When you've been infected with the Wild Card virus, everyday can be a burden -- but sometimes, you've got to make the Hard Call.
Examining a world of superpowered "aces" and deformed "jokers," George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards series has enjoyed a long run of prose novels, with ordinary people having their lives suddenly and irrevocably changed. With the series getting the comics treatment in 2008 with Dabel Brothers, Wild Cards: The Hard Call will conclude its long-awaited run with Dynamite Entertainment in May. With new aces Alex and Simon teaming up with the multipowered antihero known as the Sleeper to find a stealth killer of all things Wild Card, Newsarama caught up with Wild Cards creator George R.R. Martin and series writer Daniel Abraham to talk a little bit about the series, what it was like to change publishers, and what's next for this all-too-human universe. Read on, and enjoy this exclusive first look at interiors from the long-awaited issue.
Newsarama: George, for those who aren't familiar with the books, could you tell us a little bit about what the world of Wild Cards is, and how you ended up creating it?
George R.R. Martin: Wild Cards is a shared world anthology series set in an alternate universe in which superpowers exist, thanks to an alien virus released over New York City in 1946 that rewrites the genetic code of its victims to create both deformed “jokers” and superpowered “aces.” The first Wild Cards book, Wild Cards, was published in 1987 by Bantam. The latest, Suicide Kings, came out in December. There have been twenty volumes in the series to date, featuring stories by more than thirty different writers.
The world and series had its roots in a role-playing game that I ran for a group of writer friends back in the early '80s. The group included Melinda Snodgrass, John Jos. Miller, Victor Milan, and Walter Jon Williams, among others. They were a very creative bunch who came up with some great characters, but the game became such an obsession that it was eating up our lives. Mine especially. So finally I said, “There has to be some way to make some money off this,” and hit on the idea of the shared world. Numerous brainstorming sessions followed, in the course of which I reached out to other writer friends I knew to be comics fans, including Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Edward Bryant, Stephen Leigh, and Howard Waldrop, and brought them aboard as well. It was Melinda Snodgrass who came up with the notion of the wild card virus as a single root cause for all our aces, rather than the hodgepodge of miscellaneous origins (aliens, gods, radioactive spiders, stray lightning bolts, etc) you found in the existing comic universes. Once we had settled on a retrovirus, the jokers were a logical extrapolation… but a fortuitous one. Jokertown soon became our most iconic and unique location. Howard Waldrop insisted that his story had to take place in 1946, which is why the first book became a historical… another happy accident, since it allowed us to give our universe a backstory.
Nrama: Now, you've been the mastermind behind Wild Cards since 1987 -- so you've been ruminating about superheroes for years. To you, what do you feel you've learned -- either about the genre or the tropes or even the idea of "superheroism" -- in the time you've been working on Wild Cards?
Martin: Actually I started as a comics fan, way back in the early '60s, so my ruminations about superheroes long predate Wild Cards. My earliest fiction was published in comics fanzines, so in a sense Wild Cards represented a return to my roots, albeit from a more adult perspective.
We have never actually used the word “superhero” in Wild Cards. Our aces may have 'powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men,' but very few of them are the sort of professional heroes you come across in comics. They're ordinary men and women, flawed and human, who have been gifted with extraordinary abilities. The impact that those abilities have on their lives and on the world at large is the focus of our stories. You have to ask yourself, “How would my life change if tomorrow I woke up with a superpower? What would I do?” The answer to that, seventy years of comic books notwithstanding, is almost never, “I would dress myself in spandex and go out to fight crime.”
Nrama: Daniel, for you, what's the appeal of a story like Wild Cards?
Daniel Abraham: The Wild Cards universe has always been appealing to me because of the incredible variety of stories that it invites. Before I found Wild Cards (which was, admittedly a long damn time ago), I'd read superhero comics (X-Men, Moon Knight, etc.) and critiques of superhero comics (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns), but Wild Cards was the first time I really saw a superhero universe that was built to accommodate stories that were about . . . well, anything, just with superheroes.
Nrama: George, you really pioneered this idea of the "realistic" superhero universe, long before books and shows like Rising Stars, Supreme Power and Heroes ever came into being. For you, what do you feel sets Wild Cards apart from the pack?
