Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #42”

I like to think about The Wicked + The Divine‘s individual issues largely in terms of how they reflect various characters’ arcs.  This issue features major developments across three characters who’ve been various levels of antagonistic to Laura across the span of the series.  One of them is about hitting an inflection point in the transition from heel to face while the other two are studies in how character arcs can end either in epiphany or ignominy.

This is probably the creepiest cover that McKelvie and Wilson have done yet. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue is a portrait of one of Woden’s Valkyries.  It’s never been extremely clear how consistently individual Valkyries wear specific colors, but the pink trim suggests to me that this is supposed to be Eir, the woman who had the misfortune of being Sakhmet’s handler way back in issue #17.  Her face is splattered with someone’s blood.  We’ve seen this motif before on the cover of issue #35 where 1923’s Minerva looked gleefully murderous.  Knowing what we know about Minerva and Ananke at this point, that attitude is disturbing but understandable.  The Valkyrie, by contrast, looks totally impassive.  There’s no fear, no anger, no joy, nothing in her expression.  It’s way more chilling than any of the other relatively gruesome covers that have come out across the series.

This is the moment where Woden, having been given due warning about the danger he’s in, decides that he is still totally capable of pulling this Pantheon ruse off. “Men like you” indeed. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Because we’re speeding towards the series conclusion, and this is a story that’s always been explicit about the need for a high body count, we get two major character deaths in this issue.  They’re the central study in contrasting character arcs, so let’s take them in turn.  I’ll begin with Woden since his arc feels significantly less complex than what we get at the issue’s end.  Woden has been the unrepentant jerk of the Pantheon since the series’s beginning; he manipulates women for his own gratification, he sells his allies out for minor advantage, and he betrayed his son for the sake of a few months of luxury and power.  At every turn he has resisted revealing some nobler agenda; the only redeeming qualities that he seems to have are a shallow affection for Cassandra and the fact that despite all the terrible stuff he’s done to Jon, his son still wants him to be okay.  Despite all of these negative qualities, Gillen manages to give Woden a death that’s both tragic and fitting at the same time.  Given every opportunity to make a better choice, Woden to the very end makes the calculation that he thinks will give him more power heedless of others’ warnings.  His death here is grotesque and self inflicted and entirely unnecessary if he had just had the good sense to take a genuine gift instead of trying to leverage more advantage.  There’s no redemptive moment for the creepy middle-aged dude who hangs around with a bunch of teens, which is probably precisely what Gillen wants given his transition away from writing stories about young people with WicDiv‘s impending end.  About the only sympathetic thing I can say about Woden is that his death is extremely gruesome and horrifying.  Everyone else in the Pantheon that’s died has at least gotten relatively swift ends; Woden gets torn apart by the very women he victimized the most.  It’s all ugly and brutal and reveals pretty much nothing new about a character who told us from his first appearance exactly what he was.

Nergal finally understands the deal with making grown up decisions. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Contrast all of that with the issue’s major sympathetic death; Nergal, upon learning that he’ll be losing his god powers as part of Laura’s plan to take down Ananke and that he’s the only Underworld god left who can do resurrections, runs away from the rest of the group to visit Dionysus in the hospital.  Dio’s been brain dead since his big hero moment in issue #32, which is only mostly dead in this case.  Having established with the Morrigan that the Underworld gods can resurrect other gods, but only at the cost of their own lives, it becomes immediately apparent what Nergal intends to do.  He’s spent the entire series being terrified of the death sentence that the Morrigan put on him when she asked Ananke to bring him into the Pantheon; avoiding it death has been the chief motivator behind almost every bad decision Nergal’s made since his ascendance.  Choosing to use his power to save his best friend at the cost of his own life marks a complete reversal from what Nergal attempted to do with Inanna.  It’s also the completion of a redemptive character arc that mirrors Woden’s totally unrepentant one.  Both characters’ initial appearances are built on tropes surrounding abusive and controlling men.  Our introduction to Nergal as Baphomet involved him gleefully brandishing the apparent severed head of his female lover, and from there his early appearances revolved around inviting Laura deeper and deeper into a series of at best unsafe and at worst self-destructive choices.  Despite these early parallels to Woden, Nergal also reveals at every turn in his own story that while he makes many very bad, selfish choices, he has a genuine, if weak, desire to do right by the people he cares about.  Coming into his own as someone who can be self sufficient (even though that metamorphosis is incomplete when we catch up with him in issue #41) is a major accomplishment given those beginnings, and his totally independent decision to offer Dionysus his chance at returning to a normal life marks the completion of that development.  I’m really sad that Nergal dies, and I’m really happy that he does it in a way that gives final closure to a throughline of his character that’s been present from the beginning.

