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.


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.


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).


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.


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)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #43”

I recently got Rachael to read The Wicked + The Divine, and one of the first things she observed after she got a few trades in (y’know, past the point where we start getting the cascade of revelations that make re-reading fun) is that the series works in a way that’s very similar to the television show Lost.  There are a lot of mysteries up front that get spooled out as hooks to keep readers speculating and wondering about how things will work out, but those are all predicated on withholding information until a predetermined moment in the narrative.  The OMG moments that typically cap each story arc are far less impactful once readers understand the rules that are in place.  It’s a story driven by revelations to the reader far more than decisions made by the characters.  I’m generally okay with this structure though, because WicDiv has always been about mystery and not necessarily knowing what the storyteller is doing but agreeing to go along for the ride anyway.  This is also the core of mystic religions, so I guess it works thematically; everything is story and story is everything.

Cassandra is easily my favorite character, and I don’t have much to say about this cover at this point. I’m just glad she finishes the issue not dead. (Cover by Jamie McKelve & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover of this issue features a portrait of Cassandra, and I don’t think I can emphasize how worried I was that she might not survive this issue.  I still fully expect that she might not survive the series, but the general sense of impending doom I’ve learned to associate with a character getting featured on a cover of The Wicked + The Divine had left me jumping into this issue with some trepidation.  I’m thankful that was not the case.  By this point I think we’re all pretty intimately familiar with McKelvie’s headshot covers.  Cassandra looks unusually stoic given the circumstances, and she adds one more entry to the set of the original twelve gods’ covers (Minerva will be getting her own next month, and then the only one missing a cover in this style will be Sakhmet, which is unlikely to be corrected).

With only two issues following this one (and one of those being the epilogue to the primary story), it’s time to set aside mysteries and begin offering resolutions.  The comparison to Lost ends at this point, as it feels like the ending is going in a direction that was planned all along.  We learn a lot about Ananke’s history as part of the original Pantheon, and the explanations she provides feel sensible.  It’s definitely not “a wizard did it” or “they really were in Purgatory the whole time” but something that might have been reasonably extrapolated earlier with enough insight and consideration of the sort of story that Gillen and McKelvie have been telling from the beginning.  Gods are founded on stories, and stories are imperfect reflections of lived experience, and the act of becoming a god is largely about being consumed by a story, whether people tell it about you or you tell it to yourself; either way all that’s needed is enough fervor to make the fiction believable.  Ananke conned her way to immortality on the backs of hundreds of people with a spark of magic in them, and the deeper tragedy beyond their victimization is that they were so eager to be conned in the first place.  We love to tell stories, and we especially love to tell stories that star ourselves.

Ananke’s sister explains what godhood is and what it does. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The stories that the 2014 Pantheon have told themselves rest on the distillation of their most salient traits.  We saw it most starkly with Laura, as she was portrayed with considerable complexity in the run up to her ascension, but then during her time as Persephone the overriding mode of her interactions with everyone was self destructive.  Laura makes one bad decision after another, and they all stem from her total capitulation to her role as the Destroyer despite early evidence that there was so much more to her than a depressed teen who wanted a brief, bright life.  Persephone is a variation on Ananke’s sister’s god, She-in-Thirds (I’m dropping the Epithymia speculation at this point; desire no longer seems like the right word to characterize the sister’s role in the story).  It’s not totally clear to me how she fits into thirds; the underworld and agrarian fertility aspects are clear enough, but I don’t know much about any third role that Persephone would have historically played.  At any rate, Persephone’s an echo of that older goddess, but the aspect that Laura fixates on when she’s caught up in godhood is the underworld.  Laura’s been through some major traumas both before and immediately after her ascension, and that crystalizes her god concept around Persephone’s suffering.  As savvy readers we can see that there has to be a return from all that, but it’s interesting that Laura only escapes when she casts off the narrative pattern completely.

Faith in friends was actually a very good decision here, Laura. Also, you lucked out that Nergal decided to trade himself for Dionysus at the last minute. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Sort of ironically, this gets best exemplified in the action segment of the issue (I’ve grown to really appreciate brief action sequences in comics because there’s often very little interesting to say about them) which culminates with Ananke using Woden’s hijacked Dionysus machine to disrupt everyone and Laura being forced to admit (at least to the reader) that she doesn’t have a plan at all beyond trusting her friends to get through this mess somehow.  She’s not running a script so much as she’s just trying to muddle through something messy and chaotic; she lets things be less sharp, and it pays off.

Given Laura’s rejection of godhood in favor of a story that’s not quite so formulaic, it’s actually a bit of a relief to see her at the moment of climax agree to help Ananke explain things in a way that’s understandable.  The panel where Minerva struggles to produce even a tiny bit of miracle is heartbreaking in its way; I’m not ready to forgive Ananke for everything she’s done, but I can pity what she’s done to herself.  From the beginning, Ananke has been all about playing into recognizable tropes and archetypes with the way that she goes about arranging the dynamics of the Pantheon.  If you scrounge up enough lore about the entirety of human storytelling, she becomes a human cliche generator.  Ananke can’t tell a good story, even if she can tell very convincing lies (I’ve been re-reading the series lately, and there are so many nuggets of truth embedded in what she tells everyone early on), so she’s dependent on the power of her victims.  Laura taking that dynamic and subverting it with a genuine offer of assistance works pretty well for me.

