Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #44”

The project of evaluating a story when it’s still in progress is always going to be a Sisyphean effort.  The human impulse to see patterns everywhere demands that we constantly try to make meaning of what we’re seeing, to decipher the why behind the what.  I think it’s why we struggle so much to make sense of dying, both as a future for ourselves and as a present for others.  We crave narrative arcs on such a primal level that the random nature of death completely upends our schemae for maintaining a sense of sanity.  This is why so much of the draw of an unfinished story lies in speculating about trajectories and possibilities.  Until the final beat hits, there’s some uncertainty that we’re begging to resolve.  The best stories tend to be the ones that recognize this impulse and provide a conclusion that’s surprising in how it manages to defy our instincts for pattern recognition while still drawing everything together in a pattern that we can clearly see in retrospect.  “Surprising but inevitable” is the way I’ve heard this trick succinctly described.  In terms of reader reaction, I expect it would require first the thought, “Oh wow!” and then follow not too long afterwards with “Of course that’s how it had to go.”  We get this moment multiple times throughout The Wicked + The Divine #44 in relation to pretty much all of the plot threads that had been left dangling at the end of #43.

Minerva looks old in ways here that she never did before. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson)

The big one highlighted on the issue’s cover is the question of Ananke.  On this penultimate issue we finally get contemporary Minerva’s long overdue portrait.  She’s graced the cover a couple times before, but never in a context where we were fully aware of what she is.  The last issue pulled off a pretty incredible trick in finally making Ananke’s story click in a way that made me question whether she was irredeemable, and this view of her younger self with no masks or eye coverings (the other two contemporary Minerva covers feature her wearing glasses or goggles, and all the covers featuring other Anankes have her face obscured by some kind of mask or veil) promises that we’re finally at the moment of truth with the series’s antagonist.  This is the best we’re ever going to understand her, so it’s time to make a decision about how we and the other characters feel about her.

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There’s a lot of ink to be spilled about Valentine and the way that he gets so utterly broken down throughout this series. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Gillen packs the sequence where the ex-Pantheon decides Ananke’s fate with a range of responses that echo what we already know about these characters and point us toward where they’re going to land given the limited space in the issue.  Laura’s initially resolved that Ananke needs to die to make sure she doesn’t restart the cycle, but she tempers herself with the advice from her friends; Cass forgives nothing, but she’s not okay with being a part of more murder; Umar and Zahid want to be merciful; Valentine can’t see redemption for himself, so he sees no hope for someone who’s acted even more monstrously than he has.  The result is gutting, mostly because the way forward for Valentine was always in dim view.  A two year death sentence was the only way he was able to cope with the way that he acted; absent that deadline, you can see the clear logic of his decision: he can’t keep living as he is, and Ananke is worse, but it’s hard to think clearly about what is just when staring down a six thousand year old woman in the body of a child who has committed near uncountable crimes over her absurdly long life.  Best to let monsters deal with monsters.  Try not to think too hard about how Zahid must be feeling while he watches his beloved fall into oblivion; it’ll be over soon enough.

As a reader I see the merits of all the characters’ perspectives on Ananke.  If things had played out differently and she had received a fate similar to Laura’s then I would have been satisfied.  Ananke is of a kind with the long lived mortals of The Sandman‘s “Brief Lives.”  No matter how much time she was given, it would never be enough; the assurance of an expiration date would be more than enough of a punishment for someone who did everything she could to live forever.  As it is, Ananke’s fate feels harsh, but still not inappropriate.  I don’t think anyone other than Valentine could have killed her without incurring some last minute moral compromise that would need space to be explored.  The “Of course” settles into place without any real discomfort.