The third character arc of the issue belongs to Baal, and unlike the previous two, he makes it to the last page intact, which means that his story isn’t finished yet.  There are still some questions left to answer regarding Baal’s development: once the crisis is over, assuming he survives, how is he going to square his child murdering with the fact that he was completely manipulated by Ananke?  Baal is a character fueled almost exclusively by his passion, and while in the moment of realization that he’s been doing evil things needlessly he seems pretty set on punishing himself, it’s hard to judge how other factors like Inanna’s survival and just having some time to process how Ananke is at fault for all of his actions since the beginning of the Recurrence.  While I was initially skeptical that Inanna wasn’t just the purely good person that he appears to be, I’ve come around to thinking that if anyone in this mess deserves to have a happy ending, it’s him and Baal.  I don’t know how likely it is that Gillen will give them that ending (above all else, fear hope), or even what would need to happen for Baal to both be able to forgive himself enough to be happy with Inanna and receive an appropriate consequence for murdering children.  There may not be a way to thread that needle.

There’s a lot going on inside Baal’s head at this moment. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #40”

If you’re a fan of mainstream comics, there’s a strong probability that you’ve read Watchmen.  It’s the quintessential deconstruction of the superhero genre packed into a super structuralist comic form.  One thing about Watchmen that has stuck with me all these years is the understanding that while Moore foregrounds the masked adventurers in his story, he’s far more concerned with the way they impact the lives of the ordinary people who briefly encounter them.  The penultimate issue of Watchmen focuses on the final moments of a collection of disparate characters as they fall victim to the larger-than-life plans of Adrian Veidt.  Where Veidt, one of the superheroic elite, is reveling in his own self absorbed special specialness, ordinary people are facing the consequences of their brushes with masked adventurers.  Kieron Gillen, surprising absolutely no one, takes tons of inspiration from Alan Moore’s work in general and Watchmen in particular all the time, and the fortieth issue of The Wicked + The Divine feels in so many ways like Gillen’s answer to Moore’s New York street corner.

In a further nod to how he internalizes parts of Persephone’s identity, Tom is colored in neon pinks and cool green-blues that evoke Persephone’s power set. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Beginning with the cover, this issue de-centers the intrigues of the Pantheon in favor of a class of people who have generally been relegated to background status for most of the series: the fans.  We’re continuing with the traditional front facing head portrait, but the subject here isn’t a god at all; it’s Tom, a fan whose story centers the issue.  Tom’s attire is extremely mundane in comparison to the high fashion that the gods typically wear; he sports a plain crew neck t-shirt with no extra accessories.  On his face he’s painted the markings that we’ve come to associate with Laura as Persephone: the red triangle covering and extending from the right eye with the three dots located both below the eye and above the eyebrow.  It’s a distinct reminder that in the last issue Laura gave up her divinity and all the trappings of that identity.  The thing that immediately springs to my mind when I see Tom in this particular makeup is the implication that Persephone has ceased to be an identity belonging just to Laura, and now it’s diffused itself among the fandom (this reading gets support in the issue when Tom engages in some self reflection about how he identifies with Persephone’s aspect as the Destroyer).  For all the ugly parts of the Pantheon’s revels, they still serve as a source of inspiration for their followers.

Our issue’s hero and his slightly obnoxious bestie. That Nathan holds the envelope directly in front of Tom’s face on camera says so much about his awareness of space. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The central premise of the issue is that Baal, in a final attempt to kill the Great Darkness once and for all (an idea that Minerva privately finds laughable), plans to kill an entire stadium full of fans (all over 18, he insists because he’s done killing children, as if he isn’t just a child himself trying to muddle through this mess) at his last performance.  The story of this event is told through archival footage pulled from various sources, including Tom and his friend Nathan’s cell phone videos of their experiences leading up to the concert.  Mixed in with the video of our protagonist for the issue are things like security camera feeds showing Baal, Minerva, and Woden plotting out the show and news interviews with fans who have come to see the last Baal performance, all of which previously featured as incidental characters who narrowly survived encounters with the gods.  The issue’s shot through with this sense of foreboding as everyone recounts their brushes with divinity, many of which involved nearly dying (also in the mix is a middle-aged Asian woman who’s strongly implied to be David Blake’s ex-wife, because even characters who’ve only been mentioned can’t escape this particular vortex).  Everyone’s excited to be present to witness the beginning of the end of the 2013 Pantheon, and meanwhile back on the first page there’s a caption describing all of this as “the events of the O2 disaster.”

