Monday, February 13, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 1

The first Wild Cards book, and not incidentally my favorite so far, is ironically one of the ones I read most recently.  Unlike most of the other books in the series, the first book is almost entirely set-up and therefore, is not as concerned with running plot threads. It's mostly about introducing the characters and getting things set up for the next book in the series.

A warning: Because this book sets up so much of the rest of the series, it is impossible to discuss large potions of it without spoilers. I am going to attempt to do this while giving away as little as possible. Also because a lot of the stories work as  character introductions, I am giving a lot of the pieces more analysis than I would otherwise. This means book one will be split up into multiple posts.

The "heroes" of Wild Cards tend to be an erratic bunch. Though capable of genuine heroism, they are  also largely neurotic, self-destructive, and sometimes plain unlikable. Nor are all of them crime fighters, although most of the Aces are at least part-time adventurers, if only to keep up appearances. Although they are often drawn into conflict, many of the "heroes" choose to use their powers in other ways.  For instance,  Dr. Tachyon, the character who is arguably the protagonist of the first ten books in the series (as much as Wild Cards can be said to have protagonist), is a medical doctor who occasionally forays into fighting criminals and aliens.

Dr. Tachyon is introduced in the prologue material that is found to the first volume (brilliantly presented  as a pastiche of the writing of Studs Terkel).  Tachyon is an alien Takisian and one of the designers of the Wild Card virus. He arrives on Earth with good news and bad news: On one hand, he has successfully stopped his fellow Takisians from dropping the virus on Earth. The bad news is, in the process, five canisters containing the virus have been lost somewhere in the United States.
This leads to the first story in the book "Thirty Minutes over Broadway! Jetboy's Last Adventure!" Jetboy is Robert Tomlin, a war veteran at 19, who thanks to his natural skills and a series of improbable circumstances found himself the pilot of an experimental jet plane at the the age of 12. A lost soul, he returns to America after World War II where he finds himself lost as his exploits have been mythologized to the point where the population considers him a super-hero.  Unfortunately, his plans to retire and write his memoirs are derailed when a disfigured criminal calling himself "Dr. Todd" finds the lost canisters of the Wild Card virus and threatens to drop it on New York. Jetboy is called into stop him but, as you probably guessed from the title of the book and the stories, he doesn't succeed.

This story probably had the strongest impact on the Wild Cards series as a whole, simply in terms of setting.  George RR Martin had  approached his friend science fiction writer, Howard Waldrop, about contributing to the series. Coincidentally, Waldrop had been kicking about an idea for a short story about a character named Jetboy and offered it for inclusion in the anthology. The only catch was that Waldrop wanted his story to be set in the late 1940s. Martin had originally intended for the Wild Card virus outbreak to occur in modern times (which would have been the late 1980s when the book was written) but Waldrop refused to budge on the issue.

Ultimately, Martin decided that he wanted the Jetboy story in the book and significantly altered the scope of the novel. Instead of taking place in modern times, the stories in the first book would take place in chronological order, exploring the history of the world, spanning from the late 1940s to the present era. This works to the novel advantage as the history of super-heroes in the Wild Cards universe  was the able to mirror the history of comic books in the real world. Pulp adventurers like Jetboy give way to superheroes like the Four Aces. This is followed by a period in the 1950s what the heroes are gone or operate outside the public eye before the return to prominence in the 1960s. Someone familiar with the history of comics will recognize the metaphor for how super-hero comics rose to the prominence in the Golden Age of Comics and then suffered a decline in popularity before resurging as the dominant force in the medium during the Silver Age.

The story itself works as a good starting point for the series. It starts of as a deconstruction of pulp adventure stories. Sure, Jetboy is a remarkable pilot but his adventures have been exaggerated by the media. (At one point, he complains that his comic book series has crafted fictitious super-villains for him to fight.) However, as the story progresses, the Wild Card virus eventually turn the story into a straight example of an adventure story complete with a real super-villain for Jetboy to fight. This sets up the greater theme of the series that the  mere existence of the Wild Card virus quite literally transforms a previously realistic world into one where the tropes of fantasy and science-fiction are part of everyday life. Plus, it's a fun story with a great final confrontation scene on Dr. Todd's blimp fortress.

