Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #18”

Jamie McKelvie is back on art and Laura Wilson is back in the spotlight, and this issue is so gloriously refreshing after the “Commercial Suicide” arc.  I probably spent close to a year waiting to start this arc after the last one, and the first time I read my copy of the fourth trade, I think I ran through the whole thing in a single sitting.  This arc is very much a “things happen” story, with lots and lots of plot movement meant to contrast with the sort of meandering feeling of the series of one-off styled stories that we just completed.  It’s a little lighter on character exploration (but not too much), and traditional action takes center stage a lot more over the typical talking heads that Gillen and McKelvie favor for their characters’ extended conversations about what’s happening.

I love this upcoming series of covers. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Sergio Serrano; Image credit: Comic Vine)

To mark the new arc, we also have covers designed with a new motif, replacing the focus on the characters’ torsos with a more typical full body shot in a dynamic pose that highlights major features of each character’s divine nature.  The series begins with Laura, the first time she’s featured on the cover since the very first issue, now fully ascended as Persephone.  Because the classical Persephone’s myth is centered around motifs of death and renewal (she signals winter with her journey to the Underworld every year, and when she returns she ushers in spring), Laura’s miracles all strongly feature a duality between flowering plants and skulls.  In a pantheon that Ananke quite likes to divide into sky and underworld gods, this Persephone straddles the line between.

The parallel plots in this issue bounce between Laura at her debut gig as Persephone, which predictably blows up when people realize there’s a new god (one thing that had eluded me until recently was the emphasis on the gods performing live; their miracles can’t be recorded, so the only way to experience the things they do is directly in person) before Ananke shows up to try to eliminate Laura before word can get out about the whole attempted murder thing (which apparently failed, although we don’t yet know how), and the Morrigan’s escape from Valhalla with the help of Minerva and the ever superfluous Baphomet (they were doing just fine escaping before he showed up for a rescue).  The issue’s big reveal at the end is that Laura was actually coordinating with Baphomet because they shacked up together underground in the two months that have passed since she ascended.

And… cue catchphrase! (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Those are all the basic details you’d need to get if you just wanted to follow the action: Laura survived somehow, and she’s now assembled her own faction of disgruntled gods looking to get revenge on Ananke for all her manipulations.  Hijinks to imminently ensue.

“You became a crappy orphan, Baphomet. Please spare Minerva the same fate.” (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What I find more fun about this issue (and I’m saying this after having read the thing at least four or five times because I am a terrible close reader of comics) are all the little moments that call back to things we’ve recently learned or seen the characters go through during the last arc.  Baal and Baphomet exchange serious blows over the abuse they dealt to Inanna and the Morrigan (Baphomet, in typical fashion, beats all the humor out of a joke that didn’t start out that funny, while Baal rams his point home with extreme clarity); Sakhmet and Laura have a moment of ridiculous sexual tension in the middle of trying to kill one another (it’s not clear exactly how long they danced together at Dionysus’s party); the Morrigan can’t resist dressing up a straightforward message like, “I know Ananke’s been lying to you all”; and all the best/worst catchphrases of The Wicked + The Divine reappear.  Things are moving along at a mile a minute, but it’s all informed by the rich level of detail that’s been put into these characters after nearly two years’ worth of story.

The sky gods react very much in character to the news that they’ve been dropped into a punching book for the next five issues. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

This isn’t just insulting to the Goddess of Wisdom; it’s insulting to a regular thirteen-year-old. Kids understand hypocrisy pretty early; it’s why they often have a fascination with authenticity versus “fake.” (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The character who really gets the most new development here is Minerva.  She’s been mostly a background character up to this point with only little hints at what her experience of the Pantheon has been like.  She’s significantly younger than the other gods (all the present-day action takes place within about twenty-four hours from the night before through her thirteenth birthday), which grants her significantly less autonomy to get involved in all the drama of her older peers.  I think the youngest of the other gods are at least seventeen at the story’s start, which puts them close enough to legal adulthood to let them get into a lot of trouble.  Except for Laura’s parents (who at this point are quite dead, sadly), the only real adult presence in the gods’ lives is Ananke, and she is ridiculously permissive for reasons that are still quite obtuse.  Not so with Minerva; her parents hover in the background with her at major moments like the Fantheon where she did the god equivalent of signing autographs for money.  Laura muses on the fact that Minerva’s parents seem to be milking their cash cow daughter as much as they can before she inevitably dies young; in this issue we see more direct evidence that that’s the case.

