One could be flippant and say the Wild Cards began life with the roll of a die, but it wouldn't be totally accurate. Nevertheless, the initial seeds can be traced back to a specific date - September 20, 1983 - the day Victor Milán gave George RR Martin a copy of the 'Superworld' role-playing game as a birthday present...
There had been a small gaming community amongst writers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for some time before George moved to the area in 1980. Walter Jon Williams, Victor Milán, John J. Miller, his wife Gail Gerstner-Miller, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Royce Wideman and Jim Moore would regularly get together of an evening and play either 'Call of Cthulhu' (based on the H.P. Lovecraft story) or the post-apocalyptic 'Morrow Project'.
George and his girlfriend, Parris, were invited to sit in and soon became a regular part of the group. However, the coveted role of 'grandmaster' was something George aspired to and it wasn't long before he decided he'd like to try running a game himself. Pretty soon it was a regular gig, but it was only when he opened the fateful birthday gift that things started to move forward for the group. George created a scenario for his new 'Superworld' game, the others created a bunch of characters to play with, and they were off and running.
The new game very quickly became an obsession for everybody involved. Initially alternating between this and the two previous games, they soon dropped 'Call of Cthulhu' and 'Morrow Project' entirely and focused all their attentions on 'Superworld'. At some point during the following year they increased their meetings to twice a week. Soon, it took over their lives to such an extent that when they weren't actually playing it they were planning strategies for their next session.
It was during these early campaigns that tentative versions of future fan favourites made their first appearances. Walter's first creation was a very different Black Shadow to the character who eventually appeared in the books (in the games, he was actually the brother of Victor's Harlem Hammer), while George's Turtle had the power and the shell, but not the personality or neuroses that would later define him. And the only thing Melinda's Topper had in common with her later incarnation was the costume.
And while Gail (Peregrine) and Parris (Elephant Girl) were happy to stick with their original creations, once the other players got a better handle on the game they eventually came up with new characters to replace these early prototypes. Walter built Modular Man to replace Shad, Yeoman took over from John J. Miller's Nightmare, and Victor dreamt up Captain Trips to take the place of the Hammer. And to really get them in the mood they asked local airbrush artist, Dan Patterson, to design them individual T-shirts based on their favourite characters.
Alas, as fun as all this was, the amount of time and effort George was putting into devising new plots and strategies for the game meant that he wasn't actually writing stories - and thus, earning a living - anymore. Realising there had to be some way of making some money from the work done so far, he came up with the idea of a 'shared-world' anthology to make use of the many characters that had been produced for the game. He and Melinda then spent a day developing a framework for an ongoing series of fantasy books that would offer a more realistic look at the impact metahumans would have on our world. (There must have been something in the air - at the same time, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were developing their similarly-themed opus, Watchmen, while Frank Miller was busy dreaming up The Dark Knight Returns. All three publications would premiere in 1986.)
Since subjecting people to an excess of gamma rays or having them bitten by radioactive spiders would have been a lttle too unbelievable, even for a fantasy series such as this, it was decided that a common origin for all the characters would be a more practical solution. An alien virus let loose upon Earth that attuned itself to each infected individual, and reshaped the person's DNA, fit the bill perfectly.
The term 'super-hero' wasn't to be used either. Especially as there were to be very few real 'heroes' in this new world. Instead, playing-card terminology was used to delineate the various mutations caused by a virus that would be known, henceforth, as the Wild Card. Of those who came into contact with the virus, the lucky 1% with paranormal powers became Aces, the unlucky 9% with freakish deformities were Jokers, while the really unlucky 90% who simply died on contact with the virus were said to have drawn the Black Queen. In addition, there were the Deuces - those almost-Aces who slipped between the cracks and who possessed only minor or negligible powers.
With the basic groundwork done, George invited those writers he thought might be interested to send in their character and story proposals for possible inclusion in the project. Naturally, the writers in the gaming group had a head start and were the first to not only get some of their old characters accepted, but a whole bunch of new ones as well. Roger Zelazny, Ed Bryant, Howard Waldrop, Arthur Byron Cover, Stephen Leigh, Pat Cadigan, Lewis Shiner, Walton Simons and Leanne C. Harper would make up the rest of the initial team.
The first 'hiccup' in assembling the first volume turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Howard Waldrop was only interested if he could write an homage to the 'Golden Age' hero Airboy, and have it end on his birthday - September 15, 1946 - with the dispersal of the virus upon earth. This meant the first book had to cover a forty year period, from its beginnings up until the present day. But the end result would set the template and prove to be a solid foundation upon which to build a new world - and a new series - leaving the authors free to have fun with their alternate Earth now that the necessary history aspect was taken care of.
John J. Miller's Yeoman shirt
The second piece of serendipity occured when Bantam offered the writers a contract for three books, thereby unwittingly establishing what would become the standard Wild Cards format of a triad of three loosely related volumes, bound together by an overriding villain. This format has gone on to be repeated successfully over the years - aside from the occasional stand-alone story to break things up a little - with the forthcoming 'Committee' triad for Tor Books looking to continue the tradition.
All good things must come to an end, however, and when the novels entered the picture the gaming evenings of old were numbered. It probably would have seemed like overkill when the writers were essentially doing the same thing for their day job and getting paid for it. If nothing else, though, the role-playing served its purpose in the sheer amount of creativity it generated in its players, and that, in turn, laid the foundations for a series that's been going for over two decades.
The Wild Cards plots may no longer be determined by the roll of a weirdly shaped die, but there are still an infinite amount of stories waiting to be told - and an infinite amount of characters waiting to be born - for a series that looks set to run and run for as long as its readership demands it.
Editor of Bantam's SF line. Bought the first Wild Cards triad on her first day
on the job.
Bantam's SF editor after Shawna left. Oversaw Ace
in the Hole through to Turn of the Cards.
Once the Bantam contract
ended, took on the Wild Cards and published the Card Sharks triad.
Special thanks to George RR Martin for supplying the photos for this page.