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I enjoy superheroes. The vast majority of stories with them are in the comics medium (I’ll sidestep the debate about whether Tarzan, Doc Savage etc count as superheroes), which are outside of this website’s remit. While prose short stories do exist, I’m not aware of any being produced by the main comics publishers, which means such stories are not starring characters and powers you already know. Even the weakest prose story must therefore create characters and a setting as well as telling a story. (The Wild Cards series of mosaic novels being the main exception to all this.)

Today’s story looks at a low-key superhero called Wildcard (no connection to the Wild Cards series), so called because whenever he fights he has a different set of powers each time. Sometimes these powers resemble those of other superheroes and villains. The public and his teammates believe this is to do with some pseudoscience about “etheric proximity.”

When you think “hero,” you think Russell Verlaine. You don’t think of me. I’m not particularly good looking, I don’t have a fascinating origin story, and I don’t even have a constant set of powers that you can put on a trading card. “David Caulfield, The Wildcard. Powers: variable” is what the League Reserves card they did for me reads. You can buy it for a penny on eBay. Shit, I don’t even wear a costume. I go around fighting criminals and monsters in jeans and an AC/DC concert tee. I am nobody’s favorite hero.

In fact, he is hiding the true nature of his powers from everyone: every time he eats a piece of superhuman flesh, he temporarily gains those powers. He has a secret warehouse where the bodies of his teammates and enemies lie on gurney carts, patches of meat stripped away.

He loathes himself for doing this. But the Earth is being increasingly attacked by invasions of Ghouls, appearing out of nowhere. Although he’s a reserve hero, to be sent into action only when it’s essential, he’s needing to fight more and more often. And at the start of the story Russell Verlaine, the most powerful superhero in the world, has just been killed by a so-far-undefeated Ghoul King.

It’s one of these stories where I notice on rereading how well-designed it all is. Little is wasted. Everything feeds into establishing both the tortured life Caulfield is living, and of the increasingly devastating threat that keeps forcing him into action. The world is suitably entertaining that I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories about this character. But I know I won’t, because the most important time of his life, his greatest torment and his greatest challenge, has already been told.

Cleansed and Set in Gold by Matthew Sturges

Availability: print

Word count: 9,100

First published: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, 2010, Gallery Books

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