George R.R. Martin is the editor and grand overseer of the long-running sci-fi saga Wild Cards, but he’s only one of several writers who have contributed stories and characters to the novels through the years. Generally speaking, each author is the custodian of his or her own creations. However, not every author is featured in every book. This unique circumstance creates a narrative structure wherein various arcs and plot threads flow in, over, under and around other ones, the directional currents of the narrative decided in part by which writers have or have not contributed to a particular volume.
With roughly thirty novels in the saga, crafted by more than forty different authors over the course of nearly four decades, the narrative latticework that’s now in place has an almost crystalline beauty and complexity. The Wild Cards authors will often end up playing a very long game with the readers, planting seeds early on that can take years to finally flourish. When they do, it’s all the more satisfying for the wait.
Below are some of the most gratifying long-term payoffs in the Wild Cards saga—kept as spoiler-free as possible, of course.
Wall Walker and Mr. Gravemold
“Why would someone disguise himself as a joker?”
– Modular Man, in Volume 5: Down and Dirty
This essay gives a detailed account of Wild Cards’ premise, but here’s the very briefest of brief primers: The series is set in a world that is almost exactly like ours … except for the presence of an alien genetic virus, which has created a population that includes people blessed with superhuman powers (aces) or cursed with grotesque mutations (jokers). Got it? Good!
Wall Walker and Mr. Gravemold are a pair of characters who were first spotlighted by Walter Jon Williams in Down and Dirty. Walker is an ace with the ability to scale walls; Gravemold, a joker cursed with the stench of rotting corpses. Near the end of Dirty, a particularly discerning character, the android Modular Man, realizes something that no one else has: Walker and Gravemold are the same person. Mod Man wonders to himself as to the reason for this dual identity, but no answers are forthcoming.
When Williams finally gives us the answer in Jokertown Shuffle, the resulting narrative is not only delightful, but it also links up with a mysterious character who was only briefly name-checked back in Volume 1, tying all these threads together into an ingenious configuration.
The Black Dog and the Twisted Fists
“He wears a black canine mask on his ‘missions’ and to the press, Interpol, and the sundry factions that police Jerusalem, he is variously known as the Black Dog and the Hound of Hell.”
– Xavier Desmond, in Volume 4: Aces Abroad
The nickname “Black Dog” sounds almost fanciful, like the star character in a children’s cartoon. But as soon as this joker, the leader of an international terrorist group called the “Twisted Fists,” appears on the page, he exudes an incredible sense of danger and foreboding. He has only a single brief scene in Aces Abroad, but it’s brilliant. During a secret rendezvous with Xavier Desmond (the unofficial “mayor” of New York’s Jokertown), the Dog lays out his agenda in blunt, uncompromising terms. Then near the end of the exchange, he tells Desmond, “Pray that your Jokertown never needs the Twisted Fists. But if you do, we’ll be there.” From that moment, it’s clear to readers that the Dog and his organization will play a huge—and potentially devastating—role in future stories. As it turns out, though, those stories take quite some time to come to fruition. We meet one or two other Fists a bit later, but ultimately we don’t get a truly detailed look at the Dog and his organization until Black Trump. Eleven books is a long wait, but it’s well worth it, as Trump is one of the most thrilling entries in the entire series.
The John Fortune Prophecy
“We have waited a very long time … A little longer will not make a difference.”
– Anubis the jackal, in Volume 4: Aces Abroad
This one might be the most ambitious of any long game the Wild Cards authors have played over the years. It all starts on September 15, 1986, when Peregrine and Fortunato inevitably come together in flagrante (Jokers Wild). In January of 1987, Peregrine learns that she is now four months pregnant, and she’s still dealing with that news when a psychic Egyptian ace tells her that her son will be born “strong and healthy,” and gives her a mysterious amulet for the boy to be given “when he is old enough to wear it.” The reader is also told (though the boy’s mother is not) that there is even more to the Egyptian psychic’s vision of the future: a belief that Peregrine’s future son “will have the power to do great things” (Aces Abroad). It’s in May of 1987 that the baby is born (Down and Dirty). After that? Well, little John Fortune has a lot of growing up ahead of him, before anything can be done about this prediction. So we don’t really hear much more about it.