The next story in the book is "The Sleeper", by Roger Zelazny, which focuses on one of the first victims of the virus' release, 14 year old Croyd Crenson, the titular Sleeper.  Caught in the initial outbreak of the virus, Croyd falls into a coma and awakens transformed into an adult man with invisibility powers. Croyd soon discovers that every time he goes to sleep, he awakens months later with a new appearance and Wild Card power. Sometimes he awaken as a powerful ace, other times as a hideous joker. Croyd turns to crime to support his family and, fearful of the changes that come when he's sleeping begins abusing methamphetamines.

At the time the story was written, Roger Zelazny was portably the most popular writer working on the Wild Cards series. (In fact, when the book was written in 1986, Zelazny was more well-known than Martin himself). Furthermore, Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, would become a mascot for the series often appearing in the stories of the characters. This makes sense given the characters versatile nature: Though he was generally a lovable outlaw, if he took to many amphetamines, he would become a paranoid lunatic who could serve as a formidable antagonist.

And yet the stories with him as the protagonist tended to be pretty weak. In fact, I would say that "The Sleeper" is the weakest story in the whole anthology. It just kind of meanders from plot point to plot point. Croyd gets his powers and commits some robberies. He accidentally kills a security guard while high and feels kind of bad about it but the thread is dropped and goes nowhere. He commits more robberies and ruins a wedding and that's about it. The story doesn't end so much as it just sort of stops. When the character's cameos in other stories are more compelling than the character's own stories, you know there's a problem.

The book begins to shift into high gear with "Witness" which introduce Jack Braun, a.k.a. Golden Boy, the fallen Superman of the Wild Cards universe. A war veteran like Jetboy, Braun is a young aspiring actor who finds that he can generate a golden force field that renders him bulletproof, super strong and (eventually) ageless. The handsome Braun is soon recruited into the organization known as the Exotics for Democracy, popularly known as the Four Aces, a group brought together to overthrow dictators and impose democracy worldwide. At first regarded as heroes in America, the Aces are accused of having Communist ties after a bungled mission to China and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Braun, desperate to preserve his burgeoning Hollywood career, names names with disastrous consequences for the rest of the Four Aces.

"Witness" was nominated for a Nebula award and it's easy to see why. The story is by far the best in the book. Superheroes opposing HUAC is not a new idea but usually the heroes stand fast and re-affirm their integrity against the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. As nice as that might be to believe, the truth  of what would happen is probably closer to what happens in this story. Under the pressure to conform or be labeled Un-American, even the best people can crack and wind up doing damage to those closest to them. (A message particularly relevant to those of us living in the Trump administration). The story is a tragedy where heroism vies with self-interest and looses.

We see the other side of the story in "Degradation Rites", by Melinda Snodgrass, where Dr. Tachyon, having been deported to Europe by HUAC,  takes the lead for the fist time. Having become an alcoholic drifter, he finds an American newspaper announcing the death of Blythe van Rensaeller a.k.a. Brain Trust of the Four Aces. Gifted with power to permanently copy the minds and personalities of others, Brain Trust meets Dr. Tachyon in early days of Wild Card outbreak and she leaves her abusive husband for the alien. Their affair is passionate but she becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the other personalities in her head, a situation that ultimately comes to a disastrous resolution at the HUAC hearings.

No two ways about it: This story is bleak. Tachyon begins the story and ends it as a street person.  As result, you know from the beginning that the story is going to end badly: there is an air of melancholy even during the happy parts.  It does bring up a problem with the early Wild Cards novels in that there are not a lot of female perspectives. Importantly, the first female "hero" in the Wild Cards universe exists entirely to be killed off, giving Dr. Tachyon angst and provide a motivation for his rivalry with Golden Boy. On it's own merits, the story is another strong tragedy: I just wish it's portrayal of female characters had aged better.