You can see how the whole setup is extremely reminiscent of the street corner scene in Watchmen.  We have our minor characters with their mundane lives having a moment in the spotlight of the story, experiencing some epiphanies about how they want to change going forward (Tom, for his part, goes through a lot of personal growth on his buddy’s camera that’s meant to mirror the emotional journey Laura’s gone through in the last arc) as the issue careens on towards the inevitable catastrophe.  In the run-up to the issue’s climax, Gillen and McKelvie do another layout trick with a couple pages that break the typical panel reading sequence in ways that clearly caused some frustrations for the guided view on Comixology.  Images of the fans both before and during the performance (when they’re all blissed out on Baal’s performance amplified by Woden’s mimicry of Dionysus’s hive mind powers) are interspersed with shots of the arena and Baal’s retreat from the show in a pattern that feels like a light remix on the 1-2-3-4 sequences of issue #8 and the Imperial Phase montage in issue #27 that gives the whole scene a chaotic, discordant feel.  Things are happening, and there’s sort of a sequence to them, but it’s meant to be much more of a sensory experience of the event that culminates with the explosion of the arena.

Baal 101s utilitarian ethics and fragile masculinity in his video diaries. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While Tom is the focal point of the issue, there’s also a significant amount of space given to Baal to explore how he has to psych himself up to do the thing.  We’ve known for a few issues now that Baal is a child murderer because he believes it’s the only thing that’s been keeping the Great Darkness at bay.  Yes, he’s morally compromised in a way that’s hard to redeem, but we understand that Baal’s dealing with some serious self loathing on top of the child sacrifice mixed up with total conviction that he has no other options for protecting the world.  His final performance is an attempt to trade one kind of atrocity for another in some weird utilitarian bid to feel like he’s done right (Baal explicitly justifies his decision in terms of pure numbers; twenty thousand lives are far fewer than eight billion).  Paired with appeals to his deceased father (the Great Darkness’s first victim) and the need to be “man enough,” it’s clear that the dispassionate part of Baal’s reasoning is mostly just a cover for his need to feel secure in his masculinity.  Baal is the most contradictory god on this point; he exudes confidence rooted in masculinity as part of his public image with nearly perfect fidelity.  It’s unsurprising that his deepest insecurities come from his failures as a protector of his family and the fact that his most intimate romantic relationship was with another man.  Baal’s unease with his sexuality is totally tied up in his overcompensatory gender performance (contrast all this with the plot between Tom, who is openly bisexual, and his friend Julie, whose romantic rejection of him he uses as an opportunity for growth and strengthening of their friendship with an explicit rejection of the toxic masculinity that Baal would be far more tempted to embrace).

Tom is also an amateur Pantheon analyst. He’s probably better at it than I am. Also, check out the Persephone color scheme on his blanket. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

One small side detail in the issue that’s sure to become important in the future is Minerva addressing someone off panel about her plans to create a new plague (likely as a response to the ever-growing complexity of the world, much like when she created the Black Plague).  The person being addressed is a bit of a mystery; on my first reading I thought it might be Jon Blake, but that doesn’t make sense because he’s securely in Woden’s possession at this point, and neither Woden nor Baal are aware of Minerva’s true identity (so revealing anything about herself to Jon would be counterproductive).  My speculation at this point is that she’s actually addressing the 1831 Woden’s creature whom Ananke apparently captured in 1923 when that Pantheon’s Woden mistook it for the zeitgeist.  That’s a dangling thread from the historic specials that I expect to come back some time very soon, and I will be extremely disappointed if it doesn’t because I’ve been waiting for resolution on the Frankenstein issue for over a year now (also, I just remembered that Percy Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” and the wheels are spinning on further connections that Gillen’s built into this series; I am a nerd).

In the mean time, Gillen has given us a rare happy ending with this issue.  The O2 arena does get blown up, and the thing that Baal calls the Great Darkness appears to be destroyed along with it, but the crowd emerges before the explosion after Laura appears and leads them to safety with her not-quite-god powers.  Unlike Moore, who chooses to kill off his mundane characters to underscore the collateral damage that his megalomaniacal masked adventurers inflict as a side effect of their fully enacted power fantasies, Gillen actually lets his background characters live long enough to enjoy the ways they’ve been changed by the gods.  There are still five issues left after this one, but for the moment we can rest on an okay ending.

