Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #22”

The end of the “Rising Action” story arc ends with about as much spectacle as we’ve seen from its beginning in issue #18.  McKelvie presents us with an array of spreads and splash panels (heavy emphasis on the splash) that hammer the major moments of the fight between Team Underground and Team Valhalla.  We see Ananke finally brought low, and we get a little bit more explanation for why she’s been so murder happy since the story’s beginning; more importantly than that (because Ananke’s nonsense, as interesting as it is, is secondary to the question of how these characters react to extreme and not-so-extreme circumstances), Laura gets a little bit of catharsis for the trauma of her family’s murder, and we end on a major question.

Be more creepy, Minerva; I don’t feel guilty enough about your impending trauma yet. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features Minerva for the first time, and unlike the other entries in this cover series, she’s not shown in the midst of a performance, but peering at the reader from behind the guts of the mysterious machine that Ananke intends to use to sacrifice her.  The cover’s lighting tips us off that we’re looking out from the machine’s inner workings which, if you want to get super critical (in the academic sense), suggests a kind of complicity between the reader and Ananke’s ongoing sacrificial project.  Minerva is the last god Ananke is trying to off to achieve her ends, and this cover puts the reader at the center of the method by which she intends to consume Minerva for her own ends.  When in doubt about textual criticism, assume that stuff is about the creative process and the audience is probably doing something harmful to the creator or a creator surrogate.  Thanks, Gillen & McKelvie.

It’s definitely not better. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Seeing as this is the resolution to the arc, there are a lot of ends to tie up, so the pacing of the issue shifts from luxuriating in action sequences to getting the primary conflict wrapped up quickly so there’s room for a big interpersonal confrontation among the gods in the depths of Valhalla.  We’ve had enough whizbang to last us for a while in the preceding issues, so instead of spending a lot of pages on finishing the fight, McKelvie gives us a double page spread that captures all the individual fights that carried on in the last issue before zooming in on Woden, who decides he’s reached the battle’s inflection point.  The readers know that Woden has been party to most of Ananke’s machinations, even if she kept him in the dark about specifics (like the point of all the murders), but the rest of the Pantheon don’t, so he arranges to throw the fight in a way that gives him plausible deniability in case Ananke somehow manages to pull out a win.

The main event of the issue is the extended conversation among everyone who’s not unconscious (Woden allows himself to be incapacitated and Sakhmet gets knocked out by Baal after she refuses to agree to a ceasefire) in the depths of Valhalla before Ananke’s murder machine.  Ananke goes on a pretty good tear complaining about the general dysfunction of the gods and her frustration at having to manage them for millennia.  It’s exhausting keeping the Pantheon from running amok while she tries to orchestrate sacrifices for combating the Great Darkness.  We still don’t have any clue what she’s talking about with that beyond her vague descriptions of the pre-civilization gods; Ananke seems to be serious about this particular problem, so maybe there’s something to it, but on the other hand she’s also really good at manipulating everyone into getting themselves killed.  Whether this is a legitimate problem she brings up or one last gambit to get the gods to release her will have to wait for further explanation later.

Well, that’s certainly one reason for all the murder and decapitation. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Out of all the back and forth of the basement discussion, a pattern of motivations emerges.  Laura and Ananke are in direct opposition to one another (beyond simple enmity) because Laura, in her new role as Persephone, represents the complete disruption of Ananke’s imposed order.  Persephone is the thirteenth in a Pantheon of twelve, defies the normal rules for miracles (she can affect Cassandra and break Valhalla’s walls; perhaps her particular talent is breaking down obstacles in her way), and she’s looking to take Ananke out.  She resists manipulation in a way that makes it very hard for Ananke to work around her–if the situations were reversed, Ananke would absolutely kill her.  Even though it’s hard to tell what precisely Ananke’s ultimate goals are, we know that she has them, and she constantly works to make her goals happen.  She gives the gods a purpose (whether they like it or not); under Ananke’s guidance, we know that the Pantheon means something.

Said every frustrated adult ever. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Cassandra’s role is less in conflict with the others so much as just trying to slow everything down so the gods can get some answers.  She wants to keep everything grounded in reality, but she’s actually really bad at it.  This is what happens when you have a nihilist trying to wrangle a bunch of gods.  Still, she jumps into the role of “grown-up” with both feet quite readily after everyone confirms that Ananke is trying to kill them all.  One begins to wonder if Ananke’s relatively quiet frustration at the gods’ behavior is just Cassandra’s rage after being worn down by multiple millennia of herding a bunch of extremely destructive cats.