The way all this reflects on Minerva shows that she has an extremely complicated relationship to her parents.  In the midst of all the chaos of the Morrigan’s escape and Baphomet’s attempted rescue, she begs the underworld royal couple to get her parents out as well.  A bit of hesitation (“I… can’t… I mean, I won’t leave them.”) signals that Minerva feels deeply ambivalent about her relationship with her parents; as everyone is fond of pointing out (much to her annoyance), she is the Goddess of Wisdom, so she’s not ignorant of the way her parents are exploiting her for profit.  Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t come to fruition since Laura arrives to save everyone from a bad spot (while munching on a pomegranate, because what other kind of fruit would Persephone eat?) and whisks them into the underground without Minerva’s parents in tow.

Yeah, this is a very busy arc.

Children model their behavior on what they observe. Here, Minerva lies, just like the only adult figure who we’ve actually seen treat her with something like real compassion. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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Nier: Automata Log 4

Okay, I’m willing to eat a little bit of crow.  I was very skeptical about Nier: Automata‘s design that requires the player to do multiple playthroughs of the game in order to see the full story, but on my second time I’m seeing enough new and interesting bits that my trust in the game is bolstered.  I’m still not sure how long the game can pull off this replay trick, but for now it’s working, and I appreciate that.

The second playthrough starts things off differently right away, with a small scene that features a machine in the factory trying to gather a bucket of oil to feed its brother who has become nonoperational.  It’s a sweet little sequence where the player, who has presumably become very accustomed to the relative agility of controlling 2B now has to navigate a small environment with the clumsy body of a tiny machine.  The sequence is well-designed with little surprises like learning that you can move more quickly if you jump, only to have that workaround sabotage you once you get the bucket filled with oil; the machine trips and spills it if you attempt to jump to speed along the task.  From that little scene, the perspective shifts to 9S, who is doing reconnaissance in the factory that 2B and the assault squad are attacking at the start of the previous playthrough.

This second main character controls almost identically to 2B except in one key way: because he’s a “Scanner” unit, 9S doesn’t have a secondary weapon for melee.  Instead, he can hack into machines to initiate a shooter mini-game that will deal immense damage (or explode if it’s weak enough) the enemy upon completion.  It’s a nice variation on the core gameplay, and after about five hours with the character, I’m still entertained by the mechanic, even if I would like a little bit more variety in the shooter’s level design (this is the eternal problem of a game that tries to integrate so many different game styles into a cohesive whole).  The effect is for combat, which from 2B’s perspective was a relatively frenetic button masher, to become more deliberate with very little use of primary melee in favor of hacking minigames that will score instant kills against the vast majority of regular enemies.  I’ve found that while it’s still possible to customize 9S’s stats to optimize for whatever style the player prefers, I’ve been content to leave him set up in the same way I customized 2B because hacking is just a far more efficient way of dispatching threats.

The hacking minigame is a multidirectional shooter that consists of maneuvering around a small field to avoid being hit by fire from enemies while eliminating them within a set time limit.