Until, at last, we come to Inside Straight, set in 2007. John is now twenty, and thus finally that old Egyptian prophecy is allowed to come to the forefront, and either be fulfilled or…not. The characters had to wait 20 years for the answer, and so did the readers! That’s such a long hiatus between setup and payoff, it borders on the perverse. More to the point, it’s miraculous that the authors could make it work, but they do: It may have taken two decades to load the bases, but Inside Straight is a grand-slam of a book.
Lookin’ for the Radical
“Then … his long quest for the Radical bore fruit. But like Cristoforo Colombo setting forth in 1492 …where he wound up wasn’t exactly where he intended to go …”
– narration, Volume 12: Turn of the Cards
Way back in Wild Cards, author Vic Milan introduces readers to ace Mark Meadows. It’s 1969, and Meadows is a brilliant chemistry student at Berkeley, fascinated by the effects of psychedelic drugs upon the mind. Alas, he’s too afraid to actually try psychedelics himself, until one fateful day in the spring of 1970 when the ingestion of a single LSD tablet triggers his ace ability. His own personality and body go whirling away, apparently replaced by an idealized hippie warrior known only as “the Radical.”
The next day, the Radical disappears and Mark returns with a gap in his memory and a lot of questions in his mind. Was he the Radical? Can he ever know for sure? He takes more illicit chemicals, attempting to transform again, but nothing happens.
When next we see Mark in Aces High, it’s now 1986. He’s still “lookin’ for the Radical,” to no avail…but his 16-year search hasn’t exactly failed to bear any fruit whatsoever. Rather, Mark has discovered five other superhuman personae within himself, all of whom can be accessed by various chemical compounds. These five “friends” are each incredibly formidable in a myriad of ways, and yet Mark never stops yearning to re-become the Radical – that pure, iconic hero of the Love Generation.
I’ve no wish to spoil exactly when or how this thread pays off, because it’s a fantastic moment when it unfolds, but suffice to say that the reality of it is a little different from Mark’s idealized memories. As for the ever-present existential tension between Mark and the Radical, it isn’t fully resolved until Suicide Kings. From Vol. 1 to Vol. 20 is quite an extended stretch for one character arc, probably the largest for any single recurring figure in Wild Cards. But Mark is a fantastic creation–my personal favorite, in fact–so it seems only fitting that his complex and fascinating psychology was examined at such epic length.
Patty, John and Evan
“What are we going to do, Evan?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
– Patty and Evan, in Volume 21: Fort Freak
Author Stephen Leigh has created some very tragic jokers over the years, and his vivid prose is phenomenally effective in making the reader feel their tragedy on a truly visceral level. Perhaps the most painfully brilliant example is the Oddity, a hulking, misshapen figure that resulted from three individual humans being fused together by the wild card virus into a single mass.
They are Patty, John and Evan–all three of whose personalities are still separate and aware within the body of the creature known as Oddity. And none of those three are immune to the unending pain of the Oddity’s ongoing physical transformations. It’s as if all three of the joker’s original bodies are constantly jockeying for dominance, which keeps their physical form in a state of perpetual flux: organs, bones, muscles, etc., constantly twisting into new shapes.
The threesome are first introduced as a supporting character in Down and Dirty, and it isn’t until One-Eyed Jacks that Leigh offers a peak at what life is like from the Oddity’s point of view. The personalities extant within the joker are depicted in a hierarchy of interchangeable positions which they call Dominant/Sub-Dominant/Passive. Once their story in One-Eyed Jacks is concluded, we feel as though we know Patty, John and Evan rather well, and we very much want to find out how their tragic existence is ultimately going to play out.
That conclusion is, rightly, deferred. In Fort Freak, Leigh takes the readers back inside the Oddity’s mind, about twenty years after our first visit. At this point, the Oddity has reached the twilight of their shared existence. The hierarchy within their three-sided psyche is becoming untenable, and they know that something has to be done. What they ultimately decide leads to a conclusion that is haunting, sad, and nightmarish. But it’s also—somehow, paradoxically—almost beautiful; all the more so because so much time went by before this ending came to pass.
