SFF Archaeology: Excavating the Superhero World of the Wild Card Series

Many superhero tales and urban fantasies take place in metropolitan environments, often sites of old settlements and with convoluted layers of material history. Such is the case in the Wild Card series, which primarily takes place in New York City, beginning in 1946. You might not know it, but in many cities across the United States, busy archaeologists are constantly at work. It’s especially true in the oldest cities, or those with a history of intense occupation, where layers of previous habitation exist beneath modern city streets.

In some parts of the world the archaeology of urban living is more visible, such as in Mesopotamia, where cities’ occupation layers rise up from the ground, one on top of another in archaeological formations called ‘tells.’ Excavations in heavily-developed modern cities, on the other hand, reveal pockets of archaeological evidence intermixed and cut through with more recent human activity. So, what would that look like in the New York of the Wild Cards universe, after the monumental, world-changing events of Wild Card Day? What would excavation tell future generations about the lives, deaths, and dire changes wrought by the actions of supervillains, heroes, and the regular people caught in the aftermath?

The vast majority of archaeological work in the U.S. falls under the designation Cultural Resources Management (CRM) and is brought about by federal and state organizations (National Park Services, Army Corp of Engineers) and private CRM firms.[1] Laws and regulations concerning cultural heritage fueled the rise of the CRM industry, most notably 1974’s “Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act” which sees to the preservation of archaeological heritage that would otherwise be destroyed by federally-funded construction projects. This means that a construction or infrastructure project must bring in archaeologists to evaluate its archaeological impact and to document any remains uncovered. Modern New York City rests above Native American sites and historic remains dating to the seventeenth-century Western colonization of the island. Construction and digging in the city continues, and there are multiple archaeology firms registered in the city (such as Chrysalis Archaeology, interviewed by Gizmodo here). Now, imagine these archaeologists digging up the superhero version of this already-rich setting…

Stratigraphy (archaeological layers) from Manhattan’s South Ferry Project.

In the first book of the Wild Card series, the events of Wild Card Day had a dramatic effect on the material culture and physical record of NYC. Disasters both natural and man-made tend to leave fairly obvious signifiers in the stratigraphy (archaeological layers) of urban environments: well-known examples include the San Francisco earthquake and fires, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Wild Cards’ description of September 15, 1946 indicates that the day’s events left notable clues in the material record: falling debris from an explosion above the city, multiple fires, countless car accidents, rioting, and mass causalities (especially wild card virus-related deaths, aka “Black Queens”). Wild Card Day resulted in particularly complex and varied human actions which would give modern NYC archaeologists a lot to sink their teeth into (or conversely, cause them lots of headaches).

Jetboy and Croyd Crenson’s stories (“30 Minutes Over Broadway” and “The Sleeper”) provide some of the best details relating to the widespread havoc that unfolded during Dr. Tod’s blimp attack and in the immediate aftermath. Fires appeared throughout the city, caused by Black Queen-related accidents and falling debris from the blimp’s explosion. Archaeologically speaking, destructive fires are one of the easiest historical events to identify. They leave behind layers of ash and charcoal, carbonized roof beams, melted glass and metal, and charred bones.[2] During the panic, as people tried to flee to the city’s bridges or died from the Black Queen, car accidents deposited wrecked vehicles, broken glass, metal, and plastic in the streets. Although the cars themselves would be removed later, the rest is not: four weeks afterwards, when he first wakes up as the Sleeper, Croyd sees debris clogging the gutters. NYC in the ‘40s had a relatively modern sewer system, but that doesn’t mean all that debris would disappear. Typically, archaeologists find extraordinary artifacts and remains in sewer systems, such as the cesspits of Victorian London or the volcano-covered drains of ancient Herculaneum. We can expect that an enormous amount of Wild Card Day debris made its way into older, clogged portions of the sewer system in NYC—and if not there, certainly into the rivers: in 1946, New York City still employed “combined sewers,” meaning that street gutters and untreated sewage lines ran together and frequently overflowed into NYC waterways (fun fact: it still happens today!). Artifacts would then settle into the muck of the banks and river beds.