Narratively, the shift to 9S’s perspective has been satisfying at major story points where his presence in a different physical location or his hacking ability gives him insights that were simply hidden from the player during 2B’s story.  The game also sprinkles in more cutaway scenes to give us more detail about what’s happening with the antagonists Adam and Eve (I’m still cracking up over a scene that shows them lounging around in underwear while Eve, confused about the practice, asks his brother why they’re bothering since they don’t have genitals to cover up in the first place).  The effect is both enlightening and infuriating, because 9S knows so much more about the interior lives of the machines he and 2B are fighting, but he’s still frustratingly dense about the fact that the machines have developed sentience.  One particularly heartbreaking example comes from the repeat of the fight with Simone, a machine who has been modifying her body to achieve her idea of beauty.  While 9S hacks Simone, we see glimpses of her memories that show that she was driven to her extreme modifications in order to try to satisfy a machine with whom she was in love (I’m pretty confident the object of her affections is Jean-Paul, a machine who is fascinated with philosophy and a total jerk to his adoring female fans).  Other machines still on the network perceive Simone as malfunctioning, but 9S’s hacks reveal that she’s simply been driven to extreme behavior as she’s tried to make sense of new thoughts and emotions that are so vaguely defined that she can’t help but be baffled by them.

Other, smaller moments continue to reinforce this expanded view of the sentience that machines and androids have developed during their war as 9S has available to him a multitude of side quests that 2B couldn’t have completed because she’s unable to hack.  I don’t think I can emphasize enough how this introduction of a relatively small game mechanic does so much to convey new information and transform the player’s understanding of the world.

9S has a moment of self-reflection after hacking a machine that’s pondering the meaning of its existence.

Everything isn’t great on the second playthrough, unfortunately.  The segments where the player has to recapitulate story quests by traversing the world are extremely samey; enemies have scaled up in strength to match the characters’ power level, but the environment is pretty much unchanged from the previous iteration as the player has to travel between the various areas of the map.  The fact that fast travel points don’t become available until nearly halfway through the main story only underlines this repetition in a way that detracts from any otherwise fun and engaging replay.  Still, I’m looking forward to hitting the section of the game in the last third where 2B and 9S are forcibly separated, because I expect there will be a wealth of new material in that section to make up for the familiarity of the middle part.

On Remixing

One of the fun things about doing deep dives on The Wicked + The Divine is taking time to explore the pop culture influences on the series.  Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are both huge music nerds (someday I’m going to go back and read the rest of their series Phonogram, which is about folks who perform magic through different genres of music), and they like to share what things are influencing the stuff that appears on the pages of WicDiv.  Gillen is an especially good resource for this stuff, because he writes up notes on each issue that he publishes on his Tumblr, and he maintains an ever expanding playlist on Spotify for music that is relevant to the characters and themes he’s writing into the comic.  For someone like me, whose pop culture knowledge just never really expanded into the realm of pop music (I grew up listening to country music), these are valuable resources.

Along a different track, I’ve been very slowly cultivating an appreciation for hip hop music over the last couple years (emphasis on very slowly; I’m down with stuff by Kendrick Lamar, but I’ve had a hard time branching out from there).  Along with learning about the music, I’ve also taken an interest in the history of the culture at large (it helps that there’s been a recent surge in high profile projects that are exploring hip hop’s roots in the Bronx during the late ’70s).  One of the most interesting things learning about the early days is musical practices of sampling and mixing.  Because hip hop began as a party culture, the use of other artists’ music wasn’t really a problem because performances happened live in spaces where paying other artists for use of their material wasn’t a concern.  When rapping shifted from being a live performance art form to something that could be recorded, there was a fair bit of angst over the fact that you needed to have original music on the records for the MCs to work with in order to avoid running into legal problems (not to mention the way this cut DJs out of the recording process when they had been the initial, chief stars of the hip hop scene).  The work of DJs took a backseat in the context of recording because their art was repurposing others’ music into something new and interesting in a real time context (part of the appeal of early DJs like Grand Master Flash was the potential for improvisation and showmanship in mixing together parts of different songs and records).  That can’t be done on a recording, so the artistry moved from performance to careful crafting of interesting tracks.  While the DJ remains an important figure in any party music scene, in the studio their work was folded into the domain of the producer.

