Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #34”

If I were to describe the arc that this issue kicks off, I’d call it something cheeky like “The Secret Origin of the Pantheon’s Greatest Foe: Ananke!”  To be honest, I’m more than a little disappointed that Gillen didn’t get an artist to do a variant cover in the style of Bronze Age superhero comics with that tagline and a scene showing Ananke dramatically murdering someone in front of a shadowy backdrop.  I mean, I know that the stated purpose of The Wicked + The Divine‘s variant covers is to show the state of comics in the period from 2014 to 2019, but I would totally dig a throwback cover.  I’m sure if I really wanted to I could probably poke around on the internet and find some fanart that rocks that particular vibe.

Nice to meet you, original Persephone. Hope we get to spend a lot of time with… oh, and you’re dead after ten pages. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Still, while we’re on the subject of covers, let’s talk about issue #34’s.  To kick off the final year of WicDiv issues, McKelvie and Wilson have returned to the series’s original format: a close cropped, straight on headshot of a character that features prominently in the issue.  In this case, we get a portrait of a character who gets introduced in this issue just before she dies violently.  The elderly woman with the rocking skull tattoo on her face is the original incarnation of Persephone.  We learn tantalizingly little about her in this issue, but it’s enough to understand that she’s as major a player in the Recurrence cycle as Ananke.  From the cover, there isn’t a huge amount that can be gleaned; the headshot covers are generally good for providing detailed studies of a character’s general aesthetic, but because they all require the subject to present with a neutral expression there’s typically not a lot more to be sussed out.  Probably my favorite detail of this cover is the set of three dots underneath original Persephone’s right eye, a detail that mirrors Laura’s own face tattoo.

Okay, this could be about something different, but I figure Ananke names herself after necessity, so why can’t we name her sister after desire? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It feels a little weird to call this character original Persephone though, especially since the issue’s opening page establishes that the first time the Pantheon appeared was six thousand years ago; the Recurrence far predates ancient Greece, so Persephone’s not really an accurate name for this character (we’ll be revisiting this beginning scene a couple more times as the arc progresses, so it’s worth thinking about how best to discuss who and what are depicted in it).  This flashback shows us that Ananke was present at the beginning of the cycle–in fact, she apparently instigated it–and the last god she murdered before she got on with her mysterious ritual was her own sister.  Both characters go unnamed here (again, you can’t apply Greek names to characters who exist before Greek civilization), but there’s a nod to the meaning of Ananke’s name in the midst of things before she gets her Cain on.  We know that Ananke’s name means “necessity”; a recurring motif with her is the fact that she does what she has to in order to remain undiscovered when she would rather act in a more subtle way.  Murdering Laura’s family, for example, is an act of necessity because she fails to leave the scene of Inanna’s murder before any witnesses show up to connect her with what’s happened (as she blows the house up she expresses what I’m going to read as sincere regret that she has to kill a few more people than she planned).  Paired with necessity in this moment in the past (and more broadly as part of a probably universal dichotomy) is desire.  The original Persephone’s name hasn’t been revealed yet at the time of this writing, but I’m going to guess that she’ll eventually be named something like Epithymia, assuming she ever receives a proper name at all.  Until that gets confirmed one way or another, I’m going to go with Epithymia for discussion purposes here.

Letting old people become gods sounds like a way better plan when you know they burn out from the power. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Besides the revelation that Ananke was part of the original Pantheon, which she murdered, and that her sister was also part of the Pantheon, whom she murdered especially hard (Gillen’s script excerpts in the back of Mothering Invention note that he particularly wants the 4000 BCE events to evoke Ananke in the role of Cain with all the baggage that entails if you know your Christian mythology), we get a truckload of new information about the nature of the Recurrence.  The thing that keeps drawing my attention are the gods themselves; in addition to Ananke and Epithymia there are the four godheads in Ananke’s sack, and all six of these figures are elderly.  Part of what we’ve known since the 455 special is that gods, if not killed, will eventually burn themselves out of divine power, but here we have six (relatively) healthy elderly gods.  Did they ascend at a later age, or is it possible that the original incarnation of the Pantheon was designed to not be the death sentence for its subjects that all the later Recurrences end up being?  The high point of the origin story is a sequence where Epithymia and Ananke take turns establishing new rules for the Recurrence going forward (that The Wicked + The Divine‘s origins in-universe are the result of a storytelling game delights me to no end).  One of the rules that Epithymia proposes is that all the gods have to be dead by the end of each Recurrence; she justifies this by pointing out that Ananke would kill them anyway if they aren’t consumed by their divinity.  It’s possible that Epithymia, as the apparent original architect of the Recurrence, had something less lethal in mind when she called the gods to incarnate in mortal people, but it might also be that she intended godhood as a state that elders in her community achieved at the end of their lives; a two year doom is less horrific when inflicted on people who’ve already lived their lives rather than people who are just beginning.

