Wild Cards

Wild Cards

Wild Cards is a science fiction and superhero anthology series set in a shared universe. The series was created by a group of New Mexico science fiction authors, but it is mostly pulled together and edited by best-selling author George R. R. Martin with assistance by Melinda Snodgrass, also a contributor to the series. There were twelve initial volumes released by Bantam, those being published between 1987 and 1993, before the series switched publishers, going to Baen, which released three new volumes between 1993 and 1995; then it was on to a third, iBooks, which published two new volumes and also reprinted the first six, all between 2002 and 2006; then it was on to its fourth and current publisher, Tor in 2008, that continues the series and has issued four new volumes, with a new one likely forthcoming in late 2012.

While most of the books are made up of individual short stories, they generally focus on a central theme or event. There were also several longer storylines which run through several of the books. Some volumes use the format of a mosaic novel. This involved several writers writing individual story lines, which were then edited together into one seamless novel-length story. Finally, several volumes in the series are a complete novel written by a single author.

Wild Cards was inspired by superhero comics, and many of the authors play with the conventions of the medium, while some characters are based on existing heroes (for example, Jetboy was modeled on the Hillman Periodicals' character Airboy). Many of the original authors were also inspired by a long-running Albuquerque, New Mexico campaign of the role-playing game Superworld, gamemastered by George R. R. Martin, and many modeled their characters on their in-game persona.[1]

Contributors to the series include Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, Pat Cadigan, Howard Waldrop, Leanne C. Harper, Chris Claremont, Victor Milán, John J. Miller, and Martin himself.



The series relates an alternate history of the earth after World War II. In 1946 an alien virus that rewrites human DNA is accidentally unleashed in the skies over New York City. It kills 90% of those who come into contact with it (referred to as 'drawing the Black Queen'). However, 9% mutate into deformed creatures (known as 'Jokers') and the remaining 1% gain superpowers (known as 'Aces'). There is also a class known as 'Deuces' - Aces who have acquired useless or ridiculous powers, such as the ability to levitate up to two feet, or to grow body hair at will. The airborne virus eventually spreads all over the world, affecting tens of thousands.

The Wild Cards universe is distinguished from most superhero comic book fiction by several thematic elements. Early on the authors decided to pursue a more realistic, or naturalistic approach to storytelling. Few of the Ace characters in Wild Cards have secret identities, or are traditional crime-fighting superheroes in the mold of Spider-Man or Batman. Wild Cards remained set within a recognizably real world with recognizably real people and pop culture and, because of the historical setting of many of the stories, had characters who aged realistically during the course of the series. The majority of Wild Card victims live in the run-down ghetto of Jokertown, while the fortunate Aces become glamorous celebrities. In addition, Wild Cards took a more graphic approach to violence, and particularly to sex, than most superhero stories do.

Another aspect of the series is its use of real people, such as Buddy Holly, Grace Kelly and Richard Nixon. Unlike most superhero universes, the events of Wild Cards alter history in many ways - a notable example being Fidel Castro remaining in New York to play baseball, and the lack of a Communist takeover in Cuba thereafter. As of 1986, Castro was the pitching coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who never moved to Los Angeles, and still play at Ebbets Field. Thus, L.A, not New York, got an expansion team called the Stars after the Giants moved to Minnesota in lieu of San Francisco. In the Wild Cards universe, the Dodgers are the equivalent of the New York Mets, with their history after the 1950s coinciding with the Mets' history, including victory in the 1969 World Series over the Baltimore Orioles. The Los Angeles Stars are the equivalent of the real Dodgers.

Other notable changes: Mick Jagger is a lycanthropic ace. Frank Zappa has a son, Frank Zappa, Jr., who becomes a general in the U.S. Army and eventually Vice President. Buddy Holly does not die in a plane crash but instead winds up covering Prince and Billy Idol in dingy venues before discovering his ace super powers during a come-back concert. The House Un-American Activities Committee blacklists aces instead of entertainment industry workers. Thomas Marion Douglas (an analogue of Jim Morrison), lead singer for the rock group Destiny, was an ace called the Lizard King and dies not of a drug overdose in France but rather from a dose of the experimental trump virus which cures him and removes his immunity to many years of drug abuse. The botched Iranian hostage rescue of the Jimmy Carter administration is bungled by a team of aces (including Popinjay and Carnifex) rather than the U.S. military (and was later proven to be part of a conspiracy to prevent Carter's re-election due to his pro-wild card stance). President George H. W. Bush promises "no new exotics (a politically correct term for wild carders) laws" rather than "no new taxes," but still goes back on his word.

