So not making friends here

Because in the course of dissecting an autobiographical point, I’m forced to say things you don’t wanna hear about the Wild Cards series.

This is said as an original adopter of the series in a very-1987 context worth mentioning. The interplay among comics, pop fandom, and role-playing was hitting its inevitable generational intersection, in the charged economic atmosphere of franchise building. I mentioned it before in Elementary as a very sensitive moment. Wild Cards is a perfect example: its origin in Victor Milan’s playing The Chaosium’s Superworld in 1980, Melinda Snodgrass’ role as story editor for the current seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, George R. R. Martin’s long history in role-playing specifically supporting GURPS, the immediate licensing of Wild Cards for GURPS. Comics, novels in real bookstores, role-playing, TV, creators emerging from and attentive to fandom, just as fan culture had always dreamed – this was to be it.

Speaking as part of that target market, I experienced even more of the fine-grained nuances. I and my reading generation had a long history with most of the authors, and we all greatly desired to see costumed/traditional super-stories brought into readability. Did I say “all?” I mean all. Comics readers, gaming/comics role-players, inhabitants of the pro/fan twilight, comics creators – we all read Wild Cards, discussed it, thought about the discussions, and bought the next one to do it again, very similarly to what we’d all just done issue-by-issue during Watchmen‘s run.

So, what about it? Adopting a contrarian pose to rank on something everyone else likes is lazy and easy. I’d go on about how …

  • It dodged away from the costumed superhero basics after all that work to establish them. Anyone standard like the Howler was background, not even a supporting character, and soon to become a redshirt.
  • It went too far with their “all powers are psi” justification, which removed the freewheeling invocation of new-as-scary that powered Marvel superheroes and focused attention directly into motivated-psychology as the powers. (I realized later that such things were done with a definite but surprisingly light touch in the comics.)
  • It fell right into the hole of turning tragic or resonant heroes into fuckin’ losers, primarily via “Screwed by Plot” contexts and developments.

However, none of the above is a deal-breaker. All are within the range of writing fine, engaging stories about superheroes, given some skill and the countervailing tropes. I’m also perfectly able to accept the confused 1980s-historical comics-reading moment, when everyone tried so hard simultaneously to modernize the content, which required a certain dismissal of past content, as well as to recapture the greatness, while not admitting that we weren’t currently seeing any.

My point is instead to highlight the autobiography: how I realized the series wasn’t working,  in fact had barely worked only briefly in the first book, and also that it was definitely not going to work no matter how many gaming or comics spin-offs happened, or which muckety-muck writer-name was included this time, or how many times I’d pony up for the next volume. It took me three years to figure out I wasn’t enjoying it, from buying the original Bantam Books release in 1987 through buying each release by the same publisher until the sixth, Ace in the Hole, in 1990. To figure out why the hell not, I’d say it took me about the next ten years, which is why this post is categorized as 1990s.

I still like him.

You knew I was taking all this time to get around to talking about the villains, right? Given the series, that term skates pretty broadly through the range of anti-this-and-that, maybe semi- and hemi- too. Which is great. I’ll even point to Demise over here, favorite character for just about everybody, mine too. (not costumed, check; psi-psychology power, check; fuckin’ loser, check – and awesome)

But that’s exactly where the ball was dropped, to splat and stay. Exhibit A? Mind Control Incidents. Everywhere, all the time. The Astronomer, Ti Malice, Puppetman, the Jumpers, on and on, and always combined with “I’m psycho, so I mind-control people For the Evulz” – the stupidest and laziest form.

Let’s review that a little, from MCI misdemeanors and felonies. Since the only function of such a villain is for the hero to shake off the control, and since the nominal heroes of these stories were written as unable to do any such thing … there’s nothing left to write at all. The only remaining option is runaround-runaround plotting, composed of which characters are where when they should be somewhere else, of what they don’t know which they ought to, and of how they all run around and rearrange the locations and misunderstandings again and again until a certain page-count is achieved.

Exhibit B, and related, perhaps foundational to A, is the problem of the politics that did not bark in the night. Politics – isn’t that a bad thing? No, they are everything, not gonna argue, carry on. They started strong in the series, presented forcefully through the Cold War retold via fictional Aces-and-Jokers in the first half of the first book. But somehow they, meaning actual policy problems and issues to have positions about, vanish from the setting ’round about the fictional 1975. Every non-fantastic cultural detail is presented in the Hollywood-zone, without the heft of genuine author’s voice. And by Ace in the Hole, can I tell you anything about the issues at stake in whether Puppetman gets elected president? Why no, I cannot. They are strangely – especially strangely, considering this is Iran-Contra time – absent.

There you go. Ace in the Hole is described as “Puppetman is about to be president and Demise is gonna assassinate him!” Given mind-powers but not MCI, given something trenchant about what “president” means rather than a buzzword for “oh no,” and given Demise as eminently writeable on his own, it’d be fantastic – the “it” we were all seeking, in fact. But one out of three doesn’t even begin to begin. It turns into an exercise regarding what the mind-control can and cannot do, including maundering about the mental instability causing/caused by the power, and structured as running around and around to pad out a novel a third-again as thick as all the original stories in the first book put together.