Laura, in this moment you are so much better than you ever were. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1373 AD”

The long and short of this issue is that people tend to be messed up in a lot of ways, and any religion that takes bodily mortification as a central tenet is going to exacerbate those messed up tendencies.  Maybe it’s my own history showing a little bit (that does tend to happen from time to time when I read and think about things), but the sorts of abuse that this issue’s Lucifer takes on herself from all sides feel particularly heart wrenching.  There are lots of ways to do fundamentalism, but they all seem easily recognizable for what they are when you’re no longer in it.  The deeply embedded self loathing tends to give it away.

The more I think about this cover the more I find to love about it. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this final period issue plays with the iconography motif that’s always been a central element of The Wicked + The Divine‘s visual aesthetic.  Framed in the imminently recognizable tradition of Roman Catholicism, the cover has Ananke and Lucifer presented in stained glass in the respective roles of penitent and absolver.  This is roughly what happens inside the issue, except that Ananke predictably lacks all remorse and Lucifer (cathartically) offers no absolution.  The story’s primary beats are caught in a single glass panel, much like how you would see depictions of significant events from the life of Jesus in a cathedral with the key points of each scene distilled down to a few key details that serve as visual touchstones for the stories the audience would have heard many times before.  There’s a nice connection in this cover between the modern comics medium and its sequential art forebears (what are the Stations of the Cross but an old comic and The Wicked + The Divine but a pageant of suffering leading up to the deaths of gods incarnate?).  You can even see the same reliance on visual motifs, a necessary component of a medium like stained glass that demands a simplified depiction of its subjects,  to identify characters like Ananke’s ubiquitous mask (which she doesn’t wear at all in this story) and Lucifer’s red eyes.

For a series about gods and how we relate to them, The Wicked + The Divine up to this point has largely shied away from exploring how modern religious believers would interact with the gods as a known quantity.  The one small nod we got in that direction back in the first issue with the fundamentalist assassins turned out to be a red herring, so there’s really nothing beyond this issue that explores the subject in significant depth.  In the premise of the series, which posits that the Pantheon’s world is exactly like ours except that figures resembling mythological gods appear every ninety years, the question of how these incarnations impact systems of belief is left up in the air.  Cassandra’s skepticism suggests that the lack of documentary evidence of the gods’ powers makes it easy for people disinclined to believe in them to ignore the whole thing, but that doesn’t explain what the effects on true believers might be.  This story, focusing on medieval France and a devout Catholic woman, finally considers the Pantheon in relation to Christianity; given Lucifer’s prominence in the historical issues, this has been an open question hanging in the background of each one-shot.  In 1373 it finally comes to the fore.

I never went to a church that did Communion like this, but it’s easily enough recognized. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue begins much like it ends, with an enactment of Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Table, or whatever particular name for the Christian tradition of symbolically, or metaphysically, consuming the body and blood of Christ you may be familiar with).  The sacrament serves as an introduction to the era and culture we’re going to be examining here; Europe is in disarray as the Black Plague has swept across it, and in Avignon a member of the Pantheon conducts her penance while awaiting her end.  This Lucifer is a Catholic nun, her horns filed down to nubs on her forehead and her place in her order permanently set outside the sanctuary where the diseased rats scurry.  She’s convinced of her own damnation while submitting entirely to the sovereignty of God.  Where every other Lucifer has been a rebel or iconoclast, this one instead embraces her role as the defeated in a larger cosmological game.

What makes this Lucifer so striking is her sense of surety about her own identity, even before she ascends.  In a flashback, the woman comes to Ananke and declares before any other words can be exchanged that she knows that she is Lucifer.  The rationale for this self identification rests on her history: her mother died in childbirth, and her father resented his daughter as the cause of his wife’s death.  The loathing conferred by a grieving parent onto his child became internalized to the point that she actively identifies with the fallen angel.  It’s a terrible backstory, but the internalized self-loathing encouraged by a faith that requires constant self deprecation and supplication to the deity rings true.  When I was an evangelical, there were certain mental gymnastics that I was in the habit of doing as part of the faith practice; in a system governed by the doctrine of utter depravity, it wasn’t unusual to meditate on how unworthy I was of salvation.  Needless to say, this sort of attitude about my own self worth (really, it’s easy to devalue yourself when you have a regular mantra in your mind about your status as a helpless sinner who deserves to go to hell) did a number on me.  Lucifer’s self loathing is of a piece with what I remember about the darker parts of my evangelical days; it’s only in her resorting to flagellation and other physical punishments that Lucifer’s attitude about her own being feels more extreme.  While her final act serves to bring some sort of just punishment, however ephemeral, on Ananke, she spends her final breaths begging forgiveness for the crime of being who she is.

