At the end of last year, Hulu announced that they’ll be developing the Wild Cards series into a show (or two), sending fans into an excited furor. Over the years there’d been rumors about a show in the works, but nothing had ever come of it and many readers had given up hope. The Hulu news, then, seems like a dream come true. Never read the books? Here’s a Wild Cards primer for anyone new to the series, so you know what to expect when it hits the small screen…
Welcome back to the Wild Cards reread! We’re picking up with One-Eyed Jacks (Book VIII), which begins the third Wild Cards trilogy. Originally released in 1991, the Tor reprint comes out on August 7th with two new stories. As usual, separate authors wrote the individual chapters, which are tied together by a linking story. For the record, I’m reading this somewhat infamous trilogy for the first time (and I’m using the Tor reprint).
The action starts in 1988 and covers more than a year. The major plot thread is the “Jumper” storyline: A group has the power to jump into other people’s bodies to control, humiliate, and even murder them. These evil-doers also happen to be teenagers—it’s the 80s after all. Stranger Things, indeed.
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?
Published in 1990, Dead Man’s Hand was a bit unusual for the Wild Card series at the time, written by only two authors from the consortium, rather than five or more. Originally part of Ace in the Hole (WC VI), this murder mystery in NYC was separated out and given its own volume. It therefore follows the mosaic format, and in some places it retells scenes from Ace in the Hole using a different character POV.
Dead Man’s Hand follows two main characters, Jay “Popinjay” Ackroyd and Daniel “Yeoman” Brennan, written by George RR Martin and John Jos. Miller respectively. It takes place in New York City, where the two men dedicate their time to solving Chrysalis’ murder. Chronologically, it covers the same period as Ace in the Hole and follows the same organization. Each chapter takes place over a single day, broken up into hours, with the book spanning Monday (July 18, 1988) to Monday (July 25, 1988).
It is 1988, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Gregg Hartmann (Puppetman) is poised to take the presidential candidacy, if only he can defeat his main contender, the charismatic faith-healer Leo Barnett. Tachyon, Jack Braun (Goldenboy), Spector (Demise), Mackie Messer, and Sara Morgenstern all attempt to help or hinder his chances. Hartmann campaigns on a jokers’ civil rights platform, whereas Barnett aims to place wild carders into sanatoriums while medical science finds a cure for the virus.
Ace in the Hole was written in 1989. The third book in the second trilogy, it completes the arc begun with Aces Abroad and Down and Dirty. As usual in the Wild Cards world, the third book in each trilogy is the true mosaic novel; rather than chapters written by individual authors, the stories are woven together into one. Whereas the earlier mosaic novel (Jokers Wild) took place over a single day, with the hours of the day counted off, Ace in the Hole takes place over seven days. Each chapter is a single day, with the hourly time stamp provided.
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…
On the gorgeous cover of the newest Wild Cards novel, Mississippi Roll, a ghostly man pilots a wide ship’s wheel, his form ebbing away into tendrils like mist. Previously the captain of the steamboat Natzchez, the incorporeal man now haunts the ship’s decks and halls as it plies the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. In an inspired twist, the silent and otherwise unseen Wilbur Leathers can only manifest himself through steam.
The majority of Mississippi Roll takes place on the rivers, and most of the action occurs on the steamer itself. The story begins in New Orleans as the boat makes her way slowly northward, stopping at a variety of ports along the way. In addition to the crew, the Natchez is populated by passengers, entertainers, stowaways, and the odd raven. Bearing all the human drama playing out on her decks, the Natchez makes her way up to St. Louis, cuts back around the confluence into the Ohio River, and heads for Cincinnati and the Tall Stacks steamboat festival.
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.
When Dr. Tod condemned the world to the wild card virus in the 1940s, he did so miles above New York City. Some of the spores floated down to the city below, but a great deal was also carried along in the upper atmosphere to other parts of world. Every so often, over the years, outbreaks occurred when the virus turned on unsuspecting human populations. While urban NYC may seem like the center of the wild card story, the virus continued to transform the planet. Other major outbreaks occurred, such as the one at Port Said in 1948, among others. It is this reality we explore in Aces Abroad, the fourth Wild Card book.
Set in the year 1987, following the dramatic conclusion of the first wild cards trilogy, a number of American aces and jokers travel the globe as part of a UN and WHO junket led by Tachyon and Senator Gregg Hartmann. Their goal is to investigate the condition of wild carders in various cultural and geographic locales. Of course, while the plight of jokers is a major concern of the group, only a few jokers are represented on the tour, as Desmond is at pains to point out. Many of the characters we meet are brand-new; others are old pals.
