Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Before he became mega-famous as the creator of A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy mega-series that spawned HBO's Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin was probably best known as the creator and editor of the "Wild Cards" shared anthology super-hero series.

The "Wild Cards" books grew out of a super-hero role-playing game Martin enjoyed with his friends, several of whom were authors. In 1987, they capitalized on two hot science fiction and fantasy trends: shared-world anthologies and grim-n-gritty superheroes to publish the first "Wild Cards" book, a collection of 20 or so short stories by several different authors, called Wild Cards. Aces High and Jokers Wild followed in the same year and the series was off.

Martin and his co-authors created a world in which an alien mutagenic virus was released in Earth in 1946. All but 10% of the people infected with it die. Of the remainder, 9% are transformed to some degree, often substantially and hideously, into "Jokers." The last 1% develop superhuman abilities that they use either to benefit humanity or perhaps just themselves, and are called "Aces." The series will later introduce a scattering of folks who gained some minor ability who are called "Deuces."

The series has gone through four publishers since 1987 and is now 22 books and several stories long. Universal Cable Productions, sensing that Martin's name on top of a product might be a good way to make money, has signed up to develop a television series based on the books. Miller's deal with HBO is exclusive, meaning he can't work on the "Wild Cards" series. But he can cash the checks, and it's highly likely that Melinda Snodgrass, the original assistant editor of the "Wild Cards" series, has taken on the lion's share of the work in recent years anyway. She's been signed by Universal to help work up the show.

Even though Martin's name has been a license to print money for HBO and Bantam Spectra, there's no guarantee that "Wild Cards" will work the same magic for Universal. I read the series up through book 15 or 16, when publishing rights woes made them harder to track down and I lost the thread by the time they came back into a more regular schedule. Also, the concept focuses on a super-hero universe "as large and diverse" as Marvel and DC, Martin said, "though somewhat grittier, and considerably more realistic and more consistent." What "grittier," "considerably more realistic" and "more consistent" turned out to mean, of course, was words Superman never thought about saying and lots of sex.

Gritty may have been edgy in the comic-book world of 1987, with stories like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns just breaking onto the scene. It's not anymore. Placing super-powered beings in a more realistic setting may have broken some ground at the time, but since then there have been tons of comic book series that worked along the same lines -- and often much better, such as Kurt Busiek's Astro City or Mark Waid's Irredeemable. The Marvel Comics "Ultimates" line operated in the same vein and formed the basis for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that's helped make super-hero movies the mint they've become. Working from them Marvel's television division has explored both dimensions -- grit and realism -- in Daredevil and Jessica Jones. NBC's Heroes tried to explore these ideas as well, before its storylines lost focus and fizzled out.

The niche that "Wild Cards" moved into during the late '80s and '90s is now a crowded one, which means any success it will have will come from the storylines themselves. I've reread a couple of the earlier books recently, and while some of those hold up better than others, almost all of them show their age. The "Wild Cards" universe has a long buildup -- the first three books moved it from the late 1940s into then-present-day 1988 or so. Weaving their aces and jokers into the real world events of the 1950s, 60s and 70s was an essential part of getting to that present day, though, so showrunners will have trouble laying their foundation work for their universe without taking some time to slog through the history.

So the developers will have to contend with the reality that, especially today, "Wild Cards" is nothing special. But then, a clear-eyed look at Martin's prose style and inability to discipline his own narrative in the ever-increasing A Song of Ice and Fire series shows much the same thing, and that one turned into a hit. If Universal Cable relies on the same basics HBO did -- George R. R. Martin's name and naked people -- then it just might be able to do the same.


Todd Bergman said...

I remember haring about WildCards around the time they were coming out, but never got into them. Now that I am DMing games and building worlds, I need to check them out. Even if they don't hold up, they may still be fodder for game stuff.

Friar said...

It was really good in its time and really did break some ground. But that ground has been broken for awhile now, which is why I think the series won't go far.