The first season of “Heroes” came to a middle-of-the-road conclusion on Monday. The series has had its moments of greatness and disappointment, but it’s writers and producers should be given full credit for breaking new ground in television for trying to portray metahumans as real people.
I’ll discuss my thoughts about the season finale of “Heroes” in a couple of days when I’ve had a chance to mull it over a little more. You can also find an excellent discussion of the episode on the SF Signal site (to which I’ve contributed a trivial muttering or two).
But for a superior portrayal of realism in a superheroic setting (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron), I’ve recently started re-reading the “Wild Cards” series, edited by George R. R. Martin. “Wild Cards” presents a world where a genetically-engineered virus created by aliens was released in 1946 – a virus that kills 90% of those who contract it (these people are said to have drawn the black queen) and disfigures 9% of those infected into often hideous freaks called jokers. Only the remaining 1% gain meta abilities without becoming physical horrors. These are the aces. And even among the aces, most powers are weak (telekinesis that can only push a penny across a table) or relatively useless (the self-explanatory talents of Rainbow Man). For those aces who do possess powerful abilities, life isn’t easy either.
It’s the harsh realities of life for jokers, aces, normal humans, and society as a whole that make “Wild Cards” such a worthy read. Where “Heroes” simply brushes the surface of how governments might react to metahumans, what effect these powers have on personal relationships, and the journey of individuals as they discover their abilities and the limits of them, “Wild Cards” plunges into the darkest depths. Heroes make mistakes, have changes of heart and betray each other to save their own skins, and use their public status to get rich endorsing products and making movies or hosting TV shows – because, hey, doing good out on the streets doesn’t pay the bills. Jokers make futile yet determined efforts to have their civil rights recognized. It is a raw world of three-dimensional characters that is utterly believable if you’re willing to accept the premises of superpowers and alien viruses that are compatible with human DNA.
The series is also fun. If you’re a fan of Hiro Nakamura, you’ll love The Turtle. The variety of authors involved in the project gives the series a different feel with every short story in every volume – from action to hard-boiled crime to drama.
It’s been a while since the “Wild Cards” series was published (although I hear Martin’s working on a new project for the line), but if you can find a copy of any of the volumes, it’s certainly worth your while to pick it up. “Wild Cards” is what “Heroes” should have been.