Main characters

The series features a large and ever-changing cast of characters. A minor character in one story can become a major, or even the viewpoint character, in another, or vice versa.

The Virus

Xenovirus Takis-A, popularly known as the Wild Card virus due to the wide range of symptoms it creates, is an alien biological weapon, from the planet Takis. The natives of that planet, known as Takisians, are genetically identical to humans (conflicting Takisian theories posit either parallel evolution or that Earth is a lost Takisian colony). The planet is ruled by dozens of royal houses which have been locked in perpetual conflict for generations. Through selective breeding, the royal class on Takis have come to possess psychic powers, notably telepathy and mind control. In the early 20th century one of the ruling houses, House Ilkazam, began to develop an artificial virus designed to rewrite Takisian DNA to enhance the natural powers of the ruling class, thus giving Ilkazam an advantage in their conflict with other houses. However, the virus which resulted, the Wild Card, was highly imperfect. It killed the vast majority of its victims and left the vast majority of the survivors with unsightly or even dangerous mutations. However, a small percentage of those infected developed amazing powers. House Ilkazam did not want to use the virus on their own people and possibly devastate their numbers. They did not want to use it as a weapon against an enemy because it could leave the survivors with impressive powers, but they were unwilling to simply write it off as a failed experiment. Instead they decided to release the virus on Earth as part of a large scale field test. One member of house Ilkazam, Tisianne brant T'sara sek Halima sek Ragnar sek Omian, subsequently known on Earth as Dr Tachyon, objected to the proposed test on moral grounds. He followed his relatives to Earth in his own ship. The two sets of Takisians did battle in near earth orbit, with both ships being critically damaged. Dr Tachyon managed to make a controlled landing at White Sands Missile Range while the larger ship, containing the supply of Wild Card Virus, crashed in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, killing all on board. Dr Tachyon attempted to convince the military authorities of the danger posed by the virus and the need to locate it, but his haughty demeanor and the strange facts of the story made them skeptical. Meanwhile, the vessel containing the Wild Card virus was found by two associates of the criminal mastermind Dr Tod. Dr Tod loaded the virus onto an airship and used it to try and blackmail the US government by threatening New York City. Dr Tod's plan was upset when his blimp was attacked by Robert Tomlin, better known as the pulp hero Jetboy. In the ensuing fight Tod and Jetboy died and most of the virus was destroyed, while some was released above New York. While the immediate effects were seen in Manhattan, some of the virus entered the jet stream where it was carried around the world to cause random outbreaks at various places over the next several decades. The deformed survivors of the virus faced significant discrimination in the years after the outbreak. Some of this was initially due to unfounded fears that the virus may be contagious, which it is not. Others found that their changed appearance caused them to lose jobs and be rejected by families and spouses. Through redlining and restrictive covenants, most of the Jokers in New York were concentrated in the Bowery which subsequently became known as Jokertown. Due to the economic marginality of many of its residents, Jokertown became a haven for less than wholesome operations such as strip clubs and porn theaters, some of them catering to people who wanted to see unusual Jokers. Dr Tachyon set up the Jokertown Clinic in the neighborhood to care for the special health needs of the residents and to search for a cure for the virus, which he eventually did discover. The virus itself is not contagious. The only way to become infected with it is through exposure to the original spores. However, the virus does rewrite the DNA of the infected, inserting itself into their genetic code. Genetically the virus is recessive so that it will normally only express itself if both parents are infected.

Classifications in Wild Cards

There are certain broad classes of characters in the Wild Cards universe of superhero novels started by George R. R. Martin.


To be classified as an Ace, the person must still be basically human in appearance and generally be able to "pass" in society as normal person—as opposed to the physical mutations affecting those known as Jokers, resulting in various physical deformities or debilitating conditions. Certain individuals with both powers and physical alterations are still considered Aces, such as the celebrity Ace known as Peregrine, who despite having a pair of feathered wings growing from her shoulder blades is otherwise physically attractive in appearance.

Ace powers range from the trivial (for example, the ability to turn water into wine) to the fantastic abilities that the general public would actually consider to be "superpowers" (flying, teleporting, mind-reading, shape-shifting, etc.). Those Aces with powers that are so minor or specific as to be considered "parlor tricks" are sub-classified Deuces.