This moment is supposed to be really horrifying and gruesome, but I can’t help getting the giggles when I look at Baphomet and Dionysus’s faces. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Ultimately Laura overwhelms all other points of view; Ananke killed the Wilsons as simple collateral damage, and she has to pay for that.  Persephone is the “Destroyer” and she lives up to it, showing total indifference to what the rest of the Pantheon wants.  The order of Ananke is over, and now, without anyone left to act as a guide, Laura declares a free-for-all.  Theology of necessity makes way for a messy existentialism.

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All Shiny And New

After all the relentless existential angst of Nier: Automata, I decided that I needed to cleanse my palette with a game that would present no emotional demands.  I just wanted something that would be fun and a little mindless, but not another button masher.  Essentially, I was looking for a game that would be just about the mechanics; an exercise in refining specific motor memory.  What I landed on was the 2016 parkour simulator Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.

If you must know the premise and plot of the game, it goes like this: in the near future the city of Glass is the crown jewel of Cascadia, a corporate oligarchy where everyone is mandated to work for one of the handful of privately owned companies that provide all the infrastructure for society.  Among the outlaws who refuse to submit to these conditions are the Runners, a loose network of people who live on the rooftops of Glass’s cityscape and survive by working as extralegal couriers for the people who need to operate outside the corporate system.  The game’s protagonist is Faith Connors, a Runner who has just been released from a detention center where she was imprisoned for some undefined infraction (it’s apparently explained in a tie-in comic, but this information is entirely irrelevant to the story here).  Through a series of happenstances, Faith becomes caught up in a plot to enslave all the citizens of Cascadia through a nanite injection that would directly connect them to the Grid–Mirror’s Edge‘s version of the internet–and allow the corporations to manipulate their emotions directly.  There’s also some stuff about Faith’s sister whom she was separated from as a child after their parents were murdered, but the emotional beats of the plot are all relatively rote.  The first entry in the series, Mirror’s Edge, takes place in a separate continuity, so this game’s effectively a reboot.

All that’s unimportant though, because the reason you play a Mirror’s Edge game is because you want to move very quickly through very shiny environments while doing some slick physics-defying parkour.  The thing that I enjoyed about the first game in the series was that within the framework of a first-person game, it did so many different things with movement from what you typically encounter.  The game was about fluid movement where the challenges all revolved around the player’s ability to traverse courses without interrupting the flow of action.  Things like hard landings or mistimed jumps create little hiccups in the experience that always felt really satisfying to iron out.  With Catalyst I was hoping to get more of that.

In a lot of ways, the core appeal of the original Mirror’s Edge is intact in this game.  You still spend most of your time running courses and figuring out how to move as efficiently as possible.  Unlike in the first game, you get to operate within a relatively large open world, which means that if you feel like it, you can just run around rooftops without having to give any thought to the story (except that you do need to complete the story in order to have the entire map opened up, so I guess don’t ignore it?).  There’s a wealth of activities to do while you explore, from running deliveries to distracting guards to finding collectibles to running courses that have been recorded by other players.  In the week that I spent playing the game, I saw way more content than I expected.  Unfortunately, the volume of content has one massive downside: virtually all of it (except for collectible hunting) is built around beating a clock.  Deliveries require you to get from one point on the map to another within a strict time limit; obstacle courses have incredibly strict time requirements to earn three star ratings; messing with guards require you to get from one group of enemies to the next within a time limit just so you can get more time added to your clock and move on to the next group.  All of these activities are variations on a theme, which makes sense because the core mechanic is moving fast, but they’re just not that engaging in the long run.  After I spent a solid hour trying to complete one side mission that was supposed to be completed in under a minute and a half, I decided to just stick to the story missions; they never have time limits built in, and they lead to interesting new environments instead of requiring the player to replay the same section of the city over and over again.

To be fair, there is certainly some appeal to practicing a routine over and over in order to be able to perform it as efficiently as possible.  The evenings when I did bother to do the delivery missions typically felt very meditative, assuming I was in the mood for a repetitive task.  The problem was that there was so much repetition.

I’m going to move on to a different game now that I’ve finished the story for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, but I’ll keep this one around on my hard drive for a while, I think.  There may come a time when I want to go back and just do some running to beat a clock; now just isn’t it.