This is the bit where Malcolm Long runs off to help stop a fight. Like, straight up, this is that moment recapitulated but with a lot less explicit violence and marital strife. (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 Christmas Annual #1”

One thing that we should establish right off the bat here is that the Christmas Annual is an primarily an act of fan service.  In The Wicked + The Divine, Laura doesn’t become a major participant in the action until six months into the Recurrence.  Baal and Sakhmet debut in August of 2013 with all but Baphomet, Dionysus, the Norns, and Persephone following by New Year’s 2014; that’s a lot of start up that the comic just skips to get on with the story.  Gillen actually explains in the preface to the issue that while he’s gotten to hit on a lot of key scenes from this time period in flashbacks, he’s missed a lot of other moments that he would have liked to show but couldn’t fit into the series before (most of it is various characters having sex).  Consequently, the point of the Christmas Annual is to go back and hit on those scenes that help give some extra texture to various characters and their relationships as well as to give a bunch of artists a chance to draw hot young gods having sexy times with one another.

Who wouldn’t want to wear this? (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover of the issue is a special affair.  As with all the specials, McKelvie does the primary cover as a nod to his involvement with the series without requiring him to do an extra issue on top of the team’s normal publication schedule.  Instead of featuring any particular individual or group of characters, the cover’s done in the style of a Christmas sweater with the Pantheon’s icons bordering the series logo.  It’s adorably kitschy, and a year later I’m pretty sure it’s the one piece of potential merch that Gillen and McKelvie haven’t actually created.  I know that if it were to ever materialize, I would wear it during the holiday season with the same fervor that a friend of mine wears his sweater depicting the Battle of Hoth.  The general message being communicated is that this is an issue all meant in good fun; nothing extremely upsetting or revelatory will be happening here (though there will be mild upsets, like with Tara and Ananke’s story).

The meat of the issue goes to seven short stories that Gillen has written focused mostly on the time between August 2013 and January 2014; the final story jumps forward a few months to Laura and Baal’s first sexual encounter in the immediate aftermath of the events at Fandemonium.  The longest stories in the set only go to six pages; these are meant to be vignettes and small character moments, not huge plot developments.  You could think of them as sort of WicDiv fanfiction if the fanfiction were written by the author of the original work.  Most of these moments have been alluded to in the main series, and these are all just opportunities to see more of what was going during those events.

I feel like every time Baal says this you just have to assume that he’s lying. (Pencils by Kris Anka, inks by Kris Anka with Jen Bartel, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The first story focuses on the budding romance between Baal and Inanna.  When we start the series their relationship is more or less done after the recent revelations that Lucifer had sex with Inanna behind Baal’s back (the larger context of that is that Inanna, in addition to being pansexual, is also polyamorous, but a little irresponsibly so; Baal’s anger is primarily directed at Lucifer who just enjoys screwing with people).  We know that Inanna was Baal’s first boyfriend, and the relationship had complex enough feelings attached to it that Baal didn’t want it made public.  The story we get here is mostly about Baal coming to terms with his attraction to Inanna and their first time together (on the roof of the under construction Valhalla, because why do anything small?).  It’s a sweet story that underscores Inanna’s gentle nature and Baal’s struggles with his own identity; despite his constant protestations that he’s comfortable with who he is, Baal seems to be low key conflicted about a lot of his life as a god, and exploring the boundaries of his sexuality is a major part of that.  This sequence is also hands down the sexiest part of the issue (probably a good reason to put it first); even as someone who’s reasonably confident that he’s straight, I get why Baal goes for Inanna–the way that Kris Anka draws him is just hot.

The dichotomy between Lucifer and Sakhmet nicely summed up: Lucifer’s obsessed with having people look at her, and Sakhmet doesn’t care until she finds it annoying and eats you. (Artwork by Rachel Stott, colors by Tamra Bonvillain, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Following the Bananna party, we switch over to a story about the one time that Lucifer had sex with Sakhmet; in more typical WicDiv fashion, the interesting part of the story happens in the aftermath of the sex.  Baal, having just discovered that Inanna and Lucifer got it on, barges in on her and Sakhmet to confront Lucifer.  It’s clear even this early in the fallout of the event that Baal blames Lucifer way more than he blames Inanna.  Sakhmet doesn’t want anything more to do with Lucifer because she’s “a bad person.”  Lucifer’s incredulous about Sakhmet judging Lucifer’s behavior, but the situation makes a lot of sense.  Sakhmet is careless and hedonistic, but we’ve never seen any evidence that she’s interested in disrupting other people’s relationships.  She’d happily go at it with any willing partner that she found attractive, but she doesn’t go looking to make drama the way that Lucifer does.  Really, you could say that Sakhmet is the most anti-drama of anyone in the Pantheon.  She likes to do her thing, and she’s happy to let you keep doing yours as long as it doesn’t interfere.  In contrast, Lucifer is all about deliberately making things messy.

