadows floats in the air in lotus pose, practically an enlightened being from a purer realm. And at the end, Mark completes his transfiguration, by changing into who he always was: himself.

 

What about you all? What are you favorite characters or moments created by Victor Milán, and why?

[1] My translation. In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas) adspirate meis

[2] Homer says, “he will try everything that moves on the earth, and into water also, and a burning flame” (4.443-5, trans. Stanley Lombardo).

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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