Re-Reading Magik (Part 4)

One last dimension to the Magik miniseries that I want to talk a little bit about (and I’m not sure how in depth this will end up being, but it feels like an integral part of all the other stuff discussed previously) is the fact of Illyana’s experience as a girl.  She’s abused, and she’s corrupted, and these two things really can’t be separated from narratives about the role of women in our society.

Illyana Rasputin is fourteen years old when this series ends. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I got to thinking about how Illyana being female shapes our perception of her experience because of the analysis that Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men did during their coverage of the “Inferno” crossover event which serves as the climax of this version of Illyana Rasputin’s story.  “Inferno,” which happened in the late ’80s, is mostly the story of Madelyne Pryor, Cyclops’s first wife and a clone of Jean Grey, entering into a deal with the demon N’astirh that threatens to turn all of Earth into a hellscape.  Running parallel to Madelyne’s story is Illyana’s; they have a lot in common as morally gray women acting with extreme agency at a time when Marvel’s editorial policy ran heavily towards social conservatism.  The event ends with both women being effectively removed from all the ongoing X-Men stories at the time as Madelyne dies and has her memories absorbed into Jean Grey, and Illyana gets de-aged back to her pre-Limbo seven year old self.  While there’s a lot to unpack about “Inferno,” the salient point that I’m reminded of with regard to Illyana and the Magik series is the use of corruption and demonic influence as coding for both sexuality and societal nonconformity among marginalized groups.

Compare innocent, six-year-old Illyana… (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

With corrupted Illyana. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

With Illyana, those codings get amplified by her coming-of-age narrative.  This story takes place over the course of seven subjective years, and that passage of time gets reflected most strongly in the way Illyana’s character design develops.  When she first finds herself trapped in Limbo, she’s dressed in a baggy shirt and pants to denote her childishness.  She’s just been pulled into a world where survival is difficult and not assured, and her clothing highlights her young age and lack of preparation.  Under Storm’s tutelage, Illyana wears a long nightgown that emphasizes her innocence in contrast with the corrupted, adult-presenting and sexualized part of her soul that Storm tries and fails to excise.  After Cat abducts Illyana, she dresses the girl in a leotard made of animal skins.  We’re meant to take the wardrobe change as a signal that Illyana must begin to grow up by abandoning unnecessary attachments and niceties, but there’s also a connection between her appearance and Cat’s; Illyana still looks like a child, while Cat, a skilled and ruthless fighter, is sexualized as almost a matter of course.  Cat’s style of resistance to Belasco’s depredations in Limbo is far more physically aggressive than Storm’s, and that aggression gets paired with a more overt sexuality (Storm is also, of course, an old woman in this story where Cat is in her prime).  Belasco’s corruption also manifests explicitly in Cat’s appearance; her face is meant to appear feline (though in effect it’s mostly just sort of alien looking).

Illyana’s wardrobe change into the leotard is clearly evocative of Cat’s own (highly improbable) outfit, but she still looks like a child. (Pencils by John Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Storm when she had fully embraced the demonic influence looks very different from how Illyana sees her throughout most of the series. (Pencils by Ron Frenz, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

We even see this pattern reflected in Storm.  Although the majority of the story features her as an old woman who has done everything she can to separate herself from Belasco, a sequence in the third issue where Illyana travels back in time to see the moment when Storm almost deposed Belasco as ruler of Limbo shows her in a highly sexual outfit at the same time that she’s most accepting of demonic influence.  In moments where Storm resists the draw of that power, she’s depicted in flowing robes and hair that hide her body (the one clear exception is the sequence in the first issue where she bathes while talking with Cat after initially rescuing Illyana; this is mostly just a long established thing where if Claremont can justify it, he will write Storm bathing or otherwise going au natural).  There’s a clear connection being drawn between Belasco’s influence, moral compromise, and how sexualized a given character appears.

Here Illyana is about thirteen. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

For Illyana, the leotard becomes her default outfit for the remainder of the series (she’s wearing robes at the start of the third issue, but then she inexplicably changes into her adventurer’s clothes between panels without leaving her bed).  The simple outfit helps the artists delineate how Illyana is aging by showing her features slowly maturing.  By the time of the final issue, Illyana has clearly reached her teenage years, although she remains unsexualized–at least, until the moment of self actualization when she conjures her soul sword.  The leotard has shrunk and ripped so that Illyana sports a bare midriff; she fully fits the mold of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars heroine.  This is where the pattern of corruption and sexualization breaks down, but it’s important to note that in place of demonic influence, Illyana is depicted in scant rags at her moment of clearest personal agency.  The sequence where she finds herself tempted to violently end Belasco as she takes on more demonic features is an extension of the danger of that agency.

