Decades ago, a group of science fiction authors began a campaign in a role-playing game called Superworld. The game master was an author of growing renown, George R. R. Martin, who decided that the characters were becoming too interesting to just be shared in a game among friends. And from that — and a lot of wrangling and creative sweat — the mosaic novel series Wild Cards was born, edited by Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass.
In it, an alien virus has infected a segment of the population. 90% of those infected die, drawing the card of the Black Queen. 9% develop wild deformities, and are said to have drawn the Joker. If you draw an Ace, it means the virus gave you a useful superpower, and long before it became a common term in American slang, the Aces were the 1%.
Since the release of the first book, titled Wild Cards, in 1987, the series has grown to 22 mosaic novels (interlocking short stories and/or chapters written by a variety of authors) and solo novels (one author for the book) about a grim and gritty but sometimes joyful superhero universe. And after years of production companies circling the series to adapt to other media, it looks like a television series may finally happen. Martin announced last week that Universal Cable Productions, the company behind much of Syfy’s better programming as well as Mr. Robot, has picked up the option to create a television series.
And as it happens, every writer in the Wild Cards “consortium” may be able to see their characters developed for television. But as San Jose author Kevin Andrew Murphy reminded me, there’s still a way to go before anyone really knows for sure. Kevin has contributed to four of the novels, and his characters have been utilized in more by other authors. He also has a couple on deck, as the series shows no signs of stopping. In the wake of Martin’s announcement, Kevin agreed to answer a few questions about his work and his hopes for the series.
Derek McCaw: Had you been communicated with beforehand? Was this a surprise to you?
Kevin Andrew Murphy: It was not a surprise to me. Well, it was a surprise that we could finally tell about it. I would have friends asking me about it, and I said (holding his hands in front of him) “behold this NDA you see in front of my face.” That type of thing. The NDA is no longer in front of my face, but I was kind of surprise that it was lifted. Basically, it was Universal deciding when was the right time to break the news, because they had already finished cutting their deal with Melinda Snodgrass and Gregory Noveck, who are producers, and getting everything else and having all the meetings.
Also, Game of Thrones has been out. This was not treading on its coattails, but also catching the last of the momentum from that, where everyone’s going, “okay, this season of Game of Thrones has wrapped. What’s next?” Then it gets into the “funny you should mention it…”
Derek McCaw: This has been in play for a long time. There were rumors of a movie, rumors of a TV series years ago, there have been comic books, there have been all kinds of things trying to take it to different media. Why do you think it worked now? Was it the Game of Thrones force that pushed it over?
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Well, it was the Game of Thrones force that pushed it over this time. To go back in the history, when George jumped me into the gang lo, these many years ago, try 27 years ago when I was 23, I got in to write the Wild Cards second game book, Aces Abroad. George wanted to jump me in and have my characters used so I’d have a few shares in the consortium just before he would suddenly get the big money from Disney, because Disney had optioned it. George had written a screenplay based on “Shell Games,” (featuring his character the Great and Powerful Turtle) and it was going to be a Disney movie, but as part of their PG-13 adult movies.
Derek McCaw: A Touchstone Picture.
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Yes. And then Disney had the shake-up of new management, new this that and the other, and everybody’s old projects didn’t go anywhere. But Disney did pay us money back then, so that was great.
The long history of Wild Cards since then was that we had 12 volumes with Bantam, 3 volumes with Baen, I was in the first one of those, but I’d had my characters in previous volumes. Two volumes with iBooks, and then we had the revamp with Tor, which really, it’s not like the series ever quite died, but we did have slight doldrums. There would be three years (between) volumes…
Derek McCaw: It has waxed and waned in popularity. I remember it being a very big splash when it first came out. But now it’s at Universal Cable Productions, I think, to develop for Syfy?
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Universal has NBC, and Syfy, and USA, and… I can’t even being to diagram it. The Hydra has many heads. The deal was in 2011, which was just about when Game of Thrones was starting up. I think it was shortly thereafter. It ended up having that Syfy Pictures was looking to do a series of movies. But it turned out that Syfy Pictures didn’t end up making any of those movies. There were options that were renewed and renewed, and the option just got renewed again, but in a much bigger way.
Now we’ve got, well, this is Hollywood, so you can’t say we’ve got a commitment…
Derek McCaw: It’s more real than it’s ever been.
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Yes. And it’s more of the right time. Melinda Snodgrass and Gregory Noveck — well, Melinda is George’s long-time right-hand man. She’s the one who came up with the Takisians and the virus and has done everything. Gregory was with DC. Very smart guy, knew lots of everything, and was part of what brought us into Syfy Pictures. But now, everything shifts around, everybody’s title changes, but he’s still around Wild Cards.
Universal looked at what’s happening on television right now, with all of the Marvel shows and all of the DC shows, doing really really well. So, let’s go with Wild Cards. And Melinda just revealed that in another interview that we’ve got various different things. We could go with Fort Freak, if we wanted to do a police procedural. We could go with the Jokertown Clinic to have medical drama. We could do American Hero, if we wanted to do the young Aces just getting into the world.