The First Ace
“I was already an ace. Even before the Four Aces.”
“There were no aces before the Four Aces.”
– Magpie and Slim Jim, in Volume 21: Fort Freak
The wild card virus exploding over New York City in 1946 was the fault of not just the Takisians—the extra-terrestrials who created the germ—but also of a Nazi war-criminal called Dr. Tod, who released it on September 15, 1946. In the wake of what was later dubbed “Wild Card Day,” a quartet of American aces rose to prominence, and were gathered together to perform acts of heroism on the world stage. Over the course of the decades since, it became conventional wisdom amongst historians that these “Four Aces” were the very first aces, ever.
However, a careful reading of the very first story in Wild Cards by Howard Waldrop features a striking detail, in a sequence that sees Tod employing laboratory scientists to test the virus’ effects, several weeks before the first fateful “Wild Card Day.” When people inside the lab are accidentally exposed, most of them die instantly while one becomes horrifically mutated– thus adhering to the writers’ long-established statistical model of wild card infection (within any given population, 90% of carriers are killed, 9% become jokers, and 1% become aces).
But there’s a mention of one other person from the lab, who simply vanished without a trace. Obviously it’s possible that this person spontaneously disintegrated–the wild card virus affects each infected person in a unique manner, and instant dissolution is not unheard of. But I can remember discussing this detail with a fellow WC fan decades back, and him asking if perhaps that vanished person was “the first ace?”
In Fort Freak, we finally meet that missing Dr. Tod employee, in a story penned by Kevin Andrew Murphy, who was clearly thinking along lines similar to my pal. That’s the Wild Cards saga in a nutshell: a character can vanish in Vol. 1, and then not reappear until Vol. 21, more than two decades later.
“Jack Braun. Thomas Tudbury. Nephi Callendar. A lot of names…”
“What do you plan to do?”
– Blowjob and Needles, in Volume 15: Black Trump
Zoe “Blowjob” Harris is an ace who seems to have her head on fairly straight when we meet her in Marked Cards. But over the course of the following volume, 15: Black Trump, she endures some pretty heavy trauma. Physically, she comes through those trials intact, but her dialogue suggests that, mentally, she might be suffering. The epilogue to Trump depicts Zoe swearing revenge on a list of aces who had, essentially, nothing to do with the cause of all her troubles.
It was an intriguing cliffhanger, but the quirks of Wild Cards publishing history are such that Black Trump was followed by a long hiatus. By the time the books were back to a more regular publication schedule courtesy of new publisher Tor, it’s quite possible that author Sage Walker, the creator of Zoe, had decided that her threats of vengeance had become passé. And yet, the loose thread still dangled.
Walker’s solution was to team with fellow WC author Carrie Vaughn for this story, which takes the wind out of Blowjob’s grand plans for payback, and guides the character to a gentler, wiser course of action. It’s the sort of swerve that would have seemed anticlimactic if it had come hard on the heels of the original cliffhanger; but with the benefit of time and perspective, this measured continuation of the ending of Vol. 15 feels balanced, mature…and just plain right.
The Werewolf of London
“His head had been thrown back as he howled the final verse of ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ the cords in his neck straining and popping…”
– narration, Volume 27: Knaves Over Queens
This is a minor one, and I’ve already talked about it before. Here I go again, I suppose because I find it so endlessly charming. It all starts with a line tossed out by Milan in the aforementioned Mark Meadows story from 1: Wild Cards, referring to Mick Jagger being “arrested for lycanthropy.”
The image of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as a werewolf is so weird and wonderful that I always wished we could see it play out explicitly on the page, beyond Milan’s casual aside. So thanks be to Caroline Spector, who gives Mick a walk-on part in Knaves Over Queens. The scene is all-too brief, and the story context requires that Mick’s transformation be low-key…but it’s still great when it happens; a treat for the long-time fans who recall the original reference.
The Queen Mary Outbreak
“The crewman pulled back, his torso telescoping as well, spiring taller and taller like a ship’s mast, until it towered over the smokestacks of the Queen Mary herself, his back braced against the wall of the promenade, his feet against the railing, as he hauled the drowning man onto the deck. James coughed up water, but did so quickly, seeing as he had three heads.”