Martin: Yes, the whole “dark, gritty, realistic superheroes” thing began with Wild Cards and Watchmen and Dark Knight. (Watchmen and Wild Cards even competed for the same Hugo in 1988. Which Watchmen won, deservedly). These days that approach seems to dominate the comics field, but we were where it all began, a quarter century ago.
One thing that sets Wild Cards apart from all these other “gritty, realistic” universes is our medium. While we have had some comics adaptations, The Hard Call being the latest, Wild Cards was born as a series of books, not comics, and the overwhelming majority of our stories have been told in prose. Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course. Comics, as a visual medium, lends itself to colorful costumes, flamboyant action sequences, and larger than life characters who look very cool in those skin-tight costumes. Prose allows greater depth of characterization, internal monologue, action that is just as vivid but more visceral and real. Very few of our characters wear costumes. If you lined up two dozen random aces next to two dozen denizens of the Marvel or DC universes, you would be instantly struck by how ordinary the aces appear. No matter how awesome their abilities, they're still just regular people. The ability to fly does not necessarily mean you won't be bald or pot-bellied; being able to shoot energy beams from your hands won't give you a bodybuilder's physique or gigantic watermelon breasts. But however ordinary they are on the outside, our characters have an internal depth that you can only get from prose.
Another thing that sets Wild Cards apart, I think, is the fact that we have had a single consistent continuity from the very start. If I may be permitted a fanboy moment here, as an old time comics reader, there is nothing that enrages me more than the endless retcons, reboots, and continuity changes that the majors have inflicted on all their characters over the past quarter century. As a reader, I feel cheated when stories, events, and characters I read about and perhaps cared about are suddenly retroactively swept away by some new writer or mega-event. That will never occur in Wild Cards, not as long as I am the editor. The things that happen in our stories will never un-happen.
Abraham: Two major things. First, there's the multiplicity of voices. Wild Cards is first and foremost a shared world. I don't know how many people are in the consortium, but it's designed so that a lot of different people have created characters and stories in the world, and what's more, we get rewarded for having the characters interact in meaningful ways. At its best, it winds up being more than the sum of its parts.
The other thing is the jokers. When the Wild Cards universe got made, it wasn't just our world with some extra powerful people, it was our world with extra powerful people, a whole new class of deformed outcasts, and a whole lot of dead folks. The jokers don't get a lot of attention, but they're the grotesques that are really at the heart of the universe.
Nrama: Is there a particular favorite story you've read in the the Wild Cards universe, either one that you have written or one that was created by one of your colleagues?
Martin: That's like asking a parent to name their favorite child. They all have favorites, of course, but you're not supposed to admit it.
Speaking only of my own contributions, I am very fond of all the characters I've created for the series, but the single piece of writing I like best is my interstitial story in book four, Aces Abroad, “The Journal of Xavier Desmond.” If the series continues, I really want to write about my Hoodoo Mama character, who so far has appeared only a guest star in stories by other writers. It's a question of finding the time.
I will also confess that I have always loved the stories Roger Zelazny wrote about Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper. I only wish that Roger was still with us, and writing more of them. But over the twenty-odd years of its existence, Wild Cards has published a lot of great stuff, and I am proud of all of it.
Abraham: As far as the novels, I've always admired Walter Jon Williams' short story “Witness” from the first volume. It was a brilliant piece of work, and it told one of the basic stories of the Wild Card world. Golden Boy is right behind Croyd Crenson as a Wild Cards icon. Sort of our Batman and Superman.
Nrama: Were there any characters that really surprised you, in terms of where they ended up?
Martin: The Sleeper is always a surprise. Roger Zelazny created the perfect shared world character in Croyd, one who fits in almost any storyline, and always got a kick out of seeing how the others writers used him. So do I. Gregg Hartmann, created by Steve Leigh, also had a fascinating arc full of unexpected twists and turns, a long strange voyage from book one to book fifteen during which the character never stops changing and evolving. My own guy, the Great and Powerful Turtle, also had an interesting trip, I would like to think. But Wild Cards is full of great characters.
Nrama: Daniel, in terms of this series, you've introduced a number of people -- Alex, Simon and Kira, which you've placed alongside long-time Wild Card Croyd Crenson -- can you walk us through how you put these characters together?