All I’m saying is that this is not that far off the mark from how abusive strains of Christianity make its adherents feel about themselves. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Speaking of Ananke, the version that we see in this issue is probably the most repulsive of the series to date.  I know that all Anankes are more or less the same person inhabiting an endless series of bodies, but this one, with her callous reflection on how she created the Black Plague as part of an experiment with the previous Pantheon and her general indifference at the effects of her actions beyond ruling them as a mistake she’d prefer not to repeat, really angers me.  We’ve seen in the Mothering Invention arc that Ananke is a ruthless killer who only cares about self-preservation, but the way that she inflicts mass death on the world on a caprice and then completely rejects any sense of guilt about her actions makes her deeply monstrous.  The whole point of the issue is to do an exercise in contrasts with Lucifer, who feels guilty about everything, including stuff that she has no control over, and Ananke, who feels no remorse despite her direct responsibility for at least one massive social catastrophe and scads of murders.  These two characters are worlds apart until they unite in an inverted Communion: the innocent devil delivers her corrupted body to an unrepentant sinner and burns the both of them to pure ash.  It’s all very “too much” which is always what WicDiv strives for.

Ananke’s whole thing about feeling constantly out of place and bewildered by the way the world changes is such an old person thing. I know feelings of displacement accompany aging, but I can’t think of anyone who deals with that angst less gracefully than Ananke. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Next time we’ll finally get a break from doom and gloom and talk about the issue with a load of ridiculous origin stories and more than a few excellent jokes (for a certain value of excellent).

It’s happened before. It’s happening again. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #39”

This issue feels a little weird in comparison to previous issues that conclude story arcs.  There are the macro beats that we’ve become accustomed to with the end of each WicDiv arc: we get a couple of significant revelations, a major question left to be answered, and the status quo of members of the remaining Pantheon shifts to match the developments of the arc.  What’s a little unusual here is just the number of scenes that Gillen packs into this issue.  The structure that he’s used to organize each issue of this arc has been built around two broad movements, one focusing on a part of Ananke’s history and the other pushing the story in 2015 forward.  Unlike in previous issues, where the flashback sequence is front loaded to give more context to the present day happenings, this issue intersperses scenes from Ananke’s final encounter with her sister (we still don’t know her actual name, so I’m going to continue calling her Epithymia) between the present day developments with Laura, Minerva, and Woden.  It’s understandable why there’s a shift in the broad structure of the issue (the reveal in the last section of the flashback is necessary to renew hope in the reader and work towards reversing some uncomfortable implications that are set up by the latest development in Laura’s story), but it makes the issue feel very frenetic in comparison to everything else in this arc.

Yeah, Ananke would totally murder you. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover continues the arc’s ongoing motif of featuring either Ananke or an Epithymia god featured in the flashback sequence.  Here, we get a portrait of the original Ananke in her 4000ish BCE outfit, replete with cow skull mask and vibrant purple eyes.  She’s splattered with the blood of her victims (in a delightful bit of coloring continuity, the pattern of blood splatter in this portrait is the same as when she appears at the very beginning of issue #34 before killing Epithymia) and looks ready to add another to her tally.  This is a very different portrait of Ananke from the one on the cover of issue #9.  The imperiousness is still present (it’s probably just an illusion, but I always feel like Ananke’s looking slightly down at the reader in her portraits), but the blood and the bone accessories make her feel far more immediately threatening than she seems in her 2014 fashion.

I know it’s a big gun, but how does no one notice this? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

The big revelation for this issue is that Epithymia, in a bid to trip Ananke up at some point in the future, just straight up lies to her about the final rule to be set in their story game.  As she dies, Epithymia declares that if her god ever has a child then the cycle will be broken.  Ananke takes this idea and runs with it, speculating that if the Epithymia god becomes a mother in her own right, then that breaks the maiden-mother-crone cycle, so of course it makes sense.  It also explains why in the present Laura’s being pregnant is a really big deal that brings Minerva to obsess over killing her as quickly and violently as possible.  What we find in this issue is that the decision Laura made last time relates to a number of things: where it seemed like she might be deciding on suicide, what actually happened is that she has decided to reject all of the labels she’s accumulated over the course of the series.  The result is an as yet inexplicable descent from godhood; when we catch up with Laura in this issue she’s shed the Persephone persona completely and also aborted her pregnancy.  That doesn’t change the fact that Minerva is utterly determined to eliminate all possible threats, and Laura almost gets beaten to a pulp anyway by Beth’s documentary crew (Beth, for anyone who may have forgotten because she only shows up sporadically, is an original member of Cassandra’s documentary crew who struck out on her own after she got fired for tipping Baal off to Laura and Cassandra’s location when they were still investigating the judge’s murder), now outfitted with Woden-crafted super suits in exchange for doing the bidding of the Pantheon’s ascendant evil faction.  It’s sort of comical how reckless Minerva is in her machinations; she turns the very obvious power dial on the stun gun Woden gives Beth all the way up to lethal, and I can only assume the reason no one notices the large flashing red light on the side of the gun is because Beth and her crew are not very observant–a pretty unfortunate trait for documentarians in general.