The story is followed by an interlude which provides further background  prosecution of Wild Card victims during the HUAC era which eventually leads to the formation of the Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors.  The unholy lovechild of HUAC, Marvel's SHIELD, and the Avengers, SCARE initially drafted Aces and forces them to use their abilities, in secret, on behalf on the US Government. By the end of the book, the organization has become more public and morphed into the closest thing the Wild Cards would  have to a superhero team for a while but its history lent its activities a vaguely sinister cast throughout the series.

Public heroes will not return until the 1960's with the story "Shell Games" by Martin himself. Having been allowed back into the country by President Kennedy, Tachyon has remained a drifter. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, a powerful telekinetic Ace named Thomas Tudbury decides to use his powers to fight crime.  Hiding his identity inside an armored shell propelled by his telekinesis, he dubs himself the Turtle and begins fighting crime. When a Joker bartender who has befriended Tachyon is kidnapped,  Tachyon is forced to team up with the Turtle to find her.

This story is a fun little adventure story. The Turtle makes a good twist on the armored superhero, concealing his identity with a mobile assault vehicle rather than a suit of armor but he's not as developed here as he is in later stories.  "Shell Games" is slight if read on its own but if read in conjunction with "Witness" and "Degradation Rites", the stories work as a mini-trilogy detailing the fall and ultimate redemption of Dr. Tachyon. Along with an brief interlude, establishing that Dr. Tachyon ultimately opens up a clinic in Jokertown designed to treat Wild Card victims, these three stories contain the closest thing the first novel has to a narrative arc, one which ultimately comes to a satisfying conclusion. The remaining stories in the book will be devoted to setting up plot threads and characters explored more closely in future books.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Wild at Heart - A Wild Card's Retrospective -the Beginning

So, back in August, award winning writer George R.R. Martin, known mostly for Game of Thrones, publicly announced that there would be an upcoming TV series based on his long running Wild Cards series of super heroes novels. Admittedly, calling this series Martin's brainchild was a bit of an over simplification. Each novel in the series is a actually a group of interconnected short stories with multiple writers  that serve to tell a complete story.  The series began in 1986 and continues to this day, enjoying a resurgence within the last decade, due to the popularity of Game of Thrones.

Martin based these books on Superworld roleplaying game he was enjoying with several friends (many of whom were established science fiction writers). Superworld was one of many superhero table-top role playing game that proliferated during the 1980s. Playing the game, Martin was inspired to write a book about his character, an superhero called the Turtle who fought crime while piloting what was essentially a flying armored tank.

However, Martin found himself reluctant to abandon the characters created by other writers in the game and, instead, convinced them to contribute stories about their characters to a shared world anthology "novel." Although not as well known today, shared world anthologies were common in the late 1980's. These would be science fiction anthologies/novels set in the same fantasy world but worked on by multiple writers. Characters and settings from one stories would show up in stories by different author, crating a sense of continuity between each story.

The shared world of Wild Cards was Earth, albeit an Earth where first contact with an psychic humanoid alien race called the Takisians occurred in the late 1940s.  Due to Martin's insistence that the superhero characters should all get the power (with a few exceptions) from the same source, the Takisians bring with them the  a virus which they have invented to boost their own considerable psychic abilities.

Naturally, the aliens decide to test the virus on the genetically similar humans. Despite efforts to stop this, the virus is released above New York City and soon gets sucked into the jet stream where it spreads all over the word.

The results are catastrophic. Unfortunately, the virus kills most of the people who contract it and leaves the majority of the survivors freakishly disfigured.  The disfigured survivors are dubbed "Jokers" and reviled and scorned by society. Most of them are segregated into a Ghetto area in New York called Jokertown. However, a small number of survivors are not physically affected but instead endowed with abilities far beyond those of mortal men. These people dubbed "Aces" are often perceived as heroes by the public and enjoy a measure of celebrity as well as infamy. The virus is dubbed the Wild Card Virus due to the random disfigurement and powers it grants to to those unfortunate or luck enough to contract it.