What I never really thought about in any great detail before is the way that hip hop’s tradition of mixing has been integrated into the production of a lot of pop music from the last forty years.  This is where The Wicked + The Divine has been a really useful cipher for thinking about that aspect of the music.  In his early writer’s notes, Gillen talks pretty frequently about the direction the creative team decided to go in presenting the gods’ miracles, and one of the key aesthetics they agreed to continuously return to is the hyper-saturated colors and digital artifacts that signal the miracles’ reality bending nature.  The gods literally take the rules of the universe and twist them into something that’s recognizable while still being distinctly different from the original.  They’re doing remixes.

I’ve become fascinated with this idea of remixes lately because I’ve been listening to a lot of a electronic-pop group (which I discovered, naturally, through the WicDiv playlist) called Chvrches.  My introduction to them was the weird, moody “Science/Visions,” a track that’s full of a bass track that you more feel than hear underneath synthesizers that uncomfortably remind me of the ’80s (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to disassociate synthesizers from ’80s era music) and vocals that alternate between a sort of breathy, ethereal quality and something deeply menacing.  It’s strange stuff, but I find it really compelling.

The weirdness of the elements of this track drew me in enough that I checked out Chvrches’s other stuff, and what I found was a pretty rich library of songs that are full of the same mix of heavy synthesizers and light vocals which just hit the right buttons for my brain.  That wasn’t the only thing though; Chvrches belongs to a different strain of the same tradition of mixing and remixing that comes down from hip hop, and appropriately they have a large selection of their tracks that have been remixed by other artists in collaboration.  Take, for example, this song, “Bury It.”

This is a lighter track with a more percussive bass line and a heavier emphasis on the vocals; the instruments are working to support the vocals that draw a very simple picture of someone working through the fallout of a relationship that just didn’t work out for whatever reason.  It’s definitely a lot brighter than “Science/Visions,” but more of an upbeat, happy track considering the subject matter.

Now, this is where it gets interesting (to me, anyway).  The one track that I am absolutely in love with from Chvrches is actually a remix of “Bury It” created by the group Keys N Krates.  What was a pretty staid song that I’d categorize as a break up tune becomes this incredibly energetic track that takes samples from the vocal track and repurposes them to complement the heavier percussion of this version.

The tempo’s elevated, there’s a new keyboard track that helps introduce more sense of motion into the melody, and the entire vocal line has been distorted and sped up to blend more with the instrumentals so that the song’s origins as a break up tune are majorly occluded.  I know it’s weird, but I am so into this at the moment.  It’s so incredibly delightful to explore this music and consider how different artists take an existing piece and rework it to emphasize whatever their signature style happens to capture to such an extent that you can still see the original piece while enjoying something really different.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #17”

This issue wraps up the “Commercial Suicide” arc that’s been taking a casual stroll through the lives of the gods who up to this point in the story have largely avoided the spotlight.  Our final subject in the series is Sakhmet, who is a really hard character to get a read on.  In a cast of characters that are all deeply flawed but at least have some sort of empathic hook, Sakhmet stands out as the platonic ideal of a hedonist: she spends every waking moment in pursuit of sex, alcohol, or violence, and the rest of the time she tries to sleep.  While some of the other gods feel like they’re performing what they think their role should be, Sakhmet fully submerges herself in the identity of capricious cat god.

Cover of The Wicked + The Divine #17. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan)

This is not to say that there’s nothing to Sakhmet; Gillen gives us enough to understand that her emotional blankness is a defense she’s put in place to cope with a difficult childhood.  The problem that I run into as a reader is that Sakhmet’s adamant about not dwelling on the past; unlike Tara or Amaterasu or the Morrigan, Sakhmet just doesn’t present a clear connection between her history and her behavior beyond wanting to ignore it.  She’s a character who dares the reader to look for deeper meaning in her actions while reveling in her own rejection of the same.  Frankly, it’s kind of infuriating.