Like Storm, when Illyana is at most in tune with Belasco’s corruption, she appears as a scantily clad demon. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

This all gets hammered home most strongly in the post-battle scene where Illyana contemplates how she’s been shaped by Belasco and Storm’s influence.  She stands on the balcony of Belasco’s castle, looking for all purposes like a full-grown woman despite only being around fourteen, and makes the decision to return to Earth.  When next we see Illyana clearly, she’s magicked a new outfit that de-sexualizes her, presenting as still innocent because she doesn’t want to worry the X-Men any more than she knows they already will be.

Illyana gets ready to go home. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Of course, all the stuff that I’ve laid out here isn’t really that unusual; we’ve been using overt sexuality as a code for moral turpitude in women for pretty much the whole of Western civilization.  In Illyana’s story that same trope gets recapitulated in familiar ways that result in her expressing extreme discomfort with the complete, complex picture of herself.  She’s every teenage girl who gets bombarded with negative messages about their own bodies and desires, just with an extra coat of demonization thrown on top.

Illyana makes herself “presentable.” (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #21”

The first thing you must understand about reading The Wicked + The Divine is that under no circumstances do you trust Ananke.  At this point in the series it’s become abundantly clear that whatever she is doing is bad business for everyone connected to the Pantheon, and there’s no real explanation for what her aims are.  We’ve gotten a few rumblings from her about the “Great Darkness” and that whole story she fed Cassandra about her role as a guide to keep the gods from going so far off rails that they plunge the world back into a pre-civilized state, but given that this issue has Ananke killing regular folks (pour one out for Minerva’s greedy parents) and actually telling Woden that she left bait in Owly deliberately for Team Underground to find (not to mention all the ways we see that she manipulated people behind the scenes in Woden’s flashback issue) it’s pretty safe to say that you should take any justification Ananke offers for her actions with a salt lick.

The colors are nice on this cover, but like it’s subjects, it’s just kind of there. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue for the first time features neither a god nor a god-like character (I’m still pretty unsure how to classify Ananke since she basically has a power portfolio like the gods but not their apparently limited life span); instead it features Woden’s Valkyries doing their thing.  This is probably one of the few covers of the series that I feel very neutral about, mostly because the Valkyries have felt from the beginning like a background feature to me.  They serve as proxies for Woden to exercise his powers, and via the subplot with Kerry getting booted out of the group (and the plight of Eir, the pink Valkyrie assigned to babysit Sakhmet) we learn that they’re a heavily mistreated part of the Pantheon’s extended entourage.  Besides being modeled on artificially formed girl groups (I’m thinking specifically of Japanese idol collectives, although Gillen and McKelvie might be pulling inspiration from elsewhere), the Valkyries are just… there.  You generally want to sympathize with them because their relationship to Woden definitely has shades of Ke$ha and Dr. Luke, but they’re otherwise really flat.  That the reason they feature on the cover of this issue is because they’re the conduit for a new toy that Woden has devised only hammers that point home harder.

Sure, Laura. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Despite the relative flatness of the Valkyries, there are some good character moments in this issue.  Baphomet tries to extend an olive branch to Baal by way of delivering Inanna’s last message to him (I guess he just really needed to vent about Baal beating up and imprisoning the Morrigan), adding to the small but not insignificant pile of evidence that he is not a complete and total loser.  Amaterasu, on the other hand, demonstrates one of her worse qualities when she panics and flees from Valhalla after Ananke threatens her.  The fleeing isn’t so bad, but the fact that she forgets to take Minerva with her really is.  The recurring theme around Amaterasu seems to be the fact that she’s a very pleasant person so long as things don’t get heavy, but as soon as there’s major conflict you cannot count on her for anything (she does, in the very first arc, completely abandon Lucifer to prison despite being one of her best friends; I guess Amaterasu is just that scared of Ananke).  Dionysus and Laura have a nice moment during the assault on Valhalla where he reiterates that he doesn’t want anyone to die, and Laura, with literal skulls in her eyes, agrees.  I totally believe that she’s going to uphold that promise.