But it’s bigger than that. By 1992 I’d figured out that MCI was no good and politics needed to be in there, vis. Snakes and hotties. Still there was something off about how I was doing it with Champions, how we role-players  were doing it in general, how Wild Cards was doing it, how franchise fantasy was doing it, how every attempt to recover real Marvel was doing it … And it came down to figuring out as well that either creating stories yielded enough setting to matter, or building setting obviated making stories.

Does this mean, yet again, I am adjusting my tinfoil hat and pointing with trembling finger to the spectre of ‘Verse? Yes, yes, I am. Stories don’t emerge from their most fictional elements, no matter how spectacular, no matter how consistent or carefully constructed, no matter how backstopped through yet more fictional history, no matter how many creative participants are throwing in the components, no matter how “guiding” an editorial vision may be. Start treating the fantastic elements as causal and it becomes, not a story, but a curiosity – subject only to the fetish interest of fandom rather than the engaged interest of an audience. I even commit the cardinal sin of pop fandom and suggest that shared-world anthologies are uniquely, almost inevitably susceptible to it. (But, but Sanctuary! Mm-hm. Read it now, then tell me again. Each author phones it in, or worse.)

As a lesser concern, there does seem to be a curse upon superhero-comics done in prose. I speculate that it’s twofold: that the reader is convinced that the medium is sufficiently elevated above comics to yield superior work automatically, and thus becomes more than usually uncritical; the writer is convinced that minimal standards of actual story-writing need not apply because “it’s just comics,” and thus busts out the worst version of comics at best. My other posts on this topic include Aces high, Right there in the title, and The true stalwart.

The tragic result for the late-80s Wild Cards is front-and-center: that in trying to upgrade, to mature, to advance, and to legitimize superhero comics, the series turned out to showcase the medium-idiom’s absolutely most stale feature, which at that moment Marvel was beating thoroughly even further into the ground anyway. Stale, by the way, exists as a noun. Its specific meaning applies fully.

Enough with the lit-crit, this is about me. For almost a decade, superheroes and supervillains accounted for nearly all, easily 85% of my extensive effort and time spent role-playing – the idiom’s even what brought me back to the hobby after initially falling out of love with it in the early 80s. Yet in the two-and-a-half decades since the end of that time, it’s easily the reverse, or less. I’ve published eight role-playing games (or near enough, definitions-wise) across eleven books, and have been cited as one of the top-tier influential designers and thought-provokers in the hobby’s history … and not one of my games is super-comics. The one that even started this blog, Doctor Chaos or Xaos, really doesn’t seem like I’m getting places with it.

I’m beginning to see the reason for this apparent contradiction. I don’t want my role-playing to be comics. I don’t want my comics to be novels. I don’t want them to be movies either. I like all four media, and I like each of them to be a good version of itself – not transitive expressions of one another to validate some unholy hybrid of the Geek Social Fallacies and the Geek Hierarchy. Should they happen to share an idiom (superheroes & villains), it doesn’t matter even a little, not even if it’s nominally the same characters.

I’ve done something about it, as far as fantasy creativity is concerned. I published the initial version of Sorcerer & Sword in 1998, its book version in 2001, and its current collected form with the other Sorcerer supplements in 2013. It was the first role-playing text to challenge the primacy of setting in fantasy, citing how Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Salmonson, and many others built their settings by accident, beginning only with an aesthetic and a powerful focus on protagonist crisis. That book and my drive for independent publishing at the Forge website accomplished quite a lot, including sparking what’s called the Old School Role-playing/Renaissance – never mind its latecomer loudmouths, ask its initial bloggers and designers.

Someone, for the superhero comics idiom – do it, please.

Links: See the Wild Cards Wikipedia entry for the list of publications and authors, and spinoff media.

Next column: With more power … (May 7)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on April 30, 2017, in Storytalk, Supers role-playing, The 90s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Brian T Renninger

    Absolutely. Wildcards left me cold from the very first book. It just never clicked. I moved on and only viewed with distant amazement that the series just kept on going. Who was buying it? And, that is pretty much the only place I disagree with you. With me, I knew nobody who bought it or read it or discussed it. But, I was in a small town in Alaska at the time so I guess I may be an outlier in terms of sample.

    My working hypothesis as to why Wildcards didn’t work for me was that the prose styles used have a lot of interiority. It’s easy to unintentionally make characters appear as indecisive wafflers if you outline every thought that went into each decision. Superheroes are pulp characters and pulp generally has shown character motivation through speech and action. There should only be minimal thought balloons in comics. To show the interiority of a superhero slows the pace and can’t but, show the superhero as weak or crazy which is sort of death to sympathizing with them.

    Generally, I also agree that while I often wanted to like shared world anthologies most have fallen flat with me. So, maybe it’s not just how the Wildcards series dealt with Superheroes. I tended to gravitate to just one author’s stories in each series. For me, it was C.J. Cherryh in Thieve’s World, S.M. Stirling in War World, and Robert Silverberg in Heroes in Hell. But, overall most falied to engage me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am of two minds regarding interiority. One of them agrees with you a lot, and could go on about it for a while, especially for prose and cinema. But that mind also admits of the powerful exceptions, for tellings which are so marked by their viewpoint (“subjective”) that they carry significant content that way, and for those which are stylistic and revealing that they matter that way.