A Joker is a person that was infected by the Wild Card virus and got one or more deformities or crippling physical conditions as a result. The mutations can be slight (like Father Squid's nose, which turned into a mass of tentacles) or grotesque (like Snotman, who exudes a foul-smelling secretion through every pore of his body). Some alterations that would be classified as a Joker are only obvious if one was aware of the infected individual's original appearance (such as Gimili, who appeared to simply be a dwarf, but was in fact mutated into that form by the virus, or Succubus, who appeared to be an elderly woman, whose physical aging had been accelerated by her mutation). Those who gained superhuman powers were instead classified as Aces, though there were some with both powers and deformities who were referred to as Ace/Jokers, such as Bloat. There were even a very fortunate few whose deformities were considered attractive by many, such as Peregrine, an Ace with flight-capable angelic wings who eventually became a TV star with her own talk show, Peregrine's Perch. Jokers often refer to those not affected by the Wild card virus as Nats.

Dr. Tachyon has theorized that the forms taken by Jokers are influenced by the subconscious mind through a form of micro-telekinesis during the initial stage of the disease. This could explain why some joker forms are similar to those of animals or fantasy creatures, or often reflect the personal fears or desires of the individuals.

The largest and oldest Joker community in the world is the New York City neighborhood known as Jokertown.


A Deuce is a person that was infected by the Wild Card virus and gained a useless or trivial ability, like the power to levitate pennies, the ability to turn into a puddle of water, the ability to grow bodily hair at will, or the ability to levitate 2 feet off the ground. Those with more significant powers are known as Aces.


Some Wild Carders, particularly Jokers, use the term "Nat", short for natural, as a derogatory way of referring to those who are not infected by the Wild Card.

Suicide Kings

A Suicide King is a child of two Wild Card Positive parents who has inherited the virus. A Suicide King is likely to express their Wild Card virus when reaching puberty, and has the same 90% chance of death as another person that caught the Wild Cards virus normally. Causing undue mental distress to a Suicide King is punishable by law, as this could cause the virus to express itself


Most of the stories in the Wild Cards novels are set in or around Manhattan. As the original point of release for the Wild Card virus, Manhattan contains the largest and oldest community of those infected. In particular, many stories deal with the neighborhood known as Jokertown. This is based on the real world neighborhood of the Bowery and is populated mainly by Jokers. In the years after the release of the virus, the neighborhood had provided cheap housing to those who had found their lives disrupted by their mutations. The neighborhood has a rough reputation through most of the series, due to the economic marginality and physically imposing nature of many of the residents. The economic enterprises of the neighborhood tend to run towards night clubs and strip clubs with some catering to those who seek unusual performances by Jokers. For much of the twentieth century, slumming in Jokertown was a popular activity among more adventuresome Nats. However, the neighborhood also has more legitimate landmarks such as the Jokertown Clinic, a museum to Wild Card history, and the Church of Jesus Christ Joker, a Catholic splinter sect which worships a hermaphroditic Joker version of Jesus. Many of the residents of Jokertown have eschewed their birth names and instead are known by nicknames related to their deformity. A notable exception was Xavier Desmond, a local club owner and civic leader known as the "Mayor of Jokertown". For a long time many neighborhood residents opted to wear masks, ostensibly to cover up deformities, but also to allow a greater degree of anonymity for them.

Another prominent Manhattan location in the early books was the restaurant "Aces High". Catering to the trend in "Wild Card Chic" that began in the 70s, Aces High was run by the gravity controlling ace Hiram Worchester. From the 1970s through the late 1980s the restaurant, located in the Empire State Building, was a popular destination for the more publicity conscious aces. The Empire State Building would be the occasional target of a giant ape who would escape from the Central Park Zoo every few years and climb the building ala King Kong. The ape, who had first appeared in the wake of the Northeast Blackout of 1965 was revealed in the 1980s to be a movie obsessed shape shifter who had suffered a nervous breakdown.

In the early 1990s, a group of politically radical Jokers, dissatisfied with the culture of Jokertown, set up their own society on Ellis Island, which had remained abandoned in the Wild Cards timeline. Renaming the island The Rox, the community was led by a massively overweight and massively powerful teenage Joker named Bloat. They welcomed outcast Wild Carders to the island and ultimately drew the ire of the government through their alliance with a group of body swapping criminals known as the Jumpers, and through their attempts to expand to other islands in New York Harbor (which included at one point a vulgar defacing of the Statue of Liberty).

While the novels mainly focus on the New York Metropolitan Area they did occasionally journey outside the US. In particular the llate 1980s saw an official congressional fact finding mission made up of various politicians and notable Wild Carders who traveled to various other countries to observe the treatment of Wild Carders there. Most notable were perhaps Egypt, where several Jokers who took the form of ancient Egyptian Gods had begun to bring back the ancient religion, and Central America, where two ace brothers were leading a Wild Card revolution.