These are all possibilities for shows. It’s just a question of what seems best to go with first. It’s all very much in development.
Derek McCaw: There’s a lot of possibility for this to be like an anthology show…
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Unlike something like American Horror Story, it could be something more like what’s happening in the DC constellation, where Constantine could end and still end having him show up in another show. Even if we follow Fort Freak, someone like the character the Amazing Bubbles, she shows up in my story in Fort Freak, “The Straight Man,” if we filmed that, she would be showing up in that, but then if they did “The American Hero” the year before, or something the year after, you could use the same actress as the same character again.
But I’ll be honest, instead of doing one a year, one a year, and one a year, I’d rather see them all at once and do a crossover instead.
Derek McCaw: You talked about being in “the Consortium,” and sharing characters. So how does the division of labor and the division of rights happen?
Kevin Andrew Murphy: The Wild Card Consortium is the group of all of the writers who have been writing for Wild Cards, including George R. R. Martin, who was there first and is basically the god-emperor. Everybody has shares in the consortium. Shares are divided up different ways. For writing a story for Wild Cards, you get five shares. If you have a character borrowed for somebody else’s story in a significant way, you get one share. The significant way means something that impacts the character in an important fashion, makes some life change, they get into a romantic relationship, something that really affects the character and the author will have to deal with…
Derek McCaw: A name check is not enough…
Kevin Andrew Murphy: If I borrow somebody’s character to be a spear carrier, come in, give a tiny bit of exposition, walk out… who cares? That’s the type of thing you’d forget about. But if it’s a big important thing, like… one of the things that George came to me with a while ago was that my character Captain Flint, who’s been around for a good while, he’s the head of the Order of the Silver Helix, which is the British Aces division. He’s an almost eight-foot tall stone statue that can shoot fire out of his fingertips, multiply decorated and other things, and he’s been around since the 1940s running this organization.
Melinda had a story with a character in the Silver Helix who was an assassin, and needed someone to fall on their spear for the good of the Order. And I thought, this guy has been around forever. Yes, you can go ahead and do it. It will give me a share, and if he’s in prison for a couple of volumes, fine. It’s time we had a bit of a shake up. You never know what’s going to be going on, and having my character now in prison, if we suddenly do a prison break storyline, he’s now set up.
Derek McCaw: How did you get involved? You said you were 23 years old and they jumped you in. Does that mean they set upon you with cudgels or what?
Kevin Andrew Murphy: It was my master plan. I had been writing for Dragon Magazine, and was also working for Steve Jackson Games. I found out that the second Wild Cards game book, Aces Abroad, needed an author, so I decided to get myself in there, because I wanted to write it. Not only that, I had read all the Wild Cards books and loved them. I wanted to have George jump me into the gang.
As a 23 year old with no credits, that would be hard to do, but my master plan was to impress the hell out of George with my characters and that worked. Now admittedly, it wasn’t all perfect. He ended up asking to see some samples of my writing, and he was not quite as impressed as he could (have been). But George is a big time baseball fan, and I said the right words. I said I’d rather be benchwarming in the majors than pitching in the minors, and George said, “okay, you’re in.”
A couple of years later, the chance came to pitch for Card Sharks, and George really liked my proposal. I wrote the story, and he said, okay, do a second draft on this, and if it’s good, we’ll go for it. I did, and I’ve been going on since there.
Derek McCaw: Now you’ve told me that somebody else used your characters before you actually got to write a story.
Kevin Andrew Murphy: I’d had both Herne and Cameo used in Volume 11, Dealer’s Choice. And Herne was not only used in multiple peoples’ stories, but he was also tapped for the cover artwork. So George was making the announcement to all the other authors and said, guess what, the cover artwork is going to Kevin’s character. Kevin’s not in this volume, but his character is. We all laughed about that, but it’s whatever the designers plan.
Derek McCaw: That would have been a Tim Truman painting by that point?
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Truman was doing all the covers then.
Derek McCaw: I guess since it’s still in development, you don’t even know if your characters are going to get picked up for the series…
Kevin Andrew Murphy: I’ve talked to Melinda and Gregory, but everyone has. Everybody is pulling for it. If we have our characters used for the television series, that’s not going to be any specific extra money for our pockets. The money from the television series will all go into the general consortium, and then be divided depending on how many shares we have.
BUT… certainly, if one of my characters like Cameo, who I’d love to see on the screen… she’s a trance channeler, and can put on the object of someone who died and immediately channel their spirit. That makes for serious actor meat.
Derek McCaw: And not a lot of effects budget…
Kevin Andrew Murphy: Keep in mind that she can also use their super powers. If they’ve got some power where they can shoot laser beams out of their eyes, or in the case of Will’o’the’Wisp, conjure up ball lightning, they’ll have the special effects for that. But for most of the part, her channeling Will’o’the’Wisp is just channeling a man from the 1960s, and wearing a beat-up old fedora while she’s doing it.
Now get an actress and say, “hi, you’re a 1960s male private eye.” Cool! How many times does a woman get to do that on film?
Derek McCaw: Some great opportunities with this project. Thanks for taking the time to talk about it.