George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards: The Hard Call #1
I pretty much quit reading comics from junior high to sometime in my last year in grad school. But in my first year in college, waaaay back in ’87, I started picking up the “Wild Cards” shared-world novels edited by George R.R. Martin.
It was a grim and gritty bunch of sci-fi/superhero novels with a fairly nasty premise — the Earth gets hit by an alien xenovirus designed to rewrite the human genetic code. When people catch this “wild card” virus, 90% of them die horribly and painfully, their bodies mutating to death — this becomes known as “drawing the black queen.” Nine percent of the infected survive, but are gruesomely disfigured — they become known as jokers. The lucky one-percenters are called aces, and they are gifted with superpowers. Luckily, the virus isn’t contagious — you only get it if you’re born to parents who’ve been exposed to the virus or if you stumble across some active spores. And a lot of people who’ve been exposed to the virus are never affected — some folks can be carriers their whole lives without the virus ever activating.
Most of the jokers gravitate toward a New York slum called Jokertown, and they’re pretty universally despised for their deformities. But lots of normal people, or nats, like to visit Jokertown, sometimes wearing Halloween masks, to beat up jokers or just to enjoy the nasty side of town. Aces have things better, but not many people trust them either.
Enough backstory? Good.
In this first issue, we’ve got several things happening at once. First, Croyd Crenson, a long-lived ace known as the Sleeper, awakes from one of his month-long naps with his usual all-new powers and appearance. As usual, he’s ravenously hungry and looking to score some amphetamines to keep him awake when he starts to get drowsy again. Unfortunately, his usual supplier, a pretty nurse in the Jokertown Clinic, is killed by a thief in a dog mask who is able to walk through walls. The killer steals several doses of the “trump virus,” a treatment that can sometimes cure the wild card.
Meanwhile, in a high school in Colorado, a jock named Alex is a first-hand witness to a wild card outbreak during a science fair. Among scores of other students, he watches his kid brother die but ends up manifesting his own electrical-powered ace.
Verdict: Thumbs up. Okay, I’m biased because the “Wild Card” novels helped sustain me through four years of college. So reading about old favorite characters like the Sleeper is really great fun for me. And if you like thoroughly gross stuff, the outbreak in the high school has a bunch of nicely sloppy transformations, including a guy who starts growing fingers out of his mouth and mouths in his stomach, a couple of people who turn into bugs, a guy who starts to change into a tree, and a teacher who actually vomits up his own spinal cord. The Wild Card virus is not a fun disease to get.