In the mid 1990s a revolution overthrew the government of Vietnam with the help of the American ace Mark Meadows. The new revolutionary government welcomed Wild Carders, particularly Jokers, to their country and elected one of Meadow's multiple identities as President.

The 21st century has seen the rise of a renewed Caliphate in the Middle East, ruled by an ace called The Nur. Simultaneously a marxist nation the People's Paradise of Africa, has come to control much of Central and Western Africa.


Original series (Bantam Books)

Double Solitaire and Turn of the Cards were actually full-length novels rather than anthologies, written by Snodgrass and Milán, respectively.

"New Cycle" (Baen Books)


Death Draws Five is another solo novel, this time by John J. Miller; only 600 copies were known to be released, due to the sudden demise of the iBooks imprint. It has since been reprinted by Brick Tower Press. [2]

Tor Books revival

  • Inside Straight (2008)
  • Busted Flush (2008)
  • Suicide Kings (2009)
  • Fort Freak (June 2011)[3]
  • Lowball (working title, forthcoming 2012)

The recent past and future

According to George R. R. Martin's website,[4] Tor Books picked up the contract to produce a new series of three new Wild Cards books after iBooks ceased operations. Tor released the first of their series, Inside Straight, in January 2008; the second, "Busted Flush" was published in December 2008; and the third volume, "Suicide Kings," in December 2009. This new trilogy featured the next generation of Wild Cards, although there were familiar faces along the way from previous volumes. Each was released initially in hardcover, followed awhile later by mass-market paperback editions. It was later announced that a new, fourth Tor volume would follow "The Committee" trilogy. That book became Fort Freak and followed the police and detectives of the Jokertown police district; it was first published in hardcover in June 2011, being followed later by a mass-market paperback edition.

Tor books has also started to re-release the first three Wild Cards volumes from the 1980s, with the first book Wild Cards being published in both trade paperback and mass-market editions, and containing three, all-new, previously unpublished, short stories that expand the scope of the original first volume.

In May 2011 George R.R. Martin announced in his livejournal "Not A Blog" column that he had just signed a contract with Tor for another Wild Cards volume (working title: Lowball), the 22nd in the long-running series; it will likely appear sometime in late 2012, but no official publication date has been announced.

Wild Cards in other media


Portions of the book series have been adapted into the comic book format. Marvel Comics' Epic imprint [5] published a four-issue miniseries in 1990 and later collected and published the series as a single volume graphic novel; these Wild Card stories (among other, non-Wild Cards stories) were then reprinted two years later as part of the four-issue anthology-format comic book Epic Comics: An Anthology, published in 1992. A second limited Wild Card series was planned but was never realized after the Epic imprint was canceled by Marvel.

Some years later, author Daniel Abraham penned a 2008 six-issue Wild Cards comics limited series, that was published by Dabel Brothers Productions; the first issue of the series was issued simultaneously with two variant covers, while the sixth and final issue was later published by Dynamite Comics. Dynamic then collected the miniseries as a single hardcover graphic novel in early 2011; this second series was called George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards: The Hard Call.[6][7][8]


The setting was also adapted into role-playing game format twice.

The first was in the form of two GURPS sourcebooks that made use of the GURPS Supers rules.[9] The first of the GURPS sourcebooks was published between the publications of Down and Dirty and Ace in the Hole, in 1989. It is currently outdated, providing a snapshot of the universe at that time, but does contain biographical and power data on about 60 characters from the first five books along with details on current storylines and organizations. It was written by John J. Miller.

The second is by Green Ronin Publishing, based on their Mutants & Masterminds product line. The first of this line, the Wild Cards Campaign Setting, was written by series author John J. Miller, and debuted at Origins in 2008. Two supplements are currently planned, including an adventure and a character book.[10]


  1. ^ Wild Cards Comes to Roleplaying Playing With a Full Deck, Roleplayer Magazine article by John J. Miller, about the Superworld and GURPS roleplaying games
  2. ^ Wild Cards Online (retrieved 9/3/11)
  3. ^ Back To Jokertown post on George R.R. Martin's blog. May 12, 2009
  4. ^ George R.R. Martin's Official Website
  5. ^ Wild Cards (Marvel Comics) at the Comic Book DB
  6. ^ Dabel Brother's announcement of details about the comic series
  7. ^ [http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=152794 George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards: The Hard Call #1, Newsarama, April 7, 2008
  8. ^ Wild Cards (Dabel Brothers) at the Comic Book DB
  9. ^ Staff (March/April 1990). "Review: GURPS Wild Cards". Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer (88). 
  10. ^ Wild Cards Returns to Roleplaying

External links

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