Me too. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While it gets dispelled as a point of tension here, Laura’s pregnancy hangs heavy over this whole arc (it is called Mothering Invention after all), and there are some complicated things to sort out in relation to it.  Gillen constructs a story where the reader feels invested in protecting Laura’s pregnancy precisely because it seems to be a major threat to Ananke and then he resolves it by having Laura choose to terminate the pregnancy, all before we learn that the whole plot point is a ruse and irrelevant to Ananke’s potential downfall.  In those five pages between Laura explaining she had an abortion and the flashback where Epithymia explains her gambit to her grandson, the reader’s left in a really awkward position (one that Laura herself calls the reader out on because, remember, she’s gone back to breaking the fourth wall in her inner monologue captions).  Laura’s pregnancy was clearly something that Ananke was worried about, and anything that legitimately worries Ananke is probably a positive for the fate of everyone caught up in the Pantheon nonsense, but at the same time we’ve been brought to having an interest in a woman carrying a pregnancy she has only expressed ambivalence about.  Gillen anticipates that there might be some anger directed towards Laura in that liminal moment; he’s been foreshadowing since the beginning of the arc that some readers would be unhappy with the decisions that Laura was going to make.  It all feels like this metanarrative trick to reinforce a political point about the importance of women having the right to choose whether they remain pregnant or not at the expense of the reader, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it.  Is it cheap to make this point in relation to a key plot element in the story, especially when the reader unconsciously begins weighing Laura’s agency against the vast history of Ananke’s exploitation of people for her own gain.  There are elements of the Omelas child in the scenario, although in typical Kieron Gillen fashion everything is terrible for everyone and the atrocity only stops (but not really) one (immense) crime in a world that’s otherwise still as messed up as our own.  When it comes down to it, I’m glad that Laura doesn’t lose her agency and the whole thing was a trick, if only because it means that as a reader I don’t have to spend time puzzling over my own moral complicity in wanting Laura to have the child because it means Ananke’s game is done (I mean, I still do because how could anyone resist this sort of question, but it’s all hypothetical in the aftermath).  There are layers and layers to this whole mess.

The issue concludes by calling back to the end of the very first arc when Laura lit that one cigarette in the dark out of nowhere.  This time it’s not just a little flicker of flame; she creates an entire fireball floating in the air.  Keep in mind, this happens after she’s descended, so we’re not dealing with god powers here (at least, not any god powers that have been explained).  For all the messing with the readers’ heads that Gillen does with the pregnancy subplot, the steady reminders he’s been seeding in about how this one thing that Laura did way back when was weird and didn’t follow any of the rules set out by the universe up to this point is nice.  It feels rewarding if you’ve been keeping up with those low key details (and if you haven’t, noticing them after you reach this point in the series is really fun too).  The new status quo for Laura, as we go into the final arc, is one of relative stoicism.  She rejects all of her old labels while wondering what she actually is supposed to be, and along the way gets philosophical about the imminent mortality aspect of godhood (this wouldn’t be a Gillen story unless someone at some point got all meditative about the fact that we die; reflections on aging and mortality are totally his thing and probably a reason I find most of his work so resonant).  Here’s hoping we get some answers to these questions and others in the final arc.

Thanks for reminding me about the evanescence of life, Laura. Geez. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #38”

Way back in issue #9 there was a bit where Ananke, in the course of her interview with Cassandra, explains that she was the inspiration for the Robert Graves book The White Goddess.  In the real world, this book has a reputation as a poorly researched history of ancient myth that proposes an archetypal goddess figure from which most ancient religion descended.  In The Wicked + The Divine, it’s Graves’s interpretation of Ananke’s history after she spent a night getting drunk in his home and explaining her whole life story.  It’s exactly the kind of relatively obscure thing that Kieron Gillen would pull into his own story’s mythos as a convenient explanation for why no one in a world with observable gods would take the thing more seriously.  This issue finally helps clarify that little incident in more detail, but it mostly goes over my head.  I’m sure if I were more of an ancient mythology nerd I would be able to speak more intelligently about the whole White Goddess thing and how it interacts with what Gillen’s doing here.  As it is, I’m mostly just amused to see Ananke living a relatively normal life in the decades between Recurrences with the occasional bid for recognition of her clandestine greatness.

The coloring’s the star on this cover. There’s a sort of noirish feel to everything with the dust motes and the slatted shadows, like Ananke’s just walked into some private eye’s dingy second floor office. We don’t really get any of that inside the issue though. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover of this issue shows Ananke as a woman in her thirties dressed in 1940s English fashion.  In the whole lineup of covers it stands out as an odd one because it doesn’t match any of the styles that are contemporary with the Pantheons we’ve seen, and there’s almost nothing to indicate that we’re looking at a god.  The lavender eyes, matched to the color of the hat and dress, are a small signifier if you’ve noticed that purple is the color of Ananke’s eyes (a feature that only emerges after each Minerva completes her ritual and absorbs the power from her victims); another small nod to the fact we’re looking at our chief antagonist is the veil on the hat–Ananke does love her masks, even if they’re only symbolic in nature.  The most interesting feature of the portrait is the necklace Ananke wears of a snake; though it’s mostly been obscured, the signature icon of Ananke’s power is a bright green snake striking (that moment in issue #34 when we see the snake manifest as Ananke stabs her sister to death is pretty indelible).  You get all the classical Christian associations of snakes with untrustworthiness plus a nod towards the archetypal supervillain color scheme of purple and green (and without having to actually put any green in the composition) wrapped in one package.

