Toward the end of the Second World War, an alien virus was released over New York City. It violently rewrote human DNA, killing ninety percent of the infected and transforming nine percent into deformed “jokers” (think second-string mutants). Only one percent drew the ace and developed awesome powers (think X-Men).
Welcome to Wild Cards, an anthology series launched in 1986 and edited by George R.R. Martin, who sometimes contributed his own stories. Cut from a bright swath of Superman’s cape, the world and its potential for characters have lured the talents of many luminaries in sci-fi and fantasy. Inspiration for the series goes back to a childhood passion. Martin was an avid comic collector and points to his letter to the editor in Fantastic Four #20 as one of the reasons he became a writer.
A little attention goes a long way towards fuelling ambition. The protagonist in Kick-Ass (2010) may have resorted to Facebook-style social networking to generate buzz, but Inside Straight depicts would-be heroes who are even more flagrant in their hunger for fame. The novel tells of the second generation of aces. In 2008, the world has got used to the spectacular, and the highest-rated show in the nation is American Hero. Four teams of young aces are pitted against each other in a series of rigged tasks designed to whittle the stage to one contestant.
The plot provides a series of readymade tropes lifted from the average reality television satire, including the corrupt television executives and the production assistant with a back-story. One of the main characters is Johnny Hive, a budding journalist who conveniently maintains a blog to keep readers up to date. Hive can transform into a swarm of wasps on command and sheds the occasional wasp, his blurry edges contrasting Alan Davis’ thick ink lines. He is the proverbial fly on the wall, getting to places even Big Brother cameras can’t as they ogle the twenty American Hero contestants bashing egos.
Normally a flaw, the familiar story, about upstart kids rising to replace their parents (insert Clash of the Titans joke), pulls the reader along with its rollicking pace, and its generational aspect easily lends itself to outsize characters who lead with their chin, not their personality.
The pantheon feel could likewise be attributed to the format of the book, dubbed a “mosaic novel”. The writers are a super-team of who’s who in sci-fi, and one wonders what challenges they suffered to make the cut. Each author was assigned to an individual chapter or alternating ones, and each chapter consists of a short story. The resulting voice is uneven, but any comic reader should be familiar with different writers playing ventriloquist with their favourite character.
George Plimpton is referenced early on in Inside Straight. Stepping to fame in the sixties as a participatory journalist, Plimpton inserted himself into his stories. He jumped into the ring with light heavyweight champion Archie Moore in Shadow Box and, before that, tried to play professional football in Paper Lion. Among the sixties’ many gifts was the idea of the writer becoming the story, overshadowing the subject. It’s not something we’ve shaken. The current cast of American Idol is drawing the ire of critics because the performers can’t sing. Nine seasons in, and we’re seeing arrogance for what it is: talent is cheap, and judges are the star power. When the light shines too bright, we forget that we tuned in for the singing.
“Maybe being a hero isn’t just about whether you win,” Hive realizes in Inside Straight. Comics used to be made using a four-color process in transparency layers. Each panel was an example of mechanically applied Pointillism, and the mind would fill in the gaps, as it does with a mosaic novel. The book is a throwback that reels you in. It’s a guilty pleasure to be read deep into the night, head under the covers, a flashlight in hand. You just need to squint for it all to come together and remember we’re all ordinary people.