As a consequence of the recently ended WWII, on Wild Card Day the city contained a slew of active military installations and batteries. Croyd hears the anti-aircraft guns targeting Dr. Tod’s blimp. The army sent a bevy of P-51 Mustangs (a prop plane) and a squadron of P-80 Shooting Stars (jet fighters) after the blimp. The Mustangs couldn’t keep up, but the P-80s and Jetboy’s JB-1 targeted Tod’s craft, firing 20mm cannons and 50mm caliber machine guns over the densely populated city. The lighter-than-air blimp was floating at 58,000 feet, however, high above their range. In order to drop some weight and gain some more altitude, Jetboy jettisoned his external fuel tanks, emptied his 20mm cannons, as well as his 50mm guns: “His tracers arced toward the target, then they too fell away.” (46)

In other words, what goes up must come down. Throughout WWII, falling shells, bullets, and flak fragments from anti-aircraft weapons and dogfights killed the very civilians that they were meant to protect. During Dr. Tod’s attack and the city’s attempt at defense, all of that artillery and metal came crashing back down to earth. In fact, the cop Francis O’Hooey commented, “I still say the Army oughta be sued ‘cause them Air Defense guys got so panicky they forgot to set the timers on them shells and I heard that some of them came down in the Bronx and blew up a whole block of apartments.”(47) Not only does massive damage of this sort alter urban stratigraphy, but archaeologists can trace the scatter pattern of bullets, flak, and weaponry which, in this case, should be spread throughout the city. (More on WWII archaeology and battlefield archaeology, and also here.)

Finally, Jetboy’s plane, the JB-1, and Dr. Tod’s blimp exploded above the city. All of that wreckage crashed upon the cityscape, leaving a debris field strewn all over downtown Manhattan. The burning ruin of the JB-1 received the most attention after the fact because it plummeted onto the old Hudson Terminal Building site.

Hudson Terminal Building (middle), 1907. Image from Columbia University’s Abandoned Stations project.

If it had been left in place, the damage would’ve been a major feature in the city’s later archaeological record, but the area was altered soon after. The spot had developed special significance and a commemorative monument was built, the construction of which no doubt obliterated most evidence of the actual destructive event. Clearing away the Hudson Terminal building and the construction of “Jetboy’s Tomb” probably disturbed earlier layers as well. The presence of the monument there meant that in the alternate history of Wild Cards NYC, there never was a World Trade Center. The events of September 11, 2001—with the terrorist attack on the city, the destroyed planes, and the damage to the WTC location—is a truly eerie parallel to the 1987 book. Nowadays, as skyscrapers get taller, their foundations get deeper, with the result that construction affects more archaeological remains. When Ground Zero was cleared and the foundations for its replacement, One World Trade Center, were sunk, CRM archaeologists discovered a wooden boat (sloop) that had been constructed around 1773. Buried at a depth of 20 feet below the present city surface, the boat had not been disturbed in the nearly 250 years since its deposition. In the Wild Cards world, that boat still rests undiscovered in its original stratigraphic context, beneath Jetboy’s Tomb.

The most notable impact on New York archaeology after September 15, 1946 was the dramatic change in the mortuary landscape. The wild card virus killed 10,000 people in those first few days. Croyd, then a 14-year-old boy, lost his dad that day and witnessed several grotesque deaths out on the streets. Many of the cases that he witnessed left no bodies at all, just as when Jack Braun (“Goldenboy”) sees a corpse disintegrating into a sewer drain. Nevertheless, statistically there must have been a huge number of bodies remaining that would be archaeologically attestable.

Archaeologists who study mass fatality events find that the dead regularly exemplify an entire cross-section of society, with bodies representing all ages, genders, races, etc. Often, the standard funerary apparatus cannot handle the sheer scope of the disaster; it is in situations of this sort that mass graves appear, as was seen after the 2004 tsunami in Asia. In other contexts, burial by the living is not possible, with bodies left where they lay, as at Pompeii or the newly excavated (and extremely disturbing) fifth-century town massacre in Sweden.

Most importantly, for archaeologists Wild Card Day would be an obvious terminus post quem (i.e., date after which), due to the sudden appearance of unusual human remains. Normally we find human and animal remains that can be explained through standard scientific explanations: by pathology, demography, trauma, or taphonomy (burial conditions). But no longer.