There is a lot of nonsense that happens in this issue, but at least it’s fun-to-look-at nonsense. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Baal, you a liar. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

And… that’s sort of it for this issue.  While I think this arc is a ton of fun, it lends itself better to being read in one go.  Particularly in an issue like this where so many pages are built around action without a whole lot of dialogue, the actual content feels slim.  You have things like the sequence where Ananke murders Minerva’s parents before taking Minerva down to the mysterious sacrifice machine that Woden’s built in the Valhalla basement, which have barely any dialogue at all.  The silent panels are effective for conveying the terror of this moment where Ananke reveals emphatically that she’s a ruthless killer, but they also read extremely quickly.  Your attention bounces from the actual disintegration of the parents to Minerva and Amaterasu’s shocked reactions to a sort of slow-motion sequence where Amaterasu bolts while Ananke grabs Minerva, and then the scene ends on a gag about the documentary crew huddled in the corner of the room who everyone else forgot about.  It’s a really fun two pages, but it’s over incredibly quickly.  That’s not the only sequence in the issue that devotes a lot of space to a single, temporally swift moment, but it’s exemplary of the style of the issue.  Fortunately, the next issue closes out this arc, which means that a lot of stuff is going to happen.  There will be death and destruction, and also more than a fair few feels.

Y’know, Ananke, if you just stopped manipulating and killing people, things might not turn out so bad all the time. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Free Comic Book Day 2018

It’s May, and that means that Free Comic Book Day has come and gone, and I have a new pile of comics to talk about!  Because we moved this year, I’ve been wondering for a couple months what I was going to do for Free Comic Book Day because the one downside of our new neighborhood is that it’s entirely too cool for a comics shop.  Without a place that’s truly local, I had to figure out where I would trek to for the day; unlike in Athens, I actually had a ton of options for shops that I could check out, even if none of them are located super close to where I live.

Pictured (left to right, top to bottom): Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 5, Ms. Marvel Vol. 8, Saga Vol. 8, Berlin, Strangers in Paradise XXV #1, Maxwell’s Demons #1, World’s Greatest Cartoonists, Barrier #1

Eventually, I settled on checking out Books With Pictures, a local intersectional feminist comics shop that I’ve heard about from a few people who are knowledgeable about the Portland comics scene (I’m still tickled that I live in a place where there’s a comics scene at all).  It required riding two buses across town and back (which was actually quite pleasant, although I almost missed my transfer because I had to look up where the stop for my second bus was after I got off the first one), so the whole outing ended up taking about two hours.

The shop itself is extremely bright, which is really nice (I’ve been in some comics shops where they’re designed not to allow any natural light in, and those places always just feel super cramped and depressing) and the staff were all very friendly (they all wore paper crowns to help customers pick them out in the crowd).  Like with most comics shops, they had a system in place for customers to get their free comics; when I went in I was given a paper bag with instructions to pull five free comics from the shelves and then stand in line to have a staff member seal up my bag.  Because it was my first time at this shop I wasn’t really familiar with the layout, so I ended up getting in line before I’d picked out my books, so I ended up with stuff from the mature readers section at the end (my biggest regret is missing the new issue of The Tick, because New England Press always puts out a very nice standalone issue with a couple of complete stories for Free Comic Book Day).  That was mostly okay though, because I didn’t see a whole lot that I was especially interested in when I looked at the FCBD inventory list ahead of time.  The big draw of the day for me was taking the opportunity to buy paper copies of new trades for the ongoing series that I follow from a local independent business (I can order books from Amazon anytime, but they’re, y’know, evil, so it’s nice to occasionally be able to direct my money elsewhere).

This brings me to a point that I try to make every year, but I don’t feel like I can say it often enough.  The comics publishing industry is a messed up thing where publishers and distributors have managed to create a status quo where retail has to carry pretty much all the financial risk for selling product.  When you walk into a comic shop, everything they have in their inventory has already been bought and paid for by them; they can’t return unsold books to the publisher the way that text-only bookstores typically can.  This even includes the free issues that stores offer up on Free Comic Book Day.  Comics shops are risky ventures that only survive because of dedicated patrons who guarantee a certain number of sales from month to month.  It’s a bad system, but the prospects of changing it any time soon are slim to none.  This doesn’t mean you have to go out and do a regular pull list to support your local (unless you have the money and interest to do that); I’ve never had a pull list, and I don’t read comics month-to-month.  Read comics in whatever format you like (I’m partial to digital because it saves physical space and is much cheaper, although I will absolutely buy trades of my most favorite series–it makes it easier to loan stuff out in the hypothetical world where I know someone who’s into comics and hasn’t read what I have).  The thing you must remember though is that if you enjoy Free Comic Book Day, when you go to a comics shop, you should go with the intention of buying some stuff.  It’s an expensive advertising event for shops, and the only reason it continues to happen is because they hope to bring in some extra sales with it.  Obviously, don’t spend more than you can afford, but be mindful that if you walk into a comics shop on Free Comic Book Day and walk out only with the freebies, that business has lost money on you.