News of the upcoming TV show reminded me of how much I loved these books when I was kid. I read the books out of order when I was a kid before losing interest. However, out of nostalgia,  I was finally moved to read the first book in the series and it was fun to reconnect with the characters. Because of this, I have decided to write up a retrospective on each book of the series. This retrospective will have no fixed schedule. Given that there are twenty-six book in the series (with more to come), I am going to have to take break just so that I don't burn out especially to locate the harder to find books. Hopefully, the few people reading my blog will enjoy this.

Next up, an introduction to the series important characters while I review the first book in the series called appropriately enough Wild Cards.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Villainy's Victors 88- Satan

88) Satan from The Adventures of Mark Twain-

Satan is a difficult character to dissect because he has appeared in almost every form of narrative media. After a while, it becomes hard to pick out a version or incarnation that is particularly memorable. But that's not always the case. Sometimes, some writer somewhere comes up with a unique take on the character.

I should clarify that I have never seen the obscure claymation film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, a loose adaptation of the writer's more obscure stories, in its entirety. However, this clip featuring Satan became popular on the Internet and, as it is the only part of the movie where the character appears, I feel qualified to discuss this.

(After watching that, keep in mind that the MPAA rated this movie G. I consider this proof that the MPAA hates children.)

This Satan is not so much God's antithesis but rather His doppelganger.  In the film, his actions are eerily similar to the God of the old testament. He convinces the main characters (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher) to make people from clay which he then brings to life. However, when his creations begin to annoy him, he destroys them  for their perceived sins. Furthermore, he does not see these actions as evil, as he himself defines his every action as morally right. He even identifies himself as an angel. This version of Satan is unsettling not because he opposes God but rather because he hews more closely to biblical conceptions of god than a viwer might care to admit.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Continuity of Action

If there is one lesson I should have learned over the years of being online, it is do not read the comment section. It never ends well.  You come to realize  that the reason no one in any position of power listens to the things to people say on message boards is that, if it was of any value, people wouldn't say it on a message boards.

But anyway, I was reading the message boards comment section and I was struck by one poster.  This poster was complaining about how Marvel comics doesn't seem to respect continuity anymore. And it occurred to me that seven years ago I would have been this guy.

And I realized that my stance on comic book continuity had softened over the years and I hadn't even really noticed it. In large part, I blame the X-Men. I came late to the X-Men so I got most of my information from back issues. But for me the best X-men stories were either the original Lee-Kirby stories and Chris Claremont and John Byrne's later run.

I brought my first modern X-Men comic around 1994.  It really couldn't have been more new reader unfriendly if the ink used on the page was made of cyanide and hydrochloric acid. I still have it. The sole purpose of this comic was to clear up a plot point about Psylocke and Revanche and which of them was the real Betsy Braddock. If the previous sentence meant absolutely nothing to you, consider it from the point of view of a 7-year old kid in the 90s.

I had no idea who these people were and why anything in the story was important or what any of it had to do with the X-Men. Admittedly, I stuck it out but I was alway a persistent kid. How many kids my age read the comic, got confused, and gave up on the hobby?

And over the years, as I learned the material and I learned the minutiae of continuity, I came to forget how confusing it all was back in the day. I don't think I really remembered it until I had a chance to re-read some old 90s X-Men at my local library and I realized it was all terrible. Every line in the comic seemed to reference something that happened in another comic that you hadn't read. All the character's spoke in information dumps that were necessary to have even the slightest chance of following the story.

