Superheroes are big business these days. They’ve always been popular, Superman and Captain America have been going since the late 1930s and 1940s respectively, so there has always been an appeal for this sort of character. In the modern age they are huge because of the very good movies based on the comic book source material. The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers (yes I know it was released as Avengers Assemble in the UK but I point blank refuse to call it by that dreadful title), Hellboy, Dredd, Punisher: War Zone and the soon to be released Man of Steel, a new version of the Superman story which early word suggests is going to knock our socks off. So this is really a perfect time to release, resurrect if you will, a classic series of superhero novels. But this series of novels has a difference. They are not just single volumes written by one writer, no, they are a shared world series of books made up of stories by a vast array of excellent and very well known authors, all under that watchful, God-like eye of George R.R. Martin. Sounds damn good, doesn’t it?
When these books first came out the only superhero related things I was reading were Spiderman and Batman comics (I was only 9 years old and the only Batman movie I’d seen to that date was the Adam West one). I never even knew of their existence until Gollancz reissued the revised and updated first trilogy. The series of books has been conceived as a collection of ‘trilogies’. Characters and story lines are begun and developed over the first two books and brought to a suitably big climax in the third, and all the stories are told by various different writers. Sometimes these ‘trilogies’ have actually stretched to four or five books, but the basic concept of a big story told over a few books has remained.
The first book, Wild Cards, is pretty much a series of short stories with some linking material running as ‘interludes’ between the stories. Things kick off in 1946 when an alien virus is unleashed over Manhattan and people are infected with what becomes known as the ‘Wild Card’ virus. This virus causes some people to die, some to be unharmed, some to find themselves with a superpower (Aces) and others to become deformed (Jokers). The following stories introduce us to some recurring characters in both this trilogy and the Wild Cards series in general. Such as Dr Tachyon, an alien scientist who is on earth to help people infected with the wild card virus; or Croyd Crenson, one of the more interesting characters, who undergoes long sleeps and when he wakes up has changed appearance and can be an Ace, a Joker or a normal person, until he next sleeps. There are some great stories which bring in a HUAC investigation but swapping in Aces for communists, a detective story as a sorcerer hunts down a serial killer and there is a revenge story with the non-powered ‘hero’ Yeoman hunting down the people who killed his wife. This book is the most episodic. It is literally lots of individual short stories that all take place at different times but within the same world. There is not a huge amount of crossover with the characters and this makes for a less plot-based read. Although there isn’t a big story line pulling all of these tales together this is still a very entertaining book to read. The differing styles and multiple characters mean that it is never boring and there is always something worthwhile to keep you sticking with it.
That all changes with book two, Aces High. The book keeps the same basic structure of multiple short stories held together by some linking material. However this time the crossover is much, much stronger. And why? Because there’s a kick-ass plot. An alien menace known as ‘The Swarm’ is coming to earth to destroy us and the Aces need to band together and save the world. This is probably where Joss Whedon nicked the idea for the plot of The Avengers. Straight from the off this book feels bigger, feels stronger. The crossover of the plot and characters within the multiple stories is perfectly done. There’s still plenty of character development and world building but there seems to be a more clearly defined purpose this time around. A much greater sense of direction. Because of this it is harder to pick out an individual story for praise as they all feel more like a part of the whole and less separate than they did in the first book. However the stories with the new character of Modular Man are a definite highlight, as is the climax which brings back Yeoman.
At the time of writing this I have yet to read the third and final book in this trilogy, Joker’s Wild, but I have no doubt that this will up the ante and stakes even higher. There will no doubt be a strong plot line running through the book which will give it the pace and momentum to make it a terrific read. I for one can not wait to get stuck in and once it’s over I will no doubt be pining for the next Wild Cards book.