Anyway, here’s what I picked up:

  • Berlin – This is a sampling of a three volume graphic novel (about to be released as a hardcover omnibus later this year) about the city of Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic and through rise and fall of the Nazi government.  This one’s going on my to-read list.
  • Barrier – Brian K Vaughan’s name is a pretty big draw in comics right now, and this series about a Texas rancher and a man from Honduras crossing paths feels like something really interesting.  I think it’s meant to be a miniseries (Vaughan has two other ongoing series at the moment, so I am very doubtful he could juggle a third), so I’m hoping to check it out later when it’s all finished and collected.  The horizontal format makes for some interesting panel layouts and really emphasizes those big, wide open skies in the Texas setting.
  • Strangers in Paradise XXV – This issue falls in the middle of a long running independent series, and a whole lot of what’s going on (there are these women who seem to be on the run from the government, among other weird things) didn’t make much sense to me as a brand new reader.  The first few volumes are available on Comixology Unlimited, so I’ll go back and read some of the series’s beginning to see if it’s something I’d like to invest my time in long-term.
  • Maxwell’s Demons – It’s a story about a ten-year-old boy genius.  It’s not really my thing (the narration feels overwrought), but the art is nice.
  • World’s Greatest Cartoonists – I have learned over the years that whatever Drawn & Quarterly puts out for Free Comic Book Day (see Berlin above) is probably worth my time, even if I end up taking a pass on reading more of it.  The flipside of that is stuff put out by Fantagraphics; they’re a publisher that tends more towards the super experimental indie side of comics, and much of what they produce is just not my speed.  This sampler of short stories from a variety of artists has some okay stuff, but much of it is just not in my wheelhouse.

Re-Reading Magik (Part 3)

The Magik miniseries ran from the fall of 1983 into the winter of 1984.  That’s the same year that the original Ghostbusters was released and Jack Chick published his infamous anti-Dungeons & Dragons tract, Dark Dungeons (there’s a throwback post for you).  These three things all hail from disparate parts of the pop culture landscape; one was an obscure religious tract detailing the dangers of using one’s imagination, one was a major vehicle for a few of the late ’70s and early ’80s biggest comedy stars, and one (the subject of this series) was a tie-in to a comic that spun off from the Uncanny X-Men right when it was turning into Marvel’s biggest cash cow.  These creative works had nothing to do with each other, but they all feel tapped into a major phenomenon of that era: the satanic panic.

To get an idea of what the satanic panic looked like, here’s a bit from a post by Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk:

The rise of charismatic Christianity and talk of “spiritual warfare,” along with movies like The Exorcist, fueled a new dualistic supernaturalism among Americans. This was given credibility when we watched the news and witnessed the evil, grisly acts of murderous cults like the Manson “Family” and Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (Jonestown). A “satanic panic” arose in the 1980’s fueled by revelations of “repressed memories” indicating that large numbers of children had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). A new diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder looked a lot like demon possession. Christian comedian Mike Warnke made a meteoric rise to popularity, with outrageous claims of having been delivered from Satanism. He told stories that scared the pants off Christian parents and youth alike who flocked to hear him speak and to buy his books and recordings. Preachers engaged in a focused critique on rock music’s occult influence on young people, especially in the “heavy metal” genre. These years saw the rise of the “New Age” movement. Popular Christian fiction writer Frank Peretti wrote best-selling books about “spiritual warfare against a vast, seductive New Age conspiracy” that was taking place in towns like yours and mine.

This account is specifically from a white evangelical perspective, but it still captures the zeitgeist that much of America was feeling in the early ’80s.  The supernatural was real, and it was dangerous, and the worst thing it could do was get to your children.  Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wanted to poke fun at it, Jack Chick wanted to capitalize on it, and Chris Claremont wanted to use it as a backdrop for his version of a “Little Girl Lost” story.

