Wild Cards #7: Dead Man’s Hand

Dead men tell no tales, but they still occasionally play poker. Let’s play out Dead Man’s Hand, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Chrysalis, the glass-skinned queen of the Joker underworld, has been found brutally murdered in her popular restaurant, the Crystal Palace.

Now two men are out to find her killer – Jay Ackroyd, the Ace private detective who discovered her ruined body, and the vigilante arhcer known as The Yeoman, who has been framed for the crime.

Their quest leads them on a nightmare journey of madness, violence, passion and intrigue that will forever alter the fate of those who contracted the Wild Card virus.

Source: back of the book (Goodreads is in Spanish for some reason)

SPOILERS BELOW

Dead Man’s Hand is set concurrent with Ace in the Hole, and deals with events happening in New York at the same time. These events were briefly alluded to in that book, such as news arriving of Chrysalis’s murder or Popinjay delivering Puppetman’s jacket to Dr. Tachyon, but now we get the whole story.

The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Popinjay and Yeoman, and the two of them make an excellent contrasting pair. Yeoman is basically the Punisher of the Wild Cards universe: he doesn’t actually have any powers, but uses his military training to ruthlessly hunt down and murder criminals. Popinjay has a very potent Ace, but never kills and is strongly morally opposed to guns. As a result, while the two of them are working towards the same goal, they share the same kind of mutual distrust and friction as exists between, say, the Punisher and Batman. …Well, as would exist between the Punisher and Batman if they met and teamed up, instead of existing in the separate Marvel and DC universes. As exists between the Punisher and whoever the Punisher teams up with who has a strong code against killing. I’m sure there must have been someone at some point. Spider-Man? Daredevil? …Archie? I don’t know, comics aren’t my strong point. The point is, it works.

Approaching the case as they do from different angles, they arrive at different parts of the solution. Yeoman is the one to figure out the culprit truly responsible for Chrysalis’s murder, but it’s Popinjay who exposes and defeats the second major villain of this arc: Ti Malice. And wow, what a defeat. It is my favorite moment of the book, possibly my favorite villain defeat in the entire series, and probably one of the defining moments which made Popinjay one of my favorite Wild Cards protagonists. See, Yeoman is far from a bad character – I’d take him over Fortunato any day – but I ultimately find him a bit one-note. Popinjay, however, isn’t a cold, composed killing machine; he’s a damaged, cynical, sometimes slightly doofy but ultimately loveable gumshoe in the finest noir detective tradition. His foibles and quirks, even the somewhat pathetic ones like his recurrent bed-wetting nightmares, make him feel all the more human. Even when Yeoman gets into a bad situation, like being drugged and tied up at Quin the Eskimo’s, there’s no real sense of horror to it: I know he’s just going to the old James Bond thing of acting cool and collected in the face of torture and then manage to escape in some improbable manner and go right back to being a badass. It’s a given that once he’s recovered, he’s just going to march straight back to Quin’s and get his revenge, without the slightest fear or doubt at facing someone who previously bested him and rendered him powerless. Popinjay, on the other hand; when he’s pinned to the floor, Ti Malice ever-so-slowly crawling towards him like some hideous abomination straight from his nightmares, the suspense is through the roof. I feel his disgust, his terror, his horror. And when he manages to free his hands at the last moment and send Ti Malice straight to the hell where it belongs, I swell with cheer and exuberance. For Yeoman, beating Ti Malice would just be another tally on the scoreboard, nothing to write home about; but for Popinjay, it’s a character-defining moment of victory and an emotional triumph. Yeoman may not suffer nightmares like Popinjay does, but that means his character can never provide that height of cathartic bliss which comes from overcoming them.

Of course, it is only natural that Puppetman and Ti Malice should be defeated at the same time, as the two of them are fundamentally reflections of one another: Puppetman is a charismatic Ace while Ti Malice is a hideous Joker; Puppetman has delusions of nobility while Ti Malice revels in its basest instincts; Puppetman has global aspirations while Ti Malice only seeks to use those around it. But as opposite sides of the same coin, they are ultimately of the same nature: manipulators who use their powers to surround themselves with enslaved puppets. Both rose to power in Aces Abroad, and now both are receiving incredibly appropriate and well-written sendoffs. And, of course, both will be pointless brought back by future authors, thus tarnishing the otherwise great conclusions to their stories…

No, wait scratch that last bit. Obviously, having been eliminated in a clever way at the action climax of this story, Ti Malice is gone and will never be seen again.

Never. Seen. Again.

Final Rating: 4/5

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