“I don’t like the dark.” is going to be the one thing that helps me maintain a shred of sympathy for Ananke–at least until I get to the last historical special. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Setting aside the Ananke stuff here (I don’t have much to say about what we learn in this issue; she needs to vent to someone, picks a dude who ignores most of what she has to say, and then is unhappy with the result; also, Minerva’s “parents” were just a couple whom Ananke duped into the whole scheme to cover up the fact that her younger self just appears fully formed as  tween when the Recurrence begins), the more interesting bits happen with Laura in the fallout of the Morrigan’s death and Cassandra after she’s been locked up for being, well, a Cassandra.

Laura makes a very important decision. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

With Laura, the Morrigan’s death, and more specifically Baphomet’s reaction to it, give her some insight into the whole messy situation with the Pantheon.  Baphomet (or Nergal, as he finally drops the Crowley act seeing as Laura’s pretty much his only friend left alive) is so caught up in the patterns of his toxic relationship with the Morrigan that even after she’s died he can’t conceive of doing anything that doesn’t revolve around her.  As Laura’s suggestion he carries her body back to their home in the Underground, and while Laura takes in just how much the couple committed to their LARPing, he decides that he’s going to spend his remaining time finishing the shrine to the Morrigan that they’d already begun.  Baphomet’s been utterly hollowed out by his girlfriend, and with her dead there’s nothing left for him to do but hold on to her memory.  His advice to Laura to just not do anything he’s doing resonates more strongly than he probably intends.  Laura’s major moment of epiphany in this issue (she’s been having a lot of those in this arc) comes when she finally makes a decision about, well, a lot of things.  Cassandra’s divination at the issue’s end resulting in no hits on the cosmic search for Persephone suggests that something drastic has happened, although we don’t know what.  The impression I got the first time I read this issue wasn’t that it was anything like suicide (which much of Laura’s narration seems to imply).  It took me a while to figure out why that was, as I was re-reading, but I realized the significant event as Laura proceeds along her internal journey in this issue’s second half is the decision to switch from her fancy (and busted) Eleusinia phone back to her old pre-ascension phone with the cracked screen.

This moment matters a lot, but we won’t see why until next issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

As for Cassandra, the important bit here is her determination that despite being extremely angry with Laura for all the self-destructive stuff she’s done over the last six months, they are still friends, and Cassandra is going to honor that.  It doesn’t do a whole lot to improve her situation as Woden’s captive, but it’s a long way from the detached, in-it-for-herself attitude she took when Laura first asked her to get involved in the investigation of the judge’s murder.  Cassandra is someone who really needs friends, and I’m glad she’s finally realized that (I’m also glad that she decides to cooperate when Verðandi is directly threatened; there’s very little shown of the Norns’ relationship, but I like to think that overall they’re in a very loving and devoted triad and that’s extremely important to Cassandra).

Oh, the feels! (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

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)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #36”

It’s hard to think of a way into this issue.  Like with most of the issues of this arc, the structure splits space evenly between a flashback that fills in significant details of Ananke’s life and a focus on what’s happening in 2015.  The Ananke portion is the first of two sort of structurally odd sequences that Gillen and McKelvie use to anchor the macro level arc of Ananke’s origins.  We’ll look at the second one in the next issue and the first one after we talk about the cover.

Don’t get attached to this character; she won’t be around long. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

This issue’s cover is a weird one.  It features a woman bearing iconography that immediately suggests she’s one of Epithymia’s gods.  We can recognize the skulls in the pupils and the flower and vine motifs that are Persephone’s signature features in 2015.  Beyond these recognizable features, the woman has long straight hair and kohl around her eyes (we find out on the second page of the issue that she’s from a Pantheon situated in the Upper Nile region in Egypt, so this isn’t that surprising).  I remember there being a lot of speculation back during the lead up to this arc’s publication about whether this cover was supposed to feature the first Persephone, and, well, it’s definitely a Persephone, but I’m kind of befuddled in retrospect that it wasn’t more apparent to folks that Epithymia’s portrait was actually the original.  The skull motif is quite prominent on that cover, although maybe that feature alone isn’t so obviously connected to Persephone (skulls are sort of ubiquitous in the Pantheons).  Either way, this is not the first Persephone (we’re still roughly four thousand years BCE with this character, so I’m pretty sure Persephone hasn’t yet been conceived of).