I can’t even rightly say that infuriation is the point of Sakhmet; she’s determined to do nothing but live in the present as some sort of mindfulness savant, and a massively important part of that is her utter indifference to everyone else.  She takes the cat god thing extremely seriously–or maybe she doesn’t; her inscrutability is kind of the point.  All I’ve been able to glean from Sakhmet as a character up to this point is that she’s the embodiment of apathetic chaos.  She’s not evil in the way that Woden is, but she’s definitely dangerous.  I mean, she shows off that she can keep up with Baal in combat without really trying, and the big twist of the issue is that she seeks out her father and eats him on a whim.  It’s no wonder that the rest of the Pantheon try to keep her drunk and distracted.

I want to say that there’s more going on here, but honestly, it really feels like Sakhmet has nailed down the whole “not caring about anything” schtick. (Artwork and letters by Brandon Graham)

Ultimately I find this issue somewhat disappointing.  I think that Gillen wanted to tell a story about Sakhmet that highlights how she prefers emotional numbness to dealing with any of her personal issues (and also emphasize that all the gods’ approaches to being themselves are radically different but not morally aligned one way or another in a general sense).  Sakhmet does not come across as a person with healthy coping skills (I mean, cannibalism as a diversion from being sober), but her flaws are presented with no more judgment than Amaterasu’s brazen cultural appropriation (Amaterasu actually comes across a lot worse in many ways).  There does seem to be some conversation happening between those two issues particularly (because, y’know, dogs and cats are part of a human-defined binary of animal personalities), but even with that hook Sakhmet’s story is just hard to latch on to.  In the brief moments when we do get to see glimpses of Sakhmet’s past, she seems to reflect on them in an unsentimental manner.  Her trauma is something that she doesn’t want to bother with, and she’s determined that no one else is going to go about trying to pity her either.

The issue ends with one last single page comic drawn by McKelvie that gives us a teaser about the appearance of someone claiming to be Persephone.  We don’t get to see this person, so it’s totally up in the air as to whether it’s supposed to be Laura or not.  I like this little teaser because it’s a nice signal that the series is heading back into major plot moving territory (and we’ll soon be back to McKelvie and Wilson’s regular gorgeous artwork).  It’s very welcome after the Sakhmet issue, which is just hard for me to connect with.  I am going to miss all of the smaller stories though; setting aside my difficulties with Sakhmet, I kind of adore the rest of the issues in this arc (even Woden’s issue; he’s a character I really love to hate).  It’s not that there aren’t more small character moments ahead, but revisiting the issues in this set have given me a better appreciation for them.  It took me a long time to jump into the fourth trade after I finished this one.

This joke really works for me though. (Artwork by Brandon Graham)

Nier: Automata Log 3

After nearly twenty hours of play time, I finished Nier: Automata.  Then the game told me that I had only reached the first ending, and I would have to replay the game and take different story paths to get the others.

I’m having very mixed feelings about this turn of events.

On the one hand, I genuinely appreciate a game that’s been designed so that it can be completed in an intense weekend gaming session.  The ability to drop in and out of play quickly that I mentioned before now makes more sense, because the total experience of a playthrough is so brief.  The ending of this story, where 2B and 9S defeat the machine brothers who were recently born and have escalated the machines’ war on the androids, is pretty satisfying.  You get a nice emotional arc for 2B where she comes to realize that she does appreciate 9S despite his many annoying qualities, and the villains get some solid, if rote, character development as the elder brother Adam becomes obsessed with humanity to the point of risking death and the younger brother Eve goes berserk trying to get revenge on the androids when his brother actually does die.  The machines form a nice tableau of various models of community, both healthy and unhealthy, and the ending leaves open the implication that the war is nearly over and peace between the machines and androids is imminent.

Our protagonist shows some emotion as she mourns the death of her partner. Cue fake out as 9S has just transferred his consciousness into the machine network temporarily while he waits on a new android body.

