Wild Cards hit the stands for the first time in 1987 (the same year as Watchmen — it was a good year for superheroes). As an SF and comics fan, I snatched it up immediately. It was a “mosaic novel” — a shared-world anthology edited into a single, fairly coherent whole — that combined all the thrills of superhero comics with the depth of worldbuilding and character development possible only in novel-length prose. And with writers like Roger Zelazny, Howard Waldrop, and George R. R. Martin at the controls, how could it go wrong?
The universe of Wild Cards is an alternate history in which an alien virus is released into the world in 1946, a virus that transforms some of those it affects into “Aces” with superhuman powers and many of the rest into deformed “Jokers.” That first volume introduced the world and the characters through a series of stories giving an abbreviated history of this transformed world, beginning with the release of the virus and ending with the present day (1987). Subsequent volumes picked up from there, carrying the alternate history forward along in parallel with our real history. It was vivid, contemporary, groundbreaking. It was different.
I was a fan.
Flash forward to 2007. In the intervening years I became a writer, sold some stories, won some awards. Then I read in Locus that the Wild Cards series, which had been dormant for years, was about to be revived. With a freshly-awarded Hugo in my hands, I managed to find the temerity to query George about the possibility of playing in the Wild Cards sandbox. He very kindly explained that the first trilogy of revived books was already in progress but he’d keep me in mind for the future. “Be warned, though,” he said, “Wild Cards is not an easy gig.”
Two years passed. Then I met George at a Worldcon party and he gestured me out into the hall. We’re just starting up a new Wild Cards trilogy, he said; if you’re still interested, the thing to do is to pitch a character.
If I’m still interested. Ha.
I came up with several character sketches and sent them in. George smacked them down with brilliant, cogent observations about how they’re too obvious, too limited, too powerful, too similar to existing characters (he has every detail about the entire series in his head, I swear). Under George’s tutelage I combined two of them, rewrote, revised, expanded. Finally I came up with a character he liked: Tion James, aka The Recycler. Tion was accepted into the Wild Cards universe, and I officially became the 32nd member of the Wild Cards consortium. There was a fat contract describing the responsibilities and rewards of membership which I had to sign in blood.
But that’s only the beginning. Once you’re in the consortium, if you want to be published you have to earn it, by successfully pitching a story idea for the next book. And the first book to come down the pike after I joined was actualy two books: a reissue of Wild Cards Volume One with three new stories filling in missing bits of the alternate history, and a Jokertown police procedural called Fort Freak. As it happened, Tion didn’t really fit into either of them. So he remains on the shelf for now; perhaps he will appear in the next volume after that.
I wrote several pitches for both, but it was clear to both George and me that I was much more excited about Volume One. How could I not be? It was like an opportunity to write a new script for Star Trek: The Original Series… and to see it produced, with the young Shatner and Nimoy, and released on DVD right along with the original episodes. An amazing, overwhelming opportunity. Frightening, even.
Eventually my pitch for a story called “Powers,” featuring an entirely new character named Frank Majewski, was accepted with some modifications. I did a whale of a lot of research, into both our history and the Wild Cards universe. I wrote the story — actually a novelette. We went through a couple rounds of revisions.
Working on Wild Cards is probably the closest I’ll ever get to working in television: collaborative, high-pressure, hurry-up-and-wait, with an inexorable requirement to conform with the published history of the universe and characters. George is an amazing editor, with an almost frightening ability to find the one tiny point to push on that causes a whole structure to collapse into a new, more interesting shape. Working with him has been a revelation.
At last “Powers” was done, handed in, accepted. Meanwhile, work on Fort Freak was continuing. Even though I didn’t have a story in that volume, I participated by contributing some minor characters. One of the characters I’d originally pitched for Volume One was updated to the twenty-first century and incorporated into the Fort Freak cast, though he didn’t wind up appearing on stage in this volume. Again, a lot like working in television.
Which brings us to the present day. The revised Wild Cards I releases today, with a phenomenal cover by Michael Komarck. If you loved the series before, here’s your chance to get the Blu-Ray DVD of the first movie with never-before-seen footage by “eminent new writers like Hugo-winner David Levine, noted screenwriter and novelist Michael Cassutt, and New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.” And if you haven’t read it before, this is your chance to get in at the beginning.
It makes a great holiday gift.