This is the part where I want to scream at the comic, “Don’t go to London! Do literally anything else and let me watch you do it!” (Artwork by Chynna Clugston Flores, colors by Tamra Bonvillain, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In the middle of the issue we get a couple of stories focused on characters who remain entirely outside the Baal/Inanna/Lucifer drama.  Baphomet and Dionysus (or rather, Cameron and Umar) share a car into London just before Christmas so they can go see the Morrigan perform.  We can infer that following this first show by the Morrigan Cameron gets recruited into the Pantheon while it takes a few more weeks before Ananke decides that Umar will make a suitable addition.  It’s a fun, silly story that reiterates what we already know: Umar has an unshakable belief in the fundamental goodness of people, and Cameron is a ball of deep insecurities that he distracts from with bad wordplay (or great wordplay, depending on your attitude towards puns).  Following up that vignette is a small scene between Tara and Ananke.  This sequence feels like it would have been perfectly at home in Tara’s feature issue; it centers both her defiant streak and her artistic drive to create on a human rather than divine level.  That it ends with Ananke chiding herself for encouraging Tara into a course of action that will cause undue suffering just twists the knife a bit more on the particular tragedy that is Tara.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike Ananke; the way she treats Tara is a pretty big one. (Artwork by Emma Vieceli, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The last major story in the issue revolves around Lucifer and Amaterasu’s friendship from before they ascended.  Unlike every other story here, which is tightly contained to a single scene, this one is a series of moments from just before the Recurrence began (Hazel, the eternal Pantheon fan girl, does fan art of previous gods, and she sends Eleanor a perfectly cromulent portrait of the 1831 Lucifer, also known as the Lord Byron analogue, that fails to capture the more demonic aspects of her subject) up to the point where Hazel appears as Amaterasu for the first time, interrupting the interview that Lucifer does with Mary HK Choi (chronicled in issue #23).  The sequence acts as a triptych, showing both Eleanor’s attitude towards godhood through the stages of her brief celebrity (she’s only a week from her rampage and decapitation at the point of the interview) and how her status relative to Hazel affects her sense of the friendship.  There’s always a slight sense of superiority that Eleanor takes with Hazel, but it gets significantly heightened in the period between their ascensions as Eleanor settles into being the resident bad’un of the Pantheon.  There’s always some antipathy about godhood on Eleanor’s part, which helps explain why she so vigorously embraces the Lucifer persona; if you have to trade the rest of your life for a couple years of celebrity, you might as well make it memorable.

Be careful what you wish for and all that. (Artwork by Carla Speed McNeil, colors Tamra Bonvillain, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Hazel, conversely, is perhaps at her most sympathetic in this story; when she’s at the stage where she has relatively little personal power, her fantasies of embodying Amaterasu seem quaint and vaguely racist but benign overall (for whatever value of benignity you can assign to racism).  To Hazel, the costs of godhood are immaterial, and both Eleanor’s and her own ascensions are cause for celebration instead of mourning.  It’s a weird friendship.

Laura features in the remaining two stories from the set.  The first, nestled between the Tara story and the Lucifer/Amaterasu one is a two page scene that was likely cut for space way back in the first arc where we see Laura pleased with herself after she manages to pull off some casual flirting with Lucifer at the prison.  It’s a cute moment and gives some dimension to later instances in the first and second arcs where she obsesses over coming off as just the right amount of cool with other members of the Pantheon (it’s also, I think, the only moment in the series where we get confirmation that she’s attracted to Lucifer–this isn’t that much of a stretch given that Laura is attracted to virtually the entire Pantheon at various times throughout the story, but it does complicate her feelings about her first divine friend in a few interesting ways; for Laura, sex always seems to be tied up in higher desires for fame and artistic recognition).  The second story wraps everything back around to Baal and Inanna’s doomed romance.  After Laura and Baal knock their naughty bits together for the first time, they have a brief discussion about how to handle this new development in relationship to Inanna, with whom Laura is friends and Baal understands won’t actually be jealous that they’ve hooked up.  Even from the start, Baal and Laura’s relationship is defined in contrast with what Baal had with Inanna; it’s a bittersweet moment to end on.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #26”