On the other hand, the credits roll, and at the end you get a message saying that you’ve only seen part of the story, so you need to replay the game to get the full experience.  I know that games with multiple endings were all the rage back in the late ’90s, and I ate them up as a kid, but now I feel so incredibly ambivalent about it.  Nier is a game that I haven’t spent enough time with to get bored of yet, so I’ll probably do a replay, but I’m already wondering exactly how many times I’m going to have to play through to see all the endings, and whether I’ll care long enough to muddle through the repeated sections again and again.  It’s funny how multiple endings in the interest of “replayability” shifts from a selling point when you have all the free time and none of the money to a burden when you have less of the free time and slightly more than none of the money.  Every time I go back now I’m going to end up asking myself, “Is this game respecting my time?” and every time I play a bit that doesn’t help flesh out the world or introduce some new and interesting game mechanics, I’m going to be inclined to say no.

Recently Read Comics Rundown

Over our spring break this year, Rachael and I flew back to Georgia to visit with my family for a couple days.  Because the travel involved a lot of flights that are best endured by popping in some earbuds and tuning out the world, I loaded my laptop up with a decent catalog of comics that I’ve been meaning to read for the past few months.  What better place is there to slam down a lot of sequential art than while cruising at thirty thousand feet in a cramped metal tube?  So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts about things that have slid over my eyeballs recently.

Death: The Deluxe Edition

Cover of Death: The Deluxe Edition (Cover by Dave McKean; Image credit: Comic Vine)

One hole in my The Sandman reading for a long time has been the two Death miniseries that Neil Gaiman wrote as side projects to the main series back in the early ’90s.  I grabbed this collection on sale a few months ago and was just waiting for the mood to strike me before jumping in.  It’s been a long time since I read any of Gaiman’s comics work, and one thing that I always notice whenever I go back to it is just how long it takes just to read.  Gaiman’s a very wordy writer, and I always get the impression from his comics that he doesn’t really care to let the artist convey action without explanation from dialogue or narration.  It’s hard to tell how much of this is a personal tic and how much is an artifact of the era in which The Sandman was written; comics from before the 2000s always strike me as being more wordy than more contemporary books.

Anyway, this collection includes the two miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life, in addition to a few other stories that have appeared in The Sandman.  There are also a couple of small stories whose origins I don’t know and a gallery of artwork of Death by various artists (the collection ends with a PSA comic where Death explains HIV and methods of safer sex to the reader drawn by Dave McKean which is pretty delightful).  It’s essentially a collection of all the major stories that feature Death as the central character, so if she’s your jam then this is a pretty cool thing.

The miniseries themselves are a mixed bag.  The first, High Cost of Living, is best described as an entry in the oeuvre of Manic Pixie Dream Girl tales; the protagonist is a teenage boy named Sexton who is bored with life and wants to kill himself until Death, who is spending her one day a century as a mortal, saves him from a fallen refrigerator and drags him along on a madcap journey to enjoy the zest of life.  It’s a very familiar story if you pay attention to the genre, and there are no real surprises to be found here.  Time of Your Life is a slightly more interesting tale; Gaiman returns to the characters of Foxglove and Hazel, the lesbian couple who are Barbie’s neighbors in A Game of You.  This story is essentially about their relationship and how they’ve grown and changed in the intervening years; it runs dangerously close to falling into the trap of queer tragedy but takes a hard left at the last moment to deliver a relatively happy ending (although also like in A Game of You, Gaiman has no compunctions about literally throwing the bodies of characters of color in the way to protect his white protagonists).  Both are worth reading if you enjoy Gaiman’s strange world and love his side characters, but honestly they don’t strike me as truly essential.

Archie and Jughead

Cover of Jughead Volume 2. (Cover by Derek Charm; Image credit: Comic Vine)

There’s something really refreshing in the low stakes, slice-of-life stories that you get in an Archie comic.  The rebooted series about Archie and Jughead from the last couple years (written respectively by Mark Waid and Chip Zdarsky) have been a nice diversion from the high drama of cape books and other fantastical fare.  Their reimagining as more contemporary stories that hold on to the core innocence of Riverdale holds a pretty strong appeal; also, these are stories that are built around jokes, and stories built around jokes always have the potential to do really surprising things with character and plot that don’t always happen in more serious narratives.  Archie’s girl troubles are compelling in their own way, but the Jughead series is totally delightful.  The series’s second volume contains two stories: one where Jughead and Archie get lost in the woods and work out some underlying feelings of resentment about their differing interests getting in the way of their friendship, and one (written by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl fame) where Jughead, who in the new continuity is openly and canonically asexual, accidentally finds himself on a date and struggling to explain that this is all a big misunderstanding that his friends are only making worse.  Also, there’s magic.  All said, it’s way more fun than it has a right to be.