It’s sort of comical how obviously Belasco’s design is cribbed from traditional depictions of the devil. Also, note Illyana’s caption at the bottom of the panel where she admits to herself that she’s attracted to what Belasco’s offering despite knowing it’s dangerous. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

In retrospect, I think it was this evocation of the satanic that really appealed to me when I first read Magik about a decade ago.  In the years immediately after I graduated college I was very deeply immersed in the white evangelical subculture, and while this was the late ’00s, within white evangelicalism we were still in a lot of ways stuck back in the ’80s.  The concept of spiritual warfare, which asserts that all worldly conflicts are also overseen by equivalent conflicts between the forces of God and the devil, was a major aspect of white evangelical life.  It’s easy to see the echoes of this concept descending from the satanic panic of three decades earlier.  The conflict of Magik resonated with other Christian-branded media I consumed at the time like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (published in 1986), which tells the story of a battle between angels and demons in a small town where a New Age cult has infiltrated the community and begun brainwashing people into devil worship.  At the time I didn’t really grok that these different areas of pop culture were related in theme because they were all made in a span of time when much of American pop culture was preoccupied with these motifs.

What all this means for Magik is that while it’s pretty obviously a story about abuse, when I first read it I was drawn to the corruption elements in the story because they reflected the internal struggle that white evangelicals recapitulate for themselves all the time.  When you see the world as being fundamentally a struggle between your baser nature (never forget that the Calvinist idea of utter depravity is the harm that keeps on harming) and the influence of a morally upright divinity trying to exert its influence on you, it becomes pretty easy to relate to the scared little girl who finds herself attracted to the temptations of power offered by the red man with horns and a tail (and only a left arm because who doesn’t love visual coding to reinforce the untrustworthiness of sinister people?) while continually chastising herself for being tempted at all.  Even the final issue’s conclusion, where Illyana sees herself succumbing to Belasco’s influence and choosing to spare him to keep from becoming exactly like him, is fraught with subtext about refusing to engage with the devil using his own methods.  Illyana wins the fight, but her solution for coping with the corruption is to bury it inside her.  In the final pages of the series, she uses her powers to not only escape from Limbo, but to also alter her appearance so that she doesn’t look like she’s just spent seven years in hell.  It’s one last bit of obfuscation to help the X-Men accept her as an innocent victim when she feels at least partly complicit in the changes that have happened to her during her formative years.  Inside she feels depraved, but she puts on a shiny facade in a way that’s highly reminiscent of the ethos of white evangelicalism to never let inner difficulties show because those simply aren’t accepted by the larger community.

There are words to be said about Illyana’s appearance as this story progresses, but I think that will have to wait for another entry. Suffice it to say, her growing horns and a tail are pretty extra for a sequence that’s more satisfying to read as her reclaiming her agency from a long time abuser. (Pencils by Sal Buscema, inks by Tom Palmer, colors by Ken Feduniewicz, letters by Tom Orzechowski)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #20”

I don’t think it’s much of a secret that out of the entire Pantheon, I have something of a soft spot for both Cassandra and Baphomet, so an issue that centers around Cassandra learning that Laura is alive while also giving us a ton of new information about what Baphomet was up to after Ragnarock is going to be right up my alley.  Besides featuring a couple of my favorite characters, this issue has the bonus of being the mid-arc breather in the middle of The Wicked + The Divine‘s version of an action movie.  While it’s not exactly accurate to say that all the plot stuff stops, the focus has decidedly shifted back onto character interactions and complicated feelings over McKelvie drawing awesome fight scenes.

This is the most dignified Cassandra gets to look in this issue; every interior panel involves her being angry, confused, or recovering from the effects of getting miracle-whammied. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Apropos of this issue being Cassandra’s reintroduction following the hiatus between the third and fourth arcs, she and the other Norns get the cover for the issue.  Like the others in this set, they’re depicted in the middle of a performance, although unlike in their debut at Ragnarock there’s a hint of color to it this time.  The whole image is far less abrasive than that stark black and white splash page from issue #10, but it still conveys a certain imperiousness that Cassandra would find very satisfying (especially since one of the series’s best running jokes is her undignified indignant tantrums whenever someone does something against her perfectly reasoned advice).  Since all the covers in this set are more about showing the gods being dynamic instead of just posing in static glamour shots, it makes sense that these would be the way they most want others to see them.  I find Cassandra so endearing because she’s perennially frustrated with not being taken seriously, and this cover’s a chance for her and the rest of the Norns to project how they see themselves.