After September 15th, an unprecedented number of mutations appeared, with infinite varieties that disregard the normal laws of science and human physiognomy. The sheer number of physical changes and strange deaths that occurred would be distinctive, the bones (and any surviving soft tissue) unlike anything osteologists had seen before. In fact, it is likely that Wild Card Day had a major influence on the development of the archaeological sciences associated with the human body (especially given the necessity in identifying the wild card virus in forensic investigations of mass graves around the world, where jokers and wild carders were massacred or disappeared). Many ancient viruses can be identified archaeologically, so I wonder how well archaeologists can identify Xenovirus Takis-A. Is it preserved in the human body in the same way as terrestrial viruses?

In addition to the body itself, mortuary archaeologists consider how the body is treated or deposited. While the authorities or loved ones collected Black Queen bodies in impromptu morgues, it is likely that many corpses were never found or were purposefully abandoned. Victims of the virus fell in empty lots, on abandoned properties, in overgrown gardens, down sewer drains, in subterranean tunnels. These bodies were absorbed into NYC’s archaeological record through standard site formation processes.

The social and religious upheaval in the succeeding days no doubt disrupted traditional burial patterns that anthropologists and archaeologists document for previous periods. Why? First of all, the Black Queen altered, twisted, and hideously killed people, leaving behind nightmarish corpses. Some bodies were so changed by the virus that they were impossible to identify and were thus left unclaimed. The sheer number of deaths meant that some families may have ceased to exist entirely, with no loved ones alive to arrange traditional burial practices. For others, evacuation during Wild Card Day meant that some people probably escaped but never came back, and could not see to the bodies of their families. Saddest of all, living relatives who couldn’t accept the changes wrought by the virus rejected the bodies of their family members and refused to bury them. On Wild Card Day and the days immediately afterwards, when most people had no idea that an alien virus caused the deaths, those afflicted with the virus likely were placed into new categories and buried according to beliefs about religion and science (e.g., they were “demons” or victims of nuclear experimentation).

Second, the virus changed survivors, many of whom suddenly found themselves to be social outcasts, a new reality reflected in the social distinctions and civic organizations that typically influence burial patterns. The most obvious example was what we might call the new joker caste, with its New York City population clustered in Jokertown.

All of this no doubt impacted mortuary patterns. Archaeologists would be able to document a spike in paupers graves, unidentified burials outside of cemeteries, numerous mass graves, burials lacking the traditional evidence for funeral rites (such as memorialization, grave goods, etc.). New cemetery groupings would reflect post-wild card social organization and new factors for inclusion and exclusion. In the United States, burials are commonly clustered together by nuclear or extended family, religious affiliation, wealth, race, or participation in specific social units, such as the military. In Athens, Greece, for example, the famous First Cemetery contains burials belonging to the Greek Orthodox tradition, but a small walled-off section contains the graves of Protestants (including many foreign-born archaeologists and fantasy-author T.H. White). A famous case from NYC is the slave burial ground used throughout the 1700s and excavated by archaeologists in 1991. Segregation at the site was instituted following what has been called “mortuary apartheid”—in 1697 the city asserted that blacks could not be buried in Lower Manhattan church grounds.

In the Wild Cards world, segregated joker cemeteries do grow out of the social stigma associated with jokerhood. In Dead Man’s Hand, we learn that the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Misery maintains a churchyard for jokers. Worse, there will be a new social and cultural significance to joker corpses. Father Squid reveals “it has become something of a nat fad to acquire joker remains—bodies, skeletons, what have you—as conversation pieces” (WC VII, 37). It’s a grim future for victims of the wild cards virus, but one sadly rooted in historical realities. And one easily traced by future excavators.

Alternate histories and urban fantasy worlds change more than just past events and superpowers. All those vampires and aliens make an impact a city’s archaeological record, too. What other aspects of Wild Card Day do you think might be archaeologically-identifiable? Got examples from other super hero stories?


[1] Archaeology in NYC is managed by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. If you’ve an interest in NYC archaeological remains, check out their great site, the NYC Archaeological Repository. You can even nerd out with the City’s archaeological reports, which I’ll pretend contains many case-studies devoted to Wild Card-related events.

[2] The fire destruction layers at Bronze Age Troy are famous examples, but other details include: charred roofs and floors from London’s Great Fire; food storage vessels filled with carbonized seeds after Poggio Colla’s Hellenistic building burned down; church fires leave behind melted gold and silver blobs that used to be crosses and liturgical items, and their stained-glass windows explode from the heat (documented on multiple occasions from the Medieval period to the present); and so on.

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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