Aside from the magazine issue (which, for all its structural novelty and status quo updating, does relatively little to add much dimension to the characters it spotlights in comparison to, say, the Commercial Suicide arc), The Wicked + The Divine has been on a relatively long high action streak from the sustained climax of Rising Action through the first couple issues of Imperial Phase where the emphasis has been on Laura’s erratic doing-without-thinking as part of her ongoing depression coupled with lots of newly established story hooks (The Great Darkness is A Thing! Cassandra has figured out a part of the murder machine goes ‘Beep!’ Woden might not be white!).  With issue #26, we finally have a breather (after the obligatory fight with more Great Darkness creatures, which is actually a much more interesting on a character level than a lot of the previous action has been) and the whole surviving Pantheon gets together to take stock of what’s going on.  It’s really good to see some of the characters who’ve been obscured since Ananke’s death back on panel; everyone gets a really juicy character moment in this issue, and it’s so satisfying in a way that explosions and backflips just aren’t.  I’ve been craving more of Baphomet and the Morrigan’s relationship drama, and it’s never bad to see Dionysus doing his level best to be the good guy that he thinks everyone needs him to be.  Even the characters that I usually don’t get that excited for have really delightful moments (Sakhmet telling Cassandra off for being condescending is way more satisfying than I expected, and I say this as a major Cassandra fan).

The Norns look pretty awesome on this cover; I’m especially taken with the World Tree in the inset covered with something like the threads of fate. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Lending to all this overflow of wonderful character work is the issue’s structure; two third of it focus on a meeting of the Pantheon where they discuss their options for moving forward after the revelation that the Great Darkness is one thing that Ananke was apparently telling the truth about, and to help give space to the sheer volume of characters who need to speak in this scene, most of it’s built around a nine panel grid for multiple pages.  Maybe it’s weird to have opinions about panel composition (no, it’s not), but I especially like the work that McKelvie does with facial expressions, and the nine panel structure gives him a really good space to show off how the characters are reacting to what each other is saying with maximal content.  The scene moves at a relatively quick pace, but having just a single focal point in each panel helps the reader slow down and take in character actions as well as words.  That the climax of the scene is when Laura, still committing hard to her Destroyer label, casts the tie breaking vote for anarchy in a splash that totally disrupts the panel grid, is just icing on the cake.  I love this kind of stuff where the issue structure so directly supports thematic elements of the story and characters.

DJ Khaled! …I’ll see myself out. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Going back to the opening fight, we get a lot of stuff about Baal and Amaterasu in particular that’s interesting.  Some of it’s new information, like the fact that Baal feels obligated to fight the Great Darkness because it killed his father (there are certainly more questions generated by this fact, like whether the Great Darkness is an intelligent thing that deliberately targets the families of the Pantheon–it seems like Baal’s the only one who’s been victimized by the monsters since literally everyone besides him and Amaterasu didn’t know about it before this issue), and some of it’s just riffs on established character traits (I honestly cannot get enough of Amaterasu being slow on the uptake of popular culture or her affectation for using extremely benign euphemisms in place of swearing); all of it’s interesting and entertaining.  Up to this point, Baal has been a character with some apparent depth that’s just not been explored very much outside of a couple spotlight issues (issue #12, which is ostensibly about Inanna, is way more Baal’s grief following his ex’s murder).  Like with Inanna, whose death serves as a central motivator for why Baal treats Laura the way that he does, we learn here that so much of his dedication to Ananke’s stated mission stems from another traumatic loss.  Baal is all swagger in his public persona, but his two central traits in the story (as the guy carrying a torch for Inanna and the team boy scout) are founded on these major deaths.  Like I noted earlier, I find it odd that Baal is the only one whose family has been attacked by the Great Darkness.  The handwavy explanation from Amaterasu that “It’s a sky god thing” seems too much like a just-so story; it’s awfully convenient that this newly revealed threat is something that only two members of the Pantheon have had to deal with in the year since the Recurrence began.  You’d think Ananke, with her apparent discretion to choose who ascends to godhood, would have tried to build a Pantheon with more sky gods if this were a really serious problem.  I think what I’m trying to get at is that as lovable as Baal is, I can’t shake Woden’s assessment of him from issue #14: “I AM VERY EASILY MANIPULATED!”