– narration, Volume 27: Knaves Over Queens
The first Wild Cards volume is incredibly packed, and not only in terms of story content. The book also features cleverly written appendices filled with alternate historical details and pseudo-science pertaining to the Takisian virus; i.e., the plot device upon which the saga’s entire premise relies. The appendices are mostly in the interest of increasing the sense of verisimilitude, but they also plant a lot of intriguing story possibilities, for potential harvest by the authors later on down the line.
One such seed is the mention of a wild card outbreak on a British ship, the Queen Mary, in the mid-Atlantic in 1946, only two days after the virus first exploded over New York City. It sounds like grist for a great tale, but over the years it served instead simply as a minor historical (that is to say alternate-historical) detail.
That’s until Kevin Andrew Murphy decided to make the Queen Mary his narrative playground in the very first story of Knaves Over Queens. Since nothing had been established about exactly who was aboard the ship when the outbreak occurred, the entire incident represents a blank canvas, and Murphy fills it with a grand tapestry of colorful characters and surprising story turns. The tale is a tour de force, making the most of its premise and more than living up to all the potential of an idea first teased by the authors thirty-one years earlier.
The Origin of Sybil
“‘Ice Blue Sybil,’ everyone called her. She never called herself anything. She never spoke at all, and no one knew how much she understood except, perhaps, Dr. Pretorius.”
– narration, Volume 21: Fort Freak
Finally, there’s the curious case of Ice Blue Sybil—the strange, silent, cerulean-hued girl who first showed up as the companion of an ace named “The Professor.” Sibyl and the Professor’s names are dropped during a scene in Jokers Wild, at a dinner party filled with dozens and dozens of ace characters—some of them significant, others just window dressing. In that context, Sibyl and the Prof suggest the latter, with no sense that we’re meant to think about them for more than a second.
Indeed, when Sybil reappears years later in One-Eyed Jacks, while her appearance seems to match the earlier description from Jokers Wild, there is no mention of any “Professor.” Instead, she is now the companion – the legal ward, in fact – of a joker lawyer named Henrik Pretorius. She’s an enigmatic figure, a living blue mannequin who projects a constant aura of cold; she never speaks, nor evinces any kind of facial expression. There is clearly a story to be told here, but at this point in the chronology, no one is telling.
Pretorius and Sibyl all but vanish from the series then, and the latter’s enigmatic origin would seem to be a dropped thread…until, surprisingly and wonderfully, the two characters return in Cherie Priest’s fantastic interstitial narrative for Fort Freak. There’s even a sense that Sibyl’s tale will finally come to light before Freak concludes, but…no, the writers hold back once again, fiendishly.
Then at last we come to Joker Moon, an anthology whose overarching story is mostly self-contained, but which is also crammed with lots of clever allusions to previous WC lore. Amongst Moon’s many marvelous offerings is “Fatal Error,” the last bit of Wild Cards writing produced by the late, great Vic Milan, who first created Sybil. Between him and John Jos. Miller, who completed work on “Error” after Milan passed, the complete origin of Ice Blue Sybil at last is revealed. Brilliantly, we not only learn who she really is, but we also get the lowdown on that “Professor” character—the one who got only that single mention twenty-six books ago before seeming to vanish from the canon!
What an incredible narrative coup. I can’t think of anything else quite like it; and only the longitudinal storytelling of Wild Cards made it possible.
So there you have it—some of my favorite examples of the Wild Cards authors making the absolute most of the adage “Patience is a virtue.” If they can continue to deliver goods that are this great, then personally I’m happy to continue being virtuous.
Next time: A list of the long-running story threads whose payoffs I’m STILL (patiently!) waiting for…
Jason Powell is the author of The Best There Is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and of several original musicals and operas. His sci-fi musical Invader? I Hardly Know Her, was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2010. On YouTube he calls himself The Man in Orange, and performs various original songs about topics such as Chris Claremont and Wild Cards (go figure). You can hear his tunes at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrDooteronomy.