The Playing Cards Project

This is more of a series of blog entries in one, since it is talking about the whole process of this project from beginning to end. Why not write the entries as the thing progresses? Well, one gets caught up in actually doing the thing! The idea came about while I was in the Prints and Drawings Study Room, researching depictions of magic for a story I was writing. I had been told that there was a large collection of playing cards and tarot cards in the Prints collections, along with various other material I might find useful, so I was carefully unwrapping tiny archive boxes full of all sorts of fascinating cards from throughout the ages. There was a huge variety, from fairly standard playing card decks as we know them now, to the obscure and sometimes baffling.

Now we’ll step back in time a day or two when I saw this:


Seventh Sanctum is a website that provides random generators to help with your writing, or purely just amuse. Naturally, being a procrastinator and some kind of writer, I like to go there occasionally for some web-based humour. However, this time I found something that appealed greatly. The Symbolitron. A random story idea generator that is billed thus: “Symbolitron-Need a story that’s got some deep symbolic (or merely pretentious) meaning! Come here for some ideas!” Obviously I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity. A sampling of its delights are:

The romantic story about traitors where the characters map to the twenty-six letters of the Alphabet.

The story where the artistic styles map to the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The swashbuckling story about rangers where the characters map to the eight Neopagan Sabbats (Samhain-Yule-Imbolic-Ostra-Beltane-Midsummer-Lughnasadh-Mabon).

(If you aren’t familiar with the concept of random generators, spend a few minutes on the site to familiarize yourself.)

Back in the Prints and Drawings Study Room I found myself thinking about the playing cards, and how each one could potentially be a panel in a graphic narrative (aka comic strip). What if you could have a sequential narrative story where each panel maps to the 52 cards of a standard playing card deck. Of course, the panels would have to be interchangeable, so that you could “deal” yourself a hand that would be a story in itself. Would this work? I had no idea, but it sounded like a fun challenge. Meanwhile, I tried playing this game using a set of (non-standard) Biblical Scenes playing cards, but the panels were really too complex to create any kind of meaningful story out of Abraham sacrificing Isaac one panel to the opening of Christ’s tomb in the next.

I set about obtaining some very simple divinations of playing cards from the internet, the sort that might be used in casual fortune telling. I didn’t want anything complex or particularly meaningful, just ideas for what should go on each different playing card. I combined a couple of different sets of meanings, since many of them were very similar. There are only so many ways “you will have good news” can be depicted.  I went about sketching basic scenes that conveyed the sense of each divination, using some very simple characters. I decided to name them Jean, Jack and Cassie, although the names never appear on the cards so that they can be whoever you want them to be.

Jean, Jack and Cassie

After playing with these and seeing that they did indeed make different narratives depending on how you re-arranged them, and were fairly consistent, I produced artwork for each of the card panels.

Card Stories 

I designed my cards by thinking about what appealing qualities the playing cards I had used for my research had, their size and shape, for example, and the colours used in the printing. I stuck with a very simple colour scheme of a vermillion red and black for the pips and numbers, and a fairly dark blue for the panels, sampled digitally from an old Jack from the collections.

After making myself a prototype deck to play around with, I found a playing card printer who would print custom cards. Then it was a matter of designing the box, and the jokers and naming the project. I used my trusty crow motif for both the jokers and the eye-assaulting back pattern of the cards. After agonizing for several weeks over the title, and annoying everyone I saw by asking them for ideas, I settled with something I had thought of quite early on: Hand of Fate. And thus, Hand of Fate: Comic Strip Playing Cards were born.

 Cards front back and joker

As well as an interesting experiment in the comics medium, possible uses for the cards could be: Various story-telling games, a tool for writers to come up with plots, fortune telling (not recommended if you’re actually serious about it), or just playing your favourite card games. Other suggestions invited!

Just before Christmas, I received my delivery of the printed packs of cards. Here they are:

 The cards in a big box

The cards, printed and arranged.

I’m really pleased to have actually been able to complete a project from conception to manufacture while I’ve been in residence at the V&A, even though it began as rather a tangent, and was not what I was expecting! Incidentally, I’m still working on that story about magic…