Yes, this is my reaction too when my friends are attacked by relentless creatures of darkness and despair. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

As for Amaterasu, I just find her entertaining when she’s in cutesy mode (as opposed to her scary, oblivious white girl aspect, which leads to such wonderful things as manifesting a sunburst over Hiroshima and appropriating the heck out of Shinto without considering that she just might not be the best representative for a religion with a long tradition entirely centered in Japan).  Her delighted exclamation that she just figured out it’s the humans who are the Walking Dead (at a time when The Walking Dead was around its peak popularity and everyone else had long figured out the show’s premise is about people being horrible to each other in the middle of an ongoing apocalypse) makes me chuckle every time I read it.  I get this is probably mean spirited; my educator instincts urge me not to shame people for being slower on the uptake than others around them, but Amaterasu’s entire demeanor is a special combination of privileged and oblivious that just makes her so easy to deride.  The tricky thing is parsing out the parts of Amaterasu’s personality that are an innocuous preference for affected girlishness (who says, “Gosh,” in response to news that supernatural monsters are attacking their friends?) from her very harmful repose in whiteness.  In a cast full of characters who all have some horrible aspects to them, she’s probably one of the most difficult to pick apart without being unfair (this seems like it’s always the case with characters who are both privileged and just not smart; attacking intelligence or a lack thereof always drifts quickly into ableist territory, and that’s really not something I’m interested in doing).

Other small moments that are worth noting, even if I’m not going to discuss them too much at this particular moment include: Dionysus comes out as asexual to Cassandra after backing her up rather inexplicably at the Pantheon meeting; Cassandra briefly discusses her own sexuality and we learn that she’s in a dominant/submissive triad with the other two Norns (perhaps not all that surprising, Cassandra is the sub; given how hard she goes trying to manage everyone around her, it makes sense that she’d seek a relationship where she doesn’t have to be the responsible one); and the dynamic between Baphomet and the Morrigan has shifted where she appears to be calling all the shots between them.

The Morrigan is perpetually pissed at Baphomet here, and she’s not even manifesting Badb. That’s how you know it’s bad. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #12”

Things are very different in the aftermath of Laura and Inanna’s deaths.  For one, Jamie McKelvie is taking a break for this next story arc, so each issue, telling a relatively standalone story centered on one of the more peripheral members of the Pantheon up to this point, features a different guest artist.  If you’re like me and you find McKelvie’s artwork to be a major draw for the series, then this next arc can be a little challenging; I warmed up slowly to “The Faust Act” and was fully into it by the end of “Fandemonium,” so a sudden major status quo shift without the central protagonist or the book’s primary artist to help anchor me was hard to get into.  Fortunately, there are some really strong character-based stories in this next set, and I am a sucker for any serialized comic that can pull off a good standalone issue.

The cover lets us know this issue’s all about Inanna. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson, design by Hannah Donovan; Image credit: Comic Vine)

With this third arc McKelvie has instituted a new cover motif; in place of character portraits focused tightly on the face, this arc will feature images of the focal god centered on their body with the upper half of their faces cropped out.  It’s a marked shift from the enforced intimacy of those straight on headshots where you can’t help taking in the subject’s eyes and considering what they reveal about each character; the gods feel more like objects to be considered from a significant remove.  It’s a nice irony, because these issues generally offer extremely intimate looks at their central characters.  In a couple of the future issues that irony will be especially acute because of the nature of the characters being explored.

It’s not so in issue twelve though.  The cover features Inanna, whom we all know was just murdered in the previous issue.  His presence hovers over the proceedings as the issue’s core conflict arises between Baal and the Morrigan.  Baal’s grief over Inanna’s death is the driving force in this story that serves to push the series’s central narrative a little further along.  He and the Morrigan end up fighting as a proxy for the fatal brawl between Inanna and Baphomet in the previous issue; Baal rightly observes that if the Morrigan hadn’t protected Baphomet at Ragnarock, he wouldn’t have been free to attack Inanna in the immediate aftermath.  She shares in the responsibility of not helping rein in Baphomet when he was clearly a danger to others, but the level of rage that Baal directs at her has more to do with his own grief than her actual culpability in Inanna’s death (it occurs to me that Baphomet’s murderous streak reflects, again, the social cost of toxic masculinity writ large, particularly as a parallel to the ongoing furor surrounding the Parkland shooting; that might be a subject worth exploring more in depth in a separate post).