      The other mind disagrees with you regarding comics specifically. I think thought balloons work as well as captions and as word balloons … given that any one of them works at all, for a given piece. And I can name a lot that don’t work, so it’s hard to separate that basic bad writing from the qualities of the technique. (And that’s not even getting into the phenomenon of pretending to be the one when actually being another, as with the thought-monologue caption technique.)

      I think you and I agree about the shared-world problem, but my point about superhero-idiom prose seems to apply pretty hard even when a single author is involved. But who knows, it may simply be historical – and also, as with fantasy, a lot of mainstream fiction gets away with the named genre’s features but isn’t billed as such.

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  2. Santiago Verón

    (I commented this or tried to; I’m not sure if it got moderated or whatever, but now I’m logged in so here it goes.)

    1) I wish you’d talk a bit about “Supervillain You”. Is that possible? (My train of thought: I wondered if Dr Xaos was lacking in politics, unlike your more recent games; I recalled that politics were more involved with Supervillain You, but I’m not sure.)

    2) I’ve never read Wild Cards, and I only knew it from your descriptions in The Forge’s review sections. But when I read Worm, I wondered if it was influenced by it. I heard that George R. R. Martin was big on changing narrators from chapter to chapter (at least on Game of Thrones), like Worm does at the beginning of each section. Since you’ve read both (at least a bit of Worm, right?) I wonder if you could tell me if this is so (or at least what you think).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll do something about Supervillain You pretty soon, I guess. Maybe feed me a specific question?

      I haven’t read Worm although it’s been recommended to me. One of these days, perhaps. I don’t know anything about its relationship to Wild Cards if any. I know it has a pretty intense fanbase because commenters at Strong Female Protagonist seem to get the two confused and expect “how powers work” to apply across the titles.

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      • Santiago Verón

        Well, what IS Supervillain You? Who did you write it with? Was it related to Dr Xaos? What about Cathedral? Is there any webpage where all of this is told, that I cannot find?

        About Worm: I thought you had started it! 😦

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        • OK. Supervillain You was intended as a fun little one-person activity tarted up as a product, via Patreon. I am still struggling with the concept of patron rewards that are worth their time, i.e., good, which I don’t make public, or make public later, or something. I’m not very good at that kind of strategic publishing.

          Anyway, it’s free for patrons and others can buy it at my Buying Things page but I don’t think it’s really what I was hoping for. The activity is a good idea but the collaboration went in a different direction from what I’d been hoping. I thought at the time, “well, that’s collaboration, let it be what it is, maybe it’s better than what you hoped for.” And haven’t done anything with it since.

          It is all politics though, if that’s what you were asking about. Or at least in terms of what I call “all politics.” H’m, that sort of inspires me. I think I’ll go back and review it and see whether I want to change it up a little.

          Cathedral is one of the four strange religion game designs that I have available for playtesting here.

          Editing this in: I went and looked Supervillain You over again, and you know what, it’s pretty good! Rafael gave it a twist toward surreal horror. I wonder if I might revamp it more toward traditional comics just ’cause that’s where my mind is at lately. But as written, yes, I was surprised to see that we did a good job.

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        • Santiago Verón

          (replying to myself because of nesting yadda yadda)

          That’s so cool!

          My actual, complete train of thought was, “What could possibly be blocking Ron on the Dr Xaos Game, as in, the game he wants to make as a superhero RPG? Hasn’t he nailed “villain” enough? What about politics? I bet an Edwardsian superhero RPG would be villain + politics. Plus as an author he’s on a Politics phase, just as painters go through a Blue Phase, a Pink Phase or whatever, I’m not even sure if that is a valid framework for discussing art. Well, Dr Xaos isn’t particularly political, right, or is it just my memory? Well, what about Supervillain You? That seemed to get very political very fast, I wonder if maybe what’s missing in one is in the other.”

          I asked about Cathedral because they’re both one person games. I’m familiar with it, I downloaded it and have been postponing playing it since, like, September ’16. It’s like when one says “One of these days I’m gonna take an afternoon off and go out to the”, let’s say, “the zoo”, and then never do it. Anyway, have you made any other one person games?

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  3. Man, I feel like a chump now. I came to Wild Cards long after its heyday, and never knew it was based on an RPG campaign until I read the intro. I loved the first book, with the exception of the final story, which ended the book with a whimper, to me. I seem to remember enjoying the second book. And then I gave up, in that I have simply never gotten around to reading any further.

    Ron, I can’t remember if you’ve already talked about some other prose supers, e.g., Chandler’s “The Astounding Antagonists”, or Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible” — or even Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dunno why you feel like a chump. I had the same response to the first book and it took me four more purchases past the second than you to figure out I wasn’t enjoying them.

      I’ve posted about Antagonists (see link in the post), and I’ve read “Soon,” but haven’t written about it because “opine about anything” isn’t what I’m doing in general. I haven’t read “Kavalier & Clay.”

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