Jokers Wild, the third volume in the Wild Cards series, covers a single day in New York City: September 15, better known as Wild Card Day. Like last month’s Memorial Day holiday in the U.S., Wild Cards Day began as one of remembrance. While Memorial Day initially arose as a patriotic Day of the Dead of sorts, when people decorated the graves of those who had died in the Civil War and later conflicts, on September 15 the Wild Cards world remembers those who gave their lives in an attempt to stop the attack, those who died in the streets, those rewritten by the virus, and those forever changed. As we see in Jokers Wild, however, the holiday is more than that. It is also a celebration of the many subcultures created by Dr. Tod’s attack, and the communities that developed in its wake. Nats might attend the parades, but foremost the day is about jokers, aces, and the victims of the black queen. The parades, parties, and memorials are put on by jokers and aces, with nats left to the sidelines. It is fitting, then, that the same can be said of the artistic representations described in the book.
In Jokers Wild, the authors include something of a meditation on images and artistic portrayals throughout the book. They provide us with a survey of four different sculptural and visual representations which exhibit wild card symbolism and meaning-making.
Time passes differently in the third volume of the Wild Cards series, Jokers Wild. The first book spanned decades, from the end of WWII to the 1980s. In the second book, time jumped back and forward, here and there, before mostly settling in for a two year stint. In Jokers Wild, the passage of time slows evermore, caught on a single day, with each chapter marking off the hours.
It’s Wild Card Day, 1986. Forty years have passed since the alien virus was released by human villain Dr. Tod. New York City celebrates, commemorates, and manages to barely escape yet another disaster, thanks to the post-virus villain the Astronomer. In his eyes, it’s Judgement Day. He plans to spend it murdering all the aces who opposed him at the Cloisters, before jetting off into the galaxy on a stolen spaceship. He sends forth his minions Demise and Roulette to kill various aces, but both are desperate to escape him and will turn on him in the end. By then, a slew of aces are dead (or presumed dead), including the Howler, the Turtle, and Modular Man.
In 1985, Earth is attacked by an alien horde, sent by a giant biomass floating through space that spawns tens of thousands of vicious children. In the Northeastern United States, wild carders help contain the horde’s first attack, although human casualties are high. Meanwhile, the arrival of the Swarm Mother is connected to a cult of Egyptian Freemasons controlled by wild card villains, headed by the reprehensible Astronomer; the members of this cult hope to bring the Swarm Mother to earth. You’d think things couldn’t get much worse, but suddenly the Takisians (the alien creators of the wild card virus) show up in the form of the Tisianne family. The good-guy wild cards must unite to fight off the Takisians, to overthrow the Masons, and ultimately to defeat the Swarm Mother by merging her with a more benign ace personality.
Aces High, the second Wild Cards novel, was published in 1987. The first book in the series related the origin and history of the wild card virus and provided worldbuilding via somewhat discreet stories covering a 40-year period. Aces High, in contrast, focuses on a unified storyline to which each author contributes, with many of the characters’ paths interwoven throughout. Nine authors wrote for the volume, which includes full chapters and interstitial segments to link them together.
Although it’s a superhero story in prose, the Wild Cards saga begins with nothing less than alien first-contact. In 1946, Tachyon lands on earth alone, desperate to stop the release of a gene-altering virus engineered by his family on the planet Takis. His failure allows the virus to fall into the hands of a pulp-worthy villain who carries it high above New York City. There, in a desperate and heart-stopping sky battle worthy of the best WWII flick, Jetboy attempts to stop the release of the alien biological toxin. The young fighter pilot gives his life in the attempt, but the virus is released in a fiery explosion six miles up, floating down to the city below and carried across the globe in the upper atmosphere’s winds. On that day in NYC, 10,000 people die.
The effects of the virus are immediate and devastating, exactly as its alien creators envisioned. Each person transformed by the virus responds in a completely unpredictable manner. What can be predicted, though, are the numbers: 90% of those affected will die horrifically, 9% are hideously transformed, and 1% gain spectacular powers. The arbitrary nature of the individual outcomes lead first-responders to nickname the virus the Wild Card, a metaphor applied to the victims as well. The majority who die draw the Black Queen; those who manifest the gruesome side effects are cruelly labeled Jokers; and the few graced with enviable powers are elevated to the designation Ace. Even the “natural” and unaffected themselves will bear the label “nats.”
The history of humankind changes on September 15, 1946, ever after known as Wild Card Day. This first installment in the Wild Card series covers the event and its aftermath, exploring the historical, social, and personal impact of that day. Although some of the action occurs on the West Coast, in D.C., and abroad, most of the events center on NYC. Each story recounts the experience of a nat, a joker, an ace, or the lone resident alien, beginning in 1946 and ending in 1986.
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