Abraham: Hard Call isn't the first Wild Cards comic book. There was a series from Epic back in the day that tried to recapture the shared world sense of the books by having multiple storylines and even artists, it didn't translate as well as we'd hoped. When I put together the Hard Call, I wanted to have a both a distance from the books and a clear connection to them. So what I wound up with was a lot of new characters -- Simon, Alex, Kira -- who were there to tell the story I was looking at, and also the once real iconic voice of the classic Wild Cards. Croyd Crenson -- The Sleeper -- is the closest thing that Wild Cards has to a unifying figure. He's been around since the start, and he's been involved in almost all the major plotlines. Having him was a great way to reference the whole background of the books, and also contrast the profoundly ambivalent nature of heroism in Wild Cards with the relatively simplistic view that we - and Alex, Simon, and Kira - bring to the story.
Nrama: Daniel, you've worked primarily in novels prior to this series. For you, what sorts of skills did you bring with you from that format that you feel helped you write the Hard Call? And on the other side of that, what is the key difference you see between comics and novels?
Abraham: The thing that translates best, I think, is the sense of building a long, multi-issue arc. Novels are great training for how to set up promises early and answer them late, and hopefully with a sense of finality.
That said, comic books and prose are wildly different forms. In prose, dialog is action. In comics, it's deadly slow. In comics, you can give information visually. In prose, you have to describe all the visuals in words. In prose, the writer is the final word. In comics, the impact and storytelling is all necessarily collaborative. The list goes on forever.
Nrama: George, are there any funny or profound stories you've had while working on the Wild Cards universe? Or, on the other hand, is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
Martin: We've made a few mistakes along the way, sure. Looking back, there are a few plotlines that did not work out as well as we had hoped they might. No, I won't say which. It seemed like a great idea at the time, is all I can say. Overall, though, I don't think there is any other shared world that can touch Wild Cards for consistent quality over a long period of time, which may be why we're still going strong and the rest of them are not.
Nrama: For Hard Call, Daniel Abraham and Eric Battle have been hard at work putting the series together. How did you meet Daniel?
Martin: I first met Daniel Abraham when he volunteered to help out at the 1998 Nebula Awards banquet in Santa Fe, which I chaired and organized. Later that year he was one of my students at the Clarion West writer's workshop in Seattle, where I quickly recognized how much talent he had.
Nrama: What has the collaboration been like between you three?
Martin: The Hard Call is all Daniel and Eric. Aside from making the original deal with the Dabel Brothers and approving some of Daniel's original concepts and characters, my involvement was peripheral.
Nrama: What do you feel Daniel and Eric bring to the table?
Nrama: Daniel, what about you? What's it been like to work with the godfather himself? What has that been like? How has he impacted your work? Are there any lessons you've learned by working with him?
Abraham: Well, if you want to talk about the ways I've worked with George, there's actually a line. First, he was my instructor at Clarion West. Then we've also collaborated with Gardner Dozois on the novella Shadow Twin and it's novel form rewrite Hunter's Run. From a purely technical point of view, George has taught me a lot about the craft part of writing, including the parts where I disagree with him. But he's also shown me a lot about the higher-level games of working with other people and how you go about creating a narrative out of bits and pieces. He's famous as a writer, but he's also a hell of an editor.
Nrama: There was a brief Wild Cards run done by Marvel in the 1990s -- how do you feel that the approach then differs from the approach you've taken today?
Martin: From the first, there's always been a basic question about how best to bring Wild Cards to comics -- do we just adapt the stories from the books, or do we create new, original stories set within the Wild Cards universe?
With the Epic series, we tried to do it both ways, by having a series of short origin stories adapted from the books set within an original frame story. Lewis Shiner wrote the frame story and was point man on the project, and he also tried to recreate the mosaic structure of the books by having each writer script the flashback scenes for his own character, and changing artists each time the viewpoint changed. In theory, that sounded cool. In practice, maybe not so much. Some of the artists had very different styles, and the changes could be jarring.
With The Hard Call, Daniel took a completely different approach. This is an original story, with original characters, not an adaptation of anything from the books. And the art is all by Eric Battle, first issue to last, something I insisted upon after our experience with Epic.
Nrama: Let's talk a little bit about Eric. What's been your back and forth with him? What about him do you like so much?