Shutter

Cover of Shutter Volume 1. (Cover by Leila del Duca & Owen Gieni; Image credit: Comic Vine)

After spending entirely too much time thinking about one issue of The Wicked + The Divine, I decided that I actually really liked the artist Leila del Duca’s work, so I looked up her creator owned series with writer Joe Keatinge, Shutter.  I went into this series completely blind, and it ended up surprising me repeatedly because of it.  The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a very similar world to China Mieville’s New Crobuzon universe (that is, it’s a kitchen sink universe where everything exists just because the creators thought it’d be cool to include), but less grimdark and more pulp action adventure with a healthy dose of family drama.  I am absolutely going to read more of this.

Hip Hop Family Tree

Cover of Hip Hop Family Tree Volume 1. (Cover by Ed Piskor; Image credit: Comic Vine)

I’ve been sitting on Hip Hop Family Tree for a while; it was another one of those books that I had heard about and wanted to check out, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet; spending time on a plane is a good excuse to catch up on reading backlogs, y’know.  This one is still in progress for me, but so far I’m really enjoying it.  My only familiarity with Ed Piskor prior to this was reading the first issue of his X-Men: Grand Design miniseries which clearly takes a lot in the way of style and structure from Hip Hop Family Tree.  The book isn’t so much a graphic novel as a graphic chronicle of the history of the hip hop subculture in the late ’70s and early ’80s in New York’s Bronx neighborhood.  It interweaves various moments and stories of early hip hop figures to create a really interesting narrative; I’d actually recommend reading it in conjunction with watching The Get Down, because Piskor’s history offers a lot of context for background events that happen in that fictional narrative.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #16”

When we first meet Baphomet and the Morrigan in the third issue, they give the impression of having a pretty established relationship with its share of problems and a penchant for over the top theatrics.  These two are clearly trying way too hard to be the Pantheon’s premier goth couple.  They’re also crass and violent in ways that the other gods just don’t do (in public), which feeds into a certain punk aesthetic that romanticizes a relationship that’s extremely volatile (Baphomet does fashion a replica of the Morrigan’s severed head for the sake of an extended gag).  It’s meant to be pretty clear that these two are wrapped up in a toxic relationship with each other.

The Morrigan’s cover is all about featuring her sleeve of ravens; she kind of has a thing about carrion birds, y’know? (Cover by Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson)

The sixteenth issue of The Wicked + The Divine goes a little more in depth on the Morrigan and Baphomet’s history, exploring their relationship before their ascension and the Morrigan’s own feelings of responsibility for Baphomet.  The frame for the issue is Baal and Minerva delivering lunch to the Morrigan, who is being held prisoner in Valhalla thanks to some handwave-y god technology built by Woden.  Minerva has some observations to make about the way that the Morrigan’s being treated (not the least of which is a less than idle wondering about why if Woden can make a cage to hold a god he didn’t do just that when Lucifer was causing trouble for the Pantheon), and she provides a good catalyst for the Morrigan to reminisce about her history.

In flashback we meet Marian and Cameron, a pair of goth kids who are super into LARPing and other forms of role play (I confess I originally figured them for theater kids, but LARPers is so much better).  Marian is way more into acting than Cameron, preferring to play the large ham to his sardonic double entendres (Cameron throws shade on a friend’s Vampire: The Masquerade campaign without technically breaking character, and while it’s extremely mean I still find it perhaps the funniest bit in an otherwise very morbid issue).  She’s all enthusiasm and reckless abandon while he’s reserve and calculation.