The fate of Lucifer Eleanor is a different beast to parse out.  Issue #43’s ending threw us a curve ball in the form of one last rebellion by the consummate rebel.  I spent a fair amount of time over the last two months re-reading the series from the beginning, and what becomes immediately apparent is that Eleanor’s last hurrah would be blindingly obvious to anyone paying attention both to her and the other Pantheon members who identified with the Morningstar.  There’s a current of self-loathing through all of them that Eleanor embodies in her live-fast-die-young attitude.  Perhaps the more impressive trick lies in what Gillen points out at the climax of Eleanor and Laura’s come to Jesus moment: we got to see Lucifer so early in the series and the glimpses of her even after we found out she was still alive were so sparse that much of her characterization was left up to the fandom (both in-universe and out) to fill in.  She became this tabula rasa that we could project whatever we wanted onto, and because most of our perceptions of her were filtered through Laura, who loves everyone and who loved Lucifer first out of the whole Pantheon, a lot of the assumptions of Lucifer’s commitment to ending Ananke’s machinations were made.  Some folks probably didn’t fall for this trick (nothing’s ever a hundred percent effective), but I suspect enough did that most readers had to deal with some genuine shock at the twist.  Like Laura, we never really knew who Eleanor was.

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Eleanor’s being irritated about having to be honest with herself is perhaps the most endearing thing she’s ever done. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

 

Then in this issue, that twist gets upended in an assertion of empathy and humility that breaks down the last holdout of the lie at the center of the Pantheon: that everyone must play the roles they’re given instead of trying to be the identities they own.  Laura breaks it down clearly enough: her affinity for Eleanor from the start had more to do recognition of a common spirit than any specific draw the Lucifer persona had.  Laura, when we meet her, is a girl with no vision for a future life for herself; she can see that Eleanor, fully committed to living it up and flaming out, has similar non-aspirations.  Even if their hells are different, the important thing is that they’re both there.  Flash forward to this issue where Laura has already done most of the self discovery she needed to begin working her way out.  She’s past the descent into the underworld on her private hero’s journey, but she needs to go back to help out her fantasy girlfriend who hasn’t had as much opportunity to self actualize (being a head in a cabinet for the better part of two years can’t be terribly stimulating).  Eleanor likely has a lot more growing to do, but we can feel the trajectory she’s on settling into a comfortable path that probably doesn’t involve more jail time (it’s perhaps ironic that of the surviving ex-Pantheon, she is one of the most innocent with regards to the various crimes that bound them all together so tightly after Laura’s return as Persephone).

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This is such a stunning iteration of the series’s signature descent in godhood pages. The simple change of having Laura climb down instead of tumbling speaks so much to the agency she’s found for herself after this whole ordeal. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

For Laura herself, the story ends in an inversion of the very first issue.  Gillen’s written somewhere in his discussion of the series that the image of Laura and Hazel sharing this initial moment of intense connection to each other and separation from the rest of the world was the seed of all of The Wicked + The Divine.  That core image of the two girls sustained so many arcs of the story, although Laura’s partner shifted frequently as her central relationship wandered among most of the other female characters before settling back on Eleanor here at the end.  The connection with Hazel was about heavenly ecstasy, and it never quite fit with who Laura is; Eleanor, despite being mostly a cipher, understands the depths of what Laura has gone through.  “There were two girls in hell.”  From there, she recapitulates her lowest moment as the unilateral judge of old Ananke, but now with an understanding that she needs to rely on her friends to work through these difficult moments.  Ananke’s final death is the only way to safely end the threat she represents, but it’s not a move Laura should make, and her decision not to serves to demonstrate how fully she’s pivoted away from the all consuming despair of being Persephone.  The issue’s final scene echoes the courtroom of issue #1 where Lucifer did her little song and dance that set off the whole messy chain of events, but now Laura is the defendant, and instead of making a show of it, she quietly accepts her fate.  She’s going to live.

All these parts click into place with a certain smooth inevitability like gravity pulling a tossed ball back down to Earth.  For so long it’s felt like everything was flying away, and much of the disorientation of the last arc made it hard to see where anything might be going (I’m still sort of dumbfounded with how minimal the tragedy in the resolution was after I spent months expecting some final cruelty before things could be laid to rest).  If there are any parts that are jarring, it must be that panel on the first page where the police, long absent from any of the proceedings of the gods, appear and communicate quite forcefully that we’re coming back to reality now.  Of course.

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After everything this moment is far more surreal than any bit of magic we’ve ever seen. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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