What I'm saying is that I understand the purpose of continuity: It creates a sense that the stories matter, that they impact the live of the characters we know and love. But it's not really worth it when that comes at the cost of good storytelling, is it?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Villainy's Victors 89- John Jaspers

89) John Jaspers a.k.a Faust from Faust: Love of the Damned

WARNING: I am talking about the comic book. Not the movie!!!. Under no circumstances, should you attempt to watch the movie. Should you watch the movie, this blog takes no responsibility for any side effects up to and including depression, loss of appetite, and obsessive desire to listen to the music of William Shatner.

You have been warned.

Now that that bit of unpleasantness is over, I should probably qualify that technically John Jaspers is technically the  "hero" of Faust: Love of the Damned. It should be further qualified that this is completely accidental. Jaspers is a schizophrenic artist who agrees to serve as an assassin for Satanist cult leader and crime lord, M, who may actually be Satan, in exchange for power and Wolverine claws. He grow an ego about the whole thing, which leads to falling out with M who has Jaspers killed. This doesn't take and Jaspers returns wearing a truly awesome superhero costume declaring war on M and his henchman.

This results in Jaspers being the hero of the story completely by accident. His motivation for opposing is a mixture of personal revenge and paranoid schizophrenia. He is constantly followed around by a Greek chorus of delusions who alternately egg him on and try to convince him that what he's doing is, in fact, insane. His brutal methods raise the question if he isn't actually worse then the evil he finds himself opposing.

The answer to that question, by the way, is no.  M and his cohorts are much worse. (It's not a very cheerful comic). But this character still gets on the list, if simply because in any other story, he would be the villain. It's a fine line between the god guys and bad guys and sometimes that line is completely arbitrary.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Assembly Line Heroes

It should come as no surprise that one of my chief complaints about DC Comics is that the comics they produce are not a lot of fun. This is because this is everybody's (or at least everybody with Internet access) chief complaint about DC Comics. The problem with DC at the moment is that every character must be dark and edgy and violent.

It makes a sort of sense.  I understand the appeal of dark and edgy characters. Audiences love badasses that play by their own rules. We fantasize about being these people, no longer bound by the petty rules and restriction of everyday society and strong enough to impose our whims on others. Nobody makes Batman do paperwork.

And that by itself wouldn't be so bad.  After all, power fantasies are pretty much at the heart of superhero comics. But its combined with another trend that makes these comics a chore to read. You see, it's no longer enough for the heroes to be badasses, they must also be tortured badasses.
They have to have deep psychological scars that explain why they are who they are and why they feel compelled to go forth and fight crime.

I suppose this create an illusion of depth. By giving a character psychological issues , you can create conflict and it allows for some compelling psychodrama. But it doesn't work for every character. I shouldn't look at Captain Marvel, a superhero who hung out with a talking tiger, whose most dangerous enemy was a worm who wore glasses, and fell like I'm reading an issue of Batman.

I'm not saying superheroes should be angst free. Done right, it could make for cool stories. Some of my favorite Batman comics were done with him in full on brooding avenger of the night mode. But it shouldn't -- it can't be every single character. Theres nothing wrong with superheroes being relatively light hearted and, dare I even say it fun. I wish the people who made the comics would remember that from time to time.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Still More Thoughts on an Inconstant World

You know that building is nice when the toilets are so well constructed and designed, most of your time in the bathroom is spent wondering if you're allowed to use them.

Unsettling realization of the week: I was reading TV Tropes the other day and I came across a reference to the mostly-forgotten Marvel comic, The Saga of Chrystar, Chrystal Warrior. The entry discussed how in the comics, Chrystar's brother Moltar is turned from a lava-man back into a human by the evil wizard Zardeth. This means that he can never have any physical contact with Lavour, the lava-woman he loves. The unsettling part came when I though to myself "Huh! That's funny, I was just thinking about the same thing the other day."

Is it wrong that I want Godzookie to be the new American Godzilla movie?

Yes. Yes. It is. On so many levels.

Actually Godzilla had at least three kids in his many appearances. Which begs the question, if Godzilla is the last of his kind, who in God's name was the mother?  This becomes especially disturbing when you realize that the only plausible candidate is Mothra.