“We’re Gods. We Live to Inspire.” Or, “We Don’t Really Do Anything Useful.”

Occasionally, occasionally, I like to step outside the realm of superhero comics and read something else.  One of the series that caught my attention this past year is The Wicked + The Divine, mostly because I read and enjoyed some of Kieron Gillen’s work on the X-books from a few years back, and Jamie McKelvie, who did a run of covers for Ms. Marvel, impressed me as a particularly appealing artist who has an extremely clean style that still feels incredibly grounded even when his subjects are superhuman.

Also, I noticed a bunch of positive buzz from the news sources that I follow.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I was sold on this series because of the talent more than the subject matter, which is this: every ninety years twelve people learn that they’re incarnations of ancient gods, and they become overnight celebrities who are doomed to only live for two years before dying.  It’s an interesting premise in that it explores the intersection between popular artistry and expressions of faith, but without the added push of the creative team and seeing people talking about it, it’s nothing I would have picked up on my own.

Nonetheless, I did decide I wanted to read it, so I got the first volume The Faust Act for Christmas.  It’s good; I liked it.

General first impressions are that this is a series that’s improved with a second reading.  I sat down to read the whole volume a day or two after Christmas, and while I enjoyed it pretty well by the end, I found the first couple issues somewhat disorienting (there’s a ton of information provided in the first issue along with a lot of misdirection on the part of the gods who don’t want the public to know for sure that they’re actually divine, which is pretty confusing until you get more context in the later issues).  A few days ago, I sat down to re-read it as a refresher for this blog post (I love that few comics volumes carry the same time commitment that other books do), and I have to say that the experience the second time around was significantly better.  It cemented in my mind that I’d like to carry on with the series.

There are a ton of variant covers for this series, and all of the ones by McKelvie and Wilson are phenomenal. One of the highlights of the trade for the first five issues is that it includes a gallery of a bunch of the variants without any other cover text to get in the way. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I’m probably most invested in learning more about the protagonist, Laura, who’s a seventeen year old girl with an impressive fascination with the Pantheon (this is what the group of gods refer to themselves as in all their PR).  Laura finds the idea that the gods only live for two years after their debut into celebrity appealing, and part of her fascination is wrapped up in the idea that if she can associate closely enough with them then she might be able to achieve something similar for herself.  One of the major underlying threads in the series is that Laura is coping with depression which leads her to consistently make self destructive decisions, so this fascination with a brief, bright life carries great appeal for her.  All of that’s also mixed up with the typical teenage fascination with pop idols that’s so common.

It’s this mixture of pop culture worship and need for identity that’s really fascinating about the whole series too.  Gillen and McKelvie’s central conceit is that there’s a huge intersection between the human fascination with both religion and pop icons.  We look to gods and celebrities for inspiration and direction in our social attitudes and forms of art, and the confusion about whether the actions of a person whose primary job is entertainment hold any deeper meaning is a poignant one to explore.  I love how it’s reflected in Wicked + The Divine by the contrast between Laura’s profound confidence in the Pantheon as divine beings before she actually witnesses their powers firsthand and the ongoing skepticism of Cassandra, a documentarian who studied world mythologies and wants badly to refute the Pantheon’s claims of godhood (before the first volume ends, Cassandra also sees the gods’ miracles, though she maintains a general antipathy towards them).

Of course, the gods themselves are also pretty fascinating, particularly since the premise dictates that while they are divine, they’re also young people who lived normal mortal lives before being discovered, and they’re painfully aware of the cost of being gods on Earth.  Some of them seem to accept the situation with a certain equanimity, but others, like Lucifer (Luci for short), seem pretty disenchanted with their lot (of course, Lucifer’s a dedicated rebel and liar, so it’s remarkably difficult to figure out when she’s being sincere and when she’s playing the trickster).  The series’s first volume doesn’t answer many questions about the nature of the gods’ reincarnation (no one discusses whether the gods remember their past lives after they’re elevated or what the intervening years between Recurrences are like for them).  It’s a nice bit of mystery that leaves even the divine players with a semblance of humanity.

Though I’ve already said that I really like McKelvie’s artwork, I haven’t yet mentioned just how important the colorist Matthew Wilson is to the look of the book.  McKelvie employs minimal texture in his art, and this style leaves lots of space for the coloring to impact the look of panels.  Given that many of the characters of the book are young pop stars, there’s a certain ostentatious feel to their fashion, and Wilson’s vibrant palette contributes immensely to the overall look.  The end result is a book that I’ve found myself flipping through repeatedly just to look at the panels independent of the story.

So yeah, I think I’ll pick up the second volume sometime.

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