Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #37”

In his foreword to Endless Nights, the comic anthology of stories centered around the seven Endless of The Sandman mythos, Neil Gaiman summarizes the original story of The Sandman in this way:

The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.

If you’re familiar with The Sandman, then this encapsulation of the original series is remarkably apt; Dream, being an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, finds that he must do both.  His epiphany turns on the extinguishing of one aspect of himself in favor of a different one.  It’s tragic, and cathartic, and redemptive, and a mess of other things that you expect grand stories to be when they reach their climax.  Issue #37 of The Wicked + The Divine takes this aspirational storytelling and upends it to highlight the petty motivations that animate most human dramas.

Spoiler alert: it’s Ananke again. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue is easily the most unsettling one in the series.  Like with the rest of the covers for the Mothering Invention arc, we’re sticking with the straight on portrait of a significant figure in the Pantheon and Ananke’s intertwined history.  Unlike every other cover, this one is entirely in shadow similar to the coloring scheme that Matt Wilson uses for scenes located in the Underground (coincidentally, a significant location for most of this issue).  The only feature of the subject’s face that we can see are their eyes, wide open in apparent fright.  Something horrible is there in the dark with them, but we don’t know what yet.  In a lot of ways it’s reminiscent of issue #33’s all black cover, though I think the frightened eyes make the issue feel even more foreboding.

We quickly get context for what’s going on with the cover in the flashback to a major episode in one of Ananke’s many lives: about nine hundred years after the beginning of the Recurrence cycle, Ananke is conducting her immortality ritual but minus a head.  It’s clear this is the first time she’s failed to gather the requisite number, and as she siphons off the energy from the three heads she has collected, she urges the ritual to work correctly.

It doesn’t.

Similar to the cascade of pages in issue #36 portraying every reunion between Ananke and the Epithymia god, this issue presents us with a series of panels portraying every year between Ananke’s failed ritual and her reincarnation ninety years later.  They’re all show from her perspective with a caption emblazoned across the top that indicates the year that each panel represents.  All ninety panels are totally black.  The last page of the sequence cuts to a beach in Crete, where we see Ananke suddenly appear as a young teenage girl.  Her first act after ninety years without a body is to gouge deep troughs of flesh from her cheeks with her bare hands, eager to feel anything after so long in total sensory deprivation.

This is the Great Darkness: without completing her ritual, Ananke is doomed to die at the end of every Recurrence with the rest of the gods and then be reborn when the next one begins, but she retains her consciousness for the entire span of time in between.  It’s utterly terrifying, and it explains both simply and effectively why she goes to such lengths to get what she wants.  The ideas of death and oblivion is a hard one to wrap our minds around, because we’re incapable of imagining precisely what the experience of not existing is like.  We can try to describe it, but there’s a fundamental failure in our language and the way our brains process our experience that makes the concept of nullification just too hard to understand.  The closest I think we can get to is what Gillen portrays in this sequence: total sensory deprivation without end.  It makes me uncomfortable just trying to contemplate that experience, but the understanding that if death is oblivion then the mercy of it will be that we won’t know that’s what’s happened.  Ananke has something worse to fear.

In all the stuff that we’ve learned about Ananke over this arc (and there are still two more issues to get through!), I think this is the nadir of her story.  We’re meant to finally understand that Ananke’s ruthless pursuit of immortality isn’t motivated just by a fear of standard death (though that’s certainly in the mix), but also because she’s inadvertently cursed herself to have a worse fate when she fails.  It’s almost enough to make her a sympathetic character.

It’s been too long since these two could bounce off each other. Their dynamic is delightful, especially here where they’re both trying to move past old mistakes. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Back in 2015, we step away from Baal’s incineration of Valhalla to follow Laura as she goes to talk with Baphomet about what’s gone down in the last twenty-four hours (we’ve been on the same two days for about ten issues now), including why he wasn’t available to help with Sakhmet and Woden’s respective snafus.  Because Baphomet and Dionysus were besties, we finally see someone properly mourn for him (Cassandra’s bit in issue #33 got cut short by the discovery of Woden’s secret room after all), and Laura learns that Baphomet didn’t come to help because the Morrigan said there was nothing serious happening.  They realize that the Morrigan intended to leave Laura in the lurch in the hopes that Sakhmet would kill her, and then there’s a big fight.

Baph, you are my favorite walking trash fire. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This fight between Baphomet and the Morrigan is a long time coming, and it’s an intense set of pages.  We’ve seen since the beginning that the relationship between Baphomet and the Morrigan is extremely unhealthy, and Baphomet finally has the same epiphany (and all it takes is seeing that the Morrigan has become so possessive of him that she’s willing to let people she’s jealous of die in order to keep him to herself).  Baphomet dumps her, and then things erupt.  For the entire sequence, McKelvie eschews normal gutters in favor of having each panel bordered by either a raven or a flame motif depending on who’s gone on the offensive.  Interspersed between each action shot is a small flashback panel to when Cameron and Marian first met; we’re caught in the middle of something like a scream-o break up song.  How much the borders expand and contract flows with the level of emotion each character is feeling in the moment so that we get an extra visual cue as to how things are going to end; Baphomet has the upper hand at the end of the fight, but the good memories lead him to stay his hand when he could kill the Morrigan, and she retaliates, exulting in her victory before she realizes that she’s just murdered her beloved.  Unwilling to go on living without Baphomet, the Morrigan decides to trade his life for her own, because that’s the kind of person that she is.  It’s sort of redemptive, but very much in a “too little, too late” way.

This is an absolutely perfect panel. Read it from left to right and pay attention to the border. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Laura has been incapacitated for the entire fight (having your head slammed against a wall will do that), but when she finally comes to and realizes what’s happened, she approaches the whole thing in a relatively philosophical manner.

Because what’s at the end of this?  Something awful.  Some fucking tragedy.

Fuck tragedy.

Tragedy gives “clusterfuck” ideas above its station.

The bad romance between Baphomet and the Morrigan is easily one of the most messed up relationships in all of The Wicked + The Divine; they’re codependent binary stars spiraling inevitably towards collapse into one goth hole.  Laura’s observation that this is less a tragedy than just the messy reality of a couple people who’ve been bad for each other from their first meeting feels sort of like a theme statement for the whole issue.  Ananke’s own struggles happen on a much larger scale, but they’re at their core founded in basic human fears and frailties.  Tragedies are for larger than life figures like the Endless; the rest of us just have to deal with things occasionally going horribly wrong.

Geez, Baph, spoilers for Sandman, yeah? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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