Saturday, 9 July 2011

George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards: The Hard Call

The Harder They Call

George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards: The Hard Call
Written by Daniel Abraham and illustrated by Eric Battle
Dynamite Entertainment
ISBN: 1607901588

I've been reading George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards novels since he first started writing and editing the series, along with the other writers who contribute story segments to what is probably the most unique and heart-warming series of shared world/mosaic novels in the history of late 20th/early 21st century. I am increasingly amazed that the series has carried on going strong since it's initial first volume which I read on it's release in 1987.

I think, though, that it's one of those bizarre literary phenomena that are shared passionately by the few people who were fortunate enough to read the series as it first came out... a very small, passionate following which burns with an irrefutable intensity for those "in the know" as it were... but pretty much ignored by most everybody else. It's almost like an exclusive club in a way... a small, cultish following that is, in many ways, the literary equivalent of the same kind of shared love you find with fans of the TV show Firefly. Or the greatest rock group ever, Voice Of The Beehive. Something where, if you’re lucky enough to connect up with someone who has actually read any of the novels, you suddenly find yourself getting into passionate discussions about various aspects of the stories set in the Wild Cards universe that “outsiders” just wouldn’t appreciate.

Actually, one of the reasons I’m so surprised that the series has kept going is because the novels do have rather a checkered publishing history spanning at least four publishers and at least one of those novels, which tells of the death of Fortunato (a cool super-hero who acquires and recharges his immense mental powers through extended Tantric sex sessions) and the events leading to his son’s accidental acquisition of special abilities was barely in print before the publishing company which put that one out went under (and it never got reprinted after its very small initial run... only 600 copies are known to exist). Since it deals with such an important event in the Wild Cards universe, just in terms of exposition and a transition into the later Wild Cards novels that deal with a fresh set of characters, I’m surprised that people who haven’t read this one have stayed with the series. I finally got ahold of my copy of that one, which was the very last copy the guy had, from a seller on e-bay who turned out to be the guy who wrote that particular novel (he was good enough to personalise it for me though, so it turned out nice again).

They’re still going strong though and the 21st novel in the series, Fort Freak, just got published (and is in my “to read” pile).

The series deals with the fallout from an alien virus released over the world in the 40s which killed many, turned many others of the population into hideous mutations (Jokers) and gave a select few bizarre super-powers (Aces). Since it deals, quite surprisingly credibly, with a parallel universe of superheroes, villains and their juxtaposition with various aspects of history which turned out differently sometimes (like Marilyn Monroe living and making many more movies for instance) you would expect these tales to be absolutely right for comics related stories but because the Wild Cards stories have been so incredibly dense and realistic in their depiction of these unlikely but extremely inventive situations, comic book spin-offs have been few and far between. The Hard Call is a hardback collecting a six-issue mini series of a Wild Cards comic and I can honestly only remember there being one set of comics before, back in the early 90s when Marvel comics put out their own Wild Cards mini-series on their “epic comics” imprint.

The last few Wild Cards novels have mostly abandoned the older and long established characters (although many of the contributing writers are still the same), choosing instead to focus on a new group of Aces who were recruited via a Wild Cards reality TV show in the style of our world's Big Brother, but this comic book edition straddles the old and new generation of heroes quite neatly. Told through the eyes of a teenager who’s “card turns” (a euphemism for powers or mutations caused by the Black Trump virus)... and in this case he’s deliberately exposed to the virus by the “villain” of the piece, this one teams this new character who is struggling to come to terms with his “trump powers” with one of the most popular of the old-school Wild Cards characters... Croyd, The Sleeper, created originally by the late, great Roger Zelazny.

Croyd’s always been one of the great, misunderstood characters in the Wild Cards universe and not just because he’s got a great, non-judgemental attitude to life as written by Zelazny and other writers over the years. The key thing about this character is that he has a unique power and, because of this, he never ages. Croyd is one of the good guys and his Wild Card is the fact that, when he goes to sleeps, he wakes up as someone/something different. He’s either going to wake up an ace with a new talent or as a hideous joker, in which case he just stays out of sight when he can and tries to “sleep it off” real quickly (this can take days, weeks, months etc). What gives this character an extra dimension though is the fact that when he wakes up (very hungry... a big appetite is another quirk of the character) as an ace and takes private detective work (which is dodgy if you’re a fugitive from justice... it’s a long story) he wants to stay awake as long as possible and so he takes speed constantly like it was candy... and so ends up paranoid and just not an especially stable person to be around some of the time.

This comic-book reprint brings Croyd and the new ace on a collision course as they both work together to achieve roughly the same end and I have to say, this particular Wild Cards comic is a fairly close cousin to the novels in that it catches the complexities and little details of the “human condition” which gives this particular fantasy world it’s raw heart and readability really well. You don’t ever feel like you’re reading some kind of novelty spin off from the original stories... this feels like the real deal, which to be fair it is, given that the writer of this tale is a Wild Cards regular.

I really enjoyed this one but I can’t say it’s a particularly good jumping on point for new arrivals to the Wild Card series... in fact the comic-book versions never would be. But I would say that for people who already love the novels and want to read more stories set in this world... well The Hard Call won’t let down the memory of your accumulated Wild Cards experience and, while maybe not a necessary purchase, is certainly a very enjoyable read, has some nice artwork and shares a certain complexity with the novels that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in comparison. It’s definitely a page turner and with a bonus story included by regular old-timer from the Wild Cards series Melinda M. Snodgrass (creator and writer of the original Dr. Tachyon character from the initial run), this hard bound edition is a nice thing to have on your bookshelf... if you have any shelf space left, that is.

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