That’s cold, Ananke. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Also notable is the fact that of the gods we see, at least a couple of them are recognizable from the 2014 Pantheon.  Epithymia is clearly the original incarnation of Persephone, and in Ananke’s sack of heads we can see one with Inanna’s star on her cheek (this one isn’t surprising; Inanna is an extremely old real-world god).  On two of the other godheads are markings that seem reminiscent of other present-day gods; one of them has golden eyes that could be connected with Baphomet or Sakhmet (both have golden cat’s eyes; don’t forget that Baphomet’s real identity is Nergal, a much older god whose iconography often associates him with lions), and another has markings that resemble stylized goat horns that may be a reference to Lucifer.  All of this may not actually be relevant to the story being told, but I find it interesting on a world build level; it suggests that the gods that incarnate with each Recurrence are actually a much smaller pool than originally intended.  I’m guessing we’re meant to understand that the gods appear in guises that are culturally significant, but their actual identities are more archetypal.  It makes for some interesting speculation about how one might map broad archetypes onto each Pantheon that we’ve glimpsed (Ananke’s insistence on labeling Persephone “the Destroyer” might also point towards her influence in shaping each Pantheon to suit the story she’s trying to tell).

Lastly (for the origin sequence anyway), I just have to say that I really dig maiden-mother-crone motifs in storytelling.  They’re horrendously reductive when it comes to female characterization (and based exclusively around the state of a person’s uterus), but they make for a fun model to play with and manipulate.  The significance of Ananke claiming both maiden and crone for herself should be immediately obvious (Minerva says she’s also Ananke, and so in our story we have both a “maiden” and a “crone” who appear to have the same goals), and Epithymia claiming mother raises some interesting points of speculation about how Laura plays into all this stuff.  We won’t get too deep into those here though.

This is a major inflection point for Laura. Being trapped in a cage with your best friend and a living head can really put things in perspective. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Moving forward into 2015, there are some things worth noting about what’s going on with Laura and Cassandra.  When last we left our heroines, they had found themselves imprisoned by Woden (revealed to actually be David Blake) in one of his god cages with the living head of his son Jon (revealed to be the actual maker god Mimir).  Laura was in the midst of one of her many self destructive spirals, having just made a pass at Cassandra, when things got awkward and everyone stopped talking to one another.  When things pick up in this issue, Laura has gotten tired of the awkwardness and no one talking, and so we get some long absent caption boxes.  Laura’s narration to the reader was so ubiquitous in the first two arcs, but its complete absence after she resurfaces as Persephone sort of drowned out that earlier feature of the series.  I, at least, had a moment of disorientation as I realized that I hadn’t been directly inside Laura’s head in over twenty issues.  This shift in narrative structure is both jarring and serves as a signal that important things are happening with Laura’s character beginning in this arc.  She stops shutting the reader out at the same time she makes the decision to stop trying to sabotage her own life.  We see her making an effort to help Cassandra figure out what’s going on instead of just sulking, and part of her internal thoughts revolve around her musings on the road to hell–“paved with good intentions” and all that–which she astutely notes is a two-way street.  It’s incredibly refreshing to see Laura doing stuff to try to solve problems instead of grieving.  Given that we’re nearing the series’s end, it’s about time to see our protagonist making decisions that will affect an internal change.

Reclaiming her identity as Laura is a big deal. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Interestingly, at the same time that Laura begins to claw her way out of the grief and depression hole, Cassandra has her own mini-crisis as she reflects on (out of all the recent unpleasantness) Amaterasu’s death and Amaterasu’s belief that everything they were doing as gods had a greater purpose.  The juxtaposition of Cassandra grieving someone she didn’t particularly like (they got into a fight over Hiroshima because Cassandra pointed out how insensitive Amaterasu was about her Japanese appropriation) while having the nihilist’s equivalent of a crisis of faith (“What if there is a meaning to all of it?”) feels like a moment of genuine growth, if only because it revolves around Cassandra exercising a bit of compassion for someone she never respected while considering an alternate viewpoint on the whole meaning of life question.  It’s a moment that passes quickly enough, but it sticks with me; she doesn’t fret over the death of Dionysus, someone she actually considered a friend, or dwell on the apparent waste the last six months have been.  It’s a very un-Cassandra mode.

The fact that the nightmare scenario for Cass is that Amaterasu might be right about something is only the most recently endearing thing about her. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

There are some other bits and bobs worth mentioning from this issue.  Jon has informed Cassandra and Laura that the murder machine is actually a do-nothing machine, and because of this weirdly specific detail, Laura deduces that Minerva isn’t trustworthy.  Also, when Cassandra gets trapped in the god cage, the sliver of her divinity that inhabits the other Norns disappears, reverting them to their normal selves.  This happens while they’re in the middle of a conversation about how they map onto the members of Destiny’s Child; Cassandra is obviously Beyonce, but they’re arguing over who they parallel.  To illustrate her point that Verðandi is probably the one whose name no one remembers, Skuld points out that the press will make the effort to print Urðr’s name correctly, but they’re unlikely to do the same for Verðandi.  In a moment that is either a really meta-joke or a misprint, Skuld pronounces her counterpart’s name Verdanði.  It’s a small thing in a much bigger story, but it’s the weird detail that gets me all excited to pick this series apart.

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