Abraham: One of the things that we were really lucky with on Hard Call was the chance to choose the artist from among some very good people. Ultimately, we went with Eric because he was so good with facial expressions. There are some sections of Hard Call that rely on his ability to show what people are feeling and thinking without the words saying it. The production of the project has been rocky at times - as evidenced by the long gap between the fifth issue and the last - and Eric has stuck with it. I was a little worried that the art would shift between the first issue and the last, even if only as a result of the intervening time, but Eric has kept the continuity beautifully.
Nrama: Now, it's been a long time coming for this sixth issue, with Wild Cards making the move from Dabel Brothers to Dynamite. Could you guys tell us a little bit about what happened on your end, and how you feel things are different between Dabel and your current publisher?
Martin: My novella “The Hedge Knight” was the first major property the Dabel brothers acquired, so I've been working with them for a long time. Creatively, they have always been great. They've put me together with some terrific talents, like Ben Avery (scriptor) and Mike S. Miller (artist) who did the two Hedge Knight comics, and Eric Battle on The Hard Call. I like Les and Ernst and their brothers personally, and there's no doubt that they produce some beautiful comics.
But it's hardly a secret in the industry that the Dabels have never been able to get the business side of their business to run smoothly. At various times they have been partnered with Image, Devil's Due, Marvel, and Del Rey, but all those relationships have ended badly, and there have been constant problems with cash flow, late payments, deadlines, schedules, etc. All of my projects with DBPro have been troubled at times, and have sometimes suffered long delays between issues as a consequence, but with The Hard Call the breakdown threatened to become terminal, and there were periods when Daniel and I both feared that the story would never be completed.
Abraham: Thankfully, Dynamite stepped in, and to date they have done a wonderful job of putting things to right and getting the project moving again. I hope the partnership endures, and allows the Dabel brothers to do the things that they do well, while Dynamite runs the business side of things and handles all the things that DBPro did so poorly.
I was as surprised by the transition as anyone. I had no idea it was going to happen. I have to say that my experience with Dynamite has been excellent. They've been supportive and engaged, and gone out of their way to make the communication with all of us straightforward and professional. I've worked with a couple other outfits one time and another. Dynamite is right up there on top.
Nrama: Going back to an earlier question a bit, about setting stories apart -- we've discussed how Wild Cards is different from its contemporaries, but how is Hard Call different from the other Wild Cards stories, aside from its comic book setting? What were the goals you set for yourself for this story -- and do you think you've reached them?
Abraham: When we went in to plot out Hard Call, I spent a lot of time talking with George about the kinds of stories that Wild Cards lends itself to. The one that I never remembered seeing addressed head-on was the survivor guilt story. So my goal was to write a story that was both an introduction to the universe for folks who haven't read the books, and also a believable story about one guy's sense that his survival in the face of all the death and suffering around him must have meaning. I wanted to tell a story that had the darkness and grittiness that's fairly classic Wild Cards, but that was also small and personal like Demo and the best of Astro City. All in all, I'm pleased with how it's come out.
Nrama: George, Dynamite's sixth issue of The Hard Call is billed as the last in the series; additionally, you came out with your most recent prose book, Suicide Kings, in December of 2009. For those who have been following the series, we have to ask -- are there any plans for more Wild Cards stories, either in novels with Tor or comics with Dynamite? Or are you finally cashing in your chips with this last series?
Martin: No, not at all. Suicide Kings was volume twenty in the book series. Volume twenty-one, Fort Freak, is almost complete as I write. I hope to be able to deliver it within the month, for publication some time in 2011. Tor is also making plans to reissue some of the original series. The first volume, Wild Cards, will be released this November with three additional stories, brand new and original to this edition. As for more comics, yes, we'd love to do more. Not a continuation of The Hard Call per se, but other stories of other characters within the Wild Cards universe.
Wild Cards has been going for more than twenty years, and I'd love to see it last for another twenty.
Nrama: Daniel, for those who are still on the fence about Hard Call, what would you tell them? Are there any teases or moments you're excited to see hit the page?
Abraham: I've only recently seen the pencils for the climactic showdown in the last issue. It delights me every time I see it. There are some role reversals in it that are, I think, among the most personally pleasing I've pulled off in my career.