We’ve seen this scene before. Ananke’s seen it dozens of times. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Regardless of all the speculation about who this cover character is supposed to be, one thing is imminently clear as of the first page turn of the issue: it doesn’t matter one way or another.  What Gillen and McKelvie have done in this issue is highlight the moment of Epithymia’s god ascending in every Pantheon since the first.  Over eleven pages we see sixty five reunions between Ananke and her sister’s avatar.  In the production notes for the trade, Gillen explains that the creative team hired a fashion historian to help McKelvie design the clothing for each time period and locale.  It’s a massively ambitious structural project designed specifically to convey the sheer span of time that Ananke’s been operating in conjunction with the relatively rote repetition of a key moment in each cycle.  According to the rules that Epithymia set back in issue #34, we know that her god is always the last to ascend in each Pantheon, and we know that Ananke has to collect four godheads to complete her immortality ritual at the end of each Recurrence.  Beyond that, we’re left to fill in the blanks surrounding sixty-five panels highlighting a climactic moment in every Pantheon (I mean, aside from the very first one; that first murder was just Ananke stabbing Epithymia with her stone knife; no magical decapitation necessary).  The way each scene plays out follows three broad models: Ananke surprises the Epithymia god and steals their head without difficulty, the god suspects Ananke’s intent and retaliates with varying levels of success (the most spectacular is definitely the one where Ananke has inexplicably lost her lower body as the god flees off panel; there are also a couple times when the god successfully kills Ananke, although we know that her younger incarnation finished the job later), or most peculiarly Ananke has a heartfelt reunion.  There are trends over the course of the pages where sometimes Ananke has a reunion multiple Recurrences in a row and other times she fails to get the drop on Epithymia’s god for several centuries.  We get small implied stories, like the lifetimes where Ananke’s body gets ravaged by disease or injury, or when her younger self has to carry on with the elder’s work.  One of my favorites that I picked up on my most recent reading of the issue is the slow arc of Ananke learning how to protect herself from attack once she realizes that she can’t always count on Epithymia being fooled.  Still, the ultimate effect is to emphasize the cyclical nature of Ananke’s life; she lives forever (sort of), but it’s constantly bound by violent confrontations.  I figure the times when she doesn’t immediately murder Epithymia is because she’s already collected enough heads and can afford to luxuriate a little in remembering who she gave up in her bargain for longevity.  There’s just a hint of sadness to Ananke’s existence, although when you consider the sheer number of people she’s murdered over the course of her life (every panel in this issue times twelve, and that’s only the gods, let alone the normal folks who accidentally got in the way), it’s hard to sympathize with her particular plight.

There’s a lot of time between the earlier panel and this one, but they might as well happen one right after the other for all the difference there is between Ananke now and Ananke then. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Flash forward to 2015, where we last left off with Baal revealing that he’s actually the child-sacrifice, fire-from-the-sky Baal, not the lightning-in-a-bottle Baal.  Laura, Baal’s captive audience, listens as he explains his own origins and how Ananke persuaded him to charbroil little babbies.  What it essentially comes down to is that Baal, who rightly finds killing children to be totally repugnant, decided it was necessary after the Great Darkness killed his father.  The story that Ananke spun for Baal was that sacrificing children would keep the Great Darkness at bay temporarily while they worked on finding a long term solution.  Once he lost something personal, it was an easy sell.  Now, the weird black tentacle beetle monsters that we’ve been calling the Great Darkness still haven’t been fully explained.  Given what we’ve been learning about Ananke in this arc, I don’t think it’s much of a reach to assume that the Great Darkness is a ruse that Ananke has been using to manipulate the gods into doing what she wants.  With Baal committed to doing actual child sacrifice, Ananke developed an extremely dedicated foot soldier; it’s no wonder that Baal is on the wrong side of pretty much every fight in the first half of the series when you consider that he’s totally bought into Ananke’s narrative.  All it took was killing a family member.

A fun exercise is asking myself how many times the small sympathy Ananke builds gets squandered when she does something horrible. This is one of those moments. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While we’re talking about children, this issue also has one last surprise for us in the form of Laura’s big news that she briefly alluded to back in issue #34: she’s pregnant, and she doesn’t know who the father is.  Because he’s just a great big Baal of anxieties and guilt, our child murderer lets Laura go instead of burning her down with the rest of Valhalla to protect his dirty secret.

All joking aside, Baal gets a seriously raw deal here, and the fact that he totally commits to his own moral degradation for the sake of his family, likely for no good reason, is one of the most tragic story beats in the whole series. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #35”

If I have learned anything from The Wicked + The Divine and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, it’s this: never trust adorable young characters with Shirley Temple curls.  After all the revelations in the last issue, you would think that the follow up might be throttled back just a little bit to save some surprises for later in the arc, but that would be a mistake in this particular case.  It’s important to remember that Gillen has kept a lot of details about Ananke’s nature and agenda obscured for most of the series, so there’s plenty of material to spool out as things proceed in an orderly fashion towards doomsday.

I’m never going to be able to watch Heidi the same way again. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features, unsurprisingly, a figure from the Pantheon’s past: the 1923 Minerva.  Given that we know the 2014 Minerva is totally untrustworthy, it’s not a far leap to figure that the earlier incarnation isn’t either.  That this cover opts for a variation of the straight on head shot format (Minerva looks down her nose at the camera, blood spatters and a sneer on her face) that revels in contradictory juxtapositions.  This Minerva takes inspiration from Shirley Temple, a famous child actor of the 1930s who was known for being adorable; unlike her real life counterpart, she’s also a ruthless murderer (if you read the 1923 special, you know that Minerva killed Set when no one was around to witness the execution) and master manipulator.  So much of The Wicked + The Divine has been about misdirection and forcing readers to question their assumptions about characters that a cover showing a major figure from the last Pantheon with a murderous gleam in her eye honestly shouldn’t be surprising.

