In 1987, a group of writers under editor George R.R. Martin set out to create a shared fantasy universe that would reflect how superheroes might fare in the real world, where they'd have to deal with HUAC, Vietnam, and the Cold War in addition to the usual four-color villains. Over the course of 17 vivid, colorful, but increasingly sordid tag-team anthologies and solo novels, they developed an alternate history in which an alien biological weapon known as "the wild card" infected earth. Sometimes it lay dormant in its victims' bloodstreams for a while, but when it activated, it killed most of them. Only a small percentage of lucky "aces" survived and gained superpowers, while a few unlucky "jokers" made it through with horrid deformities.
Simultaneously a giant metaphor for AIDS (particularly a cautionary tale about the fear and suspicion with which America was handling the then-mysterious syndrome) and a platform for grim-and-gritty heroics that matched the contemporaneous trend in comics, the Wild Card series was initially popular, but as the series dragged on, the world degraded into an almost parodically dark version of our own; excellent characterization and intricate plots bogged down under an obsession with the rape, mutilation, psychological destruction, and murder of significant characters. By the early '90s, the series' several-books-per-year pace dropped to one a year, and only two more books were released between 1996 and 2008.
All of which may help explain why it's so jarring that the latest series revival, Inside Straight, starts off with a fluffy tone and dramatically lower stakes. It begins with a blog entry by self-absorbed ace Jonathan Hive—a young man who can turn into a vast swarm of wasps—waxing shallow about the entire past history of the Wild Cards universe as just a bunch of incomprehensible stuff that happened epochs ago; now, he says "the world's moved on." As if to illustrate just how trivial his world has become, he rushes out to audition for American Hero, a Real World/Who Wants To Be A Superhero?-style reality show pitting 28 young aces against each other. The first half of the book follows in the footsteps of Carolyn Parkhurst's lively reality-show novel Lost And Found; American Hero plays out in detail, amid team challenges, camera confessionals, hook-ups and hurt feelings, personal politics and vote-offs. Each segment goes to a new author and a new POV character, in a familiar Wild Cards dynamic that often isn't entirely satisfying; some of the chapters feel like self-contained stories, but others introduce rich, complicated characters who seem worthy of their own novels, but who promptly wind up as background scenery in subsequent chapters. And halfway through, the book shifts gears radically, yanking half the show's squabbling cast into the middle of an anti-joker genocide in a destabilizing Egypt.
Part of Inside Straight's purpose is no doubt to reinvigorate the Wild Card series in the wake of shows like Heroes, Smallville, and The 4400, all of which put a hip, young, populist dynamic on the wanky superhero genre. And in that light, it works; the book's initial chipper superficiality paves the way for knotty political and personal questions, letting new readers ease into the deep end of the pool, with its politics and its questions about what heroism really means. The book can be frustrating—much as with Martin's New York Times bestselling solo books, the "Song Of Ice And Fire" epic fantasy series, the jarring leaps between characters sometimes squander a lot of potential. And it asks some pertinent questions that it doesn't bother to answer, particularly whether a few exceptionally powerful individuals have the right to impose their will on entire countries, regardless of their humanitarian intentions. But as a pop novel, along the lines of Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, Inside Straight is solidly enjoyable for comics fans who want more depth than the average 24-pager can generally offer. It may not fully work either for Wild Cards vets or newbies, but it's an entertaining first shot at reinvigorating a series that really needed a shot in the arm.