I have a friend who used to play Vampire: The Masquerade, and she assures me this is a totally accurate representation of how the game is played, except when it isn’t. (Art by Leila del Duca, colors by Mat Lopes, letters by Clayton Cowles)

But that’s not the whole picture with Marian and Cameron, not really.  Marian doesn’t always just give herself over to a “yes, and,” mentality; we see her furious with Cameron for having sex with another girl in one scene and carefully considering how much to disclose about herself in another.  She contains multitudes.  Cameron, conversely, comes off as relatively one note; he maintains a certain ironic distance as a way of protecting himself.  After we meet him and Marian LARPing, the next scene shows him getting a phone call informing him that his parents have suddenly died.  From that absolutely horrible tragedy, he leaps head first into nihilism.  Now, this isn’t the intellectual nihilism of Cassandra, who is totally assured that existence is all meaningless but still finds herself caring deeply about more than a few things (you just can’t be that indignant all the time if nothing matters to you); Cameron’s wallowing in a gut level terror that everything’s a painful farce.  As with everything he does later as Baphomet, this guy’s core ethos is just doing whatever relieves the existential terror in the moment.

I think that middle panel is my favorite in the whole issue. What is Marian thinking about before she goes on with her story? (Art by Leila del Duca, colors by Mat Lopes, letters by Clayton Cowles)

And this is the dynamic that we’ve seen between Baphomet and the Morrigan since the beginning: he’s in a constant state of near panic about dying, and she’s trying to keep him centered on enjoying the moment they have.  She’s doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship, but because love is a weird thing, she still finds herself drawn to him.  Despite the betrayals and the insecurities, the Morrigan ultimately asks Ananke to elevate Cameron because she wants a companion.  All the reckless destruction that Baphomet’s wrought has happened because the Morrigan wanted him by her side.  Of course, she’s not actually responsible for Baphomet’s actions; she didn’t make him attack Cassandra and Inanna.  Actual responsibility doesn’t really enter into it when we’re talking about toxic relationships.

This is a serious moment when Marian dumps Cameron for real, but I totally laughed over the flaming trash can. (Art by Leila del Duca, colors by Mat Lopes, letters by Clayton Cowles)

And that’s what it honestly comes down to.  Marian has tried for a long time to make things work with Cameron, but he’s wrapped up in his own problems in a way that leaves her always doing the reaching out.  The central pattern of their interactions in this issue goes like this: Marian does something sincerely, and Cameron reacts in a cynical way that at first irritates her before she snaps back to indulging his behavior.  The rhythm of the story lacks a high tension climax, instead opting for showing ever more extreme iterations of this cycle that culminate with the Morrigan almost cutting Cameron loose before finally deciding she still wants him to be with her as a god.  The escalation of the flashbacks tracks straight through to the Morrigan and Baphomet’s first appearance back in the third issue when they were indulging in high melodrama at the same time that they were recklessly endangering all the fans who had come to see the Morrigan perform.  These two shouldn’t be together, and when the Morrigan is separated from Baphomet for a sufficiently long time she seems to have that epiphany herself.  Of course, the issue ends with Baphomet sending a message via hamburger claiming that he can explain everything, and the Morrigan’s incredulous response signals that the cycle is only going to continue.

Yeah, there’s no way the Morrigan and Baphomet don’t end up killing each other before this is all over and done with. (Artwork by Leila del Duca, colors by Mat Lopes, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The one page comic drawn by McKelvie for this issue is a really weird one.  It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I was reading it that I finally realized that the guy who took the video is meant to be Dionysus before his ascension (the tip off is the smiley face button that he’s wearing on his shirt).  Otherwise, this is just a little glimpse of the urban legend that Laura mentioned when she went down to see the Morrigan the first time: that most people who try to take video of the Morrigan end up with grainy footage that will show them at the moment of their death.

Bonus panel: Minerva’s sad face is the weirdest thing in a comic that has Baphomet speaking to the Morrigan through a ketchup golem. (Artwork by Leila del Duca, colors by Mat Lopes, letters by Clayton Cowles)