Aw, Laura. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The frame for this issue is Laura’s reunion with Cassandra in the rubble of what was formerly the Wilson residence.  It’s emotional in all the ways you would expect for Cassandra, who is only comfortable with the open expression of feelings like contempt, anger, and resignation, while Laura is much more reserved.  That reservation is understandable; in the past couple issues we’ve just gotten a few glimpses of Laura’s emotional state in the aftermath of Ananke trying to kill her and blowing up her home.  She’s on a mission right now, and that’s what she’s trying to focus on.  The brief moment that she and Cassandra have here is just a small outlet for all those pent up emotions that we’ve only otherwise seen conveyed through Laura’s performance at her premier (“Persephone’s in hell” is not exactly a subtle message).

Other important details that we glean here are the fact that not only do Laura’s powers work on Cassandra (remember, Cassandra has the unique talent of being immune to all divine performances because she’s a stone skeptic and nihilist) but they work at a distance via other god technologies.  An established thing about the Pantheon are that their fans have to see them in person in order to experience their miracles because they don’t transmit through recordings; yes, you can handwave that Owly is special because it’s something that Minerva created (probably with Woden’s help; I’m not sure if that’s ever been made clear), but the fact remains that Laura can miraculously communicate over distances with even the most divine-averse individuals.  She’s not an official part of the Pantheon, and there’s good reason for that (one other small evidence to throw onto the “Persephone is something weird” pile is the fact that she was able to break through the walls of Valhalla, which, given the mad scrambling that the Morrigan and company did while trying to escape, is probably not something that just anyone can do).

“This is strange and scary and definitely not how things are supposed to work.” -Cassandra’s brain at this moment. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

The main event of the issue though is the flashback to what happened the night of Ragnarock.  This entire sequence is done in this lovely three color palette of white, pink, and blue that helps keep everything firmly grounded as not just a flashback, but Laura’s memories of what’s happened the last couple months.  Gillen cheats a little bit with the narrative here, because so much of this flashback is about scenes that Laura only heard about after the fact from Baphomet, but that’s honestly a minor quibble.  The important thing is that Laura is using her powers to dump a whole lot of exposition into Cassandra’s brain, and the coloring that Matt Wilson does here helps immensely in keeping that fact front and center.  A few of the pages here are composed of recycled panels from issue #11 (in at least one case, there’s an entire page reproduced exactly); it’s a common trick that Gillen discusses frequently in his writer notes of seeing how the creative team can creatively use artwork to expand the page count of any given issue where they’re working with a specific production budget.  I haven’t bothered to count the pages in issue #20, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a little longer than average because of all the artwork that Wilson only had to recolor instead of McKelvie reproducing it from scratch.

Besides showing that Baphomet was actually extremely upset about the Morrigan being captured, this panel also nicely showcases the two ends of the color spectrum used in the flashbacks: neon pinks for heat and rich teals of various values for cool. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Production wonkery aside, the important story beats to gather from this sequence are that Baphomet ended up having too much of a conscience to go through with murdering Inanna (but not enough of one to not blow up a church), Inanna ended up being the person who was murdered in Laura’s place when he and Baphomet showed up to rescue her, and Laura spent over a month in a dark pit while she hid in the Underground with the dude with the worst PR in the whole Pantheon.  There was also some canoodling because Baphomet, pulling a page directly out of the playbook that Marian used to comfort him after his own parents died, tells Laura way more about himself than he probably should, including the fact that he is not actually Baphomet (he’s really Nergal, which is the name for a bunch of Underworld type gods in various tabletop RPGs; this is the kind of obscure thing that absolutely would bug Cameron endlessly even though no one else would know or care; heck, I’ve googled this factoid multiple times, and I’m still not sure which Nergal he’s embarrassed to be associated with, although my personal headcanon is the dude from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy).

I can’t stop laughing at this panel. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Anyway.

This is friendship. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This issue is full of feels for several of my favorite characters, and it does a lot to recontextualize Baphomet’s actions during the “Commercial Suicide” arc so that he doesn’t seem like quite the selfish jerk that he came off as at the end of issue #12.  Laura is drowning in grief on top of her already manifest depression (pretty sure suddenly becoming a god doesn’t do anything to alleviate already present mental health issues), and Cassandra is still the best person to rant about everyone else’s stupid decisions.  Next issue will get back to the regularly scheduled mayhem.

Bonus panel! This exchange precedes Laura initiating sex, because who doesn’t think nerd pedantry is the hotness? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)