Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #44”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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)