In the past week, you probably noticed folks in your social media feeds expressing their excitement around HBO’s Game of Thrones, the massively popular sword-and-sorcery television series based on the popular line of titles by George R.R. Martin. Whether you choose to watch the serial episode-by-episode as it is released on the premium cable channel or prefer to binge-watch the entire season once it hits home video release, fans are quite excited for this final line of episodes. But regardless of preference, fans are going to be left asking after the conclusion ‘What’s next?,’ to which I respond with another major book series (edited) by Martin, Wild Cards.
The project reaches into the realms of ridiculous plot-lines but nevertheless works not despite but rather because of the blatant absurdity, telling the story of a world where super-heroes and villains become an everyday occurrence following an alien invasion in 1947. The well-intended but ultimately misbegotten Dr. Tachyon comes to a planet earth that is just recently concluding a massive global conflagration known as World War II. Through an accident outside of his control, a Wild Cards virus originating from his home planet is released into the atmosphere over New York City. Those who do not die from exposure either transform into aces, people with benevolent and useful powers that make them into heroes, or jokers, those with deformities and disabilities that make them into social pariahs and potential villains.
Using this as a launchpad, each chapter, written by a different science fiction author, takes on the romantic super-hero genre vignette with a level of seriousness and maturity that goes well beyond what is generally presented in mainstream fare. Super-heroes targeted by Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare who find themselves blacklisted? Aces that serve as part of an expeditionary force in the early battles of the Cold War? People who are closeted about their infection by the virus much in the way people hide their sexuality, gender identity, or HIV status? All this and more can be found in just the first volume of this series, which has now a total of 27 volumes on sale now.
The super-hero genre has always included a distinct and very disturbing inclination towards fascist themes, something addressed multiple times by writers such as Alan Moore. For example, Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, injected a clear endorsement of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy into his writings.
Or consider Frank Miller, whose Batman title The Dark Knight Returns is seen as one of the centrifugal graphic novels that revived the genre in the 1980s, a reactionary who said in 2011 “‘Occupy’ is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly-expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the ‘movement’ – HAH! Some ‘movement’, except if the word ‘bowel’ is attached – is anything more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves. This is no popular uprising. This is garbage. And goodness knows they’re spewing their garbage – both politically and physically – every which way they can find. Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.” This from a man with a long bibliography filled with cop-worshiping titles that position a policeman’s badge as a grand Viking shield that his herrenvolk heroes genuflect before.
As such, what I find particularly engaging and noteworthy is the progressive politics within the Wild Cards series. Without being doctrinaire or dogmatic (certainly a major pitfall for lesser scribes), Martin and Co. have developed a universe that isn’t preachy yet also has a third-person omniscient narrator with progressive politics. Pulp with a heart in the right place.
So give Wild Cards a read if you want some easy texts for going into the summer.