Exit Ananke as we spotlight in this issue… Ananke. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The flashback for this issue gives us the actual conclusion to both the 1923 special and the flashback from the series beginning in issue #1 (a fun bit of trivia is the fact that McKelvie, having significantly refined his drawing style in the intervening three years, decided to redo the first four pages despite them being panel for panel identical to #1’s opening sequence; if you poke around on Twitter you can find where he posted the juxtaposed pages to show how much his style has changed).  We know from the special why the four remaining gods, Susanoo, Amaterasu, Amon-Ra, and Minerva, are preparing to blow themselves up; Ananke has explained to them that they need to sacrifice themselves in order to undo the ritual that several of the other gods had carried out to try to bend the zeitgeist towards their preferred future.  It becomes apparent here that that story was just a manipulation; Minerva defends herself instead of completing the suicide pact, and she uses Susanoo’s bewilderment at her apparent screw up to decapitate him.

Apologies for the bad quality; it’s hard to photograph trades without hurting the spines. Nonetheless we do what we must. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is the major revelation of the issue: we finally get to see the ritual that Ananke has devised to maintain her immortality firsthand.  The first thing that becomes apparent is that this is a far uglier thing than anticipated.  That Ananke sacrifices the godheads she collects isn’t so surprising; what is surprising is the beneficiary of the ritual.  Instead of Ananke the old woman, whom we’ve seen across all the Pantheons that have appeared, it’s Minerva who completes the ritual and absorbs the power of the godheads.  In 1923, the ritual is preceded by Minerva summarily executing Ananke against her protestations.  It’s not a “steal the gods’ lives so you can live forever” deal; it’s a “steal the gods’ lives so your younger incarnation can live until the next Recurrence” deal.  The somewhat mysterious utterance by Minerva at the end of #33 that she is Ananke now makes sense.  Ananke is both the maiden and the crone in each Recurrence; the rules of the game of stories begin to come into sharper focus.

Immediately we can begin to recontextualize a number of previous scenes, particularly those moments between Ananke and Minerva that suggested a relatively tender relationship.  Before it was easy to imagine that Ananke was just offering small comfort to an especially young victim of the Pantheon’s curse, but now they take on a more sinister tone.  The job of the elder Ananke is to shepherd the gods towards their deaths while making sure the younger Ananke remains safe and unsuspect in the eyes of everyone else.  Apparently each incarnation of Ananke has the memories of her predecessors, but their consciousnesses are distinctly separate once the younger appears (each Ananke’s origin still remains a mystery at this point).  The whole sequence in 1923, particularly the moment when Ananke murders her older self to make sure the ritual can be properly carried out, throws into sharp relief the flashback at the end of Imperial Phase Part 1 where we see elder Ananke (the same person as the 1923 Minerva) writing a letter to her younger self explaining how she accepts that she’ll probably need to die in order for their plan to succeed.  There’s also a reference in that letter to the Great Darkness, although at this point it’s still unclear what that precisely means to Ananke ( we do know, tantalizingly, that Ananke prefers death to allowing the Great Darkness to happen).  It’s a relatively small thing, given that all the Anankes inherit their predecessors’ memories, but the contrast between Ananke as an old woman in 2015 and her as a child in 1923 underlines a sense of aging and progress within each iteration; that direct life experience, however, doesn’t necessarily transfer between bodies (both Minervas are far more cunning and unsentimental in the execution of their respective plans than their elders are).  There’s a slowly dawning horror that Ananke’s ritual, instead of granting her immortality, has instead trapped her in a cycle of rebirth where she repeatedly has to experience death at her own hand without her children ever understanding what’s been done until it’s too late.  It’s like the Great Danton’s fate at the end of The Prestige, if you’ve ever seen that movie.

There’s so much going on here. Too bad it gets cut short. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)


It feels anticlimactic after discussing the gradually clarifying relationship between Ananke and Minerva to jump to 2015, but there are revelations to be had here too which impact the way we see previous events in the series.  Besides Minerva suddenly being revealed to be a young Ananke with six thousand years of experience rattling around in her brain (no wonder she’s been posing as the goddess of wisdom), we also have some new insights into Baal.  Specifically, it turns out he actually isn’t Baal Hadad, a lightning god; he’s really Baal Hammon, the sun god that Cassandra mentioned way earlier in the series as the figurehead of a cult that actually did practice child sacrifice.  After Laura discovers Baal’s own secret room in Valhalla, we find out that it wasn’t just his followers who did the dirty deed.

But that’s something to discuss more in depth next time.

There are so many great Minerva faces in this issue, and I had to pick one to end on. I went with Minerva being pleased that she’s still manipulating everyone successfully. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

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.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #33”

It’s been almost a year since I started working on this series.  I wrote up the post for The Wicked + The Divine #1 back in November 2017, and the thing that I most strongly recall about getting into it was the anticipation of getting to issue #33.  I’m pretty sure that right around that time I had just gotten my copy of volume 6, Imperial Phase Part 2.  I’d been looking forward to it for at least a month because I had consumed volumes 4 and 5 in quick succession after we wrapped up our move to Portland.  There was a sort of exultant attitude to the whole thing, because I had had my copy of Rising Action for months before we moved, but I hadn’t wanted to read it and then find myself waiting forever for the next trade; I’d learned from my experiences with the first few volumes that each arc would end on something world changing that would only fuel my speculation.  When volume 6 came out, I ordered and read it immediately, and everything I had figured would happen in terms of my reading experience did.  I spent the better part of the last year anticipating the release of the volume 7 trade, Mothering Invention, and while I was waiting on that I had to satisfy myself with going back over the rest of the series, picking things apart issue by issue all while fastidiously avoiding discussing spoilers.