What we essentially get here is a picture of Inanna drawn in negative; in the last arc he was a significant presence as the god who finally welcomed Laura into the Pantheon’s circle as a member in good standing (Laura’s friendship with Lucifer and her…something… with the Morrigan just don’t have the same clout as a relationship with the publicly favored gods), but he was still largely absent from what we saw going on.  Inanna is a character defined by his insistence on doing his own thing (he prefers to perform in small venues away from all the hullabaloo of the larger Pantheon functions) and being loved for it regardless.  We feel positively towards him because Laura feels positively towards him, but it’s hard not to wonder if this is just fangirl vision (Laura can see the appeal of any god) rather than an objective view of the character within the world.  What we find out here via the frame of a secondary documentary team headed up by Beth, one of Cassandra’s original crew who got sacked after she tipped off Baal about Laura and Cassandra’s investigation into whether Lucifer was framed for the judge’s murder, that Inanna was universally beloved, which makes the job of doing a complex, layered posthumous presentation of him extremely difficult.  Baal, as Inanna’s ex, provides the flaw that’s missing from Inanna’s otherwise pristine public image.

Baal is going through some stuff. (Artwork by Kate Brown, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Previous issues have included vague references to Baal and Inanna’s romance that abruptly ended after Inanna had sex with Lucifer along with brief glimpses of the fallout of that relationship in Baal’s failed attempts to reconnect with his former lover.  The general shape of the conflict is that Inanna is not only happily pansexual and genderqueer but also casually polyamorous while Baal is only hesitantly exploring the possibility of being bisexual within a typically masculine gender paradigm, let alone being in an open relationship of any sort.  Inanna’s chief flaw is that he fails to consider that Baal might have different expectations for the exclusivity of the relationship.  That’s a pretty big oversight, but Baal’s prolonged attempt to reconcile with Inanna after the breakup (and his continued mistrust of Lucifer) gives us a sense that despite his justified anger, even Baal finds it hard to hold anything against Inanna (let’s not get into the potentially problematic depiction of Inanna as being inherently insensitive to the needs of his partners as a polyamorous person; my understanding of the poly lifestyle is that it only works if everyone involved is extremely upfront about their expectations).

I call what happens between Baal and the Morrigan a fight, but really it’s more of a one-sided beating. The Morrigan just wants to get away, but Baal isn’t in the headspace to avoid excessive force. Also creepy is the fact that the documentary crew films the entire thing. (Artwork by Kate Brown, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Mirroring Baal’s grief and rationalizations for the failure of his relationship with Inanna is the Morrigan’s own processing of her relationship with Baphomet.  We’ve only seen a few glimpses of the underworld couple’s relationship in an intimate, non-performative setting, and those views highlight an intense resentment between the two.  Baphomet blames the Morrigan for his ascension, and she’s internalized a lot of that blame; this is the most likely explanation for why she helps cover for Baphomet’s reckless behavior at Ragnarock.  There’s a flaw in Baphomet’s character that the Morrigan chooses to ignore in favor of a more idealized version of her lover just like Baal wants to look past Inanna’s indiscretions; it’s not a perfect parallel because Inanna acted carelessly and demonstrates the capacity to reflect and change his behavior while Baphomet’s treatment of the Morrigan definitely has abusive undertones, but for this issue it’s clear that the conflict we’re seeing is between two people who are acting as champions for subjective representations of people who objectively are more flawed than their lovers are ready to admit.  The final stinger of the issue underlines this point as Baphomet emerges from the shadows to survey the wreckage of Baal and the Morrigan’s fight only to casually observe that it’s better she pay for his actions instead of himself.  Inanna, being dead, doesn’t get the same luxury of correcting Baal’s impression of him, and so we’re left with just the outlines of a character who wasn’t around long enough to be fully realized.

My favorite detail from this exchange is that Baal is clearly crying, and his tears are burning off his skin because he’s also so angry. (Artwork by Kate Brown, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Slightly mitigating that ending is a coda that most of the comics in this arc include: a one page comic drawn by McKelvie that highlights in miniature some aspect of the focal character.  This issue features an earlier interview with Inanna where he reflects on how much he values having regrets; the subtext of his answer points to his feelings of responsibility for the fallout with Baal, and it shows that despite trying to live a fully actualized life with the time he has left, he’s not callous and emotionally shut off.  At least, that’s the way he presents himself; I continue to be suspicious of just how pristine his image appears in comparison with all the other gods.