This is all to say that I’m thrilled to finally be at the point where I was when I began my WicDiv read through, and now I can actually talk about how much more reprehensible Woden is than initially thought and how I wish I had been able to tell earlier that Minerva wasn’t trustworthy and how (surprise!) the only gods who are actually dead are the ones who died in the last two issues.  In an interview somewhere Kieron Gillen mentioned that issue #33 is a watershed in the series because unlike all the previous revelations and twists, which are pretty shocking in their own way, the information that the reader gets in this issue totally changes how you view key events earlier in the series.  The punch here is a one-time trick; it’s about as rock solid a case as one could make for avoiding story spoilers.

This is one way to avoid spoiling your big event issue. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Typically in these posts I’ve tried to do a little bit of discussion of the issue’s cover because the intersection of religious and popular iconography that McKelvie and Wilson explore in their one off pieces is worth examining as commentary on the contents of any given issue as well as in their own right as pieces of pop art.  With this issue, things are a little strange.  If you break down the contents of the issue and the characters it focuses on, you would expect this cover to feature either Woden, Minerva, Persephone, or the Norns.  All four of them have been featured already in the Imperial Phase cover series, and the preview nature of comics publishing (where covers are often revealed several months before their respective issues can be read) requires a careful balance of attracting reader interest without giving away major story elements.  A cover featuring any of the aforementioned characters would likely be a tip off to readers that something big is up with them.  The alternative might be a cover featuring Mimir, the god persona of David Blake’s son Jon, whom we glimpsed in one panel way back in The Wicked + The Divine #14.  This carries its own set of problems because Mimir’s very existence is a major plot point and clue to Woden’s true nature, and I expect that Gillen was hoping that most readers would have forgotten about the mysterious behelmeted figure Woden monologues to in his focal issue from Commercial Suicide.  Instead of going with any of those potential narrative pitfalls or featuring someone completely unrelated to the issue’s events, the creative team opted in this case to just go for plain black.  The simple cover neatly sidesteps the spoiler problem and doubles as a bit of foreboding about the issue itself; after all the terrible things that have happened leading up to this point, the cover implies to the reader that things are going to be far worse.

In terms of how it ends up being worse, we have to look at one of the two characters who reveal major secrets in this issue.  From the beginning of the series, Woden has been the resident jerk of the Pantheon; where everyone else was inclined to be obsessive and selfish on occasion, with some more than others (*cough*Amaterasu*cough*), Woden stands out as the twenty-four hour, seven days a week king of selfish jerkitude.  He’s petty, manipulative, gross, and an all around terrible guy.  He’s every edgelord who hangs out in the Youtube comment section, full to the brim with regressive ideas about gender and sex that have all been cultivated in service to his own personal gratification.  Woden is every twenty year old guy who thinks his academic success in high school qualifies him to have the final opinion on every topic that he deigns to turn his attention towards.  Woden is the worst.

He’s also actually a middle aged college professor who hates the youths and sold his son to Ananke for a couple years of a half-life as a god of the Pantheon.

David Blake’s first appearance in the flashback to Ragnarock 2013 from issue #6 clues us in from the start that he’s not a great guy; he oozes the typical generational contempt that’s so common in folks of a certain age.  We see that he softens a little bit after the Recurrence begins and he finds himself smack dab in the middle of a Pantheon based out of London, but that first impression lingers; this is a man who has an opportunist streak, and he’d be willing to write the whole thing off if it turned out not to be of any benefit to him personally.  Unfortunately, as we learn in this issue, he has an in with Ananke, and he apparently offered up his son Jon as a potential candidate for divinity.  When that falls through (likely because Ananke determines that Jon’s personality makes him poorly suited to manipulation), Blake makes a different deal: in exchange for being Ananke’s knowing accomplice in her scheme to collect godheads, Blake will keep Jon’s head and use him to make all those rad devices that we’ve seen the gods using since the beginning of the series.  So in addition to being an irritating troll, we now know that Woden belongs in the worst father ever club along with Cronus, the father of Zeus who ate his children to keep them from usurping him.

Meanwhile, throwing us another curve ball is Minerva, who exclaims with maximum annoyance to the still alive heads of Lucifer, Inanna, and Tara, that she, in fact, is Ananke.  We will get an explanation for all this in a few issues, but for now we can just sit with that mystery and think back to all the times that Minerva had traumatic crap happen to her, which apparently were not nearly as traumatic as we had imagined.

Before we jump into the penultimate arc of The Wicked + The Divine though, we have a couple of specials to get through.  Next time we’ll take a look at the happy fun times that are the Christmas special, and after that will be the 1923 issue.  It’s sure to be a laugh riot, or at least a bit of levity before Mothering Invention, which, I mean, look, it’s dark.